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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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