Candidates

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Since we are not holding forums this year due to COVID, we are conducting more in-depth interviews than usual. Scroll down through the candidate interviews below:

 

Five candidates — one independent, two Democrats, and two Republicans — are running for state representative in the House district that includes Albany, Barton, Craftsbury, Glover, Greensboro, Sheffield and Wheelock.  Incumbent Paul Lefebvre and newcomer Martha Allen are vying for a seat in the Essex- Caledonia-Orleans House district, one that represents 13 towns: Westmore, Newark, East Haven, Ferdinand, Brighton, Bloomfield, Lewis, Lemington, Canaan, Norton, Avery’s Gore, Warren’s Gore, and Averill.

HOUSE

Martha Allen

Canaan

Democrat

Martha Allen is a retired teacher and former president of the Vermont National Education Association (Vermont-NEA).  Her key issues are universal broadband access, turning schools into community resources hubs, COVID relief that supports small business recovery, and protecting the environment.

Ms. Allen wants to see towns supported by what she calls “community schools” — an idea that puts existing school buildings to use as healthcare facilities, senior and daycare centers, and satellite locations for community college courses.  It’s not a new idea, she said in a phone interview.  Cities and towns nationwide are using the model to help pay facilities costs — and it’s working.

“We all know education costs a lot of money,” she said.  “But we have to keep particularly our elementary schools local — they are the centers of our small towns.”

Turning schools into community hubs, she said, would have multiple benefits:  The portion of property tax dollars that go to facility maintenance would be stabilized, and community members would benefit from increased interaction and decreased driving.

“People are paying to access these services elsewhere, they just have to drive to get them,” Ms. Allen said.  “One less stop in the morning, or parents who otherwise drive one child to daycare and the other to school.

“There’s been a lot of hand wringing because we’re getting old in Vermont, people are moving away,” she said.  To attract new families, “rather than just cutting and cutting and cutting, let’s find a way to encourage people to move here.”  She sees broadband Internet access and quality, affordable childcare as the lures, and she thinks the state should chip in to make both a reality.

“We have to invest ahead of time in order to get these things to happen, but I feel as though our attempts to get people to move here haven’t been as successful as we’d like.  We’ve got plenty of space, plenty of opportunity to attract people who work remotely to relocate.”

Ms. Allen’s own children recently moved back to Vermont, and she wants the state to be a viable place for them to start and raise their young families.

She is an advocate for a $15 minimum wage.  “I know it’s a challenge for employers, but people spend money,” she said.  “They’ll put it back into their communities.  We can’t have people working all these jobs, 40 hours a week, and not being able to pay their bills.”

On abortion, the candidate said her stance is “that women should have control over what they do and what happens to their bodies.

“It’s a very personal choice,” she said, “not a political issue.  I can’t impress my beliefs on somebody else.”

In terms of economic development, she would like to see additional COVID relief packages for small businesses.  Promoting the tourism industry, she said, is part of the path to long-term economic recovery, and she held Island Pond up as an example of a town that’s creatively drawing money in from visitors.

Act 250 reform, she said, is also key to thriving towns and businesses.

“It serves an environmental purpose,” she said.  “We need to keep that in mind, but we also need to understand that life has changed in the last 20 years and we need to be sure our communities can grow in a responsible fashion.” She added:  “We’re already struggling with the repercussions of climate change, and we’re going to have to make some hard decisions” between the economy and the environment.

Ms. Allen said she decided to run because of her experience in the State House as president of the Vermont teachers’ union.

“Because of Vermont-NEA, I was in the State House quite a lot and got to know the state’s leaders,” she said.  “I felt frustrated by what I heard from people here:  Montpelier never listens to us.   That’s not right.

“I want to be an energetic legislator,” she said. “I want to communicate with constituents and get things done.”

by Meghan Wayland

 

Paul Lefebvre

Newark

Independent

For most of his professional career Paul Lefebvre has been a reporter, editor, columnist, and author.  First elected to the House of Representatives as a Republican in 2014, he’s running for his fourth term, this time as an independent.

“Given these polarizing times,” he said over the phone Tuesday morning, “I’d rather be an independent with Republican leanings.”  He said the ability to cooperate has made Vermont among the safest states in the country amidst the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Global warming, making Vermont a more affordable place to live — there’s no silver bullet — those are solutions that we’re going to have to create,” he said.  “Working together.  That’s the spirit we have to cultivate.”

Should Mr. Lefebvre be elected for another House term, he said he’d like to continue Act 250 reform.  He voted against last session’s rewrite of Act 250, mainly because it proposed to do away with regional district commissions in favor of a three-person board that would approve land use plans for the entire state.

“It takes away the possibility of citizen participation, diminishes local involvement,” he said, adding that the people who have to live with the consequences of decisions made are the people who should have the power to make them.  The centralized board would “be too far from the people and regions where these projects are built.”

As a reporter who covered the Public Service Board during wind power development in the region, Mr. Lefebvre said those in power didn’t “have a sense of what the land was like or how it was used.”

Having been raised in Island Pond, the Newark resident said he first got involved in politics to keep wind towers off Northeast Kingdom ridgelines.

“We are land rich and cash poor,” he said — and, as a result, the Northeast Kingdom was slated to become a “loading zone” for mountaintop power plants.

Mr. Lefebvre is vice-chair of the Natural Resources Committee, and as such, believes he can prevent further wind projects.  He wants to see industrial wind companies beholden to the same regulations as other businesses throughout the state.

“Make them go through Act 250, the hoops,” he said.  “Governor Scott is opposed to wind on ridgelines, but who knows what will happen if he’s not around?  I’d like to have one more crack at it.”

He believes Act 250 legislation will come up again next year, and says he’d like to vote for it for the sole purpose of providing a path out of regulations for recreational trails, but he won’t forfeit local control in order to make that change.  He was glad to have a hand in changing elevation regulations from 1,500 feet to 2,500 feet, as they were disproportionally impacting Essex County constituents.

The legislator has voted against the $15 minimum wage, and would do so again, he said.  He instead voted on what he referred to as a “compromise bill” to increase the minimum wage to $12.55 by 2022.  He supports incremental wage increases based on the Consumer Price Index (CPI) and/or 5 percent of the existing wage, and says by those measures, the minimum wage will reach $15 an hour by the year 2030.

“There are two Vermonts,” he said — a point he made often.  “The western side is faring much better economically than the east.   To make a minimum wage increase mandatory for the entire state is just too much for these mom and pop stores up here.”

This reporter asked what he felt the role of the government is in making Vermont livable and affordable for working Vermonters.

“Vermont has to find new sources of revenue,” he said.  “We took in $1.25-billion in federal COVID money and there are still questions as to whether that money is a grant or a loan.  The next two or three years are going to be hard sledding as far as the economy goes.  I understand that’s going to pinch Vermonters.”

Taxing the state’s wealthiest residents, he said, is a short-term solution.

“We need to attract more industry,” he said.  “I think the state has to give breaks to businesses or manufacturing that tie into the area: kayaks, canoes, mountain bikes.  Natural resources are our greatest asset, and we have to market that so people can make a decent living.”  While he wants to see new economic opportunities for Vermonters, he’s not against supporting the land-based industries that have defined the state for centuries.

“One of the things that we did with the Act 250 bill is support the logging industry in terms of the hours they could move wood,” he said.  People who move from the city to the country “get upset when they hear a logging truck come out of the woods at 4 o’clock in the morning.”

As for helping working people with needs like childcare, healthcare, and transportation, Mr. Lefebvre suggested sharing resources with neighboring states.  As an example, he said he’d favor working with Maine and New Hampshire to pool the resources needed to support parental leave.

To lower education costs, he said he was interested in regional block grants.

“We can’t keep everything going with property tax dollars,” he said.  “It’s not going to work.”

On abortion, Mr. Lefebvre said he’d like to keep the law where it stands — add nothing, take nothing away.  “I hope that remains settled law,” he said.  “I feel we are well served by it.”

Among his accomplishments as a legislator, honoring the fishing and hunting rights of the state’s four recognized Abenaki tribes is one for which he’s proud.

“White European investors in the early 1800s bought a large parcel of land that stretched into Vermont…” he said.  “Part of the payment was the tribal right to grow corn and beans and the right to freely hunt and fish these lands.  Passing that bill was one of the more humane things we did in the Legislature.

“I don’t disregard the allegations I hear from different races and bodies — whether it’s immigrants on farms or a black person — when they say there’s been harassment by police,” he said.  “There is systemic racism and that’s very hard to root out.”

Mr. Lefebvre said he believes in increased police training and creating a civilian board to oversee police operations.  “It’s important to have a check in place,” he said, “and the police now recognize they have to be a community-minded presence.”

by Meghan Wayland

 

John Elwell

by Tena Starr

John Elwell of Craftsbury said he’s running largely to give the district a unified voice.  For years, Sam Young, a Democrat, and Vicki Strong, a Republican, have canceled each other’s votes out in the House, he said.

“Other people encouraged me — if you had the time and willingness to see if we couldn’t get a unified delegation.  We’ve had one voting yes, the other voting no on lots of issues.  On women’s issues, climate change.  The vote has been kind of neutralized.”

Asked what challenges he thinks the Northeast Kingdom faces, Mr. Elwell was unequivocal.

“I think the COVID virus situation is the main thing that has to be dealt with as an immediate thing.”

Not just in the Northeast Kingdom but in the state and the nation as well, he added.

“We need to provide support to individuals and small businesses.”

Along with the COVID crisis, Mr. Elwell said that widespread access to high speed Internet is vital, a theme shared by all candidates.  COVID has demonstrated that lack of broadband can affect everything from the ability to sell your home to the ability to get your children an education, he said.

“It needs to be improved and available to a majority of people.  If you don’t have good Internet connection, it’s a real drag on jobs.”

That said, Mr. Elwell added that he believes Governor Phil Scott has done a good job handling the coronavirus.  “He’s been informative.  He’s been open as to what he’s doing and thinking.  I don’t have a lot of complaints about the Governor.  I think he, or anyone in his position faced with this whole situation, it’s certainly new to not only politicians but to everyone.”

Vermont’s politics are not a mirror of national politics, he noted, acknowledging that the Governor is popular with Democrats as well as Republicans.

“Fortunately, we’re very independent in this state.  We look more at individuals rather than just what party they’re affiliated with.  I think that’s a good thing.”

