Election 2020: Candidate Jane Kitchel

Sen. Jane Kitchel

Candidate: Jane Kitchel

Senate District: Caledonia-Orange (All Caledonia County towns, plus Bradford, Orange, Newbury, Topsham, Fairlee and W. Fairlee in Orange County)

Party: Democrat

Residence: Danville

What should be legislative priorities in the next session?

Addressing the ongoing challenges that COVID is placing on the state. If additional relief comes from Congress using those funds in most strategic way to mitigate the financial impact on the different sectors of the Vermont economy and to stabilize essential services to vulnerable Vermonters.

Writing a balanced budget that supports the core functions of government and reflects social and economic needs of citizens.

Re-starting the economy once the pandemic is over.

What would you say are the top three priorities of the people you represent?

Preventing the spread of COVID and school safety

Jobs, broadband and policies that strengthen our rural economy

A state budget that is balanced and programs that are effective and responsive

Define “effective legislator.”

An effective legislator is someone who listens to all points of view and makes informed decisions, who is fair, able to work with others, does his/her homework and does not claim credit for, but recognizes, the work of others.

Where do you feel you differ from the other contenders in your district that makes you the candidate worthy of election?

I bring to the Senate 35 years of experience in state government, more than 15 years of which I served in executive-level positions, which gives me a unique understanding of funding sources, the state budget, public policy, program objectives, legislative history and their interrelationships. I grew up in Danville on one of the few remaining century farms in a family where public service was valued and expected.

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?

The unknown in answering this question is the extent to which the federal government will provide additional revenues to states. If the increased federal funding match for Medicaid continues this could result in an additional $110 million in fiscal year 2022 and dramatically change the budgetary landscape. State revenues for FY 2022 have been revised to be $104 million less than projected pre-COVID. To close this gap without federal aid would require substantial budget reductions, use of reserve funds (Vermont has built its reserves to over $200 million) and as a last resort some strategic tax or fee increases. There is some good news in that, current revenues are running ahead of the official forecast, so FY 2021 is off to a sound start despite COVID. In building any budget the first place to start is to tighten spending. This is happening now with hiring freezes and reductions in operating expenditures. The important guideline is to not achieve savings by simply deferring fiscal obligations which is what happened years ago with pension contributions and these deferrals are now creating enormous pressure on the budget.

There is a regular schedule to update user fees to reflect inflationary costs. The most common of which are to fund our transportation infrastructure through vehicle registrations and drivers’ licenses. To postpone these updates will only result in bigger future increases. We also need to at some point implement a fee structure for electric vehicles in lieu of a gas tax.

What do you think of education funding in Vermont?

This is a topic of decades-long debate. For some, the primary issue is the per pupil spending of our K-12 system. For others, the issue is not cost, but instead a desire to replace the property tax with an income tax so that higher income households pay a school tax based on income rather than the value of property. And for others, the concern is a system that disconnects local spending decisions from the property tax impact on other Vermonters. The historical advantage of the property tax option is that it is a very stable revenue source since higher incomes can be very volatile in economic downturns due to the nature of the household’s income.

Unlike any other area of the state budget spending for schools, which constitutes about one-third of the state budget, is determined by local voters – not the Legislature. It is not subject to the normal legislative appropriations process of testimony, review, or modification. Funding of schools comes from a separate Education Fund that consists of revenues from the statewide school property tax, along with all sales tax revenues, 25% of room and meals revenues, one-third of the purchase and use taxes paid for vehicle purchases and all lottery profits. Although the total amount of school spending is determined locally, funding must be appropriated from the Education Fund through the state budget process.

Do you support an increase in state funds to the Vermont State College System to aid struggling institutions like NVU-Lyndon? How much?

I am on record as supporting our state colleges and preventing the closure of the Lyndon, Johnson, and Randolph campuses. I worked to include in our budgets the required bridge funding of over $35 million. I view the colleges as not only an important sector of the NEK economy, but an educational resource to Vermont students who otherwise would not have access to a college education. Today’s world of higher education is incredibly challenging, but I am optimistic that with more time that a bridge year will provide the system can emerge stronger and more financial stable than before.

Is there racial injustice in Vermont and, if yes, what do you propose the legislature does to address it?

The Senate Judiciary Committee has been focused on these issues for several years. Vermont data show that there is racial bias in our criminal justice system, and we know from organizations representing Vermonters of color that like all states we need to make improvements. In response the following legislation has been enacted: 1. Established Office of Racial Equity at the highest level of state government to identify and root out racial disparities in every aspect of state government 2. Require the use of body cameras by all state troopers 3. Holding back grant funds to any law enforcement agency that fails to provide racial data to the state as required by law 4. Prohibited the use of choke holds that prevent breathing 5. Created a use of deadly force policy and use of force policy 6. Passed the Justice Reinvestment bill – the most significant criminal justice reform legislation in 15 years that will strengthen community supports and services to prevent incarceration and eliminate the need to contract for out-of-state prison beds 7. Passed the expungement law for low-level drug offenses which is estimated to wipe the slate clean for more than 10,000 Vermonters 8. Added embedded mental health workers in every police barracks 9. Placed the Director of Racial Equity on the Police Training Council and added two citizens who are NAACP members to the Council.

