BURLINGTON >> The challenges facing the Vermont economy and the most effective solutions to boost it were topics of general agreement between the Democratic and Republican gubernatorial candidates who faced off in Tuesday's Digger Dialogue forum.
More than 350 people attended the event on economic issues at the ECHO Lake Aquarium and Science Center. The event was hosted by VTDigger.org and was also streamed online.
While nuanced differences emerged on how best to jump-start the economy, each candidate expressed the overarching sentiment that the state needs to bolster its population with young entrepreneurs capable of breathing life into deteriorating cities and towns throughout the state. All spoke against proposals they thought would hurt the economy, including one to tax carbon emissions.
"What struck me was the amount of agreement there was," said Eric Davis, a retired professor of political science at Middlebury College who attended the event. "I think there was more consensus than disagreement, it didn't come across as a partisan event at all."
The forum began with a presentation by VTDigger publisher Diane Zeigler, who laid out a set of startling economic statistics in the state comparing the wealth of Bennington and Chittenden counties.
Included in the statistics, which are linked below, were some troubling figures: traffic in Vermont's visitor centers is declining, the state's median age is increasing and so is childhood poverty.
"We are looking at more than 40 percent of our state's children that are receiving free or reduced lunches," Zeigler said before scrolling to another chart — one showing a 186 percent increase in opioid treatment statewide.
Democratic candidates Matt Dunne and Sue Minter and Republicans Bruce Lisman and Lt. Gov. Phil Scott spoke at the event. Democrat Shap Smith could not attend the forum because he was spending time with his wife, who just underwent surgery.
The candidates generally agreed on the causes of economic decline in the state, though some prioritized different causes.
Lisman highlighted the graying population as the most urgent economic issue facing the state.
"Population growth in this country is a terrific proxy for economic vitality, where people leaving shows the economy is being hollowed out," Lisman said.
Dunne and Scott also said population decline was troubling, and both set goals of increasing the population by tens of thousands over the coming years.
Minter agreed that population declined must be addressed, but highlighted opiate abuse as the most troubling problem in the state.
While the former transportation secretary said Rutland's "Project Vision" approach is showing signs of effectiveness, problems persist. She told the story of a Rutland law enforcement official who told her that school administrators recently found needles in a fifth-grader's backpack.
"The mother of this young fifth-grader put her needles into the backpack so that she would keep herself from using while her daughter was in school," Minter said. "This is an issue that is confronting us very significantly."
Dunne said poverty levels troubled him the most, and that all of the dire economic data in the state was related.
"What was the most interesting was to overlay all of those graphs together because it shows how connected these pieces are," Dunne said. "When you see a rise in poverty, you see a rise in opiate addiction."
While the candidates all portrayed a dim picture of the state, some towns were highlighted for their resurgence in the past few years, including Barre, Winooski, Waterbury and St. Albans.
The economic atmosphere of Chittenden County – and Burlington specifically – received the most praise from the candidates, but agreement emerged that the plethora of educational institutions and medical centers in the city made it a hard economic environment to replicate.
Scott said that while Chittenden has the most hopeful economic data in the state, it is still not as vibrant as it could be.
"If you just take Chittenden County alone and compare it to other bright spots in the country, even in the Northeast, it's just doing OK," he said.
Other towns were referenced as examples of places in dire need of an economic renaissance, including Bennington, Rutland and Newport.
Much like the problems plaguing the state, a general consensus emerged on how best to fix the state's economic woes.
More young people must be enticed to live and work here, the candidates said, and more affordable housing for them must be made available. High-speed Internet must be increased throughout the state and downtowns need revitalization.
Minter said that the education system must be preserved, as it is a huge draw for families moving to Vermont.
"We know we have got a lot of conversations about how we fund [schools], but they are a magnet" to out-of-staters, she said.
All the candidates agreed on other assets the state has in attracting families, including a high quality of life and access to fresh produce and other small batch products.
The candidates prioritized making the state more business friendly, and Lisman and Scott criticized the state government's changing permitting processes and expensive mandates as a deterrent for small and big businesses.
"We've created a predictable process for [renewable energy companies] to go through, a siting process," Scott said. "They understand they can get from point A to point B, and there are tax incentives to do it."
The candidates also generally agreed that while the state needed to attract and support entrepreneurs and exciting startup businesses, it should not be in the business of picking economic winners and losers.
Democratic gubernatorial candidate Matt Dunne speaks at the Digger Dialogue. Photo by Elizabeth Hewitt/VTDigger
"I actually don't think government is very good at predicting the economy or where innovation is going to happen," Dunne said.
Members of the public submitted more than 130 questions to VTDigger in the three days leading up to the event. The most popular question dealt with a Democratic proposal for a carbon tax that could, among other things, increase the price of gas by up to 88 cents over 10 years.
Lisman emphatically called the tax "an insane idea," garnering the first round of applause for a candidate during the event.
"A carbon tax would raise the cost of living by some serious amount on the notion that we shouldn't be driving," he said, noting that many Vermonters have long commutes to work.
The other candidates echoed Lisman's sentiments, but Dunne and Minter added a caveat that environmental regulations in general are necessary.
Minter called climate change the most important political issue of the moment, but stopped short of supporting a carbon tax: "I do not think at this time, with our economy, that this is something appropriate for just the state of Vermont."
Davis said from an analyst's perspective, he thought all the candidates performed well. He said most of the issues didn't come across as partisan ones, though distinctions would emerge over the coming months as candidates outlines more specific policy proposals.
"As we get closer to the campaign, the discussion is going to get more concrete about taxes, spending, school funding, solar and wind sighting and other issues," he said. "Differences will be highlighted as the primary approaches."