ST. ALBANS CITY — The four Democratic candidates for Vermont governor answered questions in a City Hall panel Sunday afternoon.
Rights and Democracy, a non-profit advocacy group, coordinated the panel.
Kate Larose, a Democratic candidate to represent Franklin 3-1 — including St. Albans City — in the Vermont House, introduced the speakers: James Ehlers, executive director of the clean water advocacy group Lake Champlain International; Christine Hallquist, the former CEO of Vermont Electric Cooperative (VEC), who stepped down from the position to focus on her campaign; Brenda Siegel, a teacher from southern Vermont; and Ethan Sonneborn, a 13-year-old.
Larose said, in her introduction, that Rights and Democracy also invited the Republican gubernatorial candidates, Gov. Phil Scott and his sole challenger in Aug. 14’s primary, Keith Stern. Neither attended.
The candidates rarely disagreed throughout the roughly hour-and-45-minute panel.
Instead, each explained priorities that distinguish their campaigns: for Sonneborn, “the role of government to make life better”; for Siegel, equal governmental representation regardless of income, race, gender, etc.; for Hallquist, climate change; and for Ehlers, resisting corporate interests.
But even if one candidate prioritized, say, climate change, the same priority wasn’t far behind for their fellow candidates.
For example, when asked how each candidate would specifically deal with climate change, Hallquist said she committed her career to fighting climate change after attending a Canadian panel on the issue in 2004. Hallquist she would prioritize an integrated and coordinated transport plan, with an emphasis on rail.
But Hallquist’s fellow candidates were similarly enthused about their own hypothetical climate change actions. Siegel said she would take “100 percent quicker” action on the issue than Scott’s administration, mainly by broadening public transit options statewide to reach virtually anybody.
She said her administration would require each Vermont municipality to come up with energy plans for state approval. That’s a step forward from Act 174, which the legislature passed in 2016, giving municipalities with state-approved energy plans stronger standing in energy siting regulation.
Ehlers said a governor must “create culture through priorities,” and that he would create a climate change-resistant culture through larger steps, for example creating a statewide transportation system, including commuter rail, and smaller steps, like increasing weatherization programs, especially in the private sector.
Sonneborn said his administration would invest in “crucial infrastructure,” giving people broad access to renewable resources, like electric car charger ports, to alleviate dependency on fossil fuel technology.
The candidates shared their opinions on a 925-bed prison facility in St. Albans the Vermont Agency of Human Services (AHS) proposed in January.
Hallquist said private prisons, in general, are “one of the most uncivil things in this country,” and that she “abhors” them. She said she supports the American Civil Liberties Union’s call to return out-of-state Vermont prisoners to this state, and to cut the state’s incarcerated population in half, focusing on those convicted of violent crimes.
Sonneborn called these prisons “inhumane,” and said sending people to a corporate prison is hypocritical.
Ehlers said, “We should be educating, not incarcerating.”
CoreCivic, with which the AHS proposed partnering to build the St. Albans facility, held a 15-minute meeting with Scott during a trip to Washington, D.C. shortly after Scott’s election, and months later with AHS officials. Scott said his meeting was a “meet and greet” without discussing projects.” AHS Secretary Al Gobeille said the AHS meeting didn’t include project discussion either, because state contracting practice forbids the discussion of projects “ahead of time.”
Ehlers cited the meetings as examples of the need to “get money out of politics.”
Finally, Siegel called private prisons “modern-day slavery,” and cited a statistic on racial disparity in Vermont prisons: one in 14 black men in Vermont are incarcerated.
The discussion turned to how each candidate would design an administrative budget.
Ehlers said he would ask Vermont’s wealthiest residents to pay 0.5 percent more in taxes and institute a “luxury home tax.” Ehlers said he would insist that publicly traded corporations pay workers a “living wage,” without which, he said, taxpayers are subsidizing wealthy corporations.
Siegel focused on increasing financial aid for those with disabilities, and said she would design her administration’s budget to “get ahead of what’s coming from Washington.”
Sonneborn said he would spend money based on a statewide needs assessment, which Ehlers also said was crucial.
Hallquist said, “We need more than a nice guy Governor who says no to new taxes. Saying no to new taxes is a no-brainer.”
Hallquist emphasized a need to incorporate the disabled into the workforce. She said she hired an employee prone to seizures during her time at VEC, and removed the employee’s seizures as a potential problem by training all other employees about seizures.
“We all win when people achieve their maximum productivity,” Hallquist said.
A subsequent question focused on funding for the disabled.
Siegel said she taught physical education at a school for deaf persons aged 3-21, where she encountered “pushback because people thought I was pushing too hard.” Siegel said she pushed for a “shared experience of learning,” and that her students proved they could do what “no one knew they could do.” She said those with “different abilities” can have “exciting” roles in our economy and in our communities.
Sonneborn said he would use any available money in the budget to fund assistance for the disabled, even using money from the general fund. “There are problems with that, but I’m happy to do it,” he said. “It’s about letting them go at it like anyone else. They can do it.”
Ehlers said a lack of disability funding shows “we have been bleeding our social services programs in this state for a long, long time.”
Every candidate said they favored exchanging the residential property tax for an income-based tax.
Ehlers said an income tax would alleviate property tax- based financial burdens for agriculturalists and foresters. Ehlers said those Vermont residents value those open spaces, and said they are environmentally healthy when well-managed.
Every candidate also spoke in favor of raising the minimum wage.
Siegel argued for a “bottom-up economy,” and said her administration would include fewer higher-income white men and women.
“The people closest to a problem are the most qualified to solve that problem,” she said.
Sonneborn picked up that point. Or tried to.
“We need a state government that looks like Vermont,” he said, to confused silence.
“I mean, we need a state government more diverse than Vermont,” he clarified, to laughter.
The candidates also agreed they would increase funding and resources for domestic violence shelters.
Siegel said she would include victims of domestic violence in her administration, furthering her above statement on closeness to problems.
Ehlers said he and his mother suffered from a “challenging family situation” growing up. He said increasing fair pay for women and child care and health care access would ensure “people don’t feel like they have to stay in a relationship just for their financial security.”
All the candidates agreed they found the Scott administration’s Remote Worker Grant Program, which offered 100 people up to $10,000 each to move to Vermont and work here remotely, offensive.
Hallquist said improving internet access would draw more people. Ehlers said the administration could have used that money toward poverty and unemployment issues, and Siegel said Scott vetoed bills “that would have attracted families,” like paid family leave and a higher minimum wage.
The primary election is Aug. 14. See your town or city clerk for more information.
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