COVID-19 exposed the cracks in Vermont’s social safety net. What else, if anything, should the legislature be doing to address the impact of the pandemic on low-income Vermonters?
Redmond started by talking about measures the legislature took this past session which she had a hand in. She was active in taking $350 million of the $1.25 billion that the federal government gave to Vermont and appropriating it towards stabilizing the health care system and human service systems that support low-income Vermonters, as well as restoring the Micro Business Development Program (MBDP) and installing it into the Fiscal Year 2021 budget.
Redmond said the MBDP will help entrepreneurs create small businesses such as dog walking, childcare, or a nail salon. “I feel like we have to do more like that,” she stated. “We have to, as we go forward, ensure that we are doing things like designating more federal money if that comes in.”
Helping people in New American communities get businesses started was also brought up by Redmond. She said simple things such as helping them open a checking account and obtaining and knowing how to use accounting software would be an avenue which the legislature could help low-income Vermonters succeed.
Finally, Redmond pointed to disparities in health care that affect low-income Vermonters.
“Why are people of color, why are people in the lower income levels, not receiving the same levels of health care that other Vermonters are?” she asked. Redmond said there’s money in the state budget to perform a study which might answer that question and lead legislators to better understand the needs and be able to work from there.
What should the state do to address the need for affordable, quality childcare?
Redmond said that the state saw a “contraction” of childcare centers since the pandemic started and that the state needs to counter that by helping facilities reopen or assist new ones in starting up.
“We need slots at this point,” she said. “We need further investment in the childcare financial assistance; that's the financial scholarships subsidized part of the program… We need to invest in that system even further so that childcare becomes more affordable.”
Redmond said the state should somehow address the low salaries and lack of benefits childcare employees receive, many of whom have college degrees and, thus, student debt, and invest in those employees.
A substantial deficit is projected for the fiscal year 2022 budget. How should the legislature address anticipated shortfalls?
Redmond believes the legislature did a “great” job in balancing its budget for this upcoming fiscal year without making significant cuts, that being in large part due to the federal funding the state received.
“We will not have that situation in the Fiscal Year 2022 budget, unless the federal government passes the [Health and Economic Recovery Omnibus Emergency Solutions] Act. So we're holding out hope that the federal government will come through and pass another package of financial assistance to states and municipalities.”
Redmond said it is important to find revenues that are not “regressive” or impact the low- and middle-income Vermonters, such as raising property taxes. One idea she mentioned was taxing downloadable digital software which the state currently does not do. She also spoke about looking at how the “wealthiest Vermonters” are taxed.
“I think the question of, ‘Are they paying, percentage wise, what middle-income people are paying?’ We need to look at that, and if they're not, then everyone needs to pay their fair share.”
What about the Education Fund, which is also expected to take a big hit from COVID-19?
Upon hearing the question, Redmond said that the first thing that came to mind is how the Education Fund is tied to property taxes and that the state needs to look at that relationship.
“It's been that way for quite a while,” said Redmond, “but it puts continuous pressure on property tax rates… Overwhelmingly, people say, ‘I'm really concerned about property taxes and their impact and their rise.’ So I personally feel like, at some point, we need to look at untangling the connection between property taxes and funding education.”
Redmond went on to explain that she thinks that overcoming the shortfall might be accomplished by funding the Education Fund in a different way, pointing to fixed-income seniors who can’t afford continuous increases in their property taxes because of education as an example of why she thinks the current model is unfeasible.
The legislature this session took some steps to address concerns about use of excessive force by police and the inequities in how often people of color are subjected to motor vehicle stops and criminal charges. Do you think those actions were sufficient or is there more to be done?
Redmond thinks there’s “much more to be done” following the recent passage of bills pertaining to police and that those are “really first steps in beginning to address police use of force and other racial justice concerns.”
She said she believes the state needs to look at its laws so that it’s “ensuring that they provide equal justice under the law to all Vermonters regardless of color.” But she also stressed that it’s equally, if not more, important for work to be done at the local, municipal level as well as within individuals who can better educate themselves about the history of policing inequities.
“We need to do our personal work,” said Redmond. “We need to do our work at the municipal and local level, and we need to do our work at the state level to ensure our policies are lifting up all Vermonters -- that all Vermonters have equal access to opportunity.”
Scientists largely agree action is needed to delay the worst impacts of climate change. Vermont is also starting to see the impacts of a changing climate firsthand, with shorter winters, harsher storms and so-called “climigration.” What actions, if any, do you feel the legislature should be taking to reduce Vermont’s share of carbon emissions and ready the state for the effects of a changing climate?
“This is imperative in Vermont,” Redmond started. She went on to say she thinks an important first step was the recent override of Governor Phil Scott’s veto to the Global Warming Solutions Act (GWSA). She said it’s not a “perfect bill” but that no bill is, and she thinks it begins to convert goals of greenhouse gas emission reduction into requirements.
Redmond said another key factor coming out of the GWSA is its creation of the Climate Council and that the council’s ability to make recommendations to the legislature will be imperative in addressing climate change in Vermont.
Transportation was brought up a couple times by Redmond who believes the state could look at providing Vermonters with incentives to purchase electric or hybrid vehicles as a way to help cut down on carbon emissions. She added that there needs to be more electric charging stations for those vehicles to make their use in Vermont more feasible.