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Minter, Scott face off in debate

COLCHESTER – Vermont’s two major party candidates for governor faced off in a debate Sunday, trading barbs on their policy proposals and past histories as lawmakers.

Democratic gubernatorial nominee Sue Minter and Lt. Gov. Phil Scott, the Republican nominee, are locked in a 1-point race, according to a Vermont Public Radio poll released last week. With Election Day just over two weeks away, the two sought to highlight their differences Sunday during the Vermont Press Association debate at Saint Michael’s College.

Minter, a former Agency of Transportation secretary, used her opening statement to highlight her biography and her upbringing with three older brothers. The experience, she said, taught her to “stand up for myself” and “fight for what I believe in.” She also highlighted her roles as the Tropical Storm Irene recovery officer and her roles at the Agency of Transportation overseeing 1,300 employees.

Minter also pointed to her endorsement from Sen. Bernie Sanders, who stumped for Minter and other Democrats at six rallies over the weekend.

“He and I both understand that to solve our problems, we don’t stop and give up, we don’t hit the pause button,” she said. “He and I both understand that Vermonters should not have to work two jobs to make ends meet, that creating affordable education opportunities is one of the surest ways we can break generational poverty.”

Scott used his opening statement to push back on television ads that have been run by Minter and groups supporting her. “Other campaigns and outside forces are using deceitful ads,” he said.

“Not only are these ads deceitful, they are the type of ads that are driving Americans further and further apart,” Scott said. “I’ve never understood why campaigns bring out the worst in some.”

The two were asked how they would deal with the collateral damage of opiate addiction on families and communities. Scott said he credits Democratic Gov. Peter Shumlin for devoting his entire 2014 State of the State Address to the issue.

“I don’t agree with everything Gov. Shumlin has done, but in this case, identifying this in his State of the State Address was appropriate,” he said.

Scott said his plan to address the opiate crisis has helped him earn the endorsement of the Vermont Police, Sheriffs and Troopers Associations. That plan, he said, calls for a director of drug abuse prevention who would report directly to the governor. Additionally, Scott called for more “boots on the ground” and to give law enforcement the ability “to determine whether somebody should be put in treatment or arrested.”

Minter said her plan calls for an opiate crisis manager that is devoted full-time, along with a supporting team, to take a “holistic, inter-jurisdictional and inter-agency” approach.

“We need to look at our enforcement community. It is not coordinated,” she said. “We aren’t coordinating. That’s what was so key in Irene.”

Minter said she began discussing her plan last March and suggested Scott’s plan mimics her ideas.

“I’m glad he agrees with this plan. It is critical that we take on this challenge,” she said.

The candidates were asked how they would boost affordable housing and ensure Vermonters are trained for available jobs.

Minter focused on her plan to provide two years of free tuition at the Community College of Vermont and Vermont Technology College. It would be paid for by a franchise tax on the state’s largest banks.

To boost housing, Minter said she would look to replicate the experience of Barre across the state. She said $19 million of public investment netted $45 million in private investment that helped bring affordable housing into and near the downtown.

“This is the kind of opportunity in investing in economic growth that is so critical that I want to do across Vermont,” she said.

Scott said he would look to provide tax incentives for affordable housing development that has helped boost the solar industry.

“We need to … take a page out of the playbook and utilize some of those tax incentives,” he said. “There’s much we can do.”

Wind energy drew further distinctions between Minter and Scott.

Scott said the issue “has become so divisive here in Vermont” and “is literally tearing our communities apart.” He decried a proposal by Iberdrola in Windham and Grafton counties to provide payment to voters if its proposed plan is approved. Such a system could be seen as a “bribe,” Scott said.

“They might be lured into voting a certain way just so they can receive the pay. Really, I don’t believe this is appropriate here in Vermont,” he said.

Scott said he believes all large-scale wind projects in Vermont should stop immediately.

Minter said she supports “well-sited” wind projects in Vermont and believes a focus on renewable energy, including wind, will help the state’s economy and protect the environment.

“I believe that climate change is real and it is here. We need a leader that is willing to take it on,” she said. “This is an economic development challenge. It is a state challenge. It is a national challenge. It is a global challenge.”

Renewable energy and energy efficiency are the “faster growing sectors” of Vermont’s economy, according to Minter. They are also attracting young Vermonters, she said.

“They want to be a part of this. We know we need young people with good jobs and economic prosperity,” she said.

Minter also accused Scott of opposing wind energy because of boosters like the Republican Governors Association and its top donors.

“Do you think that the Koch brothers … are actually going to support someone that fights climate change?” she asked.

Scott dismissed her charge.

“I don’t know who the Koch brothers are. I’ve never met them,” he said, noting that the Democratic Governors Association has also run ads on Minter’s behalf. “I’m surprised to hear Sue make the contention that they’re supporting me in some way.”

Minter was not ready to let the issue go, however, saying Scott has also accepted contributions from a number of “oil and gas interests” in addition to being supported by the RGA.

“I know that the Republican Governors Association has already spent millions of dollars and their largest contributor is the Koch brothers,” she said.

Both candidates advocated for expanding the state’s renewable energy portfolio in general.

Minter called for more focus on efficiency efforts.

“We need to do more, not less, in investing in efficiency, because let’s face it, the cheapest energy that we all use is that which we don’t have to purchase,” she said.

Minter said her administration would also focus on avoiding “the dirtiest and most expensive” energy, which is used during peak demand, and focusing on new technologies like energy storage and distribution.

“I am calling for us to reduce peak electric demand by 10 percent over the next five years,” she said.

Scott said the state’s existing goal of using 90 percent renewable energy by 2050 “is attainable, but it’s going to take a change in some of the technologies we use in the future.”

He advocated for an energy future using hydro, solar and natural gas. He also advocated for energy storage technology.

“The real game-changer will be in storage,” he said. “We need energy on demand in order to satisfy our economy. A lot of the businesses that we seek … use a lot of energy.”

Both candidates were allowed to ask each other one question. Scott asked Minter how Vermonters could trust that she will “hold the line on taxes and fees.”

Minter, again, said she does not support a carbon tax, a charge Scott has made several times. She also pledged to “look holistically” at the tax code and think about how to reform it based on the current economy. She said the state economy used to be based on durable goods and is now largely based on services.

“I do think we need to think differently,” she said. “Let’s make the record perfectly clear. I am going to hold the line on income and sales tax rates.”

Minter asked Scott if he would join her in calling for universal background checks on all gun purchases in Vermont. The VPR poll showed that more than 80 percent of Vermonters support universal background checks.

But Scott, who said the state has “one of the lowest crime rates in the nation,” said he would not advocate for changing any gun laws.

“If I thought that any further gun restrictions would stop any violent crimes I would propose it,” he said. “I am not advocating for any changes so I will not be joining you in that regard, Sue.”

Scott said the underlying violence, not the weapon used, should be the focus. He said people could use weapons other than a gun, even “a crockpot makeshift bomb of some sort.”