Stepping out of the House

I will not be seeking reelection to continue to serve Barnard, Pomfret, and Hartford in the Vermont House. I find myself in the same predicament many other citizen legislators do, as well as those who would like to serve but decide against it because of family or career-related obstacles; I am stepping aside because my small business needs tending to and because new opportunities are emerging, opportunities that I would regret passing up. The role and responsibilities of a representative extend beyond the four-month session in Montpelier, and I don’t feel that I will have sufficient time to devote to what is essentially an unpaid, volunteer position for most of the year, or to my business when the legislature is in session (when the pay is modest and there are no benefits – healthcare in Vermont is expensive!). I am hopeful that someone will come forward who can devote her or his full time and energy to the job. It may be a part-time, amateur, citizen legislature, but it requires all the effort and dedication that someone can apply to it.

I am proud of some of the things I helped accomplish while working with the House Agriculture Committee: National food labeling standards are changing as a direct result of Vermont’s passage of the nation’s first genetically engineered food labeling law; farmers are growing the first legal fields of hemp in many decades; the agricultural economy is growing at a faster pace than other sectors, as farmers and food producers are bolstered by the Working Lands Act; we have enhanced pesticide regulations to protect pollinators (which are responsible for about 1/3 of our food supply); we’ve eased regulatory burdens on small farmers without compromising food safety; and we’ve expanded the best farm-to-table and farm-to-school programs in the country.

During my time in office I also had some interesting experiences outside of Vermont. Late last year I was a delegate at a national summit in Salt Lake City, where legislators from across the country convened to draft a set of rules and procedures for conducting an Article V convention if one is ever called to amend the U.S. Constitution. And early this Spring I spent two days on Capitol Hill with former Congressman Dennis Kucinich to discourage key Senators from preempting state food labeling laws.

Some of the failures and disappointments from my time in office include: not creating enough momentum to reformulate the education funding system while improving equal access to educational opportunities; not achieving significant reform and transparency in the healthcare system; not doing more to change the paradigm of agricultural and wastewater management to better protect the environment; not keeping better track of and appropriately taxing groundwater extraction by out-of-state companies; and, allowing the universal prohibition of cannabis to continue with all of the associated problems of an unregulated black market. I did my best to solve problems for my constituents, within and outside of the legislative process, but it was gut wrenching at times to hear what some of them were dealing with and not be able to help.

The session that just ended left a lot to be desired in terms of fundamental education, healthcare, and economic reform, but there were a few notable accomplishments. During what mostly felt like a “maintenance” session, we enacted automatic voter registration (when applying for a driver’s license), added resources to help deal with the expanding caseloads of children in state custody as a result of the opiate crisis, passed a minimum standard of compensated sick time for employees who would otherwise have to choose between taking care of themselves or their loved ones and missing a day of pay, expanded access to cannabis for symptom relief, set up a number of economic development initiatives, and gave municipalities more power in energy siting decisions. We will also be requiring pharmaceutical companies to disclose the factors responsible for raising costs on the prescription drugs that many people depend on.

It’s difficult to summarize the experience of having a seat at the table for the writing and enacting of laws that will affect the lives of almost 4,000 of my own constituents, hundreds of thousands of fellow Vermonters, and of course, myself. But I’ve learned a few things during my time in the Statehouse: anyone and everyone can make a difference for the greater good, and a single person or small group of them can mess it all up; (most) representatives (I presume) are accessible, honest, and decent – once you get to know them; the state of the nation, the world, and the planet make our jobs especially important and almost impossibly difficult, and; there are few easy answers and many people and collections of people working at cross-purposes, even if their intentions are good. As a public official I’ve heard my share of opinions about government, politicians, and the two-party system (which is hopefully on its last legs). I’ve also listened to many stories of people struggling under the conditions of the 21st Century – low wages, fewer jobs and opportunities, poor nutrition and substandard food, addiction, illness, disability, environmental pollution and destruction, and the high cost of rents, heat, taxes, food, healthcare, higher education, debt, etc. Some of these things can be addressed at the state level. Many cannot.