Pressed on just how he would support jobs and business, Mr. Elwell said:  “I’m new to this to the extent that, if elected, I would become much more of a student about what’s going on and support those things I felt would help create jobs and opportunities in the Northeast Kingdom.  The first thing, really, is getting broadband going.

“The next thing would be supporting them, I guess, financially and providing a place where people who want to go into business can go for advice.”

Mr. Elwell emphasized that he’s big on teamwork.  Where a single individual might not have a big impact, a team could potentially be much more effective, he said.

“I feel that, as a representative, I would become part of a team from around the state working with people who have similar interests.”

Those would include affordable housing and childcare for working families.

“Certainly in Craftsbury and the Greensboro area, there are a lot of women who are very active in small businesses, doing a lot of work and doing good things.  I think there’s a need for childcare.

“Also, there’s a big elderly population and a very low-income population.”

Mr. Elwell, a military veteran, grew up in Colorado.  He has a degree in economics.  He worked for an insurance company for a while but, he said, he “became disillusioned with insurance companies.”

He moved to Massachusetts, Nantucket specifically, where he operated a construction business.

He moved to Vermont 20 years ago after Nantucket changed, he said, to a community that became more upscale, with fewer of the “everyday” people.  “One reason I moved to Vermont is it [Nantucket] became too expensive.  People changed, it wasn’t the same place.”

He believes that Vermont is on the verge of change, too, with an increase in population coming, in part due to COVID.  Real estate agents have already reported brisk real estate sales.

“It will take time for it to get this far north, but some of these towns are going to change,” Mr. Elwell said.

These days he does some interior decoration working through decorators.  He also volunteers his time as a tax aid for AARP, which he’s done for six or seven years.

“I’ve done taxes for low income people,” he said.  “I don’t know how these people pay for food, let alone housing.

“These are things I’d become involved with.  If I were elected, I would be putting my time into becoming better educated on what, specifically, can be done.”

Some politicians say, “I’m going to fix this, I’m going to fix that,” he said.  “We’re limited as to what we can do as individuals, but if we work as a team ….”

On healthcare, Mr. Elwell said:  “On paper, I think a national healthcare system would be ideal.  But I don’t think it’s doable.  And it’s hard for the state alone to chip away at this and provide services for those most in need.  To me, the healthcare system in this country is a gigantic, expensive mess.”

Vermont has done well with providing healthcare for children, he said.  But it’s an enormously complex issue to fix for the population as a whole.

Vaccines should be free or low cost, he said, to help ward off more serious, and expensive, health problems.

“It’s a huge, expensive issue, but I think the state in general is aware of it and doing things.  It needs to be constantly dealt with and looked at.”

More people need to be covered, he said, but as a former employer, he knows just how expensive that is for a business.

“The system, as it is now, if you’re working for a wealthy company, you’ve got good healthcare coverage, but the majority of people don’t have that option.  There’s no easy solution.  We need the whole country to come together to make it really work.”

He said pregnancy should be covered by insurance, and he supports a woman’s right to choose an abortion.

In reference to Act 46, Mr. Elwell requested a reminder of just what that law does.  Among other things, it encouraged, and in some cases forced, school governance mergers.

The Orleans Central Supervisory Union schools of Albany, Barton, Brownington, Glover, Irasburg, Orleans and Westmore were forced to merge governance despite the fact that voters rejected merging three times.

“Economically, you can make a case for it,” Mr. Elwell said.  But, he added, it reminds him of when he was in school as an econ major, and the professor said, this is all really neat and tidy, but the thing we haven’t done is put people in the mix.  So, everything you’ve learned won’t work.”

Yes, education is expensive these days, he said.  “One of the problems is that now you have special education teachers, counselors.  You have the state mandating that certain people or groups will get services.  It’s going to run the cost up.

“I don’t know what we can do specifically to reduce the cost of education.  On the other hand, we need good teachers, and they should be paid more than a living wage for what they do.

“How do we make everybody happy?”

It’s easy to ask the questions, much harder to arrive at solutions, Mr. Elwell noted.

“If elected, I would obviously have to make decisions on these [issues], but I would become better informed.  I’d be collectively dealing with people who make these decisions.

On women’s issues, he said he believes in a woman’s right to choose.  “I definitely think it’s up to the woman.  It shouldn’t be legislated.  The woman should have the maximum amount of choice.”

“The main thing is to provide a voice for the Northeast Kingdom,” Mr. Elwell said.

“We’re all reliant on each other more than we realize.  Certainly here in the Northeast Kingdom we need to help each other.”

 

Frank Huard

by Tena Starr

Frank Huard of Craftsbury is a goat farmer and a concrete contractor who builds house foundations.  He also calls himself a “political junkie and news junkie, so I follow what’s happening pretty closely.”  He’s run for office several times.  This time around he’s running as an independent, but he has run as a Republican more often, and even as a Democrat.

Independent is what he really is, he said, and we can’t argue.

There is no pigeonholing Mr. Huard, who fits into no tidy political category.  He frets about over-regulation, supports President Trump, and calls himself a Second Amendment candidate — pro gun rights, hunting and fishing.  He also believes in a woman’s right to choose, that the government should stay out of a woman’s reproductive life.  He’s not convinced a public school system is necessary, and he’d like to see adults have the same kind of free, or cheap, healthcare that Vermont offers to children.

Politics shouldn’t be a popularity contest where the “nicest” candidate is elected, Mr. Huard said.  Candidates should have passion, a strong voice, good, innovative ideas, and be willing to ruffle some feathers.  He acknowledges that he can’t be accused of shying away from the last, and he emphasizes that he has all of the first.

“I’m really concerned about what Vermont and the world are going to look like when [my children] go to be self-sufficient and are looking for a job, a career,” Mr. Huard said about his bid for a House seat.  “I understand business pretty well, and I see small businesses struggling.”

At the moment that’s largely due to the government’s failure to reopen the economy, he said.  “The economy is doing pretty well and would be doing better if it weren’t for government.  Get the government out of the way.  We need to open up this economy.  We should have done it a month ago.”

First, there was talk about the need for flattening the curve, he said, fear of overwhelming hospitals.  But the curve is flat, and hospitals were never overwhelmed, Mr. Huard said.  “Now we’ve flattened the curve, why aren’t we opening up the economy?  We need to open the economy to get these businesses back on their feet.  Then we can figure out how to help them.”

One way to do that is to eliminate foolish regulations, he said.  “Not throw it wide open,” he added, but there should be “appropriate” regulation.

He offered an example from his own experience raising goats.  Vermont didn’t allow raw milk to be sold at farmers’ markets until John Rodgers introduced a bill permitting it, he said.  “We got that bill passed so I can sell raw milk at farmers markets now, but there are a lot of hoops to jump through.  I have to put up a sign that says my product could kill you.  Not a great marketing tool.”

But he still can’t sell raw milk in natural food stores or other outlets.  He said the Centers for Disease Control has statistics showing a person has a greater chance of being hospitalized following a car crash than from drinking raw milk.

We didn’t find that statistic.  But we did find this one from the CDC:  “From 1993 through 2012, 127 outbreaks reported to CDC were linked to raw milk.  These outbreaks included 1,909 illnesses and 144 hospitalizations.  A large number of raw milk outbreaks involve children.  At least one child younger than 5 was involved in 59% of the raw milk outbreaks reported to CDC from 2007 through 2012.”

Mr. Huard said he thought about making cheese from his goats’ milk, but a federal regulation says he would have to put in a bathroom for the inspector.  “The milk inspector couldn’t use the bathroom in the house in the event he actually shows up and has to go to the bathroom.”

He said he just couldn’t get his head around spending $1,500 on installing a special bathroom.

He also thinks Vermont’s vehicle inspection regulations are over the top and hurt people in rural areas who need to drive to work.

“We need some regulations, but we need appropriate regulations,” he said.  “I could double the number of goats I’m milking if I could get my milk in natural food stores.  They put all these obstacles in my way.

“Meat is another one.  Federal regulations on meat are really stringent. We should do something to remove regulations on on-farm slaughter.”

Meat recalls are generally on big, corporate farms where e. coli might break out, he said.  “You don’t hear about small producers like me with recalls.”  As it is, he said, he has to take goats to Brault’s to slaughter, and the cost of slaughter wildly jacks up the price he has to charge for goat meat.

“Our President is all about removing regulations, but they [Vermont’s Congressional delegation] won’t work with him.

“I have all these great ideas.  I’m the business candidate.”  And no one else in the race is a farmer, he noted.  “I understand these issues.  Let me have an opportunity to make real support for farmers.

“I also consider myself the Second Amendment, hunting and fishing candidate.  And I’m the most passionate person in this race.  If you’re going to advocate for your constituents, you have to have the passion.  I’m persistent, a good listener, a good negotiator.  I’m custom made.”

Mr. Huard’s thoughts on education are neither mainstream nor incremental.  The pandemic has created an “opportunity to transition and transform our education system,” he said.  “It’s needed it for a long time.  Given this pandemic, we’ve had to transition to homeschooling and virtual learning.  Why not support parents in this effort?  It’s not complicated to teach your child to read, to write, to do basic arithmetic.  You teach them your values.  That doesn’t happen in public schools.  Sending them back to school shouldn’t even be an issue.”

Instead, parents should homeschool, and if they can’t do it themselves because of a job, they could look to neighbors, friends, family, and people who are invested in education, he said.  “We should be building this network of educators to help parents homeschool their children.  We could save so much money.”

A highly paid superintendent administering a public school system doesn’t make a kid smarter, he said.  “There really isn’t a need for a public school system.  But it requires doing things out of the box.  There are a lot of great programs on the Internet that can fill the void of public school.  It would save us millions, and we wouldn’t have the burden of the property tax.

“Maybe we could go back to a few centrally located small schools” for those homeschooling just doesn’t work for, Mr. Huard said.

As for the challenges the Northeast Kingdom faces, he said that a shortage of high speed Internet is one.  “Car inspections are another big one.  Having transportation is a big challenge.”

He said he likes Christine Hallquist’s idea of putting fiber optic cable on existing telephone poles.  Ms. Hallquist is former head of the Vermont Electric Cooperative and was a gubernatorial candidate.  For whatever reason, that idea got no traction.

