Candidate: Joe Benning
Senate District: Caledonia-Orange (All Caledonia County towns, plus Bradford, Orange, Newbury, Topsham, Fairlee and W. Fairlee in Orange County)
What should be legislative priorities in the next session?
The next legislative session will be one of the most challenging in the State’s history. Prior to Covid-19 our pension liabilities were pressing on our ability to provide basic services. We received a temporary reprieve with a massive infusion of federal money that will likely not be available next year. This perfect storm requires the legislature to be laser focused on the most basic needs while having the courage to understand generating a revenue-producing economy is fundamental to our State’s well-being. It will be no time for special interests.
What would you say are the top three priorities of the people you represent?
First and foremost, this senatorial district needs businesses that can sustain good, well-paying jobs. That requires understanding and cognizance of our constant challenge of competing with that more business-friendly state across the river. Secondly, I believe it is imperative to keep NVU-Lyndon as a thriving academic and economic engine for the northeast corner of the State. Related to that is an educational system from kindergarten through college that enables our graduates to compete in a global marketplace. Finally, we must complete that last mile roll out of broadband to enable our entire district to be on par with the rest of the world.
Define “effective legislator.”
I define an “effective legislator” as someone who has gained the trust of his/her colleagues, has demonstrated an ability to work across the aisle in the interest of all Vermonters, and has a track record of producing results for the benefit of those they represent. In the 10 years I’ve been a legislator, I take pride in several bills I introduced that have become law. For instance, the very first bill I signed onto brought an expungement process to Vermont that didn’t exist previously. Since then over 14,000 Vermonters have been able to clean their criminal records of minor offenses, many of which took place several decades before. That enables them to do simple things like attend their grandchild’s school field trip as a chaperone. I fought to forestall closure of three state colleges, including NVU-Lyndon, and initiated delay in implementation of an administrative rule that would have shut down the demo derby at Caledonia County Fair. A review of my biography shows numerous positions of authority bestowed upon me by my colleagues, which puts me in a great position to assist constituents who have run into obstacles with state government. I hope I fit the definition of “effective legislator.”
Where do you feel you differ from the other contenders in your district that makes you the candidate worthy of election?
With the exception of my present seat-mate, I have far more experience as a legislator than the other three contenders. This is critical as we approach re-apportionment and legislative district lines are re-drawn based on the 2020 census. This district has suffered losses in its population and there will be great pressure to reduce the number of legislators now representing the Northeast Kingdom. To challenge that, we need legislators with strong voices to be representing us during those discussions. I am also the last standing Republican State Senator east of the Green Mountains. Coupled with my positions of influence on numerous committees, I believe I’m well-suited as a change agent to swing the conversation in our favor.
Does the state budget need cutting or an influx of additional revenue?
Over the past few years Governor Phil Scott has held the line on increased taxes. As a general rule, I have supported that position. I’d like to say we can continue to hold that line, but Covid-19 will have a significant impact on all state revenue streams in ways we’ve never had to deal with before. The temporary infusion of federal funds to offset that was a good short-term help, but I’m afraid the expectations of some when that money dries up will not be attainable. To declare “no new taxes” is easy; to actually make that work may prove to be impossible without an economy that has completely turned around. In short, I can’t rule out the possibility that both will be needed. If additional revenue is needed, I would prefer to utilize alternatives (ie. cannabis taxes) that we’ve never used before, as opposed to simply raising existing taxes. I would also be urging that those additional revenues sunset after a given period of time to get us through the present crisis.
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?
