Monday night, the tight pack of candidates in the Democratic gubernatorial race finally began to break apart: All five candidates made an attempt to distinguish themselves from their opponents at the forum held by the Vermont Council on Mental Health and Developmental Disability Services.
It was the first time since the very first forum last October that the campaigners agreed to disagree on key issues, including taxes, tapping the rainy day funds and government restructuring.
Sen. Doug Racine, D-Chittenden, was the first – and only candidate — to declare that he would, as governor, be willing to raise taxes and dip into the state’s savings in order to protect human services. And he and Senate President Peter Shumlin, D-Windham, had the forum equivalent of an arm-wrestling match, over whether raising taxes was a good idea, in front of a crowd of about 200 people. Shumlin opposes raising additional revenues.
“I just want to make clear we asked wealthy people to make sacrifices last year with the capital gains tax exclusion and the estate tax,” Shumlin said. “And that’s one of the reasons we had to override the governor’s veto. I think it’s fantasy to think we can solve our budget problems with higher taxes.”
Racine countered: “Last year I voted against the budget because as a middle income Vermonter, I got a tax (break). I couldn’t in good conscience vote for a budget that had cuts you people had to absorb and take a tax cut at the same time.”
Sen. Susan Bartlett, D-Lamoille, tweaked Shumlin for reciting her spiel on the connection between mental health and substance abuse issues and corrections when he talked about how much the state could save by keeping nonviolent offenders out of Vermont’s correctional system.
And when Secretary of State Deb Markowitz said she was the only candidate who polls show could beat the Republican opponent, Brian Dubie, Racine quipped that he’d already beaten the lieutenant governor (Racine held the seat under Gov. Howard Dean after defeating Dubie for that office in 2000).
When a member of the audience asked why Dubie wasn’t present for the forum, the moderator, WCAX anchor Kristin Carlson, said the lieutenant governor had said he wouldn’t attend any debates before the Democratic primary.
Former state senator and Google executive Matt Dunne jumped into the fray with derogatory comments about the state’s Challenges for Change restructuring law, which had been enthusiastically endorsed by Shumlin and Bartlett. Both senators defended the need to create more efficient state government, while Dunne called the government reorg an exercise in “drive-by budgeting”; Markowitz dubbed it “business as usual” in Montpelier; and Racine said the law would lead to more budget cuts.
Bartlett warned that if the Legislature couldn’t stomach the restructuring plans they would likely face the governor’s veto for a second time in the state’s history (lawmakers overrode the governor’s veto pen last year).
“In sincerely believe there’s a realistic possibility we’ll be in a situation where the governor will veto a budget we will pass, and it’s going to be about these sorts of values and our refusal to make reductions that have profound negative long-term impacts on individuals and families,” Bartlett said.
Given that note of discord, you might well imagine that the topic of the forum was economic development and that the audience was a Kiwanis club.
But the subject at hand was substance abuse and mental health services and programs for developmentally disabled Vermonters.
All of the candidates agreed that preventive services are essential to providing more effective care; the question is, how do you pay for programs at a time when the state faces a steep ravine of ongoing revenue declines? The candidates spent nearly two hours answering questions about how they would ensure that the state’s most vulnerable residents receive support.
What follows is a list of questions and video clips of the candidates’ statements.
Question: Given the state’s financial crisis, can you please provide two examples that reflect the values you will use to balance the budget particularly as it affects families with members who have developmental disabilities mental illness and substance abuse issues?
John Everett: What’s your long-term thinking about how we move forward to ensure mental health services are available for young people?
Erica Nestor: My daughter is 6 years old and very disabled. We, and when I say we, I mean a lot of people in the community, take care of her. She does go to school, but she is also at home and my husband and I have every intention of her staying at home so we very much don’t see an institution in her future and that’s part of what’s great about being in Vermont the community-based care she receives. They closed the Brandon Training School and there was a promise then that you would meet the needs of consumers in this community. So my question is, what commitment are you willing to make as governor to the families that have seen their services reduced?
Connie: I’m from Burlington and I have a family member who was recently admitted to Vermont State Hospital. My question for all of you is do you support the plan put forward by the mental health commissioner and his proposal to fund it with federal Medicaid money? And if you don’t support that and the funding mechanism, how would do you replace the beds, how would you pay for it and how would you get this done?