Our opinion: Setting legislative priorities for 2020

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When we last saw the state House of Representatives and state Senate, their Democratic leaders were walking away from the Golden Dome in disarray, unable or unwilling to reach consensus on competing family leave and minimum wage proposals that would challenge Republican Gov. Phil Scott to veto legislation helping working Vermonters.

Whether the Legislature will continue to allow Scott to skate on tough choices in 2020 seems less likely as year two of the biennium dawns. It's an election year, and it remains to be seen whether House Speaker Mitzi Johnson and Senate President Pro Tem Tim Ashe will use their majorities to push showdown votes on bread-and-butter Democratic and Progressive issues, challenging Scott's likely re-election bid.

Vermonters at the bottom of the wage scale could surely use a raise, and paid family leave is a way for a civilized, caring society to live its values. It seems the Legislature won't wait long to deal with this unfinished business. In a visit to Bennington last month, Ashe said he expected a minimum wage bill will be pushed forward in the first two months of the session.

That's all well and good. But a better and more meaningful strategy would also include significant investment in workforce development, through job training and higher education. That way, the state can reverse its potentially disastrous demographic trends and build its tax base by retaining more young adults working living wage jobs, in addition to boosting pay at the bottom of the scale.

There's value in all work, but minimum wage service economy jobs are not to be confused with economic development. You would need multiple minimum wage jobs to move to southern Vermont, and if you did, you'd struggle to cover the rent. Jobs that pay skilled employees living wages, which multiply through the economy and promote saving, are a higher value proposition.

Supporting higher education and job training is a great way to make that happen. But Vermont's shameful support of its state college system — the state covers just 17 percent of VSC's operating expenses — is hampering economic growth and denying economic opportunity to young adults. This must change.

Ashe didn't mention higher ed in his visit to Bennington. But the state Senate, over which he presides, did cut $500,000 in funding earmarked for reducing Vermont State College tuition.

Here, it's worth noting the platform of the Vermont Progressive Party, to which Ashe belongs, specifically calls for "tuition-free public post-secondary education" as essential to a healthy democracy and economic equity.

Getting real on climate change

Another worthy priority in 2020 is Vermont's commitment to addressing climate change and curbing its addiction to fossil fuels. We have seen in the past year how Vermonters, especially young people, have taken part in climate protests and lobbied for action. They have been heard.

Every headline in the climate crisis, whether it's the latest scientific finding or Greta Thunberg speaking truth to power, underscores the urgency of taking action. Already the Legislature has multiple proposals on the table deserving attention.

One of these proposals, the multi-state Transportation and Climate Initiative, would create a regional carbon dioxide emissions cap in the Northeast and mid-Atlantic states, with the price of fuel varying on the amount of emissions reduction. Prices could rise between 6 and 17 cents per gallon at the pump, with the money funding pollution reduction initiatives.

Another, the Global Warming Solutions Act, would require Vermont to reduce its carbon emissions by about 25 percent by 2025.

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A third, from Vermont Progressive Party leader and state Sen. Anthony Pollina, would tax the state's top 5 percent incomes to raise $30 million to promote renewable energy and efficiency and improve public transit.

Of these proposals, the Global Warming Solutions Act and Pollina's proposal show particular promise.

The trouble with climate agreements is the rules are often long on loopholes and short on enforcement. The stakes are now too high to accept that status quo. Setting greenhouse gas reductions as mandates in state law is necessary.

The TCI may not be a carbon tax per se, but it's similar, and hence problematic. Carbon taxes, however well-intentioned, are regressive, and in rural, working poor Vermont, where public transit is limited or non-existent, they're punitive. What good does it do to punish people living paycheck to paycheck for driving to their multiple jobs when they have no other choice?

Pollina's proposal seems a better way forward, as it taxes people who are best equipped to pay. And it's specific as to how the money will be used.

Ending a double standard

It's about time the state apply consistency and common sense and approve a tax-and regulate policy to safely control the sale of cannabis and produce needed tax revenue.

At present, you can possess small amounts of cannabis or two mature plants in Vermont, but you can't buy or sell it. That makes no sense.

House Speaker Johnson has said that a tax and regulate system is not a priority for the coming year. She wants to see concerns about youth usage and road safety addressed first. But this position ignores all kinds of double standards, and the speaker ought to reconsider.

The state of Vermont already markets and sells a dangerous substance that slows cognitive function, causes numerous health problems and threatens highway safety: alcohol.

Despite well-documented negative side effects and social costs, the state not only controls and taxes the sale of liquor, it actively promotes these products, especially those made in Vermont.

This is not suggesting cannabis is a harmless alternative. There are indications that long-term exposure to marijuana poses significant health risks. But the state also sells and taxes gin, and gin is not a health food. What's the difference?

There's also an economic cost for doing nothing. Here along the southern border, officials in Williamstown, Massachusetts recently approved that community's second retail marijuana outlet. Border towns such as Pownal could surely use the tax revenue that will literally go up in smoke a few miles away. That ought to matter to legislative leaders, even if it's not happening in Chittenden County.


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