Briggs launches state Senate bid

ADDISON — Peter Briggs is used to doing a lot of chores on his family’s farm in Addison, from milking to tilling.
His to-do list just got a lot longer.
Briggs, 25, confirmed this week that he will be a Republican candidate for one of the two seats in the Vermont Senate representing Addison County, Huntington and Buel’s Gore. That will mean a lot of door-to-door and public appearances throughout the spring and summer in a race that could include the two established incumbents: Democratic Sens. Claire Ayer of Addison and Chris Bray of New Haven.
“I thought this would be a good opportunity to offer people a change,” Briggs, vice chairman of the Addison selectboard, said of his decision.
In answer to a reporter’s question, Ayer and Bray both stated that, as of now, they plan on running for re-election this November.
Briggs already has experience as a candidate for the Legislature. In November of 2014, he fell less than 100 votes shy of winning one of Addison-3’s two seats in the Vermont House. Incumbent Rep. Diane Lanpher, D-Vergennes, was the top vote-getter with 1,409 tallies, followed by incumbent Rep. Warren Van Wyck, R-Ferrisburgh, with 1,305. Briggs finished a close third, with 1,218 votes, followed by Addison Democrat John Spencer, with 1,166.
He considered running for the House again this year, and believes he would be favored to win a seat. But Briggs decided to dial his political aspirations up a notch. He believes Addison County Democrats need some competition for state Senate.
“For two election cycles, there hasn’t been any competition on the ballot,” he said of the lack of a local GOP candidate for the county’s two Senate seats in both 2012 and 2014. “I think it’s a good opportunity to offer the people of Addison County a change. I am young and ambitious, so I always like to reach for an opportunity to go higher. Nobody else was going to do it,  and I am somebody who likes to get out and lead.
“Sometimes I really like to do what nobody else is willing to do,” he added.
Briggs cited school choice, health care reform and economic development as his main campaign priorities.
He was candid in his criticism of Act 46, a new law that allows school districts to merge their governance into a unified board overseeing a single budget for all the schools in that union. Locally, the Addison Central and Addison Northwest supervisory unions both voted on unification and on the formation of unified boards (see stories, Page 1A). Briggs’ hometown of Addison is part of the ANwSU.
Unification through Act 46, Briggs contends, would eliminate school choice opportunities for some districts in Vermont. For example, Westford and Elmore are examples of two Vermont communities that no longer have access to school choice as a result of merging with non-school choice towns through Act 46, opponents of the new law note.
“It is a huge concern of people in school choice towns,” Briggs said, adding he’s skeptical the new law will deliver on its promise to save money and lower property taxes. He believes the unified districts, as they get bigger, will have to hire more administrators.
Act 46 critics, including Briggs, have also voiced concern about the elimination of local school boards in order to create a single panel for multiple districts.
“The bigger these school systems get, the more the individual gets drowned out, or has less say,” Briggs said. “There will not be the same kind of local control.”
He believes local residents should govern their local school, as opposed to a larger panel that includes residents of other towns.
“When suddenly, (a local school) becomes the responsibility of a combined board, there’s all kinds of different towns with different interests trying to manage our school,” Briggs said. “It’s just not the same. There isn’t the same kind of local control.“
If he is elected to the Senate, Briggs said he would advocate for expansion of school choice in Vermont. Specifically, he favors a voucher system through which parents could send their children to the public or private school of their choice. Home schoolers, he said, would be eligible for a tax break equal to what they are paying in education property taxes.
Expanded choice, he said, would allow successful schools to prosper while forcing subpar schools to get better or close.
“It’s the American way of doing things — competition and giving more than one option,” Briggs said.
Streamlining the school system amid declining enrollment, Briggs said, is a major objective of Act 46. Expanding school choice would accomplish the same goal in a more inclusive fashion, he argued.
“Under school choice, (closing schools) would happen in a free market, where the best solution would be reached through market forces, rather than state edict,” Briggs said. “We could very well see school consolidation under school choice, but it would happen in a way that students and parents would still be able to benefit from it.”
Briggs believes added competition would also create a better health care system in Vermont. He said the state should pull the plug on Vermont Health Connect (VHC), a platform through which uninsured or under-insured Vermonters can choose a health insurance plan. The VHC website has been fraught with technical glitches, presenting a challenge to some who have tried to register online for a health insurance plan or change the plan they got.
“It’s gotten to a point where I don’t think VHC is ever going to work,” Briggs said. “I don’t think it’s the best system … I have serious doubts that it will ever be fixable.”
Instead, Vermont could join the federal health exchange or find another suitable replacement system, according to Briggs. But he said Vermont might not have any choice but to stick with VHC if dropping it would trigger repayment of the approximately $200 million the federal government gave the state to implement its own exchange.
“Ultimately, what I’d like to see is expansion of medical savings accounts and more options for people to purchase a wider variety of health care plans,” Briggs said, noting that only a handful of insurance companies currently do business in the Green Mountain State. Vermont has a community rating system that does not allow companies to cherry pick clients from its healthiest citizens.
“Competition is the best way to bring down prices,” Briggs said.
Vermont must become more aggressive in attracting new businesses and growing those that are already here, Briggs said. To that end, he would support streamlining development regulations and red tape that he said are thwarting some companies from laying down roots in Vermont. He believes solar energy proposals — which the state is promoting as a transition from fossil fuels to green energy — are currently enjoying a very favorable permitting route (through the Vermont Public Service Board). Briggs said conventional development proposals currently face a more rigorous permitting review, which he believes should be scaled back.
“We need to protect Vermont, but it’s necessary to create jobs,” he said.
Briggs noted the state Senate recently approved a bill that would allow adults to possess small amounts of recreational marijuana. The measure now goes before the House. Briggs said he would not have endorsed legalization of marijuana. The drug, he said, has been shown to negatively affect the intellectual development of youths. Opponents have also voiced concern about detecting drivers under the influence of pot and have pointed to marijuana as a gateway drug to other, more potent substances.
“I don’t see how lifting the prohibition is going to solve those problems,” Briggs said.
If elected, Briggs said he’d become a problem-solver.
“I don’t see these problems getting fixed, and that’s why I’m running,” he said.
Reporter John Flowers is at [email protected].

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