With the 2018 election season behind them, Vermont lawmakers are enjoying an end-of-year respite while preparing for the new legislative session in January.
To get a sense of how the election results might impact the 2019 legislative agenda, True North interviewed three senior state legislators about their views: Sens. Christopher Bray, D-Addison; Brian Collamore, R-Rutland; and Rep. Harvey Smith, R-New Haven.
According to the lawmakers, the economy, affordability and the environment loom large on both sides of the aisle.
In rural Addison County, where Democrats did very well in 2018, Bray, the chair of the Senate Natural Resources and Energy, said he won by running on his past legislative record. His re-election, he noted, provided evidence that he’s on the right path.
“I’ve always believed that elections are a form of job interview and that incumbents must run on their record,” he said. “After all, we are asking to be rehired, so the natural question on the part of constituents is, ‘Before you ask for another term, tell us what you got done while you’ve already had the job?’”
Bray said in the upcoming session he will continue to focus on the state and local economy, energy use as it’s related to climate change, as well as clean water concerns.
“I have led the development of major bills in three areas over the last decade: food and agriculture, most visibly in the form of the Farm-to-Plate bill; the Vermont Clean Water Act; and a suite of clean energy economy bills, including our renewable energy standard and energy siting,” Bray said. “All of these create local jobs and keep Vermont dollars in the state, feeding and growing our own economy.”
Bray believes that making Vermont more affordable and livable means starting at the local level with the help of the taxpayers.
The Addison County senator is a notable supporter of Vermont’s Farm-to-Plate program which, he said, has expanded the agricultural economy statewide as well as in his own backyard.
Farm to Plate is implemented statewide as a means “to increase economic development and jobs in the farm and food sector and improve access to healthy local food for all Vermonters.” Funding for the effort comes from taxpayers, private sector businesses and nonprofits.
“Since Farm to Plate began operating in 2009, we have added 842 new businesses/farms, created over 7,700 jobs and grown state revenues by $200 million,” Bray said. “As encouraging as these results are, there is much more we can do; Vermont still imports 87 percent of the food we eat and each imported food means exported dollars and wages for someone outside our state.”
Bray also has been a proponent of solar energy projects. His hometown of New Haven boasts the most solar-related projects in the county, despite some local opposition. He also sees big government-funded projects such as cleaning up Lake Champlain as a major boost to the state’s economy.
“Our clean-energy economy — clean generation, such as by solar, weatherization and efficiency — now provides 18,800 Vermonters with all or some of their living,” he said. “And our clean water work — of which we have decades to deliver — represents the largest infrastructure investment project (approximately $2 billion over 20 years) in our state’s history. Much of this work will be performed by Vermonters acting as engineers, surveyors, excavators, concrete workers, plumbers, electricians, landscapers and more.”
Legislative work in Montpelier, as Bray sees it through the eyes of being in the state’s supermajority of Democrats and Progressives, will focus even more on “sustainable economic development.”
“In short, a healthy economy and a healthy environment go hand-in-hand,” Bray noted.
He added that he will be introducing legislation to help create adequate long-term funding for clean water work: “Vermont has legal obligations under its own laws, as well as under federal law, so we must act and fund this work in a steady way. In addition, poll after poll reveals that Vermonters highly value our natural landscape and they want clean water for drinking, recreation, and hunting and fishing.”
Republican Gov. Phil Scott made it known during the 2018 election season that he will veto spending measures that increase taxes and fees. However, election results indicate that Democrats and Progressives have enough votes to overturn a governor’s veto. Bray said he expects paid family leave and minimum wage bills to advance in 2019, despite being vetoed in the last legislative session.
On the idea of passing a new carbon tax, Bray said Vermonters already have a form of it.
“Vermonters have been paying carbon taxes since 2009 through the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative,” he noted. “The fees are so modest that most Vermonters don’t know that this carbon cost is part of every electric bill.”
He nevertheless thinks new carbon taxes could pass in Vermont.
“When the price of gas rises 70 cents in a year, there is a little grumbling, but remarkably acceptance (of) ‘that’s just the way business is.’ We should be able to agree to raise the price of gasoline, for example, by a nickel and then to use the revenues — entirely disbursed back to Vermonters — to help them make the switch to clean fuels and vehicles.
