Politics

Margolis: On a day of 3 debates, at least Vermont’s 2 were civil

Donald Trump, Joe Biden, David Zuckerman, Phil Scott, Scott Milne, Molly Gray
On the same day as the presidential debate, candidates for Vermont governor and lieutenant governor faced off in local events. C-SPAN and Glenn Russell/VTDigger

Jon Margolis is a political columnist for VTDigger.

What a great time for Vermont supremacists.

On one day – Tuesday, Sept. 29, 2020, a day which (with any luck) will be blotted from memory – this state’s four leading candidates for its two top offices and the nation’s two candidates for its one top office stood before each other and the world to present their respective cases.

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After which Vermonters may be entitled to feel themselves superior. The debates between Gov. Phil Scott and opponent Lt. Gov. David Zuckerman and between lieutenant governor candidates Scott Milne and Molly Gray were models of restraint, civility and rationality when compared to the confrontation between President Donald Trump and Joseph Biden.

Scott and Zuckerman only rarely interrupted one another. Milne and Gray only called each other by their actual names, not scornful insults. None of the four Vermont candidates suggested that his/her opponent was stupid or a “clown.”

What a great state this is.

OK, this is setting a low bar. But these days one grabs what is available. If nothing else, Vermonters can look at one another and collectively reassure one another: “We’re not that bad.”

But maybe not that good, either. The four Vermonters did more to obscure than to enlighten. Their behavior was proper, but it was closer to petty than to grand. They displayed at least as much ignorance as knowledge.

Start with economics, about which all four could use a refresher course. Scott and Zuckerman even sunk low enough to engage in the eternal (and insoluble) debate of whether high taxes inspire wealthy folks to leave Vermont.

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“People have fled the state due to taxes,” said Scott. He’s right. Some people do.

But others, said Zuckerman, “locate to Vermont because of who we are.” He’s right, too. Lots of rich folks seem to be moving to Vermont these days.

The question is whether actual data indicates that taxes convince so many wealthy people to leave the state that tax revenue actually goes down. Such actual data as do exist – like a recent report from Stanford University – suggest that they do not, because “earning power … is not readily mobile,” and the wealthy “are both socially and economically embedded in their states.”

That suggests but does not conclusively prove that higher taxes wouldn’t have a negative impact on Vermont. But it is precisely because there can be no irrefutable answer to this dispute that it ought to be beneath anyone’s dignity to engage in it.

Zuckerman and Scott also dispute how many rich Vermonters there are and how rich they are. In this case, Scott seems to be right.

To pay for his plans to expand internet broadband coverage and other improvements, Zuckerman proposed a “$100 million temporary tax on the wealthiest 5%” of income earners. Scott shot back that this would mean higher taxes on households earning as little as $159,000 a year.

“Think about two teachers,” he said. “Married teachers.”

The next day Zuckerman’s campaign argued that the richest 5% earned almost $300,000 a year. But tax statistics from a recent report of the Legislature’s Joint Fiscal Office show that in 2018 (the most recent data available) 320,213 Vermont residents filed income tax returns. Five percent of them is 16,010 filers. Only 13,020 reported earning more than $200,000, meaning at least 2,984 filers were in the top 5% but earned less than $200,000, if perhaps not as little as $159,000.

“We don’t have that many wealthy people in the state,” Scott said.

As they searched for examples beyond Vermont’s borders, both candidates got confused. Scott said the economy of New Hampshire is “booming.” Zuckerman said Vermont would prosper if it spent more, not less. “We infuse money into the economy,” he said, noting that austerity “has been shown to fail in Greece.”

New Hampshire, like Vermont and the rest of the Northeast, prospers. It is not booming. Over the past few years, its rate of economic growth often lagged behind Vermont’s. Besides, if New Hampshire is richer than Vermont, that’s largely because so much of it is close to Boston.

Boston is rich.

But if Vermont is not strictly comparable to New Hampshire, it is not remotely comparable to Greece, a sovereign nation. No matter what they say, states in the U.S. are not sovereign, which is just a fancy (being French) way of saying “supreme.” Only one level of government can be supreme, and the Constitution says that’s the feds.

Besides, even Greece isn’t sovereign enough. Back in 2001, Greece joined the eurozone, relinquishing its own currency. In that way, it’s like Vermont and unlike the United States, which can borrow and create as much money as it chooses.

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That’s probably one reason Phil Scott thinks the federal government should make sure broadband extends to everyone, calling for an enterprise similar to the Rural Electrification Act of the 1930s.

He’s right. REA was one of the most successful programs in history. It assumed that universal connection to electricity was a public good, not just a consumer product. Absent a similar finding, remote rural areas will not get broadband.

Neither Molly Gray nor Scott Milne mentioned a new version of the REA. But they did discuss expanding broadband, though without specific proposals about how to do it.

That was pretty much the only actual issue discussed during an hour devoted mainly to squabbling over who had voted in the past, for whom they were going to vote next month, who was raising money for whom, and how much Gray’s policy proposals would cost.

More than $500 million, Milne said.

Somewhat mysteriously, because Gray’s policy proposals are stated with such bland imprecision that putting a price on any of them presents a challenge.

The Milne campaign did produce a document, with links to supporting information. Interpreted liberally, the document came close to showing that under the broadest of interpretations, complete, immediate, passage of all of Gray’s proposals could cost a lot of money.

All in all, not an uplifting hour. But like Zuckerman and Scott, they were polite to one another. This is, after all, Vermont, which is superior, even if not really sovereign.

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Jon Margolis

About Jon

Jon Margolis is the author of "The Last Innocent Year: America in 1964." Margolis left the Chicago Tribune early in 1995 after 23 years as Washington correspondent, sports writer, correspondent-at-large and general columnist. He was previously the Albany Bureau Chief for Newsday and has also been a reporter for the Bergen Record in Hackensack, N.J.; the Miami Herald and the Concord Monitor (N.H.). A native of New Jersey, Margolis graduated from Oberlin College in 1962. He served in the U.S. Army.

Email: [email protected]

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