Local News

School consolidation and taxes debated at Ludlow forum

By Stephen Seitz

LUDLOW – Six potential governors of Vermont came to Ludlow last week to make their cases to voters at an event hosted by the Friends of the Ludlow Auditorium.

Running in the Democratic primary Aug. 9 are former state senators Matt Dunne and Peter Galbraith, perennial candidate Cris Ericson, former state transportation secretary Sue Minter, and former Remington News Service CEO H. Brooke Paige. Bruce Lisman and Phil Scott (not present at this debate) are running as Republicans.

Moderator Ralph Pace’s questions covered topics ranging from the proposed Coolidge solar farm to property tax reform.

The candidates all agreed something should be done about the latter, and few had kind words about Act 46.

Minter said she wants a new school funding formula.

“I do not believe that consolidation is a solution that makes sense everywhere,” she said. “Property tax escalation is truly the issue I hear about everywhere. I want to do more based on income, because property values are not a reflection of someone’s income,” she said.

Dunne agreed.

“Property taxes are regressive,” he said, “they don’t reflect ability to pay, and we need to go more down the road of making sure the way we pay for education is based on ability to pay.”

Ericson offered a new solution: universal homeschooling.

“I think that certified public school teachers should be allowed to homeschool kids,” she said. “They should be allowed to take out an ad to accept six or eight children into their homes as a one-room schoolhouse, and be paid per head for each child.”

Galbraith said that, as a senator, he proposed an amendment to shift some of the education funding burden to the income tax.

“We don’t have an education funding crisis in Vermont,” he said. “We have a property tax crisis in Vermont. I will not propose an increase in the property tax as your governor.”

Both Lisman and Paige opposed forced consolidation. “Act 46 doesn’t work,” Lisman said. “It would raise your taxes in the hope of lower taxes later.”

Lisman advocated creating a new district system.

When it comes to renewable energy, the candidates generally agreed it should happen, but be done carefully.

“I believe that we need to get to 90 percent renewable energy by 2050,” Dunne said. “I believe that solar needs to be a part of it, but we need to make sure that we do solar projects in a way that works collaboratively with the community to be able to get them done. We need leadership in Montpelier to make sure there’s not a fight every time we try to do the right thing.”

Ericson noted that creating the means for solar energy creates pollution. She wanted more direct public participation in funding energy solutions. “I might do everything I can to get rid of the Public Service Board,” she said. “It’s unconstitutional for unelected officials to make rules and regulations.”

Galbraith, Lisman and Paige said there should be tight rules when it comes to finding sites for solar and wind projects.

“I have asked for a moratorium on large wind and large solar for just the reason we’re talking about tonight,” Lisman said. “There aren’t siting rules that make any sense. There’s been a real land rush because ours is an easy place to develop it, and I don’t think it’s right.”

Minter said she wanted a state plan.

“I support renewables,” she said, “but I want to make sure what we’re doing is good for Vermont, and in Vermont’s best interest. I’m a professional planner and I want to make sure that we have a state plan that really maps where our best opportunities for solar and wind are, relative to what the problems are with the communities surrounding them.”

When it comes to the drug crisis, the candidates shared a broad range of approaches from essentially doing nothing to having a state drug czar.

Ericson said she was more worried about cancer than drugs. Galbraith and Lisman said the state should pursue prevention and treatment policies.

“Help should be available if someone needs it, or the chance of death from overdose arises,” Lisman said. “Those who are victims of this need help.”

Minter said she’d appoint a drug czar.

Minter agrees there is a heroin problem, and that the War on Drugs has failed.

“I will immediately appoint an opiate crisis manager in the governor’s office,” she said. “Why? Because someone in the governor’s office has the ability to make phone calls and get meetings immediately, but also to think holistically, not just state government, but all the jurisdictions.”

Paige proposed legalizing marijuana and better education.

“We’re always playing catch-up,” he said. “We wait until people are addicted and then we try to intervene. Allow people to grow small quantities for their own consumption. For those who can’t grow it, it should be made available through the state store system, and plow the revenue from it into education.”

“This is likely to be biggest challenge facing the next governor, to be able to tackle the epidemic that is facing us,” said Dunne, who offered a four-point plan: invest in prevention; encourage more direct involvement for community organizers; have treatment ready for when it’s needed; and get doctors to prescribe opiates as a last resort.

The candidates also had several solutions to health care costs, especially reforming the Vermont Health Connect website.

Galbraith said he introduced a universal coverage plan in the Senate, explaining: “To pay for it: a 2 percent payroll tax,” he said. “It’ll cost $220 million. The payroll tax will raise $240 million.”

Lisman said we should drop Vermont’s system in favor of Obamacare. “We should move to the federal exchange,” he said. “Let’s follow the rules of the Affordable Care Act, which encourages robust competition.”

“We should partner with Connecticut, which has a fully functional equivalent of Vermont Health Connect,” said Paige. “It might be wise to look at that before getting involved in the federal system.”

Dunne said, “Fix the damn website. Health care costs are rising by $650,000 a day. We need people to have trust again that the state can do anything regarding health care.  We need to change the way hospitals and doctors are paid to take care of people. That will allow them to make the investments in prevention, rather than when people arrive at the emergency room.”

Ericson said she favored a strictly local approach. “Forget health care insurance,” she said. “Let’s tax everyone on their income and have local health care clinics and hospitals paid for completely by taxpayer dollars. You can go to someone local. You know them, and they know you.”

The complete forum was taped for cablecast by Ludlow Public Cable TV, and will be run at various times over the next two weeks.

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