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

Healthcare Prognosis To Be Determined

Healthcare is always a hot political topic, with ongoing debates about the pros and cons of the “Affordable Care Act”, the debacle of Vermont Health Connect, increasing occurrences of various diseases, distinctions between rights and privileges, and rising costs of treatments and drugs – the latter of which may or may not function as effective medicine.

In Vermont, most of the public discourse seems to be centered on the problem of cost, and Medicaid spending in particular; Medicaid is responsible for the largest piece of the budget gap going into 2017. Approximately 1/3 of Vermonters are covered by Medicaid or otherwise subsidized. Expanded enrollments began after the ACA lowered the eligibility bar for Medicaid coverage, bringing more people into the public pool. State and federal dollars fund Medicaid, but federal matching contributions have been declining, which increases pressure on state budgets. More people having access to healthcare is a good thing in the long run, but major improvements are in order to ensure positive health outcomes and foster a sustainable pricing and payment system. Many ideas are floating around right now but the path forward is uncertain.

At a recent State House hearing about the Farm-to-School Program – established nine years ago to improve nutrition and food literacy in our public schools – we heard from young students, their teachers, administrators, farmers and health experts about how important good food is for growing minds and bodies. Poor nutrition negatively impacts the brain’s ability to process, retain and use information essential for developing knowledge and skills. It also contributes to rising rates of obesity and diabetes, among other conditions. The kids at the hearing often mentioned how they didn’t like vegetables until they had them prepared certain ways and learned how important they are – things they learned about at school. Getting good food from farms into school kitchens should be a primary objective of state government, but funding has been in decline and further budget cuts are expected.

The day after the hearing, I visited the doctor’s office for my first check-up in years. At the age of 37 I’m about halfway to the average US male life expectancy, so it’s probably a good time to start peeking under the hood every now and again. After giving me a mostly clean bill of health, the doc told me that the single most important (and easiest) thing we can all do to improve and maintain our health is to eat plenty of vegetables and other plant food. So, while your state and federal governments are still trying to change the healthcare system, keep eating your vegetables. They might be our only hope!

America has a choice to make regarding healthcare if we want to be healthy and not go bankrupt. Should the system be people-centric or profit-oriented? The choice is clear, right? You’d think so, but apparently it’s not. Where there is disease and unease, there is money to be made. And where there is the potential for great profit, there is the potential for undue social influence through government deregulation and high-level lobbying of elected officials and those contending for election. This helps to make America the only developed nation without some form of universal, affordable coverage available to all of its citizens. We also spend a larger share of GDP on healthcare and have worse outcomes; US stats for infant mortality, obesity, diabetes, chronic conditions, life expectancy and prescription drug consumption are among the worst. In many categories we are dead last. But we have the best healthcare practitioners and technology in the world, so what are we doing wrong? In order to truly reform the healthcare system for the benefit of all Americans, especially children, we need to decide once and for all if access to healthcare is a right or a privilege and reorient our priorities accordingly. I’m disappointed that we’re only just beginning to have that debate in earnest at the local and national levels, and that cost concerns can derail reform when billions and trillions are flushed into the sewers of Pentagon black budgets, corporate subsidies/loopholes/bailouts, and foreign interventions. Should the “invisible hand” and the primacy of profit dictate health policy or should We the People? You decide!

In other news, I traveled to Washington, DC recently to meet up with former Congressman and presidential candidate Dennis Kucinich for the purpose of speaking with Senators and staffers about Vermont’s GE/GMO food labeling law, which goes into effect in July barring federal or judicial preemption. The major food and chemical manufacturers are vigorously attempting to subvert states’ rights to serve as laboratories of democracy and to demand full transparency and accountability in what is supposed to be an open market, and many influential politicians are ready to do their bidding. Our own Congressional delegation is standing firm in defense of Vermont’s democratic process and State’s interest, but they may be outnumbered. To make things even more interesting, there is a possibility that the matter could be resolved by the nation’s highest court, which was recently reduced by one member.

