Democratic Sen. Becca Balint of Brattleboro is poised to be the first woman and openly gay person in Vermont history to serve as the Senate president pro tempore. Balint joins a historic all-female leadership team in the Legislature, during a session that is sure to be dominated by the COVID-19 pandemic and its effects on Vermonters.
VPR's Henry Epp spoke with Sen. Becca Balint about her priorities in the Senate as the new legislative session begins. Their transcript below has been condensed and edited for clarity.
Henry Epp: The Legislature spent much of the last session responding to the COVID-19 pandemic and the resulting economic effects. You've allocated millions of dollars in federal relief funds through many different programs. So, what's the immediate first step in terms of the COVID response to start the session?
Sen. Becca Balint: Issue number one is making sure that we are spending the coronavirus relief funds from the federal government in ways that have lasting impact on Vermonters. So top priorities are infusing money into housing, infusing money into child care, making sure we get the money out to small businesses and to our hospitality industry.
So, a lot of the work that we're doing starts from a place of looking at the immediate emergency and then building stronger structures going forward, so that we will emerge from the pandemic stronger than we were going in.
Well, let's talk a little bit more about the federal funds that are available. Congress did not include direct aid to state and local governments in the recent stimulus package, which was a priority of many Democrats, but they did give states another year to spend funding that was allocated back in March. So, I'm curious how those factors are going to play into your calculation of prioritizing that federal money in the next few weeks.
It was disappointing not to have an extension given to us until the very last minute, because we would have invested more money in broadband and housing specifically. But knowing that we're going to be getting more relief funds, it gives us another opportunity to invest in those areas that Vermonters have said they would like us to invest in.
And in terms of allocating that money, as you mentioned, you thought that you only had until Dec. 31. Now you have another year to spend that. I mean, do you think that anything was rushed out the door in a way that you wish you could take back or change?
Yeah, it's a great question. And I think the way that I would put it is this: We could not just put the money into broadband programs or into broadband projects that would happen in the upcoming year. Same thing for housing. We actually had to build out the system, and we knew that we could not do that by the end of December.
So, we diverted that money into other programs, equally important. Small business supports, looking at the Everyone Eats program, things that are still incredibly important to Vermonters and taking care of them. But we wished, given how difficult it is for us to do broadband buildout because it is expensive, we wish that we could have used that money in that way.
Beyond COVID relief, what kind of room do you think you have to tackle other issues that aren't directly pandemic related in the upcoming session?
Tom Kavet, our state economist, said to us a few weeks ago in a briefing, he said, "Let's be clear, you are not driving the train." And what he meant by that is the pandemic and this economic devastation that the pandemic has wrought, that's what's driving the train. So, you can make all kinds of plans about what you're going to be doing, but we do not know what's going to happen.
And so, I keep reminding myself of that. We're going to make progress. It will be steady. It will be slow. But we know that a month from now, the pandemic may reprioritize the work that we're going to do.
I want to circle back to one issue that has come up in past sessions, which is a paid family and medical leave. Gov. Phil Scott vetoed that measure in the last biennium. That's been a priority of Democrats for a long time. Is that something that you plan to take up again?
It's not on my top punch list, and I'll tell you why: We only have a set amount of time to do our work. We know where the governor stands on this issue. We've been down this road a number of times. I care deeply about this issue. I do think it's something that Vermonters really need. I want to make sure that we're spending our time and energy on things that we actually can get passed.
Well, I want to talk a little bit more about Gov. Phil Scott. He comes into the session with quite high popularity. He won close to 67% of the vote in November. How do you plan to approach that working relationship?
Yeah, you know, I think the governor and I have similar goals. He's very community-minded. He's very focused on making sure that small businesses are taken care of, making sure that our towns, our downtowns are thriving. We paired up on a huge housing bond, one of the biggest bonds Vermont had seen in decades. And so, I have a track record of working with the governor on issues where we overlap.
And until I see something different from him, I'm assuming we're coming to this work in good faith to do good work for Vermonters in the midst of an emergency.
You live in Brattleboro, and that's a quite a change from the last person to hold the Senate president position. Tim Ashe was from Chittenden County. How will that inform your approach in terms of representing or focusing attention on southern Vermont in this position that's more prominent?
Well, there are many ways in which my perspective is going to be different from the previous pro tem, and not just because of our geographic area that we come from. You know, my experience growing up as a woman, my experience growing up as an openly gay person, absolutely shaped my view of what it feels like to be an outsider looking in.
And so, I think that's often true about how people in southern Vermont and the Northeast Kingdom feel about government, too. They feel like they're on the outside looking in. When you pull Chittenden County and Washington County on any graph that indicates the economic health of Vermont, you pull them out, the rest of the state is not doing well. And it's been like that for a long time. And so, it is time for us to really put our focus in getting more infrastructure supports for small towns.
I mean, those disparities, as you mentioned, have been going on for years, perhaps decades. What do you see as the immediate steps to change some of that dynamic?
Well, I think it goes back to what you were saying earlier about the need to invest in broadband and how we might have spent that money differently if we had known. We really want to make sure that all communities of Vermont have the same access, not just for economic health, but also when you have broadband supports, you have better education, you have better telehealth connectivity.
And so, a simple thing like broadband can touch so many parts of rural life. There’s been a shift in thinking about this issue. So, I'm excited that there's an opportunity there.
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