Sen. Bray reflects on 2018 season; hopes to win another term
MONTPELIER — Sen. Chris Bray, D-New Haven, was thinking big when he first ran for the Vermont Senate six years ago. His goals were pretty much all predicated on producing systematic changes to Vermont’s agricultural, economic and environmental landscapes.
So it’s no coincidence he has, during his legislative career, taken a lead role in the Farm-to-Plate, renewable energy, Act 250, and clean water bills — initiatives designed to prove their worth in the next five to 10 years.
“A lot of the work I’ve been doing since I got to Montpelier has been oriented to long-term planning,” Bray said. “This is part of why I want to go back — to make sure we put in place sound planning processes for the long-term health and well-being of Vermonters. A lot of these things happen slowly.”
Bray is hoping to win re-election in November to his seat representing Addison County, Huntington and Buel’s Gore. The field of candidates includes fellow Democrat Ruth Hardy of Middlebury and Republican Peter Briggs of Addison. Vermont Coffee Company CEO Paul Ralston is considering entering the field as an independent, a declaration he won’t need to make until Aug. 8.
Incumbent Sen. Claire Ayer, D-Addison, has decided to take a pass on re-election after 16 years in the state’s highest chamber.
Bray sat down recently to talk about his re-election bid and the highs and lows of the 2018 legislative session. He chairs the Senate Natural Resources & Energy Committee and is a member of the Senate Education Committee.
While it spent a lot of its time on S.260, the so-called “Clean Water Bill,” Senate Natural Resources focused on a lot of other issues during the past biennium, according to Bray. The panel passed out 26 bills during the 2017 and 2018 sessions.
“We did a lot of work that I think is going to have a positive impact on public health,” Bray said.
He cited successful bills targeting aquatic nuisances (like milfoil), and calling for more stringent testing of well water before it can be deemed potable. The committee also passed an initiative that allows farmers to diversify their operations through accessory uses like “farm stays.” Cheaper loans are now available to those needing to make septic system repairs. Lawmakers also passed an “appliance efficiency” bill that’s expected to save consumers $17 million annually by 2025.
All of these bills, while not headline-grabbers, will make Vermonters safer and/or put more money into their pockets, according to Bray.
The committee set into motion what Bray called “a complete re-write” of Act 250, Vermont’s 50-year-old land use law. A commission will be appointed to recommend changes in Act 250 so it can better serve Vermonters during the next 50 years. Lawmakers will draft new Act 250 legislation based on the commission’s suggestions.
It’s this kind of look into the future that keeps Bray’s legislative motor running. He noted a person spends roughly 20 years raising a child, 20 years paying off a mortgage and 17 years in kindergarten through college.
“Most of the really meaningful things that happen in our lives happen over a long timeframe,” Bray said. “So while it’s important to have smaller bills to take on smaller issues with a short-term focus, I think the most helpful thing we can do is also make sure we’re looking long-term and making steady progress.”
‘CLEAN WATER BILL’
So Bray is understandably disappointed the Legislature didn’t make a lot of progress on a funding plan for S.260, the so-called “Clean Water Bill.” S.260 calls upon the state to fulfill a federally mandated cleanup of its waterways, including Lake Champlain. The Legislature is still at odds with Gov. Phil Scott on funding Vermont’s portion of that estimated $2.6 billion cleanup plan. Scott has called for no new fees or taxes this year, while lawmakers believe additional revenues — possibly a per-parcel tax — will be needed for Vermont to finance its waterways cleanup tab.
“In the end, we didn’t get the funding stream that we wanted to build in it, but we still did a lot of other work in terms of reorganizing and improving how the state does its clean water work,” Bray said.
The Legislature has been meeting in special session in recent weeks to try and reconcile a handful of bills vetoed by Scott. The most notable ones are the proposed fiscal year 2019 state budget and tax bill. Bray is among a large group of Democratic lawmakers to take issue with the vetoes and their underlying reason — the governor’s insistence that there be no new fees or taxes this year.
The state budget and tax bills passed by the Legislature propose to use one-time surplus revenues totaling $79 million to draw down debt, including a major liability in the teachers’ pension fund. The budget/tax bills passed by the Legislature would add an estimated 2.5 cents to the state’s residential property tax rate.
Scott wants to see no property tax increase and he wants to use more than $50 million of the unanticipated revenues to offset a liability in the state’s education fund.
Advocates said backfilling some of the deficit in the teachers’ pension fund will save Vermonters $100 million in future payouts. Bray warned that Scott’s idea of applying the one-time money to the education fund will create a more dramatic increase in school taxes for Vermonters in ensuing years when/if there’s no more one-time money available to help soften the blow.
The vetoed state budget had passed 27-0 in the Senate and 117-14 in the House.
“The governor may have made a campaign pledge (of no new fees or taxes), but he didn’t make it on behalf of the 180 people who represent every Vermonter,” Bray said.
Bray leveled sharp criticism at Scott for the vetoes and his perceived “disengagement” through the legislative session. He said special sessions have been rare in Vermont’s history and have usually been triggered by natural disasters, newly declared wars, or to make changes to state law to make it compatible with federal programs.
“It’s a very unusual moment in Vermont history,” Bray said, noting only three budget vetoes in Vermont’s history, and Scott has delivered two of them.
“This is anything but ordinary,” he said.
Bray also believes Scott and his top cabinet members have been more reactive than active in the legislative process.
“There has to be a balance and respect between the executive branch and the legislative branch,” Bray said. “The way you achieve that is you work together productively. Sitting it out and coming in at the last moment with a ‘take-it-or-leave-it offer’ is just not the Vermont way of working. I don’t know what to call it. It’s not like anything any of us have seen before.
“No one has stiff-armed the Legislature before,” he added.
Bray has already hit the campaign trail and has earned Ayer’s support for another term.
“Sen. Bray has been great to work with on issues affecting residents of Addison County, Huntington and Buel’s Gore,” she said. “He’s a man of his word, meticulous with the facts, and tireless in his hard work. The Addison district has had a strong team in place for years. I certainly support him to represent the Addison district again.”
Reporter John Flowers is at [email protected].
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