Bennington-4 House candidates detail views

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ARLINGTON — The three candidates for two seats in the Bennington-4 House district kept disagreement to a minimum in a forum Tuesday sponsored by the Vermont Interfaith Action.

But the approximately 60 area residents who attended the event at the Federated Church of East Arlington probably discerned a few differences between Rep. Cynthia Browning, D-Arlington, and Rep. Brian Keefe, R-Manchester, the incumbents, and Democratic challenger Kathleen James of Manchester.

Those focused on how far each was willing to commit to raising the minimum wage, advocating for education reform and spending changes, and stabilizing the social safety net.

The forum, one of several Vermont Interfaith Action is sponsoring around the state, highlighted issues like economic justice, homelessness, housing, criminal justice and education.

James, a first-time candidate, said "a strong focus on values" is central to her campaign, adding that she's motivated by her life experiences.

"As a recovering alcoholic, I have learned first-hand about failure and redemption," she said. "As a full-time working mom, I've learned what it is like to juggle three jobs and scramble for health care and child care, and as a gay woman I know what it is like to belong to a community that has been discriminated against and worked hard to win equal rights. That's why I am here tonight."

Keefe said his underlying reason for running for the House two years ago was to "help make Vermont a more affordable place for people to live and raise their families."

Browning, a member of the Legislature since 2008, said, "I feel that I now have achieved a point where I understand state government well enough to know why programs often don't work for us and I think I'm developing the knowledge to think creatively about those problems and figure out ways to put in place policies that will actually work for Vermonters."



In general agreement


The candidates generally agreed that multiple approaches should be considered to make housing, health care, child care and other necessities more affordable, such as through the minimum wage, providing more tax credit help for working families, stabilizing property taxes, increasing job training options and promoting aspects of the economy to create employment.

James supported raising the minimum wage to $15 an hour in stages, universal primary health care and more affordable child care, among other changes to close the "affordability gap" between wages and the cost of living in Vermont.

"I cannot pretend to be an expert on policy, yet," she said. "Instead, I am motivated by everything that Vermont has accomplished, and all of the work that remains to build a state that offers everyone the same access and the same opportunities."

Keefe said he has supported legislation to more efficiently spend money on homelessness programs, streamline the application process for temporary assistance for people with children who are looking for a job, and programs to significantly improve job training and similar efforts.

He also favored earned income tax credits to assist low-income people as an alternative to raising the minimum wage and allowing tax-deferred retirement savings accounts for people receiving benefits who have reached the limit allowed to qualify for health care or other services.

"Those are the types of solutions we should find and pursue," he said.

"We need to invest in prevention," Browning said of combating homelessness, adding that since funding resources are often limited, "we need to have better coordination" in assisting families before they become homeless and must seek a state voucher for a long-term motel placement.

She said she favors making surplus state land and unused state buildings available with incentives for developers to create efficient units of housing for the homeless and others.

"We need to provide them with the ability to help themselves," Browning said, adding that "a constellation of small steps all together" are needed to address affordable housing, poverty and related issues.

Emphasis on education

Concerning pre-kindergarten through Grade 12 education, Keefe said, "Education is one of our strengths," and "one we need to build on and not diminish."

He opposed possible "forced mergers" for school districts under Act 46, saying, "the local schools need to be supported in what they want to do," referring primarily to the Arlington school system.

Keefe said school choice also is important to the area and should be protected from changes enacted at the state level, and he supported statewide negotiation of a contract for teacher health insurance, as proposed by Gov. Phil Scott.

Although she said school districts should be encouraged to consider mergers, Browning also opposed the state forcing such consolidations. She said she voted against Act 46 because of that provision and because the school tax incentives that were offered for those districts that merged before November 2017 will be taken from the state Education Fund, requiring additional tax revenue statewide.

Browning said she also opposed using any Education Fund revenue to advance state priorities other than pre-K-12 education, even for initiatives she supports. Those programs should be funded through other areas of the state budget, she said.

James strongly supported school choice, saying that, along with the quality of local schools, was a top priority when she and her former husband moved to Manchester in 1996 to raise a family.

On school funding, she said, "we have to keep working to find the right balance between income and property tax" to come up with a fair determination of a person's ability to pay.

James said Act 46 is "working in many instances," citing the formation of the newly merged Taconic and Green Regional School District that includes Manchester. She said Taconic and Green is a good example of how creating a larger district can increase educational offerings and promote efficiencies small districts couldn't achieve on their own.

But she added, "I don't think we should force mergers on a town like Arlington if there is not a suitable partner."

Criminal justice

On efforts to reduce the state's prison population and lower recidivism rates, Keefe lauded a recent change allowing greater access to addiction treatment for all inmates. He stressed the importance of employment training and mental health screening in prisons and efforts to work with inmates after their release to enhance their chance of getting and keeping a job.

Browning said she has long supported improvements in addiction and mental health treatments, which can significantly affect how prepared inmates will be to resume their lives when released. And she sees a need for transitional housing and a service center for those paroled.

James said the incarceration rate for Vermonters has "tripled since the 1980s" and much of the cause can be linked to addiction or mental health issues and a lack of access to treatment.

"The solution is not to build more or bigger jails," said, adding, "I think we need to take a more holistic approach."

That would include, James said, looking at bail reform legislation to address any discrimination; greater use of court diversion programs, and better training for police offers, prosecutors and others in law enforcement about the effects of addiction, mental illness and racial bias on the justice system.

Recovery from addiction also will require a much wider level of support services for former inmates and for other Vermonters, she said.

Minimum wage levels

On the economy, Browning advocated the earned income tax credit for to help lower-income Vermonters, greater access to job training and incentives for employee-ownership of businesses.

She voted to raise the minimum wage to 10.50 an hour, but Browning doesn't support a proposed $15 an hour wage at this time because of the possible negative effects on small businesses.

"I think they [workers] will lose hours and lose jobs," she said.

James advocated more affordable housing, job training and vocational education; universal primary health care, family leave, affordable child care and similar programs in part as an incentive for both workers and businesses.

The minimum wage issue is a difficult one because of the concerns of local businesses, she said, "but that said, I would still consider raising the minimum wage to $15 an hour gradually over six years."

A large percentage of those working for minimum wages now are "not teenagers," but people over 40, she said, with an average age of 38. James said $10.50 an hour "is a poverty wage; it provides no upward mobility for families."

Keefe said he supports more job training, increasing transportation options, controlling property taxes, increasing the earned income tax credit and other changes to help people continue to earn more in paychecks and avoid hitting a "benefits cliff" and losing assess to assistance programs.

He believes the current minimum wage, which is indexed for inflation is adequate, and that "there are better ways to help people at the lower end of the income scale."

All three candidates in the Bennington-4 House race came out of the Aug. 14 primary with apparent momentum, having shown they can attract voters throughout the district, which includes Manchester, Arlington, Sandgate and Sunderland.

James was top vote-getter in the Democratic Primary, with 886 votes to 681 for Browning. Keefe received 324 votes in the Republican primary, where he faced no opposition. Browning also received 32 votes on the Republican primary ballot.

The forum was recorded by GNAT-TV and will be shown on the Northshire cable network and made available online.

Jim Therrien writes for New England Newspapers in Southern Vermont and VTDigger.org. Email: jtherrien@benningtonbanner.com. @BB_therrien on Twitter.


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