Ex-diplomat seeks governor’s office

MIDDLEBURY — Former Democratic state Sen. Peter Galbraith of Townsend is perhaps best known for the role he played as a diplomat on the international stage during much of the 1990s. As the U.S. Ambassador to Croatia, Galbraith helped negotiate an end to the Slavic nation’s war for independence.
Though he still likes to globetrot, Galbraith, 65, wants to use his networking skills closer to home, as governor of the state of Vermont.
He is one of three Democrats who will compete in an Aug. 9 primary for their party’s nomination for governor. Also involved in that contest are former Vermont lawmaker and recent Google executive Matt Dunne of Hartland, and Sue Minter of Waterbury, a former state lawmaker who most recently served as secretary of the Vermont Agency of Transportation
The winner of the Democratic primary will go on to face the Republican gubernatorial nominee in the general election on Nov. 8. Current Lt. Gov. Phil Scott and former Wall Street executive Bruce Lisman of Shelburne will battle for the GOP nomination on Aug. 9.
“What a diplomat does is listen, put oneself in the shoes of the person you are negotiating with, understand their problems, have a certain amount of empathy, and try to chart a way forward,” Galbraith said during an interview at the Addison Independent on Tuesday. “Those are qualities that are also important for a governor.”
After leaving the U.S. government in 2003, Galbraith set up a consulting firm that provided negotiating and other services to governmental and corporate clients.
He has a connection, through family lineage, to Addison County. His great-great-great grandfather’s brother was Jeremiah Atwater, Middlebury College’s first president (1800 to 1809).
Galbraith was the last candidate to enter the gubernatorial race. He said he made the decision to do so because he “didn’t hear from the two Democratic candidates the things that I thought were important.”
Those priority issues, he said, include raising the minimum wage, “getting rid of special interest tax breaks,” moving toward “universal, publicly financed health care,” environmental protection, and getting corporate money out of politics.
“Those are things I believe in, so that’s why I decided to run,” he said. “And I want to be clear — I’m not running just to be governor of Vermont; I’m running to do something as governor. If voters like what I’m proposing to do, they should vote for me. If they don’t, they shouldn’t.”
Vermont, he believes, has “lost a lot of time during the past six years” in making progress on priority issues such as health care, and Galbraith wants to help the state catch up.
He said the general thrust of his campaign is to “battle for economic justice.” And that should begin with the goal of raising the state’s minimum wage to $12.50 per hour beginning next year, with the ultimate target of $15 per hour by 2021. Vermont’s current minimum wage is $9.60 per hour.
He called the minimum wage hike to $15 “a 50-percent pay increase for the lowest-paid Vermonters.”
Health care
Galbraith is advocating for a universal, publicly financed health care system that would be funded through a 2-percent payroll tax. He estimated the tax would raise the $240 million needed to entirely subsidize such a program, without the need for health care premiums or deductibles from consumers.
“The idea of having universal access to primary care is that people will seek treatment earlier and there will be better outcomes,” Galbraith said. “Cost is the big deterrent to seeking treatment. And early treatment leads to better (health) outcomes.”
Asked how he would deal with the business sector’s protest of a payroll tax, Galbraith said he would emphasize that such a levy could be offset by the reduction in health insurance premiums.
“Any business can adjust except for minimum wage employers,” he said, referring to businesses that often don’t offer health benefits. And Galbraith voiced little sympathy for such employers, who he said are benefitting from the fact that taxpayers are subsidizing their workers’ health care benefits through federal and state subsidies.
“Why should our tax dollars go to subsidize minimum wage employers who don’t pay their employees enough to get by?” Galbraith said.
Free tuition
Galbraith believes the state could deliver a free, four-year ride through the state colleges system to Vermont high school graduates. He believes the $28 million in tuition costs could be offset by “ending special interest tax breaks and corporate giveaways.”
Four years of free tuition, Galbraith believes, would make the state’s youth better prepared for 21st-century jobs and provide another inducement to settle in Vermont rather than leave for higher paying jobs in other states.
Solar siting
Galbraith followed, with interest, the solar siting debate that played out in the Legislature earlier this year. Lawmakers ultimately met in a special session to endorse S.260, a law designed to give more local control over the siting of solar projects to communities that develop energy plans that are consistent with the state’s long-term renewable energy goals.
This new measure was in response to calls for more local control from communities like New Haven that have become popular locales for solar arrays. The Vermont Public Service Board (PSB) has unilaterally decided such applications through Vermont’s Section 248 review, rather than through the Act 250 land development process and/or local review.
“While I support solar, I think it ought to be sited in accordance with town plans and the Act 250 process,” Galbraith said. “Section 248 and PSB process was really created for reliability projects, not merchant utilities. If in order to maintain the grid, we’ve got to locate a dam or power station, of course in those circumstances you might want to override the concerns of the town. But that’s not what these (solar array) projects are. In my opinion, they shouldn’t be treated any differently than any other large-scale merchant activity.”
Property tax reform
As a state senator, Galbraith served on the finance committee, which he said gave him some perspective on Vermont’s economic picture and taxing capacity. It was during this time that Galbraith floated an ill-fated budget amendment to eliminate the pass-through of federal itemized tax deductions, which he said would have generated $80 million in revenues for Vermont. That money could’ve been earmarked for the state’s education fund to reduce Vermonters’ property tax burden, according to Galbraith.
“That is certainly something we should do,” he said. “Other states do not allow the pass-through. And it would simplify our tax code.”
Additional property tax relief could be achieved by eliminating “special interest tax breaks,” according to Galbraith .
“We’ve had a steadily eroding sales tax by exempting things from the sales tax,” Galbraith said. For example, he noted the Legislature this year agreed to exempt cloud computing companies from the sales tax.
“This year it means a $4 million loss of revenue,” Galbraith said.
He added lawmakers have also exempted, from the sales tax, the purchase of spare parts for the repair of private jets.
“It’s just a nice tax break for rich people and does not benefit most Vermonters,” Galbraith said.
Act 46/School unification
Galbraith said he would have voted against Act 46 had he been serving in the Legislature during the past biennium. The new law directs supervisory unions to consolidate their school governance structures as a way of delivering education more cost-effectively in this time of declining student enrollment. Three Addison County supervisory unions have already endorsed governance unification. A fourth — Addison Northeast — is slated to vote on unification on Nov. 8.
“I think there are cases where consolidation is a good thing, and cases where it isn’t, and we shouldn’t be forcing it,” Galbraith said. “I’m very concerned about towns’ losing local control through these consolidated school boards and districts.”
He added he’s concerned that having a system with fewer local school representatives could eventually lead in the “direction of professional school boards.”
If elected, Galbraith said he’d seek to amend Act 46 to make school governance unification optional.
He believes his overall campaign message is resonating with Vermonters.
“It’s a very pragmatic and achievable agenda,” Galbraith said.
John Flowers is at [email protected].

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