“In recent months, most of the political and media attention has been focused on health care reform. However, there is growing concern that school spending in Vermont is rising precipitously – currently at two to three times the rate of inflation – with little end in sight.”
The quote above is from a 2005 Shay Totten editorial in the now defunct Vermont Guardian newspaper. Almost a decade later, it just goes to show that while some things change, others stay the same. Will we ever “fix” our healthcare and our education systems? Who knows? Will we ever stop paying incrementally more for them? Probably not. Even with the added pressures of an aging population, rising rates of disease and inflated drug and service costs, healthcare costs also rise with inflation (sometimes faster), just like everything else. And in Vermont, with a declining student population and rising school budgets (thanks in no small part to rising healthcare and energy costs) there is no quick or easy fix for education financing either. Two of the most critical sectors of the economy, because of their fundamental value to society and commensurate expenses, will always be a challenge for government and the private sector to manage. Over the next four months, the state of Vermont will continue the debate over how to manage and fund them.
Vermont’s 2014 legislative session begins on January 7th and will be my third since I was appointed in 2011 and elected in 2012. I represent the Windsor 4-1 District, which includes the towns of Barnard (where I’ve lived since 1985), Pomfret, Quechee north of Route 4 and West Hartford. I serve on the House Agriculture and Forest Products Committee where I helped to draft and secure passage of the Working Landscape Enterprise Investment Initiative (Act 142), end the state prohibition of agricultural and industrial hemp (Act 84), and pass the nation’s first genetically-engineered food labeling bill through a legislative body (H.112 – now in the Senate). I am one of only about a half-dozen representatives under the age of 40, and it can be a challenge being a part-time citizen legislator while working other jobs, keeping up with all the demands of life and trying to stay on top of the important state and national issues. But I’ve lived here for most of my life and I intend to stay, so I’m determined and optimistic about another opportunity to work with fellow representatives from across the state and across the aisles to try to improve the state of our state or, at the very least, not leave it worse than when we picked up the reins again through inaction or wrong action.
We Vermonters are lucky to live in such a beautiful, peaceful and neighborly state. Vermont consistently places among the top five states in the U.S. in rankings of health, happiness, student performance and graduation rates, public safety and employment rates (believe it or not). But while working part-time at the Barnard General Store for the past few months I’ve listened to and shared a variety of concerns and complaints about local and national matters. Vermont’s business climate is caught in a struggle between regulation and growth opportunities, and ranks near the bottom in terms of “business friendliness” (although we certainly have a strong and growing entrepreneurial and creative spirit). Federal sequestration cuts and international instability remind us of our reliance on the broader financial system. The rising economic and environmental costs of energy suggest we rely more on renewable sources while increasing efficiency and weatherization measures in a state with long roads, old houses and cold winters.
Some of these problems we can work hard to fix by passing new laws or amending/repealing old laws, but there is much that seems beyond our grasp, either for lack of finding the right solution or having little to no control over national economic and foreign policy.
In our intractable two party system, both the “D’s” and the “R’s” have a lot to worry about – the cost of living, educational and career opportunities, personal and family health, financial security and stability, sharing the responsibility of caring for those who need social support (our elders, veterans, those with limited or impaired mobility, the hungry, etc.), and the faltering belief that we can trust our justice system and those elected and appointed to positions of power that have great influence over our lives. But I continue to believe that even if one has chosen to stand on one or the other side of the political fence – a barrier that, in my opinion, is propped up to divide and manipulate voting demographics more than to facilitate an effective and reasonable form of public policy making – we can find a lot more common ground when it comes down to the most important things: liberty, justice and the unimpeded pursuit of happiness (as long as happiness comes at no one else’s harm or expense!).
