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?
Houghton thinks that the state needs to make sure that its social safety nets are still intact, saying that the legislature set up the Fiscal Year 2021 (FY21) budget to allow for that.
“We didn't cut anything from the budget on programs and services people are getting now,” said Houghton. “But we also need to look at the health disparities that are rising to the surface, and people are taking notice of them through COVID.”
Examples of disparities Houghton listed were having certain materials for the public be released only in English and having testing sites so spread out that some members of the community needed to travel long distances to access them. She said that the state needs to be taking actions that help provide services closer to home.
Houghton went on to say that the “biggest thing” needing to be done for low-income Vermonters is ensuring that social services are “sturdy, strong, and fair” and that unemployment insurance continues to be available.
What should the state do to address the need for affordable, quality childcare?
Houghton said the legislature will be looking to implement a “second phase” of state funding for childcare facilities in the next term, “which will be helpful.” She believes that some of that funding should go towards helping employers provide increased salaries to attract, and retain, quality employees. Houghton also thinks the rules and regulations for people who work in childcare in Vermont should be looked at and possibly adjusted to “make it more accessible for more people to enter into the field.”
Houghton mentioned the state’s task force that was created to look into universal after-school care programs. She said a report from the task force should be presented to the legislature early in 2021, “and the hope is that we will move forward with some funding for that.”
A substantial deficit is projected for the fiscal year 2022 budget. How should the legislature address anticipated shortfalls?
Houghton clearly stated at the start of her response that she doesn’t believe cuts should be made. She said that, even though the approved budget for FY21 is $7 billion, Vermont is a “pretty bare bones state” and that there isn’t “a lot of fluff” in the budget that was recently approved.
“I think what we do for Vermonters is important, and we need to continue paying for that,” said Houghton. “I also think a crisis is not the time to shortchange the services that we're providing people.”
Houghton first said she didn’t “have any specifics to provide” in regards to how to raise revenue, but she went on to suggest the ideas of using some of the state’s “rainy day funds” or to borrow money to avoid raising taxes.
What about the Education Fund, which is also expected to take a big hit from COVID-19?
Houghton called Vermont’s current situation a “double-edged sword” in that some communities are losing students from their public schools to homeschooling while others are seeing an influx of new residents, both causing an increase in taxes for their respective taxpayers.
“Quite frankly, we need to look at our education committees to come up with some good plans,” said Houghton. “I personally do not have a way to tackle them.”
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?
Houghton said that the measures taken were a “good first step” but that there is more that’s needed to be done.
“One of the biggest issues is: we don't have the data appropriately tracked that's going to help us,” said Houghton. “One of the bills we passed was to help the data collection process.”
She went on to say that there needs to be a “change in culture” from people in the state, not just law enforcement, in order for inequities to properly be addressed.
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?
Houghton believes the override of Governor Phil Scott’s veto on the Global Warming Solutions Act was a “big first step” and that Vermont, and the council to be created through the bill, need to now hold themselves to the requirements put forth in the act to ensure the state is meeting the goals that were set in it. She thinks the state should continue with its weatherization and electric vehicle incentives.
Transportation was labeled by Houghton as Vermont’s “biggest concern” due largely to the need for people to travel so far for work from more-rural areas. She would like to see an increase in public transportation, doing so in a way that’s affordable and centered around times of the day where people are commuting to their jobs the most.