Gubernatorial candidates Sue Minter and Phil Scott presented sharply different visions for the future of Vermont before a packed house at the Paramount Theater in downtown Rutland. The debate, hosted by VTDigger and Castleton University, covered a wide range of issues from refugee resettlement and the fate of Vermont Health Connect to the candidates' positions on marriage equality, death with dignity, and the Second Amendment.
Hours after the State Department announced that Rutland had been selected as a resettlement site for up to 100 Syrian and Iraqi refugees, the candidates were asked if they support the program and if they'd put a cap on the total number of refugees brought into the state.
Scott said he was generally supportive of resettlement but that the process in Rutland was flawed. "It should've been done in a much different way," he said. "I think 100 sounds like a lot but I think the mayor has determined that's the number that should be coming to Rutland."
The application proposing Rutland as a new site for refugee resettlement is submitted by the US Committee for Refugees and Immigrants and the number is determined by the committee in consultation with the State Department. According to the State Department, that number is subject to change and refugees can live wherever they choose once they've arrived in the country.
Scott said questions remain about the resettlement process and that more transparency would help alleviate fears within the community. "There are legitimate concerns regarding what it's going to mean for Rutland," Scott said.
Minter, whose family supported refugees from Central Asia six years ago, said the experience in Waterbury has been largely positive. "I think our country and state is going to benefit from more diversity and the hard work ethic of folks who are coming here and for how much they will give back to us," Minter said. She did not weigh in on whether there should be a limit but said communities need to be sure they're ready to welcome refugees.
The candidates clashed early on over Scott's recent decision to sell his share in a construction company he's been part owner of since 1986. Scott made the announcement on Saturday and said Minter was trying to "tear down his credibility" by making it a campaign issue. In the debate he pressed Minter on why she hadn't raised such questions during her tenure as secretary of the Agency of Transportation.
Minter said she had. The first time she was asked to sign a contract for DuBois Construction Minter said she went to the Attorney General's Office and presented them with the document. "How can this be legal," she recalled asking. "How can this not be a conflict of interest?"
Minter said she was told it was legal and that she'd be acting in a capricious manner if she didn't sign the contract. "I was advised by legal counsel to sign that contract," she said.
In the debate, Minter called on the state to establish clear rules of conduct for public officials whose business ties may present a conflict of interest.
"At a time when we have lost faith in government I believe it really undermines public trust if a governor can award state public funded contracts to a business owned by himself or his family," Minter said.
Scott said he was proud of his family business and that it created hundreds of jobs over the last 30 years. He accused the Minter campaign of having grandiose plans to turn it into an issue during the campaign and that he'd taken it off the table. "I think it's unfortunate she's calling on this issue," he said. Scott said he opposed the original proposal for an ethics commission because of the $1 million plus pricetag. He blamed the Democratic House and Senate for failing to pass any ethics reform bill.
The candidates also disagreed on the future of Vermont Health Connect, the state's insurance exchange that has been plagued with technical problems and cost overruns. (It cost more than $200 million to complete.) Scott said he'd pull the plug on the exchange and "do something different." He suggested the state should join the federal exchange like New Hampshire did. The Granite State paid $20 million for an exchange website.
Though Minter said Vermont Health Connect "has failed many Vermonters" she was reluctant to scrap the program before fully understanding what would happen to thousands of Vermonters currently enrolled in the exchange. She said she'd be willing to transition off the exchange but only after being sure that the thousands of Vermonters currently enrolled would not lose their coverage.
The cost of higher education and issues of free speech on college campuses were raised by the two Castleton University students who served as co-moderators. Both Scott and Minter advocated for greater investment in two-year schools and vocational or technical training. Minter promoted her proposal of two years of tuition-free community or technical college for all Vermonters as a way of closing the gap between high school graduate rates, which she said are some of the best in the country, and college attendance, which are near the bottom.
Scott said somebody would have to pay for the program and that costs would eventually be passed on to the consumer. "You're going to pay," Scott said. "We're all going to pay for it." Minter has said the program would be funded through a franchise tax on banks.
Patrick Gilligan, a political science major and vice president of the Republican Club at Castleton — who interrupted Minter's last answer, claiming she was rambling — asked if Vermont State Colleges should have safe spaces at the risk of limiting dialogue and if professors should be required to provide "trigger warnings" to students when teaching material that might be considered offensive.
Minter said she wasn't familiar with the phrase "trigger warning" but that free speech was a fundamental value. However if speech in some way hindered another person's rights or affected their ability to express themselves Minter said it should be carefully considered. "It's an incredibly important conversation we must have not just on college campuses but in our communities," she said.
Minter praised Vermont as the first state to pass a law granting civil unions and said Scott was "very opposed" when he was in the Legislature.
Asked about his recent statement in favor of marriage equality, Scott said he'd made a mistake in once opposing it. "If I could go back and take those statements back I would," Scott said. "We change. That's part of leadership," he said.
Minter said she's never made a decision to vote for something that she's regretted but said she struggle with the death with dignity bill passed by the Legislature in 2013. Minter said she eventually supported the bill but that it was "still a troubling issue for me."
Scott opposed the measure but said as governor he would not seek to repeal it.
Scott also said he would not advocate for any changes in the state's gun laws. He said calls for universal background checks would do nothing to prevent gun violence and that they were merely feel good measures used to exploit fear.
Before a large pro-gun contingent in the front few rows Minter made it clear that she supported the Second Amendment and "honored our hunting heritage." However, Minter said she would push for measures that ensure guns do not end up in the wrong hands. "We have a national epidemic of gun violence in this country and sadly Vermont is not immune," she said.
On taxes Scott advocated for "prudence and frugality" and said the rate of growth of the budget should be capped at what the state economy grew the year before. He said programs like Medicaid could be trimmed to reduce the budget and that the emphasis should be on modernization and efficiency. He accused Minter of being willing to spend "whatever we have to spend and not worry about how we're going to pay."
Minter criticized Scott for supporting a 20 percent increase on the sales tax as part of an education reform bill in 2003 when Scott was a state senator. She declined to say whether she would have done the same thing.
Minter said if elected governor she would not raise taxes that "burden the middle class." "I will always provide and present a balanced budget," she said.
Ryan Langeway, a 24-year-old Rutland native wearing a homemade T-shirt bearing the phrase "No Crooks 2016," said he was undecided before the debate and had not been convinced by either candidate. "Even after tonight," he said, "I still don't know."
"It's all about who can be honest and transparent, who can do what the people want, not what the politicians want," he said.
The debate, which included a number of questions from readers, was sponsored by Lets Grow Kids, Davis Hodgdon CPAs, Vermont Coffee Company, Paramount Theater and Castleton University.