Black Lives Matter.
But it’s not enough just to say it. We must start taking concrete steps to eradicate the violence and racism inherent in our current system, starting right here in Vermont.
Recent studies have shown police departments in Vermont have a very real bias and pull over and detain African American Vermonters at a significantly higher rate than White Vermonters. This is not anecdotal, this is the reality African American Vermonters are facing every day. We must take legislative action to push back against this by requiring all police officers in Vermont, from the State Police to local departments, to go through trainings designed to challenge built in biases. We should also move toward requiring body cameras for all police officers, so they can be better held accountable. And we must fund regular, government funded studies, to ensure that any actions we take are working and continue to work.
It’s time to challenge the culture that has taken root across America that the police are somehow apart and separate from our communities. There are many ways to start to do this. We must fight back against the militarization of police departments here in Vermont by banning the purchase of surplus, military grade equipment. We must encourage and fund efforts at moving toward community policing models, particularly in our urban centers. We need to explore ways to increase the diversity of our police departments, so that they better reflect our increasingly diverse communities. We need to fund and encourage better training for officers in de-escalation techniques and how to approach Vermonters in a mental health crisis. We should take a hard look at what should be considered an allowable use of force. And we must create a culture in which good police officers who challenge bad police officers feel safe, rather than the other way around, through legislation if necessary.
Beyond addressing issues at the police department level, we must take steps to fix a fundamentally broken justice system. We must end the failed drug war and ensure addiction is treated as a public health issue, rather than a criminal issue. And we must work to dismantle the private, for-profit prison system. It is a travesty of justice, awash with human rights abuses; prisons simply should not be a source of profit for anyone. Here in Vermont, that means immediately moving to cancel our contracts with Corrections Corporation of America and bring all Vermont inmates back to Vermont.
I am in favor of marijuana legalization. I strongly believe the “War on Drugs” has failed. We need to move away from a system that criminalizes addiction to one that treats it as the public health issue it is. Our resources as a state and as a community could be better spent in other ways.
Also, when it comes to marijuana in particular, I think the evidence is very clear that for the majority of users it is no more dangerous than alcohol. Less so, in fact. So why should it be treated the same as heroin and similar drugs? It just doesn’t make much sense.
As we move forward with legalization, I do want to make sure it is done in a careful, thoughtful way that does not create another industry like the tobacco industry. We do not want to create “Big Marijuana”. Rather, I would hope that we can find ways to support small, local producers, just as we do when it comes to our small farms and brewers. There is a real economic opportunity in legalization, if it is done right.
I strongly believe the influence of corporations and wealthy donors on our elections is out of control. The only way to take back our elections and ensure a truly fair and open process is to expand public financing. We should work to move toward a system of electing our leaders that is completely free of outside influences.
In the meantime, our campaign finance laws took a step backward in a number of ways thanks to recent legislation; in many cases, limits were actually increased. No real action was taken to stem the tide of corporate money flooding our elections. This is unacceptable. At the very least, Vermont should join the seventeen other states — and the Federal government — in banning direct corporate contributions.
In addition to addressing campaign finance issues, Vermont must continue to lead on making voting easier and more accessible. Allowing online voter registration was a great first step, but it is definitely time for same day registration. We should also look at what works to increase participation and turnout in other states and countries, such as making Election Day a state holiday or even moving to a mail-in voting system, as Oregon has done.
I believe comprehensive healthcare is a human right and that a single-payer system is the best way to achieve equitable, universal coverage for all. We must revive the fight for single-payer in Vermont!
I also think it is important that our healthcare discussions are expanded, to ensure that universal healthcare includes eye care, dental care, and mental health services, which are just as important for ensuring people lead happy, successful lives as general medical care.
We must challenge austerity efforts in Vermont; there is no question in my mind on this. For me, as a legislator, this would mean standing up to any budget cutting efforts that would negatively affect the needs of Vermonters, up to and including voting against the final budget. We must invest in our communities and in our people if we truly want to fight income inequality and be economically prosperous and successful as a state. It is long past time for Republicans and Democrats alike to stop balancing the budget on the backs of the poor and most vulnerable Vermonters.
Beyond a people’s budget, the legislature can take many other actions to fight back about against the growing wealth and income inequality. The number one action is raising the minimum wage to a living wage, which is calculated to be least $15 an hour in Vermont. We must also work to make it easier for workers to unionize and harder for employers to punish, directly or indirectly, employees who seek to form unions. We also must take a hard look at the many state tax loopholes in Vermont that benefit only the wealthy, with little to no economic gain for the state or its people.
The best way for the government to create jobs right now would be to raise the minimum wage, in order to stimulate the economy. The government should also be working to create jobs, rather than continuously trying to cut them in existing or new government agencies and programs. Tax cuts for the rich and other efforts that benefit only the wealthy, as well as austerity budgeting, have done nothing to create jobs or improve the economy. It’s time we moved past the outdated neoliberal idea of trick ledown economics. It simply doesn’t work.
I strongly oppose the basing of the experimental F35 bomber jets at Burlington International Airport, in the middle of the most densely populated area of the state. These planes are dangerous, poorly tested, and many times louder than the F16s based there currently. In no way does it make sense to me for these planes to come to South Burlington.
But let’s be clear. I very much support our Air National Guard continuing to have a mission in Vermont. There is a misconception going around that, without the F35s, the Guard would no longer have a mission and the base would close. In fact, the Air Force has never said this and there is every indication that the Guard would simply have a different mission once the F16s begin to be decommissioned in coming decades. Further, the Air Force’s own report indicates there is no real economic gain to the basing or loss of jobs if the planes do not come here.
What the basing could mean for surrounding communities, however, could be devastating. Many more homes, much of it affordable housing, will be in a noise zone deemed essentially uninhabitable by the FAA. Despite what some claim, there is little that can be done to mitigate these sound levels for residents and businesses in the flight path. More homes would likely need to be purchased and razed, certainly in South Burlington, and perhaps even in my own district, all at taxpayer expense. Home values would be affected, yes, but more importantly, many children and families will be affected. It is well documented that these kinds of noise levels can impair cognitive development.
One last thing to keep in mind. The development and procurement cost for these bombers is going to be well over 1.5 trillion dollars — about one and a half times the GDP of Australia.
I strongly believe that an excellent public education system is the only way to ensure a truly democratic and inclusive society. It is long past time that the United States should catch up to the rest of the world in ensuring a full education for all our citizens, from Pre-K through college or vocational school. We have made some progress in recent years in Vermont, especially around Pre-K, but we can and should do much better.
To begin, at the very least we should increase funding for our public colleges. Right now our state is near dead last in public support for Higher Education, which means more of the cost burden falls on our students, making our public colleges among the most expensive in the country. This puts college out of reach for many Vermont students.
In many ways our decentralized education system is working well for our students, but we must take a hard look at whether and how it might be reorganized and improved. I do not believe consolidation is the answer to the problem of increasing education costs, but some consolidation or collaboration is going to be necessary to make sure all our students receive a 21st Century education. However, I want to make sure that, unlike often happens in Montpelier, we don’t just do something for the sake of doing something. We must be clear on the specific issues that need to be addressed and make sure any legislative actions actually address those issues.
I also believe we must move away from the education property tax to a progressive income tax system to fund our schools. Act 68, the prebate program, goes a long way to ensuring some fairness in the system, but we can do better. Rep. Chris Pearson’s plan (Available Here) is a good first step in this direction.