In a primary election forum hosted on Wednesday by Town Meeting TV, Republican Gov. Phil Scott debated North Springfield resident and conservative businessman Keith Stern about Vermont issues in the race for governor.
During the forum moderated by Vermont journalist Anne Galloway, both candidates introduced themselves and then positioned themselves for the voters to decide. While health care, wastewater runoff, agriculture, immigration and other issues were discussed in passing, the bulk of the forum was aimed at the core interests of Republicans approaching the Aug. 14 primary: the economy, taxes, government waste and gun restrictions.
“Twenty years ago I didn’t have a political bone in my body, I was just a frustrated business owner,” Scott said to open. “But I finally decided that instead of complaining so much … I should be a part of the solution.”
Scott recounted his terms in the state Senate and as lieutenant governor, and said they helped form his vision for a state government “that runs efficiently and lives within its means without raising taxes and fees, while we continue to grow the economy and make Vermont more affordable — and protect the vulnerable.”
Stern, owner of Stern’s Quality Produce in White River Junction, clearly wasn’t accepting the incumbent’s claim of holding the line on tax increases and fees as a final economic solution. He said he decided to enter the governor’s race when he saw that the state budget chugged along merely by not raising taxes, adding that such an approach, without tax cuts, isn’t serious and will ultimately fail.
“We have such high taxes in this state — unaffordable for so many,” Stern said. “And then to just say ‘we’re not going to raise taxes (because) this is the solution, we’re fine,’ this is not acceptable.”
He added that “almost every day” he hears from Vermonters who are moving out of the state because of the high cost of living, and so he wants to focus on cutting government waste in the next biennium.
“I had a retired state employee come up to me and say that there are agencies and departments with more management than actual workers,” Stern said. “You walk in the office and the phone is ringing and nobody’s there to answer the phone, but there are managers sitting there. (There are) 66 more state employees in Vermont than New Hampshire who make over $90,000 a year, yet we have half the population. How is that justified?”
Stern cited what he saw at a recent state equipment auction as another example of government waste: “They were auctioning off pallets of like brand new, (lightly) used tires for pennies on the dollar. Trucks that could run for another five to six years were up for auction. They (the bidders) are going to run them with low mileage. Why aren’t we (the taxpayers) taking care of that? There are plenty of issues like this.”
Scott responded by saying that he is going to continue to govern by what he thinks is right, not what is merely easy or politically popular with the party base.
“I am going to work within our three strategic principles: growing the economy, making it affordable, protecting the vulnerable,” the governor said. ” … I established a clear line in the sand: no taxes and fees.
“Democrats tested me, led me to veto the budget three times over the last two sessions, but even with all the drama we were able to accomplish a lot. … We created a $35 million housing bond … we created more (designated) districts incredibly important for our downtowns … (and) we’ve added 4,400 workers to the workforce over the last six months.”
Picking up on Stern’s criticism about the insufficiency of simply holding the line on taxes and fees, Galloway asked Scott if keeping tax rates level was enough.
“It’s certainly a start, but is it enough? No,” Scott said. ” … But when you have a supermajority or a majority in the House and Senate … the natural reaction was, for some, that every problem that came forward (needed) raising taxes and fees to satisfy that.”
Scott said his administration has proved that Vermont can grow its economy and even grow revenues “organically” through the means of “economic growth.”
In response, Stern said “taxes have to be cut,” and he also criticized the governor’s affordable housing bond initiative.
“I live in Springfield. I know investing in downtown is really useless because there’s no parking. So what are you going to get downtown with no parking?” Stern asked. ” …If we changed the laws so investors in housing could make a profit, they would do it on their own. We’re impeding them by the property tax, by the regulations they have to go through to get permitting, and by not giving landlords any protection at all. I know people in Springfield who sold off their properties … who buys it? Slumlord types.”
Debating Scott’s flip-flop on gun control
Regarding the controversy over new gun restriction measures passed by the Legislature and approved by the governor, Stern made a strong constitutional and Second Amendment stand.
“Go where the problem is. … Taking away gun rights from law-abiding citizens is not a solution to anything,” Stern told Scott directly.
“We didn’t take away gun rights,” Scott testily replied. “These gun safety measures live within the Constitution and don’t violate the Second Amendment. … I have a gun safe full of guns (at home) … and I believe (in the Second Amendment). Mental health is a good issue, and I agree with you, but we have a long way to go.”
Galloway asked Stern if there are any gun restriction measures he would ever consider as governor.
“I would consult … the gun owners groups since they are much more informed,” he said. “ …We have two constitutions that have to be considered. You can’t pass anything that violates those constitutions no matter how much someone wants to do it. It’s off the table.”
Galloway then turned to Scott, citing that his popularity had dropped precipitously following his support of new gun control laws in the state — from the fourth highest rated governor to a negative rating on the issue, as noted by Morning Consult. The website reported that Scott suffered a 38-point net drop in public approval.
Galloway then probed Scott regarding any possible regrets over signing S.55 into law, based on his flip-flop on guns.
“Again, leadership and being governor isn’t about watching the polls,” Scott said. “ … I went into that with my eyes wide open. That was at the time of the Parkland (Florida) shooting … and we had an eerily similar situation here in Fair Haven. … I believe we would have gone from one of the safest states in the nation to one of the unsafest states in the nation (had a shooting occurred).
“I regret disappointing people, but I had to look myself in the mirror. … Watching what the governor in Florida was doing going to 17 funerals … I decided to take action,” Scott said.
Hebadded that he didn’t think gun magazine ammunition limits were necessary, but stressed that it wasn’t his idea: “What they (Democrats) wanted was an assault weapons ban, but chose the magazines instead. But there were other good aspects within the bills that were passed … it wasn’t enough for me to veto.”
Stern said that mental health, not gun violence, is the underlying problem not being addressed by the governor and Legislature.
During closing statements, both Republicans took positions that were somewhat at odds with each other. On the one hand, Stern seemed to bolster his conservative GOP base, while the governor stressed his independence of mind, perhaps appealing more to mainstream Democrats and independents.
“I hope you heard the differences,” Stern said. “There’s a lot of overspending (and) taxation. I am opposed to that. … By holding the status quo, the state is doomed.”
Scott smiled, and concluded with his plan to do things independently, regardless of the political fallout: “Leadership is (about) following through … despite the political ramifications. I will live with the consequences.”
Lou Varricchio is a freelance reporter for True North Reports. Send him news tips at firstname.lastname@example.org.