A new legislative session saw the swearing-in of four representatives who serve Milton in roles ranging from House speaker to members of the education; natural resources, fish and wildlife; and government operations committees. The Indy caught up with our local reps in Montpelier to hear their thoughts on the new session.
Chris Mattos (R-Milton)
When Chris Mattos arrived in Montpelier last week, he was excited to see faces both new and familiar.
“It was awesome,” he said. “It was kind of like … [the] first day of school, for legislators.”
If the new biennium was the first day of school, Mattos returned a sophomore. He’s back on the House Education Committee—his first-choice—tackling the state’s challenges of a shrinking youth population and changing family needs. Last year, he helped with a bill that proposed changing special education from a reimbursement to a census model, which later passed as Act 173.
This year, Mattos believes eyes will be on reforming Act 46, Vermont’s landmark school consolidation law, and addressing changing childcare needs. Act 46 provided incentives for some districts to merge, but Mattos doesn’t think it’s right for every district. His committee will likely look beyond minimum enrollment thresholds—which allow the state board of education to vote on mergers between schools—and handle them on a case-by-case basis.
“[The committee is] going to look at the schools that operate well separately, and not just because they’re below the thresholds that they have to be merged,” he said. “[The committee will] see: Can they operate efficiently apart from one another?”
On childcare, Mattos said lawmakers have not yet determined whether the matter should be overseen by the agency of education or human services.
“A lot of people talk about cradle to career. In a sense you’d think [childcare] would live with AOE,” he said. “But also we’ve got to think about the private providers and how that’s going to work.”
Mattos is eager to again represent the town’s interests on a state level. Milton Town School District superintendent Amy Rex has already scheduled a meeting with him to discuss her experience in the trenches.
“I was ecstatic about that; she’s a new superintendent,” he said. “My background’s not in education so any input is welcomed, and I’m excited to meet with her.”
Mattos worked as a real estate agent before becoming a public servant, now pulling double duty as both. He hopes to see progress made on affordable housing since he believes economical dwellings will attract a younger crowd to an aging state.
“We have some good jobs, and if we make it more attractive for employers to come here, that’s going to even bring more people,” Mattos said. “They need to have a place to live.”
It’s cost prohibitive to build affordable housing in Vermont, but attracting young professionals and their families could help address increased taxes and shrinking school systems, he said.
“That’s kind of my goals,” Mattos said. “I don’t know if it can be done in one session but definitely going to work towards that.”
As for representing Milton on the state stage, Mattos pledged to communicate with the town manager, school district, business owners and constituents.
“I’m excited to get back and get to work,” he said.
John Palasik (R-Milton)
John Palasik’s first days as a freshman representative went well despite the inevitable learning curve, he said.
A former law enforcement officer, Palasik was pleased to be placed on his first-choice committee, Government Operations. And though he said he’s too green to know this session’s big issues, he believes pensions will be widely discussed on his committee, and lawmakers in general will work to make Vermont more affordable.
“We’ve got to make it where people want to come to Vermont and want to stay in Vermont,” he said.
He hopes the legislature can create a state that is attractive to business, with tenable living costs for its people. Additionally, he’d like to see access to technology increased across the state.
With his party the minority this session, Palasik hopes to see bipartisan cooperation.
“If we all pull together as a team and work hard and [be] willing to compromise a little bit, I think it can be done,” he said.
Palasik was encouraged by House Speaker Mitzi Johnson’s opening remarks on working together across the political spectrum, and he hopes to take a cue from former majority leader Don Turner Jr. in creating responsible budgets and reaching across the aisle.
“I’m looking forward to this position,” Palasik said, adding he’s eager to work with his colleagues in Montpelier and contemporaries in Milton.
“I look forward to having people ask questions and give their issues,” Palasik said. “The more we hear from our citizens, the better job we can do to represent them.”
Leland Morgan (R-Milton)
Leland Morgan’s start to the new session was all about getting organized. The busy days saw him sworn in, assigned a committee and kitted with his parking pass.
