Candidate: Sarah Copeland-Hanzas
House District: Orange 2 (Bradford, Fairlee, West Fairlee)
What should be legislative priorities in the next session?
In 2021 we will be focused on recovering from the economic impacts of Covid-19. We have Vermonters who are still suffering from job losses and businesses whose 2020 has been completely in the red. Our focus needs to be on getting Vermont families and Vermont businesses back to work and stronger than before. To do that we will need to prepare to maintain critical safety net services and to focus future federal stimulus dollars where Vermonters are hurting.
What would you say are the top three priorities of the people you represent?
Access to high speed internet has come into even sharper focus for my communities. No longer is access to internet a boutique issue, we are now fully aware of the very real education and employment consequences for rural Vermonters who don’t have adequate internet. The other two issues are around education and employment. We need to be able to maintain our public schools, even in the face of budget challenges. Schools are the heart of our communities, where parents and grandparents come together for community events. We need strong, vibrant public schools to attract the families who are looking for the right town to raise a family. Hand in hand with that is employment. When we have fully blanketed our communities with the essential infrastructure of high speed internet, more of our neighbors will be able to take a job anywhere and work from home. More of our entrepreneurs will be able to compete on a global stage, while enjoying the benefit of launching their business from their garage.
Define “effective legislator.”
In order to be an effective legislator one needs to be able to talk to citizens, advocates and House and Senate members from across the state, hear their ideas and concerns and then talk through solutions that work as well in Fairlee as they do in Fairfax. This takes patience, openness, honesty and creativity. And it requires a willingness to work collaboratively with a large group of Vermonters who were duly elected by their communities, regardless of political affiliation.
Where do you feel you differ from the other contenders in your district that makes you the candidate worthy of election?
One of the least understood and most important parts of being a State Representative is the work we do behind the scenes to advocate for our constituents when government isn’t working for them. Sometimes a business feels they have been unfairly treated by the Department of Environmental Conservation. In those cases I can call the commissioner and ask for a review of the case. Sometimes I hear from neighbors who have filed taxes on time, but the Tax Department has not responded in a timely manner. I heard from a new entrepreneur this spring who wanted to start a small business, but found that the barrier for permitting his business was set unfairly high. So I can work within the agency to ask for an exception to that arbitrary threshold, or I can work with my colleagues in the Legislature to push through a change in the law to allow this small business to operate. My experience working within the legislature and with various heads of agencies in state government means that I can get speedy responses when my neighbors are having trouble with a state agency.
Does the state budget need cutting or an influx of additional revenue?
It is too soon to tell whether the answer next year will be cut or 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 a number of high income Vermonters who have seen their tax bill cut significantly due to Trump Administration tax cuts. This is highly unfair to the store clerk, the hygienist, the logger, the carpenter and the teacher who did not benefit from a tax break. These are our neighbors who struggle to save for retirement or college for their kids with the wages they make. If we need revenue, the fairest place to look would be with people making the most, so that the government works for all of us, not just a select few.
What do you think of education funding in Vermont?
Property value is not a fair indication of someone’s ability to pay. For one thing, out of state multi-millionaires influence the property value within Vermont when they look to our beautiful state for their second or third home. This creates higher property “values” without regard to whether that means you can afford to pay those higher taxes. We need to move away from the assessed value of your property dictating what you can afford to pay to fund your school. We’ve made some moves in that direction with the property tax adjustment, but it’s still not fair enough. We should do more to move to steady revenue sources that don’t pit Vermont residents against wealthy out of state landowners.
Do you support an increase in state funds to the Vermont State College System to aid struggling institutions like NVU-Lyndon? How much?
Short answer, yes, we must ensure the stability of our State College system. And the question is not “how much” but “how”. We don’t want to shift that funding onto the property tax payer, as some elected officials have proposed by saying our Education Fund must provide “cradle to career” education. But we must evaluate the full benefit of the state colleges to our rural communities and carefully consider how to strengthen those colleges and the communities they serve. Partnerships between the colleges, businesses and government could fuel a regrowth and vitality that could benefit our state.
Is there racial injustice in Vermont and, if yes, what do you propose the legislature does to address it?
There are little injustices that occur in Vermont every single day. Whether it’s a stare, a clutched purse, someone crossing the street to avoid you, or a question about where you’re from, BIPOC Vermonters encounter little things every day that add up to injustice. Setting aside for a moment the instances of outright racism and bias that I have seen with my own eyes, there are so many Vermonters who simply have no idea that these little injustices occur or how it feels like to walk around in black or brown skin in this state. Because of this, I hope we can explore a Truth and Reconciliation Commission in Vermont. This is a process where we can all come to understand each other’s experiences in a way that will bring us together as a stronger community.
What does success from the Global Warming Solutions Act look like in Vermont? What, if any, problems could result from the GWSA?