Finally, this week I will be reporting a bill out of the Agriculture Committee that will establish a Pollinator Protection Committee. Since pollinators are absolutely vital to our food supply and economy but have been in dramatic decline worldwide for the past decade, Vermont will develop a comprehensive plan to protect and strengthen pollinator populations from a synergy of threats that includes pesticides, parasites, viruses, and loss of habitat. The PPC will not require any state funding appropriations.

Keep in touch and contact me anytime at 802-558-3966 or tzagar@leg.state.vt.us.

Problems, Reactions… Solutions?

February 11, 2015

The first few weeks of the legislative session have mostly been spent on fact-finding, soon to be followed by the assembling of committee proposals and the modification of bills through expert testimony from witnesses representing different sides of the particular issues. Debates on the House floor will be increasing in frequency and intensity in the coming weeks, leading to a crescendo of activity in the final weeks of session.

Statewide demographic and socioeconomic differences continue to challenge lawmakers as we endeavor to set policies and budgets that best serve the needs of the many. One month into the legislative session, and with three or more remaining, there are still more questions than answers with decision points rapidly approaching on the horizon.

Will we find a way to bend the spending curve in education and/or create a more equitable and transparent way of paying for it? Can we put an appropriate dollar figure on how much we value the education of an individual child? How much local control will survive the necessary streamlining of supervisory unions and districts? Will a proposed payroll tax used for increasing Medicaid payments reduce the cost shift to other health insurance plans enough to justify the added expense to VT businesses? Is it finally time to make enrolling in a healthcare plan through Vermont Health Connect voluntary in light of the never-ending technical difficulties? Will millions of new dollars from the Feds be enough to develop the resources and programs to effectively curb pollution following into our waterways, and ultimately to our lakes and oceans?

The committees of jurisdiction are deeply engaged with these issues while other representatives try to ensure that the needs and concerns of their constituencies are addressed in whatever policies emerge from the committee process. If not, diverse coalitions are formed to create potential amendments to address what could not be achieved in committee. This is already starting to happen around the issue of small schools and the potential elimination of certain funding mechanisms that have minimized tax spikes in our more rural districts with lower than optimal enrollment numbers. The good news is that Barnard may be spared the elimination of its Small Schools grant because it could be considered “geographically isolated”, while the proposed merging of the Pomfret and Bridgewater schools would create economic efficiencies to offset the loss of these funds. Perhaps the biggest unknown at this point is to what extent the power of our local school boards will be impacted by the inevitable changes to S.U. and district governance.

There was more bad news on the financial front with predicted revenues coming in under projections once again, forcing more cuts to state programs. While this creates an opportunity to create efficiencies and trim fat, many important services are on the chopping block as proposed by the Governor. These cuts include LIHEAP heating assistance, the closure of two of the four Public Safety Answering Points, a reduction of funds for the education of Vermont inmates, and reduced support for the Vermont Veterans Home.

Budgetary crises like these are troubling to me because the legislature is so reliant on economic forecasting to create budgets and operate important programs. The legislative and executive branches retain their own economic analysts who convene twice a year to reconcile current budgets with actual revenue. Too often the predictions come up short of the mark, forcing us to reduce or eliminate services and programs that are being utilized and are often relied upon by citizens and state agencies. “Rainy Day” funds aren’t sufficient to mitigate the effects of these budgetary rescissions and “efficiency” measures, and it becomes almost impossible to budget within our means when we can’t accurately predict what our future means will be or respond effectively to the shifting economic winds. Perhaps more troubling is the fact that in an estimated 80% of counties throughout the United States, median household incomes for the middle class peaked in the late 90′s and have not kept pace with the increased costs of goods, services and government taxes and fees. With recent revelations of some of the largest and most powerful banks on the planet (i.e. HSBC) actively assisting the world’s wealthiest individuals and criminal masterminds in avoiding hundreds of millions of dollars in tax payments to their respective national governments, it’s enough to make this small town elected representative question the wisdom of “business as usual”.

