From free college tuition to apprenticeships, candidates for Rutland County’s Senate seats offered their ideas Tuesday about what Vermont’s youth need.
Sen. Brian Collamore, the lone incumbent, joined by fellow Republicans James McNeil and Ed Larson as well as Democrats Greg Cox, Scott Garren and Cheryl Hooker at Castleton University for a candidate’s forum. Hooker, who was in Portugal with her husband for the Camino de Santiago pilgrimage, participated via a video hookup.
The forum was attended by about 40 people, most of them college students, and the questions frequently dealt with the challenges facing Vermont’s youth and how the state can keep them here.
“I don’t think we should be paying people $10,000 to come here,” Cox said, referring to Gov. Phil Scott’s incentive for remote workers considering moving to Vermont. “I think we should pay people $10,000 to stay here.”
Vermont could do that, Cox said, by emulating New York state’s program offering free tuition to people who stay and work in the state.
“If an educated citizenry is so valuable, then why should our kids have to pay for it?” he asked.
Larson wasn’t ready to give Vermonters quite that much of a break, but he did say he thought student loans should be made interest-free. Then, to make sure they have jobs, he said Vermont needs to become a “beckoning state” — more business-friendly. He also said he knew students were under a lot of stress and that both their schools and the state needed to help alleviate it.
“As students, I don’t honestly believe you know how powerful and empowered you are,” he told the audience. “My concerns are your concerns.”
Garren said the first step to making sure Vermonters could thrive in Vermont is increasing the state’s minimum wage.
“It doesn’t allow a single person to support themselves,” he said. “It doesn’t support a family of two. It needs to go up.”
Garren argued that businesses in Vermont struggle because their customers don’t have money.
“Sears didn’t go out of business because we’re not business friendly,” he said. “Dollar stores are popping up all over the place.”
Garren argued for a tax credit for student loan payments.
“The idea of cutting interest rates is an interesting one, but the loans don’t belong to Vermont,” he said. “I don’t know how we’d do that.”
Hooker said the state needed programs like the one she benefited from, which eliminated her student loan debt because she taught in the state.
“I think we have to stop saying Vermont is not business friendly,” she said. “We’re our own worst enemy. ... Let’s presume that Vermont is a business-friendly place.”
Hooker said the state needed to streamline the permitting process, but echoed Garren’s call for a minimum-wage hike.
McNeil said the state can’t afford free college tuition or a minimum wage hike.
“It all sounds great,” he said. “The state of Vermont only has so many people paying into the pot.”
McNeil said students needed to be trained for the workplace. He said he would like to see more work-study and apprenticeship programs where schools partnered with local businesses, and perhaps a job-shadow program where younger students get a close look at particular careers.
Collamore said the state is expecting a hike in revenue from a recent U.S. Supreme Court decision on applying state sales taxes to internet purchases, and he would like to see that money put toward the underfunded state college system, decreasing tuition. He also echoed comments Cox made about the value of small business incubators.
Beyond that, he said schools should start earlier to expose students to careers that do not require a four-year degree, like the one in sociology he got from Middlebury College.
“I have yet to be able to use that in a radio commercial,” the broadcaster said. “I’ve tried.”