County sends five new lawmakers to Statehouse

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MONTPELIER — This year, the county is sending five eager, newly elected members of the Vermont House to Montpelier, where they will be sworn in this morning.

The first-term representatives are Nelson Brownell, of Pownal; Jim Carroll and Chris Bates, of Bennington; David Durfee, of Shaftsbury; and Kathleen James, of Manchester.

As she prepared to leave for the Statehouse, James said she was excited about her new role and the challenges it poses and working hard to be prepared to represent the Manchester-Arlington-Sandgate House district.

"Once I get my committee assignment, which will happen this week, I'll be ready to hit the ground running," she said. "Since the election, we've been provided with a lot of opportunities and resources to prepare. I've been to Montpelier for an extensive three-day orientation and also attended an all-day legislative briefing and an all-day Democratic caucus."

In addition, James said, "There's also an ongoing email conversation with all of my fellow Dems regarding legislation, issues and priorities — a virtual daily conversation where we can ask questions and get answers. So far I've been listening more, talking less — in my opinion, often a wise starting point for a newcomer — but I feel confident in my ability to get up to speed quickly and do a good job from the get-go."

Constant, respectful communication among colleagues and government officials will be key, James said.

"I'm also actively working on connecting with other legislators and forming positive, productive, respectful working relationships," she said. "Within my committee, on the floor, in the cafeteria and in the Statehouse hallways, working well with my fellow legislators will be key to staying informed, getting things done, influencing the process and being effective both in Montpelier and back home."

She added, "This job is about issues, of course, but it's also about people. To do a good job, you need to connect with your colleagues in the Statehouse."

Durfee, who represents the Shaftsbury-Sunderland-Glastenbury House district, said he is thankful to be entering the political process in Vermont, not in Washington during a time of bitter partisanship and a prolonged government shutdown.

"One thing I am thinking about is the fact we have a functioning government," he said. "It's good to have something that is actually working."

He added, "I feel I have a lot a priorities, but also concerns that there will be a learning curve."

While not yet knowing his House committee assignments, Durfee said he hopes to focus on issues like the aging of the state's population and that of Bennington County, and the area's corresponding low birth rate.

"To me, this points to the need for family leave [legislation] and for [increased spending for] subsidized child care," he said.

"And the `benefits cliff'— I would like to take a look at that, as an example." Durfee said, referring to low-income people no longer qualifying for government benefits as their income rises, sometimes resulting in a net financial loss for the individual or family.

Asked about the larger Democrat/Progressive majority in the House following the Nov. 6 election, he said, "I think we are in a position to move ahead on family leave and child care," and increasing the availability of mental health care services.

"I think we need to be prepared to fund the things Vermonters say they want," he said, adding that during the 2018 session "there was the sense" that certain issues could not be addressed because the solutions might result in a tax increase.

A member of the Climate Caucus in the Legislature, Durfee said he's interested in new proposals that address the effects of climate change.

"I am very excited to be sworn in Wednesday, with some family coming to see the swearing-in," he said, "and then the governor's address on Thursday, and then we will get down to work."

Carroll, representing the Bennington 2-2 House district, is not wasting time in terms of legislation, having one proposed bill in draft form and another in the conceptual stage.

The freshman rep said he is drafting what he calls the "two for one" bill, which would provide tuition incentives for someone wishing to become a registered nurse or teacher and to committing to living and working in Vermont for a set number of years.

Carroll said a similar program for someone seeking to obtain a degree in criminal justice and becoming a police officer in Vermont also would make sense, as emergency services departments around the state are struggling to fill their ranks. And many areas of the state have problems attracting enough physicians, so a tuition reimbursement program could benefit in that sector as well, he said.

After talking to officials with Southwestern Vermont Health Care, the Southwest Vermont Supervisory Union and other entities, Carroll said learned that a four-year degree for a registered nurse could cost $80,000 to $100,000, while a teaching degree could cost a student $30,000 to $70,000.

In addition, Carroll said he refined his proposal after someone told him most of the participants might choose to live in the more prosperous areas of Vermont while fulfilling their contractual commitment to gain the tuition reimbursement, thus making it "Chittenden centric," or focused more on Chittenden County.

He said he favors requiring graduates to "go where they are needed" to receive the reimbursement, adding that the economy would benefit from having more well trained and educated residents living in Vermont and spending money in-state, helping to cover the cost of the tuition program.

