by Abby LeDoux
COLCHESTER — Candidates for Vermont’s top political office squared off Oct. 23 in a 90-minute debate that focused heavily on the economy, environment and education.
Republican Phil Scott of Berlin and Democrat Sue Minter of Waterbury both participated in the Vermont Press Association’s Debate Sunday at St. Michael’s College in Colchester. Liberty Union candidate Bill “Spaceman” Lee of Craftsbury did not attend.
Scott and Minter both called for a more affordable Vermont with greater opportunity but differed in their strategies to achieve it.
Scott, the three-term lieutenant governor and former state senator, pledged a departure from “the last six years of over promising and under achieving.” Minter, former secretary of transportation and state representative, vowed to “level the playing field” for working families.
The candidates agreed a lack of affordable housing and a highly trained workforce are barriers to growing Vermont’s economy. Scott argued for tax incentives to expand affordable housing and for more technical education.
Minter offered her plan of two years of tuition-free community and technical college to all eligible Vermonters to prepare high school graduates for employment in sectors like advanced manufacturing and clean energy.
Already responsible for more than 16,000 jobs in Vermont, the latter is key to economic growth and attracting young people to the state, Minter said.
Both candidates are committed to the state’s goal of meeting 90 percent of its energy needs from renewable sources by 2050. Minter’s energy plan includes reducing peak electric demand by 10 percent over the next five years, and Scott’s emphasizes the importance of storage and power on demand.
Scott said wind power, though, has cost Vermont’s pristine ridgelines. Minter said she’s for “well-sited wind” to reduce carbon emissions.
“I know that climate change is not just real, it is here,” she said. “We need a leader who’s ready to take it on.”
Minter suggested Scott is beholden to special interest contributors like the oil tycoon Koch brothers who partly fund the Republican Governors Association, which supports Scott’s campaign.
“I don’t know who the Koch brothers are; I’ve never met them,” Scott rebutted. “My understanding is they don’t invest in moderate centrists like myself.”
He challenged Minter for supporting a carbon tax, a charge she flatly denied.
“I do not support a carbon tax, Phil, and you continue to say that I do,” Minter said last Sunday. “I do not support Vermont going it alone. I think it will hurt Vermonters.”
Minter was less unequivocal in her response to the same question at an Oct. 18 debate hosted by WCAX. VTDigger reported Minter said then she would have to wait and see, noting there was no bill in front of her, but was against Vermont taking on the issue alone.
Scott said in both debates he would veto a carbon tax bill if he was governor.
On Sunday, Scott asked how Vermonters could trust Minter would make the state more affordable given a record he said reflects approving higher taxes.
Minter insisted she would hold the line on income and sales taxes, pledging not to hurt the middle class. Instead, she said, she will close loopholes that benefit the wealthy, alleging her opponent would do the opposite.
“Phil’s plan for economic development really looks like something out of national Republican talking points,” Minter said. “I think we have learned that trickle-down economics does not work.”
The candidates found some common ground in education, agreeing declining student enrollment and rising per pupil costs are unsustainable.
The legislature’s attempt to remedy that was Act 46, which Scott deemed a hurried attempt to help Vermonters “screaming for relief” from property taxes. He said the law fell short in promises to contain costs and maintain high school choice.
Minter acknowledged these conversations are “far more difficult” in rural areas and said she’d extend the law’s timeline by one year to reduce the pressure on critical decision-making.
Though quick to distance himself from the Democratic governor, Scott credited Gov. Peter Shumlin for his approach to the state’s opiate crisis. Scott said he would implement a plan that appeared similar to Minter’s: Both call for a dedicated taskforce with a point-person reporting directly to the governor.
Minter likened that position to hers as the state’s Tropical Storm Irene recovery officer. She also emphasized prevention and treatment efforts, proposing the state examine prescribing patterns and better coordinate law enforcement agencies.
The addiction discussion dovetailed with that of mental health, an area both candidates agreed needs improvement.
Scott wants designated agencies to have proper staffing and resources and to consider another facility beyond the 25-bed state hospital for long-term placement.
“I’m not convinced we need more acute care facilities, but we need better treatment when people need it,” Minter countered. She called for parity of mental and physical health, an objective she said requires de-stigmatizing mental illness.
For Scott, mental health was at the core of gun violence. When Minter asked Scott to join her in supporting universal background checks for gun sales, he declined.
“We need to focus on the root of the problem, which is going to require a lot more hard work than simply reducing our constitutional right,” he said. “If I thought further gun restrictions would stop any violent crimes, I would consider it.”
Minter said in states requiring background checks for private gun sales, nearly 50 percent fewer women are shot to death by their partners.
“Those seeking to do harm will use whatever sources are available to them to fulfill their act,” Scott countered, advocating for enforcing current gun laws.
As the debate neared its end, candidates were asked to identify five specific people — excluding family — they would seek counsel from as governor.
Minter named only one, her predecessor, former Transportation Secretary Brian Searles, calling him a mentor. She offered groups, including legislators and teachers. Scott offered only two by name: former Gov. Jim Douglas and Grand Isle-Chittenden Sen. Dick Mazza, a Colchester Democrat that Scott counts as “an ardent supporter.” Scott said the other advisers might not be happy to hear their names mentioned in public.
Scott argued an effective leader reaches across the aisle, and an Oct. 19 Vermont Public Radio poll conducted by the Castleton Polling Institute suggested he’s successful in that: Though the poll showed Scott and Minter in a dead heat overall, it also found Scott winning 14 percent of Democrats’ votes with Minter getting 4 percent of Republicans.
Scott has broken with party rule in supporting abortion rights and marriage equality, the latter which cost him some friendships, he said. He was also far quicker than fellow Vermont Republicans to rebuke GOP presidential nominee Donald Trump, saying that hurt him in the primary.
Minter identified integrity as her core defining principle, a trait she said her father instilled with Shakespeare’s credo, “to thine own self be true,” one she passed on through coaching youth sports for 13 years.
Scott said his top value is the golden rule — to treat others the way one wants to be treated — in his case, with respect and dignity.
“Our nation is so deeply divided and politics have become so polarized, but it doesn’t have to be that way in Vermont,” he said. “Hillary Clinton is right: Our children are watching us.”