House candidates talk opiates, transportation

Mike McCarthy

ST. ALBANS — Democrat Mike McCarthy is seeking re-election to the Vermont House.

In addition to serving in the House, he is a member of the St. Albans City Council.

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?

McCarthy said the issues COVID drew attention to were the same issues that had been under discussion for years. “I hear the same thing over and over: health care, family leave, wages.”

Addressing those needs is a decades-long fight in his view, and not just at the state level. “Vermont can’t do these things on its own,” McCarthy said, but should be prepared to move forward if there is a new Senate and President in November.

McCarthy, who has supported paid family and medical leave, said people shouldn’t “have to choose between paying rent and buying food or staying home to take care of a sick family member or themselves.”

He also spoke about the need for the legislature to think about the long term when deciding how to spend coronavirus funds. “Where do we want Vermont to be?” he asked

McCarthy then answered his own question by suggesting that the survival of small businesses, and a state that is an affordable place to work and go to school were priorities, along with housing.

“We’ve got to look beyond the single fiscal year,” McCarthy said, adding that he is “trying really hard to keep my eye on a vision that makes it easier to live here and thrive.”

What should the state do to address the need for affordable, quality childcare?

The state, in McCarthy’s view, should be making sure childcare is affordable for families both for the benefit of the families themselves and the larger economy. A lack of childcare, he pointed out, can keep qualified workers out of the workforce.

The legislature took some small steps this session by expanding childcare subsidies. “It made the system more affordable for more families,” McCarthy said, but it didn’t change the system itself.

“We need to address the disconnect between wages and the cost of childcare,” he said. The state will have to further increase subsidies if it is “going to continue to demand training and quality.”

A substantial deficit is projected for the fiscal year 2022 budget. How should the legislature address anticipated shortfalls?

“It’s way too soon to say how you’re going to address the shortfalls,” McCarthy said.

“We held a lot in reserve because we saw what was coming,” he added. The legislature held $200 million in reserves with current projections anticipating a $100 million shortfall in fiscal year 2022.

“We don’t know if the economy will really be as bad as we think,” McCarthy said, particularly in light of the $1 billion in coronavirus relief funds which the legislature allocated this year.

As an example of how hard it is to predict revenue, McCarthy said in April economists were projecting a $44 million loss in transportation revenues before the end of June. The losses ended up being significantly less than projected.

“If there’s a huge surge in COVID-19 cases, if Vermont doesn’t continue to stay the course, FY22 could be a disaster,” McCarthy said.

But if things continue to go well, the state could find itself with funds to invest, especially if the the federal government provides financial assistance to state and local governments, McCarthy said.

“Every single legislator, whether they’re Republican, Democrat or Progressive, is praying that the federal government helps us out,” he said.

What about the Education Fund, which is also expected to take a big hit from COVID-19?

So far municipalities are not reporting high levels of delinquency in property tax payments, but that may have been because of the stimulus checks provided by the federal government and the temporary increase in unemployment benefits, McCarthy suggested.

“The bottom may fall out from many people’s ability to make property tax payments,” he said.

The state could use reserves or federal funds to bolster the Education Fund, which covers the cost of operating all of Vermont’s schools. Although municipalities still collect education property taxes, the funds ultimately go to the Education Fund. The fund also receives money from other sources, including the lottery, sales, rooms and meals taxes.

As a state that depends on sectors vulnerable to COVID-19, such as tourism, “we have to help businesses bridge past COVID,” McCarthy said. Businesses, too, pay into the Education Fund.

As do landlords. McCarthy noted that the state used tens of millions in COVID relief funds to assist renters and landlords.

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?

McCarthy called the bills passed by the legislature this session creating a statewide use of of force policy and requiring police departments to keep more careful track of data a “really good start,” adding that more work remains at the state level.

Some of the language authorizing use of force by police officers in Vermont dated back to the mid-19th century, he said.

“We’re going to get much more granular and require more reporting of police on the people they stop and interact with,” he said, noting that data will be useful in guiding future efforts to address inequities.

While a light has been shown on police behavior and racial bias nationwide, “Vermont has a particular problem,” McCarthy said. “There’s a particular flavor of denial in Vermont about how our BIPOC (Black, indigenous, people of color) neighbors experience discrimination.”

McCarthy said he wants people to understand this is ongoing work. “We’ve all got an obligation to be anti-racist,” he said.

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?

“We can be doing a whole host of things that will save Vermonters money and create jobs,” McCarthy said.

In the transportation sector, increasing the use of electric vehicles and changes to development regulations to give employers credit for efforts to reduce vehicle trips to and from their business such as allowing employees to work remotely or encouraging car pooling, would help to reduce emissions, in his view.

The state can help low and moderate income Vermonters afford electric vehicles, which will lower emissions and save the owners money, McCarthy said.

If the state shifts its entire fleet of vehicles to electricity that would be $800 million the state would not be sending out of state to pay for gas, he noted.

“I’ve been a person who’s always championed weatherization, and we haven’t been meeting our goals,” McCarthy said.

The legislature has created more flexibility in how energy efficiency funds may be spent, he added. “We’re blurring the lines,” McCarthy said. “This is about energy, making it cleaner and more efficient.”

How can the state help create a secure future for its agricultural sector?

Agriculture “is not going to look 20 years from now like it looked 20 years ago,” McCarthy said.

The dairy sector, he said, is suffering because of national policy, adding dairy is essential to the state and local economies.

He expects the state will continue to subsidize agriculture through the current use program, while saying that local foods are an essential part of addressing climate change.

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