Seth Bongartz and Kathleen James on Post-Pandemic Economic Recovery, Jobs and Positioning the Area for Long-Term Sustainability
What We Believe
We believe in the inherent dignity of every person and every person’s right to have an equal chance to build a good life for themselves and their family. This requires excellent education opportunities, a fair wage, an affordable place to live and access to affordable health care. It also requires clean air, clean water and a caring community. On the national level, the system has become heavily tilted in favor of the upper economic strata, placing the American dream beyond the reach of more and more people. That is wrong.
In Vermont, we believe in and care about each other. While our resources are limited, we are innovative and committed as we work to achieve economic and social equity for all Vermonters — to treat all people with dignity and give them equal access to the things that matter. We focus on children, families and community. We live in a state of incredible natural beauty, with clean air and water, outdoor recreation, good schools and a sense of community.
Our economy is driven by the entrepreneurial spirit that has always animated our way of life. We are a state of small businesses, tourism and a large nonprofit sector working to fill in the gaps. As members of the legislature we will leverage our relationships and skills to help our entrepreneurs, lodging and restaurant owners, our ski resorts and other small business owners get through the current crisis and then find long-term success as we emerge from the pandemic.
It may be hard to see it now, but we believe that our four towns of Arlington, Manchester, Sandgate and Sunderland are particularly well-positioned to recover from the pandemic and to build a vibrant economic future. This work has been underway across Bennington County for years, with innovative ideas and leadership from many people. The opportunity now is to build on that work despite the daunting challenges.
Our sense of community, our entrepreneurial spirit, our extraordinary array of excellent public and independent schools, our year-round recreational and cultural opportunities, and our unique natural beauty are already drawing families with school-age children to relocate here. Some are telecommuting; some are bringing their businesses with them. More people will translate to increased social and economic vitality. We need to seize this opportunity. Doing so will require a coordinated effort at the local and state levels. We believe we can be an effective local-to-state conduit, supporting innovative ideas here at home and in the statehouse to help move our region forward.
The Challenge of the Pandemic
As independent in spirit as we are, we are subject to the influences of the world around us. Unfortunately, that includes the COVID-19 pandemic.
The next two years are going to be difficult. Many of our friends and neighbors have lost their jobs and our small business are struggling. Restaurants and lodging properties have been hit especially hard. The Governor and the legislature have done a good job of allocating federal relief funds, managing the state budget, and keeping Vermont steady in the short run. Careful shepherding of the unemployment fund through the years provided us with the means to help those who have lost their jobs and grants to small business owners have staved off disaster. Vermont will continue to do all it can to help people until a vaccine becomes widely available. This is an imperative and we are firmly committed to making sure we deal first and foremost with the immediate crisis.
Even as we deal with the challenges of the moment, we must lay the groundwork for a vibrant economic future.
Fund Regional Commissions and Economic Development Agencies
The Bennington County Regional Commission was in one-on-one contact with 350 small businesses between the March 2020 COVID outbreak and the end of July, helping owners to navigate the PPP process, analyze their business challenges and offering advice. That support is ongoing and remains critical to small businesses. The regional commissions are funded through the legislature and we need to ensure ours has the resources to build capacity: to help existing businesses, to help entrepreneurs start new businesses, and to help those moving here with existing businesses to navigate a successful relocation.
The Southern Vermont Economic Development Council has likewise been offering vital technical assistance and serving as a conduit for small grants to help entrepreneurs and small business owners survive the pandemic and, ultimately, move their businesses forward.
Making it Possible for People to Work
A major problem for employers is finding the right employees to fill positions. There are many reasons for this problem. Partially, it’s our demographic problem; there simply aren’t enough people to fill available jobs. But many other factors contribute to our economic challenges and are vital to our future success. In the legislature and in our communities, we’ll work hard to support the following key priorities:
We Need High-Quality, Affordable Childcare
In Vermont, 72 percent of children ages 5 and younger live in families in which all available parents are in the workforce. Yet many families pay as much as one-third of their annual income for childcare, or can’t find suitable childcare at all. Some people—and especially women—are forced to drop out of the workforce.
That’s not sustainable. We believe access to high-quality, affordable childcare is vital to healthy families and communities and essential to a thriving economy.
Last year, the legislature took an important step to strengthen Vermont’s investment in early care and education (Kathleen was a sponsor of the original bill). We must continue that work—supporting our publicly funded universal pre-K system, making childcare more affordable for low- and middle-income families, engaging employers, and addressing the wage gap for early childhood educators.
