Rutland-6 reps share goals, philosophies ahead of 2020 session
By LEE J. KAHRS
BRANDON — Vermont legislators have historically been able to work together regardless of party. Rep. Stephanie Jerome of Brandon, a Democrat, and Rep. Butch Shaw of Pittsford, a Republican, are no exception, carrying on that tradition of cooperation representing Brandon, Pittsford and Sudbury.
Both legislators sat down to talk priorities, goals and issues ahead of the 2020 Legislative session, which began on Tuesday, Jan. 7.
Individuals with a common purpose
There are differences between the two representatives, certainly. Jerome was a freshman legislator last session, while Shaw is entering his 10th year representing his constituents under the Golden Dome. In fact, Shaw survived a bit of re-districting in 2011 that combined the Brandon, Pittsford and Sudbury representation into one district, just one year after his appointment to the House in 2010.
And there are the expected differences along party lines on social issues like abortion, gun rights, gay marriage and marijuana legalization. But the two also share points of view on a sometimes-divisive issue — climate change.
“We put $160 million into addressing climate change last year,” Shaw said, including everything from money for electric vehicle charging stations, to sidewalks, park and ride upgrades, bike paths and a more energy-efficient fleet of state vehicles.
“When you add it all up, we’ve done a lot for climate change,” Shaw said.
But then Shaw reiterated the need for fiscal responsibility, highlighting how Vermont legislators walk a more nuanced party line with a larger gray area.
“It’s obvious that climate change is not going away,” Jerome said.
“But we have to figure out how to do this financially, or it will fail,” Shaw added.
Most of the time, Jerome and Shaw agree on the issues facing most Vermonters, the ones their constituents call them about.
“Constituent services are always at the top of my list,” Shaw said.
“That is always my aim, too,” Jerome added.
“I’m sure Stephanie gets the same calls I do,” Shaw said, adding that the top six types of calls are regarding health insurance, pay issues at work, the tax department, the health department, seniors having trouble with the Agency of Aging and Independent Living, and Family Services issues.
“Sometimes it’s just a matter of a phone call,” he said. “Typically, I’m not involved in the solution, but I’m involved in getting them pointed in the right direction.”
The learning curve
Jerome was assigned to the Commerce and Economic Development Committee, which deals with a wide range of issues, including hot button topics from the last session. Paid family leave and minimum wage were left on the table when the House and Senate could not agree on the language of the proposed bills. The House wanted a strong paid family leave bill and a modest increase in the minimum wage. The Senate pushed for a minimum wage of $15 by 2024 and a less costly paid family leave bill.
But there are so many other issues that are related directly and indirectly to commerce and economic development, like workforce development, state and technical colleges, tourism, climate change, Act 250 land use laws, insurance and banking regulations — any issue that affects the ability of Vermonters to work, operate a business and make a living.
“Even though I’ve owned my own business for 20 years, there is a lot to learn,” Jerome said.
She and her husband, Brian, own Visual Learning Systems in Brandon, which produces a video-based K-12 science curriculum.
“It’s a steep learning curve,” Jerome said of her first session. “It’s unlike any job or career I’ve ever had. All new players, all new rules, the way of doing business is entirely unique. So, I concentrated on learning the rules and the players.”
Jerome concentrated her energies specifically on workforce development, saying that Vermont needs to attract 10,000 new workers each year to keep the workforce at a steady rate and account for retirements and to fill new jobs.
“We especially need them in health care, construction, manufacturing and the hospitality industry,” she said, adding there is funding on programs that focus on retraining adults for technical jobs, weatherization jobs, nursing and nursing education.
The committee is also addressing the 3,000 high school students who graduate without a plan for the future.
There is also a plan to fund an adult technical education program in advanced manufacturing and robotic arm training, which Jerome hopes to complete in the committee this session. There is also an initiative to educate childcare workers so they earn a living wage.
