The Bridge invited all seven candidates for three Washington County Senate seats to respond to our candidate questionnaire on issues facing the legislature in the 2019-2020 biennium. There is one open seat this term because Sen. Francis Brooks of Montpelier did not seek re-election. Incumbents seeking re-election are Sens. Ann Cummings and Anthony Pollina. Here are the candidates’ responses.
Ken Alger, Republican from South Barre
Chris Bradley, Republican from Northfield
Ann Cummings, Democrat from Montpelier
Andrew Perchlik, Democrat from Montpelier
Anthony Pollina, Progressive/Democrat from Middlesex
Dwayne Tucker, Republican from Barre
Barry Wadle, Independent from Barre Town
The Bridge: If there was one bill you could guarantee would become law in 2019 what would it be?
Ken Alger: I would like to see a bill passed that would save our green spaces in Vermont. The destruction of our environment in order to meet our renewable energy needs should be addressed. Vermont has acres of paved parking lots that could be utilized by raising solar panels above parking spots. Rooftop applications should be encouraged as well. Tax incentives for private business and a mandate for state-owned buildings and paved areas to meet these goals should be included. Testing of biofuels in our state fleet of diesel trucks should also be included.
Chris Bradley: I’d like to see the state address the problems that are currently inherent in our educational system. Other than pre-kindergarten, our student populations are declining, yet costs keep rising and outcomes are not as good as I feel they should be. We have an overabundance of teachers with one of the highest teacher-to-student ratios in the country, and we have not been able to do basic things like adopting a single healthcare plan for all of Vermont’s teachers. This is simply not sustainable.
The existing method of raising money to pay for our schools, which is primarily based on property tax, is, at best, convoluted. As opposed to basing educational funding on property owned, I would like to see an income-based approach which provides for more straightforward and easily understood calculations. Beyond that, I would like to see school choice with a voucher system considered that would hopefully allow for the creation of private schools that would provide a more competitive environment for education in Vermont.
Ann Cummings: The only bill that must pass is the budget. Without it state government will shut down on July 1. What other bills pass will depend on the makeup of the House and Senate and the governor.
Andrew Perchlik: I can’t decide between a family care bill providing comprehensive family leave and increased child care funding, and a climate action bill to lower emissions, boost innovation, and grow the Vermont climate economy.
Anthony Pollina: A bill I will introduce to move from property toward income to fund schools, making the education funding system more fair and simpler.
Dwayne Tucker: To reduce state government spending and to reduce taxes to make Vermont more affordable to live in.
Barry Wadle: After reviewing the proposed bills, I don’t have any single bill in mind. My overall goal is to decrease spending and cut government regulations wherever possible.
What, if any, changes should be made to the way Vermonters pay for schools?
Alger: I would like to see the per-student value that the state submits to go to each municipality to be dispensed as student vouchers for the school of their choice.
Bradley: Based on 2016 census data, Vermont spent the fourth-highest amount in the country at $17,873 per pupil; and we also have one of the highest ratios of teachers to students in the country. Despite these two facts, the results are less than what they should be, and this needs to be addressed. With the proximity to New Hampshire, which does not have a sales tax, it is not, in my opinion, feasible to consider shifting the cost of education onto sales tax, and it appears to me that basing educational funding on property tax is not optimal. We really have no choice but to look at an income-based approach.
Cummings: We will be exploring the possibility of going to a more income-based approach. If we decide to do anything, I want to make sure it doesn’t threaten the stability of school funding. Income, especially at the higher levels, can be highly volatile. That’s one reason that state revenues go through a feast or famine cycle. We have to be able to provide a stable education system even during times of famine. Last session we removed the general fund transfer from the education fund. It was replaced with all the revenue from the sales tax and some rooms and meals tax. Those taxes reflect income. We will need to monitor this change closely for any negative impacts on the fund. There is also an independent “Blue Ribbon” tax committee that will be looking exclusively at the property tax.
Perchlik: We should be transitioning our education funding to a mix of property and income taxes. Our schools are providing many social services beyond basic education and should be supported through our progressive income tax.
Pollina: Currently, even with “income sensitivity,” middle- and lower-income families pay a greater percentage of their income to fund schools than higher-income families. That’s not fair. We should move to an income-based funding system which is simpler and more fair, having everyone pay their fair share. Doing so would also result in additional revenue which should be used to lower taxes for middle- and lower-income families or be invested in making our state colleges affordable or tuition free.
Tucker: Not to increase taxes, but to consolidate smaller schools and streamline administrative costs.
Wadle: I believe that parents need to be more involved and be responsible to pay for part of their children’s education.
