Politics

Democratic candidates lambast Scott’s record on the environment

[B]ARRE -- The state’s four Democrat gubernatorial candidates faced off in their second debate Tuesday night, calling for increased environmental protections at the Old Labor Hall, the political hub for Barre’s granite workers in the 1920s.

“Polls show in Vermont, over and over again, unlike many other parts of the country, that environmental issues matter to people,” said moderator Deb Markowitz, former Vermont secretary of state and of the Agency of Natural Resources and herself a Democratic gubernatorial primary candidate in 2010, at the start of the debate.

Markowitz noted that the two Republican candidates — Gov. Phil Scott and Keith Stern — had both declined to participate in the “nonpartisan” Sierra Club debate.

Christine Hallquist and James Ehlers touted their professional experience and commitment to solving complex -- and expensive -- environmental challenges.

Ehlers, head of the nonprofit Lake Champlain International, noted that he had helped successfully advocate for a law requiring public notification of combined sewer overflows “to prevent another Flint, Michigan, type situation.”

“There is no candidate anywhere who would be more committed to addressing our water issues," Ehlers said.

Ehlers proposes a “polluters pay” model for cleanup of the state’s waterways and lower carbon emissions. Vermont needs to go beyond the treasurer’s recommended $25 million a year for long-term clean water funding, he said. Ethan Sonneborn, a 14-year-old from Bristol, questioned the need for a new source for clean water funding, saying he thinks the state could shuffle around existing money to meet the treasurer’s recommendations.

As former head of the Vermont Electric Cooperative, Hallquist said she had made “strategic investments” in infrastructure despite pushback from member owners, resulting in improved service with minimal hikes for ratepayers.

She then presented the most concrete plan for long-term clean water funding, saying that the state could come up with $105 million a year through revenues from marijuana sales and savings from bringing out-of-state prisoners back to Vermont.

“You know, just saying no to new taxes is a no brain activity," Hallquist said.

“The most important thing we can do for towns is to provide them access to the capital they need in order to rebuild their sewer systems,” she said, describing a plan to use “the strong bond rating of the state” to increase the size of Vermont’s clean water revolving fund.

Brenda Siegel, head of Southern Vermont Dance Festival, and Ethan Sonneborn felt their respective outsider statuses — single mom and youth — could bring unique perspectives to the governor’s office.

Siegel said she wants “buy-in” from farmers to address water pollution coming from the agricultural sector. “That is absolutely true that is has to stop, but we need to work with them to make it stop.”

All four candidates supported a transformation of public transit as a way to address climate change. Siegel and Hallquist both said they would better coordinate public transit to increase use.

Hallquist said she would adopt the solar pathways plan — a proposal to produce 20 percent of the state’s energy from solar by 2025 that she helped develop. Ehlers and Sonneborn expressed support for the ESSEX Plan, a proposal released last year to tax fossil fuels and lower electricity costs.

“I feel uniquely connected to (addressing climate change) … as someone who is going to inherit this issue,” said Sonneborn.

Hallquist and Siegel both called for changing zoning regulations to restrict development of forests, something Hallquist said she accomplished while leading the charge to write a zoning plan for Hyde Park.

Ehlers called for reform of the current use program to protect “working forests with value-added products made by Vermonters." He said Vail Mountain Corp. is getting a tax break he described as a “steal from public lands.”

“I think everyone in this room knows the importance of forest land and how much it means to the fabric of this state,” he said.

Though the Democratic candidates refrained from criticizing each other during the debate, they did level criticism at Scott. All four candidates chastised the governor for vetoing the toxics bills last session, which Ehlers helped draft.

“I live in southern Vermont, and I know often our part of the state gets ignored when there are serious problems,” said Siegel.

“Shame on people for making children who are being poisoned not a priority so that they could back a Republican governor,” she added.

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Elizabeth Gribkoff

About Elizabeth

Elizabeth Gribkoff is VTDigger's energy and environment reporter. She graduated from UVM's Environmental Studies program in 2013, receiving departmental honors for her thesis on women's farming networks in Chile and Vermont. Since graduating, Elizabeth has worked in conservation and sustainable agriculture. Most recently, she was a newsroom and reporting intern with VTDigger.

Email: [email protected]

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