Editor’s note: This commentary is by Senate Minority Leader Randy Brock, R-Franklin, and House Minority Leader Pattie McCoy, R-Poultney.
It’s happened — 2020 has finally ended, and a new year is upon us. Last year delivered a global pandemic that affected every Vermonter in ways that have not been seen in a century. As 2021 unfolds, dealing with the huge challenges that have emerged demands vision, determination and the recognition that hard work lies ahead.
That’s why Republicans in the Legislature this year will make good on their campaign promises to have a laser focus on post-COVID recovery in three specific areas.
First, we must concentrate on addressing the needs of the individual Vermonters and Vermont businesses that need help now because of the way the virus has impacted their daily lives. We will work to ensure that federal stimulus money is allocated wisely and fairly. Republicans are committed to doing everything in our power to hold the line that our caucus did last year to make sure that as much money as is legally possible goes into the hands of those Vermonters who have been affected. We will avoid the temptation of some to use COVID funding as a way to channel that money back into existing state programs that have struggled because of prior financial mismanagement, not because of COVID and the response. Your Republican legislators will also be looking to sound the alarm and, when possible, stop any attempts to further burden COVID-affected Vermonters through unrelated new taxes, fees or costly regulations. In their attempt to help, we must make sure that others in the General Assembly first do no harm to an already weakened economy.
Second, we will propose new legislation that is designed to improve our economy and make government work better.
We are again introducing legislation that would end the tax on military pensions, taxes that only seven states continue fully to collect. The soon-to-be retiring armed forces nurses and other health care professionals are ideal candidates to help Vermont resolve our critical shortage of workers and to actually gain new revenues by adding to our tax base. The shortage of key skills today costs Vermont millions of dollars annually as we import travelling workers from other states to fill the need. We want Vermont to be an attractive place for those military retirees so they will bring their skills to our hospitals and other workplaces that need them.
To address important individual health needs, Republican legislators, with support from the governor, again will be proposing a new voluntary Paid Family Leave program. The proposal would avoid adding a costly and burdensome statewide payroll tax on the businesses that can least afford it — but also provide a simple solution to those businesses that want to make it available to their employees on an opt-in basis.
Vermont Republicans will also propose new approaches for dealing with Vermont’s chronic shortage of truly affordable housing.
The pandemic has reinforced the need to bring high speed broadband and cellular service to all of Vermont. In conjunction with the governor, we will be proposing new measures to bring modern connectivity to all Vermonters, especially those in rural areas. We hope that all of our colleagues will join with us in this critical effort.
Third, we’ll work to lighten the load on every Vermonter by making our state government more efficient, more secure and focused on the core programs that make the biggest impact. We need to examine everything we do and innovate to find new ways to make state government less costly and less labor intensive.
COVID has forced every business, and even many agencies within state government, to rethink what services and procedures are truly essential. We must get creative about ways to accomplish the same workload when we have less people in state office buildings. Dumping more work on fewer employees will only yield worse results for everyone. We must use lessons learned from COVID and apply best practices from elsewhere to equip our existing state workforce with streamlined tools and processes.
There are many other issues Republicans will face and fight for in this legislative session, but the work to recover from the pandemic and to rebuild our economy unite Republicans from across the state. This is our main focus; this is our primary mission. The Republican caucus will be working hard to keep the General Assembly on task and on mission.
We pledge to do this important work with a spirit of cooperation and collegiality with all members, regardless of political affiliation. And while we may not have the legislative majority, let it not be said that Vermont Republicans do not have the ideas and the resolve to move us all forward.