Lawmakers cite 2019 priorities

BRIDPORT — While much of the discussion at the Legislative Breakfast at the Bridport Grange Hall on Monday was on the idea of a “carbon tax,” the four lawmakers and many citizens in attendance also talked about other important issues.
Other discussion at Monday’s legislative breakfast focused on:
•  Priorities for the 2019 session. Sen. Christopher Bray, D-New Haven, said Senate President Pro Tem Tim Ashe has asked his colleagues to think about “the two Vermonts” during the next four of five months.
“There’s a Vermont that’s doing quite well, and there’s another Vermont that’s facing many challenges, in terms of housing, health care, and general welfare,” Bray said. “(Ashe) said we ought to be thinking, in every Senate committee, not just about just the ‘bright and shiny’ parts of our economy, but also the parts of our economy that aren’t looking so well. We’re trying to make sure we improve everyone together as a group.”
Bray pledged to support efforts to create prosperity for all Vermonters. Recent success stories, according to Bray, include the clean energy industry — which now employs 18,800 Vermonters — and that the farming and food economy, which has added 842 new businesses providing 7,700 new jobs during the past decade.
“For me, the framing of this session is that our greatest opportunity is to think boldly and look at the things we’re doing well, and think about how we bring a stronger economy forward,” Bray said.
•  Paying for a federally mandated cleanup of the state’s waterways.
“We have a lot of clean water work ahead, and it represents about $3 billion in public and private (investments) over the next 20 years,” said Bray, chairman of the Senate Natural Resources & Energy Committee. “That’s a heavy lift, but it’s also one that brings us into compliance with Vermont law, federal law, and I think most Vermonters want to live in a clean, healthy place.
“We have a lot of work to do, but it’s good work, and I’m looking forward to working with my colleagues as we push on,” he added.
•  Expunging misdemeanors from Vermonters’ criminal records.
Middlebury resident Dave Silberman helped organize two events last year at which Addison County residents were shown how to get their records cleared of past misdemeanor offenses — including possession of small amounts of marijuana. The state has now legalized marijuana. Nonetheless, the presence of such offenses on a criminal record can prevent an individual from qualifying for certain jobs or securing an apartment, even when the person has long-since paid their debt to society.
“People with past criminal histories are deemed by society ‘dangerous forever,’” Silberman said. “As we now move to fully legalizing the commercial production and sale of cannabis, I’d like to urge our legislators to go back and automatically expunge the tens of thousands of cannabis-related convictions sitting on people’s records, so we can truly erase the harm that prohibition has caused. There will be legislation (this session), and I hope you all can support it.”
•  Universal primary care.
Shoreham resident Barb Wilson urged lawmakers to support a new bill calling for development of a plan on how to integrate universal primary care into Vermont’s existing health care system.
Rep. Matt Birong, D-Vergennes, is one of the bill’s 47 co-sponsors.
Birong owns 3 Squares Café in Vergennes, and said he’s currently unable to offer his workers health benefits because he would be unable to realistically build that expense into his food pricing. He explained he and his wife cannot qualify for health insurance subsidies and must currently pay a monthly premium equivalent to “a home mortgage.”
•  The minimum wage.
Lawmakers again this session expect to vote on a plan to gradually increase the state’s minimum wage rate to $15 per hour by 2024.
Darwin Pratt, owner of Pratt’s store in Bridport, said such a bump in the minimum wage could force some small enterprises to close their doors. He said storeowners believe $15 per hour is too much for a worker with no experience, and more senior employees will expect raises beyond the minimum $15.
Reporter John Flowers is at [email protected].

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