Peter Galbraith: Candidates should run on real issues

Editor's note: This commentary is by Peter Galbraith, a former state senator from Windham County and an unsuccessful candidate for the 2016 Democratic gubernatorial nomination. He lives in Townshend.

[V]ermont is fortunate in having two very well qualified candidates for governor. Unfortunately, the campaign has done little to highlight the very significant policy differences between the two.

Outside groups, abetted by the media and (unfortunately) the candidates themselves, have focused on phony issues that have no relevance to the future of our state. To be clear, neither Sue Minter nor Phil Scott will impose a carbon tax or a mileage tax. Phil Scott has resolved any potential conflict of interest by promising to sell his construction business. The buyer, who is his cousin, has a less close familial connection than many of Sue Minter’s Shumlin administration colleagues who are married to lobbyists or others with business before the state. Republicans look mean-spirited as they try to minimize Sue Minter’s work on Irene recovery and it is embarrassing that Minter is running an ad criticizing Scott for voting to raise a gas tax that she also voted for.

Both Phil Scott and Sue Minter are honorable people but they do themselves no credit with this sort of campaign. They offer Vermonters distinct policy choices and they could help voters by campaigning on them. Here are the most salient differences.

Minimum Wage: Sue Minter promises to raise the minimum wage for all Vermont workers to $12.50 by 2018. This represents a 25 percent pay increase for Vermont’s lowest paid workers and it unquestionably the most effective — and least costly — anti-poverty program Vermont could adopt. It will also save tax dollars that now go to support low-wage workers. Phil Scott opposes a higher minimum wage, noting that it will also lead to wage increases for workers who earn more than the minimum wage. He is right but progressives see this as another argument in support of Minter’s position.

Health Care: Sue Minter has said she wants to expand publicly financed health care by having Dr. Dynasaur cover all Vermonters 26 and younger or by providing universal publicly financed health care. Either option will cost between $200 million and $300 million. Phil Scott opposes any expansion of publicly financed health care.

Education: Sue Minter proposes to provide two years' free tuition at Community College of Vermont and Vermont Technical College. As put forward, Sue Minter’s proposal is modest and easily financed. However, it could devastate the state colleges as many Vermont students might do their first two years at CCV or VTC and then transfer to the state colleges, leaving the state college system with too few first and second year students and too little tuition revenue. Realistically, Minter may have to expand her program to cover two years at all the state colleges or scale it back. Phil Scott does not support making any additional tuition free.

With just two weeks to go until the election, I hope both campaigns will now discuss the real issues facing Vermont, not the phony ones that high paid consultants have manufactured.


Taxes: The phony debate about who supported what tax increase years ago has obscured the very real difference between Minter and Scott on taxes. Throughout the campaign, Phil Scott has consistently said he will not increase taxes. Sue Minter’s health care proposals will require a major tax increase. As a practical matter, the only way to raise the $200 million (or more) required is through a payroll tax or an increase in the income tax. Both increases would be in the range of 2 percent, but the income tax hike could be structured in a progressive manner with those at the bottom paying little more and those at the top paying much more than an additional 2 percent.

Minter’s college tuition program is inexpensive and easily covered by her proposed profits tax on large out-of-state banks. Banks would almost certainly absorb the tax rather than try to pass it on to Vermont customers.
Opiates: Both candidates say they intend to make the handling the opiate crisis a top priority. As long as he is unwilling to raise new revenues, Phil Scott’s opiate plan cannot be taken seriously.

Campaign Finance: Sue Minter does not accept campaign contributions from corporations and as governor would ban them. Phil Scott has raised more than one third of his money from corporations.

Industrial Wind. Sue Minter supports continued wind development on Vermont ridgelines arguing that Vermont needs to do its part to battle global climate change. Phil Scott says he will use all the powers of the governor’s office to ban new wind developments. Scott points out that these developments are divisive and environmentally destructive, affecting the ability of Vermont species to adapt to climate change. (As temperatures rise, species need to migrate to cooler places including the higher elevations being destroyed by wind development.)

Sue Minter was the more centrist of the three Democratic candidates running for governor while Phil Scott was the more centrist of the two Republicans. That said, the differences between the two fall very much along liberal-conservative lines except for industrial wind. There are progressives who will vote for Scott because of his opposition to industrial wind. They argue that Vermont can move forward once Scott finishes his time as governor but that once the ridgelines are destroyed, they can never be brought back. The outcome of a close election could depend on the number of voters who feel this way.

With just two weeks to go until the election, I hope both campaigns will now discuss the real issues facing Vermont, not the phony ones that high paid consultants have manufactured.

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