The cost to clean up pollution in Lake Champlain has been estimated at $1.3 billion. How should we pay for it?
Alger: This number seems to be bantered around as some magic that will completely clean the whole of Lake Champlain. I would like to see the breakdown before deciding how Vermonters should foot this bill. Vermont is one state that borders the lake along with New York and Canada. We as a state have been taking major steps to reduce runoff from farms to the point where they are over-regulated. The municipalities that continually dump raw sewage into the waterways need to take the steps necessary to avoid this with some form of penalty at each discharge. Watersheds in each county could be monitored to see where the biggest problems lie. These things should be formulated before any taxing is introduced.
Bradley: The pollution of Lake Champlain did not occur overnight. It will take years to clean this up. Runoff from impervious surfaces accounts for a good percentage of problem, and while we have been proactive with new development in engineering retention ponds and the like, older development that was built prior is an issue. Another aspect of this is our own local sewage treatment plants, which in many cases need upgrading. Municipalities such as Montpelier, which regularly pollutes the Winooski, must be forced to address the shortcoming of their system, and this likely means the prospect of increasing fines.
While probably not a significant source of revenue, we should consider putting a question on the Vermont income tax form to allow donations to the Lake Champlain cleanup, similar to what we do for Fish & Wildlife.
If we are to have legal marijuana, then we must consider a tax-and-regulation system, and then consider splitting the revenues across four areas: Support for law enforcement and the costs of taxing and regulation, education/treatment/prevention, debt reduction, and lake cleanup.
Cummings: To date, the governor has refused to have this discussion, preferring to rely on growth in the economy and bonding. Looking at the numbers, it’s obvious we need additional funding sources. Whatever source(s) we choose should be equitable with some weighting for contribution to the problem.
Perchlik: Cleaning up all polluted waters should be a top priority, and while there is some short-term funding, long-term cost-effective ways to prevent more pollution from entering our waterways must be enacted. The solution will need funding, but also regulations and education. I’m not a fan of the per-parcel fee proposed, but it is the only real idea I’ve heard any politician propose so we should find the best/fairest way to make that work—unless someone can present a better idea.
Pollina: First, realize that the longer we wait, the more expensive the cleanup of our waters will be. There are at least three primary options to consider. Bonding, which of course is borrowing, which puts off the real costs; a so-called per-parcel fee, essentially a land tax that would have to be designed to ensure that impervious surfaces like parking lots pay a higher fee than a homestead or well-managed farm field, and an occupancy fee on hotel rooms that would largely be paid by out-of-state visitors. None are ideal and none alone is likely to raise enough money, although the occupancy fee could be easiest, most efficient, and effective. There may be other options put on the table but these are three that deserve debate. The only certainty is that we must decide on long-term funding soon.
Tucker: We should ask the towns and cities responsible for sewage spillage to contribute to the waste cleanup.
Wadle: This is a cost we cannot afford right now. We have to take a careful look at the budget and find where monies can be allocated.
Are you satisfied with the state’s approach to fighting the abuse of opioids and other drugs? What would you do differently?
Alger: No, I think we should make it more difficult for dealers. I believe we should have mandatory sentencing with a mandate to send convicted dealers to out-of-state prisons. Addicts need access to detox centers with mental health help.
Bradley: I believe the state has taken a number of reasonable steps in the fight against opioid abuse, and we are already doing what should be reasonably expected. In many cases, opioid abuse is directly related to chronic pain, and historically patients were not as carefully warned about the addictive effects, with the now clearly seen result of more folks being addicted. Expanded education and law enforcement could only further help, and I would support these initiatives.
Cummings: Vermont is a national leader in opioid treatment. However, we need to do a lot more. We have a good base system, but we need to do better with outreach. Too many people are dying; too many families are living with toxic amounts of stress, and too many children are bringing the results to school. We could do more with more resources. That’s one reason I supported a tax on opioid producers last session. The manufacturers have reaped huge profits from the misery they caused. They should help pay to clean up their mess.
Perchlik: I’m not satisfied with the level of suffering our communities are dealing with because of the misuse of opioids and other drugs. I do not have enough information about the state’s approach to know if it is working. I do support the work of our drug court(s). On the campaign trail, I heard from voters that they want to see more mental health and drug addiction services available. We should ensure that any Vermonter seeking help is able to get quality care and not be forced to wait six months to get an appointment or into a program. I would increase prevention programs/education. I’d also like the state to hold the pharmaceutical companies that aggressively and carelessly marketed these drugs accountable for more of the funding to fix the problem they profited from. We also need to provide more support for counseling and mental health services for those who need help related to drugs.
