After an extended legislative session that kept lawmakers in Montpelier late into May, The Sun sat down with all five Colchester legislators to get their take on some of the prominent issues that cropped up. In Q&A format, each legislator was asked to respond to five questions. Their answers were edited for length and brevity due to space restrictions. Ellipses were used to indicate breaks in the conversation where content was removed.
This was your first session as a representative in the legislature. Tell me about your experience.
I enjoy it. I went in not expecting anything. I was kind of eyes wide open, ready to see what happens. I got a very good committee assignment, the one that I wanted – Corrections and Institutions. And all the people on my committee, I like working with them and my chair is dean of the House, which means she’s the oldest member there – Alice Emmonds … She knows an incredible amount, and she runs a great committee. I talked to people about it and they said, ‘You’ll get frustrated, things don’t move fast.’ I didn’t run into that … As a freshman, I’ve learned a lot.
What went into your decision to vote “no” on the S.22 bill that would legalize recreational marijuana, despite strong support from your party?
The legalization of marijuana is coming. I’m for it, but I want to have taxation and regulation, and that was not in that bill yet. I’m not in a hurry … I want to have people that purchase marijuana to know what they’re getting … It would be great if there were an easier roadside test. But there isn’t, and I don’t think that should hold up the legalization completely. It’s a concern for sure, and it’s something that should be worked on, but it’s not a dealbreaker.
You voted “yea” on the Republican-backed initiative H.509 that would have shifted teacher healthcare negotiations from the local to state level. What went into that decision?
I’m on the school board, and I am on the negotiating team, so I am aware of what’s involved in negotiating, especially healthcare. The school board and the negotiating team spent a lot of time trying to understand healthcare … It’s very complicated, and as a school board member and negotiator, I would rather have the state do it … There is still, as far as I’m concerned, plenty of negotiating that can go on with salary and other benefits, so I think that if you could have every teacher in Vermont have the same healthcare plan, it would be good.
Gov. Scott has vowed to veto the budget later this month if a deal on teacher healthcare cannot be reached. What is your take on the legislature’s ability to reach a deal before veto?
I doubt if he will veto it. I don’t think very many people will want to shut down the state and close the parks and have the state police working for nothing, because we can’t write any checks after July 1 if there’s no budget … $13 million, which is probably more realistic from the governor’s side – even he would admit that’s, I believe, for one year … The amount that is out a $1.5 billion budget, the amount that taxpayers will feel is negligible. I don’t think it’s something that would be worth shutting down the state for the summer.
Was there a bill or resolution that you sponsored this session that you felt most strongly about? Why?
There really wasn’t any particular issue that I really wanted to push, or that I’m really all that fired up about. There is a couple that I’m thinking of for next session that sparked my interest. One was some sort of arrangement for the National Guard to finance more of their education … That’s been brought up to me by several people as a problem in Vermont in that they have to compete with other states for recruits where they do provide more educational help – paying for courses, paying for degrees.
Rep. Jim Condon (D)
In May, Gov. Scott’s proposed healthcare reform bill came to a head with a 74-73 margin, with Democrats narrowly defeating the bill. You had expressed support for the Republican initiative but did not cast a vote that would have pushed the bill through. Why?
I am having some health issues, and I was unable to stay which is unfortunate. But I did support the Beck proposal and, as a matter a fact, I was a co-sponsor of it. So, I was unhappy that it was that close a vote and they could have used me there, but I was having some issues and it just wasn’t going to happen. I’m getting my hip replacement a week from today, this was not actually related to that, but I’m looking forward to the surgery.
What went into your decision to support S.22, despite local pushback and other legislators’ positions?
The selectboard was split on the issue, so I guess it shouldn’t be a big surprise that our delegation was somewhat split on it. I supported that grow-your-own legislation the first time it came around. So, the compromise that we sent the governor, that has been vetoed, is calling for a study of a regulated marketplace. So if a commission takes a look at it and wants to come up with a better plan, I’m willing to listen to it, but we’ll see if that ever occurs. Also, I think it’s very important to increase penalties for anyone that makes pot available to kids.
You sponsored two bills this session – H.22 and H.475 – that called for raising and monitoring training, recruitment and hiring standards for the law enforcement and corrections officers. Why is this an important issue for Colchester and Vermont as a whole?
It’s always important to have your first responders as trained as possible. Forming a criminal justice training council is going to help towns to improve the quality of law enforcement, so I think it’s a good idea. I was approached by Dennis Deboro of Mount Holly on this so we both put this in. And they’re going to form a council with various members to try and come up with roles to improve training and so I think it’s a step in the right direction.
