Rep. Mitzi Johnson (D-South Hero) was making phone calls to voters last month when one of them, asked about the Vermont lieutenant governor's race, proudly responded: "I already know who I'm voting for. I'm voting for Hillary," meaning Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton.
Candidates up and down the ballot for state offices in Vermont say it's been tough to compete for the public's attention this summer against the presidential race and the lure of vacation fun. Voters, at least so far, seem to have little bandwidth left for state politics.
"I'll say, 'I can use your support August 9th,'" Republican gubernatorial candidate Phil Scott recounted. "They'll say, 'What's August 9th?'"
August 9 is the date of the state's earliest-ever primary election, when Vermonters will begin making a crucial decision about who will be their next governor, following the retirement of Democrat Peter Shumlin.
Voters are poised — first by winnowing the field in the primary election and then by picking a governor in the November general election — to choose someone who arguably will have more direct impact on their lives than the next president will.
"It's huge," said Chris Graff, a former journalist who covered Vermont politics for decades. "Governors really matter in Vermont." Graff said he is surprised when people he encounters can't identify the three Democratic candidates for the job. "I find very, very few who know the primary is August 9," he added.
When Vermonters pick a new governor, that person tends to stick around. Shumlin has held the job for six years. His Republican predecessor, Jim Douglas, stayed eight. Before that, Democrat Howard Dean served 11.
Voters will hand a fair bit of power to November's winner. The governor hires the honchos who run state government: commissioners, secretaries, board members, judges. Newly anointed leaders will write a state budget that part-time legislators tend only to tinker with.
Those decisions reflect priorities in an overarching vision. "In Vermont, the governor's greatest power is the power to set the agenda," Graff said.
As an example, he pointed to the late Republican governor Richard Snelling. "He vetoed every bill that came to him to raise the drinking age to 21," Graff said. As soon as his successor, Democrat Madeleine Kunin, was elected, Graff said, "the drinking age went to 21."
Although access to booze isn't likely to come up during the next governor's term, the new officeholder will exert significant influence on other issues.
The next governor will determine how the state meets the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's demands to clean up Lake Champlain. The same person is likely to decide whether to lead, or to halt, a push for gun control.
Feel strongly either for or against wind power? The next governor will have considerable say over whether the state sees another large turbine project.
Love or hate the state's new school district consolidation law? The new governor will drive the decision to stick with, alter or abandon it.
Among the candidates, there are explicit differences on those burning issues and others. Some divide along party lines — the Dems want gun control and legalized marijuana; the GOP candidates don't. Stances on other issues vary within each party.
Those who vote in the Republican primary will choose between two candidates: Phil Scott, a 58-year-old excavation company owner from Berlin who has been lieutenant governor for six years, and Bruce Lisman, a 69-year-old retired Wall Street executive from Shelburne who has never held elected office and portrays himself as the outsider.
Three candidates are competing in the Democratic primary: Sue Minter, a 55-year-old former state transportation secretary and state representative from Waterbury; Peter Galbraith, a 65-year-old former diplomat and state senator from Townshend; and Matt Dunne, 46, of Hartland, a former Google manager and state senator.
One of the above will steer the state into the future, and the selection process begins next Tuesday. Here are seven reasons to brush off the beach sand, shake off the Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) hangover and head to the polls to pick Vermont's next helmsman — or -woman.
As advocates for reducing Lake Champlain pollution gathered for a vigil in Burlington's City Hall Park on July 21, James Ehlers of Lake Champlain International commented, "We'll see if any politicians show up."
None of the candidates for governor did, though all contend that the lake's future health is key to the state and concede that they must meet the strict — and expensive — goals the federal EPA has issued for the state to reduce the lake's phosphorous.
In 2013, the state estimated that the work would cost $156 million a year for 10 years, but there are no hard numbers on how much federal and other outside money will be available to help. Treasurer Beth Pearce is expected to produce a report on financing later this year.
Ehlers said that even though Vermont is required to meet the EPA requirements, he worries whether the next governor could try to "play chicken," challenging a new president's resolve to enforce the standards.
If voters peel away the layers, they will find differences among the candidates on the issue. Their philosophies shed light on their overall views about taxes and spending.
"I'm not sure it can be newfound money," said Scott, who has argued throughout the campaign that Vermont lacks any new taxing capacity. But spending for the lake will be near the top of his list in the state's existing $5.5 billion budget, he promised.
Other candidates disagree with Scott that existing revenues can cover the still-unknown cost.
"It's going to require new taxes," Galbraith declared, arguing that the first source of revenue should be from those generating the pollution.
Minter, Dunne and Lisman all said they would issue varying types of bonds to generate new money to pay for lake cleanup. Ehlers said his organization also supports bonding.
