WAITSFIELD — During their second debate of the 2020 election season, Gov. Phil Scott attacked Lt. Gov. David Zuckerman over his plan to increase taxes on the wealthy, while Zuckerman criticized the governor for lacking urgency in his response to climate change.
The debate, hosted by VTDigger at the Mad River Barn, underscored fundamental differences between Zuckerman, a Progressive/Democrat, and Scott, a moderate Republican, on issues ranging from marijuana legalization to broadband buildout and economic recovery from Covid-19.
Zuckerman touted his plan to raise a tax on the wealthiest 5% for revenue to build out broadband and fund climate change initiatives like home weatherization.
Scott, who has opposed new tax increases, criticized the plan, arguing that it would impact middle class families in addition to wealthy residents.
When asked about how he would raise money for broadband, Zuckerman pointed to his tax plan, which would raise $100 million from the top 5% of earners to fund internet expansion.
“If we invest in broadband in our rural communities, not only would it be helpful for education, but people can start businesses, people could expand businesses, people could relocate business into our rural areas,” Zuckerman said.
The tax would target the high income earners who benefited from the federal tax cuts Trump instituted in 2017.
But Scott said that the top 5% of earners in the state include those who make $159,000 per year or more in combined household income.
“Think about two teachers, married teachers,” Scott said. “That’s probably it. The tax proposal that I’m hearing from David it’s going to impact them: middle class families.”
After the debate, Zuckerman’s campaign contended that the top 5% of earners start at households that earn $294,000 per year, and pointed to a document from the Joint Fiscal Office to support that claim.
The governor added that he believes there are only 500 families earning more than $1 million per year, and that a wealth tax would encourage them to flee the state.
“If we impose a wealth tax, what are they going to do? They’re just going to establish residency somewhere else,” Scott said.
Zuckerman pointed to the Public Assets Institute, an independent state budget and tax research organization, which has said that the fear that progressive taxes will lead to a flight of rich residents is “unsubstantiated.”
“It’s pretty clear on a percentage basis that it’s really not taxes that are driving people one way or another, it’s the weather,” Zuckerman said, referring to Vermont’s cold climate.
To fund broadband buildout, instead of raising revenue in-state, Scott said that he would look to the federal government for financial support.
“We’re going to need some help from Congress on that,” Scott said. “Because it’s going to cost hundreds of millions of dollars. All of us agree, broadband is key to developing the economy in the future. But it’s going to cost money, and we don’t have it at this point,” the governor said.
Zuckerman criticized Scott for failing to take enough action to address climate change during his time in office, and not taking up recommendations put forth by the panel he established to help the state meet its renewable energy and carbon emissions reduction goals.
“You dismissed the suggestions of your own panel, which you created to invest in the climate crisis,” Zuckerman said. “Because many of them were going to be fought against by members of your own party in the House and Senate.”
When asked about his record on climate change, Scott pointed to how his budgets have invested in electric vehicles and charging infrastructure.
The governor also noted that his budget in January proposed dedicating 25% of all future budget surpluses towards climate change initiatives.
At the time, Scott said that if the provision had been in effect in 2019, when the state saw a surplus of $40 million, an additional $10 million would have gone toward initiatives like home weatherization and vehicle electrification. Lawmakers rejected this proposal.
“The action I’ve taken over the last four years, I’ll put that up against what the Legislature does,” Scott said, referring to his record on climate change.
Earlier this month, Scott vetoed the Global Warming Solutions Act, legislation that legally mandates the state meet carbon emission reductions targets in the coming years. However, both chambers of the Legislature voted to override Scott’s veto, and make the measure become law.
During the debate, Zuckerman, a longtime advocate of marijuana legalization, said that he hoped the governor would sign legislation sitting on his desk that would establish a legal marketplace for cannabis sales.
The lieutenant governor said that his advocacy on cannabis reform over the years “was fundamentally based in racial and economic justice.”
The governor said that he had strongly considered letting the bill become law. But he said he is having second thoughts after hearing from racial justice groups who have been urging him to veto the bill.
The groups say that the bill fails to provide enough for the communities of color that have been impacted disproportionately by marijuana prohibition.
“I was leaning towards letting it go, but I’m really questioning that at this point,” Scott said.
Zuckerman noted that there are provisions in the bill to prioritize minority and women-owned cannabis businesses in the new cannabis marketplace.
He also pointed out that there is also legislation on the governor’s desk that would expunge the criminal records of about 10,000 people who have low-level marijuana possession convictions.
Zuckerman acknowledged that there is more work to be done to improve racial equity in the cannabis market, but said that the marketplace itself should be legalized immediately.
“We need to be moving forward, and do more in the future,” Zuckerman said.
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