Interview with Rep. Zagar by Chloe Powell

Teo Zagar has been the local representative for Barnard, Pomfret, Quechee, and West Hartford,  since he replaced Mark Mitchel in 2011, and for the first time he is running opposed in the upcoming election next Tuesday.  I got a chance to sit down with my representative to hear from him about the pressing issues this coming season, and hear from him why he thinks he’s fit to keep up his work in Montpelier.

Driving through Barnard and Pomfret you’ll see many Zagar signs reading  “common ground” and Teo lives up to his slogan, and truly believes that when it comes down to it, “we share more common values than differences, and we should use that common ground as a starting point to work together.” Though he is running as a Democrat, he is not afraid to vote against party lines and working across the aisles to best represent all his constituents.  Teo voted with Republicans for property tax reform before it was a popular issue with Democrats.  At 36, he is one of the seven members under 40 in the house, and his perspective as a younger person and someone who grew up in the community he is representing is valuable.

Zagar not only grew up in the public school system here in Barnard and Woodstock, but also has 8 years experience working within the school system as a special educator at WUHS.  This position has garnered him a unique perspective in the state house about how decisions made at the state level affect the quality of education for the students.  He sees the value of local control of our small schools.   “I think the small schools, like this one here that I went to are really the beating heart of the community.  It brings families and kids together, creates social opportunities, ties the community together and gets people talking and getting to know each other.” The issues facing small schools are going to be one of the priorities this coming legislative session.  “We need to overhaul our education financing system while still providing equal opportunity to all Vermonters.  I think we do need to take a hard look at education governance, but we should leave the decision of whether or not a school should stay open up to the townsfolk.“  Overhauling the financing system, he says,  should involve a move to a more income-based system where taxes are based not on land ownership but on ability to pay, allowing working families to live here without overburdening them with property taxes.

On a bright note, he spoke of the comparatively high rates of achievement in Vermont schools,  and the success of the Farm to School Program statewide which places emphasis on healthy communities through agricultural and nutrition education in classrooms, and local whole foods in school cafeterias.  As rising costs for health insurance are partially a result of increased rates of diet-related diseases,  investments in nutrition education and increasing agricultural output in the state could reduce health insurance costs in the long run.

Along with education, single payer healthcare is going to be the other big issue in the coming legislative session, and Zagar is in favor of a publicly financed option as a more efficient and affordable system, though he stated honestly “ I don’t think we will ever truly fix our healthcare system until we address the root causes of why costs are going up, which have to do with nutrition, environment and lifestyle, and until we change that the government isn’t going to be able to fix it.”  Zagar, who serves on the Agricultural committee, was involved in the Working Lands bill, providing technical assistance and financial incentives to farmers and food entrepreneurs to expand their businesses and believes “the more food we are able to produce and get on the tables of Vermonters the healthier we’ll be in the long run.”

Zagar, as one of the younger members in the house, represents a demographic which, he was happy to report, is no longer fleeing at the same rate as ten year ago.  The rate of youth flight is actually going down.  “In the rural areas” he reported, “what we are seeing happen is more young people getting involved in agriculture and food, which is creating new businesses and jobs”.

Teo represents someone who is bucking the trend, choosing to return to Vermont after college rather than to pursue his work in a city.  “I make part of my living in the arts as a filmmaker, and I made a conscious decision to move back to Vermont to pursue that, when I would have had an easier time doing that in California or New York, but I didn’t want to live there.  There is a growing arts economy where people are making a living from being creative and sharing stories and ideas with others and I think there is value to that. I think Vermont is a nurturing place to do that.”  He spoke of the arts as well as agriculture in our educational and economic priorities.  “Society and culture are defined more by our values and how we express ourselves than by economic statistics. I’ve always felt that as we talk about education, and STEM education in particular, (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) that we should put two A’s into that acronym.  I think that Arts and Agriculture need to be an equal part of the educational and social equation.”

Aside from addressing the biggest issues facing the legislators this coming session, we touched on some stickier issues such as drugs and guns.  Vermont has received a lot of attention for our “drug epidemic” since Shumlin devoted his whole State of the State address last year to the opiate problem in Vermont, but Vermont is not alone. This is a national issue, Vermont has only called attention to it, and I think this is an important first step.  “I think that prescription opioids are the gateway drug to heroin.  Once people get hooked on pills and realize that heroin is cheaper, that’s an easier choice.  We’ve got some of the biggest drug companies in the world basically lying to the FDA about the efficacy and dangers of these drugs and bribing doctors to overprescribe them.”   As young people who have grown up in this area, we are both affected by news of our peers whose addictions have turned them to desperation and crime and Teo stated “addiction needs to be treated as an illness”  stating the need for more access to treatment in the state.  He also stated the need to provide more controls over prescription pain killers, but suggested the challenges doing that at the state level “We are not the FDA ,  we can’t regulate the pharmaceutical industry.  We can try to monitor them and set rules as to how they are prescribed, and we need to invest more money in treating the addicted and in law enforcement to take down more dealers.”  he said.

