Vermont House begins 2018 session

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MONTPELIER, Vt. (WCAX) Lawmakers are officially back to work in Montpelier. The first day of the session Wednesday was largely ceremonial, but lawmakers say they're ready to hit the ground running.

House Speaker Mitzi Johnson, D-South Hero, has an ambitious agenda. She says tackling income inequality is a moral imperative, and a paid family leave policy can help.

"We're going to focus on this this session and make sure that the policies we're spending our time on are ones that make the Vermont dream accessible to everyone, and keep Vermont on the path to a strong, healthy future," she told lawmakers.

Johnson says too many Vermonters are living paycheck to paycheck. She says helping them meet basic needs will help boost the economy. "Working people and the middle class are the driving engines of the economy and investing in them is how we build prosperity," she said.

House Minority Leader Don Turner, R-Milton, says the speaker's agenda should focus more on controlling spending and easing the tax burden. "I didn't hear anything about holding the line on spending. Those are things that are very important to myself and our caucus," he said.

Senate President Pro Tem Tim Ashe, D-Chittenden County, says raising the minimum wage will be an early focus for his chamber. "I've talked at length about increasing the minimum wage and our Economic Development Committee will will be taking that up in the first couple weeks," he said.

What's not in the Senate, or House, is a carbon tax proposal. But the speaker is still asking all House committees to work on bills that ease the state's carbon footprint. "These solutions, however, need to work for our economy. We will have to recognize that Vermont is not an island," Johnson said.

That's a relief for Turner. "I'm happy to hear that there's no carbon tax," he said. "I don't know of anybody that really doesn't think that climate change is important, I just think it's not the highest priority in Vermont."

The speaker also called for the gold standard of sexual harassment policies. She says the Statehouse must be a safe environment. "We are all collectively responsible for ensuring that no one, in whatever capacity they come here to serve Vermont, that no one has a reason to walk away from our Statehouse community and post #MeToo," Johnson said.

Thursday afternoon Gov. Phil Scott will outline his own priorities in his state of the state address.