Candidates for governor share their ideas at forum in Middlebury

MIDDLEBURY — Four of the current five candidates for Vermont governor weighed in on some meaty issues — including the minimum wage, economic development and state taxes — in an April 9 forum in Middlebury sponsored by Rights & Democracy, a new grassroots organization focused on issues facing working families.
The forum featured Matt Dunne, a Hartland Democrat, former Vermont lawmaker and recent Google executive; Townshend Democrat Peter Galbraith, former U.S. ambassador to Croatia and recent state senator from Windham County; Bruce Lisman, a Shelburne Republican and former Wall Street executive; and Waterbury Democrat Sue Minter, a former state lawmaker who most recently most recently Vermont transportation secretary.
The lone no-show at a forum hosted by the Champlain Valley Unitarian Universalist Societywas Lt. Gov. Phil Scott, who also missed a Middlebury forum held at the EastView retirement community last November. Rights & Democracy officials said Scott bowed out after the organization announced it had endorsed U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., for president.
“I’m not convinced my candidate would get fair and equal treatment at a forum hosted by a very liberal organization. Therefore, we would like to respectfully decline participation in your organization’s forums,” Scott Campaign Manager Brittney Wilson wrote in response to Rights & Democracy’s invitation. Officials said Scott had expressed a willingness to attend prior to the Sanders endorsement.
Speaking before more than 200 people, the candidates gave opening and closing statements, and took questions from a panel of Rights & Democracy representatives. Here is a summary of their declared positions on some of the big issues facing the state:
This is Dunne’s second run for governor; he also ran for the job back in 2010. Dunne is a former Vermont representative and senator. He is the former director of AmeriCorps VISTA and most recently headed up community affairs for Google from an office in White River Junction.
“I’m running for governor, because we love this state, but I am worried about it,” Dunne said. “We are seeing poverty rise at an unprecedented level. We are seeing communities hit by the ravages of a heroin epidemic. We have individuals facing a housing crisis that is turning into a homeless crisis.”
Dunne added he’s also concerned about the state’s aging infrastructure and ongoing pollution of Lake Champlain.
“We have an opportunity to move our state forward, but we have to focus on creating an economy that works for all Vermonters and all of Vermont,” he said.
Creating more affordable housing will be key in Vermont’s efforts to strengthen its economy, according to Dunne.
“A livable wage is not just about the wage; it’s about making sure we have affordable housing,” Dunne said.
“And it’s making sure that we are able to not let a broken website keep us from moving forward with universal health care for all Vermonters, starting with universal primary care,” Dunne said, alluding to the Vermont Health Connect (VHC) insurance exchange that has been plagued with technical glitches since its inception. He said the state must fix the VHC website, rebuild trust among consumers, and then implement universal primary care.
Dunne touted his experience as a recent member of the Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center board of directors, experience that he said could help with Vermont’s health care reform efforts.
“We can make (health reforms) happen … because the providers know that what we are doing is not working,” Dunne said.
He is not a big fan of the Addison Natural Gas Project (ANGP). That controversial project will soon bring Canadian natural gas from Colchester to Middlebury and Vergennes. It has been praised as an economic development tool, but criticized for environmental reasons and for perpetuating reliance on fossil fuel.
“I am very skeptical about the pipeline on the western part of the state for a variety of reasons for the ratepayers,” Dunne said, “and I continue to be concerned about safety.”
While he does not support an outright ban on new fossil fuel-related infrastructure in the state, he believes Vermont should intensify its development of renewable energy alternatives.
Dunne believes school taxes should be based on a person’s ability to pay, rather than through property taxes. He added Vermont should not tax Social Security benefits, and is one of the few states that do so.
Speaking on the drug addiction problem in the state, Dunne advocated for a greater investment in treatment and prevention programs. He added the state should work with the health care community to minimize the number of opioid painkillers prescribed to patients.
“We need to take (drug addiction) on for the epidemic that it is,” Dunne said.
Galbraith is the most recent addition to the field of gubernatorial candidates. It was in 1993 that former President Bill Clinton appointed him as the first U.S. Ambassador to Croatia. A former teacher, he served as chairman of Vermont’s Democratic Party from 1977-1979. The two-term state senator served with the United Nations in East Timor and Afghanistan and most recently has been working with a British charity on ways to end the war in Syria.
“I am running (for governor) to promote economic justice and policies to end inequality,” he said.
Galbraith proposed to accomplish those goal through, among other things, immediately raising the state’s minimum wage to $12.50 per hour, with the ultimate goal of $15 per hour by 2020.
All four of the candidates expressed support for boosting Vermont’s minimum wage.
“We have an affordability crisis here in the state of Vermont,” Galbraith said, adding the crisis is being felt by low-income residents. A raise in the minimum wage, he argues, would make Vermont more affordable.
“There is only one way to guarantee a raise in low wages, and that’s a higher minimum wage,” Galbraith said, a move he called “a great anti-poverty program” that would take pressure off of taxpayers now paying for various low-income program subsidies.
Galbraith also vowed to revise the state’s tax code, which he said is “larded with special interest deductions.” He said he would seek repeal of those deductions.
He also pledged to “end corporate subsidies” and to resurrect Vermont’s currently tabled effort to enact single-payer, universal health care. Such a program, he said, should be funded through a payroll tax.
