ST. ALBANS CITY — Franklin County’s Senate candidates have similar priorities, according to their statements at a public forum here Monday night. The respective Democratic and Republican candidates’ most significant dissension seemed to be environmental issues.
Rep. Corey Parent and current Sen. Randy Brock are the Republican candidates. Parent currently represents the Franklin 3-1 district in the House, including St. Albans City and part of the town. Brock replaced Dustin Degree when Degree accepted an official position with Gov. Phil Scott’s administration.
Pam McCarthy and Dustin Tanner are the Democratic candidates. McCarthy is President and CEO of the Vermont Family Network, which supports families of children with special needs. Tanner works in Bellows Free Academy (BFA) St. Albans’ information technology department.
One of last night’s candidate questions concerned whether each candidate supported Vermont’s goal of relying on 90 percent renewable energy by the year 2050. McCarthy and Tanner said they did. Brock and Parent agreed environmental protections are important, but questioned the so-called “90 by 50” goal, especially Brock, who said he suspects legislators based the goal on arbitrary numbers.
“We have to balance our environmental goals with what it costs us to get there,” Brock said. He said poorer residents pay more toward those goals than wealthier residents, and said Vermont already relies on “relatively clean” energy sources.
Brock recommended people download the mobile phone application “ISO to Go,” developed by ISO New England. The app tracks energy usage state to state, region to region, including energy sources. Brock asserted those who use the app can see that Vermont is not relying on environmentally destructive energy sources like oil or coal to produce electricity.
Parent suggested a greater statewide reliance on hydro power, which he said is “still the cleanest [energy source] there is.” He said legislators should support proposed transmission lines, carrying hydropower from Canada via a line at the bottom of Lake Champlain. He also suggested looking to cost-savings alternatives, like a proposal from the Jay Peak Ice Haus to use heat produced by its hockey rink to heat the Jay Peak Pump House.
“We can use hockey rinks to heat buildings,” Parent said. “That’s pretty cool.”
McCarthy emphasized widening support for environmental efficiency beyond renewable power generators themselves — for example, broadening weatherization programs, to help homeowners more efficiently insulate their homes during colder seasons and cut power costs. McCarthy said the idea that there is an inverse relationship between the environment and the economy is false.
Tanner suggested looking at market-based solutions, supporting the Northwest Regional Planning Commission’s efforts to help Franklin County municipalities gain more say in energy legislation by designing municipalities’ own energy plans, as well as Green Mountain Transit’s proposed electric busing.
“Saving the environment is not about people in this room,” Tanner said. “It’s about our children.”
The candidates were in general agreement on other discussion topics, with minor dissensions.
Tanner, Parent and Brock supported the majority of Vermont’s recently passed firearm legislation, mainly the removal of firearms from alleged domestic abusers.
Tanner said he felt a bump-stock prohibition went too far. Parent agreed with that ban, but disagreed with a larger-magazine ban.
Those bans were components of S.55, which also raised the legal firearm purchase age from 18 to 21, unless the purchaser has completed a hunter safety or equivalent course or is a member of law enforcement or the military, and expanded background checks to private sales, save for those between immediate family members.
Brock was especially critical of S.55, which he said “infringed on thousands of Vermonters’ rights.” He asserted no empirical evidence supported the law, and said legislators would have been wiser to study the causes of gun violence.
Tanner suggested legislators trying to improve school safety look at more than just firearms, for example the cutting of guidance counselors. “Students fall between the cracks when the person they needed is a casualty” of budget cuts, Tanner said.
McCarthy said she supports the Second Amendment, but that we should also listen to students’ fears. “I think we need some cooling-off time until we see how this policy turns out,” she said.
School district mergers
McCarthy spoke against forced school district mergers, a consequence of Act 46, which incentivizes the consolidation of school district governance. She said lawmakers should listen to the subjects of forced mergers.
Brock agreed. He quoted a resident at a recent Act 46 meeting in Franklin: “You know, votes ought to count.” Brock said those subjected to forced mergers feel lawmakers are equivalent to “wise old men,” dictating from Montpelier.
Parent and Tanner were less critical. Parent said Act 46 benefits communities where consolidation makes sense, like St. Albans, but also said he doubts the law will produce long-term savings, citing the size of the Maple Run Union School District budget as evidence.
Tanner said he spent the prior year working at schools in both Fletcher and Milton, schools of vastly different student populations. Tanner said students in Fletcher, the smaller school, seemed to fall behind Milton students in some cases, but get ahead of Milton students in others, due to more individual attention. He also said the Maple Run merger seemed to benefit Fairfield Central School, which he attended.
Both Parent and Tanner agreed the state government should not force mergers.
One question asked how each candidate would make Vermont’s business climate seem “friendlier.”
Brock suggested placing permitting under one roof, with one person responsible for each request. Right now, Vermont’s permitting process is “scattered over all state government,” he said.
“Right now everybody is responsible and no one is responsible,” Brock said. If a state employee with permitting responsibility takes a vacation, “everything stops.”
Brock also said he suggested the legislature place “We’re open for business” signs beneath each “Welcome to Vermont” sign.
Parent said his prior experience in the legislature taught him that fellow legislators want to reduce business growth in Vermont. He said the key to business growth in Vermont is increasing the state’s population.
Tanner said improving Internet access should be the first priority. He said he watches local students fall behind in their schoolwork if they don’t have Internet access. He said expanding broadband countywide could bring more businesses to Franklin County.
The message to businesses should be, “You can live anywhere in Vermont,” Tanner said, with equal Internet access.
McCarthy also spoke in favor of smarter permitting and broader cell phone and Internet access. She also suggested reexamining the property tax structure.
The final question asked each candidate to summarize who they are.
Parent said he is somebody born here, raised here and who has chosen to live here. He told the audience his wife just birthed their first child, and that state policies will directly affect their choices in coming years.
Tanner said he is “someone who listens to the working man.” He said he made $18,000 in 2017, so he understands working class struggles, and that he also grew up here and has chosen to stay in Franklin County.
Brock said he “took a psychological test” for a job that determined he is someone who can “look at the forest and see each and every tree in it.”
McCarthy said she is a listener.
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