Democrat Sue Minter and Republican Phil Scott, candidates for governor, debate in Randolph on Monday.
If the first forum featuring the two major-party candidates for Vermont governor is any indication, the 2016 general election campaign will be a relatively civil debate with stark differences between the Democrat and Republican running for the state’s top job.
Amid the differences, the candidates had similarities, too, including some that seemed to surprise the audience Monday night in Randolph at a forum sponsored by the Vermont-NEA teachers’ union and televised live by Vermont PBS.
Asked whether transgender students should be able to use the bathrooms of their choice in schools, both Democrat Sue Minter and Republican Phil Scott said they should.
“Absolutely,” Minter answered.
“The answer is yes, I believe they should,” Scott said, followed by murmurs from the crowd — suggesting some hadn’t expected the Republican to agree.
Scott and Minter agreed, too, that the state shouldn’t prohibit public school teachers from striking.
But when it came to many of the key issues the next governor will face — state budgeting and taxes, the future of the Vermont Health Connect insurance exchange, and wind power — Minter and Scott gave markedly different answers.
Monday’s forum, moderated by Vermont Public Radio reporter Peter Hirschfeld and Rutland Herald reporter Lola Duffort, was the first since Scott and Minter won their parties’ August 9 primary elections.
Scott, 58, of Berlin, repeatedly said he would oppose any effort to raise taxes. Minter, 55, of Waterbury, said she may raise taxes to address the state’s challenges, defending her plan to increase a bank franchise fee to help fund two years of free public college tuition for Vermont students.
Throughout the 90-minute forum, the discussion kept returning to taxes and spending.
Did Minter regret voting, as a state representative in 2009, to raise taxes by overriding former Republican governor Jim Douglas’ veto of the state budget? Scott asked her.
“I don’t regret that decision — that we not cut programs for the most vulnerable Vermonters,” Minter said.
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Ralph Corbo of East Wallingford protests outside the Chandler Music Hall in Randolph that Liberty Union candidate Bill Lee wasn’t invited to Monday’s gubernatorial debate.
Both candidates were asked if they support expanding up to age 26 the state’s Dr. Dynasaur program, which covers children’s health care. The program is currently available to children under age 19. Minter called the expansion a “great idea.” Scott said if it required raising taxes or fees, “I’m not sure it’s the right approach to take … I go back to look at things very simply. Is this raising taxes on Vermonters?”
Scott also said it is “time to pull the plug” on the Vermont Health Connect insurance exchange, which has suffered technological troubles under retiring Democratic Gov. Peter Shumlin. Scott said he would look to move to the federal exchange or work with other states, contending that Democratic legislative leaders had too readily rejected his suggestion to join Connecticut’s exchange.
Minter said that moving to another exchange would leave hundreds of Vermonters with less coverage. She said she would make Vermont Health Connect “fully functional,” then resume efforts to work toward universal health coverage.
Minter tried to poke Scott about his position on climate change, accusing him of refusing to acknowledge it is driven by human activity. At a July candidate forum, Scott had hedged on the issue, saying then that climate change is real, but could be “for many different reasons.”
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Democrat Sue Minter and Republican Phil Scott
Scott on Monday sought to shut the door on Minter’s argument. “I think you’re getting confused, Sue,” he said. “I actually believe, myself, that climate change is real and it’s manmade," he said, adding that because not everyone agrees, his focus would be on solutions rather than debating the causes.
“I’m so glad to you want to move forward,” Minter said before hitting back at Scott over wind power. She said that by calling for a moratorium on industrial wind projects, he was removing a job-creating tool that would also fight climate change.
“Why not take it off the table?” Scott responded, arguing that the issue “is fracturing Vermont … We can do better. I think solar is actually really the future.”
At least six more forums between the candidates are scheduled, with more in the works. Scott set a list of parameters for future debates, saying he would agree only to those broadcast to a statewide audience, that include an invitation to Liberty Union candidate Bill Lee and that are not sponsored by special interest groups.