COLCHESTER — Republican Brian Dubie and Democrat Peter Shumlin brought their respective campaigns for governor squarely before the statewide media on Sunday, Oct. 3, in debate sponsored by the Vermont Press Association at St. Michael’s College.
The debate — the first of only two this campaign season featuring participation of the minor party candidates — gave the two political heavyweights an opportunity to tout their priorities and also throw some more leather in what has become one of the most negative campaigns in recent Vermont electoral history.
The gathering also gave viewers a glimpse of lesser-known candidates who are not registering on the polling radar screen but who have been anxious for a forum in which to express their ideas. Participating in the debate were Cris Ericson of the U.S. Marijuana Party and independents Dennis Steele, Em Peyton and Dan Feliciano (See sidebar).
Dubie, the four-term lieutenant governor from Essex Junction, touted his “10-point plan” as a means of growing jobs and improving economic conditions in the state. That plan, among other things, calls for containing state spending growth at 2 percent; streamlining the permitting process; lowering health care costs; and expanding business infrastructure, such as cell phone and high-speed Internet services.
“I have compiled this plan from listening to thousands of Vermonters,” Dubie told the crowd of more than 200 people assembled in the St. Michael’s McCarthy Arts Center.
“My jobs plan is focused on jobs creation; it is focused on marketing Vermont’s strengths,” Dubie said. “It is about expanding the Blueprint for Health, about saving lives and saving dollars. It is focused on transforming our educational system and workforce training so they are truly world-class.”
The lieutenant governor took several shots at Shumlin, the Senate president pro tem from Putney. Dubie reiterated his claims that Shumlin’s proposal to save $40 million in the state’s corrections budget was fiscally flawed and contended it could result in as many as 780 non-violent offenders being released prematurely into the community.
Shumlin, meanwhile, touted his experience running a small business (Putney Student Travel) as giving him an advantage in helping to jump-start the state economy.
“I’m running for governor because I want to create jobs and put Vermonters back to work,” said Shumlin, who is advancing his own economic development plan. That plan includes adopting a single-payer health care system — which he said would result in lower insurance premiums for employers and employees; boosting broadband Internet access statewide; adopting a tax structure “that grows jobs”; and investing more resources in pre-kindergarten education.
Shumlin charged Dubie with misrepresenting his plan to save money in corrections. Shumlin said his proposal calls for saving $40 million over four years by extending services to inmates after they are released, with the cost savings realized by not seeing as many repeat offenders re-enter prison.
“They put out ads, from out of state, that do not tell the truth about what I have said,” said Shumlin, whose campaign has asked networks to stop running the ads. “I have never said that I am going to let sexual predators into the streets of Vermont. I have not even said I am going to let out anyone who hasn’t completed their time in jail … All I have said is that in the Shumlin administration, once their time is up, we are going to have treatment programs on the ground to break the 70-percent recidivism.”
Dubie said he stood by his ads, which he said were “fact-checked and double fact-checked.” He said state corrections and public safety officials have expressed reservations about Shumlin’s plan and the ability to realize $40 million in savings.
“This is a serious campaign and Vermonters expect us to talk about serious issues,” Dubie said. “Public safety is a serious issue.”
The candidates were asked if they would consider tax increases in light of a projected $112 million budget shortfall next year.
“I don’t think we can raise taxes,” Dubie said.
“We have to be careful about making Vermont not competitive for small businesses.”
Dubie said the state will need to trim its spending, which he believes can be done in a manner that would avoid further layoffs in state government. Savings, according to Dubie, could be derived through asking state employee to make some concessions in their pension plan; cuts in the Vermont Interactive Television program; revisiting the manner in which Vermont pays for education.
“We spend $300 million from the general fund to the education fund; that’s another area we are going to have to have a conversation about,” Dubie said.
Shumlin said he would look to save money in part through evaluating the estimated $250 million in outside contracts the state awards each year and “put them on performance-based contracts. We do that in business; I wouldn’t be alive if we didn’t do that in business. That will generally save us around 10 percent.”
He added he believes the state is actually paying a premium for outside contractors performing jobs that used to be done by state employees who were laid off in recent years.
“(Outside contractors) is not smart business,” said Shumlin, who added he would eliminate public relations jobs that were added to the state payroll under the Dean and Douglas administrations.
“I would restore the press corps,” Shumlin said, alluding to the former reporters who fill those state PR jobs that her argued should be performed by the agency commissioners.
The candidates were asked how they would use a one-time windfall of $19 million in public school-related money anticipated from the feds.
Shumlin said he would use the money to sustain an estimated 300 teaching positions, while Dubie said the one-time money should be used to “meet a long-term obligation” — specifically, a growing deficit in the teachers’ pension fund.
The candidates had differing views on how the state should control education spending.
Dubie argued the state should move to increase its student-teacher ratio, which is currently the lowest in the country.
“I am suggesting we need to have that conversation,” said Dubie, a former Essex Junction school board member. “In the next decade, we are going to lose another 8,500 students in our state.”
Shumlin said he would advocate for health care reforms designed to reduce insurance premiums — one of the chief drivers of schools budgets statewide. He added he would recommend tax incentives for school districts to consolidate, and would seek a waiver from the federal government for Vermont to become exempt from provisions of the federal No Child Left Behind law “so teachers can start teaching again instead of filling out endless forms.”
Reporter John Flowers is at [email protected]