Gov. Scott has vowed to veto the budget at the end of the month. What is your take on the legislature’s ability to reach a deal on teacher healthcare before then?
It’s unfortunate that we couldn’t reach a deal. I proposed a bill probably 12 years ago now that would have moved teacher’s healthcare to the state level. It would be run by VEHI, and that was 12 years ago. And I thought it was a good idea then, and I still do think it’s a good idea. The healthcare aspect should be handled on a state level, not district by district. Negotiate salary, negotiate step increase, negotiate other benefits but to pit local school boards against local unions on the issue of healthcare is enormously complex. And it should be something that should be handled at the state level.
Which bill/resolution that you sponsored this session to you feel most strongly about and why?
I was part of the House negotiating team for S.135, the economic development bill that passed in the last day of the session. This expanded the number of allowable [tax increment financing] districts in the state. It ended the moratorium – it’s going to allow six new TIF districts around the state which is important. The bill also establishes State Treasurer Beth Pearce’s idea for a self-funded public retirement plan. It’s the Green Mountain Secure Retirement Plan. I’m proud of my work on that, and I’m glad I could make it happen. The other thing was the Reporter Shield Bill that we helped pass; I testified on that.
Sen. Dick Mazza (D)
Grand Isle District
During the last weeks of the session, even though a deal wasn’t reached, you were a kind of a liaison between pro tempore Tim Ashe and the governor. Tell me about that role and how you came into it.
I’ve been able to get along with both parties for many years. I’ve worked with six different governors, and I’ve always been able to have a good relationship … The issues are very important but the idea of trying to compromise, to me, that’s the key because there is always middle ground somewhere … You’ve got to be able to work together and I think most people want to do the right thing for their constituents, but sometimes that means separating from you party.
The governor’s administration sent a memo outlining negotiating guidelines and called for a collective negotiating team that represents the House and Senate and you have been asked to be a part of that team. What part will you play, and do you think a deal can be reached before veto?
The last day of the session, we had a very productive negotiation session, I thought. We spent about six hours off and on. My role primarily is to see that no one gets too excited and tries to stay within the issue. Because they have strong feelings on both sides, and one of the worst things that could happen is if someone flares up and walks out. I know they are set on both sides on this issue. I understand both sides of the issue. And I also understand that we need to compromise.
Gov. Scott vetoed bill S.22 mainly due to concern over impaired driving. As chairman of the transportation committee, what involvement will you have in developing/evaluating a process to screen drivers for marijuana intoxication?
I think that’s in the works throughout the country because more and more states are legalizing it. It’s inevitable … We just want to be prepared because I know how serious it is … Being chair of transportation [committee], one of my roles is safety – highway safety. So I feel very strongly – I know the House does and I know the governor does – about having a detection system … I’ve talked to other states that have done this and they say, ‘Make sure you get the right things in place before you go down that road.’ Those issues to me must be addressed before we legalize it.
Which bill/resolution that you sponsored this session did you feel most strongly about and why?
The big bill I’m proud about was the Capital Bill, which I serve on the Institutions Committee, and it was about $73 million for improvements throughout the state … And I think the other one that I am very proud of was the transportation bill which was over $600. We’re going to $113 million in paving alone throughout the state … We’re on track to upgrade our bridges … We didn’t raise any taxes on anything – no gasoline, no registrations. We’re spending the same amount on transportation as we did last year.
You have held a seat in the Senate since 1985 and a member of the House since 1973. What about this last session stood out to you?
I thought overall there was a lot of ideas, a lot of bills proposed like always – 600 to 900. I thought the suggestion of no new taxes was very good because one thing I hear over and over again is we need some relief. You can’t raise
taxes every year. We have a limited population – 620,000 – and that’s why I think that if we can get this healthcare forward for teachers, I think it will make a big difference and taxpayers will pay a little less. Overall, I thought it was a very successful session.
Rep. Maureen Dakin (D)
How did the session operate with a new governor, new speaker of the house and new senate pro tem?
I have great faith in Mitzi [Johnson] and Tim Ashe, so that helped us going forward. I think they did a good job. They’re very smart people. They knew and understood they were in new roles and asked for patience and understanding and I think they got that. I think that’s a real sign of the respect that they garner.
You voted no on the marijuana legalization bill. What went into that decision? Who did you consult?
