Candidate: Brice Simon
House District: Caledonia 3 (St. Johnsbury)
Residence: St. Johnsbury
What should be legislative priorities in the next session?
COVID-19 economic recovery; universal healthcare based on the community care model replacing the antiquated fees for services model; guaranteed last mile / rural broadband access (similar to rural electrification initiative that brought electricity to Vermont’s rural farms); developing an “end homelessness first” social services policy; reduce regressive taxation and increase revenue based upon intelligently taxing wealth, consumption and externalized impacts; limit income sensitivity in the education property tax calculation so the State is not subsidizing high net worth property owners; modify marijuana laws to promote small-scale producers and craft providers much like the legislative changes that have helped promote Vermont’s craft brewery expansion; complete the Act 250 reform that will allow increased densities in designated downtowns and will streamline the permitting process in identified areas in exchange for improved protection of water quality, scenic resources and sensitive natural areas.
What would you say are the top three priorities of the people you represent?
Taxes, Jobs, Healthcare.
Define “effective legislator.”
A lawmaker capable of negotiating compromise among various factions to achieve results that are in the best interest of the people of Vermont.
Where do you feel you differ from the other contenders in your district that makes you the candidate worthy of election?
Practicing law in Vermont for the past 20 years, I have seen poorly drafted statutes result in unintended negative consequences. Regular citizens end up suffering when special interests and sensational news events monopolize the political process. The saying “bad facts make bad law” describes the phenomenon I have seen repeated many times: an emotional story emerges that inflames political passions and results in the speedy passage of a law intended to right the perceived wrong. Often, such legislation not only fails to solve the problem it purports to address but actually does more harm than good. I differ from the other candidates in my ability to discern the most appropriate policies to promote, and to ensure that legislation is drafted to better accomplish the intended public policy goals without causing unintended harm.
Does the state budget need cutting or an influx of additional revenue?
If cuts are needed, where are the areas to consider? If more revenue is needed, what would you spend it on and what tax or fee increases should be considered to pay for it?
There are areas of the budget that need to be cut, such as the amounts we pay to professional consultants, the cost of health insurance for public employees including teachers (which would actually cost less in the long run with a universal community care model), and overstaffing at certain state agencies. Additional revenue should be raised by restructuring state tax laws to be less regressive and better calibrated to excise community impacts such as environmental and social externalities and more appropriately tax the consumption of non-necessities. Just one example of progressive consumption-based tax policy would be an increase in the tax rate applied to new vehicles with a decrease in the tax rate on used vehicles. Such policies require extensive research and expert analysis, but the State of Vermont presently collects a 6% state sales tax on the purchase of all vehicles. Applying a 7% sales tax to new vehicles and a 5% tax to used vehicles would reduce the cost of purchasing a vehicle for lower-income Vermonters, modestly increase the cost of purchasing a new vehicle, and since the additional percentage point would be added to more expensive vehicles would result in increased revenue. Any additional revenue could be used to help reduce property taxes for middle-income Vermonters.
What do you think of education funding in Vermont?
I do not like Vermont’s current education funding model. The Vermont Supreme Court’s decision in Brigham v. State recognized the inappropriate “gross inequalities in educational opportunities” caused by the widely variant education resources devoted to education in different towns. I experienced this personally as a young student who moved from Plainfield to Peacham, and switched schools from Twinfield to St. Johnsbury Academy. However, the Brigham court stated: “Although the legislature should act under the Vermont Constitution to make educational opportunity available on substantially equal terms, the specific means of discharging this broadly defined duty is properly left to its discretion.”
The legislature chose, largely under the guidance of Rep. Richard Maron (R) Stowe, whom I like very much and who was a mentor to me at Stowe Rotary, to impose a statewide property tax and to roughly equalize per-pupil spending as a proxy for equal educational opportunities. Respectfully, I do not agree with Rep. Maron’s and the legislature’s approach, and I do not believe the subsequent changes to Act 60, Act 68, etc. have made the regime any better. If elected, I would seek to modernize education in Vermont. We are still employing a 1920s factory-style education model, but it is 2020 and we have the technological resources to embrace flipped classrooms and experiential learning. As with healthcare, we could reduce costs while improving quality.
Regarding education funding, at the very least we should change the income sensitivity formula to be a more gradual benefit for lower-income and middle-income Vermonters while eliminating State-funded prebates for high-net-worth individuals who choose to show artificially low income.
Do you support an increase in state funds to the Vermont State College System to aid struggling institutions like NVU-Lyndon? How much?
Yes. These are economic engines and state spending on these institutions has a multiplier effect throughout the economy. I support restoring State secondary education funding to pre-2008 recession levels.
Is there racial injustice in Vermont and, if yes, what do you propose the legislature does to address it?
Yes. Some work has already been done, but additional data collection is needed, especially regarding police contacts that do not result in citation or arrest. Vermont should set a policy goal that our prison population should contain the same proportion of minorities as the general population, and begin implementing strategies for achieving that goal, such as developing community-based treatment programs to reduce incarceration times. In addition, environmental justice should be addressed by examining whether economically disadvantaged communities are disproportionately impacted by environmental harms.
What does success from the Global Warming Solutions Act look like in Vermont? What, if any, problems could result from the GWSA?
Success would be incremental and would in my opinion include greater awareness and changed decision-making within state government to reduce our contribution toward climate change. Considering Vermont’s size, the success will be a shift in focus where we finally acknowledge as a community the seriousness of the problems we face and begin seriously addressing them even if we cannot achieve all we hope in the short term.
What, if any, additional firearms laws do you think are necessary in Vermont?