Pollina: I am not sure we need to do things differently regarding opioids, but we do need to do more with early intervention and school-based prevention programs. We also need to fully recognize that drug abuse is, in many ways, linked to poverty and a sense of hopelessness that is growing as our economy continues to shift in the direction of the wealthy and income inequality grows. Last year, median family income in Vermont fell. Median income is now about where it was in 2007, while costs of everything has gone up, making it very difficult for many families to make ends meet, leading to a loss of hope and desire to escape.
Tucker: I am not satisfied with Vermont’s fight against opioids and other drugs. I would like to see more long-term treatment facilities instead of safe injection sites or methadone clinics. I would support a statewide effort to stop the flow of drugs coming into this state, and support harsher punishment on drug dealers.
Wadle: No, I am not. Especially with proposed and thankfully defeated “shoot up zones.” We need to toughen up on this issue. We are pandering to addicts and giving out free Narcan while children with severe allergies are forced to pay for their EpiPens. We need to toughen up on the dealers and restore family values back to Vermont.
Do you support a regulated and taxed retail marijuana market in Vermont and, if you do, how would you spend any additional tax revenue those sales might produce?
Alger: If the federal government takes marijuana out of the schedule-one drug category, I would be inclined to tax and regulate it. As it is still a schedule-one drug, the federal government could use this as leverage to remove funding from our state. Any additional tax revenue will most likely be utilized by having added a new bureaucracy to regulate the substance. We will then need a new substance abuse and treatment program, new testing for driving under the influence, etc. I am not sure this will be the gold mine it promises.
Bradley: While I was not immediately in favor of legalizing marijuana, as previously mentioned, Pandora’s box is now open with Vermont in line to have to deal with all of the seen and unforeseen negative effects that will result. It therefore seems reasonable to me to try and tax/regulate this market, with the revenue being split between supporting the cost to install such a system and enforce it, education/treatment/prevention, debt reduction, and lake cleanup.
Cummings: I do support a regulated and taxed retail marijuana market in Vermont. That’s the reason I supported the original Senate bill. Any revenues should first go to maintain the system. Then they should go toward law enforcement to pay for any additional costs incurred as a result of the change. Finally, we need to have a sophisticated education system for parents, schools, and children of all age levels. We do it for cigarettes and alcohol and now we must do even better for marijuana.
Perchlik: I do support a regulated and taxed retail market. Primary funding should go to the regulation of the cannabis market, public education, and public health needs. Only after fully funding those needs should cannabis revenue go to the General Fund to support other priorities.
Pollina: I support a regulated and taxed retail system for marijuana. Any revenue should go to education and enforcement costs and to support for higher education, state colleges, and vocational education.
Tucker: I do not support it.
Wadle: Yes, I do. Marijuana is already legal and with no established retail market it is a free-for-all on the black market. A safe, regulated system will provide consumers with a safe product and the profits can be used to fix our state’s roughly $3.2 billion deficit and deflated pension funds.
What new ideas do you have for growing Vermont’s economy? Is there a sector in which the state could do more?
Alger: I think we could take a cue from the federal government and commit to some deregulation on business. There are many places where we could maintain standards and not force our business out of this state. The state could utilize tax stabilization programs to get business back into the downtowns and bring in new business to other areas that will create opportunities for Vermonters.
Bradley: As opposed to passing bills that attempt to bribe people to move to Vermont, I would suggest we provide interest-free grants/loans to selected Vermont small businesses. A competitive process would allow for the selection of the most promising businesses, with money given with the understanding that, after a certain amount of time that shows the investment was a success—the business would then pay that money back so that it could be used again for other investment in Vermont businesses.
Cummings: I am beginning to have doubts that a one-size-fits-all incentive program is the best model for Vermont. Most of our businesses are very small. We need to tailor-make our support to fit each unique business. We have to guide them through the permitting process and help them reach outside markets. The success we’ve had with the aerospace industry at the Burlington airport is an example of things being done well. The final necessity is to ensure that every home and business in Vermont has access to high-speed internet and cell phone service. The response to last year’s bill offering to pay some expenses for people who moved to Vermont to work from home for their present employer, was surprising. I think we could do more to attract people interested in starting businesses, or working from home and enjoying the Vermont lifestyle.
Perchlik: There are tremendous opportunities in the electric transportation and renewable heating/cooling sectors of our economy. For every dollar spent on fossil fuels for our transportation or home-heating needs, roughly 80 cents leaves the state. By investing in solutions like electric vehicles and advanced wood heating we can lower our energy bills while keeping 80 cents of every dollar in-state growing local businesses.