On guns, Teo said he is a gun owner and supports the second amendment.  “Vermont has a long history and tradition of safe and responsible gun ownership. I think Vermont is a model for how citizens can responsibly possess firearms.  We don’t have the kind of misuse as other areas with much more restrictive gun laws.”  He listed closing the gun-show loophole as something which will be looked at in the coming session, which would prevent private sales at gun shows without background checks, keeping more guns out of the wrong hands.  “I think we can strengthen our existing framework of background checks to minimize guns getting into the wrong hands, and I think it is worth having the conversation about closing the so-called gun-show loophole. But some gun show organizers are already doing this on their own, so this may be something that can become self-regulating without the need for new laws”.

Teo fell into being a politician because the opportunity presented itself to him at a time when he was looking to become more involved in his community, and after three years he is still the best kind of politician- a real person, citizen legislator whose interest is in serving the people the best he can. He does not claim to have all the answers, but promises to keep asking questions and searching for solutions.  As we spoke,  we often circled back to a common refrain.  The issues that Vermont faces are not unique to Vermont but “stem from broader national and international problems” and Teo feels a lot of the job of the legislators is about “putting out fires.”   But he asks and encourages constituents to ask ourselves and engage in conversations with our legislators about “how Vermont can not only insulate ourselves from these larger social and economic problems, but what creative solutions can we find to try to fix them in our own state or at least to start reversing the negative trends we see in healthcare, the economy, education, drug use, etc.”  Let’s give him another chance to keep working on that, and make sure to get out and vote on November 4th.

 

 

 

Running for Re-Election

I humbly ask for your continued support in this year’s general election on November 4th. It’s been an honor and a privilege of a lifetime to have a seat in state government representing our little corner of Vermont. We are at a crossroads in many regards and on many fronts and I would like the opportunity to work with you for another two years to choose the right paths and fix the ones we’re already on. In my three years as a legislator I have learned the written and unwritten rules of lawmaking and forged productive relationships with other representatives, senators, committee chairs and leadership in all parties, as well as with agency and department officials throughout state government. I’ve drafted and introduced legislation with members from all parties and independents, introduced and testified on legislation on behalf of constituents and tried my best to address all constituent comments and feedback that I’ve received while in office. We might not always agree on the best course of action, but I always try to find common ground and work from there.

During the last biennium I sponsored, reported and defended bills and amendments on the House floor that have been signed into law, including:

  • the landmark genetically-engineered food labeling bill
  • the authorization for cultivating industrial hemp
  • a proposed expansion of hunting and fishing licensing for disabled veterans
  • amending the “hands-free while driving” bill to allow for limited interaction with an affixed electronic device

In my first year on the Agriculture Committee I helped to draft and pass the Working Lands Enterprise Investment Bill (Act 142), which has expanded economic development and market opportunities in our robust agriculture and forest products sectors.

My record of tri-partisan cooperation also includes drafting and introducing a 4th Amendment Protection bill with other members to address overreaching public surveillance by the federal government.

As a member of the Working Vermonters’ Caucus I’ve worked with other members outside of the traditional party structure to ensure that state policies balance the interests of the private sector with the needs of the average Vermont family.

In response to constituent requests I’ve introduced legislation to:

  • address the double-taxation of retirement benefits accrued out-of-state
  • expand Current Use eligibility requirements for senior Vermonters
  • change how a town’s CLA is factored into the setting of property tax rates
  • protect a surviving spouse who is not signatory of a reverse mortgage agreement from foreclosure
  • report grants of surplus federal military equipment to state and municipal law enforcement agencies
  • modify septic regulations to reduce the cost of building a new home while protecting the environment

Sometimes I have been able to resolve issues outside of the legislative process by acting as an intermediary between constituents and various state agencies and departments. I have helped retired constituents with limited incomes secure heating assistance for the winter, successfully lobbied the Public Service Board to require a telecom provider to issue a refund for poor service, and mediated a complicated legal dispute between neighbors.

If re-elected, my top priorities will include:

  • listening to your concerns and suggestions, answering your questions, and keeping you up-to-date on legislative deliberations and actions
  • continuing to hold the line on property tax reform
  • finding ways to reduce statewide education spending without reducing quality
  • ensuring the preservation of local school boards
  • improving education quality without over-reliance on standardized testing
  • assessing and reporting on efforts to establish a publicly funded healthcare system
  • supporting the expansion of telecom and renewable energy projects while refining the balance between local control and meeting our broadband, cellular and energy goals
  • finding sustainable and fair funding methods for bridging the gaps in our transportation budget as federal assistance decreases and the gas tax becomes insufficient and unbalanced

Being a part-time citizen legislator with other jobs and obligations can be incredibly challenging, and it is daunting at times to learn and understand some of the more complex existing and proposed laws. I try to see all the angles in the context of the bigger picture and listen to as many sides as possible before making a decision. I value listening to individual experiences and applying what I learn to the process of making laws that affect our lives, and I take the responsibility of representing thousands of Vermonters at their expense very seriously. While I still have more to learn and welcome more constituent interaction, I hope to earn your trust for the privilege of continuing to serve our district for another two years.