“Part of this is getting people trained better and paying them more,” she said. “We want to get good-paying jobs. Let’s get people working.”
Corrections in the hot seat
Shaw has served on the House Committee on Corrections and Institutions his entire legislative career, and corrections is at the top of the legislative to-do list this session.
However, there have been issues for years. As duel investigations were being conducted regarding issues at the women’s prison in South Burlington and replacing Northwest State Correctional Facility in St. Albans, a damning story in Seven Days last month upped the ante. Charges of widespread drug abuse, sexual misconduct and threats of retaliation at the women’s prison, the Chittenden Regional Correctional Facility, led to calls for a new investigation and policy changes, as well as the resignation of Former Corrections Commissioner Mike Touchette.
Shaw said those two investigations were proceeding prior to the Seven Days article, and he is pleased that the issues are getting more attention, as the committee waits for the results and recommendations as a result. Shaw said that the Corrections Committee has been working on many of the same issues for years.
“Any issues within the corrections system are not limited to one gender,” he said, ‘but we are taking a holistic approach to the entire corrections system. I think there are going to be a lot of big policy changes coming in corrections this session.”
That includes addressing the issue of reducing the number of out-of-state prisoners. There are now 260-270 prisoners housed in Mississippi for lack of beds in Vermont, which is up almost 40 prisoners from a year ago. Gov. Phil Scott has floated plans to build a new prison in Swanton to the tune of $239 million, but with questions of location and cost, plus calls from critics for a more bottom-up approach to reduce incarceration in general, the plan did not gain any traction.
“For me, to build a new facility and not address the out-of-state population is irresponsible,” Shaw said. “It’s a big number, but you know, if we’re going to incarcerate people, we have to do it the right way.”
Strength in numbers
One of strongest caucuses in the state is the group of Rutland County legislators, who have met weekly for years during each session. The Rutland County Caucus meets every Wednesday in the Statehouse to go over issues pertaining to the constituency.
“The caucus was there when I got here (in 2010),” Shaw said. “It’s quadra-partisan, with Democrats and Republicans, one Independent (Terry Norris) and one Progressive (Robin Chesnut-Tangerman).”
Jerome said the caucus has been a great resource for her as a new legislator.
“We’re at the most northern part of Rutland County,” Jerome said. “I don’t know these people in the rest of the legislature, so as a freshman it’s been great for me to get to know these people. I can call on them and work with them. Know what committees they’re on, and ask questions.”
Shaw added that the Rutland County Caucus is strong because the members are a united front in the Legislature.
“There is power in numbers,” he said, “and when the caucus gets behind something, people will listen to what we have to say. People are actually amazed that we get together every week.”
The caucus is extremely active on the ground in Rutland County as well. Local organizations contact the caucus to speak at local events and meet to discuss issues of importance. Last year, the Rutland County Caucus was invited to 36 events from the end of September to December, Shaw said.
“It’s a great resource for us and for our constituents,” Jerome added.
Party vs. Philosophy
Ultimately, Jerome and Shaw have vowed to work together to represent Brandon, Pittsford and Sudbury; Jerome said one of the things that surprised her in her freshmen session was how much all Vermont legislators try to work together.
“They really do,” she said. “We hear so much about Washington politics and it’s not the same. People ask me how it feels to be a politician, and I say I’m not, because it doesn’t feel that way. I’m a legislator, and trying to do my job well.”
Shaw added that differing opinions among legislators are important as well, with the shared goal of serving Vermonters.
“We don’t always agree, and we shouldn’t,” he said. “We’re two different people.”
But when the difference in their parties was mentioned as a reason for those differences, Shaw countered.
“Party doesn’t mean anything,” Shaw said. “It’s philosophy. It’s personal philosophy.”
And Jerome reiterated that most of the time, Vermont legislators are working together, in her experience.
“By the end of last session, I would say 80 percent of the time we were all together,” she said. “We were all working toward the betterment of the state.”