If we zoom out from matters inside our own state we can see some of the more troubling signs of the times, most notably the ongoing failure of the existing federal system to foster a meaningful national discussion of what government can and should do, and the general inability of mass media outlets to present relevant and objective information without pressures from the financial interests that own them. The national debt is arguably the greatest national security threat to our country, with wars, healthcare costs (which the US spends more of its GDP on than most other nations), bailouts, mismanaged social and corporate subsidies, the tenuous value of the dollar in an outsourced economy, and the 70,000+ page US tax code as contributing factors. Companies hire lobbying firms to write and push bills that get passed in their own financial interests and fund candidates they think will advance their agendas (while this practice is alive and well in Vermont, their influence is limited and can become more so with increased government transparency and campaign finance reform). Corporations are endowed with the rights of “personhood” but are allowed to dodge billions of dollars in taxes by having post office boxes on Caribbean Islands and commit crimes that would send actual people to prison (HSBC laundering money for drug cartels and terrorists; Johnson & Johnson bribing doctors to prescribe ineffective and dangerous drugs to children and the elderly, companies X, Y & Z dumping poisonous waste products in the public commons, and on and on). Benefits to retirees and military service personnel who worked and served for most of their lives believing they would get back what they put in are squeezed and cut. What’s Vermont to do? I have to admit, I’m not really sure what we can do, but I think we can continue to strengthen existing systems that are at least partially under our control and build new ones to replace the broken ones that do us no good, even if we can only do so incrementally and in small steps.
The greatest responsibility and duty of a state legislator who represents approximately 4,000 people is being responsive to constituents and trying to solve their problems. I hear from a number of you on a more or less regular basis and I try to find solutions if it’s within my power, either by finding an answer or achieving an outcome. Last year I helped a retired couple get their heating assistance reinstated after having it cut off due to an automatic increase in Social Security payments that put them less than $2.00 over the threshold. I engaged Fairpoint on a fee they were imposing on a retired woman for a telephone service that was non-functional and that they declined to repair, and asked the Public Service Board to hear the customer’s grievance, which they eventually did thereby cancelling Fairpoint’s fee. Working with the Select Board in Barnard we were able to secure approval from DOT for the expansion of a 30mph speed zone past a number of children-occupied homes close to the road in what has long been a 50mph zone. These are small measures that in some cases have taken weeks or months to accomplish and almost always involve a number of people working together.
This year I will introduce bills that attempt to solve other constituent issues. A widow in my town faced foreclosure after her husband’s death because the reverse mortgage holder refused to recognize her as the homeowner since her name wasn’t included on the mortgage note, even though she was willing to assume the responsibility. She had to sell her house at a substantial loss because of the unreasonable foreclosure. The bill I will be introducing will prevent reverse mortgage lenders operating in the state from foreclosing on surviving spouses if they are willing and able to assume the responsibilities of the contract.
Another constituent in West Hartford wanted to give his grandchildren a parcel of land that his family has owned for decades so that they can continue the family tradition of using it to produce firewood and maple syrup. Unfortunately, he has had to put the land on the market because he can’t keep up with the property tax payments. It is too small to qualify for Current Use and isn’t subject to an income-sensitized tax bill because it’s not a primary residence. The primary residence on the White River was flooded during Irene (and since restored), and the couple, in their seventies, continues to produce firewood and maple syrup to supplement their income while the property awaits a buyer. It’s a shame that productive land can’t be passed down to subsequent generations of Vermonters because the rate of taxation has outpaced the ability to pay the bills on it. I’m going to try and fix this from a couple of different angles, but it will be an uphill climb because of the connection to state revenues and land use.
Other bills I’m sponsoring or introducing will be listed on my website throughout the session.
One of the toughest issues we will face in the coming session will be education and education financing. It seems that the time has come for a reformulation of the education financing system, with changes to or replacement of Acts 60/68. There is general consensus among the majority of legislators that we need to act, and the fact that the governor has also indicated as much is a sure sign that there could be sweeping changes in the near future. This may sound like welcome news for taxpayers in our district, but it remains to be seen how any yet to be determined modifications will affect taxpayers, students and educators. I’ll work with our local schools and select boards to figure out what will work best for our district, schools and the state. When it comes to jobs and economic opportunities for coming generations and those already making their way through the world, education is a crucial element and it’s very important that we hold quality of education and equal access to quality education paramount while minimizing the increased costs to taxpayers and fostering a sustainable funding system.
On the healthcare front, I’ve been hearing mixed reviews from folks on our new healthcare exchange, aka Vermont Health Connect, which has experienced well-publicized problems since its launch. Many people are getting new coverage at costs they can afford, some are finding themselves with new plans through the exchange that are comparable to their old plans with little or no increase in premiums, and others, especially small businesses, have had less than favorable results. During the course of the session I will be open to suggestions for ways that Vermont can smooth the transition for individuals and/or groups.
