By John Flowers
Some of the state’s political pundits are claiming next month’s general election ballot provides little chance for upsets or even tight races.
Burlington Progressive Dean Corren wants to prove the pundits wrong. The Middlebury College graduate (class of 1976) is stumping for votes in hopes of unseating incumbent Lt. Gov. Phil Scott, R-Berlin.
This isn’t the first political rodeo for Corren, 59. He served as outreach director for then-U.S. House Rep. Bernie Sanders during the early 1990s. Corren then went on to serve four terms (1993-2000) representing the city of Burlington in the Vermont House, carrying the Progressive Party banner. During that time in the House, Corren rallied behind such causes as single-payer health care, same-sex marriage, and strengthening ethics laws in local government. He also participated in the creation of Efficiency Vermont, which is not surprising given his current professional role as chief technology officer for New York-based Verdant Power Inc., a sustainable energy company that develops underwater hydropower systems.
After a 14-year hiatus from Montpelier, Corren wants to return to the Statehouse, this time at the expense of Scott. Corren is courting Progressive and Democratic voters alike. He won the Democratic primary with 3,874 write-in votes on the Democratic ticket; he also has Democratic Gov. Peter Shumlin’s endorsement.
And Corren will be availing himself of Vermont’s campaign finance law that will allow him to net $200,000 in public funding for his campaign.
“That has made us competitive,” he said of the $200,000 campaign budget.
Of his opponent, he said, “Phil Scott has been an excellent lieutenant governor for Phil Scott; I’m not sure what he’s done for the state of Vermont.”
For his part, Corren vowed, if elected, to advance the state’s march to a single-payer health care system, to reduce the property tax burden on Vermonters, to encourage growth of small-scale businesses, and to promote a “livable wage” for residents.
Corren is most keen on making sure Vermont proceeds with health care reform, which he said will be key in reducing citizens’ annual outlay for medical insurance. He dismissed complaints about the Vermont Health Connect website going off-line until November due to system glitches.
“It’s important to remember that we are talking about a $5 billion health care system,” Corren said. “We’re not talking about a website.”
Health care reform
Vermont’s thirst for health care reform began circa 1988, according to Corren.
“The cost escalation in health care was so different than general inflation; it was not sustainable in a general way,” he said.
Calls for a single-payer system began in 1990, according to Corren, who called himself one of the most vocal, early advocates of such a transition. But the Legislature did not pursue that route during the 1990s, he noted.
“We’ve been offered what I would call all sorts of phony solutions to dealing with health care,” Corren said. “It’s been ‘Blame it all on the lawyers,’ ‘blame it all on the victims,’ and ‘blame it all on fees-for-service.’ What is driving this is that we decided as a matter of policy to not allow ourselves to have any control over this [issue].”
To Corren, the solution seems fairly straightforward: for Vermont to form its own self-insurance pool with its 626,000 residents, a system that would be run by the state.
“We can afford health care in Vermont; what we can’t afford is the insurance model,” Corren said.
“We don’t have the option of doing nothing,” he added. “[Health care costs] are at a growth rate we can’t sustain.”
Corren does not believe a shift to a single-payer system will result in substantial physician defections from the Green Mountain State. If any physicians leave, he believes it will be due to political differences with single-payer.
Being relieved of health care responsibilities would be a boon to Vermont businesses, according to Corren. He believes the state should particularly focus on attracting and nurturing small to moderate-size businesses that fit the state’s ethos with respect to green energy, value-added products, high-tech innovation and agriculture.
He cited Middlebury’s Beau Ties Ltd. as an example of a small business on the rise. That business, which sells its wares around the country, is only limited by its ability to find enough skilled workers to make more of its popular bow tie products, according to Corren.
At the same time, Corren does not believe the state should try to recruit another IBM. A state the size of Vermont can be too adversely affected by fluctuations in the computer giant’s workforce, he said.
“We can’t afford the instability,” he said of depending too much on one or more mega businesses. “It’s not the way Vermont works best.
“Vermont’s economic highs are not as high (as other states) and its lows are not as low,” he added. “We have to keep it that way.”
Another one of Corren’s priorities is to have Vermont approve a minimum, “liveable wage” for workers at the lower end of the pay scale.
The Vermont Legislature and Gov. Shumlin earlier this year agreed to bump the state’s hourly minimum wage from $8.73 now to $10.50 by 2018. The jump is to occur in three phases, first to $9.60 in 2016; then $10 in 2017, before peaking at $10.50 in 2018.
But Corren doesn’t believe the scheduled minimum wage bump goes far enough. He wants Vermont to require employers to pay a “liveable” wage, defined in state statute as “the hourly wage required for a full-time worker to pay for one-half of the basic needs budget for a two-person household, with no children, and employer-assisted health insurance, averaged for both urban and rural areas.” The 2012 Vermont livable wage would have been $12.48 per hour, according to the state’s Joint Fiscal Office.
Corren acknowledged that such a rise might place a burden on some businesses, but added the state cannot afford to have an increasing number of its citizens unable to afford basic necessities. The more people can afford to provide for themselves, the less reliant they will be on state services, he said. He is proposing an “intensive” survey of Vermont businesses to determine what they might support and be able to afford.
“The whole goal is that if you work, that you are able to survive and support a family,” Corren said.
If elected, Corren promised to support and advance property tax reform. He continues to believe that it is “unfair and unsustainable” for Vermont to have a system whereby public education is funded primarily through property taxes, which he called “regressive and inefficient to administer.” While he would prefer to see schools funded through the income tax, he acknowledged that such a shift is not politically realistic. Instead, he proposes to adjust the income sensitivity provisions of Act 68 (Vermont’s education funding law) in a manner that places more of the financing burden on higher-income residents.
He said wealthy Vermonters are currently paying less than 1 percent of their annual income on property taxes, while he claimed that many middle class residents are paying closer to 9 percent of their incomes on property taxes.
“As of recently, 109 towns’ primary residential property tax rates are higher than second-home rates, and that is unacceptable,” Corren said of the impact of Act 68. “There’s been a shift to more homeowners, and off of businesses and second homes. In some ways, we are back to where we started from, in terms of inequity.”
Corren acknowledged that Vermont school expenses continue to rise (on average) while enrollment continues to decline. But he remains adamantly opposed to any law that would force public schools to consolidate.
On the pipeline plan
Corren is skeptical about Vermont Gas’ plans to extend its natural gas pipeline from Colchester, through Addison County, and ultimately into Rutland. The company has received permission to extend the pipeline into Middlebury and Vergennes and has a pending request to run a spur from Middlebury to the International Paper Co. in Ticonderoga, N.Y.
“I have expressed serious concerns about the viability of the project as compared to alternative investments,” Corren said.
He believes the state should instead focus on alternative energy systems involving thermal and solar technologies.
It remains uncertain whether the Legislature will field a marijuana legalization bill during the coming biennium. The state has already decriminalized possession of small amounts of the substance. Corren said he would support a legalization bill if it is carefully crafted.
“I do see it as inevitable,” he said of marijuana legalization, a step that a handful of other states, including Colorado, have recently taken.
Corren does not consider marijuana to be a “gateway drug,” and added he believes it is counterproductive to “prohibit people from doing not-unreasonable things.”
John Flowers is a reporter for the Addison Independent, [email protected]