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

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