In Vermont governor's race, Democrat hopes to break traditions


MONTPELIER — Democrat Sue Minter's call for universal background checks for gun buyers and Republican Phil Scott's call for a halt to building wind turbines on Vermont's mountains are expected to be among the hottest issues in this fall's campaign for governor of Vermont.

Scott, currently Vermont's lieutenant governor, may have history on his side. In recent decades, each time an incumbent has left office, as Democratic Gov. Peter Shumlin is doing this year, Vermont voters have elected the candidate of the other major party to take the helm.

"Our governors tend to stay in office long enough to make people mad. The public accumulates grievances," said Candace Page, a retired political reporter and editorial page editor at The Burlington Free Press. "If it's a relatively activist Democrat, it tends to be followed by a relatively more conservative Republican who promises less change."

But here's a caveat: The last three such changes in Vermont — in 1990, 2002 and 2010 — came in non-presidential election years. This year, the presidential race could influence who and how many turn out to vote in Vermont.

Minter, a former lawmaker, transportation secretary and recovery chief after 2011's Tropical Storm Irene, is hoping to break the pattern with an activist agenda.

She wants to address the fact that 40 percent of Vermonters' educations stop with high school by introducing two years of free tuition at community colleges and Vermont Technical College. That would be paid for with higher fees on large banks.

Minter wants more public and private investment in Vermont's downtowns and other government efforts to boost economic growth. At a debate Monday evening in Randolph, she declined to pledge not to raise taxes if they are needed for necessary programs.

Minter also maintains that Vermont is not immune to a national epidemic of gun violence and wants universal background checks on gun buyers and a ban on military-style assault weapons. Background checks died in the Legislature in 2015 after gun-rights activists packed a Statehouse hearing and lobbied against the change.

Scott maintains Vermont's gun laws are fine the way they are, and points to a low violent crime rate and the state's strong hunting tradition. He is making the need for economic growth and to hold down government spending the top priorities of his campaign.

Scott also said he would call for a moratorium on the development of wind-power projects on Vermont's mountain ridges, pointing to anger from local residents complaining they've lacked say.

The contrast between Minter and Scott was seen when asked if they would follow the U.S. Justice Department's recent call to phase out the use of private prisons. Vermont has about 250 inmates at a private prison in Michigan.

She said she would want to figure out a way to tackle the problem; he said his first goal would be not to increase costs.

Minter said she would "explore phasing out the use of private prisons altogether by bringing together local community leaders to find more ways to continue reducing Vermont's recidivism rate and the number of non-violent offenders incarcerated."

Scott replied in part: "The cost of operating Vermont's prisons and corrections systems falls disproportionately onto state income tax payers. There is virtually no federal money in the state corrections system." He said his administration would "conduct a thorough cost-benefit analysis" before deciding whether to continue using private prisons.


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