“I will vote for Trump,” he said.  “I don’t think he’s being given a fair shake.  He just doesn’t offend me like he does some people.  I don’t agree with everything Trump says or does, but everything is met with this kneejerk reaction.  Instead of calling him names, they ought to work with him.  He’s done a lot of great things in a short time.”

Asked to name a few, Mr. Huard said:  “Spurred the economy, lowered taxes, removed regulations.  He removed the mandate for Obamacare.”

People have a Constitutional right to say pretty much what they want, he said.  “People are way too politically correct and too sensitive.”

Mr. Huard called the Black Lives Matter movement “as racist as they are accusing others of being.  Instead of talking about it so much, let’s just do something about it.  It really is a non-issue.”

As for police, he believes the police force should be cut by half.  Most calls to police don’t have anything to do with crime, he said.

“We need a police force, they just need to have a different role.”  Police are routinely absolved of shootings, even in Vermont, he said.  “It’s one of the issues I disagree with Republicans on.  We all want law and order, but we want it to be appropriate.”  He favors changing laws on review of police shootings.  He said it’s been clear “even to a dumb farmer like me” that many police shootings aren’t justified.

On both healthcare and women’s reproductive rights, Mr. Huard departs from the Republican Party line again.

Vermont has done well by providing its children with healthcare through the Doctor Dynasaur program, he said.  “Why don’t we figure out how to do that for everyone?  This is coming from a big free market guy.  It’s just become too expensive ….”

And, he said, “I think the government ought to stay out of women’s healthcare altogether.  Abortion is pretty much a settled issue as far as I’m concerned.  I’m not a fan of aborting children, I don’t think that’s the best option, but I also don’t think a woman should be told she can’t.”

He said he doubts that Planned Parenthood and other clinics or hospitals are running abortion factories, and they do give people information about their options.

Running for election is “not a popularity contest,” he reiterated.  “A lot of people don’t have ideas, or if they do have an idea, they’re afraid to bring it to the table.  I’ve ruffled feathers, as you know.

“If they want somebody who’s going to stand up and fight for small business, farmers, hunters … I will work harder than anybody in this race.  A lot of these big issues are not being solved.  All of this concerns me because I have young children who I would like to see live and stay in Vermont.  I’m just trying to make the world a better place.  I want to see people succeed.”

 

Jeannine A. Young

by Tena Starr

Jeannine A. Young was planning to pickle beets the day of this interview, a rainy Friday.  Her pickled beets, she assured the writer, are the best.

Ms. Young, who lives with her husband, Joe, in Craftsbury, also promised to give her best effort to speaking up for the Northeast Kingdom if she’s elected to the Orleans-Caledonia House district in November.

That voice would be decidedly conservative.

A Republican, Ms. Young said she will vote for Donald Trump, though she doesn’t like all his Tweets.  She’s opposed to universal healthcare, and she’s pro-life, to the extent that, if abortion were once again banned, she doesn’t see there would be reason for exceptions.

She has a history of community service.  She was a village trustee in Derby Center for 15 years, helping to shepherd through a new water treatment plant and municipal agreements with the town and the city of Newport.  She’s active in her church, and she and her husband volunteered to run Little League in Derby for ten years.  She’s Town Meeting moderator in Craftsbury.  Her husband is a retired Border Patrol agent.

Her campaign literature emphasizes her concern about agriculture in Vermont.  Dairy farmers have been in trouble for some time now, with the price they receive for milk often below the cost of production, and COVID has worsened the situation.

Asked what she would do, Ms. Young said, “One problem is that there aren’t enough slaughterhouses.”  Act 250 stands in the way of more slaughterhouses getting licensed, she said.

She’s no fan of Act 250, which she believes is applied unevenly across the state, with District Seven, this area’s district, often dragging its heels on applications.

“People don’t realize that, if we don’t have our farms, we’re not going to have open fields, the beauty people come here for,” she said.  “It seems like the more regulations, the harder it is to make a living.”

She remembers when it became a requirement for dairy farmers to put in bulk tanks.  A lot of farmers who couldn’t afford them went out of business then.  “Farmers can’t eat their land, so they sold it, which is what caused Act 250 in the first place,” she said.

“Some regulations are good, but when they have a regulation just to have a regulation … they make a problem.”

The state, she said, is the entity creating problems for farmers.  “We need to work with more farmers rather than mandate from the top down.”

Asked what she sees as the challenges currently facing the Northeast Kingdom, Ms. Young said that reliable broadband and cell service are clearly obstacles to prosperity.  In Craftsbury, she said, buying the lowest tier of broadband through the communications union district would cost $70 a month.

People need Internet, but they also have to be able to afford it, she said.  “We have to help people afford what they need.

“It’s been worked on for years.  Things move slowly.

“A lot of people are concerned about climate change,” Ms. Young said.  “I did not support the Global Warming Solutions Act.”  The Legislature passed that act, the Governor vetoed it, the Legislature overrode the veto.

“It’s too expensive, and there was too much power given to a 23-member board,” she said.  “That isn’t how we do things in Vermont.  We have our Legislature.  There’s not much oversight in that bill.”

Also, she said, if Vermont doesn’t meet the emissions goal, due to other vehicles coming into the state, “voters would be punished for not keeping emissions down.  How much control do we really have if New York or Massachusetts air comes into Vermont?”

Asked about the economy, Ms. Young returned to Act 250, saying it should be revised “so people can get businesses in here quicker.  That will help.”

She acknowledged that before COVID hit, many businesses’ biggest problem was finding employees.  “Just on the Newport-Derby Road there were an enormous amount of open jobs, and they couldn’t find people to fill them.  I don’t think raising the minimum wage will help that because small businesses are already struggling.”

She noted that raising the minimum wage to $15 an hour would not only affect incoming employees, but also those who have been employed longer.  If a current employee is working for $15, or $17, an hour and has been there for years, and a newbie comes in at $15, it’s not fair to the longstanding employee, she said.  “There’s a ripple effect.  Everybody looks at things so simplistically.

“And will they look at how that affects food stamps, healthcare, childcare?  Will it put them over the cliff?”

If an employee gets a small raise but has to then pay $400 a month for healthcare instead of getting it free, what has that person gained? she wondered.

On taxes, Ms. Young said it’s not likely there’s a way to substantially cut them.  But she worries about fees being increased in lieu of taxes.

She does not favor taxing the wealthy more.  “People keep trying to tax the rich more.  Then they go to states with no taxes, so instead of getting something, they get nothing.”  Also, she said, wealthier people have more disposable income to spend.

And business taxes?  “Jay Peak has to stay here, they can’t move Jay Peak.  But Ethan Allen can pick up and move.  They don’t have to stay here.

“You have to look at the whole picture.  How is this going to affect things down the road?  I didn’t sign on to the promise of never increasing taxes.  When they didn’t want to raise the gas tax by a penny but they raised someone’s driver’s license by $10?  How many miles would you have to drive to reach $10?  And you have to pay that all at once.”

Ms. Young likes small schools and did not support Act 46, which encouraged, and forced, school governance mergers.

“I haven’t heard of a school district that saved money with Act 46,” she said.  “One reason private schools are so successful is that parents are involved, they have a stake in it.”

A merger should be organic, something communities believe will work for them, she said.  An unwelcome merger could lead to less parental involvement, longer bus rides, and kids who get lost in big schools, Ms. Young said.

She said the high cost of education seems to be driven, at least in part, by the need for individual aides.  “I don’t understand why this is happening.  Why are so many kids needing individual aids?”

There should be more home-based childcare, Ms. Young said, adding that she considers the regulations on home-based care counterproductive, and they should be relaxed.

She returned to the so-called “income cliff.”  There’s not much motivation for folks to work themselves up the ladder, Ms. Young said, if it only means they will lose help with health insurance or childcare.

“Why can’t we have a sliding scale so it’s not all or nothing?  What’s the incentive for someone to go out and work if they lose more than they gain?”

On abortion, she rejected the phrase anti-abortion and firmly said, “I’m pro-life.  A baby is a baby from conception.  The baby is not a part of the mother, it’s grown inside the mother.  It’s another human being.”

Asked if there might be exceptions, cases where an abortion would be warranted, Ms. Young said, “For the most part, I don’t know there’s a need for an exception.  Right now they’re saving babies at 23 weeks.”  And, she said, doctors are generally capable of saving both mother and child in dangerous cases.  “Typically, the mother is the one that’s saved.  Most likely, they could save both.”

She said she wouldn’t ban birth control, but she does believe women need to know that some forms of birth control essentially involve aborting a baby that has already been conceived.  As for rape or incest, she said, “from what I’ve studied, the effects on the mother are not lessened based on how she got pregnant.  There’s a great effect on women after having an abortion.  It manifests itself in different ways.  They don’t have to keep the baby.”

Ms. Young is opposed to single payer healthcare.  “Competition is what keeps prices down,” she said.  “If government is the only one in charge of healthcare, where do you get your cost savings?  I think people should have some stake in it.”  Meaning she thinks people should have incentive to keep their healthcare costs down — perhaps going to a primary physician instead of the emergency room, for example.

She’s looking to see urgent care centers rather than the high cost of visits to emergency rooms.

Governor Scott deserves credit for managing the pandemic, given the low numbers of cases and deaths in Vermont, Ms. Young said.  “I would have liked to have businesses, especially the small businesses, have a little more flexibility,” she added.

She’s concerned about the quality of Vermont’s lakes.  Specifically, she spoke to milfoil, an invasive species that’s infested so many water bodies, though she said she’s concerned about water quality overall.  “I think we’re doing better at making sure less pollutants are getting in the water.  People are becoming more aware of how it gets in there.”

As for the landfill, she said she was “concerned some.  I don’t think we should have to be taking all the trash from everywhere.”  And she wonders how the plastic lining will hold up.

Regarding President Trump, she said, “I will vote for Trump because I don’t like Biden’s plans.  I don’t like how he [Trump] Tweets, how he says things.”  But, she added, he’s kept his campaign promises.  “He’s done a lot for our country.  I don’t agree he didn’t do enough about the coronavirus.”

She said she believes her experience “would be good in almost any committee.  I’ve dealt with permitting and Act 250.  I’ve volunteered and worked in schools.”

She decided to run because she “thought it was just time to see what I could do to try to help the state use more common sense.”

 

Katherine Sims

Democrat

Craftsbury

Katherine Sims has three policy areas of focus should she be elected come November: strengthening the rural economy, modernizing infrastructure, and supporting working families.

