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Washington County Senate Race Has Familiar Feel

The Vermont State House. Photo by Tom Brown
Seven candidates are vying for three Washington County Senate seats. The race is a virtual rematch of the 2018 contest with five of the six major party candidates running again. The three incumbents, Ann Cummings (D), Anthony Pollina (P/D), and Andrew Perchlik (P/D), face off against Republicans Ken Alger, Dwayne Tucker, and Dawnmarie Tomasi, who is making her first senate try. Independent Paul Vallerand is also in the field. Given the anticipated state revenue shortfall caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, we asked the candidates to share their priorities for the next biennium in January.

Andrew Perchlik, Progressive/Democrat

Andrew Perchlik knows his second term, if re-elected, will be consumed by the economic fallout of the pandemic.

“That’s the big, tricky wicket we’re going to face,” he said of the anticipated shortfall in state revenue. “Can we keep things going or do we figure out what to cut or is there any room for revenue increases … that’s going to take all the oxygen out of the room.”

But he hopes lawmakers find a way to prepare for the future, even if there’s not a lot of money to spend.

“I’m a proponent of the clean energy economy and I think it’s the right thing to do for our local economy and reg economy,” he said. “I would hope that we could make progress on that and things like paid family leave and access to child care and these things that are important to our communities and our economic well-being, but if they’re going to cost a lot of money it’s going to be difficult to make happen. There are other ways to make advances through policies, education, encouragement, and setting things up for the future when there’s more opportunity.”

He said he might support a broadening of the state sales tax to include more items and would consider a temporary tax on wealthy Vermonters.

Perchlik, a member of the Senate Education and Transportation committees, would also like to see the legislature help fuel dealers transition to alternative fuels.

“If the future is 90 percent renewables (by 2050) we need to help those businesses transition to wood pellets or biofuels,” he said.

He also said revenue from marijuana production and sales is not a panacea for the state’s income troubles.

“Especially at the beginning we want to make sure we have the regulations and that we have mental health counseling and keep it within health and public safety until we know what the effects are before we send the money to the Vermont State College system or whatever,” he said.

Ann Cummings, Democrat

“The most important issue during this coming session will be recovering from the pandemic. This pandemic has identified several weak spots in our system, such as access to childcare and broadband internet. It has also made clear the economic disparity in our state. Too many people suffer from food insecurity and are only a paycheck away from homelessness. We used COVID money to prevent a crisis. However, that money will end and the problems will remain. We must raise the minimum wage and make sure that everyone has access to family leave. We also need to do a better job of providing skills training and job placement. Recent national events have pointed out racial bias and excessive violence in policing. We need to make sure that the laws and support services are in place to prevent any similar occurrences in Vermont. Finally, global warming has not gone away. We’ve made some progress, but we need to do more. As we work to rebuild our economy, this would be a good time to plan for a green economy.

“Fortunately, the latest numbers and the Governor’s proposed budget don’t call for significant cuts or any tax increases. That’s this year, which is a reflection of the boom economy of last year. Next year could be different. My priority has always been to protect the safety net programs that people depend on for survival. That will remain my priority.

“I believe that recreational marijuana is already legal. I know I’ve voted for a tax-and-regulate system at least twice. Without some system of regulation and taxation, we have the worst of both worlds — increased risk of DUI, and potential health risks — without any way to pay for them.”

Anthony Pollina, Progressive/Democrat

Anthony Pollina is seeking his sixth term as a state senator. While the legislature is right now working to backfill holes in the current fiscal year budget, it has one eye on the FY22 spending plan, which will be front and center in January. General fund revenue projections for next year are already down more than $100 million because of the pandemic.

Pollina says simply cutting spending and programs is not the solution and it is time to ask more of wealthy Vermonters.

“It’s going to be tough,” he said of next year’s session. “There will be pressure to cut programs and that would do more harm to people on top of the harm that has already been done (by the pandemic). I think the challenge is to find ways to rebuild systems better than they were before.”

While the pandemic has illuminated existing concerns over child care, housing, food insecurity, and chronic low wages, it has also sparked a migration of wealthy people fleeing the cities.