Over time, as a 2016 Blue Ribbon Commission recommended, we must move toward universal childcare—an investment that its report called the “most significant opportunity” for economic development that Vermont could make. But this goal could only happen with truly innovative financing partnerships between the private, nonprofit and governmental sectors.
We Need a Higher Minimum Wage and Equity in the Workforce
We need to slowly, but steadily, increase the minimum wage to the point it provides enough for people to live. If the minimum wage had kept up with the consumer price index since the 1960s, it would now be over $20 an hour. We think heading toward a $15 an hour minimum wage, which would thereafter be tied to the consumer price index, is a reasonable goal, although we recognize we are going to have to get there over time so businesses can adjust.
We Need Workforce Housing
While there’s always the need for more, we are making strides to provide decent, affordable housing to people with low incomes in our communities. Shires Housing and Bennington County Habitat for Humanity are excellent organizations doing great work.
For our district, the bigger challenge is workforce housing. Too many people and families with good-paying jobs still can’t afford to live in much of our district—they can’t buy a home or pay the expensive rent.
One solution must come from public-private initiatives at the local level. We can build workforce housing where there are lines for municipal septic systems, and adjust zoning to allow buildings in these areas to go higher and on smaller lots. The state can help by creating a bond fund to provide low-interest loans to communities or developers and by funding the agencies and nonprofits that do this work, such as the Vermont Housing and Conservation Board. We see this as a high priority and an opportunity.
As legislators, we will be involved at the local level, so we can serve as active bridges to efforts at the state level. We are also open to revisions to the regulatory apparatus that would support this work.
We Need Paid Family Leave
We support a statewide paid family and medical leave insurance program that would provide Vermont workers with a much-needed benefit—paid time off to bond with a new child, to care for a sick family member, or to take personal medical leave. It not only helps workers—often women—who would no longer have to choose between critical family needs and a paycheck, but it helps businesses to retain and attract employees.
Last year, Governor Scott vetoed a version of this program. It will be back, and subject to the constraints of an especially tight budget, we support getting this program up and running. As we have all learned during this pandemic, Vermonters need financial safety nets, and paid family leave is a low-cost insurance program to provide that.
We Need Broadband Everywhere
The pandemic has shed additional light on the urgency of this effort. Broadband is a lifeline of our rural economy. It allows people to live here and work remotely, and it’s all that’s required for a whole segment of the economy to function as well here as anywhere. People want to live here, as long as they can make a living. So broadband is critical to our economic future.
And it’s not just an economic issue: From younger grades through our postsecondary institutions, students and educators need access to high-speed internet no matter where they live and study. As schools all over the state shifted abruptly to remote learning in March, it became clear that when it comes to education, the broadband gap is also an education and equity gap. This is unacceptable.
We see broadband expansion as a very high priority. In 2019 and 2020, Kathleen led the formation of the Southern Vermont Communications Union District (SoVT CUD), a citizen volunteer group that’s working to broadband to our last-mile roads and regions. The CUD has already accomplished amazing work — winning funding for a feasibility study and pole survey — and partnering with Tilson to bid for federal funds. Results should be announced by January.
We’ll continue to support our CUD and legislation to fund rural broadband efforts in Vermont. Our CUD has been named one of 12 Vital Economic Projects for Southern Vermont, a leading example of legislative action with relatively small amounts of state funding, followed by tremendous community leadership.
We Need to Tackle Climate Change and Build a Green Economy
Vermont’s environmental ethic is one of the reasons our economy works. For many years, we’ve been identified as a state that actually lives our values. We don’t do it perfectly, but the commitment is genuine. We fight for clean air and clean water; we protect our mountainsides from development; we protect farm and forestland and we protect important historic sites and structures.
Seth, in particular, has a legacy of land conservation and stewardship of our natural resources. Between his work with the Manchester Community Land Trust and as an attorney, he spearheaded successful efforts to preserve 800 acres on Equinox Mountain, to have the Battenkill designated an Outstanding Resource Water, the Dorset Marsh designated a Class A wetland, conserve the Wilcox Farm and three parcels of land abutting the Battenkill. Seth has been an environmental leader his entire adult life. In the legislature, Kathleen has been elected to the leadership team of the House-Senate Climate Solutions Caucus.
Statewide, the new challenge—and the new opportunity—is building a dynamic, sustainable economy around our responsibility to tackle climate change. This is a particular priority for young people. If we can create a Vermont that leads the nation in thoughtful, strategic climate innovation, we can position ourselves as a place where young people want to live and work.