“The clean energy economy represents a great opportunity for Vermonters to create more of the energy they need and use every day, all while keeping Vermont dollars in Vermont, rather than sending our money out-of-state and out-of-county to buy in the roughly $2 billion worth of energy we consume each year.”
Acording to Sen. Brian Collamore, reading the 2018 election tea leaves shows that even the normally conservative bastion of Rutland County has shifted in a more liberal direction.
“There were people expressing their dislike of President Trump. I think they voted that way,” Collamore told TNR. “That’s not to take anything away from Democratic Sen. Cheryl Hooker, as I think she’ll do fine, but I was a little surprised that we didn’t return three Republican senators from the county to Montpelier. I think there was some anti-Trump sentiment expressed, but I was more surprised the Second Amendment gun rights folks didn’t have a better showing. If they were sincerely that upset with the governor (over gun control), I would have expected more of a closer gubernatorial race, which didn’t turn out to be true. So, I wonder how many of those folks voted. That probably would have helped the three GOP candidates here in Rutland County.”
Collamore said he can’t tell if new liberal voters are moving into the area or whether Republicans simply failed to get out the vote. He added that he thinks all of Vermont, not just Rutland County, may be shifting in a more liberal direction.
“While we’d like a little more balance, I think in the upcoming legislative session we’ll see that (Democratic) Blue Dogs will become way more important than they have been in the past,” he said, “especially in the House where there are now 43 Republicans and a 51 total is needed to sustain a veto. So there will be a move to bring more independents and more moderate Democrats into the fold on some, not all, issues.”
Collamore says he was shocked by the defeat of interim Republican Sen. David Soucy in the August primary.
“David was sworn in back in June 2017 and you assumed people knew him,” he said. “I know Dave worked hard on the campaign, but it wasn’t enough. He finished last in the primary; I was shocked, absolutely shocked.”
Collamore said that, without a doubt, the No. 1 concern of his Rutland County constituents is affordability, and that’s where he plans to focus his efforts.
“People are having a tough time getting their paycheck to cover all the weekly and monthly expenses, let alone saving anything for the future. The governor has begun a great process to make Vermont more affordable. So, yes, the election was all about the economy here in Rutland County,” he said.
Like Bray, Collamore expects the left-wing supermajority to push for paid family leave, the $15 minimum wage and the carbon tax.
“It will be the minority party’s job to make sure we hear both sides of the issue — we need to point out our side,” he said. “I think the governor will never sign a carbon tax bill, but if vetoes are overturned it will be a challenging session. We don’t have a good balance in Montpelier. We’ll need the Blue Dogs,” Collamore said of the Republicans.
A view from the House
Rep. Harvey Smith, of Addison County, concurs with Collamore’s assessment that the upcoming session will cater to the Democratic/Progressive wish list of legislation.
“For sure, a number of bills the governor vetoed last year will return starting right out of the box,” he said. “For example, the minimum wage and paid family leave will be on the front burner.”
Smith, a livestock farmer in New Haven, is concerned about more land-related regulations and restrictions, including steps by Montpelier to render more agricultural lands into protected wetlands.
“I looked at a new map of Addison County soils, and most of the county agricultural lands would be considered wetlands under some of this new kind of thinking,” he said. “So I’ll be paying close attention to this issue in 2019. We have to go slowly on this one because it will hurt farmers.”
On the subject of Act 46 school mergers, Smith said that any efforts of mergers in his Addison-5 District won’t bring any property tax relief, as far as he can tell. Plus, he believes that local residents, not the state, should decide on mergers.
“It makes common sense to be more efficient,” he said, “however, the people involved have to decide, not Montpelier.”
In the final analysis, while Bray, Collamore and Smith appear to agree about the importance of issues like affordability and the environment, the rub is finding common ground on solutions — and ways of paying for centralized state-government desires.
“We need to find ways to make Vermont affordable and control increases in the budget — we’ve kept that around 3 percent, around the cost of living,” Smith noted. “This year we have a surplus on the books, so we’re not filling a tax-revenue hole. I’d like to see fiscal constraint, and that will be my role being in the minority. But I have to credit the Democrats for their restraint. So, I am optimistic that we can work together for the good of all Vermonters.”
Lou Varricchio is a freelance reporter for True North Reports. Send him news tips at firstname.lastname@example.org.