Now that the holiday season has passed and a new year has begun, Vermont’s lawmakers have returned to Montpelier for the 2024 Legislative Session. Since last year’s session ended our state has faced some major hardships: a deep freeze in May; persistent rains and the disastrous floods in July, August and December; the shooting of three young Palestinian boys in Burlington in November; and continuing high rates of opioid use that is ruining and taking the lives of too many Vermonters.
While we made some major strides during 2023’s legislative session on issues across the board, it is clear there is still much work to be done. We face daunting challenges brought on by systemic issues as well as acute needs. We are facing a massive housing shortage, the highest rate of homelessness in the country, and housing costs that are out of reach for many. Projected education property tax increases are beyond working-class Vermonters means and the opioids crisis has continued to destroy lives and harm our communities. Our flooded towns, business and homes are still in need of major repairs and recovery. We know we must invest in infrastructure to reduce the future damage that will come from the increasingly powerful storms caused by the changing climate. We need to change our energy system to be more localized and renewable to reduce our emissions and become more climate resilient.
These are only a few of the many challenges that our legislature is looking to tackle over the coming months and years.
It’s no secret that our state has benefited greatly from the massive influx of federal funds over the past several years. With these funds, we were able not only to weather the challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic by quickly setting up testing facilities and creating business grants and community programs to support those who were financially affected, but we were also able to invest in long-needed projects such as expanding our broadband infrastructure.
After July’s flooding, we saw another influx of federal money to help with recovery. During his State of the State address on Wednesday, the Governor spoke about the incredible community efforts that emerged in the wake of this disaster. People of all ages and backgrounds pitched in to help clean out homes, raise money, muck out businesses, and assist those who were impacted. It is with the combination of collective resource investment and deep community participation that we will be able to tackle the scale of the challenges we face. But make no mistake, it will take both community involvement AND massive economic resources to repair the damage done and make the investments needed to reduce future impacts from the climate disasters.
I have many reasons to be optimistic that we can put our minds, hands, and resources together to create solutions to these challenges. But I admit, it will be hard. We know the federal money that has boosted us is waning, and we cannot expect it to continue at that level. We know that many Vermonters cannot afford more in taxes and fees, and many are struggling just to put food on their tables and afford basic needs. We also know there are those that can afford to contribute more to the good of those that have been left behind.
We made some major progress last year in helping working families and some of our most vulnerable citizens by passing policies and overriding the governor’s veto on many bills. This included universal school meals and a massive childcare overhaul. Through these policies, we can ensure that children would not be left hungry when their parents struggle to pay the bills, and that parents and caretakers will have access to the high-quality childcare that they need to be able to reenter the workforce.
As a farmer who is struggling to find enough local help, I know how important it is to find ways to get people back to work and to attract more working age people to Vermont. After 40+ years of the illusion that trickle-down economics will help working people, we know there are many financially well-off Vermonters who are willing and able to contribute more so that everyone can have a decent basic quality of life. We know there are further investments that we can make today that will save us money in the long run. Let’s not follow the adage, “penny wise and pound foolish.” If we do not invest in flood mitigation efforts, the costs from future floods will greatly eclipse any penny-pinching savings we grasp today.
We know there are many for whom the opioid scourge has upended their lives. We also know we have the tools to help these folks get back on their feet. With medically assisted treatment (MAT) and other supports, so many Vermonters have been able to stabilize their lives and reunite with family and community. We must make MAT far more accessible so that individuals who want to win their fight against opioids can. This is both the right thing to do and an investment that will pay off in the long run. We cannot incarcerate our way out of this. With a price tag of well over $80,000 per year per incarcerated individual, and no guarantee that they will come out cleaner, we must spend our money wisely and with a bigger vision of what is possible.
We know the technology and the federal incentives are available to make Vermont more energy resilient while lowering our carbon footprint. We must increase our renewable energy produced in-state so that we do not continue to export our environmental footprint onto lower income and more diverse communities in southern New England.
We know how to build low-energy homes with density and scale to meet the growing demand for housing that we desperately need. But we also must do it in a way that builds wealth and equity for those that have been left out of the wealth game. Until we address the wealth gap in our society, we will continue to see the finger pointing and othering that is dividing our communities.
For so many of the issues that we face, we have already begun crafting the solutions that will help us create a better Vermont for everyone. Many of these solutions will take investment from the state to address. But without these investments, these issues will continue to get worse and exacerbate the already-present inequality we see today. With bold leadership, I am optimistic that we can take the necessary steps for our future.
I’m excited to be bringing back Coffee with Constituents, a bi-weekly open door coffee hour where you can stop by my office in the state house to ask questions or talk about any political issues that are on your mind. The first event will be on January 19th from 8:30-10:00 am. You can find the full list of dates that we’ll be hosting these events here
I’m looking forward to sending you updates on the legislative session over the next few months. In them, I will try to give you ways to find more information on issues and ways to get involved to make the changes you want. As always, I encourage you to contact your legislators and the Governor’s office to share your thoughts on issues that are important to you. That is the first step towards seeing the issues you care about become reflected in the political process.
Thank you for taking the time to read this. Please reply with any feedback you have or reach out anytime to offer me your thoughts, concerns, issues or questions that you may have.
Lt Governor David Zuckerman