Local state reps outline priorities for 2021 session

Photo by Jonathan King

By Cherise Madigan
©2021 Telegraph Publishing LLC

Local state legislators returned remotely to Montpelier for the 2021 session, focusing on the Covid-19 pandemic and recovery efforts.

To find out what local legislators were specifically addressing this session, The Telegraph spoke with Reps. Tom Bock of Chester (D-Windsor 3-1), Kelly Pajala of Londonderry (I-Windham-Bennington-Windsor),  Linda Joy Sullivan of Dorset (D, Bennington-Rutland) and John Arrison of Weathersfield (D, Windsor-2).

Bock: Help for small biz during pandemic

Tom Bock is entering his third term in the Vermont legislature. Bock served on Chester’s Select Board for nearly 10 years, and led the town’s Planning Commission for 25. He is currently a ranking member of the House Committee on Agriculture and Forestry.

Covid-19 concerns are driving legislation this year, Bock said, with legislative leadership indicating that only bills dealing with Covid or other emergency situations will be taken up. Extending unemployment benefits for workers impacted by the pandemic was a good start, he said, but the state will also need to ensure an effective vaccine response.

“We’ve got to stop this disease,” he said. “It’s very important that Vermonters keep up on when their turn is, get in line, and get their shot.”

“Many small businesses in my district have received grant money to survive,” he said. “I’ve also helped many people access unemployment benefits who were having a tough time getting through the government rules and regulations.”

Going into the next session, Bock is eyeing legislation having to do with clean water, Act 250 reform  and improving agricultural diversity. Before that, however, he hopes to see legislators return to the statehouse in-person.

“As much as it’s comfortable Zooming from home, it’s definitely not good government,” Bock added. “I miss the face to face conversations regarding legislation.”

Pajala: affordable child-care, early education

Kelly Pajala, Londonderry’s Town Clerk and chair of the town’s Parks Board, has served in the legislature for four years.

“It’s fascinating to understand the relationship between local and state government,” she said. “It helps me to better serve the people that live here.”

Pajala points to the “vitally important” issue of affordable child care, which she may have the opportunity to address in the House Committee on Human Services. There, she expects to spend “a fair amount of time” discussing child-care and early education — specifically, whether to move the state’s Child Development Division to the Agency of Education. Currently, child development is under the purview of the Agency of Human Services.

“That conversation is at the top of my mind for both policy and financial reasons,” she said, adding that the legislation has not been introduced yet but is expected soon.

Another piece of legislation that Pajala hopes to see movement on this year is geared toward creating a more equitable way to raise tax dollars to finance Vermont’s education system.  That bill — for which Pajala is a co-sponsor — has been presented to the committee, she said, and is driven by a 2019 report from the Agency of Education indicating that per-pupil spending may not be equitable.

“This is vitally important no matter where you live in the state,” Pajala said. “We have a really good study that points out where a huge inequity lies, so it’s pretty imperative that we address that.”

The expansion of after-school programs will be Pajala’s focus as co-chair of the Task Force for Universal Afterschool Access, which she says is looking for ways to expand such programs, particularly in under-served communities. A report from the task force is expected in mid-April, she said.

Arrison: Reining in costs

John Arrison is the newest representative from the region, having been elected in November. He’s served as chairman of Weathersfield’s Democratic Committee as well as on the town’s Select Board.

This has been a unique year to be sworn in to the legislature, Arrison admits, though he’s “not optimistic” that the legislature will convene in person anytime soon.

Economic issues are at the forefront for the freshman representative, who is encouraged by the fact that state revenues seem to have been less impacted by the pandemic than previously thought. Still, Arrison sees a need to rein in cost increases for state health insurance and education.

“The two are tied together in that double-digit health care premium increases means fewer dollars that can be spent on education,” he said. “The increases are not sustainable”

Though he has no background in education, Arrison says he was appointed to the House Committee on Education to provide “an outside perspective.”  As a first year legislator, Arrison says his motto is to “keep his ears open to listen more than talk.”

Sullivan: Public safety, business growth

Linda Joy Sullivan, a Certified Public Accountant, is currently in her third term. She has served her community in Dorset as a Justice of the Peace and on the Board of Civil Authorities.

“This past year has been extremely difficult for families across not only our state, but across the country,” said Sullivan. Following such a tumultuous year nationwide, she hopes that a lack of partisanship will also define the session ahead.

Her priorities, as the session begins, are “public safety and the health and well-being of the people of Vermont and the economic growth for businesses …”

Ensuring economic opportunities for Vermont businesses is high on Sullivan’s list and, with her background in finance, Sullivan is also keeping tabs on issues including “the ever-increasing public pension liability gap” and the potential for misappropriated CARES Act funds.

Recently re-assigned to the House Committee on Corrections and Institutions, Sullivan expects to engage with subjects including the current status of prisons and transitional housing, bail, and women’s incarceration this year.

Sullivan has two bills in progress, one of which deals with pandemic-related affordable housing issues and broadband. The legislation is aimed at improving rent stabilization and economic mobility, she said. She is also introducing a bill addressing potential conflicts of interest on the state’s Climate Council, and co-sponsoring legislation dealing with making women’s hygiene products more affordable and accessible as well as reforming Vermont’s bail system.

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Filed Under: ChesterFeaturedLatest NewsLondonderry

About the Author: Journalist and photographer Cherise Madigan specializes in writing about outdoor recreation, the environment and travel. She has roots in Manchester and a history of reporting throughout Southern Vermont. Madigan is a graduate of Nazareth College of Rochester, earning her degree in Political Science summa cum laude in 2015.

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