Zuckerman eyes new term; talks taxes, marijuana and clean water
MIDDLEBURY — Lt. Gov. David Zuckerman is asking voters to give him another two years to advance a political agenda that includes a livable wage, a Vermont-branded milk industry that could help struggling dairy farmers, advances in high-speed Internet and cell phone coverage, and passage of a law to regulate and tax recreational marijuana in a way that would raise money for education and economic development advances.
Zuckerman, a 47-year-old Hinesburg Progressive/Democrat, is rounding out his first term as lieutenant governor. He faces opposition this year from Milton Republican Don Turner, a longtime Vermont House member representing the Chittenden-10 district, and Liberty Union candidate Murray Ngoima of Pomfret.
The Independent published a profile of Turner in its Aug. 16 edition.
Zuckerman graduated from the University of Vermont in 1995 with a degree in Environmental Studies. He has been involved in farming since 1994, and spent three years (1996-1998) working at the Golden Russet Farm in Shoreham, owned by Will and Judy Stevens.
It was in 2008 that Zuckerman and his spouse, Rachel Nevitt, founded Full Moon Farm, a NOFA-certified, organic farm in Hinesburg. They also run a farm stand at the Burlington Farmers’ Market.
With his background in agriculture, Zuckerman’s campaign platform understandably includes positions he believes could help farmers overcome sagging milk prices.
He’s been gauging farmers’ interest in branding their milk for sale at a premium to the southern New England markets. Many of those consumers, Zuckerman believes, would be willing to pay a premium of 50 cents per gallon for milk produced in Vermont — which enjoys a reputation for pristine, wholesome products.
He acknowledged the idea failed two decades ago (with the St. Albans Co-op), but Zuckerman believes the intervening years have seen consumers become more concerned about the purity and quality of nourishment they put into their bodies.
“They want to know (their food and drink) came from ‘good farms,’” Zuckerman said.
“We need to take advantage of Vermont’s good reputation.”
If Vermont farmers were to realize a greater profit for its exported milk, it would “give us better value when (milk prices) are in the black, and less of a financial hole when we’re in the red.”
Zuckerman conceded a branded milk industry would require the state to invest in some related infrastructure, to include a bottling facility in southern Vermont and trucks to get the product to market.
He believes the state could bond for that money — but only after a marketing study confirms enough demand for the milk supply.
“From the Brattleboro or Springfield area, we’re only talking about a couple of hours to 25-40 million people, and to 70 million people within a day,” Zuckerman said.
Vermont is under a federal mandate to clean up its waterways, most notably Lake Champlain. The chore is estimated at $2.6 billion. The feds will pick up much of the tab, but Vermont must come up with around $55 million annually during each of the next 20 years. Most state politicians, during this election year, haven’t been keen on offering ideas on how Vermont should finance its clean water obligation. But Zuckerman said the state should consider a per-parcel fee to cover at least some of the cleanup costs.
While fees and tax increases are decidedly unpopular, Zuckerman believes many Vermonters would be willing to contribute to the critical cause of clean water. He estimated a per-parcel fee would cost Vermonters, on average, $20 to $40 per year.
“Doing something costs money,” he said.
“Our job as political leaders is to address the issues, whether it’s an election year or not,” Zuckerman added. “I think Vermonters would prefer we be straight up during the campaign and then deliver.”
Zuckerman noted Vermont isn’t alone in losing younger citizens to more urban areas parts of the country.
“The problem here in Vermont is no different than it is in almost any rural part of this country,” he said. “It’s a demographic reality that young people are leaving rural areas.”
He disputed other politicians’ assertions that young Vermonters are leaving to escape high taxes and pursue better jobs.
“People are moving to Burlington or Boston or New York,” he said. “They don’t want to live in rural areas. So then we have to ask, ‘What does Vermont have that Northwest Nebraska or rural Virginia doesn’t?’
And what Vermont has is proximity to population centers, better schools and better quality of life than most other rural regions of the U.S.
But Zuckerman said he realizes the state needs to improve its infrastructure and offerings in order to stem the current exodus. He specifically advocated for enhanced broadband and cell phone coverage, which he said are critical in enabling Vermonters to telecommute to jobs.
“You’ve got to have access to the Internet,” he said.
Zuckerman believes Vermont could help pay for these telecommunications improvements through dividends from a tax on the regulated sale of recreational marijuana.
Those revenues should first and foremost be used for drug-addiction prevention/treatment and related law enforcement, he cautioned. But excess revenues, he said, could be placed in two endowment funds: A higher education trust fund to defray college-related expenses for Vermonters, and an economic development fund tapped for such purposes as the aforementioned milk bottling plant, or for drawing down debt on new broadband infrastructure.
“You’d have an economic development fund that can actually produce some money,” Zuckerman said.
Zuckerman has long been candid in his support for a tax-and-regulate system for recreational marijuana. He noted Massachusetts, Maine and Canada recently legalized recreational pot and are in various stages of implementing their laws.
Current Vermont law allows adults to possess up to an ounce of pot and maintain up to two mature plants on their property.
He described the state Senate as being supportive and the House as being “tepid” on the matter of adopting a tax-and-regulate system for marijuana. And at this point, he doesn’t believe Gov. Phil Scott would sign such a bill.
Zuckerman rejected the notion that a scientific, roadside test needs to be developed for those driving under the influence of marijuana. He said the Vermont State Police’s Drug Recognition Experts are doing a good job, and that their numbers should be increased.
“We have the ability with DREs to analyze whether you’re safe to drive,” Zuckerman said.
He favors giving Vermont farms the option of applying for licenses to grow recreational marijuana, and believes this option could be a boon to the agricultural industry.
“I think the public sentiment is there,” Zuckerman said of the support in the state for recreational pot.
Zuckerman supports legislation that would more directly (than the current Act 68) link one’s property tax bill to the citizen’s income, a system he said would result in wealthier Vermonters paying more while reducing the burden on low- and middle-income citizens. Such a bill is being touted by state Sen. Anthony Pollina, D/P-Washington County, and Rep. Chris Pearson, P-Burlington.
Most Vermonters currently pay 2 to 3 percent of their incomes for public school expenses, according to Zuckerman, while wealthier residents pay around 1 to 1.5 percent. Zuckerman said it would increase wealthier Vermonters’ property tax liability, though he would advocate for a cap of a million on a person’s income.
“If that bill were to pass, working people would see a $30 million savings,” he said.
Zuckerman, during his interview at the Independent, also threw his support behind a universal primary care system, and placing a “human services liaison” in each public school to better link children and adults with the counseling, benefits and other services they might need. Those liaisons, he argued, could also save taxpayer money by ensuring the schools and state government don’t provide students with some of the same services.
Reporter John Flowers is at [email protected]