I’ve always been opposed to it. I certainly listened to the constituents. No matter what the issue is, you hear from both sides. I always take that into account with the understanding that I’m only hearing from a small portion of the people I represent … All the professionals that deal with it are opposed to it. That is a very big influence in my mind … We are the first state to enact it by legislation. Other states have used referenda, and I really want to see how it plays out in these states, especially in Massachusetts, Maine and if Canada as a nation decides to go this way. I don’t think Vermont needs to lead in everything, and I think there’s a lot to be learned.
You voted in favor of the governor’s teacher healthcare plan? Why?
Well, I voted for the Beck amendment. I voted for that because I thought it was worth a discussion … In the 21st century, we need to be open to discussing new ways of doing things. I’ve become convinced in our small state and with our limited tax base, we have to find new ways to do things in order to enact legislation that helps the most vulnerable and the most needy in the state. I’m open to discussing and finding new ways to doing things. I really believed that was opening a conversation. I wouldn’t say that it was an endorsement one way or another … In the intervening weeks after that, there was a lot of discussion and there was a lot more that came to light … The dollar amount, nobody was really sure of and how that money was going to be used.
Is there a piece of legislation that you either sponsored or were very involved in that directly affected Colchester?
I have to say, just because I’m on appropriations [committee], certainly the piece of legislation I was most interested in and concerned about was the budget … I didn’t want to sign on or sponsor anything that I might then have to deal with in front of appropriations … There was a piece in there regarding CUSI, which Colchester wanted to have a fairer price of rental fees regarding the space. That happened … That’s a small thing in terms of dollars, but it was something directly asked for by the town.
What should people keep an eye on in the veto session? Any predictions on what will happen?
There’s a part of me that still hopes the governor changes his mind and does not veto the budget and the yield bill. Being, let’s say, optimistic, I’ll say he won’t. If that happens, it would just be the marijuana bill. There’s not enough votes to override that veto and I believe, at this point, when we go back on June 21 or 22, we should just let it go until we’re back in January.
Pat Brennan (R)
You’ve been in the legislature since 2003. What has it been like to have a Republican governor again?
It’s been interesting. It’s been a good thing for Republicans, for conservatives. It’s his first year, and things move slowly in the first year of the biennium. He’s got a learning curve just like the rest of us. Even though he’s been there in other capacities, he hasn’t run the show, so to speak, before. [He] and his staff have that learning curve to get over. We’re still facing a near-super majority on the other team. It makes passing any of his initiatives, as you can see with what’s going on with the veto session, really tough. It makes it hard to advance any of his initiatives.
You voted no on the marijuana bill. What factors went into that decision? Did you consult folks in Colchester?
I didn’t take a tally on this one, but I would say it was probably 60-40 against. I have some personal reasons why I’m against it. I still believe it’s a gateway drug … From the legislative side, my job, obviously, as the chair of transportation [committee], I have to ensure that we have safe roads. We didn’t do that … That’s one of the governor’s arguments. I’ve been waiting for a phone call, as I’m sure Sen. Mazza has because that’s his job too, to see what we’re going to do with it. I haven’t gotten that call.
Why did you vote in favor of the governor’s teacher healthcare proposal? Did you consult local teachers?
I talked to taxpayers. I heard from teachers. Here’s an argument that I heard: One in 10 Vermonters are teachers. I said, so, what about the other nine? I’m concerned about the other nine as well. So I voted for it, yeah. Any time you can save $75 million and put $26 million back in taxpayers’ pockets, I’m in favor of that. Especially, since the teachers healthcare plan wasn’t going to suffer … This isn’t about teachers suffering healthcare; this is about the union. Make no mistake about that.
Is there a particular piece of legislation that you think particularly impacted Colchester this session?
I was a big supporter of the Clean Water Initiative, which, for Colchester with 27 miles of lakeshore, that’s a biggie. And every [transportation] project we do, be it a paving project or a ditching project, now involve best management practices. You take into consideration runoff, where the water is going to go, you treat it before it gets to the river or to the lake. We started off with a $4 million package a year ago. I think when we got done this year, it was up around $18 million we’ll be devoting out of the transportation budget alone to clean water.
Looking forward to the veto session, what should people keep an eye on?
I’m thinking the proponents of marijuana would probably fine tune their proposal and put something on the table that [Gov. Scott] might sign during the veto session. But, like I said, I haven’t heard anybody talk about road safety yet. Unless they’re doing it behind the scenes, sooner or later I think it’s going to involve us … I’m not optimistic about the possibility of saving taxpayers the money in the healthcare plan … [Scott] may lose the battle for that savings, which is too bad.