Among the 180 lawmakers convening under the Golden Dome this week, there will be a few fresh “frosh” faces mixed in with the familiar ones.
Of the 30 senators, three are new to the chamber. Thirty-two of the 150 House members are rookie lawmakers.
Seven Days talked to three newbies — senators Tim Ashe (D/P-Chittenden) and Randy Brock (R-Franklin) and Rep. Kesha Ram (D-Burlington) — to hear their respective priorities for the session. All three plan to follow a mantra that is tried and true among first-time lawmakers: Keep focused, bust your ass, and earn the respect of your colleagues.
“My elbows are sharp from being on the city council in Burlington for several years . . . but, that said, I have a lot to learn once I get to Montpelier,” said Ashe. “I look forward to earning my stripes.”
There won’t be much pomp and circumstance before their work begins. Vermont is facing a budget shortfall that could top $200 million — a fact made all too clear during a week-long legislative orientation session in November. New lawmakers had the opportunity to meet with the governor, as well as with their legislative support staff.
All three pols have managed budgets as elected officials. They’ll need all that experience, and more.
As a city councilor, Ashe had a chance to dig into all aspects of city government. As a state lawmaker, most of the work gets done through a committee. Senators get to serve on two committees; reps get one.
When it comes to the budget, all three agree that tough choices need to be made. However, Ashe and Ram say the state’s most vulnerable shouldn’t be asked to shoulder more than their fair share of the budgetary pain.
“The economy has essentially thrown people in front of a bus,” said Ashe. “The discussion should not be about how fast to drive the bus.”
Republican Brock, too, is worried about asking people to take on more than their fair share of the burden. But he thinks raising taxes on the wealthy — which is what the state did for a brief period in 1991 — is not a viable option.
“Raising taxes on that part of society that pays the lions’ share now and can serve as the engine for these new jobs is counterproductive,” said Brock. “This group is a small number of people, and we want to be careful not to drive them out of Vermont . . . we’re in competition with every other state in the country, and wealth is mobile.”
Brock said as auditor he was able to find ways to make government more efficient, and save money. For example, he thinks the state should do a better job tracking private and nonprofit groups that run public programs.
“We’re going to be faced with making some very hard choices, and, if we do our jobs well, people are going to be mad at us,” said Brock.
For her part, Ram sees economic opportunity in the merging financial and climate crises.
“We can be a stronger state and use these crises as an opportunity to be an environmental leader once again,” said 22-year-old Ram, who was president of UVM’s Student Government Association. “Many of the young people I talk with see the connection between the quality of life, economic growth and environmental protection.”
So does Brock. He believes promoting agribusinesses, green energy and clean technology firms can refuel the state’s economic engine.
Ram and Brock agree on one other issue: If the pair set up a minority caucus, they’d be deadlocked on most votes.
“We had a lively debate that got a lot of people looking over at us,” Ram said with a laugh.
Since Election Day, Ram has spent a lot of time reading, and re-reading, the Vermont Constitution, as well as getting up to speed on past legislation related to commerce, education, workforce development and taxation.
Over the holiday, at her family’s home outside of Los Angeles, Ram spoke to 2000 students in her old public school district. “It was really fun; some kids were even asking for my autograph,” said Ram.
Getting elected to office isn’t all ticker-tape parades. “We face huge challenges,” said Ram, “and I would feel much more overwhelmed if I didn’t think there are already people serving in the legislature who are ready and willing to teach the new people.”