Carroll also favors a once-a-year $30 tax on all working Vermonters to fund expanded child care options. Low-income residents, he said, often are overwhelmed trying to pay for those services.

And Carroll hopes to see hate speech legislation addressed this session, especially since he was elected in November to fill the House seat former Rep. Kiah Morris resigned from after reporting continued racially motivated online harassment and threats.

While few doubted that harassment of Morris occurred over a two-year period, Carroll said, police and prosecutors did not determine that a violation of criminal law had occurred.

"I want to try to tighten up laws on hate speech," he said. "We have to prevent that from happening to anyone else, and the same for the LGBT community."

"I'm excited," he said of planning for the Legislature. "I'm going to work hard, and I'll do my best."

Carroll said he intends to continue serving on the Bennington Select Board while in the House, as other board members have in the past.

"It's daunting," he said, but added, "I want to be a voice in Montpelier like [former Rep. and board member] Joe Krawczyk was. He was a direct line up there [to town government]."

"I've been ready for a while," said Chris Bates, who will represent the Bennington 2-1 House district, about being anxious to head to the Statehouse as a new legislator.

"For me, this has all been a new learning experience," he said, but one he is excited to pursue.

Probably his biggest issues, Bates said, are those around widespread PFOA (perfluorooctanoic acid) contamination of several hundred wells around former ChemFab Corp. factories in North Bennington and Bennington.

"I want to see those efforts funded," he said of ongoing municipal water line work to address the contamination, along with related proposals to hold polluters liable for causing environmental contamination and for paying for remediation work.

Currently, the state Agency of Natural Resources is negotiating with Saint-Gobain Performance Plastics, the company the state considers the responsible party for addressing PFOA contamination officials believe emanated over more than three decades from the exhaust stacks of the now-idle factories, to address the final section of the contamination zone lacking municipal water service.

And Sens. Dick Sears and Brian Campion, both Bennington Democrats, and other local lawmakers, have proposed legislation to more closely regulate toxic substances used in industry and to hold companies liable for contamination.

Bates said he favors such efforts and will support the ANR in its negotiations with Saint-Gobain.

The representative-elect said he also plans to produce a 10-minute video blog about his experiences in the Legislature and about the issues being debated.

He said it is important that his constituents understand "about this process and how we do this" in Montpelier.

Bates is a fishing guide and cable television show host, focusing on outdoor recreation. He said the Bennington area has some of the best trout fishing in the state, and he hopes to promote the recreation industry in general as an economic stimulus.

While there have been orientation events for new lawmakers, Bates said, "I won't really know what to do till I'm up there. I'm a new legislator and don't know all the ropes."

But he said he's eager to learn the legislative process and how the state agencies work and interact with lawmakers.

"I am ready. I've been ready for the last two weeks," he said. "I'm really excited."

Brownell, who will represent the Pownal-Woodford House district, said he plans "to listen and learn, and probably not be as vocal as usual. Partly, this is a learning curve for me."

The longtime select board member and zoning administrator in Pownal and Mount Anthony Union and Southwest Vermont Supervisory Union board member, Brownell said he hopes "to be able to contribute some of what I have learned on the select board and other town government positions," providing that background when considering statewide legislation.

"It will make a big difference to see what [committees] they appoint me to," Brownell said.

"I am excited and at the same time nervous," he said of his new role. "I am meeting a lot of people I don't really know yet. I want that to continue."

Overall, he said, "I am looking forward; this is all part of the process."

Brownell said he won't remain on the Pownal Select Board after January, saying, "I don't think I can continue to do as much by phone. You have to be in town and talking to people."

Unlike some town boards, the Pownal board meets on Thursday, in the middle of the legislative work week. Brownell also has inherited from longtime Rep. Bill Botzow the longest lawmaker commute from his home town to the Statehouse.

Brownell will remain as zoning administrator until July, he said, allowing the Planning Commission time to recommend a replacement.

His zoning hours at the town offices on Sunday mornings will now also likely serve as a regular meeting time for constituents to speak with him about legislative issues, Brownell said.

Jim Therrien writes for New England Newspapers in Southern Vermont, including the Bennington Banner, Brattleboro Reformer and Manchester Journal. Twitter: @BB_therrien


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