Nevertheless, I will continue to work hard to ensure that whatever laws are passed under the Golden Dome are in keeping with the ideals and values embodied by the words Freedom and Unity. I will remain optimistic that we are capable of weathering these challenges and adapt accordingly, so long as we are able to find common ground and fully consider the future consequences of our actions on up-and-coming generations of Vermonters.

Please keep in touch. You can reach me at 802-558-3966 and at tzagar@leg.state.vt.us.

2015 Pre-Session Briefing Part 2 – Education and Healthcare

Last week I wrote about a fiscal briefing that was presented to legislators at the State House two weeks ago. The outlook was gloomy and it appears that the administration will seek to manage the larger than expected discrepancy between revenues and spending ($100 million, give or take) through budget cuts alone and not tax increases. While this may be welcome news to taxpayers, some of the cuts could have negative ripple effects across the spectrum. The money committees in the House and Senate will have a chance to weigh in on these measures when we gavel back into session in early January.

On the education finance front, the property tax base is slowly increasing but isn’t expected to fully rebound until 2017. This will increase near-term pressure on education tax rates until or unless we are able to quickly reformulate the financing mechanism and impose spending controls at the same time. Both tasks are inherently problematic but a multitude of potential solutions are on the table. If you paid attention to the various schemes proposed by the four main candidates for governor and lt. governor then you got a sense of how varied the possible solutions are. Statewide enrollment numbers aren’t expected to improve anytime soon unless we can figure out an ingenious way to incentivize procreation or make our tax structure more competitive with our neighbors, so we need to quickly adjust to this reality as well. Some consolidation and administrative streamlining will be necessary but we need to fully evaluate both the economics of any changes and their effects on educational quality and access. One of the ideas that’s been floated is to reorganize districts around tech centers. Having worked in special education for years I’ve witnessed firsthand the transformations that have occurred in students who have the opportunity to access quality education in trades, specialties and human services when the traditional school curriculum isn’t serving or engaging them. With so much attention focused on the cost of education as reflected in rising property taxes, it will be very important to keep quality of education at the forefront of our minds as we make these hard decisions. I have a lot of confidence in Rebecca Holcombe, the Secretary of Education, to help the legislature chart the right course. Universal pre-kindergarten, which will better prepare our children for later learning, has been delayed one year to allow schools to adequately plan for implementation.

The Vermont Health Connect website is back up and running with mixed results. If you have any problems enrolling or using the website please let me know and I can try to escalate a remediation. As more people receive coverage through the exchange we await a comprehensive plan for the culmination of Act 48 of 2011 – a state-run single payer healthcare program. When the administration releases its plan for Green Mountain Care in January we can begin to have the full debate about whether or not we can and/or should become the first state to ensure access to healthcare in the only developed nation without some blend of universally available public health coverage. Many healthcare professionals I talk to would welcome such a change but a lot of you have expressed serious reservations and concerns. Let’s keep this dialogue open as we fully explore our options. I’ve said this before, but I strongly believe that until we are able to address the root causes of high and rising healthcare expenditures (nutrition, lifestyle, environmental factors and pharmaceutical-intensive treatments) any kind of “reform” – no matter how well intentioned and designed – will be a small band-aid on a large wound. As with education and budgeting we need to let the desired outcomes drive the policies and set the goals.

Having said all of the above, we still have a lot to be thankful and hopeful for here in Vermont. We’re all stakeholders in Vermont’s future so I hope that we can continue to have civil and productive conversations about how to manage our little corner of the globe with our friends, family, neighbors and policy-makers. I’ll be spending the next month doing homework, preparing legislation and handling constituent issues and comments. You can always reach me at 802-234-9125 and info@teozagarforhouse.org. Happy holidays to everyone and keep in touch.