BURLINGTON >> Two Democrats running for governor said they would increase taxes to pay for critical services, while a Republican said the path to economic growth is to increase the population.
Democrat Matt Dunne said he would pay for a universal health care program with a payroll tax, while fellow Democrat Peter Galbraith reminded a crowd of mostly retirement-age voters that he had proposed a health care financing system that would have depended on payroll taxes when he served in the Vermont Senate.
Moderator Jim Leddy, right, poses a question to gubernatorial candidate Phil Scott during Wednesday evening's forum presented by AARP in Burlington. Photo by Mark Johnson/VTDigger
Republican Phil Scott said the cost of services would be spread more evenly if the state's population grew from 630,000 to 700,000 people. On health care, he advocated eliminating Vermont Health Connect, the state website set up to offer health coverage required under federal law, and join the federal exchange or hook up with another state that has been successful.
The three candidates spoke sequentially at an event sponsored by AARP, formerly the American Association of Retired Persons. Moderator Jim Leddy, a former state senator, noted that 138,000 Vermonters receive Social Security. He decried Vermont's decline in population between the ages of 25 and 45 and quizzed the candidates on whether they felt the public was adequately represented in utility cases and what should be done to improve transportation options.
The two other leading candidates, Republican Bruce Lisman and Democrat Sue Minter, will be appearing before the group Thursday evening. About 85 attended Wednesday, though the crowd had thinned by a quarter by the time the third speaker, Galbraith, appeared. The candidates spoke and took questions for 45 minutes each.
Scott told the elders that he hoped to someday eliminate the income tax on Social Security benefits — Leddy said Vermont is one of five states to fully tax them — but realistically could not until Vermont got "its economic house in order."
Dunne said he would eliminate the tax burden for some Social Security recipients but not all and pay for it by eliminating the deduction of mortgage interest on homes other than an individual's primary dwelling. Galbraith noted that those whose only income is Social Security would not be facing a significant tax; he promoted the idea of raising the minimum wage to $15 as a better way to boost the economy.
Matt Dunne speaks during Wednesday evening's forum in Burlington. Photo by Mark Johnson/VTDigger
Dunne also outlined a program to invest in the state, including a proposal to raise $100 million through a bond to invest in energy efficiency projects in multifamily dwellings, which he said would be financed through the accrued utility savings.
But unlike Scott, who pledged to hold the line on state spending, Dunne and Galbraith said they were prepared to spend more money and raise taxes to pay for programs including universal health care and treatment for heroin addicts. Galbraith said he would shift some of the property tax burden to income taxes, which he wants to raise on wealthier Vermonters.
"We're going to have some pain involved in the next two to three years no matter who's elected," Scott said, "but if we play cards right, we can grow our way out of this."
Dunne said Vermont has been shifting away from large-scale dairy production and industry as its economic base to "something else" for 40 years but hasn't figured out what the next base is.
"We haven't acknowledged we're in a new era," he said.
Scott emphasized the loss of younger Vermonters, noting there were 35,000 fewer people ages 25 to 45 in the last state census. Leddy also noted that last year the fewest children were born in Vermont since 1850, when the population was half the size.
Galbraith and Dunne dumped on the Public Service Board, the state's utility regulatory body, and the Public Service Department, which is charged with representing utility payers, for what they see as a failure to watch out for the public.
Peter Galbraith speaks Wednesday evening during the AARP forum. Photo by Mark Johnson/VTDigger
Galbraith raised as an example the merger between Green Mountain Power and Central Vermont Public Service Corp. where ratepayers were not directly paid back $21 million they had been promised if CVPS was sold. He also said the state agencies had not protected the public on industrial wind projects.
Dunne pointed to cost overruns by Vermont Gas Systems on a pipeline project as proof the quasi-judicial Public Service Board was not doing its job. All three candidates noted the importance of the selection of a new PSB chair early next year.
Scott said he was not opposed to adding a public advocate to the utility hearing process.
Dunne and Galbraith relied on technology that would allow for more ride sharing as their principal way of dealing with transportation mobility, particularly for elders, who Leddy said will outlive their ability to drive by a decade for women, seven years for men. Scott leaned on his mantra to grow the economy as a way to provide more public transportation and better roads and sidewalks.
Galbraith said businesses will be attracted to Vermont not by offering tax breaks but by investing in quality-of-life assets, including Lake Champlain, which he pointed to out the window during the event at Champlain College. Dunne spoke of investments in broadband and entrepreneurs.
Both Dunne and Galbraith also touted their plans to make college more affordable. Galbraith offered a proposal that would cost $28 million where all Vermonters could attend a state college tuition-free. Dunne's plan would offer help after service in the military or other public service organizations including the Peace Corps.
Scott emphasized the need for Vermont school districts to consolidate and said some potential mergers had not happened because of "turf wars."
Galbraith focused on quality of life.
"Why would anyone want to open a business or live here?" Galbraith asked. "The answer is simple. It's a great place to live."