“Too many people struggle to access housing, childcare, Internet, transportation, and higher education,” she said in a phone interview Friday.

Ms. Sims said she’d like to see businesses and workers thrive by creating jobs in fields like weatherization and the trades, funding COVID relief, and Act 250 reform.

She said she’s disappointed by lack of changes in the recent update to Act 250 and said the legislation needs to pivot toward “easy-to-navigate regulations that don’t inhibit business.”

Ms. Sims said her views on Act 250 came from listening to the community — story after story in which small business owners said, had they known about the time and expense of getting through the permitting process from the start, they probably wouldn’t have bothered to start a new venture.

Listening to people’s day-to-day experience of laws is at the heart of what Ms. Sims has based her policy priorities on, she said.  Her goal is to continue to listen to her constituents and represent them, not be beholden to party politics.

For the last few years the Northeast Kingdom Collaborative, a nonprofit for which Ms. Sims is executive director, has hosted NEK Day at the State House where 150 locals have given testimony in House and Senate committees — told legislators about what life is like north of Montpelier.

“Too often there’s a disconnect between real lived experience and what happens at the State House,” she said Friday.  NEK Day was organized so “real folks from the NEK could inform policy” by going in front of the Governor and House and Senate committees with their stories.

Ms. Sims said she’s also committed to modernizing infrastructure: funding affordable housing and rental options, Internet access, transportation, and wastewater treatment in the district’s downtowns.  The goal is to improve affordability and livability in the state and provide jobs.

Paid family and medical leave for workers, increased access to affordable healthcare, and a $15 minimum wage are policies she supports.

Ms. Sims said she understands the anxiety some small business owners feel about the wage increase, but “too many families are working more than one job, more than 40 hours a week, and not getting by.”

On the COVID-altered campaign trail, she said she asked people what really mattered to them.  The number one issue she heard about was broadband.  People increasingly rely on the Internet to learn, work, and connect with customers, she said.

“Lack of broadband access is a barrier to economic opportunity — maybe most especially for those with limited income,” she said.  She said she will continue the work she’s done to help organize a 27-town communications union district (CUD) to increase access to high-speed Internet in the Kingdom.

How to pay for it all?  Ms. Sims said strengthening the economy through job creation and tourism, to start.  She’d like to see Vermont spend as much as New Hampshire and Maine on regional marketing campaigns.

She’d also like to see Vermont’s wealthiest Vermonters “pay their fair share” of taxes.  She said that right now, the top 1 percent of Vermonters (who make over $460,000 a year) pay 3.5 percent of their income on property taxes while average income earners (people who make $21,000 to $60,000) pay 4.7 percent toward property taxes.

Vermont also provides a capital gains tax break, which disproportionately benefits the wealthy. “Our state gives away $15-million every year to wealthy Vermonters by excluding certain investment income from taxes,” she wrote in an email Friday.  “I’d rather see those resources invested in affordable childcare, healthcare reform, and family leave policies which would leave more money in working Vermonters’ pockets.”

She said she’s not worried about wealthy residents leaving the state — what draws wealthy people to the state is the quality of life.  If that quality of life goes up for everyone, Vermont becomes even more attractive and liveable — all the more reason to stay.

“We can’t have the quality of life for community until the structure of racism has been dismantled,” she said, adding that it’s her goal to hear from “a diversity of voices and work with diverse groups to be part of change.

“We need to unite in a singular voice for our region,” she said.

When pressed about potential fallacy in the belief it’s possible to unite in a singular voice with a variety of perspectives present in the Kingdom, she said, when deciding on policy, she asks herself, “Where is the majority?  Where is the energy?

“I don’t like the terminology defund the police,” she said over the phone Friday.  “I think it confuses the conversation.”  She said it’s time to embed mental health workers in 911 response, time to “rethink our systems” of policing, and educate rather than incarcerate.  “We don’t need more police officers in the community; we need more healthcare workers,” she said, adding that it’s not appropriate to ask one entity to respond to mental health calls, domestic violence, homelessness, traffic violations, and drug enforcement.  “I think we’re asking the police to do too much,” she said and funding alternative support people could prevent “explosive” interactions.

In an email, Ms. Sims wrote that she supports “every Vermonter’s right to choose or to refuse contraception, pregnancy, or parenthood.

“I support permanent and equal access to reproductive choice, the expansion of sexual health education, access to contraception, and continued funding for Vermont’s reproductive health providers,” she wrote.

Ms. Sims has faced skepticism for not being from around here.  “I chose to put down roots here,” she said. “To raise a family here.” Having first come to Vermont as a young person to work on a dairy farm, she said she stayed because she gets what’s special about a small community.

“I go to the general store and everyone knows my name and when I get stuck in a snowbank the first person driving by stops to pull me out,” she said.  “I love that here we respect our differences and care for each other.”

She said she was honored and humbled when former Representative Sam Young asked her to run to fill the seat he was leaving behind.  “He had a strong belief the community should have a Democratic voice.”

On Tuesday, Ms. Sims said the following by email:  “I will fight to increase access to healthcare while bringing costs under control. Healthcare is a human right. Every person deserves access to affordable care no matter where they live. Rising healthcare costs are burdening the budgets of our schools, communities, businesses and families. I support publicly financed universal primary care for all Vermonters, including access to outpatient mental health and substance abuse treatment, as a first step toward implementing health care as a universal public good.”

On her website, Ms. Sims identifies as a mother, nonprofit leader, and organizer.  She founded Green Mountain Farm-to-School in 2007, serves as a board member of the Vermont Land Trust, Northeast Kingdom Community Broadband, the Vermont Telecommunications & Connectivity Advisory Board, the Vermont Council on Rural Development, UVM Extension, and Craftsbury Saplings, and as executive director for the Northeast Kingdom Collaborative.

More information can be found on her website:  www.katherinesimsforhouse.com

 

Vicki Strong

Republican

Albany

Incumbent Vicki Strong hopes to regain her position on the House Agriculture Committee should she be re-elected in November.  A Sterling College alum, Ms. Strong said she wants to be part of the “forward motion” that helps dairy farmers recover from the impacts of COVID-19.

“It’s such a critical time in our state for farming, producing more of our own food, and keeping it local,” she said in a phone interview Sunday.

As many dairy farmers pivot to raise beef and other livestock to take advantage of increased consumer demand, state-certified slaughterhouses are backed up.  Ms. Strong sees on-farm slaughter as a way forward.

“People are wanting to buy half a cow, but our laws aren’t in sync,” she said.  “We could change the laws in such a way that we’re not going to make it less safe, but also make sure farmers can look at raising animals for meat as a viable option for making a living.”

She hopes to see all businesses recover from COVID-19, particularly so they can contribute to the tax base that sustains Vermont.  Rather than raise taxes for any Vermonter, including wealthy Vermonters (who she worries would leave the state as a result), Ms. Strong said she thinks a viable economic plan involves Act 250 reform and encouraging entrepreneurs — both local and out-of-state — to create businesses that align with Vermont’s current rural, agricultural identity.

Entrepreneurship and a strong economy, she said, will prevent having to further tax Vermonters.  “In general, if you have more people paying into the pot, more business, we see the revenue coming in,” she said.  “There are ways to help with revenue besides just raising taxes.”

Ms. Strong relates to Vermont becoming less and less affordable for working people, and said a $15 minimum wage is likely necessary.  But she avoided aligning herself with what she called a “one-size-fits-all approach” on nearly every issue, including minimum wage.  She said she sees small businesses doing “everything in their power” to pay their employees well and offer benefits.  It’s big box stores that she’s sees as the problem.

“Bigger chain stores don’t offer a fair wage, hire only 15 or 20 hours a week so they don’t have to pay benefits,” she said.  “They shouldn’t get away with it.”

But as for enforcing a minimum wage for small business owners?  She said wages need to increase as the cost of living rises but the need to hire and retain good help in a competitive job market — not necessarily policy — will naturally lead to an increase in wages.

Livability and affordability, Ms. Strong said, are related to the cost and quality of education.  The price per pupil continues to rise in the state despite Act 46, the school merger law, while COVID-19 has inspired creative solutions to education and opened the door to reform, she said.  She found the paradigm shift in education encouraging and saw potential for altering the teaching and learning model as a way to address the unique needs of children while lowering the cost of education.

Ms. Strong didn’t vote for Act 46.  She said she heard from a principal recently who said their school has faced a more precarious financial situation as a result of the school merger.

“They promised this and they promised that,” she said.  “It didn’t help at all.  Costs didn’t go down.”

She said “diversity could be improved at schools and it won’t just happen on its own.

“I think it’s something you have to intentionally do and intentionally be aware of,” she said.  When it comes to racism, it’s as if white people “thought we were accepting and we thought we’re doing the right thing, but we haven’t been vocal enough,” she said.

In response to calls to defund the police, Ms. Strong said she served five years on the Judiciary Committee and “saw a genuine working together of police departments and State Police.

“We’re already way ahead of other states,” she said though black, indigenous, and people of color in Vermont are disproportionately imprisoned in the state at a rate that exceeds 47 others in the nation according to reporting from NPR.

Ms. Strong responded to a question about whether or not she would vote in favor of building another state prison in Vermont, by saying she was “disheartened to hear that so many of our prisoners are outside Vermont.”

She wondered how prisoners would stay connected with their families and rejoin society without the support of loved ones nearby.

She also said she believes in Diversion, a program where first-time offenders can do community service, and that she’d rather see people not get locked up unless they’re violent.  “You put a young person in prison and they learn how to be a criminal,” she said, adding that the goal should be connecting and contributing to a community.

Ms. Strong said she’s been criticized in the part for being against a woman’s right to choose.  In an email Monday, she said, she’s “sat with women who had an abortion earlier in their lives….  They have felt regret that they weren’t truly given more options or choices, or encouraged to find a way to keep their child until term.”

“As we look to the future of the legality of abortion in our country, I long for the day when every child will be a wanted child, and will be given the opportunity to find life, and that we will find ways to support a woman’s choice to bring her baby to term.

She said she understands why prolonged efforts to expand broadband “have felt frustrating because the state and taxpayers have already spent a lot of money and haven’t seen the results.”  Still, she supports expanding broadband access because so many Vermonters rely on it to support their business, learn, work, and stay in touch with loved ones.  “It’s just expensive to lay the infrastructure,” she said.

