ENSOBURGH — There is a two-person race to represent Enosburgh and Montgomery in the Vermont House. Democrat Dennis Williams is challenging incumbent Republican Felisha Leffler.
The Messenger spoke with both candidates on Thursday.
Below is the interview with Dennis Williams.
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?
“I think the legislature should focus on the feeding and housing of Vermonters,” Williams said.
He praised the state’s COVID-19 rent assistance program, saying, “we need to look at ways to keep people housed.”
One priority for Williams is “quality health care that’s not tied to employment.” All of those who lost their jobs during the pandemic have also lost their health insurance, he pointed out.
If the U.S. Supreme Court overturns the Affordable Care Act, more people, including those with pre-existing conditions, will be shut out of health care, Williams added.
“We need to make health care available to everyone as a human right,” he said.
Williams also favors raising the minimum wage. Putting more money in people’s pockets means they will, in turn, have more to spend, he said, which can benefit local businesses.
What should the state do to address the need for affordable, quality childcare?
Williams said schools should offer childcare training at the state’s technical centers to increase the number of available staff.
He would increase childcare subsidies. “It’s an important social issue,” Williams said. “People need quality childcare so they can feel comfortable leaving their child.”
Society benefits “in the long run by having quality childcare,” he added.
A substantial deficit is projected for the fiscal year 2022 budget. How should the legislature address anticipated shortfalls?
“There’s the Rainy Day Fund, for one thing,” Williams said.
“We’re going to have austere budgets,” he said. Legislators will need to look at the costs and benefits of programs when creating the budget, he said.
What about the Education Fund, which is also expected to take a big hit from COVID-19?
The state will likely “lean heavily on the federal government for assistance,” Williams said.
Raising taxes to fill the gap is not an option in his view. Schools will have to look at “how to tighten the belt, so to speak,” he said.
Williams also emphasized that the state has to fulfill its tension obligations to teachers and state employees.
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?
“I don’t think we should ever stop looking at this issue, until we get it right,” Williams said.
“There is bias in our culture,” 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?
“We can’t ignore climate change,” Williams said, adding that he sees evidence of it in his own backyard as the mix of trees in the woods is changing as winters become shorter and warmer.
He supports investments in weatherization and transitioning to less dependence on fossil fuels.
“Broadband access would give us the opportunity to work from home, cut down on emissions,” Williams said, as working from home would reduce commuting.
How can the state help create a secure future for its agricultural sector?
Williams noted that farmers have been diversifying, with many dairy producers adding maple syrup production.
With the price of milk set federally, “Vermont could lobby its hardest to make sure that price is up where it needs to be,” he said.
There also needs to be better marketing of Vermont dairy products. “If we could market Vermont milk as well as we market Vermont maple syrup, we’d be doing something,” Williams said.