By Lisa Loomis
The Valley Reporter asked a variety of local community leaders to provide questions for the four candidates running for two state representative seats for the Washington 7 district which includes Warren, Waitsfield, Fayston, Moretown and Duxbury.
The candidates are incumbents Adam Greshin, I-Warren, and Maxine Grad, D-Moretown. Challengers are Ed Read, I-Fayston, and Heidi Spear, I-Fayston. Candidates will be answering questions from community members in the upcoming issues of The Valley Reporter leading up to the newspaper's candidate forum at Big Picture Theater in Waitsfield on October 27 at 7 p.m.
Tom Mehuron, Mehuron's Supermarket, Waitsfield
How do you see the state of Vermont being able to keep affording the best social service benefits with a shrinking younger workforce without raising taxes? Especially income tax.
Greshin: The only way to support our existing network of social programs without raising taxes is to achieve healthier economic growth. A strong economy will reduce the growth in human service spending and increase tax receipts which typically grow at the rate of the underlying economy. State spending on health care and human services in the past decade has increased over 4 percent annually, more than twice the rate of growth in our economy. In past years, federal dollars have been used to support and even expand popular programs such as LIHEAP (fuel assistance), the Child Care Financial Assistance Program and 3SquaresVT (food assistance). Federal cutbacks and sluggish growth in state revenues threaten our ability to maintain these and other services. Absent a return to pre-recession economic growth rates, we face the necessary choice of streamlining and prioritizing our social service benefits to fit within our economic means.
Read: Vermont is consistently in the top five for highest per capita state tax collections, so any tax rate increase should be off the table. To properly fund the social services that provide assistance to our most vulnerable citizens, we need to assess the potential of both increased revenues and lower costs. Vermont's younger workforce isn't shrinking because people don't like it here. It's shrinking because it costs a fortune to live or own a business here. It's an issue of affordability. True property tax reform and an emphasis on economic development will create more business opportunities, jobs and, ultimately, more tax revenue. On the cost side, I've long maintained that running a more efficient government does not mean cutting valuable social services. The Agency of Human Services has a $2.3 billion budget. Cut some overhead, find some efficiencies and re-allocate funds to the programs that need it the most.
Spear: Vermont will not be able to maintain its expanded social services programs for the increasing number on them without raising taxes, absent an expanding workforce, a higher paid workforce or a real estate boom. At the state level we lack the flexibility of monetary policy. Unavoidably, we need to raise enough revenue to cover our obligations, and we need to do so in a fashion that does not reduce our prospects for sufficient revenues going forward. While Vermonters are accustomed to rising to challenges and we have clear potential for stronger economic growth, the handiwork of our Legislature does impact the magnitude of our challenges and our prospects for success. Our legislators need to be much more heedful of the state's balance sheet and the economic well-being of all Vermonters. We need to operate more efficiently to stem a rising tax burden. Attracting and keeping young workers requires prospects for savings as well as careers, not just jobs.
Grad: We need to support a strong and thriving economy with a focus on small businesses. This session we passed an economic development law that starts to address workforce issues. The law creates the Vermont Strong Scholars and Internship Initiative, which includes a postsecondary loan forgiveness program for Vermonters who graduate from Vermont postsecondary institutions and take a job in Vermont, and creates an internship program for Vermonters at Vermont postsecondary institutions to build experiential opportunities for students, the workforce and Vermont employers. The law revitalizes the Workforce Development Council. However, Vermont funding for higher education needs to be increased. Our in-state tuition costs are not affordable for Vermonters. We need more affordable housing for our workforce. Government needs to be more efficient with its spending and evaluation of programs. We may need to cut programs if our revenues don't continue to meet our spending needs to avoid raising taxes.
Rev. Susan McKnight, Warren United Church
I am concerned about the mental health system and the prison justice system, and the ways the populations involved in both are intertwined. How can we provide mental health and drug treatment services to more of the people who need them, so they don't end up in prison? How can we, as a state, examine/amend our drug sentencing structure so that more non-violent offenders can receive treatment instead of incarceration? Can't we do something to bring our prison population numbers down – not only because it's the right thing to do but also because we're helping to support for-profit prisons like the one in Kentucky? Sending prisoners so far away from family and support systems does not help them become more stable and productive citizens when they're released among us again. Speaking of release, what can you do to see that in-prison rehab and job-skills programs are offered and re-entry checklists are more uniformly utilized to optimize the chances for inmates' positive reintegration into society?
Read: Mental illness can be every bit as debilitating, if not more so, than physical injury or illness. Whatever our health care system ends up looking like in the near future, it's imperative that preventive mental health care be accessible to those that need it. It costs roughly $50,000 per year to house an inmate in Vermont. Much of this cost is health-related, as our prisons are required to provide basic health services, both physical and mental. It costs about half that amount to house an inmate in an out-of-state, for-profit prison, largely because they get the "healthier" prisoners. A third of Vermont prisoners have been diagnosed with mental illness. What to make of these statistics? I'm not trained in law enforcement, mental health services or drug counseling, so it would be irresponsible to offer a specific reform agenda. Some broad ideas could revolve around housing acutely mentally ill inmates in one location; instituting merit-based sentences for non-violent prisoners, that would make release contingent upon completing specific rehabilitative programs; and utilizing heavy fines and work crews in lieu of longer prison sentences.
