As the Speaker of the House and a self-proclaimed "policy girl," Democrat Mitzi Johnson is running for re-election to finish what she started.
"After this many years in the job, I know substantial change does not come quickly, and so I would like to continue representing Milton and the islands to keep taking steps," she said.
Johnson was elected to the House as one of two representatives from Grand Isle-Chittenden in 2002. Prior to becoming Speaker in 2017, she served on the Agriculture Committee and Appropriations Committee.
Moving forward, Johnson wants to make Vermont a place where young people and young families can thrive. She knows how hard the pandemic has hit Vermonters both physically and economically and wants to help the state recover.
"Having seen Vermont through the crisis thus far, I'd like to be back in January to help make sure that as we rebuild, we're, we're rebuilding in a way that works for everybody," she said.
Last week, Johnson spoke with the Independent over the phone. Her responses have been edited for length. See italicized Editor’s Notes for more context and links for fact-checks.
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?
The police reform bill that was about the use of force very purposefully goes into effect July 1, 2021. That gives a lot of time to begin laying out training for police departments to develop policies within the standards set and to figure out how they're going to implement it.
I suspect law enforcement agencies will come back and say, “here's what works and doesn't work” and “we need a tweak here and a tweak there.”
We have excellent law enforcement agencies in Vermont, but we also really need to make sure we are keeping up with the times. This isn't all about racial justice. A key partner in this work, have been mental health community advocates.
Some of the pushback I hear is “hey look, George Floyd didn't die in Vermont; we don't have a problem.” But there was a person with mental health issues who did die in Vermont. There have been documented cases of excessive use of force.
The bulk of the work is finished, and now, as law enforcement communities try to sort out how they are going to meet these new standards, we may get some feedback.
What should legislators do to address the impact of COVID-19 on low-income Vermonters?
The three categories we’ve focused on and need to continue our work in are: protecting Vermonters’ health and safety, meeting Vermonters’ basic needs and setting our economy up for a strong recovery.
When we had the Coronavirus Relief Fund money to allocate, we made sure to put money into protecting Vermonters’ health and safety. We also provided food supports, rental assistance, mortgage assistance and childcare.
We also gave direct payments to people on the front lines — hazard pay for people working on the front lines when it was really scary to be doing so.
We are not through this pandemic yet, so I think our biggest focus needs to be on meeting people's basic needs and setting ourselves up for a strong recovery.
Economists are expecting Vermont to face shortfalls when it is time to prepare the fiscal year 2022 budget, especially the Education Fund. How should the state address that loss?
I am committed to making sure that shortfall — which had nothing to do with property taxes, but with sales taxes — does not land on the backs of property taxpayers.
This is why we actually created a statute to allow that deficit to happen, because otherwise property taxes would automatically have to adjust to fill that.
I am absolutely opposed to putting the COVID deficit on the property taxpayers. That may mean, over time, we are going to have to pay that off, but there are ways that can be done with surpluses. At this point, the federal government is taking the idea of another aid package off the table until after the election, which I think is a horrible mistake for Americans and what they are going through right now.
In terms of the Education Fund more generally, there are some components of what we passed a few years ago that I do want to reevaluate. One of those is how various students are weighted and accounted for in the development of the tax rates.
Scientists largely agree action is needed to delay the worst impacts of climate change. 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 don't see as drastic of effects perhaps as the Gulf Coast or California are seeing right now, but we did have a substantial drought.
And, and this district (Grand Isle-Chittenden) has more shoreline than any other House District. We're seeing Lake temperatures increase, which then contributes to algae blooms. Apple growers in the region have been affected by the drought.
The biggest step we took was the Global Warming Solutions Act. And there’s a lot of mis-information about it. For starters, it does not create a carbon tax; it does not ban activities; the council cannot raise taxes or spend money or pass legislation.
Vermont is a blip on the radar of climate impact worldwide, but we are part of a global community and we have to do our part and Vermont's emissions have been increasing. We're the only state in the northeast with higher greenhouse gas emissions than we had 30 years ago. We have a lot of small towns that just can't afford another Irene, and we need a plan to handle the influx of climate change refugees
We've been talking for years about how to reverse our demographic trends. This is actually an opportunity, but we need to plan for it with more housing, with expanded Internet, with public transportation in places where that makes sense. We need good plans to weatherize homes, and and reduce transportation emissions.