While fringe candidates campaigned on the sidewalk outside of the Paramount Theatre on Wednesday evening, Gov. Phil Scott and Democratic challenger Christine Hallquist prepared backstage for the 90-minute debate hosted by VT Digger.
Before VT Digger senior editor Mark Johnson could begin, another voice rose above the crowd: Chuck Laramie, an Independent gubernatorial candidate, stood and demanded his voice be heard too.
“I swear to uphold the Constitution. I’m being denied those rights tonight,” Laramie shouted. “I ask you one more time ... to stand down.”
Laramie was escorted out of the Paramount by security.
Scott and Hallquist agreed that the economy and population of Vermont needs to be grown, but where Scott saw the solution as minimizing taxes, expenses and cost-control, Hallquist opted for higher wages, Medicare for All and connecting rural communities with fiber optics.
Scott was asked to respond to allegations by the state ethics commission that Scott continued to be financially invested with his former company, Dubois Construction. The recommendation from the commission was that Dubois not be allowed to bid on state contracts while Scott remains in office.
While Scott maintained that he took the high road and sold his share of the business, he then offered to finance DuBois to save the business from closing, two years before he created the ethics commission, which just before this year’s election activities began, requested the issue be re-litigated, something Scott said was politically motivated.
“I can’t go back,” Scott said. “I’ve signed the contract. I can’t go back and say to Dubois, ‘You can’t do any state work’ ... I have no connection with Dubois Construction at this time. I’m just the bank.”
Johnson asked Hallquist why she didn’t want to work her way into a powerful political position from the ground up, instead of jumping from being the leader of a company to the leader of Vermont.
Hallquist cited her leadership experience and qualifications to be just that.
“I voted for Phil Scott, and I’m disappointed,” Hallquist said. “This wasn’t in my career path. When Phil talks about taking care of the most vulnerable and vetoes a minimum wage bill, vetoes a bill on family leave ... I question what affordability that means.”
Regarding income, Hallquist maintained that Vermonters couldn’t afford to live on current minimum wages, and that paying Vermonters a higher minimum wage would grow the economy.
“If we had adjusted wage for inflation since the late ‘60s, it’d be $22 an hour right now,” Hallquist said. “And what does it cost to live in a two-bedroom unit in Chittenden County? $22 an hour.”
Scott said artificially raising the minimum wage wasn’t the answer, as it could keep businesses from hiring; rather, the answer was continuing to not pass more taxes, and continue his administration’s policy of “no new fees” and training people for jobs that are currently available.
On affordable housing, Scott said his administration cut taxes and made investments, including the passage of a $35 million housing bond, which would leverage another $65 million in private assets.
Hallquist said the solution was an income-based model, paying a living wage and moving toward Medicare for all.
“That’s not a political issue,” Hallquist said. “That’s called being in a civilized society.”
“We’re 35 percent there,” Scott said. “We have a ways to go ... but just don’t forget, it’s not just about building the home, it’s about maintaining it ... and when I say maintaining it, I mean paying your taxes.”
Both candidates agreed on the need for better telecommunications in Vermont by implementing fiber optics, and Hallquist said that technology, along with downtown revitalization projects, would draw business to Vermont.
Scott maintained that broadband wasn’t the complete answer, and that keeping expenses low would make the state more affordable and therefore more desirable to businesses looking to expand.
Candidates drew closer on the subject of renewable energy: Hallquist suggested buying wind power from rich sources like the Midwest so Vermont didn’t have to put turbines on its ridgelines, and Scott vowed to abide by the goal of 90 percent renewable energy in the state by 2050.
Scott maintained that Vermont couldn’t afford a single-payer health care system on it’s own, and that an all-payer pilot program was showing positive results.
“We’ve seen that movie,” Scott said. “We went through five years of torture. I believe that was detrimental to our economy.”
Hallquist said Vermont should band together with other states, like California, and create a union of states that implemented a Medicare for all model collaboratively.
Hallquist said she would consider a carbon tax while Scott adamantly refused to consider the tax at all.
Scott said with regard to Act 46, schools weren’t being “forced” to merge, but rather choosing to on their own, and that consolidation was a way to cut massive education spending. Hallquist said she’d prefer to work with school boards on a personal level and try to save smaller schools from closing.
On the opioid crisis, Scott maintained that treatment centers were working on solving the issue, while Hallquist suggested safe injection sites and clean needle exchanges.
“Nothing is impossible when you’re on the side of justice,” Hallquist said in her closing statement.
“I hope in these polarizing times, we can pull together,” Scott said.