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Incumbent, Challenger Vie for Orange Senate

  • Bill Huff

  • Mark MacDonald (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.



Valley News Staff Writer
Monday, October 15, 2018

Thetford — When it comes to helping Vermont’s working class, the two candidates for the Orange Senate district have starkly different visions of what to do in Montpelier over the next two years.

State Sen. Mark MacDonald, D-Williamstown, tends to focus on livable wages and corporate greed.

“About half of my constituents are paycheck to paycheck workers, 40 hours a week at least,” said MacDonald, a 75-year-old retired history teacher in Randolph. Though unemployment is low, he said, workers struggle to make enough money, particularly when employed by chain stores that are headquartered out of the state, a growing part of Vermont’s retail sector. MacDonald said the state needs to provide more work training opportunities, and to continue to provide programs to support people on the lower end of the economic ladder.

But Republican challenger Bill Huff, 60, of Thetford, offers a much different take, focusing instead on eliminating financial barriers to both individuals and potential employers — high taxes, Act 250 regulations and corporate licensing fees.

“Vermont has essentially said, ‘We don’t want businesses to move into the state,’ ” Huff said. “Taxes are a problem for me. I’ve got two grown children that are trying to settle in Vermont with grandchildren, and I’d like to see them be able to stay here.”

Huff, a retired pilot and certified financial planner, said he also would take steps to patch a $4.5 billion gap in the retirement program for state workers by maintaining pension commitments to existing employees, but changing to a defined contribution plan for new hires moving forward.

“That way, it’s not an open-ended liability,” Huff said. Otherwise, he predicted the debt would snowball in a way that would affect the state’s credit rating and ability to function.

Huff briefly served on the Thetford Selectboard; MacDonald has represented the 11-town Senate district for eight terms.

A longtime member of the Senate Finance Committee, MacDonald said the Legislature took bipartisan measures earlier this year to partially address the funding gap, and said he disagreed with reducing benefits for state workers.

“Social Security is the system that, when you work, if you finish, you have some retirement. Folks with a lot of money can retire with no problem,” MacDonald said. “Of course they want to cut retirement benefits for people at the bottom. That’s how they get more money.”

Over the past months, both candidates have been active campaigners at civic events and doorsteps.

Huff has visited transfer stations to engage the public and staked out the best places to wave at passing vehicles. MacDonald is most of the way through an effort to visit each of the roughly 4,000 households in the district, which includes Braintree, Brookfield, Chelsea, Corinth, Randolph, Strafford, Thetford, Tunbridge, Vershire, Washington and Williamstown.

Huff’s printed campaign materials attack MacDonald as “no longer an effective legislator” who is “just filling a seat” while Vermont’s problems go unaddressed.

MacDonald says his record shows that he’s continued to advocate for Vermonters on a variety of issues.

“At the end of the last session, I got a rather complicated and technical law through that allowed ECFiber to borrow money from Wall Street at municipal rates,” he said. The move has allowed the company to accelerate its work to build out internet service in area towns, which MacDonald said has made the region more attractive as a place to live and found a business.

“If I had been an inexperienced legislator, I don’t think I could have pulled it off,” he said.

The “Essex Plan,” a carbon tax proposal that would use revenue from new taxes on propane and gasoline to reduce residential electricity bills, has been introduced by Democratic lawmakers. Huff said a carbon tax would hit border towns like Thetford particularly hard, and that he is opposed to the idea of using taxes to shift consumer behavior.

“It’s crazy to think we should penalize our residents because not everybody thinks the same way,” he said.

MacDonald said the state-level carbon tax proposals he’s seen are not feasible, and accused Republicans of focusing on the issue as a way to curry favor at election time.

“You always hear about that three months before the election. ... You can’t change basic policies without having ordinary citizens saying they want it, and they aren’t,” he said. “I don’t see it getting out of committee.”

Though MacDonald voted in favor of gun control legislation that increased the age to purchase a gun to 21 and expanded background checks, he says he had reservations about a provision to limit magazine sizes. He characterized political disagreement as a gender split.

“Women said it wasn’t going to do a lot (to solve gun violence), but they’re the ones that often find guns pointed at them. The men said it wasn’t going to do a lot, but it was the beginning of the end,” he said. “The women made more sense, and I went with the women on this.”

Huff said Vermont is generally a safe state, and that the new gun laws, which were signed by Republican Gov. Phil Scott, have not made schools more secure. Instead, he advocates for the creation of a school safety task force that would work with area officials to implement measures like better oversight and control of entrances. Huff said he would vote to repeal the gun laws, but that he doesn’t believe he’s going to get the chance.

“It’s not going to happen,” he said. “There’s no way.”

Vermont recently passed laws allowing for the cultivation and possession of small amounts of marijuana. The candidates agreed that the state shouldn’t take steps to retail sales.

“I think it was the right thing to do,” MacDonald said. “But it doesn’t mean we should take off like a lightning bolt. We have to listen to law enforcement, listen to schools, listen to hospitals to tell us what’s going on.”

Huff said he would have voted against legalizing recreational marijuana.

“I was opposed in the first place, and I’m also opposed to the commercialization,” he said. “There are plenty of studies that show it’s not going to have an increase of revenue to the state. It creates more problems than it’s worth.”

The State Board of Education currently is deciding whether to force a number of school districts to consolidate under Act 46, the 2015 school reform law that seeks to bring down the cost of education while promoting affordability and equity by herding districts into larger administrative units.

Both candidates want the state to back off.

MacDonald, who voted against Act 46, said he felt forced consolidation oversteps the boundaries of the law, which he called “appalling.”

Huff said he feels the law might have worked in Chittenden County, but not the rural areas in the Orange Senate district, and that it should be revised so that every town could maintain an independent elementary school, with school mergers limited to the high school and middle school levels.

“If a town votes to opt out, then let them opt out,” Huff said. “Then they would opt out of the benefits too, the pooled money and the taxes sent back to the town.”

Several Orange County towns in the Bradford area are in the two-seat Caledonia Senate district. State Sens. Jane Kitchel, D-Danville, and Joe Benning, R-Lyndon, are unopposed for re-election.

Matt Hongoltz-Hetling can be reached at mhonghet@vnews.com or 603-727-3211.

 Correction

Bill Huff proposes to maintain pension commitments to existing state  employees but change to a defined contribution plan, akin to a 401(k), for new employees. An earlier version of this story in incorrectly described his proposal.