IRASBURG – Standing on hay bales in an airy horse barn on a serene summer night, four gubernatorial candidates promised that, if elected, they would not forget about the Northeast Kingdom.
“I think the Northeast Kingdom, in particular, has unfairly been a dumping ground for a lot of different initiatives in Vermont, unfairly,” Republican Phil Scott said Wednesday at a candidate forum. “I remember, (former Gov.) George Aiken was the one that termed the ‘Northeast Kingdom’ for its beauty, and now we have one of the only landfills in the state, up here, in the Northeast Kingdom.”
Clutching a makeshift log podium, Lt. Gov. Scott then shifted to the present.
“We are trying to have more development – wind generation – destroying our ridgelines here as well,” he said. “And that needs to stop, because we need to protect this area, we need to protect its culture, and we need to protect it for what it is.”
The Northeast Kingdom is a bucolic Vermont region that is struggling and feels left out.
The most immediate issue for many voters here is wind development. The forum’s venue sits practically in the shadow of turbines on the Lowell Mountain ridge, and all four of the candidates who attended the debate distanced themselves from the energy source.
At one point, Scott’s Republican challenger, Bruce Lisman, pointed behind him to Kidder Hill, where another wind development has been proposed.
“The ridgeline back here may have wind towers unless we find a way to alter it or stop it,” Lisman said. “It shouldn’t be there.”
Of the Democrats running, Peter Galbraith and Matt Dunne attended the forum. Sue Minter, who was originally scheduled to attend, canceled due to a scheduling conflict.
One of Galbraith’s chief platform planks is his call for a ban on industrial wind, and his political yard signs depict a range of green, unblemished mountains. He spoke in depth about his thoughts on wind and received the warmest reception throughout the event from the crowd of more than 200.
The former Windham County senator said that if he could not get the Legislature to pass a strict ban on wind development, he would appoint to the Public Service Board only people who promised never to approve wind projects.
“Our ridgelines are, environmentally, the most sensitive parts of our state,” Galbraith said. “As we adjust to global warming, species need to use them, and yet we fragment our habitat. One of the consequences of global warming is going to be volatile weather – flooding. When you destroy the ridgelines – you put concrete up there – you are increasing the damage from flooding.”
“Lowell,” Galbraith then declared in a reference to the neighboring town’s 21 turbines, “in an entire year it reduces the amount of carbon that is produced in 10 hours in New York City.”
Scott’s and Lisman’s opposition to wind energy was clear, but actual policy change was described in vague terms. Dunne said he would not ban wind projects in Vermont but that current siting protocols were unfair, and he promised a Public Service Board more accountable to residents.
“It is not the Vermont way for one part of the state – and frankly one part of the state that has struggled traditionally – to be owning the responsibility for all of the renewable energy for the state of Vermont,” Dunne said. “That is unacceptable.”
Minter has called wind “a part of the mix” in Vermont’s energy portfolio. The state has set a goal of getting 90 percent of Vermonters’ energy from renewable sources by 2050.
Lisman called the wind turbines “junk” and the projects a “scam.” He also said the state’s ambitious energy goal needed to be rethought, likening it to a “teenage term paper.”
“If a town wants a wind tower, they should have the option of owning a piece of it,” he said.
All the candidates spoke favorably of solar power, and Scott also brought up hydropower and biomass as other important energy sources.
Wind was not the only issue on the minds of those in the crowd, and many submitted questions regarding the economy and how it can be fixed.
According to March labor statistics, the Northeast Kingdom has the highest unemployment rate in the state. The Kingdom is the most sparsely populated region in the state, with a 13 percent poverty rate. Because the area is one of only four places in America in the Rural Economic Area Partnership, U.S. Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., has been able to secure generous federal grants for the region for everything from education to agriculture.
In a recent big setback for the Kingdom, the once promising economic development work by the owners of Jay Peak and Burke Mountain has been deemed largely fraudulent by federal regulators.
The candidates each promised toothy ethics reform, and Galbraith and Dunne promised to ban corporate campaign donations, decrying the outsize influence of Bill Stenger and Ariel Quiros, the Jay Peak developers who donated $70,000 to Democrats through various companies and affiliates.
The economic question was broadly framed over whether the state minimum wage should increase.
The Democrats supported a phased-in shift to $15 an hour by 2021, while the Republicans focused instead on rejuvenating the economy. Scott pointed out that the state minimum wage will be indexed to inflation beginning in 2019 and that, at $9.60, it is already one of the highest in America.
Scott said all his employees at DuBois Construction make more than minimum wage but that if it is hiked again, he will be hard-pressed to raise wages. He said the entire base of Vermont small businesses would face similar struggles, adding that another minimum wage hike would increase the cost of necessities.
“We are just going to pass it on,” Scott told the audience. “I don’t have a magic bank account where there is money available for the cost-of-living increase, so you are going to pay for it.”
Lisman said workforce development programs were more important than a drastic increase in pay, adding that “when you raise it abruptly, and by significant amounts, it directly impacts the number of employees.”
Lisman argued that the earned income tax credit acts as a successful defense to poverty, while Dunne and Galbraith said government tax breaks to the poor subsidize large corporations.
“When the minimum wage was put in in the 1930s, in the midst of the (Depression), it did not cause unemployment to rise, it didn’t drive away jobs, it didn’t double the price of anything,” Galbraith said. “It put people back to work at livable wages. That’s why we have it.”
Dunne said any economic fallout from a minimum wage increase could be negated by close work with the Vermont Agency of Commerce and Community Development.
“New York already went and did this,” Dunne said. “So we aren’t alone in this idea that we can get to a living wage.”
The candidates also sparred over gun control, with the Democrats supporting further background checks and a ban on military-style assault weapons. The Republicans said changes to the current laws were unnecessary.
“The answer simply is no,” Lisman said. “The Second Amendment has tremendous value.”
All four candidates agreed the Northeast Kingdom – and all of Vermont – was in dire need of better cellphone service and high-speed broadband internet. They also all were critical of Gov. Peter Shumlin’s tenure, offering varying levels of disapproval.
All the candidates also spoke of the beauty of the venue and the folksiness of the event.
In the tradition of a true Vermont gathering, citizens showed up an hour before the debate, laying down lawn chairs and blankets to listen to live renditions of Elvis Presley and Janis Joplin songs played by a local band.
As the event wrapped up, the sun started setting, sending a pink hue across the horizon, which was dotted with turbines.
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