None. I would be open to discussing narrowly tailored policies to reduce, for example, the likelihood that someone having an obviously psychotic episode could easily access a firearm, but in general, I am a constitutionalist and do not believe Vermonters’ freedoms in any area should be impaired except when demonstrably beneficial to the public good. I would like to see greater consistency regarding the importance of freedom, and challenge those of you who oppose all firearms legislation to take an equally freedom-loving position on marijuana reform.
What are the strengths in the state’s economy? What are the weaknesses?
Strengths: Vermont’s natural resources, the historic development pattern of small clustered towns surrounded by open farmland, the absence of billboards and the predominance of friendly industrious people. In short, tourism, agriculture and second-home ownership bring a disproportionate amount of money into the state compared with other industries, many of which recirculate money that is already in state. Vermont’s primary economic weakness is the relatively small amount of economic activity we are able to generate due to low population and modest incomes, while still having to support the costly infrastructure of a modern state.
What can state government do to address the weaknesses?
Vermont should increase economic activity by more aggressively promoting tourism and telecommuting, as well as investing in Federally subsidized transportation infrastructure such as a high-speed train from Burlington to a large metropolitan area like Boston or New York.
Concerning the state’s plan to increase the minimum wage to $12.55 in January 2022, is the increase too much or too little?
Too little. The minimum wage should be $15.00 per hour by 2025.
What is your position on the state’s marijuana legalization efforts?
They have been inadequate and ham-handed. I have written elsewhere about promoting small-scale producers and encouraging similar businesses as our small-scale breweries. This would require a number of policy changes the legislature has been too cowardly to implement, such as allowing on-site consumption in certain circumstances. The State needs a legal marijuana market that can generate tax revenue, provide well-paying jobs, encourage a resurgence in family farming, and increase tourism. We do not need another top-down corporatist crony-capitalist marketplace dominated by large corporations. Unfortunately, the legislature seems to be failing ordinary Vermonters and looking out for special interests and pandering to law enforcement. The saliva test is a recipe for endless litigation, does not improve public safety and should be removed from the legislation.
In recent years the state has been trying to address a substantial unfunded liability in state employee retirement obligations, but the liability remains high and the number of retirees grows. What should be done?
The legislature should not make promises that future legislatures may not be able to keep without substantial hardship. Still, Vermont should not break its promises. In 1995 the State shortchanged the pension fund by around $7 million. Auditor Ed Flannagan warned the legislature at the time, “It is not fiscally prudent for us to promise today what others will have to pay for tomorrow.” State of Vermont Treasurer Beth Pearce has put the State on the right track to address the historic underfunding of the State’s pension over many legislatures and governors administrations, including Howard Dean, Jim Douglas and Peter Shumlin. We now need leadership on this issue, and I would work with Treasurer Pearce to continue the progress made to date following her recommendations.
What, if any, criminal justice and/or corrections department reforms do you advocate?
Many. I have practiced law in Vermont’s criminal courts my entire career and the system as it presently operates is completely dysfunctional. We spend too much time and money on low-level offenders, and do not have the resources or attention to adequately address the serious abusers and dealers. As we are pursuing juveniles in court for truancy and taking children away from their parents for having a messy house, we have insufficient court time to bring kidnappers and domestic abusers to trial in less than three years. Probation officers lie in wait outside probationers’ residences to see if they are home from work late so they can be violated and sent back to jail (rather than meaningfully encourage work), but don’t have the time to give rides to those needing to get to work. While this may sound exaggerated, I assure you it is worse than you think. We have created an underclass through the stigma of felony convictions, fines and penalties that can deprive reformed citizens of a driver’s licenses for years, and overwhelming people with “services” actually meant to see folks fail so they end up right back in jail. We need to completely change our entire approach to criminal justice and corrections. We should not be housing inmates out of state, and in-state inmates should be given productive work to perform if they want tablets with music and free phone calls (which they get now without having to necessarily contribute to the community). I believe in personal responsibility, but the corporatist, prison-industrial, police-industrial complexes in place do not promote personal responsibility, instead, they promote lethargy on the part of Vermont’s citizens and corporate welfare for the businesses and other private interests profiting from the dysfunction. Any time you see injustice in human systems (and people who deal with the courts and corrections every day regularly call it an “injustice system”), there are wealthy powerful people and corporations profiting. We can make better laws to achieve sound public policy in this and many other areas, but we have to have the will to stand up to the special interests that are entrenched and want to prevent reform for their own selfish reasons. Again, my ability to stand up to special interests and promote instead the interests of regular Vermonters makes me St. Johnsbury’s best candidate for the Vermont House of Representatives district Cal-3.
More About Brice
I am a partner in the law office of Breton & Brice, PLC. I have been a board member of the Lamoille Planning Commission, Lamoille Economic Development Corporation (including past president), Stowe Rotary (past president), and the Sharon, Vermont planning commission. I represented community groups against the Lowell Wind Project and Vermont Yankee. I have a Masters in Studies of Environmental Law and a J.D. from Vermont Law School, and a B.A. in philosophy from the University of New Hampshire. I enjoy backcountry skiing, mountain biking and stand-up paddleboarding. I have successfully litigated dozens of civil cases and probably over a hundred criminal cases in 20 years practicing law in Vermont. I was born in Burlington, raised mostly in Plainfield and Peacham, and lived in St. Johnsbury during my senior year at the Academy and came back to St. J during college when my parents lived on Summer Street. I worked for Youth Services in college helping with family visits to the jail, and pumped gas at Harold’s Service Station (now replaced at the end of Railroad Street with a more modern facility). I am an ardent constitutionalist and if elected would attempt to conform the laws to the constitutional guarantees of freedom and rule of law. Freedom and Unity!