As required by federal law, Vermont set up an online marketplace for people and businesses to purchase health insurance plans. Like many other states, Vermont chose through legislative action to set up its own exchange. I supported this, thinking that we could most likely do it better than the feds, but was dismayed to learn that the administration contracted with the same firm, CGI, that was hired to set up the federal healthcare.gov website (and spent more on our exchange than most other states did). In retrospect, I’m not sure which decision would have resulted in a “better bad deal” for the state, but I hope that future state IT outsourcing is more transparent and thoroughly vetted. I don’t know how feasible it would be at this time, but the notion of using in-state Open Source IT could be a viable solution in the future and would support local jobs.
I’m far from convinced that the Affordable Care Act will yield positive results for the physical and economic well being of our country, especially since it mandates that citizens purchase commercial products from private companies, but as long as we’re beholden to federal laws in order to get tax dollars back into state coffers, we’ll have to ride the wave. In theory, I support a single-payer system of coverage that removes insurance company profits (or “surpluses” as the case may be) from the healthcare equation and instead targets available resources on ensuring quality facilities and providers. But it is unfortunate that government struggles with the credibility and competence to achieve real improvements in the system and that major drivers of rising healthcare costs, like lifestyle and environment, are often overlooked or not adequately factored into the equation.
On that note, we should continue to strengthen Vermont’s food system. Locally or regionally produced natural or organic food is often far superior (and safer) to the mass-produced and processed foods that dominate our store shelves. This is evident by the frequent recalls and contamination of industrially produced food, not to mention the widespread use of harmful ingredients in much of the processed food on the market. The USDA tries to take a one-size-fits-all approach to safety regulation but recently took a welcomed step back from its proposed Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA), which would mandate stricter regulations on small and medium sized farms and an unfunded inspection regimen that Vermont’s Agency of Agriculture, Food & Markets would have to enforce. This is in stark contrast to a recent announcement that chicken processed in China will be allowed to enter the US market, when recent reports have indicated that domestically processed chicken already has alarming rates of bacterial contamination. Our Ag Agency and federal delegation in Congress are strong advocates for our farmers at the federal level, and with Vermont recently ranking “Healthiest State in the Nation”, we can be confident in our strong and growing networks of farms and farmers. Prices for locally produced food are often higher than for mass produced competitors, but as local demand and production increase local food should become more affordable, and the hidden costs of cheap food should also be taken into account. A healthy food system will also yield lower long-term healthcare costs.
Some of the other big issues that Vermont will have to deal with are slowing and reversing the pace of environmental degradation (and especially water quality), reducing hunger and poverty, ending the epidemic of opiate addiction, finding the balance between economic development and government regulation, responding to infringements on civil liberties by national security surveillance methods, asserting our state sovereignty in the face of secretly negotiated trade agreements like the Trans Pacific Partnership (which would give foreign companies the ability to trump local, state and even federal laws), ensuring sound financial footing in the future and investing our tax revenues wisely (possibly in a state bank), and finding the elusive balance between revenue and spending while fulfilling our obligations to important services and maintaining our quality of living without unreasonably increasing the cost of living.
The nature of government is that mistakes and missteps will always be made, and in a democratic government there will be plenty of blame to go around since there will always be “winners and losers” and those who feel they’ve been wronged. I’ve no doubt supported bills and measures that may turn out to be not so good for Vermont and Vermonters in the final analysis, and there are some votes I probably wish I could change with the benefit of hindsight. Any system with humans involved will inevitably stumble and fall from time to time, but if we learn from our mistakes and each other we can keep trying to make progress. This is what I try to do in Montpelier. I also do my best to respond to every email and phone call I get, and I enjoy listening to people since that’s where most of my learning happens. Please keep in touch over the next few months. You can reach me at email@example.com, 802-234-9125 (home), 802-558-3966 (mobile), or send messages to me at the State House by calling 802-828-2228. You can also visit my website, www.teozagarforhouse.org, for updates throughout the session. I’ll be working at the Barnard General Store on Monday mornings until noon, so if you want to meet up and chat after that, I’ll buy you a cup of coffee.
Happy New Year!