Sharpe reflects on his lengthy career in the Vermont house
BRISTOL — Saturday, March 3, saw scores of Starksboro residents assemble at their local elementary school for their annual town meeting.
Among the guests were Rep. Dave Sharpe, Rep. Fred Baser and Sen. Chris Bray. One after the other, they went up to the microphone to deliver their reports on goings-on in Montpelier.
Sharpe, the last of the lawmakers to speak, delivered some news that caught everyone by surprise:
“I won’t be seeking re-election.”
Even Sharpe’s legislative colleagues were caught unaware.
“Chris (Bray) and I looked at each other and I said, ‘Did you know that?’” recounted Baser, Sharpe’s Addison-4 district-mate.
It was a major announcement on two fronts.
First, it signals the imminent departure of the chairman of the House Education Committee, now immersed in a variety of school funding and education quality issues.
Second, the news from the Bristol Democrat will generate even more interest among those considering a run for the two Addison-4 House seats representing Bristol, Lincoln, Monkton and Starksboro. Baser, a Bristol Republican, has confirmed he will seek another term, and Lincoln Democrats Paul Forlenza and Mari Cordes have confirmed their candidacies.
Sharpe, during a wide-ranging interview late last week, talked about his decision and reflected on a legislative career that has spanned more than 15 years with services on two of the House’s most high-profile committees: Education, and Ways & Means.
The more the 71-year-old thought about the upcoming November elections, the more family won out over politics.
“I looked at my career — I’m pretty happy with the work I’ve been able to do over the years, and the electorate is energized,” Sharpe said. “There’s an ability to have new faces and new energy and new ideas present in the Statehouse. That’s a good thing. I’d like to spend more time with my grandkids and traveling with my wife. It all added up to the decision to let somebody else take my place.”
He was first elected in 2002, while still serving as a Bristol selectman and as an Automotive Technology teacher at the regional technical center in Essex Junction.
Sharpe was pleased to have made some noise during his first term.
“My freshman year, I reported the bill on how to align Vermont statutes with the new federal rules around voting and voter registration that came out of the ‘hanging chad’ issue (in Florida, in 2000),” Sharpe recalled. “I ended up, as a freshman, reporting on a controversial bill on the floor of the House. That’s unique, in and of itself.”
He chaired the conference committee that reconciled the House and Senate versions of that bill — also a rare privilege for a “green” lawmaker. Notably, it was also at a time when Republicans held a majority in the House.
“I think that set me on a path that paid attention to voter registration and voter participation in the state,” he said. “I think we’ve done a really good job in Vermont in bringing in voting machines, making voter registration easier, solving some of the problems with motor voting and getting polls open for early voting and absentee voting. We make it easier for Vermonters to participate in the Democratic process, and that’s a great thing.”
Sharpe was picked as the House Democrats’ chief negotiator with administration of then-Gov. James Douglas on revisions to Vermont’s unemployment funding system during the great recession of 2008.
“Our fund for paying unemployment benefits went into deficit by hundreds of millions of dollars,” Sharpe recalled. “We had to increase what employers paid and decrease the benefits that unemployed workers received during the great recession and our (subsequent) recovery.”
Those sacrifices by both employers and workers have made the unemployment benefits system solvent today, according to Sharpe.
“You put these things in place and you hope they will work,” Sharpe said. “This year, employers across the state are going to pay $31 million less in unemployment insurance costs and benefits from workers are going to rise. That’s because we restored the fund to full financial health.”
Sharpe believes his participation in the successful resolution of the unemployment fund crisis gave House leadership confidence to give him other important assignments — such as chairmanship of House Education. That panel has taken on a lot of tough tasks under Sharpe’s leadership, including Act 46, a law that’s led to governance consolidation within the state’s supervisory unions. Multiple schools boards and budgets within a supervisory union have now been replaced by a single board and a global K-12 spending plan for the entire district.
He called Act 46 “remarkable.”