As a Sterling College graduate, Ms. Strong said she cares about the environment and wants to see climate change solutions and environmental regulations that make an impact.  Wind towers weren’t that, she said, but she’s in favor of recent efforts to ban neonicotinoids, an insecticide linked to a decrease in pollinators.  She hopes to balance the environmental issues she cares deeply about with the needs of farmers and others.

“Dairy farmers are kind of saying, enough, let us get our legs under us” before passing more regulations, she said.

She said her experience in the Legislature has given her the ability to put constituents in front of policymakers and let the people impacted by policy speak for themselves.

“That’s the best part of the job,” she said Sunday.  “It’s the people’s house.  We’re there to represent our constituents.”

Ms. Strong identifies as a public servant, mother, and minister’s wife.  She has been a leader for Weight Watchers, homeschooled her three children, and helped her husband with several part-time businesses.  On her website, Ms. Strong said after a lifetime of community service, she was motivated to engage in the democratic process after her son Jesse died while serving as a Marine in Iraq.

More information can be found on her website: www.vickistrong.com.

 

Senate 

There are five candidates running for the two seats in the sprawling Orleans-Essex Senate district.  They are incumbent Democrat Bobby Starr, incumbent John Rodgers running as an independent, and Republican challengers Russ Ingalls and Jonathan Morin.

 

Jonathan Morin

 

by Joseph Gresser

NEWPORT — Jonathan Morin took the hard way to get on the ballot as a Republican candidate for one of the two Essex-Orleans Senate seats.

He decided to run for office late in the process and nabbed his spot on the ticket by collecting more write-in votes than incumbent Senator Robert Starr of North Troy.  Senator Starr didn’t mind.  He was already on the ballot as one of two Democrats.

Mr. Morin, a Holland resident, spoke with the Chronicle last Thursday afternoon at a table next to Lake Memphremagog.

Speaking deliberately, he answered questions for about an hour and a half, beginning with a statement of his views on the economy.

“My general philosophy is that I support low taxes and low regulations, or fewer regulations,” Mr. Morin said.  “With COVID, and everything surrounding it, there’s additional hurdles that need to be navigated, and there’s public safety that needs to be taken into account.

“With that said,” he continued, “I believe people should have the right and the ability to open their stores or keep them closed as they see fit.  I think opening the economy will benefit the economy, but we have to balance the public health as well.”

When asked whether he thinks restrictions such as the one limiting the number of people allowed in restaurants to 50 percent of its capacity are justified, he said, “Currently, right now in Vermont, I think it’s too much of a restriction.

“If people want to visit these restaurants, and the business owners and employees want them to come they should be allowed,” he said.  “People who feel vulnerable should be given as many protections as they want without infringing on the rights of others.”

Asked if incidents such as a recent wedding in Maine that resulted in many cases of COVID among people who did not even attend made him reconsider that viewpoint, Mr. Morin said it’s a consideration, but not a definitive one.

“If I was in New York City, I think we’d have to have more restrictions.  I believe that on a state-by-state basis, and even county-by-county basis, you have to tailor make your policies to fit reality,” he said.  “Chittenden County, for instance, is different than Orleans County and to have a one-size-fits-all mentality, whether in the United States or in Vermont, I think is limited at best.”

Mr. Morin said he is not in favor of government mandates.  If restrictions on people’s activities were necessary, they should have been enacted by the Legislature rather than ordered by the Governor.

Mr. Morin said he believes people should wear masks and other protective gear if they are in a place with a large amount of illness, but not necessarily in Newport, where there are very few cases of COVID.  That said, he arrived for the interview wearing a mask.

If he had to offer a policy prescription to get the state’s economy moving again, Mr. Morin said he would postpone the income tax to allow people to keep more of their money and spend it as they like.

Given that next year’s state budget will probably see a revenue shortfall without eliminating the income tax, where would he make cuts?

Mr. Morin was hesitant to make specific recommendations on what other areas of government might need to be cut.  He said all areas of the budget, including social services, need scrutiny.

He said he would like to see a review of public pensions, but not for people currently working.

“When we promise something the state has to deliver,” Mr. Morin said.

New state employees should be hired under different terms, he added.

“I would have to ask experts in all those different areas,” he said.  “But when I look at models like New Hampshire, and other states without state income tax, their economies do much better than ours, they attract more jobs and provide more opportunities.”

Tax money will be needed to support the parts of the government that are kept, Mr. Morin said.  That money can come from attracting new businesses to Vermont through policies that are more “business friendly,” he added.

When education was the topic, Mr. Morin had some original suggestions.

“I’m a fan of school mergers,” he said.  “I believe our per-pupil spending is in the top five of the nation.  We have a plethora of superintendents.”

“I strongly believe that all public high schools should have, or should be, a public-private model that attracts students from across the nation and other countries,” he said.  “This would build a Vermont brand in education, help cover the costs of the system and a highly educated populace in our state.”

Mr. Morin said Boston, which plays home to many institutions of higher learning, is an example of how such a program could raise the profile of an area.  He pointed to St. Johnsbury Academy and Lyndon Institute as schools that have already adopted his idea.

He said he recognizes such a shift in education strategy would require schools to invest in new staff and dormitories, among other things, but said those changes could be made over time.

Schools can start slowly by building up foreign exchange programs and allowing students to stay for a year at a time, Mr. Morin said.

In any event, he said, the program would involve adopting legislation that allows and encourages such changes, but does not mandate them.

One of the difficulties faced by students in the age of COVID was getting a good enough Internet connection to take part in online instruction.

Mr. Morin acknowledged the problem created by the area’s lack of broadband coverage and said, “Part of bringing jobs and keeping younger people in Vermont is to provide the opportunities to be able to make a living in an age where we’re continuing to do stuff online or work online.  Vermonters have to be able to access the Internet.  But,” he added, “I’m against proposals that have been made costing tens of million of dollars in public spending.

“Instead,” he said, “a cheaper alternative would be to allow broadband companies massive tax breaks and incentives.  I also understand that provides some sorts of problems, but I’m not going to ask for additional monies from hardworking Vermonters who are already struggling to get by.  I also understand these things can’t be done overnight.  We have to have long-term plans, instead of short-term fixes.”

In the area of environmental policies, Mr. Morin said he is opposed to the Global Warming Solutions Act recently made law over the veto of Governor Phil Scott.

“I think it’s incredibly important to conserve our environment for human health reasons, recreational opportunities, and hunting and fishing,” he said.  “As far as energy policy, I highly favor nuclear and hydro.  Both provide energy that is cheap, reliable, and plentiful.

“I look at fossil fuels like natural gas and oil as human necessities with obvious drawbacks.  They are also cheap, reliable, plentiful, but come with CO2 emissions.

“I oppose coal, solar and wind,” he went on.  “Coal is by far the dirtiest form of energy.  Wind and solar are not cheap, reliable, or plentiful.  They take away from the landscapes, ecosystems, and wildlife that make Vermont Vermont.”

Mr. Morin said he does not favor electric vehicles because of the environmental damage caused by mining lithium needed for their batteries.

In matters of justice, Mr. Morin said, “I follow a judicial philosophy of originalism or textualism.”

As an example of how that might affect public policy, he said the writers of the Constitution would not have regarded the death penalty as cruel and unusual punishment.

He said he is in favor of women’s political and economic rights, but added, “I am pro-life.”

Mr. Morin said of Vermont’s legal position, “I simply, unequivocally disagree with the current law standard on abortion, which is essentially abortion up until birth.”

Were he to have the opportunity to rewrite state law, Mr. Morin said, “I’d have a bill that would say, a baby has the right to life under all circumstances, other than the medical necessity of the life of the mother.”

He said he strongly supports making adoption simpler and reducing the legal expense incurred by qualified adoptive parents, which, he said, can run into the tens of thousands of dollars.

Asked about the current Black Lives Matter movement, Mr. Morin said, “I have two views.  For one, black lives matter just as much as any other race or creed.”

On the other hand, Mr. Morin said he has disagreements with the Black Lives Matter organization.

“I have issues with the dogma.  I do not support the idea that when it comes to people themselves, of all races, we as Americans are all evil.”

Given the opportunity, Mr. Morin said he would end the war on drugs, which he believes has resulted in injustices and the incarceration of many who need not be in prison.  Prisons, he said, should be reserved for those who present a real danger to others.

He said some police have done heinous things, but added that police are asked to do things that are not properly within their competence.  Dealing with people with mental health problems are among those tasks that are problematic.

In speaking about law enforcement issues, Mr. Morin was uncharacteristically cautious.  It wasn’t until the end of the interview, when the Chronicle remarked on the absence of the beard that had been his trademark, that Mr. Morin mentioned he recently completed basic training as a police officer and joined the Newport City Police Department as a part-time patrolman.

He is currently undergoing the department’s field training.  Should he win a Senate seat, Mr. Morin said, he would stay on as a part-time officer.  Otherwise, he hopes to become a full-time patrolman.

At the end of the interview the Chronicle asked Mr. Morin about a screen shot of his Facebook page that seemed to show him as a supporter of the Boogaloo movement, a reputedly violent, loosely organized right-wing political group.

He laughed, saying he put the picture up on his page for a short while a year ago.  Mr. Morin said he thought it was a humorous way to underline his firm support for the Second Amendment.

 

Ron Horton

 

by Joseph Gresser

NEWPORT — Ron Horton showed up for his interview with the Chronicle Saturday sporting a tie emblazoned with a picture of a saxophone, the instrument he played in the U.S. Air Force and, other than when the coronavirus stalks the land, performs on with local groups.

He said the gazebo at the Lake Memphremagog waterfront where the interview took place was where he got married two years ago.

Once settled, the Chronicle asked Mr. Horton how he would deal with an expected budget deficit next year.

“Well, you know, first of all, all the states are in the same situation,” he began.  “They’re all being destroyed by this.  The shutdown was necessary, but that being the case, I think the federal government has to be a big part of our recovery, all the states’ recoveries.

“I don’t like cuts,” Mr. Horton continued.  “But cuts are necessary in an appropriate way.  I mean, insofar as when your own personal budget is in trouble.  You find ways to reuse the finances that are coming in.  Now, I think that what’s very important for the state to do is to get away from the blanket requests of, to throw a figure out there, $1-million to buy widgets.  How much do those widgets really cost?  Can we get away with $750,000 versus a million dollars?  I think there’s a lot of room for that in the government.”

