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Follow VPR's statehouse coverage, featuring Pete Hirschfeld and Bob Kinzel in our Statehouse Bureau in Montpelier.

House Minority Leader Don Turner: Make Vermont A More Affordable Place To Live

Angela Evancie
House Minority Leader, Rep. Don Turner of Milton, seen in this May 8, 2014 photo. Turner says he'll vote for Scott Milne for governor on Thursday.

In Vermont, all eyes turn to Montpelier this week as the 2015 legislative session kicks off. VPR's Morning Edition checked in with legislative leaders to hear about their top priorities and the issues they'll be focusing on for this coming session.

Republican Don Turner represents Milton and also serves as the House Minority leader.

Gubernatorial Election

This session is starting with an important and closely watched vote to determine the outcome of the gubernatorial race. Governor Peter Shumlin won the popular vote, but didn't get the 50 percent he needed, so it goes to the legislature to decide. Republican Scott Milne has said he thinks the legislature should choose him, despite finishing with fewer overall votes than Gov. Shumlin by a slim margin.

Turner said he has not advised his caucus on how to vote, though they have provided historical and process information from the Legislative Council to house members.

"Personally, I believe that I am elected by my constituents to represent their interests. In my community of Milton, it was overwhelmingly two to one for Scott Milne, and that's how I'll be voting. "

Republicans are still outnumbered in both the Senate and House but the party did well in the November election, picking up some seats. Turner attributed that to hard work.

"I am a life-long Vermonter and believe if you have the right candidate and that candidate is willing to work hard will win. We also had a number of major issues in Vermont that have taken the headlines over the last few years and have concerned people. The governor's push for single-payer and the overall feeling that people can't afford to live in Vermont is overwhelming and we heard that everywhere we went when we campaigned this year," Turner said.

Property Taxes

Turner said he hasn't seen a proposal that he could fully support.

"One of the things that we've got to stop doing in Vermont is have competing policies. For example, we offer small school grants, but on the other hand, we offer incentives to consolidate. To me, that's a contradiction and it doesn't make any sense. We're not going to move anywhere if we offer competing incentives to schools to remain as they are," Turner said.

Turner said, unfortunately, Vermont needs to consolidate the educational system. "I don't want to say that that's the fix-all, end-all, consolidation. I think we have to do a much better job of utilizing our resources and our human capital, that's the teachers and I also think that we need to really look at banning teachers' strikes going forward."

Health Care

Single-payer health care will not be the main focus on this legislative session now that Gov. Shumlin has backed down from that proposal, citing costs, but the problem of how to make health care more affordable for everyone remains.

Turner said he believes in free and open market system."One of the things I believe we need to do is open up the exchange to move toward a federal exchange or a regional exchange. The Affordable Care Act was actually intended to promote a robust marketplace and in Vermont we went the totally opposite way because the governor was trying to use the exchange as a platform for single-payer. It didn't work. It was way too complicated. We spent hundreds of millions of dollars that are really wasted from my perspective, and we have to get back, on the exchange level, to where we could offer more types of plans."

Turner said that Vermont also needs to recruit more health care professionals to Vermont. He said some specialists left the state because they couldn't afford to take a chance on single-payer. Turner supports the goal of the Affordable Care Act, including making coverage more available, but added there has to be a way to balance the costs.

Marijuana Legalization

Turner does not support legalization of marijuana. "The governor spent the entire state of the state address last year talking about the opiate problem, I don't see allowing or making legal a new drug is going to help Vermont moving forward."

Budget Deficit

The legislature will be working to close an expected $100 million budget deficit.  "I propose that each House committee spend the next four to six weeks and just focus on their agencies of jurisdiction. Let's scrutinize and scrub every program we have. Let's see where the efficiencies are, let's make sure Vermonters are getting the best value for their tax dollars, and then look at any revenue increases," Turner said, adding that he does not support any new taxes, new fees or any new revenue until this kind of review takes place.

Other Issues

When asked which other issues he'd like to focus on this session, Turner named economic development. "We don't have the resources of New York or those big states to lure business, what we've got to try to do is build our small businesses and they have to become more profitable so they can hire more people, which generates more revenue, which will turn the state around. But as long as we continue to burden business and stifle growth, we're not going to have that."

Turner said the clean up of Lake Champlain also has to start this year. "We have to look at a way to clean up the lake, and we have to find a sustainable funding mechanism."

Thursday on Morning Edition, we'll hear from House Majority Leader Sarah Copeland-Hanzas.

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