“With an additional subsidy, you reduce co-pays, you could reduce deductibles, and make the premiums more affordable,” Galbraith said.
Also among Galbraith’s priorities: reforming the state’s campaign finance laws.
“It is a disgrace that the state of Vermont permits corporations to contribute directly to political campaigns, something banned under federal law since 1907,” Galbraith said.
While in the Senate, Galbraith initiated bills to ban natural gas fracking in Vermont. With that in mind, Galbraith  — like Dunne — said he’s skeptical of the ANGP. Vermont should focus on renewables and the conservation of energy, according to Galbraith.
“Let’s focus on what’s going to work,” he said. “Let’s focus not on profit, but the environment.”
If elected governor, Galbraith said, he would push for revisions of current state tax code policies that he said reward special interests. He cited, as examples, the state’s recent decision to exempt cloud products from the sales tax, and the ability of people to deduct from their state income tax the mortgage payments on second homes.
Plugging loopholes in the tax code would raise more revenues for essential services, according to Galbraith, who added he is “not afraid to raise rates” on Vermont’s top earners.
“We need to have a fair tax code, and we do not have it,” Galbraith said. “What Montpelier does over and over again is carve out special interest exceptions that are pushed by lobbyists.”
Galbraith also supports the concept of funding public education through the income tax.
Lisman recounted his humble beginnings growing up in Burlington, working as a dishwasher and learning the value of a dollar. He would later work as a high-level administrator at Bear Stearns, earning a personal fortune that is helping to propel his campaign.
“I was lucky, because I was born into a family that had values that mattered — community service, the dignity of work, being involved,” he said.
Lisman said he’s running for governor because he believes that Vermont is headed in the wrong direction.
“It’s got a fragile, dangerously thin economy, outside of Chittenden County,” Lisman said. “I’m running because I think this crisis of affordability affects us all.”
If elected, he vowed to support property tax reform and changes to Act 46, Vermont’s school governance unification law. It’s a law that he said reduces school choice.
Lisman promised to bring leadership that “gives us a government that works for you, for policies that matter and to measure outcomes.”
A raise in the minimum wage is in order, Lisman said, though he is more focused on increasing the earned income tax credit program.
“It’s the second biggest anti-poverty program, and probably the most efficient,” he said. “It is (currently) heavily biased against single adults who are working. We ought to expand it.”
Lisman was the only candidate who expressed unabashed support for the ANGP.
On health care, Lisman called for ditching Vermont Health Connect in favor of the federal health care exchange.
He said Vermont must somehow gain control of a Medicaid program that is covering one third of the state’s population. Since the Medicaid program is not paying the true costs of medical procedures, the difference is being absorbed by those on private insurance plans. Consequently, private insurance rates have been surging by 4 percent to 7 percent each year, according to Lisman.
He also called for an audit of the Medicaid program to determine exactly how the money is being spent. And Lisman believes the state should invest more of its health care dollars in mental health counseling, recovery and prevention efforts to take on the opioid crisis in Vermont.
“It’s expensive, but we need to do it,” Lisman said.
Minter’s résumé includes stints as Vermont’s secretary of transportation, deputy secretary of transportation, Irene recovery officer, andeight years in the House representing Waterbury, Duxbury, Huntington and Buel’s Gore.
She joked that growing up as the only girl in a household with three older brothers, “I had to learn as a young girl how to stand up for myself and fight back. I had to prove to myself that anything those boys could do, I could do better.”
Her fighting spirit, she said, helped her coordinate rebuilding efforts following the devastation of Tropical Storm Irene in 2011, which damaged numerous roads and bridges and also doomed the Vermont State Hospital in Waterbury. She noted that under her leadership, the state rebuilt 500 miles of damaged roads and bridges in around four months.
While in the Legislature, Minter supported marriage equality and raising the minimum wage. She pledged to advocate for additional measures to improve quality of life for working families and low-income residents in need of help.
“I’m now running for governor because I see too many Vermonters struggling with an economy that is stacked against them,” Minter said.
She promised to support efforts to further raise the minimum wage, improve access to education, add more jobs and strengthen Vermont’s environmental standards.
“I’m a leader who knows how to bring people together and get things done,” Minter said.
Minter said she is not a fan of further major investments in fossil fuel infrastructure. Like Galbraith, she touted renewables and conservation when it comes to future energy policy.
“The cheapest, cleanest energy is the energy we don’t use,” Minter said.
On the issue of health care, Minter called for fixing the Vermont Health Connect website, while containing costs by enhancing primary and preventative care. She advocated for improving the integration of health care and social services, transitioning to a system through which providers are compensated based on health outcomes rather than based on patient visits, procedures and prescriptions.
“It is the rising cost of health care and the rate of that increase that is breaking our family budgets and our school budgets,” Minter said. “It is affecting property tax growth and the state budget. If we do not reduce the cost of health care, we will not be reforming the system going forward.”
Minter said she would support “comprehensive tax reform” if she is elected, and pledged to continue a priority that she brought to her job as transportation secretary: investing in the state infrastructure. As secretary, she successfully lobbied for bonding of new road and bridge projects.
Minter said Vermont should treat homelessness as “an emergency.” She proposed the formation of a task force to study ways of addressing the problem, and then inviting the private sector to partner with communities in building more affordable housing.
Reporter John Flowers is at [email protected].

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