Mr. Horton said the state also needs to bring new industry to Vermont.  That will take effort, he said.

“We need to have a reason for them to come in so that we’ll have a bigger tax base and be able to lower the tax burden,” he said.

“In order to build the economy, we have to bring in quality transportation — that means bus, rail and air,” he said.  “It will then show companies that we have a reasonable area to relocate to.  Obviously our land and, and so forth, is going to be less expensive than most of the places they could relocate to.  So once the industry decides, we can come in, that would bring new families, new jobs and help the overall picture of what we’re looking to achieve.”

Mr. Horton, who retired after a career working on ground operations for Delta Airlines, proposes to create a state-owned airline.  He said doing so would be cheaper than someone with no experience in the industry might imagine and would pay off more quickly than one might suppose.

“Initially we may have to float a bond,” he said.  “I think this is something that the finance committee would have to really delve into to find out the best way.  There are private investors out there that might want to be involved.”

He said he had been close to groups that started commuter airlines in upstate New York and knows there are many people who want to put money into such a venture, especially now.

“This is the ground floor of starting an airline,” Mr. Horton said.  “If we started putting it together now, by the time we were out of this COVID situation, we would have an airline in place that was ready to go.

“You have airplanes out there that are 15 years old and are perfectly good that you can pick up for a song,” he said.  “I’m talking 50-seat aircraft, twin-engine jet prop aircraft that are similar to the Twin Otters of old that will work on grass strips.  Your initial investment is going to be considerably lower than what the layman might think.”

Mr. Horton said he thinks a 50-seat plane would cost between $500,000 and $750,000.  A Twin Otter, he said, would run around $350,000.

Once the aircraft are purchased the state can contract with companies that will service planes, and others that handle reservations and ticketing.

“I see it paying for itself within a year,” said Mr. Horton.

He said he sent a full proposal to Governor Phil Scott, who promised to pass it along to the Agency of Transportation for study.  Mr. Horton said he has had no indication anyone at VTrans ever received his plan.

Were the airline to start up with a single craft making two runs a day between Newport and John F. Kennedy Airport in New York City, the state could clear around $5-million a year, Mr. Horton asserted.

The passengers would come not only from Vermont or New York, he said.  People from the area of Sherbrook, Quebec, would also be eager to use the service, Mr. Horton predicted.

New York City, he added, is not only a destination, but also a gateway to other parts of the country and the world.

He said the state has 17 airports, all of which can handle the type of planes he proposes running.

One advantage of having a state-owned airline is that it can be guaranteed to run year-round.  Another carrier, such as Cape Cod Airlines, might decide to shift its operations from Vermont to another area if it sees the chance of better profits, he said.

Airline profits should go to the state education fund, Mr. Horton said.

If another of his proposals is adopted, the fund may need the extra cash.  Mr. Horton proposes rolling back property taxes to the level they were at two years ago and freezing them there for Vermonters aged 65 or older.

He said his plan is focused on people’s tax burden and includes both the statewide education tax and municipal levies.  He said the result could be increased revenues.

“What I’m thinking about on this, is that you have so many 65-year-olds and over that are moving out of state because they can’t afford to live here anymore,” he said.  “So you’re losing all of the tax base when they leave.  If you lose a little bit of the tax base because you’ve reduced their taxes by $300 or $400 a year, I think you’re gaining in the long run.’

The Chronicle pointed out that property taxes, unlike income taxes, have to be paid regardless of where a landowner lives, and towns have no other way to raise funds to buy equipment to maintain roads.

Mr. Horton responded by saying, “I’m saying we’ve got to bring in more families, we’ve got to bring in more industry.  That will bring the tax base up for all the towns.

“We can’t have the aging population that we have in this state going further and further and further into poverty because we need a few extra dollars from them each year to pay for that dump truck.  I understand the problems the towns face and their budgets, I really do,” he said.

“My taxes went up $500 this year.  I don’t know too many in rural Vermont that can afford that,” Mr. Horton continued.  “I can, but there’s an awful lot of people out there that can’t.  So we have to stop that bleeding.  And if it means the towns have to sweat more bullets, I guess we’re going to have to sweat more bullets.  But, I think that’s going to be short term.  I do think that if we get our transportation system up and running, we will bring those families in and will up the tax base.  And I think that problem would be a non-problem in the future.”

Improving the transportation system will also help the state bring broadband to all areas, Mr. Horton said.  With the prospect of businesses moving to less populated areas, communications companies will move to provide services, he said.

Mr. Horton says he is not a proponent of Act 46.

“I think our kids spend way too much time on buses,” he said.  “I think we have a good school system.  But I think it’s just good. I think it can be a lot better than what it is.”

His prescription for improvement is better pay for teachers, increased town control over schools, and less state intervention.

“I feel our kids are getting out of high school because we’re required to push them through no matter what.  I never hear of a kid failing a class anymore.  I’m sure they probably are in some cases, but I just don’t hear about it,” he said.

He said schools need better math and science programs and increased arts instruction.

On social issues, Mr. Horton said, “I’m endorsed by Planned Parenthood of Vermont.  So I feel very strongly that a woman’s body is her own to deal with.  And I think government should stay out of our churches or bedrooms and our doctors’ offices.”

He said he strongly favors equal pay for women and men doing the same job, but said the question of equal pay for comparable work is a different matter.

“I don’t think you can deal with that,” Mr. Horton said.  I think that is a company decision to decide what value they’re going to put on what job.  But if two people are banging those widgets, and one’s a man and one’s a woman, and they’re both hammering out 100 a day, they need to get the same pay.  So identical jobs.”

He said unions can have influence on such questions.

“Workers have to be able to unionize,” he said.  “And here’s a non-union person all my life saying that.  I was with Delta Airlines, which is non-union, but I firmly believe that unions helped me maintain a wage higher than the union workers had, just because the company didn’t want a union in there.  You know, they’re willing to pay that extra amount for the satisfaction that they were in control.”

Mr. Horton’s website, ronhorton.info, contains a lengthy rewrite of the Second Amendment that he would like to see put in place of the current version.

It begins:

“The right to bear arms is intended for personal protection and hunting and will include one double action hand gun per person with a capacity not to a exceed six rounds, one shotgun plugged to three shells, and one hunting rifle of a bolt or slide cocking action and capacity of no more than six bullets.”

“ I think actual hunting is fine,” Mr. Horton said.  “I think killing is not.  I’ll give you the definition of the two.  One is a hunter who goes out and stalks his prey, and makes a sport of it and is hunting for his food.  I think having a leg trap, or that kind of trap where you just walk up and you shoot the animal when it’s been suffering for two or three days, is not hunting at all.  I also don’t think hounding is hunting.  I think you’re letting the dogs do the hunting and you’re not.

“I think that’s a cruelty to animals type of issue.  I think we have to listen to the people who are speaking out against these practices.  And give them a voice on how we control it,” he said.

 

Russ Ingalls

by Tena Starr

Russ Ingalls talks a lot about over-regulation.  He views Vermont as a state unfriendly to business, which he’d like to change.

He also talks about “putting Vermonters first.  “Let’s not worry about what goes on anywhere else, though we can be mindful of the outside world.”

In a follow-up email he said what that looks like for him is “you put Vermonters first by improving the business climate in Vermont.  If you do that, we can get companies who want to move to Vermont.  These companies bring jobs and opportunity.  With that, our kids who we raised, educated and taught our values to may be able to stay here after college and start their careers and family here.  Eliminate idea-killing programs that ask for permit upon permit just to start or expand a business.  You put Vermonters first when you commit to a plan like I’ve proposed to help the farmers.  If we sent delegations of people abroad to find markets for our maple syrup, beers and liquor products, hemp products, and Vermont made and produced products.  That puts Vermont first.”

A Republican, he supports Donald Trump, is pro-life, and is opposed to universal healthcare.  “I don’t believe it’s a human right,” he said.

Mr. Ingalls used to live in Irasburg where he was on the select board.  He bought a place in Newport a little over a year ago.  He’s a real estate broker and owns RE/MAX All Seasons Realty in Lyndonville.  “I’m a working broker,” he said.  “I’m a busy one.  I sell a lot of stuff.”

Lately, he said, he’s sold a lot unseen.  “At one time, I had 11 properties under contract sight unseen except for one.”

Before real estate, he worked in the auto business.  He said he ran Mulkin’s Auto in Newport for four or five years.  And, he said, he also started the pizza place in Orleans, sold it, then bought it back.

He said he’s running for Senate because “I don’t know that the people of Vermont are always thought of first.  I’ve thought about it for a long time.  Why would I jump out of something I’ve been very successful at?  I want to go make a difference.

“It always seems the little people get left behind.  When COVID hit we locked the country down, but we sent out the most vulnerable who were in not high-paying jobs.  They didn’t have an option.  A lot of those people are single parents.  We kind of forget about these essential workers.  I just think it’s time to make sure all voices are heard.  Nobody spoke up for them.”

Governor Phil Scott’s handling of the coronavirus could have been better, Mr. Ingalls said.  “I think that Phil Scott should have paid more attention to Chittenden County, not carte blanche shut down the whole state.  Why didn’t he just lock down Chittenden County?”

Early in the pandemic, when asked that question, the Governor said that treating regions differently would be unfair and could also lead to unintended consequences — infected people from more populated areas changing the dynamic by flocking, say, to the Northeast Kingdom with its lower rate of infection, and bringing the disease with them.

“It’s time to open the state back up,” Mr. Ingalls said.  “There are no cases here.  “Keep the restrictions, but open the state back up.

“Some companies are never coming back.  Secure the borders like we have, but open us back up.  Let’s just open up, what’s the harm?

In a follow-up email, Mr. Ingalls said, “There is very little covid here.  And when was the last time someone was hospitalized?  Suggest strongly that people wear their masks and take precautions but it’s time to let business open up to full capacity, schools to open up and try to find a new normal, one moving on from the last eight months.

“I’m a little disappointed not to hear any of our representatives … nobody had a different opinion,” he said by phone about the state’s restrictions.  “Everyone was just fine with taking rights away.”

Asked what he sees as the biggest challenges the Northeast Kingdom is facing, he said:  “I think that we’re over-government regulated,” and there needs to be ways to find responsible growth.  “I think this Act 250 law is just a wish list of control.  Nobody who goes through Act 250 says, whoo, I want to do that again.