“People are coming here and buying expensive homes, sight unseen, and they’re not being turned off by taxes, which has always been the rhetoric,” he said. “The wealthiest 5 percent of Vermonters are enjoying huge federal tax cuts with a combined savings of $237 million a year. I think we could ask them to pay more to support the Vermont state government by putting a surcharge on their income tax. These folks are coming to Vermont and telecommuting to New York or Boston or whatever and they benefit from Vermont and the quality of life, so it’s fair to ask them to pay their fair share of what it’s worth.”

Pollina backed a similar plan to raise $30 million for a Vermont Green New Deal that failed to gain traction. The money would have been used to encourage weatherization, renewable heating, electric vehicles, and public transportation infrastructure improvements.

Pollina also said voters should not expect the taxation and regulation of recreational marijuana to solve the state’s economic problems.

“I wouldn’t rely on it,” he said. “A lot of it will go to the public health and safety aspects of the new industry.”

Ken Alger, Republican

Ken Alger of Barre Town is making his second try for a senate seat. He believes the best way to address revenue shortfalls related to the COVID-19 pandemic is to attract more businesses to Vermont.

“The shortfall is going to be there no matter what,” he said. “The only thing we can do to recover from it is to get more businesses to create more revenue by using tax abatement or economic zones.”

He said that even if new businesses don’t pay taxes immediately, they attract other businesses and employees who buy houses and boost the local economy. He also pointed to the need for Act 250 reform to make it easier for new businesses to set up shop in Vermont.

Alger also cited a need for welfare reform, suggesting that low-wage workers receive some sliding-scale assistance while they work their way up the ladder. People shouldn’t be faced with a situation where they turn down work because it would affect their benefits.

Alger said he believes a taxed and regulated recreational marijuana market in Vermont is inevitable but doesn’t expect to see a huge windfall.

“I’m not really in favor or against it but I don’t think we’re going to realize any of the money from it,” he said. “It will go to having an initiative to get people off of pot or go into the general fund and be wasted.”

Dwayne Tucker, Republican

Dwayne Tucker, a Republican from Barre Town, expressed several concerns about the condition of Vermont: A huge deficit, an opioid crisis, a polluted Lake Champlain, and a floundering economy. Economic growth is Tucker’s primary concern, he said in an interview with The Bridge on August 29, where he spoke from a hospital bed while being treated for a ruptured disc. “Our legislature is failing us now,” Tucker said. Responding to a question about what he would do to address the revenue crisis in the midst of COVID-19, Tucker said it is phony to blame the state’s economic crisis on COVID-19 because Vermont has been in a revenue crisis for two decades.

“We need to open up our economic borders and we need to start manufacturing,” Tucker said. And he came back to the condition of Lake Champlain again and again, pertaining to its importance in Vermont’s economy. “They (incumbent legislators) are standing doing nothing when huge towns are dumping millions of gallons of raw sewage into the lake. We need to promote small farms, we need to promote Lake Champlain. In the 1980s Lake Champlain was one of the top fishing destinations in the country. Now it’s disgusting.” He said farms were wrongly being accused of being the primary pollutants of the lake.

Tucker lamented the loss of farms in Vermont. According to Tucker, there were thousands of dairy farms in the 1980s, and now there are around 600.

As for legalizing the sale of recreational marijuana, Tucker said it should not be done without working with police to make sure people are not driving under the influence. And the opioid crisis needs to be properly addressed. Tucker criticized Senator Bernie Sanders, Senator Patrick Leahy, and U.S. Rep. Peter Welch for not doing enough to fix the opioid crisis in Vermont. However, Tucker believes the legislature should support the hemp industry and the production of CBD oil.

“I can turn Vermont around. There are so many candidates and incumbents willing to work with me to get Vermont on the road to recovery. We need economic prosperity,” he said.

Dawnmarie Tomasi, Republican

Tomasi did not return a call and some emails from The Bridge.

Nat Frothingham, Independent

Frothingham, although he put his name on the ballot, has withdrawn it, according to an email sent to The Bridge on August 21: “I have been in touch with the office of the Vermont Secretary of State (Elections) and have asked that my name NOT be printed on the November 3 General Election ballot for the Washington County (Vermont Senate) race. And an elections official said they could guarantee that my name would NOT appear.”

“I wanted to run for Vermont Senate, but then I found I couldn’t run because of changes in my personal life. And because it’s not clear that I could reach the voters I need to reach in the COVID-19 situation.”