Two veteran lawmakers with a very different worldview but a history of working together are facing off in the lieutenant governor’s race this year, a relatively congenial contest.
But state Sen. Joe Benning, R-Caledonia, and former Lt. Gov. David Zuckerman, a Progressive/Democrat, took the gloves off on Wednesday night as they faced each other in VTDigger’s last election debate of the year, tussling over such subjects as Act 250, criminal justice reform, climate change, child care and the role of the lieutenant governor’s office.
“Spirited back and forth is welcome. I do ask that if you request a rebuttal you raise your hand,” VTDigger’s Riley Robinson at one point told the candidates, after moderators had once again intervened to cut off a lengthy and barbed back-and-forth.
The state is dealing with a well-documented housing crisis, and long-standing conversations about how to modernize Act 250, Vermont’s 52-year-old landmark land use law, to spur new development have taken on new urgency.
Asked how the state should balance environmental protections against sprawl with a push to provide more housing quickly, Zuckerman offered that the state should look into investments in wastewater, sewer and water lines — infrastructure upgrades that will be necessary to build up Vermont’s downtowns and village centers.
Encouraging and investing in development there, he said, will reinvigorate communities and provide foot traffic to local businesses. That doesn’t mean “massive changes to Act 250,” Zuckerman said, although he granted “some” might be necessary in certain targeted areas.
“I don't think we should throw the baby out with the bathwater. Many people love Vermont for what it is and what it looks like, and much of that is because of this document,” he said.
Benning replied that frustrated developers needed clearer communication about how to meet Act 250 criteria at the front end of the process — and help on the back end with appeals, which he said were often overly lengthy and far too costly.
“The expense to the developer is extremely high and extremely frustrating. We have got to figure out a way to shorten that time period. But I don't think anybody here wants to throw out the baby with the bathwater. Act 250 has served our environment very well,” he said.
Zuckerman seized on what he saw as a point of agreement to paint a contrast between himself and his opponent. Both agreed that Act 250 rules were by and large reasonable, Zuckerman said, but that the law’s administration could be significantly improved. But Benning’s “small government” ethos, Zuckerman argued, was part of the problem.
“We should put the resources into the Act 250 process so that when folks submit proposals, they can get answers faster. I've heard from many developers that the response doesn't come quickly enough. Or is incomplete. And they've got to move on a reasonable timeline,” Zuckerman said.
Role of government
Zuckerman and Benning diverged Wednesday evening, as they have throughout their tenures in office, about the role and size of government.
Zuckerman, who was first elected to the Legislature in 1996 and is running for a second stint as lieutenant governor, talks often about the need for more progressive taxation, and is not shy advocating for new revenue sources. Benning, a 12-year veteran of the state Senate who is known as a libertarian-leaning Republican, is typically staunchly opposed to new government spending, and often argues the state’s interventions cause more harm than good.
Asked to offer a solution to the state’s child care crisis, for example, Zuckerman got right to the point: money.
“This was one of those situations where you could say ‘no new taxes, no new funding,’ and continue to have people at home struggling to find child care, because child care is more expensive than getting a job. Or we could say it's time for state resources to be invested,” he said.
Benning countered that he’d like to see the Legislature repeal a recent law that required day care facilities to have at least one licensed educator on staff, which he said led to an immediate drop in child care slots statewide.
“A toddler does not need to have a licensed educator — a toddler needs to have a nurturing individual,” he said, adding later that he did not believe Vermont needed “yet more taxes” to solve the problem.
Benning argued throughout the evening that with the influx of federal Covid relief funds drying up, policymakers should be frugal with the state’s finances.
“This is a point in time where we cannot be installing new programs, employing new faces in the role of government,” he said. “We have to maintain control over the services that are absolutely necessary.”
Climate change and the LG’s role
The debate also twice gave candidates the chance to ask one another questions — and offered some of the sharpest exchanges of the evening. In one, Zuckerman prefaced his query by saying that Benning had “stated clearly” that “climate issues should be dealt with at the national level,” then asked his opponent if he would support a bill to invest in jobs in renewable energy “or continue to say ‘no: the climate issue is too big for Vermont to handle.’”
Benning retorted that Zuckerman’s question had “mischaracterized everything I've ever said in every debate on this subject,” although he acknowledged that while he believed that Vermont should be investing in making its communities resilient to climate change, focusing on the state’s emissions was a fool’s errand.
“You can't put on the backs of 600,000 Vermonters responsibility for trying to stop or reverse climate change,” he said.
Zuckerman responded that Benning had “made it very clear Vermont is not in a position to do it and the national government should.” And he added that what “Vermonters have asked for is local investment to tackle climate change and build resiliency and you have voted no on every single one of those bills,” pointing to Benning’s opposition to the state’s Global Warming Solutions Act.
The Global Warming Solutions Act mandates that Vermont reduce its emissions by a certain amount — but is silent about how it should do so. Critics have charged from the start this would inevitably lead to policies that raise the cost of fossil fuels on Vermonters, and Benning echoed those lines of attack here.
“The lowest hanging fruit” to reduce emissions, he argued, was to “impose massive increases on the cost of gasoline and home oil fuel.”
The two would return to the subject of Vermont’s emissions later in the debate, after moderators asked how the state should work to meet its now-legally required reduction targets.
The law put Vermont “in a very bad conundrum,” Benning answered. “We cannot impose the same restrictions that California has now on the books when you're talking about literally doubling the price of a tank of gas,” he said.
But Zuckerman countered that certain investments could both save Vermonters money and make a dent in the state’s emissions.
“If we had invested as we were supposed to for the last many years to weatherize 10,000 homes a year — as opposed to 1,000 homes a year — we would now be saving Vermonters hundreds of millions of dollars a year (on home heating oil),” he said.
Benning jumped in again, arguing that Vermont needed to recognize its “limited capacity to bring change,” and said that suggesting otherwise was “just misinforming the public and unfortunately creating a lot of emotional disturbance in the people out there who really want to bring about change.”
Zuckerman again replied: Vermonters do want “to participate in making change,” he said. And this time he accused Benning of mischaracterizing his statements and the larger debate.
“No one's talking about raising gas taxes or doubling the price of fuel. But you know, when you work to create doubt — which is the job of a defense attorney — you can be very effective. But that's not what I said. And I think it's important for Vermonters to really listen to what people say and how other people characterize it,” he said.
In questioning Zuckerman, Benning pointed out that the former lieutenant governor often appeared frustrated by Republican Gov. Phil Scott, who Zuckerman unsuccessfully challenged in the last election cycle.
“You're going back to a position that would obviously bring back the same dynamics between the two of you,” Benning said. “How is that good for Vermont at this point in time, when we have a substantial decrease in federal funding coming down the path?”
Zuckerman said he would be happy to work with Scott, but he had been frustrated by the governor’s many vetoes, including of climate and opioid response bills. “I think if we're professional adults in the room, we can agree to disagree at times, and we can work collaboratively at times,” he said.
Benning, on the other hand, opened and closed the debate by highlighting his relationship with Scott — one he implied would have implications for the lieutenant governor’s ability to have real influence.
“This is one of the greatest differences between David and I — is that I’ve spent the past 12 years actually working with Phil Scott, not only his administrative team but also his campaign team,” Benning said. “And on a daily basis, we have pushed through legislation that has benefited Vermonters from every possible walk of life.”
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