What does success from the Global Warming Solutions Act look like in Vermont? What, if any, problems could result from the GWSA?

Vermont would have a structure for ongoing policy development, data analysis and planning to address the inevitable need to reduce the emissions that are contributing to climate change as well as proven strategies to ameliorate the impacts of climate change. Mitigation practices would be in place to minimize impact of severe weather events on infrastructure such as flood-prone mobile home parks, roads, and bridges to prevent washouts and erosion. With expanded weatherization efforts, Vermont families would be paying less for heating their homes. Electrical demand would be better managed, and off-peak usage would be optimized. Policies would be sensitive to the impact on working Vermonters and household with more limited incomes.

What, if any, additional firearms laws do you think are necessary in Vermont?

The Legislature passed a bill that I did vote for that would put in place a waiting period for the purchase of a firearm. This bill was based on evidence that such a policy had a beneficial impact on reducing suicides and was viewed as a public health strategy. This bill was vetoed by the Governor and no action was taken to override the veto. I concluded that if such a delay could save the life of anyone’s family member, it was warranted. I would vote for waiting period legislation again for the same reason.

What are the strengths in the state’s economy? What are the weaknesses? What can state government do to address the weaknesses?

The diversity and percentage of small businesses are a strength. We have a robust entrepreneurial spirit here in the state and are fortunate to have a significant presence of community banks that are critical to providing the needed capital for these businesses to grow. These institutions know their service areas and are committed to supporting a thriving local economy. The size and aging of our workforce is a challenge; however, it appears that COVID may have brought an influx of young families into the state because of our quality of life and the perceived safety of living here. We need to continue our efforts on broadband access which according to economists is the most important investment we can make in economic development. The legislation enabling the creation of Communication Union Districts (CUDs) is an important step in this direction and we have used the federal Corona Relief funding as much as possible to support the development of the CUDs.

We must improve the rate in which our youth go on to further certificate training or higher education after high school graduation. While Vermont has a high graduation rate, it has an unacceptably low continuation rate in further education or skills development activities. A skilled workforce is an essential component of a strong economy.

Concerning the state’s plan to increase the minimum wage to $12.55 in January 2022, is the increase too much or too little?

I voted to increase Vermont’s minimum wage to $12.55. Before the pandemic, many employers were having to pay more than this wage to attract workers, so in many respects this wage only mirrors what had already happened in the labor market due to the workforce shortage. Because of low wages, many of these workers have had to rely on public benefits such as food stamps and health care assistance as well as the charitable food system.

What is your position on the state’s marijuana legalization efforts?

Until this session with S. 54, I had voted against any bills to tax and regulate marijuana. While I remain concerned over the public health issues with this drug, I had to conclude that what we have been doing for years is simply not working. A Rand study estimated that 80,000 Vermonters use marijuana. It is my hope that with a regulated market there will be greater health protections in place. While revenues are of secondary importance, the bill does place a sales tax on the product and these revenues will be used to support after school programs. In addition, up to $10 million is allocated for prevention programs.

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?

For approximately a decade the state’s pension obligation for state employees and teachers were not fully funded. For reasons, I cannot reconstruct, when Act 60 was passed the cost of paying teacher retirement benefits for currently employed teacher were not moved to the Education Fund. As a result, the General Fund is currently carrying the fiscal burden for both groups of employees. While suggestions have been made to modify the pension systems, this does not make the need for the state to meet these contractual obligations disappear. In the FY 2021 budget these obligations were fully funded and we must continue this practice. The painful lesson to be learned here is not to defer contractual obligations – it only magnifies the problem for future legislators to tackle.

More About Jane

Thirty-five years employment in the Executive Branch of Vermont State government (1967-2002)

*Appointed Deputy Commissioner of the Department of Social Welfare by Governor Madeleine Kunin (1985-1992)

* Appointed Commissioner of the Department of Social Welfare by Governor Howard Dean (1992-2000)

* Appointed Secretary of the Agency of Human Service by Governor Howard Dean (2000-2002)

Elected to Vermont State Senate 2004-present

• Vice Chair, Senate Appropriations Committee (2005-2010)

• Chair, Senate Appropriations Committee (2010 – present)

• Clerk and former Vice Chair Senate Transportation Committee (2007- present)

Senate appointee to the following Committees:

• Joint Fiscal Committee (former chair)

• Legislative Management Committee

• Joint Information Technology Oversight Committee

• Health Care Reform Oversight Committee

• Public Transit Advisory Council

Community Activities - Currently serve on the following Boards:

• Northeast Kingdom Human Services

• Northern Vermont Area Health Education Center

• Northeastern Vermont Development Association

• Margaret Pratt Residential Care Facility

• Local Chamber of Commerce

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