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Is Doug Hoffer Becoming the 'Wedge Issue' in the Governor's Race? 

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In each of the past two debates, Republican Brian Dubie has called on Democratic rival Peter Shumlin to say if he agrees with a comment made by fellow Democrat Doug Hoffer, the party's candidate for state auditor.

Dubie also asked Shumlin if he was publicly supporting Hoffer's candidacy.

Really?

Sounds like Hoffer's running critique of Dubie's understanding of Vermont's tax structure is getting under the GOP candidate's skin.

Or, rather than Shumlin's use of abortion as a wedge issue, perhaps Dubie thinks Hoffer is a wedge issue of choice this campaign season. In a tight race, you just never know.

During Monday's debate on WVMT-AM's "Charlie, Ernie & Lisa" show and again Wednesday night on Vermont Public Radio, Dubie asked Shumlin if he was supporting Hoffer's candidacy.

He also asked Shumlin if he agreed with a statement Hoffer made recently about Vermonters and their tax burden.

On WVMT, Dubie said: "Doug Hoffer says that, quote, 'Anyone who says Vermonters are overtaxed is lying to you.' That's a pretty strong statement and pretty inflammatory and I think that it's factually untrue. My question is: Do you agree with his statement and are you supporting your candidate for auditor?"

Shumlin said he didn't agree with Hoffer's use of the word "lying" and hopes that everyone running for office can avoid using the word as a political epithet. Gee, wonder why?

"I don't approve of the language and I hope during this campaign we can have a civil discourse," said Shumlin. "Having said that, I think what Doug is after is frustration that your explanation of tax cuts and tax policy don't reflect what has actually happened."

Shumlin said Dubie has been distorting his tax record and avoiding giving more details about just who would benefit under his tax cut plan.

Though Shumlin ducked the question about whether he supports Hoffer as a candidate, on VPR Shumlin said he backs "the entire Democratic ticket."

Yesterday, when asked, Shumlin said he doesn't understand Dubie's obsession with Hoffer.

"I am puzzled by the questions about Doug Hoffer," Shumlin told Seven Days. "I think he's running a great campaign for auditor and I support him."

Shumlin, along with all five Democrats running for governor, backed Hoffer during his primary campaign against Sen. Ed Flanagan.

When asked, Dubie's Campaign Manager Corry Bliss said Dubie is asking the question for two reasons: To see if Shumlin agrees with Hoffer's claim that Vermonters aren't overtaxed, and if he is truly backing Hoffer.

"Peter's told some people he supports Hoffer and others that he doesn't," said Bliss. As to whether he'll ask Shumlin the question again today on the Mark Johnson Show, Bliss didn't know, but he said he's not sure Shumlin's answers have been completely truthful or complete.

Asked if Dubie, in turn, supports Republican Tom Salmon — who has had his own share of questionable activity, and interactions with the media, while in office — Bliss said, "Yes."

A final point here. The quote Dubie attributes to Hoffer isn't accurate. In fact Dubie's question omits a few key words and some context.

Here's what Hoffer told Peter Hirschfeld at the Barre-Montpelier Times Argus recently in an excellent story about Vermont's tax structure.

According to the 2007 tax study by the Joint Fiscal Office, which compared the income tax obligations of Vermonters with those in neighboring states, even relatively well-off Vermonters pay less in taxes than their neighbors in Massachusetts.

The study cited several examples: A married homeowner with two children making about $80,000 pays about $3,000 in Massachusetts and only $1,400 in Vermont. Someone in the same situation making $109,000 would pay $5,200 in Massachusetts and $3,500 in Vermont. Despite Massachusetts’ lower top marginal rate, even a “rich” married homeowner with three children making $357,000 pays only slightly less in income taxes in that state, $18,000, compared with a similarly situated resident of Vermont, $20,800.

The differences become greater as the income ratchets up: A married homeowner with two kids making about $1 million pays $56,000 in Massachusetts and $73,000 in Vermont.

“It’s very clear: Vermont does not have a crushing tax burden — period — and anyone who says it does is lying,” said Doug Hoffer, a Burlington policy analyst and the Democratic nominee in the race for state auditor.

Hoffer challenges the assumption that tax cuts for people at the top marginal rates will spur economic development. “There are only about 1,400 people that make more than $500,000, and these are the people that are going to see the real money from a reduction in the top marginal rate,” he said. “The question is how many of those are legitimate job creators.”

Hoffer said he can’t provide any data proving he’s right. But neither, he said, can Dubie.

“He’s made a statement with a very important assumption underneath it, and the question is has Dubie provided information that will support that assumption,” Hoffer said. “If he has not, then one leg of his stupid stool is gone.”

Hoffer told Seven Days he was responding to Hirschfeld's questions as they related to the Joint Fiscal Office study, which Hoffer says proves that a majority of Vermont taxpayers pay less in income taxes than they do in other states. Too often, he said, the focus is on the top marginal rate rather than the actual rates people pay — or those taxes paid by people in lower income brackets given Vermont's progressive tax structure.

"I think the most important part of all of this is that Brian didn't get the quote right, and I think that's important because it distorts the issue that was being discussed in the article and to which I was responding," said Hoffer.

For Hoffer, though, the mention is not only gratifying, but in an election season when it's hard to get attention when you're one of the "down ticket" candidates, the Dubie mentions are also giving him some free advertising.

Given Hoffer's love of golf, he's perhaps accustomed to the use of a wedge. But, as in golf, a "wedge" is normally used when your ball's stuck in the sandtrap and there's no other hope of getting your game back on the green.

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About The Author

Shay Totten

Shay Totten

Bio:
Shay Totten wrote "Fair Game," a weekly political column, from April 2008-December 2011.

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