Minter launched a television ad last month in which she declared she "won't back down" from pursuing background checks on all gun sales. The ad was remarkable in the context of Vermont politics. In firearms-friendly Vermont, which boasts some of the least restrictive gun laws in the country, such a stance has long been considered political suicide.
"I'm pleased to be speaking on this issue that really has not been given voice in this state," Minter said. She took up the mantra after a November shooting at a Colorado Springs Planned Parenthood. "I wasn't expecting it would be such a forefront issue. It has become one because we've had tragedy after tragedy."
Democratic rivals Dunne and Galbraith have since joined in, also calling for background checks. Galbraith said he would also push for a ban on assault-style weapons.
In the past, however, both got A ratings from the National Rifle Association, Minter pointed out. "This isn't an election-year conversion for me," she said.
All three candidates plan to attend a rally this week at the Statehouse at which Senate Majority Leader Phil Baruth (D-Chittenden) will announce legislation seeking universal background checks.
Whether that bill makes it to the next governor's desk is unclear, but voters will have a clear choice on the issue in the November general election. Republicans Scott and Lisman oppose any change to state gun laws.
On the national political stage, presidential candidate Sanders advocated for a $15-an-hour federal minimum wage by 2020. He succeeded in getting that figure inserted into the Democratic Party platform. Back home in Vermont, the Democratic candidates for governor are following his lead.
"No one should work 40 hours a week and live in poverty," declared Dunne. He said he'd go for $15 an hour within five or six years.
So would Galbraith, who said he'd push for $12.50 immediately. Minter is headed in the same direction but said the timing for $15 will depend on an analysis of its impact.
The two Republicans disagree with the Democrats that a significant increase in the minimum wage will help the economy.
Without any new legislation, the state's current $9.60-an-hour minimum wage is slated to increase to $10 next year and $10.50 in 2018.
A Vermont Public Radio poll last week indicated strong support for increasing the minimum wage, as 71 percent of respondents backed the idea. A 2014 report from the legislature's economist warned, however, that raising the wage to $12.50 would cost 3,200 jobs.
Scott noted that in 2007, when he was a state senator, the legislature agreed to settle the perennial minimum wage debate by tying annual increases to the Consumer Price Index. "I thought that sounded like a pretty good idea," Scott said, arguing that the best way to increase wages is to invigorate the economy.
Republican rival Lisman agrees, though he called for increasing the earned income tax credit, characterizing that as a more effective financial boost for low-income Vermonters.
For decades, the five pint-size school districts in Grand Isle County have discussed merging. This year, pushed by the state's new Act 46 consolidation law, at least some of them will vote on the issue in November.
Despite angst in some corners of the county that the law threatens local control and school choice options, North Hero School Board member and legislative candidate Andrew Julow said the state needs to stick with the law and let it work. "I would like to see it stay as is," he said.
Right in Julow's own town, fellow legislative candidate Ben Joseph noted that the law has South Hero residents worried about their beloved school. "They shouldn't be forced" to merge, he said.
Fans and foes of Act 46 will want to scrutinize the gubernatorial candidates closely. None of the candidates appears poised to leave the law as is, but each varies on what he or she would ditch.
Lisman is its biggest critic. Though his own community of Shelburne voted overwhelmingly in June to merge, he said, "It's a bad piece of legislation. I believe in its repeal." He said he would instead push for regional education districts, under which communities could keep their local boards if they choose.
Lisman is advocating for a different mandate, requiring districts to adhere to a minimum class size. "In five years, we want to get to — pick a number. We expect them to get there. I don't think it's a bad mandate."
The other candidates would stick with Act 46, though with significant modifications. Galbraith and Dunne both said they would make consolidation voluntary.
Scott would keep the Act 46 consolidation plan in place, but he wants communities with school choice to be able to retain it and for districts to keep the savings they generate by merging.
Minter said her focus would be on loosening the time frame the law requires for school districts to consolidate. "I do think we need greater flexibility," she said.
Opponents of a proposed wind turbine development on a Swanton hilltop beat a path to Montpelier this past session to fight for more say in siting such projects. They won a partial victory when lawmakers created a system by which towns may establish plans for where wind turbines and solar fields can be located.
But the deeply divisive debate rages on: Some see wind as the type of locally produced, clean energy the state needs; others argue that turbines scar the landscape and torment neighbors with sleep-depriving noise.
Depending on who is elected governor, Vermont may have seen its last wind project.
"I'm calling this election a referendum on wind," said Galbraith, who stands apart from his Democratic rivals in seeking to halt all new industrial-scale wind development in the state.