Let me start by saying there is no magic wand to wave that easily answers this question. Anyone who claims otherwise is being disingenuous or is unaware of how the system works. But let’s start with the obvious elephant in the room- our pension liabilities. As we continue to devote resources toward elimination of that constantly growing debt, we steal from the very services we need to have for our citizens. We have got to first get that debt under control. We simply cannot continue to pay new government and public employees the same benefits that current employees enjoy. I know that statement will not sit well in certain quarters, but it is being honest. As for what “areas” beyond that, the simple reply is “all areas.” We have no choice. Our decreasing and aging population does not bode well if we continue on the spending path we’ve been on. I’ve long advocated for a complete examination of every agency, every function and every employee to ask a simple question: “Is this necessary, or is this nice?” If it is necessary we will need to keep it. If it is only nice, serious questions have to be asked about whether we can afford to keep it. This will be a difficult exercise, but it is becoming more obvious that it is one we need to do. Someday I hope there will be enough legislators in the building who agree with me and are willing to take that job on. It’s the only way I see Vermont surviving.
What do you think of education funding in Vermont?
This remains an elusive question to solve. The past decade, in response to ever-rising local property taxes, saw complicated efforts to address the problem and try to bring equity to students across the state at the same time. I’ve supported efforts to decrease the bureaucracy to minimize cost, but there is a serious perception out there that local control has been eroded. I do not believe the current funding system can be easily explained to anyone. I also think the complicated funding process is leaving citizens feeling like they have lost control or had that control limited. I’m as frustrated as anybody else. I suspect the education funding system will be a source of consternation for quite a few years to come, but I have no easy answer for it.
Do you support an increase in state funds to the Vermont State College System to aid struggling institutions like NVU-Lyndon? How much?
Absolutely. For starters, this is actually mandated by statute. Unfortunately the legislature has dropped the ball on living up to that mandate. I supported the 30 million dollar bridge funding necessary to get them through the immediate emergency. It is likely they will need at least that much on an annual basis moving forward, and that is on top of the money they’ve traditionally received annually. But getting there is going to take a lot of work and serious concentration by the legislators who represent the districts wherein those colleges exist. Because I see these institutions as critical components of both Vermont’s academic and economic responsibilities, I’ll continue to place them high on my priority list.
Is there racial injustice in Vermont and, if yes, what do you propose the legislature does to address it?
Yes. At the moment I am co-author and/or supporter of several bills working their way to the Governor’s desk. They range from setting guidelines for police use of force, to tweaking the kinds of offenses for which people are incarcerated, to collection of police data to analyze who gets arrested, to placing Abenaki names on our state parks, to setting policy on how the statehouse art collection is purchased and displayed. For my efforts I was asked to join the racial equity caucus. If re-elected I will continue to work on any effort to bring all Vermonters justice no matter their individual makeup.
What does success from the Global Warming Solutions Act look like in Vermont? What, if any, problems could result from the GWSA?
Honestly, I believe this was not one of the legislature’s best moves. It is disingenuous, at best, to believe Vermont has it within its power to “solve global warming.” The title attracts people with emotion, but the reality is the GWSA will cause far more problems than it will do to produce a reduction in carbon output. Your word limitation prohibits full discussion, but here are some highlights. First, taking what were “goals” and turning them into “mandates” without legislative guidance on how to get there is problematic. Instead we’ve created a 23-member council, new faces requiring at least per diem expenses at a time when we already can’t afford what we’re doing, and vests them with the responsibility of establishing rules the legislature should not abdicate. They in turn will require “X” and will require the Agency of Natural Resources to enforce “X.” ANR has made it clear they do not have the personnel to enforce “X.” The lowest hanging fruit to reach the new mandates involve two things Vermonters cannot stop doing: driving gas powered automobiles and heating their homes with oil. Thus, Vermont will not meet the mandates and we will be sued, by literally anyone upset that we haven’t. Then what? A judge will issue an order, we will not be able to abide by that order, and a judge will issue a contempt order. How do we purge that contempt? Money? Or is someone thrown in jail until we do? At the end of the day this was feel good legislation in a conversation that belongs at the national level if we have any chance of actually reaching a registerable reduction in carbon output. The fact that the current national administration does not seem interested in having that discussion is no reason for Vermont to pretend it can, or to bankrupt us for failure to meet mandates we already know we can’t meet.
What, if any, additional firearms laws do you think are necessary in Vermont?
What are the strengths in the state’s economy? What are the weaknesses?