Weatherizing homes is an excellent example. It lowers carbon emissions; it saves money for home and business owners; and it provides good jobs in the construction industry.
Though Vermont still ranks third nationally for per-capita jobs in the solar industry, jobs in this promising field have been falling for several years in a row due to changing regulations. Solar and battery technology have advanced light years in a short amount of time. Installing this technology provides excellent, meaningful jobs and helps Vermonters save on their energy bills. We need to get back on track.
Across all sectors, the Global Warming Solutions Act, which we support, will help coordinate and accelerate this effort to transition Vermont’ economy from its reliance on imported fossil fuels to the renewable energy economy of the future. Combined with universally available broadband, this transition will create job opportunities and serve as the basis for a vibrant, youth-powered economy.
We Need to Protect our Unique Mix of Public and Independent Schools
We’ll come right out and say it: Bennington-4 may have the best schools in Vermont. We definitely have the best opportunities for parents to choose the best school for their kids: From the Arlington system to Sunderland Elementary, from Maple Street to Long Trail, parents have outstanding choices for small, intimate schools. Manchester Elementary and Middle School and Burr and Burton Academy offer the broad opportunities that come with a larger enrollment.
Kathleen is a member of the Education Committee and serves on the New England Board of Higher Education and the Select Committee on the Future of Higher Education in Vermont. Seth has spent the last two decades deeply involved in education. Working together, we will bring our passion for educational opportunities for all to Montpelier
In addition to providing excellent education choices—and excellent education opportunities—our schools are critically important to our efforts to reverse our long-term demographic challenges. Between Arlington’s stand-alone district to our mix of public and independent schools and school choice for Manchester, Sandgate and Sunderland, we don’t fit the standard mold. People move here with their families, and sometimes their businesses, because of the strength of our schools. We have a long history of independence and we must make sure it is not undermined.
We Need Workforce Equity
We must work to address gender and racial inequity in Vermont’s workforce — a moral imperative with far-reaching implications for our families, our communities and our economy.
Two recent reports also underscore the importance of workforce equity. In its powerful September 2020 report to the Governor, the Vermont Racial Equity Task Force laid out conclusions on racial disparities in the workforce, with recommendations that start with comprehensive data collection and model policies on hiring and retention. And the 2019 Women, Work and Wages study concludes that if women working in Vermont earned as much as “comparable men” — men of the same age, with the same level of education, the same number of hours and of similar urban or rural status — poverty rates would fall and women’s higher earnings would bring in an additional $1.2 billion to the state economy. Recommendations for addressing the gender wage gap include wage transparency, flexible work arrangements, paid family leave and boosting child-care subsidies, and raising wages on the low end of the scale to better support families.
Increased Population, Reversing Our Demographic Decline
Before the pandemic hit, Vermont was facing the demographic problem of an aging population. The number of children in Vermont schools had fallen from more than 120,000 in the 1990s to a little over 80,000 in 2019. Employers were having a hard time filling jobs, especially those requiring high-tech skills. Many elementary, middle and high schools were under pressure to close because of a lack of students and our college system, both public and private, was in crisis. While these demographic trends are a problem through the Northeast, only we can deal with the problem in Vermont. Nobody is going to fix it for us.
Long term, demographics are our biggest challenge. We need to do a better job of retaining young people. The Vermont State Colleges are in crisis. Once again, crisis may be an opportunity as we reimagine the state’s role in supporting higher education. We need to build an innovative pipeline that better connects our K-12 schools with our postsecondary institutions — and our employers — to meet workforce demands and provide the good-paying, family-supporting jobs that young people and working-age adults want and need.
We also need to attract new residents by making clear to the world that Vermont is a welcoming and vibrant state that’s investing in the future. Ironically, the pandemic has shown us the way forward. We have seen an influx of families move to the area from nearby metropolitan areas. Some will telecommute; some will bring their businesses with them. Their children will add to the ranks of local schools.
We must seize this opportunity by playing to our strengths and breaking down barriers to success. More people, and especially more young people, means increased vitality. Outside of Chittenden County, this may be the area of Vermont that’s best positioned to capitalize on the desire for a safe, community-oriented lifestyle. We have excellent schools, outdoor recreation and culture, beautiful mountains, clean air and water, and a real sense of community. We believe we have far more to offer than other parts of Vermont.
This is where our commitment to high-quality childcare, maintaining the best schools in the state, expanding broadband, good wages, paid family leave, workforce housing, transitioning to a green economy and leading the nation on climate action and innovation come together. It will take time, but we have a vision for Vermont and for our communities.
Kath & Seth