“I think we have to change the culture to being friendly to business,” Mr. Ingalls said.  “We have to find some way to attract business.  We have an airport … we have the interstate.  We have proximity.  We still don’t have reliable communications.  Maybe we need to focus on better ways to get our message out.  Let’s make sure we have reliable ways to run our businesses.  Then maybe we could look at the tax structure.  We have a great workforce here that is willing to work that is highly educated.”

Mr. Ingalls said he’s also concerned about the wind towers and the landfill.  “There they are, but we don’t get any benefit from it,” he said about the wind towers.

“We have a dump up here that takes refuse from all over New England.  If we’re going to allow all that stuff up here, maybe Orleans County ought to benefit,” he said, adding that he’s aware the town of Coventry benefits.

He said he’s not worried right now about water quality because of the landfill, but some contaminants “are forever.”  PFAS, for instance, do not degrade.

He said he thinks the state does a good job monitoring the landfill and its effect on water quality.

“One of the things that I really am going to solve is finally figuring out how we’re going to pay farmers for their product,” Mr. Ingalls said.  “The only thing these farmers want is they just want to get paid for their milk.  I have a way.  They already do it in some form in Maine and New Hampshire.”

His idea is that, when distributors deliver their dairy products to stores, they collect an extra few cents on each product — say a product costs a dollar, the charge would be for $1.03, with the extra three cents going directly to farmers.

“We’re going to make the distributors administer it,” Mr. Ingalls said.  “We can collect the money and can figure out an equitable way to distribute it to farmers.  We can’t create a whole new division to eat up all the profits.

“We’d have to put the Legislature to work to figure that out but that’s what government is for,” he said.  “To solve peoples problems so they have the best life possible.”

Vermont should be sending delegations to the Far East and trying to open markets to maple, Mr. Ingalls said.  “If we could open up China to just a half a percent, we wouldn’t be able to make enough syrup.”

He said he’s opposed to universal healthcare.  “I think there’s ways to make healthcare more affordable.  Obamacare has been a big disaster.  We truly need to find ways to bring healthcare costs down, but we don’t seem to want to have an honest discussion.  We ought to increase choices, not reduce them.  People know what they want.  If somebody wants to have this or that, they should be able to buy what they want to buy.”

In a follow-up email, Mr. Ingalls said:  “Government’s history of running anything in the health care field isn’t good.  Medicare and Medicaid is proof of that.  As well as the VA hospitals with their problems.  And while you’re at it, social security, the only program that’s fully funded by our paychecks is always on the verge of going broke.  The private sector should be running health care with government oversight.  It would bring costs down.  We are good about making sure people who are less fortunate are covered.  When’s the last time, or even first time, that you heard someone was denied coverage?”

On education, he said, “I just don’t believe Act 46 (the school governance merger law) was the way to go.  It didn’t do anything to make it better. I think they totally missed the mark.”

Irasburg paid off its new school, he said, but then, come to find out, the state could take over a school for a dollar.

“We consolidated these schools, but we didn’t do anything about the superintendents’ offices.  Maybe we could have got rid of half of those.  I’m a big, strong proponent of education.  I believe we have to do everything we can to prepare our kids for the world.”

The trouble, Mr. Ingalls said, is that Vermont kids get a great education but then leave because of the lack of job opportunities.  “They get raised up and off they go.  I want to find ways to create the jobs that will keep our kids here.  Our kids get a great education, yet we’re not reaping any of those benefits.”

The state has been offering people $10,000 to help them move to Vermont, Mr. Ingalls noted.  “Why don’t we offer it to our own kids so they can stay here?”

He said he’s pro-life, but added:  “I don’t know that’s an issue that will ever impact Vermont.  I’m an advocate for single moms, for single parents.  Women are the bread and butter that hold all the fabric of life together.  Everybody could learn from how some of these parents do it,” he said, referring to single parents.

He said he’s been chastised for giving women jobs or promotions.  “I don’t care.  That’s the person who can do the job.”

He’s a Donald Trump supporter.  “I do believe he’s cut taxes for all Americans.  We have low fuel prices.  The fact that we’re energy independent is unbelievable.  Despite what everybody says, we have the cleanest water and air.  Loudmouth, he sure is.  Abrasive, he sure is.”

 

John Rodgers

 

 

by Joseph Gresser

GLOVER — Senator John Rodgers met with a Chronicle reporter at his farm Monday morning just before heading out with a crew to harvest his hemp crop.  He said he hopes to be sent back to Montpelier for a fifth term in the state Senate representing the Essex-Orleans district.

The interview began with a discussion of the current state of the state’s economy and the probable need to make cuts in the 2021 budget.  Senator Rodgers quickly turned it in a different direction.

“That is one reason of many that I pushed back against things like the so-called Global Warming Solutions Act,” Mr. Rodgers began, saying that estimates say it will cost $600,000 a year to implement.

“It’s building more bureaucracy, and it’s spending more money, and that $600,000 a year is only going to grow in the future,” he said.  “I think we should not be starting new programs like that.”

Even if Vermont continues to have good results from its strategy to minimize the effects of COVID in the state, Mr. Rodgers said he expects tax revenues to fall sharply.

Should things not go well, and a new surge of cases requires another shutdown of the economy, “it’s going to be crippling for businesses, and for states and municipalities that depend on the tax revenue,” he said.  “My thought right along through this whole session since COVID hit was stop everything that was nonessential, which, unfortunately, the Legislature didn’t do.  We could have kept more money in reserve preparing for what I think is going to be a rocky road.  I don’t believe most Vermonters have the capacity to pay more taxes and fees because, though some businesses are doing extremely well in COVID, other both businesses and regular working folks are taking a serious hit on income.  I have a lot of worries for the folks who have mortgages and rent, as well.”

Asked where he thinks cuts can be made, Mr. Rodgers said, “I think it’s going to take a sharp eye and a sharp pencil to go through every expenditure that we have, and figure out what we have to have.  My baseline has always been, first and foremost, we take care of the children and the elderly and make sure that there are programs in place to assure that Vermonters, especially the old and the young, aren’t hungry, are in safe housing, and have access to healthcare.  I think everything else is on the table, and we’re going to have to figure out what are the essentials.

“I would never say there is nothing in the budget that won’t need an increase, because there may be,” he said.  “Some emergency services may actually need more money.  But the majority of state government should definitely be held as tight as possible.  And I think there are efficiencies in state government that could be made.  It’s going to be a serious exercise in belt tightening.”

While Mr. Rodgers said he doesn’t want to see any tax increases, he added that there are other ways to raise money for the state.

“One thing that probably a lot of my constituents don’t know is I’ve written at least a couple bills that have dramatically increased income for the state.  Number one was the specialty beer bill, which allowed our breweries to make over 8 percent beer.  The beer economy and beer tourism are both huge.  I wrote and sponsored, working with the Agency of Agriculture, all the hemp legislation, which led to millions of dollars of investment in Vermont, with the startup of many new businesses around the state from farmers that are doing it, to small manufacturers and big processing plants, and laboratories.  So there are always ways to add to the economy.”

Mr. Rodgers said he is happy the state has been offering grants to help businesses.

“I hope the businesses are using them to retool to what I think is a new world and a new economy.  I think government is going to have to continue to try to help businesses to adjust and retool so that they can continue to operate,” he said.  “We have no idea when and if this will ever be over.  This could be the new common cold, we don’t know.  It could be the new flu, and they develop a vaccine that some years is 20 percent effective, in some years is 70 percent effective.  There’s just too many unknowns right now.  So I think the wise thing to do at this point is to plan that this sickness is with us for the foreseeable future.  And how do we adjust and help our businesses adjust to this new reality?”

He cited his experiences getting bumped out of Zoom meetings at the Legislature because of a poor Internet connection as an indication of the need for better broadband service.

The state helped a small entrepreneur create a business providing access to the NorthLink fiber belt that rings Vermont’s six northernmost counties, but Mr. Rodgers said the state and private industry don’t have the money to expand service, while the federal government doesn’t seem interested in expanding access in rural areas.

One possible solution, he said, is the network of satellites being launched by Tesla, Google, and Amazon that could provide speedier service without the need for fiber optic lines.

To the question of how to improve education in Vermont Mr. Rodgers had an answer.  “As probably all my voters know, I didn’t support Act 46 (the school governance merger law) and still don’t support what’s going on.  What I see is an attempt to close small community schools, even though some of our small community schools are doing an excellent job educating our youth at a reasonable cost.  When that bill went through, I floated a counter proposal, which would have held high spending towns accountable.  It would have allowed a base for each school of the statewide average per pupil cost.  And if you spent over that your local taxpayers were going to have to start coming up with more money, because what happens right now is education, tax dollars all get homogenized, and the high spending towns get more benefit out of the Education Fund than the low spending towns.

“I don’t think that’s fair,” he continued.  “My proposal would have allowed the lower spending schools, as long as they were providing adequate education for their kids, to actually shave their education property tax, and it would have made the high spending schools not only cover their amount over the statewide average, but they’d have to pay a small penalty.”

Continuing on the subject of education, Mr. Rodgers said, “One of the most important things we can do is make sure we save our state college system.  I believe the state college system is already doing an excellent job, but can be further retooled to train the next generation of workers in Vermont.  Tradesmen are aging out now, and it’s a way you can make a good living.  And we need to start getting a lot more of our youth into it.”

State college graduates, especially those attending Vermont Technical College, he said, are going to be “the next great entrepreneurs.  They’re the next manufacturing startups, they’re the folks who are going to have the ideas that will bring more of those good paying jobs here.”

Mr. Rodgers said he is not in agreement with one of Governor Phil Scott’s prime objectives, bringing more workers to the state.

“I do not subscribe to the idea that we need to grow the population,” he said.  “I’m one of the few people in the Legislature who has spoken out about the fact that the world is overpopulated.  Unfortunately, the economy of all modern societies has been built on a pyramid scheme, where you keep the population growing enough to support the people that are aging out and can’t work anymore.  What we should have been working on the whole time is developing a sustainable economy that isn’t based on a pyramid scheme.  We’ve already got a shortage of housing in many places.  Housing is very expensive compared to the income people can make in that area.  And we’ve got a whole bunch of municipalities that are dumping raw sewage into the lake, meaning their infrastructure can’t handle more people anyway.  I would focus on a sustainable economy that can provide our youth with a good education and, hopefully, good paying jobs that are out there today.  I really want to focus on providing them with the education that will allow them to be the next entrepreneur.”