“It has reduced educational costs and increased opportunities for kids,” Sharpe said of the benefits of reduced administration and more sharing of resources among schools.
This year, House Education is tackling some other initiatives, including a revamp of the way public schools are financed and the way special education services are delivered. Sharpe said there’s growing support for the notion of funding education through an income tax, as opposed to through the property tax.
“It moves $60 million worth of income tax money into the education fund and that would result in reduced education property taxes in every community in the state,” Sharpe said. “It’s a really good step in the right direction. We rely 70 percent on property taxes in Vermontto pay for K-12 education. The national average is 40 percent.”
A large part of what lawmakers do involves responding to constituents and the communities within the district. And Sharpe believes he has delivered for folks and town officials who have asked him to find resources and answers within state government. Helping to secure funds to rebuild Bristol’s South Street Bridge is a highlight on Sharpe’s list.
Then, there are the big statewide issues that Sharpe is pleased to have debated on the House floor.
He was a proud supporter of Vermont’s efforts to approve same-sex marriage. He was among the 100 House members who voted to override Douglas’s veto of the same-sex marriage law in 2009. And he believes Vermont has been proactive in looking out for the rights of all citizens.
“The Bill of Rights and Declaration of Independence and the Constitution are pretty clear about the rights of individuals, whether they’re gay, black, white, or whatever,” he said. “The steps we’ve taken in Vermont have been really good. We have a ways to go before we’re the kind of society that we hope to become. But I think we did some good work.”
Also high on Sharpe’s satisfaction list is the number of environmental bills he was able to support through the years — including legislation to clean up Lake Champlain and the state’s waterways.
Former House Speaker Shap Smith, a Morrisville Democrat, began his legislative career at the same time as Sharpe. Smith took a pass on re-election in 2016. Two years prior, then-Speaker Smith had appointed Sharpe chairman of the House Education Committee, noting his political acumen and varied background.
“One of the reasons I wanted to make him chair was I felt he had the breadth of experience that would be helpful in that position,” Smith said, noting Sharpe had been a teacher, a selectman, and a member of House Ways & Means, where he had received a good understanding of the state’s finance system.
“I thought all of his skills and experience would make him a good chair,” Smith said.
And in retrospect, Smith believes Sharpe was a very good pick.
“In his first year as chair, he was integral to getting Act 46 passed, which I think will be one of the landmark pieces of legislation for 40 or 50 years,” Smith said.
Sharpe will leave some big shoes to fill, according to Smith.
“I think Dave’s departure will be a real loss,” Smith said. “He’s someone who is really committed to the state of Vermont and its children and their education.”
Smith believes Sharpe has shown a commitment to all children in the state, with the goal of making sure kids have a level playing field for receiving the schooling, nourishment and other services they need to remain healthy and on a solid track toward success as adults.
“He’s always kept his eye on that ball, understanding that for us to be an equitable society, we have to treat all of our children fairly and give each one of them an opportunity to excel,” Smith said.
Baser, a Republican, has enjoyed being district-mate with Sharpe, a Democrat.
“Dave and I get along great,” Sharpe said. “We agree on an awful lot of things, and there are some things we don’t agree on.”
The prospect of an open seat “should make for quite an interesting race in the fall,” Baser acknowledged.
Baser is looking forward to participating in that race, and he expects his party to field another quality candidate to fill out the ballot.
Meanwhile, Sharpe and his wife, Pat, will get out the travel brochures when the gavel finally falls on the 2018 session. Sharpe is confident he’ll be leaving House Education in good hands. He gave a particular shout-out to two colleagues — Rep. Peter Conlon, D-Cornwall, and Rep. Scott Beck, R-St. Johnsbury, who he thinks are destined for bright futures in the Legislature.
“It’s hard to leave,” Sharpe said. “I’ve made some good friends. I’ll miss the people. And what I’ll miss most is the work — particularly the policy work.”
Reporter John Flowers is at [email protected].
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