Vt. Gubernatorial Debate Highlights Divergent Economic Visions

Published: 10/11/2018 12:13:25 AM
Modified: 10/11/2018 12:13:36 AM

Montpelier — Christine Hallquist, a Democrat running against Republican Gov. Phil Scott, made a point to mention multiple times during a Wednesday night debate that she had voted for the incumbent in the last election.

But she had grown disappointed with governor, she said, before going on to list the litany of bills he had vetoed in the last legislative session — among them proposals to raise the minimum wage and create a paid family leave program.

Scott took the opportunity to mark his own distance from the Democratic challenger.

“I just want to make perfectly clear,” he said. “I’ve never voted for Christine.”

In presenting their visions for the state at the Rutland, Vt., event, both major-party candidates for governor said they would work to bolster affordability, provide relief to Vermont’s struggling rural economies, and steward economic growth. Where the two former business executives disagree is the paths they would chart to get there.

Scott, who has fought to resist new tax increases and proposals he believes would threaten Vermont’s cost of living, touted his record of fiscal conservatism, pointing to his efforts to shield Vermonters from $70 million in proposed property tax hikes, and slash their taxes on social security benefits.

Hallquist mounted a renewed attack against what she has characterized as the governor’s passive “cost control” measures.

“No new taxes is not a good plan for the state of Vermont,” she said. “A good business person knows you’ve got to get more revenue, you can cost-control yourself out of business.”

Hallquist’s primary pitch to spur economic growth in the state and to restore prosperity to rural areas is to expand high-speed broadband access. Her plan calls for requiring electric companies to hang broadband cables, rather than internet companies, a shift she says will lower the cost of expanding internet access throughout the state.

Hallquist is pinning a lot on the broadband plan, arguing that it will encourage more people to move to rural areas, and thus build up the populations needed to fill small, struggling rural schools and keep small hospitals vital.

“This is just like the ’30s, when the cities had electricity and rural America did not,” she said, explaining how improved broadband access would rejuvenate struggling Vermont towns.

Hallquist is opposed to closing both rural schools and hospitals, while Scott suggested that consolidation is inevitable, given shrinking populations.

As governor, Hallquist said, she would also attempt to shift education funding from relying on property taxes to the income taxes, which she says would level the playing field: in theory, low income and wealthy Vermonters would be paying a more equal share of their earnings to fund state schools.

“An income-based model would allow older people and people on fixed incomes to stay on their homes,” she said. “I’m not talking about increasing taxes; I’m talking about restructuring it so that they’re more fair.”

Scott attacked the idea, which would likelylead to wealthy Vermonters paying more. “If you don’t fix the spending, then someone’s spending more,” he said. Scott polled the audience for people who make more than $300,000 and indicated that no hands went up.

“We have the most progressive tax system in the country right here in Vermont,” he said. “So I’m not sure how many of these rich people we have left in Vermont, because they’re moving out.”

The governor said he still believes the largest threat to the state is its aging demographics, noting that the average age of a construction worker in Vermont is 58 years old.

The key to encouraging new residents to move in, and Vermonters to stay, he said, is to ward off new taxes, fees, and other expenses to keep the state affordable.

His focus in his first term, he said, has been to maintain affordability, grow the economy, and protect the state’s “most vulnerable” populations.

But Hallquist questioned throughout the debate whether the governor had really followed through on these talking points.

“When I hear the governor talk about protecting the vulnerable,” she said, listing his vetoes of the minimum wage, paid family leave and a bill requiring companies to pay for damage done by toxic pollution, “I wonder what vulnerable population the governor is concerned about.”

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