Our greatest strength is our people, who represent a workforce determined to do their best. When ideas are put together I believe we have no limits and it is exciting to think about the possibilities. We also have a clean environment, a recreational topography that cannot be beat, and offer a lifestyle that is unique with a Vermont brand. Unfortunately, we are also saddled with a shrinking workforce, an aging population, infrastructure challenges and an incomplete roll out of broadband/cell phone coverage.
What can state government do to address the weaknesses?
Oddly enough, Covid-19 may be having a positive impact on our workforce challenges, so it is possible that problem may take care of itself. We’ve got to fix crumbling infrastructure and finish providing the best tool for improving our economy: broadband/cell phone coverage. We can also keep taxes as low as possible to entice businesses to come here. After that, I believe the “Vermont way” will carry us the distance.
Concerning the state’s plan to increase the minimum wage to $12.55 in January 2022, is the increase too much or too little?
While I understand the pressure the lowest wage earners among us are under, I am also worried about the balancing test this district has to go through when dealing with the competition for businesses across the Connecticut River. I think it is too soon to predict what January 2022 will look like, but I can say that right now there are far too many closed storefronts on the west side of that river. So I will be watching this next couple of years very closely.
What is your position on the state’s marijuana legalization efforts?
There are three parts that I see in this question. First, should cannabis have been legalized? Yes, I believe we lost the so-called “War on Drugs” decades ago at tremendous cost to society as a whole. For that reason I co-authored the bill that brought legalization. Second, should sales of cannabis be conducted in a taxed and regulated environment? Vermont has been either at the top or just under it for over a decade now on per capita consumption of cannabis. The legislature has done exhaustive research on this subject and has confirmed it time and again. But legalizing consumption without providing a legal place to purchase has only continued an underground economy that is not wise, especially since our youth are getting it from drug dealers who are more interested in selling much more harmful products from the back seats of cars. For that reason I co-authored the bill now sitting on the Governor’s desk which will create a taxed and regulated market. My hope is that this will impede youth access, provide a safe product, and provide a revenue stream to deal with opioid prevention, education and law enforcement. Finally, in arriving at this “legalized” environment we have recognized the harm done to tens of thousands of our citizens over the years through prohibition. I support the legislation that automatically removes from criminal records any record of a conviction for possession of what is now a legal product.
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?
As I referred to in a previous question, we have to stop digging this hole. Newly hired employees must be treated differently in the design of pension they get than those who are currently public employees. There is no other choice if this hole is going to be filled. We simply cannot afford what we are doing and hard choices have to start someplace. This would let us say we’ve lived up to our promises to current employees, but forces us to recognize that we do not have endless resources.
What, if any, criminal justice and/or corrections department reforms do you advocate?
As chair of Senate Institutions, chair of the Joint Committee on Judicial Rules, a member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, and as a criminal defense attorney for over 37 years, I am literally immersed in this question. As previously noted, I am either co-author or fully supportive of a host of efforts to revise our criminal justice system and correctional oversight. I believe all Vermont inmates should be housed in Vermont. I am proud to have been a part of the Senate Judiciary Committee, which has spearheaded reduction in the number of incarcerated inmates at the same time we have seen a reduction in violent crime in Vermont. Our State has been nationally recognized for this progress. Those incarcerated must receive programming to enable them to re-enter society without further risk to re-offend. While incarcerated, they must be treated as human beings, not subject to inappropriate behavior or living conditions, and given every opportunity to become productive members of society upon re-entry.
More About Joe
Senate Minority Leader; Chair, Senate Institutions Committee, Chair; Joint Legislative Committee on Judicial Rules; Chair, Senate Ethics Panel; Vice-Chair, Senate Sexual Harassment Panel; Member, Joint Legislative Management Committee; Member, Joint Rules Committee and Senate Rules Committee; Member, Legislative Committee on Administrative Rules; Member, Senate Judiciary Committee; Former Chair, Vermont Human Rights Commission; Moderator, Town of Lyndon. He lives with his wife, Deb, who is a second grade teacher at Lyndon Town School.