Colchester House Reps from the Chittenden 9-1 and 9-2 districts got a taste of their first few days in office as the 2019 legislative session began last week.
The week was full of “pomp and circumstance,” as described by veteran reps Pat Brennan (R-Chittenden 9-2) and Curt Taylor (D-Chittenden 9-1), as new and returning House reps made their way to the capital, met their new committee members and engaged in a crash course in all things Vermont politics.
While this is Brennan’s ninth term as a rep, his first few weeks will be full of new information since House Speaker Mitzi Johnson removed him as chairman of the Transportation Committee and placed him on Ways & Means.
Brennan was disappointed in the switch.
“I’m a Republican in a Democratically-controlled House, so they pretty much get things the way they want them,” he said. “I didn’t vote quite the way [Johnson] would have liked on a few occasions, so that’s the price you pay.”
He said he’s excited, however, to start learning about the Ways & Means Committee, calling it “prestigious” since it deals with tax policy and spending. Brennan vowed to bring Colchester residents’ best interests to the table.
“I would hope to bring a voice of reason to the committee. When it comes to raising taxes, I would oppose,” he said. “Anything that’s going to increase the cost of living or the general fund budget by more than 2.5 3 percent, I wouldn’t be in favor.”
Brennan isn’t shy to argue his points but said he’s open to working across the aisle to make Vermont an affordable place to live for everyone.
Newcomer Sarita Austin (D-Chittenden 9-2) said she had a wonderful first week and was in awe of the whole process.
“It was very emotional for me just because I really feel that Vermont is very special in how it operates and its values,” Austin reminisced about the first day of the session. “It kind of seemed to coalesce right in that moment, all these things coming together.”
Austin was assigned to the Education Committee, an area of experience due to her previous position as a guidance counselor and school board member.
“In a way I feel like I’ve been preparing for this my whole life,” she remarked. “Not that I know everything at all, but I feel that I come to the committee with some real background knowledge and information on how school systems work.”
Austin said she’s interested in Colchester School District superintendent Amy Minor’s ideas on attracting tuition students and hiring more staff to increase the attractiveness and vitality of the district.
She added she agrees with Gov. Phil Scott’s general views on clean water, affordability and economic development and believes Colchester might benefit from his proposals.
Overall, she said she’s excited to get to work on the legislative session. “I’m pinching myself,” she said. “I feel so incredibly lucky to have this opportunity.”
Freshman rep Seth Chase (D-Chittenden 9-1) said he was excited to be placed on the Energy & Transportation Committee due to his experience as a network engineer and his degree in information technology management.
“I’m pretty stoked,” he said of the assignment. “It’s a good fit. I think it’s where I’ll be able to do the most good.”
Chase said one of the primary issues he’ll push this session is statewide connectivity.
“There’s such a disparity in options for people to connect to the outside world,” he said. “A significant percentage of our state is barely able to get the very basic access.”
He was also positive about the overall political climate and thinks his personal views on the environment, education and the economy aligned with the majority.
“Even the lobbyists seem to be on board as far as trying to make a better Vermont,” he said. “I think we’ll be able to get some good work done this year.”
This is Taylor’s second term in the House as well as his second appointment to the Corrections and Institutions Committee, his preferred placement. Though the real work has yet to begin, Taylor said he’s looking forward to getting started on some key issues, like clean water. He said Scott is working on a long-term funding proposal.
“Capital funds really shouldn’t be supporting it. We have all these other things we have to worry about like renovating prisons or the state hospital,” he said. “The hope is to get the clean water … being funded some other way.”
Taylor, however, does not support raising taxes, as Vermont is already an expensive state to live in, he said.
Taylor’s committee will also revisit a bill passed last year that made it easier for inmates to access to medically-assisted treatment for opioid addiction.
“Medical treatment in the prisons is completely separate from medical treatment outside the prisons, and the doctors inside the prisons are not convinced that’s the best way to do it,” Taylor explained. “A doctor doesn’t want a legislator telling them how to do medical treatment. We don’t know that much about it, so there’s that conflict.”