Mr. Rodgers said he believes he is a valuable member of the Senate because he is the only member who still hunts and fishes and has farming, contracting, and other experience that provides real world experience in the body’s deliberations.

In the area of social issues, he said, “I’m not sure if there’s another person in the State House who supports everyone’s constitutional rights, whether it’s the Second Amendment or bills like freedom to marry and bills that people would call more liberal.  I have always stood for everyone’s constitutional rights.  I believe the Constitution to be a package and you can’t start pulling the threads or the thing comes unraveled.  I believe in the importance and the freedom of our press and have supported bills in the House to protect that.”

He went on, “I think that minorities have been discriminated against since Vermont was settled.  Native Americans got pushed off their land, they were told their traditions were barbaric.  They were forced to give up their way of life.”

Mr. Rodgers said, “I think there’s discrimination against poor people no matter what their color is.  And I think the darker your skin is, the more discrimination.”

He said he favors the right of women to determine what happens to their own bodies as well.

People should be judged solely by their actions, Mr. Rodgers said.  Good people ought to be left alone.

“Bad people should be held accountable,” he added.  “Whether it is reprogramming and restorative justice or, if they’re dangerous to other people, actually having to put them in prison, which should always be the absolute last thing that we do.  Those cells should be kept for folks who are dangerous to other people.”

Mr. Rodgers, who serves on the Senate Institutions Committee, said he thinks Governor Scott might have a point in arguing for construction of a new prison, though.

The existing correctional facilities have a lot of deferred maintenance issues, and it makes no sense to rebuild facilities that are not set up for the requirements of today’s ideas about how incarcerated people should be treated.

 

Bobby Starr

by Tena Starr

“I’ve been working at that for many years,” Bobby Starr said when asked what can be done to boost agriculture in Vermont.

He has.  The North Troy Democrat, who has spent 16 years in the Vermont Senate and 26 years in the House, is the senior member of the state Legislature, meaning he’s been there longer than any other member.

“You’ve heard the old saying — ‘if you haven’t got a seat at the table, you’re on the menu’  — We’ve been lucky that I’ve had a seat at the table for a long time down there.”

He is chair of the Senate Agriculture Committee and a member of the Appropriations Committee.

He’s former owner of a North Troy-based trucking company, but he grew up on a dairy farm and has been a steady advocate for farmers.  Talking to him about farming is like taking a doctorate level class in the subject.

He was behind the Northeast Dairy Compact, which allowed for a regional pricing mechanism for fluid milk sold in the six New England states.  It took about eight years to get it approved and functioning, Mr. Starr said, but while it was in place, it worked well.  It sunset after five years, though, and the votes at the federal level just weren’t there for reauthorization.  Sixty votes were needed in the Senate, and the vote fell short by three or four.

“It was like being the Maytag repair man whose phone just stopped ringing it worked so well,” he said about the compact.

Now milk is again sold under the old federal milk order system, which was established in 1938 and doesn’t take into account regional costs of producing milk.  “It’s way outdated,” Mr. Starr said.

“The big push in Vermont for the last 20 years has been to go to value added products, and we’ve done very well,” he said.  “We used to export about 85 percent of our milk to southern New England for fluid processing and were retaining 10 to 15 percent to be utilized in Vermont.  That has all changed over the last 20 years.  Right now we’re utilizing 65 percent of our milk in Vermont and exporting the balance out of state.”

Vermont milk is being processed as cheese, yogurt, ice cream, “a lot of specialty cheeses,” he said.

Currently, he said, efforts are focused on a couple of things.  He said he’s been working with Dan Smith, who he worked on the Dairy Compact with, and former Agriculture Secretary Roger Albee for over a year trying to devise a system “where we could have our own Vermont milk order.”

If Vermont had its own milk order, it could command a higher price for the farmer.  “If we had our own milk order, we could do better by our producers as well as processors, if they could pay a little more for the milk.  On that 65 percent, you could hopefully get a higher price.”

The second effort is that a bill was passed in the spring that directs the Financial Regulations Department to study the dairy industry “to look at where our milk is being utilized here in Vermont, what farmers are being paid, the amount of money these companies that are utilizing the milk are making.”

“I thought it would be best to have a neutral regulatory agency that is into regulating prices do an in-depth review and come back with findings this next winter to report on whether something like this would work.”

He said Maine has an in-state program that “works pretty good, but they’ve got like 150 farms and two or three times the people living there.  We have 700 farms and around 600,000 people.

“All these little programs that the co-ops set up on their own never generated enough money to make a difference to the farmers.

“We’ve got about 65 processors in Vermont.  There’s a lot of manufacturing here, a lot of value added.  The problem, as I see it, is it’s like trickle down economics.  It’s never trickled all the way down to the raw products.  The money gets all used up somewhere between manufacturing and selling, so the farmer doesn’t get any more money.  It’s trying to get the money from retail and down the chain to the farmer, and with the federal pricing system, the farmer is the one who takes it on the chin.  You can’t get pennies on a hundredweight to make a difference.  We’ve got to get dollars.

“We’ve tried many things.  It’s rough being on the tail end of every market.”

There have been successful efforts at diversification, though it’s hard for the big farmers, who are managing enormous businesses, Mr. Starr said.  “I’ve been in business my whole life.  If you start getting divided up too much, you’re in trouble.  Small guys can milk 50, 60 cows and still do beef, maybe veggies.  We thought hemp was going to help out.” But hemp hasn’t worked for many.

“I had one farmer who did 40 acres of hemp and took it on the chin.”  It was a well planned operation, and the farmer thought he had a buyer, Mr. Starr said.  “But the company filed for bankruptcy.”

The biggest challenge the Northeast Kingdom is facing at the moment, he said, is “getting our businesses opened up, getting our schools back going, and our economy.  It’s critical to get people back to work as soon as we can to keep the economy going.”

Aside from that, widespread availability of high-speed Internet is also crucial.  “Our rural areas are really hurting with broadband, which is pretty critical, and it’s pretty hard on our areas because of the lack of it.  It’s needed for telecommunications, telemedicine, schoolchildren … Right now that’s a pretty big issue for the Northeast Kingdom.

“I really think that, before we get this done and over with, it’s going to take a partnership between the federal government, state government, and locals to get this going.”

He said he remembers when he was young his father, uncles, and grandfather talking about rural electrification.  “The villages had power, but you get a half mile out of the village and you milked the cows by hand and had lanterns.

“We’ve spent hundreds of millions already, it’s been going on now for 12 or more years.  We get about ten cents of results for every dollar we’re spending.  It’s been slow and disturbing to put all this money toward getting the job done, and it never gets done.

“Sam Young, he was kind of our point person for the county on broadband and Internet.  He spent hours and hours trying to get it fixed.  I don’t know if he ever got discouraged, but it’s been just an endless battle.”

Vermont’s Public Service Department is now involved, Mr. Starr said.  That might make a difference.  The Public Service Department advocates for ratepayers.

On COVID, Mr. Starr said he believes Governor Phil Scott has done an excellent job.  “We’ve got topnotch ratings, the best in the country per capita.  We’ve got a lot of money out to businesses and individuals.  All sectors of the economy have been helped through the Governor’s office, the Legislature.  The way that the COVID money was sent out and divvied up has really kept as many people as we possibly could working.”

And, he said, the Governor and his team have been good to work with.

He said the Senate Agriculture Committee set up the programs for dairy farmers in four areas, depending on type and size of farm, and the Agriculture Agency was amenable to the plan.

“We worked closely together.  That’s really how you get good things done is by working together.

“In the end, I think we came out with a good program where small farmers did well.  To me, it was very important to keep them going and very important to help the big guys as much as we could.”

He said he hasn’t had anyone call with a complaint, not that he’d mind.  “I don’t mind people calling me and asking if I’ve lost my mind.  It doesn’t happen too often.”

Mr. Starr said he also got $5-million to help the beleaguered forestry industry.

“We got a half million for our little county fairs.  Jason Sicard [president of the Orleans County Fair] called me on that one and talked about how hard it would be for fairs to survive without some direct assistance.”

On education, he said Act 46, the school governance merger law, “hasn’t done anything anywhere.  There isn’t one school district where the budget has stabilized or gone down.”  He said he chaired the Education Committee for a couple of years and has also been a local school board member.

“Act 46 was poorly put together and it demanded a lot from the school districts but there was no cost savings measures built into it except for if you close those little schools.”

Mimicking someone in Montpelier, presumably, he said, “Gee, it costs a lot to educate kids in those little schools.

“No, it costs a lot to educate them in big schools,” he said in his own voice.  And I think kids do better in little schools.”

The fundamental problems are there’s declining enrollment but increased demands on schools, he said.  “We have a lot of mental health issues.  I don’t know why that is except that kids seem like they’re under a lot of pressure.  Children are different than they used to be, and they require a lot more services and attention.”

One of the big problems with Act 46, he said, is that if, say, Burlington has a problem and needs to put money into a school, costs go up for everyone around the state.  “It’s not good when a school district in southern Vermont has to raise its budget, and that cost shifts through the entire system.

“Education is critical for a young person to advance, grow, and go onto higher education.  We have to have a good, solid school system, but we’re spending $1.6 billion to educate 80,000 children.  That’s 20 grand a kid.  That includes all these other programs that schools have to do now and coping with the issues children bring to school.  It’s a rough game.  There’s no easy solution.  If there was, it would already have been done.”

On healthcare, he said he’d like to see a Medicare type system.  People would pay in — everyone, not just workers.  “Everybody should pay into a system and you should get basic care through that system.”  The healthcare should neither be a Cadillac nor a Pinto, but “a middle of the road program.  Then, if you want to have Cadillac coverage, you pay extra.

“There should be a system where we all pay in and we all share in that system.  Medicare works that way.  You’d at least have coverage so you can get into the hospital.”

Insurance company CEOs often collect phenomenal salaries, driving up costs, Mr. Starr said.

He said he’s always supported hunters and their ability to own guns.  “I think people with problems, whether it be mental or whatever, shouldn’t be allowed to have guns, but law abiding citizens should be able to own hunting rifles and guns for personal protection.  AR15s, those automatic rigs, are something to be dealt with.”

 

 

 

 

 

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