ST. ALBANS — Republican Casey Toof is seeking re-election.
In addition to serving in the House, he is a member of the St. Albans Town Planning Commission.
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?
“It was an eye opener,” Toof said of the pandemic. “We weren’t ready.”
“I think we’re ready now,” he said, noting that “cold and flu season are coming up.”
When people become ill and need to quarantine for two weeks, that impacts both employers and employees, Toof pointed out.
Without paid leave, many have to leave their jobs in order to receive unemployment benefits so they have an income while quarantining. Asked if that had changed his view on paid leave, Toof said that while he voted against the legislature’s plan, he is willing to support Gov. Phil Scott’s plan or another plan that doesn’t add to employers’ tax bills.
“What we need right now is more help from the federal government,” Toof said. “These are big issues that are going to fall on the taxpayers.”
What should the state do to address the need for affordable, quality childcare?
“It’s expensive,” Toof said. “It’s really expensive.”
As one of way of addressing the need for childcare, Toof said he has filed a bill proposing to use money from cannabis taxes for afterschool programs. “Afterschool programs are a great way to keep kids active,” he said.
Providing universal afterschool programs also means addressing transportation issues, especially in rural communities, he added.
“Childcare is probably going to be one of the top five areas we look at it in the next session,” Toof said, with the legislature looking at ways to help people pay for childcare.
A substantial deficit is projected for the fiscal year 2022 budget. How should the legislature address anticipated shortfalls?
“Our appropriations committee does a great job,” Toof said. “They work harder than any of us in the legislature.”
As evidence of the committee’s work, Toof pointed out that the state was able to avoid increasing revenues in the current fiscal year.
“I can’t say you can cut many things, because if we have them, there’s a good reason we have them,” Toof said.
What about the Education Fund, which is also expected to take a big hit from COVID-19?
Local school boards, Toof suggested, will have to take a look at their expenditures. “They’re going to be the ones making the tough decisions,” he said.
In Vermont, budgets are crafted and voted on locally, but the funds to operate the state’s schools come from the Education Fund, which draws on property taxes, as well as the state lottery, rooms, meals and sales taxes.
Citing testimony to the education committee by Rep. Peter Welch, D-Vt., Toof said the federal government should loosen restrictions on CARES Act funding.
The state has also loosened attendance requirements for funding. “I think we’re going to have to look at how we can help schools rather than penalize them,” he said.
Absent any additional funding being added to the Education Fund, the state is looking at a 26 cent increase in property tax rates, according to the Joint Fiscal Office, said Toof, who sits on the education committee. The entire committee rejected such a large increase.
Toof did not provide any suggestions on how the state might fill the gap. “That’s the $2 billion question,” he said. “I don’t know what the path forward is.”
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?
Toof said he voted in favor of the bills to create a statewide use of force policy and require greater data collection by police. “I think those were good first steps,” he said.
As for next steps, Toof said, “We have a pretty progressive legislature,” and he anticipates more bills on this issue coming up for a vote.
Much of the legislature’s attention this session was taken up with COVID, but that doesn’t mean the issues of policing and racial justice are unimportant, he seemed to suggest.
“Government goes slow, and it goes slow for a reason,” he added.
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?
When asking Toof this question, the Messenger did reference the Global Warming Solutions Act (GWSA), which Toof opposed.
“I think the GWSA was passed with the best of intentions,” Toof said. However, he voted against it because it allows the state to be sued if it fails to meet its carbon reduction goals, and because it creates a panel of experts to come up with carbon reduction plans, which Toof said takes away the legislature’s authority.
Toof is a member of the legislature’s youth caucus, which he said has addressing global warming as one of its main goals, along with childcare.
Electric vehicles are one way the state can reduce emissions, Toof said, adding that California’s ban on gas-powered vehicles after 2035 “will have a ripple effect.” He expects Vermont could follow with its own ban.
The state will have to figure out the infrastructure needed to support electric vehicles, such as charging stations, Toof said.
He also took the opportunity to mention Lake Champlain. “Cleaning up our lake is one of the biggest issues we have,” Toof said.
How can the state help create a secure future for its agricultural sector?
“Our milk prices are dictated way out of our control,” Toof said. Pointing to dairy sector businesses in the area, he added, “These are big job producers within our county.”
“What can we do to save this industry that’s completely out of our hands?” he asked.