While a governor needs legislative approval to alter state energy policy, whoever is elected will have a lot of influence on the outcome. Just a month after taking office, the governor will appoint a new chair of the Public Service Board, a position with considerable power in approving energy projects.
"I will not appoint anyone to the Public Service Board who will approve wind," Galbraith said.
Lisman and Scott, the two Republicans, also want to stop wind development at least temporarily while rejiggering the permitting process. Neither said, however, that the issue should be a litmus test in appointing a PSB chair.
Democrat Dunne came out with a revised policy on wind siting last Friday that supporters of wind consider an almost-ban on future projects. It lost him the support of environmentalist Bill McKibben of Ripton.
"If a town says no to a large industrial wind project, I would use all the power of the governor's office to ensure that is the end of the project," Dunne said. "I will ensure that no means no."
Minter, meanwhile, is not exactly championing new wind projects, but she supports the option. McKibben is now on her side.
"Wind is a part of the solution," Minter said, while calling for a more customer-friendly Public Service Board. "I will be looking to hire someone who understands communities in Vermont."
Some of Shumlin's worst moments as governor have been health care related, including technical problems that created nightmares for users of Vermont Health Connect, the state's health insurance exchange.
Not surprisingly, every candidate claims to have a remedy: He or she would do a better job of hiring the right people to work out the glitches. For voters, judging candidates on this issue comes down to weighing who can really make it happen.
"Fix the damn website," Dunne declared at a June candidates' forum in Burlington, arguing that he has "actually done the kind of IT work that is necessary."
Dunne said he has the required experience from his time as head of AmeriCorps, working at a Vermont software company, the last eight years he's spent as manager of community affairs for Google and a stint on the Dartmouth-Hitchcock medical center board.
At the same June forum, Minter declared that she is uniquely qualified to solve the problems. "I'm the only candidate who has worked in the legislature and run state government and made it function well even in a crisis," she said, referring to six years as deputy secretary and then secretary of the Agency of Transportation.
Galbraith, a former diplomat, ambassador to Croatia and two-term state senator, argued that he knows how to find the best people to assess whether Vermont Health Connect can be fixed for an affordable price in a timely manner. "If open enrollment doesn't go smoothly in 2017, it's gone," he said of the exchange. In that case, he would move to the federal exchange or a multistate group.
Lisman, a retired Wall Street banker, said he would move to the federal exchange as soon as possible, although he acknowledges there are costs and logistical challenges associated with that. Still, he insisted, "I think it's going to save a lot of money."
Speaking last week to the Rotary Club of Burlington, Scott emphasized his work as lieutenant governor, reaching out to colleagues in other states looking for alternatives to the exchange. "I've been talking with Connecticut," he said, indicating that his first step would be to look at joining that state's exchange. "Their health connect actually is working."
When he called for free tuition at public colleges, presidential candidate Sanders made the issue of rising student debt part of a national debate. All three Democratic candidates for governor are following suit with college tuition plans of their own.
Galbraith's is the most generous. He would spend $28 million to pay tuition for Vermonters to attend the state colleges. He'd raise the money by eliminating $26.5 million in targeted tax breaks, $2 million in corporate subsidies and $1.1 million in sales-tax exemptions on items such as airplane parts.
"If I had nothing to spend the money on, I would end those," he said, arguing that the breaks unfairly benefit the wealthy.
Minter would spend $6 million the first year and $12 million a year thereafter to pay for two years of Vermonters' tuition at the Community College of Vermont or Vermont Technical College. She'd raise the money by expanding the bank transfer fee charged to large banks.
"Four out of 10 kids stop education out of high school," she said. Her goal, she said, is to decrease that number to 25 percent by 2025.
Dunne said his plan would cost somewhere between Galbraith's and Minter's. He proposes paying off the debt for students who join AmeriCorps, Peace Corps or the military for two years after college.
"We need to focus our resources on ensuring that Vermonters can benefit from one of our excellent in-state institutions and walk away without the crushing burden of college debt," Dunne said.
The two Republicans are dubious.
"Nothing's free," Lisman said. "I think they're treating a symptom. The state college system needs to become more self-sufficient."
"I think we're struggling now to pay for pre-K to 12," Scott said. "In time, as we restore the vitality of our economy, we'll have more money at our disposal." Then, he said, Vermont should increase its nearly-lowest-in-the-nation financial support for state colleges.
Tags: Politics, Governor, gubernatorial race, Phil Scott, Bruce Lisman, Sue Minter, Peter Galbraith, Matt Dunne, Lake Champlain cleanup, gun control, minimum wage, act 46, school consolidation, wind energy, wind turbines, Vermont Health Connect, college tuition, student debt, election 2016
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