ST. ALBANS — James Ehlers is running for governor to “represent the interests of Vermonters.”
“Money,” he said, “is the corrupting influence in politics,” and the policies adopted by politicians accepting that money often benefit the wealthy over the working and lower middle classes, in his view.
If that sounds a bit like Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders, Ehlers doesn’t shirk the comparison. “Fundamentally, the principles are closely aligned,” he said. “Because they’re empirically solid positions.”
Like Gov. Phil Scott, Ehlers talks extensively about affordability, but his argument is not that Vermont is too expensive, but that many of its citizens earn too little.
Low wage employers benefit when the government steps in to help their employees afford food, housing and child care, he argues. It would be better, in his view, if those employers were to pay a living wage. “Clearly Walmart’s making money, so there’s no reason we should be subsidizing Walmart,” he said.
For that reason, Ehlers supports raising the minimum wage to $15 now. However, he would make that requirement dependent on either sales or the number of employees. Smaller employers would have time to gradually raise wages while large box stores, ski resorts and chain restaurants would have to do so more quickly.
“If people were paid dignified wages, they could afford rent,” he said. “People are being expected to go to work for $10 an hour so somebody else can profit.”
He also supports a publicly supported paid family leave, which Ehlers says would benefit small businesses by helping them retain qualified employees.
Universal health care would also benefit businesses with 50 to 100 employees, which are currently struggling to pay for health insurance for their employees, he said. With universal health care, those funds could be diverted to higher wages.
Ehlers said he knew of employees asking for a pay cut because they can’t afford private insurance through the health care exchange.
Asked how he would get a universal health care program where former Governor Peter Shumlin failed, Ehlers replied, “The things that stopped Shumlin from getting there were Shumlin.” He added, “His credibility had plummeted at that point.”
Scott, in contrast, has made containing state spending as a way to make Vermont more affordable a central part of his campaign and his governorship. It’s a position Ehlers takes aim at, asking just who benefits from cutting or containing state spending.
In Vermont, “the wealthiest 20 percent pay a smaller percentage of income in taxes than the other 80 percent of us,” said Ehlers.
Scott vetoed S. 103, which would have expanded a database of children’s products containing toxins, made that database searchable by barcode and given the health commissioner the authority to outlaw some products. The bill would also have required testing drinking water, including wells, for specific chemicals.
That veto didn’t “make life more affordable for Vermonters. It makes business more profitable for polluters and insurance companies,” said Ehlers.
Scott, Ehlers charged, has put a nicer face on Republican policies of “trickle down” economics. Trickle down is the argument, which began with the Reagan Administration, that cutting taxes for the wealthy would trickle down to everyone else as the wealthy invested their tax cuts.
“The only thing that trickles down is poverty and pollution,” said Ehlers.
Instead, Vermont should be looking to tax the wealthy, in his view. There has been an uptick in requests for permits for private helipads and landing strips, said Ehlers. “If you can afford your own heated helipad, you can afford to contribute to the community in which you live.”
As for the argument that companies and the wealthy will leave the state, Ehlers pointed to the letter signed by 50 millionaires and sent to Shumlin arguing in favor of increasing taxes on the wealthy.
“I think it’s reasonable for a governor to ask everybody to do their part and working Vermonters are already doing their part,” he said.
Additionally, Ehlers pointed to companies such as resorts, which cannot shift production out of the state. Stowe Mountain Resort, he pointed out, can’t move Mount Mansfield.
Ehlers favors investing in Vermont’s downtowns, starting with infrastructure. Pointing to a report from the Agency of Commerce and Community Development, Ehlers said that in 200 of Vermont’s 251 communities the limiting factor on economic development isn’t taxes or regulations, it’s inadequate water, wastewater and IT infrastructure that can’t support development.
Asked about the challenge of rural transportation, Ehlers said, the issue was affordability. People living in the state’s more remote communities have to commute because they can’t find a job closer to home and can’t find afford to live closer to their employer. “There’s nobody in Richford that wants to be commuting to Essex Junction,” he said.
Investing in local infrastructure “is the role of government,” said Ehlers. “The role of government is not to prop up corporate profitability and enrich the rich.”
Asked about the crisis in the dairy industry, Ehlers criticized the federal Farm Bill, saying it favored dairy processors and encouraged farm consolidation at the expense of small farms. “They don’t want family farms. They want CAFOs (confined animal feeding operations),” said Ehlers. “We’ve seen how unsustainable that is.’
Ehlers would support the organic milk market by making all of the state’s milk purchases organic, local milk. He would also incentivize more ecologically friendly production methods.
As governor, Ehlers said he would represent the state’s farmers, not agribusinesses. “There are lots of opportunities for a governor who understands this issue and is committed to the family farm in word and deed.” In particular, he would work with the governors of other dairy states, said Ehlers.
Ehlers made his name in state politics as the head of Lake Champlain International, turning a sportsmen’s group focused on fishing into an advocacy group for clean water.
“Clean water has been my cause, my vocation, because we all depend on it,” said Ehlers. “No water, no life, and all bad public policy shows up in the water.”
His campaign website has an eight point plan for clean water, but during his interview with the Messenger, Ehlers spoke more about education.
He criticized Scott’s proposal to focus on staff to student ratios and require schools to reach certain targets. “In a rural state one size fits all doesn’t work,” said Ehlers, himself a former middle school science teacher. “We have a governor who sees every student as a number on a spreadsheet rather than as what they are – an investment in the future.”
Vermont’s outcomes are by and large extremely good, said Ehlers, noting that Vermont’s education spending reflects a willingness by communities to invest in education.
On education taxes, he would shift from the property tax to an income tax, saying it would be more transparent.
Ehlers is seeking the nomination of the Democratic Party.