Christine Hallquist and Gov. Phil Scott at Wednesday's debate in Rutland
The two major party candidates for governor offered voters a clear contrast in approach and agenda Wednesday evening during their second debate.
Republican Gov. Phil Scott stuck to the ideas that have been front and center in his first term — economic growth, affordability and protecting the most vulnerable. He spoke of progress made in his first term, especially in blocking increases in taxes and fees. And he warned of existential threats facing Vermont, including the state's aging demographics, decreasing student population and a lack of growth outside of Chittenden County.
Democrat Christine Hallquist agreed on Vermont's challenges and offered an ambitious agenda, including universal high-speed broadband, a $15 per hour minimum wage, paid family leave and the need for universal health care. She also emphasized her track record as chief executive of the Vermont Electric Coop as proof that she can effectively manage state government.
Squaring off at Rutland's Paramount Theatre in a forum sponsored by VTDigger.org, the two candidates did not engage in personal attacks, although there were occasional flare-ups over policy differences. There was no mention of Hallquist's historic status as the first openly transgender person to be a major party's nominee for governor.
Hallquist noted that for the bottom 80 percent of American households, "there has been no real wage growth since the early 1980s." She asserted that trickle-down economics have been a failure and said a higher minimum wage was a necessary corrective.
"I want to make sure all Vermonters make enough money and keep more in their pockets," replied Scott, melding the wage question with his position on taxes. He asserted that boosting the economy will bring organic wage growth instead of an "artificial" boost in the minimum wage. Which seems to be another way of saying "trickle down."
When asked about the economic troubles of rural Vermont, Scott said that his administration has addressed the issue. "We've made investments," he said. He boasted of the $35 million housing bond he proposed and the legislature approved. He talked of good-paying jobs being available in Vermont and said the remaining task is to address affordability.
Hallquist emphasized universal broadband as the single most important tool for boosting the rural economy, comparing it to the rural electrification drive of the 1930s. Scott agreed on the importance of broadband, but seemed to place it lower on the priority list than his general references to affordability.
Hallquist called for a shift in education funding from the property tax to an income tax, which she says can be done without raising the total tax burden. "They'll increase taxes," Scott replied, without citing any evidence.
He offered a similar warning on health care. Hallquist wants to move toward a Medicare-for-all system, with universal primary care as a first step.
"If we do it nationally, fine," replied Scott. "But for us to do it alone ... We've seen that movie." He was referring to his predecessor, Democrat Peter Shumlin, who tried to create a single-payer health care system and ultimately failed. "It's too expensive for a single state to do," Scott concluded.
Both candidates agreed on the importance of confronting climate change, but Scott seemed satisfied with his administration's performance on the issue. "I created the Vermont Climate Action Commission to see what we can do," he said. "I have committed to Vermont's goal of 90 percent renewable energy by the year 2050."
Hallquist noted, not for the first time, that she had voted for Scott in 2016 but was now "disappointed. You signed the Paris Climate Accord, but you didn't do anything."
When asked about consolidation of local schools, Scott avoided specifics but repeated his talking point about Vermont's lower student population and said, "We need to do something."
Hallquist saw consolidation as a potential death sentence to small towns. "People won't move to communities without schools," she said. Her solution is to grow Vermont's rural population and, again, her main prescription is universal broadband. Scott called for population growth but offered no specifics beyond the small-scale pilot programs his administration has launched.
The takeaway from the evening: If you like what's been done over the past two years, Scott offers more of the same. Hallquist presents an ambitious agenda, including several items vetoed or opposed by Scott. In short, Scott acted like a Republican and Hallquist like a Democrat.