 

 

 

All Hands on Deck for Healthcare and Education Reform in 2015/2016 Legislative Biennium

Thanks to everyone who checked my name in the primary election last week. I really hope to win your support in the general election on November 4 as well. As I campaign for re-election to the House seat representing Barnard, Pomfret, Quechee and West Hartford (District Windsor 4-1), I think about the challenges and opportunities we face as communities, as a state and as a nation. The role of our government should be to find durable and fair solutions to the social, economic and environmental problems that all civilizations face. These solutions should either do the most good or the least harm, depending on how optimistic we feel at any given moment when considering the realities of our imperfect democracy. While we have our hands tied in many ways by federal laws and bureaucracy that are showing signs of age, rot and questionable judgment, we in Vermont have a system of government that is at least accessible and small enough to actually listen to and consider all different voices when they speak up. With the world and Washington so divided and conflicted, I think it makes sense to turn inward a little, talk to each other, take stock of what our resources and opportunities are and where the biggest challenges lie, and decide how to work together without over-reliance on – or interference from – counter-productive external forces.

Clearly, education, healthcare and the economy are on everyone’s minds these days, and they are all fundamentally connected. Vermont consistently has stood atop the national rankings in terms of educational outcomes and general health statistics, but we also spend more money in both areas compared with other states; in some cases, a lot more. Are we getting our money’s worth? How do we place a value on these public services? If the cost of living in Vermont keeps rising at current rates will it matter that we have some of the best schools and healthiest living in the country if some people can’t afford to live or move here? There are certainly flaws in how we collect and spend money on education and healthcare, and right now we are at one of the most critical times in our state’s history as we attempt to reformulate and rebuild these systems in order to make them better, more transparent and cost-effective.

My top priority as a legislator (if I earn the privilege of representing our district for another two years) and the top priority of state government, will be to take decisive but thoughtful action on these two most consequential issues of the day – education and healthcare. Finding better solutions to the problems we face in these areas will result in systemic economic benefits as well.

While we have one of the best education systems in the country (and the world when Vermont is factored into international statistics as a separate country), we are paying more to educate fewer students while threatening to close small schools and raising property taxes to the point where many, even those who pay by income, are finding it increasingly difficult to stay afloat. Some of the factors playing into this out-of-balance equation include rising healthcare and special education costs (which in turn are driven by a variety of factors), low student to teacher ratios, a declining statewide population, federal and state mandates, energy costs, the housing market and inflation. But some towns that can easily raise enough money to fund their own schools are seeing more of their dollars leave town to fund other schools over which they have no budgetary authority, while their own schools have to cut programs, staffing and bus routes. We should be able to find a way to adhere to the mandates of the Brigham decision without making it impossible for small community schools to thrive.

Some form of administrative consolidation is inevitable and will probably be necessary, but it should take into account the vital role that successful smaller schools play in sustaining healthy local communities and providing quality education. We must not let go of what little local control we still have over our schools. Voters in any given town should retain final say in any consolidation proposals that may be brought forward, even if they decide to pay an arm and a leg to keep their schools open. While the Consolidation Bill passed the House by a vote of 76-60, I voted NO and expressed my concerns to fellow legislators and leadership. Any future proposed consolidation legislation must take into account the sometimes unquantifiable benefits of having a small school as the central institution in a small community. I attended the Barnard Central School (now the Barnard Academy) when it had only two classrooms, and I can’t imagine the town without it.

I have also been active in the discussion about modifying the cost-sharing mechanism that currently fills the Education Fund. While I voted in favor of replacing Acts 60 & 68 with a simpler, fairer and more sustainable formula, changing the formula alone won’t fix the problem. The fundamental problems lie in the multiple budget items that continue to rise at rates that outpace inflation and standards of living, and there is little tweaking of the current formula that would reduce total statewide spending. Even though there is an emphasis on property valuation tax to raise these funds, most Vermont residents pay based on income, and there is growing consideration for moving to a primarily income-based system. This, however, would have its own unique complexities that would need to be thoroughly vetted before being put into place. I will continue to work with other independent-minded legislators to find viable alternative solutions to the education funding conundrum.

Economically, while America and the world continue to stagger through a globalized recession, there are some positive indicators in Vermont worth noting: the number of small businesses and start-ups per capita, a comparatively low unemployment rate and rising numbers of jobs and businesses in the agriculture and forest products sectors. Vermont is recovering from the recession faster than the other New England states and is experiencing one of the highest college-age in-migration rates in the country. But we also have a reputation for not being business friendly enough and placing too much emphasis on environmental concerns. Some property owners I’ve talked to feel that they are spending too much for too little, while others feel like they’re getting their money’s worth in the overall value of living in Vermont. There will always be tension in trying to achieve the appropriate balance between economic development and environmental conservation.

I’ll continue to share my thoughts on these issues – including agriculture, telecom, energy and the environment – in greater detail in future entries here in the Standard, on my website and at your doorsteps over the next few weeks. Please contact me anytime with questions, concerns, suggestions or if you need assistance. You can reach me at 234-9125. Enjoy the turning of the leaves!