Seth Bongartz on the Issues
The Pandemic and the Health of Our People
As we go through this crisis, I thank God every day that my wife Chris and I live in Vermont. Not just because we have a great environment and can spend time outside, but because, as it has so many times in the past, Vermont is setting an example for the rest of the country. Governor Scott has treated all of us with respect by telling the truth and basing decisions on sound science. He has relied on experts and as a result we have had far fewer Corona-related cases and far fewer deaths than we would otherwise have had. Just as we trusted him with his shelter-in-place orders, we can trust that the economy will be re-opened with a science-based approach designed to continue to keep us safe. It hasn’t been easy, but we have done well. Although the costs have been great, we have placed the protection of people above all else. Vermonters have pulled together and, just like the aftermath of Hurricane Irene, we are experiencing Vermont at its best.
The Recovery/Economic Development
The legislature needs to be almost singularly focused on Vermont’s economic recovery for the next couple of years. People are unemployed, small businesses are trying to hang on, our health-care system is under huge economic stress and the education fund is in trouble. The challenge is enormous but must be faced head-on. In fact, it must be faced with confidence.
Hopefully, we will recover quickly, but we can’t count on that. People need jobs now and doing everything we possibly can for our small businesses will be key to bringing those jobs back.
We need to think on three tracks: the immediate, the near-term, and the building a sustainable, vibrant future.
In the immediate term, and while the pandemic remains in force, we must continue to focus on protecting people, be it in the form of food, shelter or an economic lifeline. While getting started proved a challenge, we are helping people meet immediate needs and we will continue to do so.
In the near-term, as the immediate crises begins to lift, the Agency of Economic Development must put all of its resources into providing both technical and economic support to small businesses trying to re-launch. We will have to work together across all sectors—government, business and nonprofit – to offer mutual support to re-ignite the economy. To do this, we must bring broadband to every nook and cranny of the Vermont landscape. This crisis has demonstrated unequivocally that broadband is essential for every facet of our lives. Just as FDR brought electricity to the most remote parts of the country, so must we bring broadband to all of Vermont.
We must also help small businesses hire and retain their employees. One of Vermont’s biggest economic challenges is a shortage of employees. One of the things I plan to use as an organizing principle as we set priorities is to make it possible for people to work. In addition to universal broadband, we need something close to universal childcare, some form of paid family leave and affordable health insurance. These are prerequisites for a successful economy. Without them, many people who want to work, ironically, can’t afford to work. That’s crazy and we need to fix it.
Finally, looking more to the future, we must encourage new people and businesses to come to Vermont. As people from outside Vermont are sheltering here during the pandemic, they are learning that they can effectively work remotely. Many will simply stay after the pandemic lifts. We need to encourage that. Their children will attend school here, they will pay their tax dollars to Vermont and they will become part of our communities. Some will bring their businesses here as well. We must welcome these new Vermonters and we must encourage others to come as well.
This area has far more to offer than we have effectively marketed to the world. We are close to major metropolitan areas. We have very good schools and people have options at both the elementary and high school levels. We have a lot of successful entrepreneurs and we need to do everything we can to help them through this, as well as create a welcoming atmosphere for others. We have gorgeous mountains with excellent hiking opportunities and excellent skiing. We offer a strong sense of community to those who are looking for a sane place to raise their children, work remotely, start or bring business, or to retire. This potential has always been here and we need to bring it fully to life.
I don’t pretend to have all the answers, but I believe strongly in our potential.
I believe in a regional approach to economic development. It is fine for an individual town to market itself, but it is most effective when resources are pooled and it is done under a regional umbrella. Individual towns are all too small and don’t have the resources to do it effectively. That is why I helped found The Shires to bring the people of Bennington County together both socially and economically. It is too early to know what sectors of the local economy the coronavirus will hit the hardest and how deep the damage will run. But I do know that a strong, united Bennington County legislative delegation will be required to make sure Bennington County is not left behind as solutions are crafted. The Shires has helped set the stage for this kind of cooperation.
One of the lessons of this pandemic is that we need to think and truly live locally (meaning small, interconnected regions). There is real danger in being dependent on large-scale agriculture in the south or west for our food supply here in the Arlington/Manchester area. As we emerge from the pandemic, we must rebuild in a way that recognizes the importance of local agriculture/local food. We must understand the impediments to small-scale farmers making a living and make smart investments to help aggregate marketing and delivery of products. By way of example, we need a slaughterhouse closer to us and we need to help food producers with marketing so they can focus on producing food.
Climate Change/The Green Economy
The warming of the planet is an existential threat to every living creature on earth, including human beings. It is a man-made phenomenon and only we can fix it. The lack of effort on the federal level is appalling. Once again, as it has in the past (billboard law, bottle return law, protecting mountainsides, farmland and forestland) Vermont must lead. We must do everything we can to encourage the changeover to electric vehicles, solar power and weatherization of homes and businesses.
Today’s young people are socially conscious and want jobs and a lifestyle that comport with the things they care about. With good reason, they are very focused on climate change. They want to live in communities with cutting-edge technology and green jobs. They also want clean air, clean water, hiking, biking and skiing. We have a lot of that; we need to fill out the green economy with solar jobs, weatherization jobs and other challenging job opportunities.
Vermont’s environment is our single greatest asset. Our mountains, valleys and streams, clean air and clean water are a good part of the reason we live here and why others want to join us. It is also our single biggest economic driver. Our environment and our economy are inseparable and interdependent. When people talk about balancing the economy and the environment, they are setting up a false choice. A vibrant, forward-looking economy requires that we maintain our farm and forest lands, our mountainsides, streams and community centers.
By focusing development in downtowns we build the vibrant communities in which young people want to live and work. By increasing density for housing we make renting or owning a home affordable for people currently struggling with those costs and we use land far more efficiently than the outmoded system of large lot zoning. When I was previously in the legislature I was an early proponent of the Housing and Conservation Fund which has since conserved thousands of acres of farm and forest land and created hundreds and hundreds of permanently affordable homes. It is a national model and one I intend to support if elected this November.
One of the greatest strengths of the four communities in this legislative district is the educational opportunities we make available to families.
This district’s education system is unique within Vermont. The people of Arlington have opted for a stand-alone district, seeking to go their own way in maintaining their pre-k through 12 system. They see small size as a virtue. Manchester, Sunderland and Sandgate have high school choice. Neither Arlington’s system or school choice is favored by the education establishment or a majority of legislators. Should Kathleen and I be elected, it will be our job to do everything we can to help our communities be successful with the paths they have chosen. I have long been an outspoken advocate for allowing communities to innovate and be different. The tendency is for the education establishment to favor a one-size-fits-all approach. That’s not what we are about and it is not what’s best for our children.
Quality Educational choices for parents are critical to the social and economic success of any region. Between Arlington’s elementary and high school system, the Taconic and Green elementary system, Maple Street, the Sunderland Elementary School, Long Trail School and Burr and Burton Academy we have one of the best, most diverse, education systems in Vermont. Parents can choose between excellent opportunities for that which best fits the needs of their children. We need to market this diversity of options for the remarkable opportunity it is.
I care about a lot of things beyond that which I discuss in this post. And issues will emerge that I haven’t yet considered. I will listen and learn both with this campaign and in the legislature. One of the wonderful things about Vermont is that we are not defined by our political differences. Both the state and our communities are too small for that. We all know each other personally and find qualities in people with whom we disagree. The same is still true in the Vermont legislature. Once you are there, working in committee or with the full body, people work together without regard to party. That will be more necessary than ever as we work our way forward in the wake of this pandemic. I would welcome the opportunity to be a part of the process.