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Washington-Chittenden: Waterbury, Bolton, Huntington & Buels Gore

And We’re Off!

January 12, 2019

reptomstevens

Opening day of the 2019-2020 Biennium was Wednesday January 9, and the pomp and circumstance continued through the next day, with the inauguration of Governor Scott. I always have to remind myself that patience is needed at the beginning of the biennium — there are no bills yet to consider, there are brand new legislators who need to be assigned to committees and learn the elements of their subject matter, and everyone is settling in for what will be sure to be an interesting ride over the next two years.

Looking back first, though, I would like to thank Waterbury, Huntington, Bolton and Buel’s Gore for your support, especially over the last two years. I have not been as physically present in our communities as I would have liked, and I apologize for that. I have been dealing with the failing health and death of my mother, and planning for the future care of a brother who has Down Syndrome. Much of my free time was taken by trips out of state and will again this year, but much less frequently. Quite a bit of local presence has been covered by Rep. Wood, for which I am grateful. Nevertheless, I remain accessible to you and encourage you to reach out to me on any issue.

On the first day of session, I was appointed Chair of the General, Housing and Military Affairs Committee. I have served my entire legislative career on this committee and was vice chair the last four years. During that time, our committee, under the leadership of Rep. Helen Head of South Burlington, passed bills that increased the minimum wage, instituted paid sick days, gender free bathrooms, provided state recognition of local Abenaki bands, outlawed discrimination against pregnant women and protected the employment of Vermonters who were victims of crimes and needed time to seek justice in court. We have worked on legislation that has provided improvement in mobile home parks and increased the number of affordable housing units across the state, as well as developing a mechanism to provide help for first time home buyers. We passed legislation that created the veteran’s check off on your tax form, where you can donate a portion of your tax return to organizations that help our vets. And we have passed legislation that allows our burgeoning craft beer, wine and liquor industries to mature responsibly.

And now, I have the opportunity of chairing this committee, and I am humbled by the faith shown in me by Speaker Mitzi Johnson. I am proud of the work this committee does, because it keeps me in touch with my constituents — you — by dealing with the everyday issues that affect us all.

Looking ahead, and while there are no bills of note posted as of yet, I am sure we will be contemplating bills that will increase the minimum wage and institute a paid leave policy that will be meaningful for Vermonters needing time to take care of their families — young and old — and themselves. It is expensive to live in Vermont — really, everywhere — and the main reason is because wages have stagnated for the lower and middle classes. We are being paid the same, but the prices of food, housing, health insurance and the costs of taking care of the least fortunate among us keep increasing. A minimum wage is a start for those who must work at that level of pay, and it won’t solve the “livability” problem many Vermonters have. But we must reduce the stress that comes with poverty and the shame that comes from not being able to pay your bills, even if you have a good job, by developing policies that create the tools Vermonters can use to achieve that baseline.

Finally, a word about my hopes for this session. Last year was a difficult year for the Legislature and for Vermont government in general, and it showed that elections matter, and that your vote matters. The House and Senate passed reasonable legislation that would have addressed not only minimum wage and paid family leave, but protection for our towns against pollution, and protection against consumer-unfriendly fine print in contracts you make with companies. The budget was also vetoed a number of times and only went into law at the last minute because the Governor did not sign it, but withheld a veto.

This kind of relationship was intolerable to me, and tested my beliefs that we all serve to serve Vermonters. The tone of the dialogue was extremely negative. Work didn’t get done, and the good work that did was invisible compared to the work that didn’t.

And so we focussed on electing better representatives in the fall, and we did. The balance between parties shifted in a way to create a “veto-proof” majority, with 95 Democrats and 7 Progressives. Now, I don’t think that is a “slam-dunk,” but it does give the legislature more leverage with the Governor. This doesn’t mean we will win every battle, either, and nor should it. But what it does mean is that the tenor of our work will improve, and we saw that in the Governor’s inaugural address, where he emphasized the need to work together on behalf of all Vermonters. He peppered his speech with some political points — no surprise and no shame there — and with some solid points where the differing parties can put aside their differences and work together. That’s the stuff I can work with, and that’s the attitude I will bring to my work on my committee.

I look forward to working with and for you in the coming months. Please don’t hesitate to reach out to me at anytime. My email is tstevens@leg.state.vt.us

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I Will Gladly Pay You Tuesday

June 14, 2018

reptomstevens

IMG_4339It has been just over a month since the Legislature gavelled out of session. If you’ve been following the news, you would know that the Governor vetoed the budget bill (along with a large handful of other bills) and called us back into session. And so while it is the time of year we would provide you with a larger, more comprehensive review of the work we accomplished this year (and we did), an update of what has been happening during the special session is in order.

First, despite it sounding like we are in Montpelier in a day-to-day battle with the Scott Administration over property tax rates, we are rarely there. The House has met just twice since the special session was convened and the Senate just one day. The tax and appropriations committees have met several more times than that.

During those days, we have met and passed a number of bills that did not get passed in May due to our counterparts in the minority party not suspending rules that traditionally get suspended at the end of a session that would allow these bills to get passed. The rules suspended relate to timing of bills “resting” between votes, and most, if not all of these bills, were in effect vetoed by them through a parliamentary procedure. The special session allowed us to make adjustments to the bills and pass them. Most, if not all, of them are on their way to the Governor for his signature and are not considered controversial.

In fact, the budget as passed should not be considered controversial either. It passed nearly unanimously by the House and Senate. It earned support from the lawmakers of all parties for its ability to meet the needs of Vermonters while holding the growth in state spending to 0.5 percent. 

In reality, there is nothing in the budget that Phil Scott opposes. Read more

Poverty is Not Natural

May 9, 2018

reptomstevens

I was privileged to report S.40, a bill that proposes to raise the minimum wage to $15 by 2024, on the floor of the Vermont House of Representatives. This long-awaited report and vote was important, as it was the result of a deep dive by the Senate, a summer study committee, our state economists and our committee, General, Housing and Military Affairs. It was also controversial, for a number of reasons. What I found, not unanimously or universally, is that support for raising the wage was related to one’s experience with poverty, and with working for a poverty wage.

I realize that calling the minimum wage a poverty wage can be offensive to some, especially to those who pay that wage, or fight to keep the wage low. Poverty is a word, concept and reality that we don’t like to talk about, and when we do, we somehow find a way to blame the poor for their poverty, as if they are in complete control of their fate and future when they are trapped in a minimum wage job.

For some, working for this wage extinguishes hope. For some it is the first or second rung on a ladder toward self-sufficiency. But until then, people must rely on benefits like child care subsidies, food stamps, the earned income tax credit and Medicaid, none of which provide all the services a family in poverty may need.

I supported the increase because I know well the effects of poverty on the health of a family, and how it affects a person through their whole life. Our research considered as many facets of the impact of raising the wage across six years, and, by a majority along party lines, we felt the benefits of raising the wage, especially at this slow rate, were far healthier for Vermonters than not raising it. This included conversation with small business owners, representatives of large businesses, economists, and, yes, Vermonters who struggle to make ends meet because they can’t work enough hours at a poverty wage to do so.

Read more