I have a hard time getting excited about in-prison rehab and job-skills programs for inmates. In the real world of budget prioritization, prisoner wellness programs should take a back seat to the many worthy social services that provide education, relief, training and general assistance to the non-incarcerated population.
Spear: I am concerned about this as well. NAMI is a national organization founded in Vermont that provides much needed support and education around mental illness. They promote law enforcement, community and family education to break this connection between mental illness, drug abuse and incarceration. Education, timely, appropriate interventions, availability of mental health services, and decriminalization are all crucial elements to addressing this problem. We should recognize and actively support their efforts. The vast majority of our prisons are not places of rehabilitation, education or employment training. Who goes and what services exist in prisons have to be much more about the realities of eventual release into society. I am totally opposed to for-profit prisons, just as I am opposed to for-profit methadone clinics. The interests of these critical service providers need to be fully aligned with public interests, not profits.
For investments to be made for crucial programming in prisons, we need to start with dramatically reducing the non-violent offender population in prisons. Today the tremendous expense to our society is not an investment, it is a sunk cost that drags down our economy and undermines the future prospects of those imprisoned. Also, we need to give judges viable alternatives to prisons, legislatively and through fiscally responsible investments in therapeutic options that protect society, when that is a factor, and protect and serve all those suffering from mental illness. Unfortunately, the "temporary, secure" Middlesex facility and the psychiatric hospital in Berlin do not set us on a trajectory to address the unmet need. Leadership should be troubled, not self-congratulatory, when they spend $1.5 million per bed to create a 25-bed facility, which will cost $772,000 per bed annually to operate. Scale and fiscal responsibility have to be core priorities for our investments, if we are to meet the needs of our population.
Grad: This issue was a priority of my committee. We passed S.295, Pre-trial Services. This law recognizes that many offenders have substance abuse or mental health issues that drive their unlawful behavior. Until those issues are effectively addressed, those offenders will keep returning to the system. By targeting and referring to services at critical points in the criminal justice system, we can improve public safety, lower rates of incarceration, reduce recidivism and get offenders on track to lead lawful and productive lives. The law establishes a statewide system for prosecutors to conduct screening and referrals to treatment prior to arraignment. It is based on existing county programs where incarceration and re-offenses have been reduced. A statewide program creates equal access to treatment and justice.
The law requires Department of Corrections (DOC) to establish a pilot project for Medically Assisted Treatment for offenders coming into prison with opiate addiction who are currently under community treatment. We funded a pilot project for electronic monitoring of pretrial offenders to decrease the number of pretrial detainees and free up beds to bring/keep inmates from Kentucky, recognizing that when offenders are close to family and support systems they are less likely to reoffend. DOC has doubled the number of transitional housing beds statewide. Many of these beds come with supportive services to help offenders successfully re-enter the community and keep the community safe. This includes stable housing, treatment, and employment. I would like to see more work in this area. The Community High School of Vermont is offering education courses and a work program so incarcerated offenders can achieve their high school diplomas, learn a skill and receive certification in certain fields. This goes into an offender's rehab and re-entry plan. We have more work to do, particularly for incarcerated women and lessening waitlists for treatment.
Greshin: Two years ago the Legislature passed Act 79. The intent was to strengthen the mental health system by offering "a continuum of community and peer services" as well as a new acute inpatient facility to replace the flooded Vermont State Hospital. Most of the focus has been on the new, state-run Vermont Psychiatric Care Hospital in Berlin, but in fact Act 79 created and bolstered a variety of specific programs targeting at-risk populations that may prove to be more important to the overall mental health of our state.
We know incarcerating people for crimes committed because of their disabilities does little good. This year the Legislature passed Act 195 which directs law enforcement and criminal justice professionals to develop and maintain programs to provide alternatives to the traditional criminal justice system. These programs will follow a restorative justice model which diverts offenders away from the criminal justice system and into proscribed, community-based treatment programs. Many of these programs already exist in Vermont, but here's the challenge: Restorative justice programs are entirely at the discretion of the state's attorney. Each of Vermont's 14 counties elects its own state's attorney who brings his or her own approach to justice. Legislation to provide a more uniform approach to offenses committed by people with disabilities or addictions would be helpful.
Inmates in Vermont's correctional facilities have full access to programs operated by Correctional Industries. This includes Community High School of Vermont, which is mandatory for inmates under 23 years old without a diploma, as well as a host of trade jobs such as sign making or printing. Inmates are also offered work in the correctional facilities. Upon admittance, every inmate is given an individual case plan which is designed to provide the skills and education needed to re-enter the workforce upon release.