August 18, 2018

House leader outlines challenges as Legislature launches session

House Speaker Mitzi Johnson addresses lawmakers Wednesday on the opening day of the legislative session. Photo by Bob LoCicero/VTDigger

By Anne Galloway and Mark Johnson

For VTDigger

House Speaker Mitzi Johnson opened the second half of the 74th biennium of the Vermont Legislature on Wednesday morning with a measured speech about the depth of the difficulties the state faces and how she aims to bring representatives together to help begin to solve what have been intractable problems, from income inequality to the opiate crisis to cleaning up Lake Champlain.

Johnson, a Democrat from the Grand Isle district who takes a consensus-building approach to leadership, told lawmakers she had learned that although her title is speaker of the House, her real role is “listener of the House.” Her broader message was equally conciliatory.

As she outlined her priorities for the second half of the biennium, she emphasized the need to bring lawmakers and the public together around social problems that government must help resolve.

The state must find a way to address income inequality, she said, calling it the “greatest the moral issue of our time.” Later, Sen. Tim Ashe, the head of the Vermont Senate, outlined his priorities to the media, including a boost in the minimum wage. Several times Ashe spoke of the challenge of “affordability” in Vermont, a term that Republican Gov. Phil Scott had adopted as his overriding priority.

Ashe and Johnson talked about investments in mental health and opiate addiction treatment, the need to ensure the Legislature is free of the taint of sexual harassment, and the state’s obligation to address climate change for future generations. In an interview after her speech,

Johnson said she would be willing to move forward with two extraordinarily ambitious revenue initiatives that previously have failed to gain traction in the House: funding for water cleanup and a revamp of the education finance system. She stopped short, however, of backing a plan from environmentalists to curb climate emissions from fossil fuels through a carbon tax. Scott has said he will not support increases in taxes or fees of any kind.

Johnson said she has not drawn a hard line on increases in revenue. Johnson, the former chair of the House Appropriations Committee, said lawmakers have done “a good job of managing Vermonters’ money” by making an effort to shrink the gap between state revenues and expenditures over the past few years. It’s time, she said, to reinvest in key initiatives to address structural problems.

The cleanup of toxic algae blooms on Lake Champlain, for example, is a “moral imperative” that state government must take responsibility for, Johnson said. She is not, however, satisfied that a flat per-parcel fee, which the state treasurer has proposed, is the right approach. She wants to “tweak” that concept to ensure there is a nexus between polluters and funding sources for water quality programs.

While Johnson is concerned about how difficult the economic environment is for Vermonters, she is not — unlike Scott — proposing to squeeze state government and lower taxes. Instead, she emphasized that the state must improve the economy for everyone by creating programs that give middle- and low-income families better support.

“The issue of wealth and income inequality is the great moral and economic issue of our time and is a critical component of societal stability,” she said. The middle-class dream, she said, is becoming “harder to achieve.”

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