Priorities For A Pandemic Session: Senate Minority Leader Randy Brock
Republican Sen. Randy Brock of Franklin County is a familiar face in the halls of Montpelier. He's served multiple terms in the Senate and as state auditor, but he returns to the Capitol this month in a new leadership role as Senate Minority Leader. VPR's Mitch Wertlieb spoke with Sen. Randy Brock about what he'll prioritize from his leadership role in the Senate as the new legislative session begins. Their transcript below has been condensed and edited for clarity.
Mitch Wertlieb: Let's start with the pandemic response, because that's going to really take the lion's share of attention and resources this session. What do you see as the most important things legislators can do right away to help Vermonters through this pandemic?
Sen. Randy Brock: Well, one of the things that we have to do is implement, at a state level, the federal stimulus package that has been announced. And, of course, it's a package of some 5,600 pages long, and [we'll need to] get a good understanding of states' responsibilities, and what we need to do in order to ensure that Vermonters get the benefits contained in the federal bill. So that's really kind of our first task, out the door.
As Senate Minority Leader, I'm wondering what can the Senate — and the Republican caucus more specifically — do that maybe hasn't gotten done yet?
Well, I think our focus may be very, very similar to that of the majority, in terms of helping Vermonters through this crisis. And we worked very well together — all of the parties — during session last year, dealing with COVID. And I think it's important that we try to do that.
One of the things that that I certainly am concerned about is the fact that this federal package did not contain any relief for states and local governments. That revenue shortfall that we are going to experience in 2021 is very, very critical. And how we manage our way through that is going to be a tremendous challenge.
I know that you've been a real proponent of expanding rural broadband. It's something that's so desperately needed here in the state. The pandemic is really highlighted the need for true broadband being available to all Vermonters. But you know that these infrastructure projects take a lot of years to complete sometimes. I'm wondering what can be done this session to get broadband to Vermonters who need it?
Well, we know that there is some money in the bill for rural broadband. What we haven't seen yet are the strings attached to it. And one of the biggest problems that we often find in bills like this is: they sound good on the surface until you really look at what it is we could do with those funds.
There are some broadband strategies, though, that do bring results very, very quickly. Our long term goal is fiber to the premises. Doing that, though, is a longer-term prospect.
However, there are some things we could do in the short term [like] Using fixed wireless, for example, as a way to get broadband out much more quickly. And we are working on plans to present to the General Assembly to do that.
The other is organizational. We seem to spend an awful lot of time doing things, but without seeing the kinds of results that we should. And one of the things that I think we should explore this year is whether or not we should bring back the Vermont Telecommunications Authority as a separate entity with a direct focus on getting broadband out and creating a "broadband czar" to oversee that.
This pandemic has been looked at as kind of an opportunity to reset some priorities, some issues. I know that as a fiscal conservative, you have talked in the past about looking at issues like paid family leave, state support for child care with somewhat of a, you know, skeptical eye. And correct me if I'm wrong there.
Well, I will correct you somewhat. And the correction is not "what," it's "how." And the "how" is what's critically important.
In the last session, I introduced a paid family leave bill, but it was a voluntary bill. It was very similar to the bill that Gov. Scott proposed. And I intend to introduce that same bill this year. The problem with paid family leave, as it was enacted before it was vetoed in the last session, was that some 60,000 Vermonters would be paying in to paid family leave through taxation, through payroll taxes, and wouldn't be able to get a benefit from it. That, to me, is wrong.
If there's the opt out option, though, isn't there the danger that just a lot of businesses would opt not to provide that benefit?
Well, this is an individual benefit that we're talking about as well. And there are ways to structure something that makes sense, and that is reasonably economical, but for people who want and need it. Now, we clearly want to encourage businesses to provide this for their employees, just as we are looking at providing it for state employees, and that provides a basis, a large pool of employees from which to draw, and that reduces the rate for those who sign on additionally.
Let me ask about something more specific in that: child care. And a recent poll from Let's Grow Kids, the child care advocacy organization, found roughly three out of four Vermonters favor more state spending on child care programs. Do you have a different approach to child care programs and funding this session?
Well, I think, again, it's it's a "how" and not a "what." We made a number of changes to improve the quality of child care. The question that I think we need to go back in and look at is: have we improved something to make it so perfect that it's unaffordable for anybody to purchase or to provide? Clearly, we want child care that that's efficient and effective. But if you can't find anybody to provide it, [and] you can't provide it at a cost that you could afford, you have to look at alternatives.
We had a lot of individual businesses in child care — mostly women-owned businesses — that went out of business because we increased the requirements so much that what I'm afraid we may have done, is we sacrificed the good for the perfect. We need to look at practical solutions, that if it is not available and not affordable and we don't have the staffing to be able to provide it in the way that the statutes seem today to require, then we have to rethink it.
Even if there was not this pandemic going on, you'd have a full plate anyway. I think legislators realize that as they return to Montpelier. Is there a particular issue that you think might otherwise get overlooked, that you will try to bring attention to this session?
The biggest thing that potentially is overlooked is: where's the money coming from? And as we look at the absence of state and local help in the federal bill that's passed, that is the biggest concern. Where are we going to get the money to do the things that we need to do, to make up for these revenue shortfalls that the pandemic has caused in our state funding?
And there's usually a great deal of discussion from some in the Legislature about how we do revenue enhancements, and where we get additional money and how we use one-time funds. But we don't seem to spend a lot of time on: how do we reduce the cost of government?
And reducing the cost of government doesn't mean wholesale cutting of positions or programs. What it means is doing things more smartly.
I think we should have a great emphasis on: how do we use artificial intelligence? How do we make government more efficient by looking at our processes of process improvement? Those are the ways in which we can reduce the cost of government without raising taxes. And the notion of raising taxes to deal with revenue shortfalls at a time when so many Vermonters are hurting, when so many businesses are clawing to just stay in business, is not a wise thing to do.
Do you think the federal government, though, could play a larger role in getting funding to the states that they just might not otherwise be able to get?
Absolutely. It certainly could. And I'm very hopeful that the new administration, the new Congress, will not stop at what was just done for federal stimulus, and that will address the issue of state and local revenue shortfalls in the coming session. That is our best hope for being able to survive this with at least less damage than than we currently have.
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