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On Dec. 28, a coalition of business organizations — including the Vermont Chamber of Commerce, Vermont Bankers Association and Vermont Retail and Grocers Association — sent an open letter to Governor Scott and the legislature.

During the upcoming session, the letter urged lawmakers to focus solely on “the most immediate task at hand,” defined as “the health and safety of Vermonters, must-pass state bills/budgets, and our economic recovery.”

“To reach goals that we all have in common, such as clean air, clean water, affordable health and childcare, we need to act as economic stewards,” the letter said. “We need a vibrant economy and that means supporting Vermont businesses … This is not the time for business as usual.”

That’s for sure. And that’s exactly why the legislature should engage in critical short-term COVID response while also laying the groundwork for a brighter future. Despite the challenges of governing remotely, this work can’t wait.

In settings as diverse as business negotiation and improv comedy, there’s a phrase used to accept someone’s premise and then expand upon it: “Yes, and …”

In the days since receiving the letter, I’ve been thinking a lot about that powerful phrase. I’d bet good money that all 180 of my House and Senate colleagues, regardless of party, believe like I do that COVID recovery must be our first and central priority in 2021. The question, then, is whether we define recovery as economic triage to help businesses survive — an unequivocal yes! — and also as something broader, deeper and more profound.

I recently read the November 2020 final report of the Local Support and Action Team of the Governor’s COVID-19 Recovery Task Force. In interviewing 1,000 Vermonters across all 14 counties, the task force found common themes. First, that the pandemic had “highlighted or exacerbated fundamental challenges long faced by Vermonters — the loss of youth and economic stagnation in many communities, racial and economic disparities, and the unmet needs to families, seniors and children.”

“[We] frequently heard skepticism about ‘getting back to normal,’” the report continued. “To many, ‘normal’ was not a sustainable place to go back to. In fact, the pandemic is a galvanizing crucible that is testing and calling on Vermonters for a new dedication … to address fundamental needs for a vital and prosperous future.”

During my first term in the House, I learned that almost all legislators — Democrats, Republicans, Independents, Progressives — share the same goals. We want our economy, our communities, our schools and every Vermonter to thrive. But we approach problem-solving in different, values-based ways.

There’s near-universal consensus, for example, that investing in childcare and broadband are key to our economic future. In its December 29 follow-up letter, the Chamber identified these as a “critical need,” while advocating for increased federal funding.

Childcare and broadband, yes! And … Affordable housing and homelessness. Food insecurity and food system resilience. The rise in opioid-related deaths. Racial and criminal justice. Saving the Vermont State Colleges. Responding to climate change and transitioning to the renewable-energy economy of the future.

These complex challenges long predate and will outlast COVID. And each is essential to vibrant communities and a healthy economy. Yes, we must protect our businesses; we must also address the inter-related inequities that the pandemic brought into sharp and painful focus. From housing and healthcare to education and transportation, we must work holistically to ensure that all Vermonters have the tools, resources and access they need to not just survive, but thrive. In the end, bridging this opportunity gap is the best and most sustainable way to heal a hurting economy.

“Investing in the future of our economy will help us combat racism,” the Local Support and Action Team report continued, “just as universal broadband connectivity must be linked to affordable housing and a strong childcare system. There is no way to prioritize one of these actions over the others; together, they can strengthen the fabric of Vermont for the future.”

All of this will occur within grave fiscal restraints. First and foremost, the legislature must address our revenue shortfalls to craft a balanced budget — a budget that reflects our values and maintains the essential services Vermonters need. We must thoughtfully allocate our state’s share of the $900 billion federal relief package and address our unfunded pension liabilities. We must shore up the small businesses that drive our economy and power our Main Streets. And while accomplishing those vital tasks, we’ll keep creating a Vermont that works for all of us — an inclusive COVID recovery that leaves no one behind.

Kathleen James represents the Bennington-4 district (Arlington, Manchester, Sandgate and Sunderland) in the Vermont House of Representatives. She serves on the Education Committee and the Select Committee for the Future of Higher Education in Vermont.


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