November Legislative Forum Tackles Issues; Delegation Covers Environment, Government Operations, Quality of Life, and Taxation

From left, State Representatives Martin LaLonde, Ann Pugh, and Maida Townsend discuss some of their top proirities for the coming legislative session at the South Burlington Community Library Monday night. Photo: Miranda Jonswold

State representatives on Monday, Nov. 26 hosted their first post-Election Day legislative forum at the South Burlington Community Library.

Martin LaLonde, District 7-1; Ann Pugh, District 7-2; and Maida Townsend, District 7-4 shared their top priorities for the Statehouse this year and listened to the observations and concerns of a small but engaged crowd of residents. South Burlington resident Vince Bolduc moderated the event.

Newly-elected Vermont House Democrat John Killacky, who clinched the win for District 7-3 earlier this month, was at an orientation in Montpelier and unable to attend. Sen. Michael Sirotkin was traveling and also absent.

Following formal introductions, representatives launched into their top three priorities for the year.

Townsend, who is serving her fourth term and chairs the House Committee of Government Operations, listed transparency and accountability in state government, environmental matters, and domestic violence as her main focuses for the year. She has been working with Vermont Network for years regarding domestic violence. She said she has a list of issues and individuals to vet come January regarding government operations.

On environmental matters, Townsend focused on greenhouse gas emissions.

“We have a report coming to us in January from a nonpartisan, independent group, which assessed four different greenhouse gas emission policies in terms of impact on the state’s environment, economy, jobs gained/lost,” she said. “In 2006, we put into statute our goals as to how we were going to bring down our emissions if we were going to meet our goals by 2050. The benchmark was the 1990 emission amount. We have never gone down since 2006. We are currently 16 percent above our 1990 emission rate. We have got to do something, and we have to make sure it’s smart.”

Pugh, who is in her 13th term and has chaired the House Committee on Human Services for several years, defined her priorities as access to affordable childcare, more resources for working families and the senior population, and maintaining what is in the best interest of Vermont despite what decisions come out of Washington.

“It costs more than sending them to college at this point in time,” she said of childcare, and “the vast majority of older Vermonters do not have enough resources to live comfortably. They may have Social Security, very few have a pension, and I think that 60-70 percent of people across the country have less than two months of savings.

“Workers are parts of families,” she continued. “The dollar affects all age spectrums. How do we transform some of our workplaces to recognize that people who are gainfully employed may need to leave work on occasion, to take care of a child, aging parent or family member and with our opiate/fentanyl crisis, they may need to be going to treatment?”

For LaLonde, who has served in the legislature for four years and sits on the House Judiciary Committee, an honest evaluation of the state’s demographics and environmental issues are on the top of his list.

“A lot of what we hear from the governor — and I don’t disagree with this — is how are we going to keep families here and how are we going to get younger families to work here?” he said. “But the demographics of this country are not a high likelihood for success.”

According to the U.S. Census Bureau population projections for 2020-2060, one in five Americans will be 65 years and older by 2030. Vermont is already an older state.

“We’ll be encouraging our leadership to make sure this is something we’re watching,” LaLonde said, adding that he recommended to the speaker of the house the formation of a demographics committee.

LaLonde also encouraged continuing to “try to put a price on carbon,” using electric vehicles, keeping an eye on Act 250 — which is currently being updated and a report will be issued — and pushing for funding to clean up Lake Champlain. The latter was a major concern of resident Betsy Gardner.

“I’m depending on the legislators to be the long-term thinkers,” she said. “I want you to think about solving the problem of our lake and the connections between the mega farms and the pollution. How are we going to do it, and how are we going to get the money?”

Noah Gilbert-Fuller, a 19-year-old resident and sophomore at UVM, stressed the importance of community connection for the younger population and how volunteerism has shaped his experience in the state.

He recommended “more programs for youth and more community involvement for youth. Make them feel like they’re making a choice to change things.

“I think if the public conversation was less about ‘how do we pay families to come and stay here’ and more about ‘how do we get people to love this place and want to change and improve the place,’ I think that could be a much more productive conversation and inspire a more committed group of people,” Gilbert-Fuller said.

Eric Simendinger, a 2009 South Burlington High School graduate and Clarkson University graduate, spoke out against the construction of G-5 cell towers, which use high-frequency waves for faster service speeds. He expressed concern regarding radiation and the proximity to sensitive areas such as residential areas, schools and parks. Townsend said the issue will be brought to the Energy Committee.

Resident Donna Leban of Dorset Park alerted representatives of a stormwater pond project near her home that resulted in the pond being drained out, truckloads of stone being hauled in, and use of bulldozers.

“Why are we not asking some questions about how much carbon dioxide or fossil fuel are we burning and evaluate these proposals this way?” she asked. “I have a feeling there were proposals that involved less drastic solutions that just happened to cost a little more to do.”

Rick Hubbard, a resident of Mayfair Park, pointed out that there are many Vermonters who struggle financially and asked to assess the tax system. He stated the underlying problem is systematic.

“If you have people equally pay in relation to their capacity to pay — whether it’s property taxes or income taxes — it would make some sense that in the economy that we have in our country that we’re pushing all the increases right to the top,” Hubbard said. “That there ought to be some equity because a lot of people are hurting on the bottom.

“I’m seeing a huge pushback,” he added. “When you cannot make enough to keep your head above water, you begin to get very reactive and desperate. It’s happening in Germany, it’s happening in France, it’s happening big time in America. We’ve got a problem. Somehow we have to figure out how to deal with it.”

LaLonde responded.

“We do look into making sure that our taxes are progressive, but how deeply they look I just don’t know,” he said.

“How do we support what we want in our communities?” asked Pugh. “If I don’t have kids in school, should I pay? We hear that. We hear, I can no longer afford to live in my house because of the property taxes. The flip side of that is that the property taxes is the reflection of the value of your house, so maybe the value of your house has gone up. If you have a certain income, you get a property tax rebate.”

“There’s no easy answer,” Townsend admitted. “One complicating factor is that we are tied to the federal system.”

SOURCE: Miranda Jonswold, Correspondent

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