Brattleboro rep runs agains

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BRATTLEBORO >> Rep. Mollie Burke, P/D, knows about money challenges.

Introduced to her position as state representative in January 2009 right after the financial crisis of 2008, her first legislative session began with a big budget gap. While not on the House Appropriations Committee, she's very aware of the struggles that exist today.

"We have a lot of need," Burke said. "The Legislature has been involved in this results-based accountability, looking at things like getting the results you want for the money you're spending. I think that's starting to permeate state government and how do we target our dollars so they're most effective and retain a sense of compassion for the least fortunate and provide enough economic incentive for people who want to get ahead."

Burke has served as a state representative for Brattleboro for eight years. She's running again, she said, after enjoying the opportunity and privilege of the service.

In Brattleboro, every cent on the property tax rate is important. Burke pointed out the schools seeing about 60 percent of its kids being eligible for free or reduced lunch. She translates this to challenges at home, where parents are "stressed in many ways."

Making pre-k education mandatory in Vermont has presented challenges, said Burke, but it's an attempt to take pressure off the elementary schools.

Burke noted the disparity of wealth in the United States, saying she thinks it's creating a lot of problems. Even people who are working still need state services as they are not earning enough money or a living wage, she said. She has supported raising the minimum wage, which was accomplished a couple years ago, and paid sick days so parents can take care of their kids if they're sick. The latter was approved this year.

As a member of the Transportation Committee, Burke has looked at the effects of transportation on the environment as residents move away from using their own vehicles and depend more on public transit. She requested to be on the committee due to her interest in cutting carbon emissions.

"Our infrastructure in general in this country gets a C grade from the civil engineers," Burke said. "But I think Vermont has done a good job maintaining its infrastructure in a safe way. There's a whole prioritization system. It's very transparent."

As the state looks at ways to cut down on greenhouse emissions, one of the goals is to transition to 90 percent renewable energy by 2050. Burke said she sees a lot of interest in electric vehicles but the infrastructure isn't there to support it.

Another aspect of Burke's work focuses on making safer streets for pedestrians, bicyclists and the aging population. Four pedestrian fatalities in Brattleboro in 2013 caused some concern and a group called Safe Streets Collaborative formed in the wake. A forum at the River Garden in downtown Brattleboro will be held on the subject on Thursday from 5 to 7:30 p.m.

Four deaths of bicyclists in Vermont last year involved drunken or impaired driving, said Burke, who has cited this as an issue as conversations toward legalization of recreational marijuana moved forward at the Statehouse.

A carbon tax, which Burke said is "pretty controversial," could cut taxes in other areas. She pointed to a successful implementation of one in British Columbia. She is supportive of the tax but only if it's "economically feasible," meaning it won't put heavy taxes on people and fall disproportionately on lower-income power.

"I think that's going to be coming along in subsequent legislative sessions. There's been some bills that didn't go anywhere," Burke said. "Often things need to be introduced as an idea and they sort of percolate there for awhile. Then the idea becomes more feasible. I think that's true for a number of things that happened."

Take for instance Act 46, the education law that has school districts across the state scrambling to merge. Legislators starting forming ideas around addressing property taxes and student equity several years before the law was enacted.

At first, Burke was opposed to Act 46. But now, she said hopes it will do what it was intended to do.

"Change is really hard and changing the educational system is really hard," she said. "Education funding has been a persistent issue in Vermont and there's the whole issue of local control versus state control. I'm sort of waiting to see what that's going to look like."

She wonders if there's a better way to handle income sensitivity available to residents paying property taxes.

Currently, households bringing in up to $97,000 a year will have some portion of their bill subsidized by the state. New efforts are underway to make it beneficial for families to earn more than that.

"Instead of a cliff, there would be a leveling off," said Burke. "The Legislature is constantly looking at ways to try and create a fair system of property taxes."

Burke's interested in economic development, supporting the state's Working Lands program. A fund provides grants to groups or people hoping not only to conserve but keep farming or forestry ongoing on property. She's also happy with the Vermont Council on Rural Development, which is holding conferences on the climate economy. She said a lot of opportunities exist in moving to a non-carbon economy.

As co-chair of the women's caucus, Burke is looking at closing the wage gap between men in women.

"In general, women earn 83 percent of what men make," she said, calling it a rough figure. "If that wage gap were closed, we could be contributing a lot more money to the Vermont economy."

Also, Burke said there were a couple bills aimed at saving money while having better outcomes for incarcerated women. She worries not about violent offenders but those who are put back in prison after a small violation or technical issue.

Burke, a Brattleboro resident for 45 years, said the town has been "very good" to her and her family.

"It's a great town to raise children. My three children went to the public schools and got a great education. There are lots of opportunities," said Burke, who now has three grandchildren in the schools and says "it's neat seeing them take advantage of what Brattleboro has to offer."

Burke taught art at various schools, most recently at Hilltop Montessori School in Brattleboro, and ice skating at the local rink. On the ice is where she met a lot of people in town. That's what gave her "the knowledge or sense of fabric of the town," she said.

School budget challenges in 1990 prompted Burke to run and win a Town Meeting Representative seat. The position enabled her to vote on articles and budgets at annual Representative Town Meeting.

"This was at a time when it was contested," she said. "I really liked Town Meeting. It was sort of like a mini Legislature."

Burke is currently running a nonprofit called Art in the Neighborhood. Free classes are offered to kids in low-incoming housing communities.

Burke is urging residents to vote in the primary on Aug. 9. She said it can be a challenge time because a lot of people tend to go on vacation then. Early or absentee-ballot voting can be done 45 days

Contact Chris Mays at cmays@reformer.com or 802-254-2311, ext. 273.


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