Editorial: Did Dems blow it? Think you could do better?

As news of Vermont’s legislative session wraps up, the overall reaction to the session was that the Democrats and Progressives fell short of accomplishing several key measures — namely, implementing retail sales for marijuana, taking the minimum wage to $15 by 2024, passing a favorable family leave bill, finding a way forward on Act 46 (school consolidation and governance), as well as numerous environmental issues.
Dealt a supermajority in the Legislature, the early hype was that these and other progressive measures would be a slam dunk in the House and Senate, leaving it up to Republican Gov. Phil Scott to wield a possible veto and face voter wrath.
Instead, Democrats squabbled, Scott stayed largely on the sidelines and the Democratic advantage crumbled in a mix of egos and fractured interests. Among Democrats and Progressives there was blame all around, with some political novices suggesting they could do better.
For summer fun, let’s put that boast to the test with a challenge to Addison Independent readers: Let’s spend several weeks this summer studying the key issues and proposing solutions to a few of the tougher statewide and local issues.
Everyone can participate by reading and contributing ideas through letters to the editor, but I’d also like to host a few think-tank sessions in which we invite readers to attend and hash over issues just as if they were sitting members of a legislative committee. Then gather again, for each issue, hold a meeting to debate the proposed ideas, and see if we can find consensus on a measure to present to our fellow legislators. One idea is to do this with a couple of friends or neighbors, as two or three opinions in a room help focus and fine-tune ideas — and it brings neighbors and friends together (and try to avoid arguments, though that is a natural part of the legislative process.)
Over the summer, we’ll tackle four issues in three sessions, giving each 4 weeks before we ask for solutions, meet as a group and hope to find consensus and pass a preferred measure. We’ll discuss the ideas around the following pretext:
• Minimum wage and Family Leave: These ideas have been thoroughly discussed, so we’ll review what happened this session and address these questions on the minimum wage: Is raising it to $15 by 2024 the best idea, or are other options preferable? What are the pros and cons? Can you leave it to the free market and still have that be what’s best for workers and the economy? On family leave, we’ll approach the issue from this perspective: It should be a win-win for businesses and workers, but why is it so hard to find the right mix of benefit to cost and what’s the preferred solution?
• Enacting a Green New Deal for Vermont. Could the state get a jump on a future job market by being an early adopter of greener policies? What measures are on the table and what should be pursued in the next session?
• Act 46: Consolidating school district governance is one thing, consolidating schools is another. How far should the state go to force mergers and consolidation? What can and should small towns do to resist, if they oppose closing their school? What’s the best end result for students?
Before we start addressing these topics, a note: The session wasn’t a flop. It didn’t accomplish all it could have, but it made progress in several important areas. Read the front page story by reporter John Flowers on the 2019 legislative highlights, and columns by our legislators. That said, the topics we noted generally have consensus among Democrats and Progressives, but it was a case of the devil being in the details, and a failure of leadership to see their way to suitable compromise.
But on to this summer’s fun.
Ready? Set. Go.
First topic: As the order above suggest, we’ll start with the easiest one first: minimum wage and family leave. With each issue we’ll start with a primer on the issue, suggest some homework and start sharing ideas. By this Friday, I’ll post links to stories on the subject on the Addison Independent’s Facebook page for those looking for extra reading.
Here’s a basic primer on the issue as it pertains to Vermont and the legislation that stalled this year:
• Vermont’s current minimum wage is $10.78, with wages going up each year based on a factor of inflation. Under Act 176, which was passed in 2014, the minimum wage to $10 an hour for 2017, then to $10.50 on January 1, 2018, and then on the first day of the year thereafter the minimum wage would increase by the percentage increase of the Consumer Price Index with a cap in case the CPI exceeded 5 percent.
As noted by the conservative-leaning Ethan Allen Institute, Vermont is currently tied with Arizona for the sixth highest minimum wage in the U.S. Other New England states currently have the following minimum wages for 2019: Massachusetts, $12 (certain farm workers will still be pegged at $8 per hour); Maine, $11; Rhode Island, $10.50; Connecticut, $10.10; New Hampshire has no minimum wage, so it defers to the federal minimum wage of $7.25.
An important note, largely lost in this year’s hullabaloo over Democrats not being able to send a minimum wage bill to Gov. Scott, is that the current bill provides for an inflationary increase, which will be about 2 percent. So Vermont’s current minimum wage of $10.78 will increase to about $11 on Jan. 1, 2020.
• Among progressive states, much has been made about a theoretical “livable wage,” which studies have pegged around $13.50 or so in Vermont for 2019, but which would also rise with inflation. That’s one of the reasons why the Legislature picked a $15 minimum wage for 2024; to keep within that “livable wage” metric. Whether that is right for Vermont is up for debate.
• The reasons for a rise in the minimum wage are obvious: $15 an hour translates to about $30,000 annually (for easy figuring: 40 hours per week, times 52 weeks is roughly 2,000 hours annually, times the rate; $10 per hour, then, would be $20,000 annually.) Currently, for a family of four, living on less than $24,000 is below the poverty line. Also, there’s the theory that a rising tide floats all boats. That is, if we keep the minimum wage above the poverty line, or higher, that sector of the economy pours more money back into the local economy, which increases business, etc.; plus subsidies to those families from some state aid programs would be reduced.
• The reasons against a higher minimum wage argue that it would be an added burden to some businesses, that some businesses as a result might reduce hours for those wage earners (to reduce costs), and that a few businesses might be forced to close. (Readers should also note that Vermont exempts farm workers from the minimum wage provision.) There are many arguments around this idea, but it’s primarily that it would be detrimental to the business community.
For the family leave issue, the issue revolves around how generous to make the program; what’s too burdensome for businesses; should employees contribute to the plan; and to what degree, if any, should the state be involved and at what ongoing expense?
That’s a start. Here’s your homework:
• Read Act 176, the state’s current minimum wage law.
• Google, pros and cons of a higher minimum wage; there will be lots of choices. If you can’t decide, start here: https://www.epi.org/publication/minimum-wage-testimony-feb-2019/. Also Google “states with family leave laws.”Become familiar with the issue and what other states do.
• Look for more stories to link to on the Addison Independent’s Facebook page this Friday. Keep in touch and have fun learning.
Angelo Lynn

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