Johnson opens session with pitch to pull together

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MONTPELIER —  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.

Thanks to a cold, Johnson's voice had dropped an octave (she later joked that it fell somewhere between Lauren Bacall and the Cookie Monster), giving her brief speech a quiet gravity.

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, which she described as "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 Scott had adopted as his overriding prioritiy.

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 three extraordinarily ambitious revenue initiatives that previously have failed to gain traction in the House — funding for water clean up, a paid family leave program 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.

Gov. Phil 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, and it's time to reinvest in key initiatives to address structural problems.

The clean up 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 has been proposed by the state treasurer, is the right approach. She wants to "tweak" that concept in order 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 Republican Gov. Phil 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."

"Too many Vermonters are living paycheck to paycheck and are unable to get beyond their next rent payment, much less saving for their future."

Johnson then made a pitch for paid family leave, an insurance proposal supported through a payroll tax that would enable families to care for small children, aged parents or sick relatives.

"When we address the inequalities of a decent wage, access to paid leave and ways for people to invest in their future, we boost the economy and build stronger, healthier communities," Johnson said. "Working people and the middle class are the driving engines of the economy. Investing in them is how we build prosperity in Vermont. We will be prioritizing legislation that creates a strong economy that works for all of us, not just a few."

Protecting the environment is a key part of her outlook on the long-term economic health of the state, which she said is vulnerable to swings in weather that can devastate crops like apples and maple syrup and curtail fall and winter tourism.

In a slap at Scott, who said climate change could be good for the Vermont economy during a recent spate of disastrous fires in California, Johnson insisted climate change is ultimately bad for the state. She also said it will disproportionately affect lower-income families "who are more likely to live near flood zones and rivers and are less able to invest in more secure housing or alternative fuels."

"Vermont stands to lose small businesses and jobs to unusual weather patterns and polluted lakes," Johnson said. "Our foresters worry about invasive species like emerald ash borer. We have very real threats to public health and public safety with insect-borne illnesses such as Lyme disease, and with the displacement of people during catastrophic flooding and storms."

Ashe outlines Senate priorities

Senate Pro Tem Ashe did not address his Senate collegues but laid out his priorities later for reporters, including the minimum wage boost.

During lunch, Scott roamed the Statehouse cafeteria, talking with lawmakers and lobbyists.

Ashe encouraged Scott to tell legislative leaders soon about any "big proposals" he would present in his budget address. Ashe said he wanted to avoid lawmakers being caught by surprise like they were last year at least twice. Last year, the governor called for school boards to push back the date of their community budget votes, which lawmakers rejected. Later, Scott called for teacher health care benefits to be negotiated statewide, which he and lawmakers compromised on.

Ashe said getting lawmakers "in the loop" would also make it possible for them to have more time to work on proposals before the budget address in several weeks.

The senate president called the final weeks of the session last year "rocky" but said the teacher health benefits debate was "an outlier" and that the senate looked to "start fresh" with the governor this year. Ashe said he would be meeting with the governor weekly.

Several times, Ashe talked about "affordability," a term Scott has co-opted as his number one goal. Ashe said he had different ideas that Scott on the issue and that raising the minimum wage over time to $15 per hour would be best way to boost low-income workers. Scott opposes raising the minimum wage.

The senate leader spoke in favor of legislation that would allow the state to import prescription drugs from Canada. The proposal would also require drug companies to disclose big price spikes 30 days ahead of time.

Ashe also applauded a law that limited the number of painkillers doctors could prescribe at one time. Ashe said the proposal, which went into effect July 1, had resulted in a 25 percent reduction in pills prescribed.

He said lawmakers should move forward on a plan to build a facilty for mental health patients who go through the criminal justice system instead of having them held in emergency rooms and affecting other patients.

Ashe poked holes in a possible Scott proposal to increase the staff-to-student ratio in the public schools. Ashe said communities will argue that approach is "one size fits all" while some communities like Burlington can consolidate personnel easier than rural communities can.

Ashe criticized the administration for failing to identify a long-term funding source for phosphorus reduction in lakes and pointed a finger at the Agency of Agriculture, saying the agency should be "more proactive" and work alongside the Agency of Natural Resources in developing cleanup plans. He cautioned against pitting farmers against environmentalists.

Ashe said the senate was still developing its sexual harrassment policy.

Earlier in the day, legislative lawyers walked senators through the chamber's newly developed sexual harrassment policies, including a discussion about clear-cut examples of harassment as well as "gray areas" and "stupid zones" of behavior.

Under the policy, a panel of six senators will review allegations and can conduct a confidential investigation. If grounds are found that a violation occurred, a mutually-agreed upon resolution will be encouraged and a hearing held if no agreement reached. The panel would have 48 hours after receiving complaint to decide if there are grounds to go forward and any investigation and findings would have to be done within two weeks.

The policy would cover behavior by senators, their assistants, and others who work in the Senate. The harrassment could occur inside the Statehouse or outside the building to be a subject to a possible violation.

Ultimately, any disciplinary action, including explusion, would have to be voted on by the full Senate. Two years ago, senators suspended Sen. Norm McAllister after he was charged with sexual assauting an intern. The charges were later dismissed.

"There's a different weight to it this year in light of all that's been going on around us," Ashe said of the new policies, referring to national stories of sexual harassment.

The Senate Rules Committee will finanlize the policies this year after input from senators. They do not need to be voted on by the full Senate, like the state Ethics Commission bill last year.

One of the most contentious issues is whether complaints and those accused should stay private. Earlier this year, a senator was accused of sexual harassment but the case was resolved without disciplinary action. The identity of the senator has not been released. Even Ashe said he does not know who was accused.

Ashe said senators will weigh the confidentiality issue. The public wants transparency but making the cases public could also chill victims from coming forward, he said.

Randy Brock was sworn in at the beginning of the Senate session, filling the seat vacated by Sen. Dustin Degree, R-Franklin, who is now working for Gov. Scott.

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