Pollina: Establishing or designating a “public” bank would allow us to invest more in local economic development. We currently deposit Vermont funds (Vermont tax dollars, etc.) in TD Bank. If we deposited our funds in a Vermont institution, it could then work through our local banks to increase investment in our Vermont economy. We already have a program I initiated called “10% for Vermont” that directs that portion of our funds to local investments. We should do more.
Tucker: I would continue the support of agriculture and tourism in Vermont. I feel strongly about growing a local economy, increasing business growth, and having Vermont become more sustainable.
Wadle: In order to improve Vermont’s economy we need to loosen regulations and be more business friendly. This would attract more businesses to Vermont, which in return will provide jobs and boost the economy. Also, we need to embrace the new marijuana laws and use it to our advantage. This could be a major tourist draw and major boost for the economy.
Is Vermont doing enough to improve energy efficiency and self-sufficiency?
Alger: The past Vermont legislators seem to be doing their best to punish and force Vermonters to improve their energy efficiency. They allow the power companies to charge extra fees so they can give discounts help to business and some homeowners—basically a tax on your power. Most Vermonters I know try to keep their energy costs low to stay within their budget.
Bradley: Vermont is not doing all it can to improve energy efficiency and self-sufficiency, but forward motion on this effort must be balanced with what we can afford. For example, while perhaps good intentioned, things like a carbon tax will be a huge burden on average Vermonters, and significant increases in programs like LIHEAP will occur. We have Vermonters today who are making decisions between the medications they need and their other expenses (food, clothing, housing); I am very concerned that by raising the cost per gallon of things like gas, diesel, and home heating oil, the impact on Vermonters will be severe.
Cummings: When we started, we were national leaders. The first state to establish an energy efficiency utility. But we cannot rest on our laurels. We can always do more. The energy market is changing rapidly and we need to continually reassess our rules and programs to make sure they are meeting the current needs. We need to continue to be open to innovation and to be willing to change with the times.
Perchlik: We have a best-in-the-nation approach to energy efficiency with our well-regulated efficiency utilities. As far as “self-sufficiency,” I don’t think that should be a goal by itself. There are areas where investing in building local food, energy, and manufactured goods here in Vermont can have huge economic returns, and the state should be working to improve that type of local production.
Pollina: We have made a lot of progress in electrical energy efficiency. However, we need to do much more in the areas of transportation and home heating. We should invest more in public transport, including rail and lower-cost electric vehicles and we need to invest more in home weatherization and technologies like heat pumps, advanced wood heat systems, and home solar to reduce reliance on fossil fuels for home heating.
Tucker: No. I still would like to see efficiency improve by utilizing hydroelectricity and not continuing to build solar farms.
Wadle: No, we can always do more. In the future, I would look into hydroelectricity. Vermont’s landscape makes hydroelectricity very appealing.
Is there an issue or policy on which your view differs from those in the national party you represent? Please cite an example.
Alger: There may be one. The free trade issue. The Republican Party believes in free trade. I believe we need some protections as Americans. Our president introduced tariffs on aluminum and steel that protected American workers, union workers. These actions made it clear to Mexico and Canada that he would renegotiate previous deals, now we have the USMCA that will help Vermont’s agriculture and economy.
Bradley: It is my own personal belief that a woman has the right to choose whether or not she should bring a child into this world; I therefore strongly believe in a woman’s right to choose. While I do understand the feelings of those who believe in a right to life, these good folks are free to live their lives according to their beliefs. I concede the point that these folks should not be forced to pay for things that they do not believe in, but unfortunately our tax laws don’t allow for that sort of flexibility. For example, some may not believe in supporting the conflicts in Iraq, Syria, or Afghanistan, but they still have to pay their share. In a similar vein, and while I do not categorize myself as a member of the LGBTQ community, these good folks are who they are, and they deserve the same rights and privileges as are afforded to cisgender folks.
Cummings: I can’t think of anything obvious. However, I’ll admit that I haven’t read all the party platforms and issue papers.
Perchlik: I do not agree with the national Democratic Party’s efforts to suppress ballot access for new parties and independents. Despite the Democratic Party’s name, the national party has worked against democratic policies to improve new political parties’ access to the ballot. The national party is strong in their rhetorical anger over the policies of the Republican Party but works against efforts to create new political parties to campaign alongside the Democrats for common prosperity and against injustice.
Pollina: Political parties should firmly reject corporate money and so-called dark money from anonymous donors that are used to fund campaigns. I do not accept corporate money.
Tucker: My views align with the national party.
Wadle: This question is not applicable since I am running as an independent. I did not want any affiliation.