“It was very busy, a lot of the … pomp and circumstance,” he said. “We’ve not really gotten down to any kind of work yet.”
But he’s already anticipating discussions in his first-choice committee: Natural Resources, Fish and Wildlife. The committee appealed to Morgan, who is a hunter and fisher. He wants to update Act 250, the state’s land use law, to make it “more current for the current Vermont.”
“All with the thought in mind of making it easier to do business here, making it a little cheaper here, hopefully having more people come here to work,” Morgan said, adding Act 250 is a deterrent to developing in Vermont.
Water quality will be another big ticket item this session: “That’s something I’m very concerned about, living on the shores of the Lamoille River,” he said, adding his district is largely comprised of Lake Champlain and its islands.
Though Morgan hasn’t yet seen any bills on hunting and trapping, he believes those, too, will be talking points. In the ’80s, Morgan served on the then-Fish and Wildlife Committee and heard concerns raised about wildlife population management. Today, he said, an increasing number of recreationalists don’t participate in activities like hunting and fishing.
“A lot of those people may be concerned about the hunting,” he said. “We have to accommodate that new trend also, so I think that’s something that will be discussed.”
But Morgan said he’ll stand firm on his pro-gun platform: “I’m certainly not going to be voting for more gun restriction,” he said.
With Republicans down 20 percent in the House, Morgan recognized his party can no longer enforce a gubernatorial veto, but he wants to see civility across party lines.
“What I’m really hoping for is [that] this is the year where there’s cooperation and not a lot of this-side and that-side,” he said. “Hopefully it will all be civil and we can work things out for the betterment of the state, not the party.”
Mitzi Johnson (D-Grand Isle/Chittenden)
For the last month and a half, House Speaker Mitzi Johnson has been crafting the makeup of 14 House committees, a job she called the speaker’s “most critical” since it sets the tone for two years of policy work.
“Every other business, when they’re setting up their departments, they get to chose who they’re going to hire to fill a certain skill set,” Johnson continued. “I don’t have that opportunity, but I feel like we’ve really come out with a really good group of committees.”
She considers gender, experience—political and otherwise— party leanings, districts and the representatives’ preferences. This session, Johnson avoided placing more than four new legislators on any given committee, which proved a challenge given the House’s largest freshman class in decades. But the biggest challenge was ensuring Republicans were well distributed among all groups, she said.
And while not everyone is happy with their committee assignment, Johnson said she’s heard a lot of positive feedback. “I’m really pleased with how the conversations have gotten started,” she said.
This year also saw five incumbents retire from their committee positions, the highest turnover of leadership in 15 years. Additionally, Johnson replaced returning chairs Pat Brennan (R-Colchester) and Maida Townsend (D-South Burlington) of Transportation and Government Operations, respectively, with Curt McCormack (D-Burlington) and Sarah Copeland-Hanzas (D-Bradford).
Johnson said both reps were passionate about their committees but she preferred to see Rep. Townsend serve on Appropriations after “key retirements” left vacancies there. She wanted Brennan, an experienced Republican, to fill a deficit on Ways & Means.
Johnson quashed rumors that left-leaning McCormack’s appointment was a move to pass a carbon tax. Though McCormack is concerned about climate change, he has not supported the ESSEX plan, which looks to put a price on carbon pollution and cut electric rates across the state. Johnson has serious reservations that a carbon tax could raise gas prices.
“My constituents in rural Milton and in Isle La Motte don’t have any other options,” she said. “We don’t have any way to get from Place A to Place B without a car.”
Instead, Johnson hopes better statewide public transportation can help with workforce development. If Vermont invests there, it could help move people out of poverty and reduce the state’s carbon footprint, she said.
Establishing paid family leave and reducing the “crippling” cost of childcare would welcome young families to the state, Johnson said. She also wants more opportunities for people aged 16-24 who aren’t attending school. Moreover, she’d like to see investment in Vermont’s economic development.
The state will also need to look at water quality and to develop a system to fund shovel-ready environmental projects, she said.