But there are beacons of hope. Vermonters, for the most part, believe that education, affordable quality healthcare, clean air and water, and equal rights and opportunities for all should be top priorities. Democracy is alive and well in our small state, with its rich tradition of civic engagement balanced by a rugged individualism and firm belief in personal liberty. If you think the system is broken or have expertise in particular fields that you think your legislator could benefit from hearing, then get involved and propose solutions. One simple phone call or letter to a representative can go a long way.

Being a politician is often a thankless job, and many of us deserve criticism at least some of the time. We’re human, we make mistakes, and we sometimes think we know best when we don’t. But during my time in Montpelier I don’t think I met a representative or senator – Democrat, Republican, Progressive, independent, or someone pretending to be one or the other – who struck me as someone who was just out to screw their fellow Vermonters or who was there to serve their own interests or those of their associates. At worst, some of us are simply too stubborn to admit when we’re wrong or too resistant to change. Republicans and Democrats in Vermont might have diametrically opposing viewpoints much of the time, but there is an undercurrent, even among those who most often do not see eye-to-eye, that we are all in this together, and that Vermont is a special place where we can all find something to love, to protect, and to defend. Montpelier is not Washington. Not yet. But the bi-polarization and debasement of American society by the mass media and the powers-that-be (whoever those crooks really are) seems almost overwhelming and unstoppable, with thievery, injustice, and exploitation of the highest order on full display in the news and on the internet 24 hours a day. Vermont is not alone, and we can’t insulate ourselves from the storms, conflicts, and bullshit that originates outside our borders, but we do have the resources to strengthen the systems we can control, and I believe that we can and should seek more autonomy within the federal system, regardless of who the next president is.

Thank you to everyone who supported my campaigns, who checked a box next to my name in the last two elections, who called, wrote, or emailed, and who took the time to engage in the political process. I urge everyone to familiarize themselves with the legislative process, the perennial issues that we will continue to grapple with, and with their representatives and senators. I’ve seen minds changed and policies enacted because a critical mass of constituents demanded that their public servants do the good and right thing. I intend to remain engaged in the process in one capacity or another, and may seek office again in the future. For now, I will continue to serve my district until the November election, so please reach out if you need any assistance navigating your interactions with state government – including, of course, Vermont Health Connect.

As a final thought, it will be very interesting to see how the growing rift in the national Democratic Party (Between: A. Those who believe present circumstances demand rapid transformational change, and B. Those who prefer incrementalism in moderation) will play out after the 2016 election. There appear to be some irreconcilable differences on matters like foreign, domestic, and economic policy that resemble those that exist between the two major parties. It’s high time that members of both parties acknowledge that there must be a better way to run a democracy than by constantly pitting two old and entrenched “teams” – with their respective mascots, colors, slogans, propaganda, and playbooks – against each other. That’s a recipe for failure, as is now disturbingly obvious.

Good luck, stay vigilant, and try to love your neighbors.

           ~Barnard, May 23, 2016

Beyond Prohibition: Why Consider Cannabis Regulation for Vermont?

As the House considers a bill that would end the prohibition of cannabis for adults, I am keeping an open mind. As someone who attended and worked in a public high school in Vermont, I can say with some authority that the current state of affairs with regard to cannabis access by young people under prohibition is unacceptable, and none of the damages associated with its use are being adequately addressed. Under prohibition, marijuana is easily accessible on any given day in any given high school. Just ask a teenager. Maintaining prohibition ensures that not only will cannabis remain prevalent in our schools, but that it will continue to be made available by unscrupulous drug dealers who will probably be peddling other, more harmful, substances. To allow a criminally operated black market to persist without exploring other options that could undercut it would be irresponsible, in my opinion. If a regulatory scheme can be devised that would limit or restrict access to cannabis in schools while at the same time providing the necessary resources for robust prevention and education programs (using cash resources diverted from the aforementioned black market!), I would consider supporting it.

