Incumbent Phil Scott, a Republican, and Democratic challenger Christine Hallquist tried repeatedly to put each other on the defensive during a gubernatorial debate Wednesday night hosted by Vermont Public Radio and Vermont PBS.
Early in the hour-long forum, Scott both defended and sought to distance himself from Act 46, the controversial school district consolidation law.
“Act 46 wasn’t something that I crafted. It was done by the Democratic legislature,” he said. “But it’s the law now,” the governor continued. “Sometimes it’s painful, but we’re going to have to follow through on this.”
Hallquist accused Scott of trying to “hide” behind the claim that he has no control over the situation. She pledged not to force districts to merge against their will: “I think forcing communities to do things against their will is an indication of a leadership failure.” But she did not specify how she’d go about reversing the implementation of Act 46.
The second part of the debate, when moderators allowed the candidates to ask questions, got more confrontational.
Hallquist tried to call out Scott for not putting more money into the underfunded state retirement system. But her attempt backfired when the governor put her on the spot.
“You understand, of course, what our pension obligation is right now, right?” Scott said. “Which is, what?” he repeated, prodding her again.
“Well it … it is several hundred million,” Hallquist said
“No, it’s three billion,” said a satisfied Scott.
The governor also questioned Hallquist about how many times she’d asked state regulators for a rate increase while serving as CEO of Vermont Electric Coop. “Well, I couldn’t tell you the exact number,” Hallquist said.
(The answer is six, according to information Seven Days obtained from the Public Utility Commission.)
Hallquist, however, managed to turn the question into another opportunity to tout her record, stating that the co-op didn’t have a rate increase for five years. (The last increase she requested was in November 2013.)
During one testy exchange, Hallquist challenged Scott to take a stronger stance against the national Republican Party. Scott contended that he’s pushed back against President Donald Trump on multiple occasions, even at the risk of alienating some of his GOP supporters.
“Talk is cheap,” Hallquist said. “What are you going to do as the leader of this state to protect us?”
She continued to press him: “What is the action you’re taking, not the words you’re saying?”
“Words matter,” Scott said, as he and Hallquist began to talk over each other. “I disagree — action is much more important than words,” she said.
The third and final part of the debate featured questions submitted by residents ahead of time. One came from a Vermont inmate struggling with opioid addiction, who asked why he wasn’t getting treatment in prison.
The legislature passed a law to make treatment widely available in state correctional facilities, but, as Seven Days has reported, months after it took effect, inmates are still struggling to get medication.
“We have to ramp this up,” Scott said, but he added, “It’s much more difficult than it might appear.”