The Climate Council, made up of administration appointees and Vermont business and community leaders, will chart a course to help Vermonters shift away from reliance on fossil fuels, and will prioritize the ways that this shift can save our families and businesses money. Savings come when weatherization makes your building or home cheaper to heat and cool. It comes when we expand reliable bus services so we don’t have to drive every day to work or shop. The Council will present the parts of the plan that need funding to the Governor and the Legislature, and when rules and regulations need to be updated, the Legislature will have to approve that as well.
One of the biggest problems will be if the Council is hamstrung by appointees with an agenda to delay or stall. We have had greenhouse gas reduction targets in law, affirmed and reaffirmed by governors from both political parties. This Council is the best chance we have to invest in the energy infrastructure of the future. Over the next decade, economies around the world will be investing many billions of dollars in the clean energy transition. We can choose to swim with the current, and invite some of that investment to happen here in Vermont, or we can swim against it. The faster we make that transition, the better off our economy and our climate will be.
What, if any, additional firearms laws do you think are necessary in Vermont?
Suicide prevention and domestic violence prevention are the main areas of focus for me when it comes to gun safety. Statistics show that a delay in even a few hours when a suicidal person gets their hands on a weapon can give time for that person to get help.
What are the strengths in the state’s economy? What are the weaknesses? What can state government do to address the weaknesses?
Vermont has a vibrant tourism economy, and that is also a weakness, as many restaurant, lodging and events businesses will tell you this year. We can encourage other business sectors like the renewable energy sector which saw remarkable job growth in the early 2010’s until this current administration’s policies curbed its growth. We can grow our construction industry by streamlining weatherization programs so that Vermonters can afford to button up their homes, and so that our contractors can expand to pick up that work. We can invest in high speed internet so that more Vermonters with entrepreneurial inspiration can grow a business out of their barn or garage.
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 believe we need to have a gradually and steadily increasing minimum wage in Vermont. We should aim to get to the point where a person working full time can support their household. Where the dignity of a livable wage lets parents have home time on evenings or weekends to raise their kids instead of requiring them to work three jobs. I have owned a Main Street business for 10 years now. During this time the minimum wage has risen from $8.25 to nearly $11/hour. Each time we have made small adjustments to our prices. And the most hopeful, helpful and enduring benefit of this raise in the minimum wage is the peace of mind it brings to my employees. Gone are the days when workers on my opening shift have to call in late in every snowstorm because $8.25/hour doesn’t pay enough for them to be able to buy snow tires. No longer do I have to schedule around a cashier who’s holding down two or three jobs.
What is your position on the state’s marijuana legalization efforts?
We’ve had a vibrant cannabis industry in Vermont for forever. The move to create a regulated market is one that makes sense in Vermont for many reasons. First, for consumer protection. Currently, there is no testing of products or rules around pesticide use, and no way to prevent someone from lacing cannabis with other products. There is no legal or safe place to buy cannabis if you don’t want to or can’t grow your own. Second, every cannabis seller is currently breaking the law. So there’s little incentive for them not to sell to a young person; one illegal sale is the same as another. When we bring cannabis sales into the regulated market, there will be fewer illicit market sellers out there cruising the parking lot at the local high school for customers. And a portion of the revenue from the legal sale of cannabis will be dedicated to youth prevention activities.
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?
Retired state employees dedicated their career to working for us and our neighbors. Vermont owes them the retirement security they were promised. The strain on the current retirement funds come from mistakes made in the past about how to predict how much money would come from those funds as they were being invested. If a change needs to be made, it needs to be made by the careful, conservative projection of future investment returns, and with the full participation of the legislature, the executive branch and current and retired state employees.
What, if any, criminal justice and/or corrections department reforms do you advocate?
We need more robust data collection in the justice and corrections systems. If there is implicit or explicit bias against BIPOC Vermonters, data will show where it is happening and we can make changes to the systems to ensure equal justice under the law. The bill S. 124, as passed out of my committee in September, called for the beginning of that process of collecting data in all the indicators of well-being that the State collects. When we ask the right questions, and collect the full data, we can design the right answers.
It shouldn’t be a side note, but sadly, I believe it is, that our corrections system has been strained and underfunded for far too long. Our corrections officers have an unfathomably difficult job, and the understaffing at our corrections institutions has forced many to work mandatory overtime and in other harsh and dangerous working conditions that few of us would endure for long. If we want to reform our corrections system, we should recognize that it starts with a realistic assessment of what it truly costs to incarcerate people convicted of crimes. Punishing our corrections employees with brutal working conditions is counter to the goals we should have of incarceration, correction and reentry into society.
More About Sarah
Rep. Sarah Copeland Hanzas was first elected to the House in 2004. She has served on the Health Care Committee and is currently Chair of Government Operations. She is a small business owner, The Local Buzz Cafe on Main Street in Bradford, which opened in 2010. She and her husband John have three young adult children.