As for adults, I have yet to hear any reasonable argument that justifies easy access for all to alcohol and tobacco (which kill 1000+ Vermonters every year and burden our healthcare system) while prohibiting something that is less harmful by almost any measure – when used in moderation by responsible adults, of course. I have heard some people say that we shouldn’t be legalizing one more harmful substance. This seems to imply that there is a threshold in the number of legally sanctioned products beyond which we should not pass, or that prohibition is an effective mitigator of harm. There is a long list of things that are potentially or definitively harmful for individuals and society but that are legal, ubiquitous, and widely used: alcohol; tobacco & e-cigarettes; added sugar; junk food loaded with salt and fat; ultra-violent video games; prescription drugs of all shapes and colors for everything that ails us or doesn’t; television; etc. The harms and social consequences of these can be amplified by overuse, abuse, and inadequate regulation. As a thought experiment, if we choose to continue to prohibit cannabis for adults as a way to protect our youth, I would strongly suggest that we explore prohibiting the retail sale of tobacco products as well, since they are used by teenagers, kill about a thousand Vermonters every year, and are addictive. I’m sure we would hear loud cries about the revenue implications of that from our retail establishments, which would put us in the strange position of having to uphold the legal sale of an addictive and deadly product for purely economic reasons, or in defense of an individual’s freedom to do harm to oneself. And consider the example of sugar-sweetened beverages; we know full well that cheap drinks overloaded with sugar contribute to the alarming rise in adverse health conditions in young people, including hyperactivity, diabetes, and obesity, which shorten lives and burden our national healthcare system to the tune of billions of dollars in unnecessary expenditures – which directly impacts state budgets and local property taxes. Yet when we attempt to impose a “sin tax” on them to pool resources to offset the expenses they inflict, people are up in arms. The “sin tax” on cannabis is proposed to be 25%, and all of the revenue would be used for prevention, education, treatment, law enforcement, and regulatory expenses. Bear in mind that this tax would be imposed on an existing market that enjoys $125-225 million in un-taxed, unregulated sales every year in Vermont.

I don’t think that the debate about the regulation or prohibition of cannabis should be based solely on the presence and measure of its risks. Cannabis use is obviously not risk-free, and there are demonstrable harms and consequences to young people and certain adults. But these risks and harms are present whether it’s legal or not. The fact is, humans have used cannabis for thousands of years and will continue to do so with or without government intervention. The discussion around cannabis policy should be grounded in finding a better approach to manage something that will continue to be used and abused regardless of what the law says, and to put more resources into the education, prevention, and treatment of all drug-related problems.

Prohibition has failed on many fronts and only ensures that black market sales prop up violent cartels and shady drug dealers, not to mention private prisons and an inequitable justice system. From the perspective of social consequence and personal liberty, it defies logic that a responsible adult can’t purchase and use cannabis in moderation and in the privacy of their own home without being considered a criminal, but you and I can suck down a pack of cigarettes and a fifth of whiskey every day with legal sanction. Call me a libertarian if you like, but I prefer rationality and consistency in public policy.

Having said all that, the devil is in the details, and we all know that government has a knack for screwing up even the simplest of things. And this is not a simple matter. So while I remain philosophically willing to support a regulatory regime that takes a comprehensive and common sense approach to managing cannabis use with an emphasis on youth education and prevention, I’m not convinced that the current proposal put forward by the Senate is sufficient. If the bill continues to move through the committee process in the House, I will monitor it and work to ensure that it addresses real concerns. Let me know what you think. 234-9125 or tzagar@leg.state.vt.us.

How Should the US Constitution be Amended by the States?

At the end of 2015 I was one of two Vermont delegates to attend the fourth meeting of the Assembly of State Legislatures in Salt Lake City. The ASL was formed in 2013 by state lawmakers from across the country in a bi-partisan effort to draft rules and procedures for an Article Five Convention of the States if one is ever called for the purposes of amending the U.S. Constitution. Article V empowers both Congress and the states with the ability to propose amendments to the Constitution. Historically, only Congress has proposed amendments before sending them to the states to be ratified. Alternately, if two-thirds of state legislatures (34) submit applications calling for a convention of the states, Congress is bound to comply and provide a forum for the states to propose an amendment or amendments. If an official proposal emerges from this convention it would have to be ratified by three-fourths of the states (38) to successfully amend the Constitution. Since this second option has never been attempted and the Constitution does not provide ground rules for such a convention, there have been many decades of legal theorizing and debate as to how this should play out.

