Earlier this week, on our news pages we published submissions from local legislators outlining their priorities for the upcoming legislative session which begins Jan. 6. It is an exercise that we do at the start of every session, and definitely at the start of every biennium.
While not all of our local lawmakers took us up on the opportunity to share their thoughts, we were grateful for the ones we received. It was a good representation of the political spectrum, and a worthy representation of the level of thought that our elected officials are putting into the coming year.
And while some lawmakers put forth the issues they are interested in pursuing in 2021, nearly everyone pointed to the effects COVID-19 has had on Vermont.
We would submit that there is really only one issue that deserves a priority for this legislative session: the economy.
The immediate need is just that. While it could be argued that the issues facing Vermonters before coronavirus will still be there after the pandemic has passed, the devastation the virus inflicted on our state is significant.
Simply read the Year in Review features that we (and every other newspaper) have published in the last week. Every retrospective is tainted by COVID, whether it was job losses, furloughs and record unemployment, losses in revenue or businesses closing. Our Main Streets have suffered. Our restaurants and hospitality industry have suffered. Tourism has suffered.
All of that translates to fewer taxes collected and far less revenue being pumped into the economy and the state coffers. And we already seem to have a hard time making the state budget work each year. With fewer dollars, certain programs will be affected. And with mandatory mandates eating up the largest percentages of our state budget, the state as a whole is vulnerable to cuts in services.
Meanwhile, with simple economics (supply and demand) at play, consumers have seen product prices go up in many cases. Fortunately, fuel prices have stayed lower, other household products and materials have been subject to inflation. And while prices should drop again after the pandemic has receded, there are no guarantees that companies will return to “the way it was.” Their margins got fat in lean times.
We all know someone — a family member, a friend or a neighbor — who has been affected by the economic losses resulting from COVID.
Community action agencies, food shelves and shelters can all testify to the current demands. They have provided thousands of meals to Vermonters every week. And they have been doing so for months.
For the most part, the pandemic was a part of our lives during warmer months. But now we are into winter when demands are different, confinement has a cost, and the stakes are certainly higher. The effects become more pronounced as temperatures dip, and medical experts (as well as economists) worry that a winter resurgence, despite the vaccine, could further tear at the local economy.
Case in point: The Public Assets Institute published its State of Working Report this week.
From its news release: “The recession created by the COVID-19 pandemic, beginning in February 2020, ended the longest economic recovery on record. The highest-income Vermonters came out of that recovery better off. But no one else did. Those at the bottom had less income in 2019 than in 2007 before the start of the Great Recession.
Real median household income — the middle of the scale — ended 2019 where it was in 2007. And the state’s poverty rate showed no improvement. ... So when COVID-19 suddenly put nearly 100,000 Vermonters out of work, many were already in economically poor shape. Nearly $5 billion in federal assistance this year definitely helped Vermonters weather the pandemic, so far. But more is needed, now and in the future. … The state needs to invest in the public good — child care, education, housing, and other essentials — to secure the long-term economic well-being of Vermonters.”
While we can appreciate lawmakers’ personal agendas and pet projects, constituents in every town, in every community need to insist to legislators and the Scott administration that getting the economy back on track — helping local businesses; creating jobs; developing manufacturing; promoting economic development; and stimulating production and sales — is the priority.
Everything else can wait. And must.