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'You can't live life with regrets.' Jane Kitchel reflects on career in government, politics

 A woman stands to speak in the Vermont Senate chamber
Lia Chien
Vermont Public
Caledonia County Sen. Jane Kitchel speaks on the Senate floor. After nearly 20 years in the Legislature, this session will be her last.

Few Vermonters have a deeper knowledge of state government and how it’s funded than Caledonia County Sen. Jane Kitchel.

As secretary of the Agency of Human Services, Kitchel helped reimagine Vermont’s social welfare system. As chair of the Senate Committee on Appropriations, she’s played an outsize role in what government programs get funded — and which ones don’t.

Kitchel shocked Vermont’s political world last week when she announced that she won’t seek reelection this year.

Vermont Public reporter Peter Hirschfeld asked Kitchel to reflect on her career. This interview was produced for the ear. We highly recommend listening to the audio. We’ve also provided a transcript, which has been edited for length and clarity.

Peter Hirschfeld: What’s your guiding philosophy when it comes to determining how much aid and assistance government should provide to people in need?

Jane Kitchel: Well, I think that was one of the fundamental issues that we had when we structured the welfare reform design. And that was the fundamental policy that parents had the primary responsibility for the support of their children, and to make those investments so that they were able to do so, if they had the capacity.

So unlike many states later on that did welfare reform — it was much more, "Here’s a job, you have to take it" — we had a lot of emphasis on education, on training. We were looking at the research that the educational attainment of the mother was really a determinant of the educational success of children. And so it was more, "How do you help parents fulfill that role? How do you equip them to go to work?" And that was the framework that we approached it [with]. And that was, "How do we take this group of welfare-dependent parents and make the investments, provide the supports, provide the incentive, deal with the structural disincentives, so that they can do what is expected of any parent?" And that is to provide financial support.

Six lawmakers sitting around a table in a Statehouse committee room
Peter Hirschfeld
Vermont Public
Sen. Jane Kitchel, sitting center right at a committee table, has spearheaded budget negotiations in the Senate for nearly 20 years.

Peter Hirschfeld: You’ve had to make what I imagine are difficult decisions about what programs Vermont is going to devote taxpayer money to, and what ones it’s not. Does your humanity ever come into conflict with your definition of fiscal responsibility?

Jane Kitchel: Well that’s kind of tough to answer. Yes. I’ll tell you where I experienced it the most. It used to be that our old preexisting financial support systems, which used to be the aged, blind and disabled assistance, and aid to needy families, that those benefits were updated every year. And that was just accepted. With the federal change to block grants, the supports for our poorest families have eroded.

And this year I was very, very troubled, to be honest. There’s always this emphasis, and we have lobbying and advocacy organizations that are pushing for government to do more. And for me, one of the things that, as chair of appropriations, I felt was very important, and that is, "How well are we doing with our current obligations?" And right now our benefits under the Reach Up program for parents to support their children are about 50% of the standard of need. It used to be 25 years ago, we paid 100% of the standard of need. To ask a mother with two children to support themselves on a benefit that might be $900 a month — when you look at the cost of rent, when you look at the cost of whatever — it’s very hard to say to people, "That shiny new object, it’s wonderful, but don’t you care about the poorest children in the state of Vermont?"

So I do have those pull and tug, and it was with deep regret that we didn’t do anything more for the Reach Up benefit. And I guess that’s one thing I regret I wasn’t able to do. But I felt that we did many other good things, so on balance I felt that the budget was a good one.

A woman with glasses and white hair speaks while using her hands. Another woman looks on from the side.
Zoe McDonald
Vermont Public
Sen. Jane Kitchel responds to Gov. Phil Scott's budget address earlier this year.

Peter Hirschfeld: You’re well known in Montpelier for your skills at the bargaining table. What advice would you give people who want to get better at negotiating for their positions in life?

Jane Kitchel: Think about how to defend your position. What is the data behind it? What is the policy behind it? What are the priorities. Having that information obviously helps you negotiate because it really takes something that, on the surface, might seem very desirable or a shiny new object. But you say, "What does this really mean? And who would benefit? And ultimately, who’s paying the price?"

Peter Hirschfeld: You’re also well known in Montpelier for being something of a caretaker of your colleagues. Especially when it comes to food. You bring people homemade sandwiches in Ziploc bags for lunch. You make cakes on birthdays. What is it that compels you to do this?

Jane Kitchel: I grew up in a farm family, and everyone who walked through the kitchen door, the first thing was to serve them food. And so it’s just very much a part of what I grew up with. And it’s a form of caring, It’s a form of generosity. And food just has such a great ability to bring people together.

So when Sen. Sears had his birthday, I did the raspberry trifle, and all of the Senate came, and we could celebrate, and it didn’t matter what party or whatever. It’s a way of bringing people together.

Peter Hirschfeld: And finally, Sen. Kitchel, you have enormous influence in Montpelier. People were shocked by your decision not to seek reelection. Why are you leaving at what a lot of people think is the height of your powers?

Jane Kitchel: Well, isn’t there a song — knowing when to fold? Fifty-seven years is a lot of my life. And I just have said, "Now is the time." I want to travel. There’s things that I want to do. And I can tell you I’m in a very different place in my own life than I would have been even 10 years ago. And that is, what do I want to do? And what are the opportunities?

I really struggled with it because it’s hard to walk away. But I decided that this was something I had to do for myself. I had to give myself the time and the freedom to start doing some of the things that I’ve postponed. I look around — you don’t have to look very far — and you realize that time is precious. And someone told one of my colleagues, "You’ve got more money than you’ve got time." And that has stuck in my mind.

Sometimes we put things off and then we say, "I should have done it." And you can’t live life with regrets.

Have questions, comments or tips? Send us a message.


The Vermont Statehouse is often called the people’s house. I am your eyes and ears there. I keep a close eye on how legislation could affect your life; I also regularly speak to the people who write that legislation.
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