Many people question the wisdom of the state option and fear a “runaway convention” – where a coalition of states propose any number of amendments with potentially competing agendas, fundamentally altering the Constitution and the country. There are some notable single-issue efforts already underway: conservative states would like to enact a Balanced Budget Amendment, and progressive states want to advance campaign finance reform, essentially overturning the Citizens United Supreme Court decision. While I personally would support the latter and voted for a state resolution to do just that (Vermont was the first state in the nation to pass such a resolution), my purpose in attending the ASL convention was only to work towards ensuring that if an Article V convention is called for any proposed amendment(s) that the rules and procedures be sufficiently structured so as to minimize the potential for a runaway convention, and to ensure that representation at the convention reflect an appropriate balance between the competing interests of states with dramatically different population sizes and demographics. This proved to be an extremely complicated challenge. There were also proposals to require state delegations to be equally weighted by political party and gender, but these were problematic as well.

The odds of an Article V convention being called by the states seems increasingly likely with the proliferation of grassroots, social-media driven political mobilization, and because of growing dissatisfaction among people of all political persuasions with the direction the federal government is moving the country on any number of fronts. The Constitution is a living document that was intended by the founders to be responsibly altered by the people as circumstances warrant, so I believe the goals of ASL and other like-minded groups are important. Unfortunately at our particular meeting in Utah, there was an attempt by some states, under the influence of ALEC (the corporate–funded American Legislative Exchange Council), to encode a simple majority/”one state, one vote” provision into the rules, which would mean that the 26 least populated states could theoretically propose amendments. Though such a scenario would be unlikely to produce a proposal that would be ratified by 38 states, caution impelled a smaller coalition of ASL delegates to oppose any attempts to construct rules that could be more accommodative of activist agendas spearheaded by a disproportionate sampling of the country – be they liberal or conservative. A larger coalition of delegates at the Utah Convention – from states like Florida, Arizona, West Virginia, and Wyoming (the least populated state in the Union) – repeatedly “called the question” on substantial proposals, essentially stifling debate and ensuring their numbers would carry a vote. Around a dozen of us ultimately had to walk out at the end of the second day of the meetings to prevent agenda-driven proposals from being officially included in the draft rules. By walking out, the quorum was broken and no more official rules changes could be made until ASL meets again in late 2016.

The purpose of the alternate option encoded into Article V was based on the forethought given by the Founders to the real possibility that Congress may someday cease to be an effective or representative body. They believed that the citizens still needed a safety-valve mechanism to affect political change outside of regularly scheduled elections. In the words of Alexander Hamilton: “We may safely rely on the disposition of the state legislatures to erect barriers against the encroachment of the national authority.” Whether or not the current disposition of the states would satisfy Hamilton’s assumptions is debatable, but nearly 230 years after its inception as a Constitutional Republic, our country faces threats from within and without as almost never before. Do we dare to reach into the heart of our country’s soul, its Constitution, in an attempt to keep the spirit alive even with the risk that the patient could very well die on the table? Or do we leave it alone in the hopes that the majority of our elected officials and the major parties will serve the people and not the amelioration of a few? Either way, it’s clear that America is heading towards some kind of climactic social and economic restructuring, and one that probably needs to happen sooner rather than later.

The ASL will meet again this year on the East Coast, and we are hoping that all 50 states will send representation, in spite of, and because of, any trepidation any of them might feel about the wisdom of an Article V convention. There is some speculation that the threshold for calling a convention may already have been breached – if the 34 state applications submitted within the last few decades are determined to be legitimate and complimentary. If and when it ever happens, we’d better be prepared.

