PUTNEY >> Jeanette White has served as a state senator for Windham County for 14 years.
Some people might think that's too long, the Putney Democrat said.
"When you first get up there you really don't know anything. You don't know the issues particularly. You don't know the people. You don't know the process," White said. "Gradually, you get to know that. So I think you get to be more effective after you've been there."
She said she enjoys looking at the issues from everybody's perspective. With 30 senators and 150 state representatives in the Vermont Legislature, there is plenty to go around.
White admitted that sometimes "compromise" is a bad word.
"But as Gov. (Howard) Dean put it once, 'You have to acknowledge there are a lot of good answers somewhere in the middle.' I do love trying to look at all the issues, trying to address those issues and come to compromises," she said. "If you dig your heels in and say, 'This is my way,' you're never going to get any place. Because the chances of getting people to agree your way is the best way are very small."
David Schoales, I-Brattleboro, is running against White for the Windham District seat. Schoales is a member of the Brattleboro Select Board and Brattleboro Town School Board.
The biggest challenge for lawmakers, according to White, is creating a budget without making it impossible for the people living here to support. Balancing residents' needs with their ability to pay for the services is "a huge issue every year," she said.
Another obstacle involves making the state a vibrant place where young people want to live and can thrive, but at the same time maintaining the natural beauty.
"Because clearly, we don't want to pave it over and become New Jersey," White said. "We might have better paying jobs, but is that we want?"
Local governance has come to the attention of the Legislature in recent years. One bill proposed regional boards to take over responsibilities from local boards. And Act 46 is an education law making mergers mandatory for school districts.
Vermont has over 500 governance units, White said, counting 251 towns and 260 bodies that watch over schools.
"That's a lot for a state our size," she said. "I believe that Montpelier makes too many decisions but I'm not sure 500 governance units is the right number."
Last legislative session, White was part of the push to regulate marijuana. The Senate passed a bill and Gov. Peter Shumlin would have supported it but the House of Representatives did not.
"We didn't have it. It was half a success because we got the Senate to support it but it wasn't a success," said White, who previously helped decriminalize marijuana and set up medical marijuana dispensaries in Vermont. "We have two substances, alcohol and marijuana. Both of them affect your body and mind. Both are probably something that shouldn't be used except in moderation. Both of them shouldn't be used by people under 21. And in one case, we've not only made it OK to partake in, we actually sell it to you. We have state liquor stores."
Legalization and regulation, she said, is something that "we have to do."
"Some of it has to do with the whole criminal justice system that we're overburdening. Part of it is dealing with it as, it sounds pretty stupid by saying, civil rights. You can go have a beer at a bar, but a joint? You're a criminal," White said. "How do we justify that? I don't think there's a way we can justify that. It should be a personal choice of an adult in my opinion."
With only 24 representatives supporting the bill, she does not anticipate another big push for regulation in the upcoming session. She said she "very bleakly" thinks that Vermont will be the last state in New England to pass legislation on the matter. Strengthening opiate laws likely will be the focus here instead.
White has been a primary sponsor or promoter of three bills related to genetically modified organisms. She also was the main sponsor of the bill that gives patients with terminal diseases the choice of whether to live.
As chairwoman of the Committee on Government Operations, White was proud of changes made to increase the number of people voting in Vermont.
"In January, we will have same-day voter registration and also automatic voter registration. When you get a driver's license in Vermont, now they will say, 'We're going to register you to vote unless you opt out.' We're trying to make it easier for people to get register to vote," White said, adding that a notary is no longer needed to ensure residents say the voter's oath for registration.
Creation of an ethics commission is expected to come up again. The bill introduced last session "would have cost us $750,000," said White. Her other concern with the bill had to do with defining relationships when restricting who can be hired by politicians. In a state as small as Vermont, it could quickly become difficult to find people to fill positions.
White said she would guess 98 or maybe 100 percent of the 180 people serving in the Legislature are "there because they want to serve Vermont and do what's right for Vermont."
"You give up a lot of your life to go up there. You get paid this piddly amount and you're far away. You give up your family life. You give up your social life. You're there Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, and you have to be there. And a lot of things happen in the evening," White said. "People don't do it lightly and I really do believe the people who are there are there because they want the best for Vermont and are acting in good faith."
White previously held positions as continuing education coordinator at University of Vermont, Windham County coordinator on the Council on Aging, administrative director of Sojourns Community Health Clinic in Westminster and truck loader for UPS. She grew up in northern Minnesota and moved to Vermont in 1972. In between, she lived in Iowa, Chicago, Florida, Georgia, Connecticut and Massachusetts.
With her husband and another couple, White cleared land and built houses in Westminster West.
"We lived out there for 13 years. Six of which had no plumbing. Two had no electric," White recalled. "We had two babies while we lived there. We did have electricity after two years."
Her family later relocated "right smack in the middle" of the village of Putney because sports, art classes and other commitments kept them on the move.
Call Chris Mays at 802-254-2311, ext. 273.