2016 Legislative Session is Underway

The 2016 legislative session began last week amid controversy, high expectations, and, as usual, a lot of uncertainty. After the Senate voted to suspend one of their members for the first time in Vermont history due to charges of sexual assault, committees began to set their agendas and the Governor presented the administration’s priorities in the annual State of the State address. As expected, the economy, education, and energy policy figured prominently in the speech, along with a forceful signal to the FDA that we will take matters into our own hands to address the overabundance of prescription opioids. There was also a shot across the bow of Exxon-Mobil – after decades of covering up what they knew about the effects of their products on the environment, Vermont will consider divesting from Exxon-Mobil assets. Continuing to reform our criminal justice system while strengthening drug treatment and family service programs are also top priorities that all Vermonters can be supportive of.

One of the legislature’s first missions is ensuring that the blunt spending controls imposed on school boards under last year’s Act 46 are adjusted or delayed so that students and taxpayers aren’t unfairly penalized. The “allowable spending threshold” provision was tacked onto the broader education reform bill last year to send a message that Montpelier was doing something about rising property taxes. Unfortunately – though many of us predicted it – the shotgun blast approach has backfired since many schools don’t have a spending problem, they have a cost-containment problem. The implication under Act 46 is that if you exceed your threshold then you are spending more than you should and your taxpayers will be double-taxed on the excess amount. With healthcare costs rising at alarming rates (up about 8%) and with unpredictable special ed. costs and enrollment numbers, it’s unreasonable to expect school boards to limit budget growth to 2% or less over the previous year’s budgets. A good example of a negative consequence of the spending cap is the case of the Prosper Valley School. When the Bridgewater and Pomfret schools combined to improve educational opportunities and save taxpayers money, both goals seemed achievable until a fluke of Act 46 painted the joint school board into a corner as they were unexpectedly subject to the penalty triggered by the allowable spending threshold. The legislature or Agency of Education must act quickly to address this since we should not be penalizing schools for fulfilling the broader goals of Act 46 – combining services, enhancing educational opportunities, and cutting costs. More than 100 schools around Vermont are bumping up against this new penalty, and to make matters worse they are in the midst of budgeting without a clear signal from Montpelier about how we will respond. With pressure from the Senate and the Governor, I’m hopeful that the House will do the right thing – repeal, adjust, or delay the spending caps and focus on long-term solutions to ensure quality education for all Vermont students at a price Vermonters can afford. We also need to come to terms with the fact that our current education funding formula was designed for a system with 20,000 more students and may need to be drastically overhauled to account for the new economies of scale, while ensuring that the smaller schools that remain viable don’t tax residents out of town (or out of state). Reforming our healthcare funding & payment systems and enacting progressive economic policies that make Vermont a more attractive and affordable place to call home for the middle class will also go a long way in bending the education cost curve over the long term. Not to mention the broadband internet we were all promised years ago. Expanding federally regulated private telecom enterprises turns out to be harder than was bargained for.

Another heavy lift of the 2016 session will be closing the budget gap. This year there is an approximately $40 million discrepancy between projected revenues and program costs – the lion’s share being Medicaid expenditures, some of which were unplanned for. While it’s frustrating to feel like we spend much of our time fixing problems created or unaddressed in previous sessions, I’m optimistic that we can close this gap not with painful cuts and/or tax increases, but by re-prioritizing existing resources and finding efficiencies in state agencies and departments. The gap for fiscal 2017 will be even larger and more problematic. Expect tough decisions and compromises along the way. As a member of the Agriculture Committee I will be working with my peers to examine our agency’s budget and trim any unnecessary fat. Vermont has weathered the post-recession recovery better than many other states, but we continue to struggle with the rising costs of healthcare, housing, social services, and higher education.

In future updates I’ll be discussing the ongoing dialogue around renewable energy siting standards, more education funding and healthcare reform proposals, streamlining regulations for small farmers, protecting pollinators from harmful pesticides, and the possible legalization of cannabis.

Please contact me anytime to weigh in on any proposed or pending legislation or if you need assistance with anything involving state government. You can reach me at home at 234-9125, on my cellphone at 558-3966, by email at tzagar@leg.state.vt.us, or at PO Box 875, Barnard, VT 05031.