Vermont's five Democratic gubernatorial hopefuls faced off against a packed house Monday night in South Burlington. The topic? The future of the state's community-based system for folks in need of mental heath and substance abuse treatment, as well as people with developmental disabilities.
The Vermont Council of Developmental and Mental Health Services sponsored the two-hour debate, which took place in the South Burlington High School Auditorium. The moderater was Kristin Carlson of WCAX-TV.
The council promotes a statewide, nonprofit system of care for people with developmental disabilities, serious and persistent mental illness and substance abuse; and children experiencing severe emotional disturbance, as well as their families.
More than 200 people filled the auditorium, and several of them had a chance to ask questions of the candidates.
The size of the crowd was not lost on the candidates.
"We do this group therapy session once or twice a week, and this is definitely the largest group we've been before yet," said gubernatorial candidate and Sen. President Pro Tem Peter Shumlin (D-Windham). "That's because the people this room have more at this stake in this election than anyone else in Vermont."
Shumlin then delivered a line that was repeated throughout the night — Vermont's tradition of a community-based delivery system for mental health, and other services and treatment, was in jeopardy due to lack of support from Gov. Jim Douglas over the past eight years.
By and large, all the candidates said they would approach cuts in services much differently than has Gov. Douglas, though only one explained how the state might pay for making fewer cuts.
Sen. Doug Racine (D-Chittenden) said he believes the state must balance its budget by a mix of short-term tax increases, if necessary, spending down some rainy day funds, and making cuts as well as finding efficiencies.
"I don't believe our values are negotiable just because we're in difficult times," said Racine to applause.
At one point during the debate, Racine and Shumlin had a polite disagreement over the impact of last year's tax increases. Racine said he believed last year's budget gave wealthy Vermonters a tax break — especially on income. Shumlin asked Carlson for the chance to rebut Racine's claim. Shumlin said that, in fact, in the aggregate wealthy Vermonters paid more when you take into account changes to the estate and capital gains tax exclusions. Racine then asked to rebut Shumlin's claim, and he was almost cut off, but his fellow candidates said they were OK with Racine taking more time.
The other three — former State Sen. Matt Dunne, Secretary of State Deb Markowitz and Sen. Susan Bartlett (D-Lamoille) — sat back and watched the brief but entertaining show.
Racine noted that he personally saw his income tax decrease and didn't think that was OK; that's why he voted against the budget.
Unlike at most of their previous debates, the Democratic candidates took aim at each other during this one.
At another point, Bartlett disagreed with Markowitz's assertion that the so-called Challenges for Change proposal was a top-down effort by Gov. Douglas, rather than a bottom-up approach.
"This is another example of business as usual in Montpelier, where we set arbitrary goals of 5 percent, rather than looking at how to deliver better services," said Markowitz. "In fact, we may need some investments in these areas rather than cuts."
Bartlett disagreed with that characterization.
"Challenges for Change came out of the Legislature and it was our attempt to restructure government rather than the random budgeting approach where they just cut, cut, cut and don't really think about the impact," said Bartlett. "And, as usual, we had to drag the administration with us. Our effort is based on outcomes, not just a spending level."
That said, Bartlett promised the audience that, despite the looming cuts to social services — roughly $50 million in the budget and an additional $17 million via Challenges for Change — the legislature will not "pass a budget that leaves you by the side of the road."
These cuts also mean a loss of federal funds, which could total another $65 million.
The so-called “Challenges for Change” effort calls for $38 million in savings through yet-to-be created efficiencies across state government. The measure has been approved by both chambers and signed into law by Gov. Douglas.
Bartlett hopes to use some new federal money coming via Medicaid to blunt deeper cuts in human services.
Shumlin said any proposed changes via the Challenges for Change effort must be approved by the legislature.
"[The administration] will get back to us and we will pass judgment on whether they do a good job or not, and we will not let them ride roughshod over the community-based system," said Shumlin.
At one point during the debate, each candidate was asked to describe, in one word, how they define themselves vis-a-vis the issue of community treatment. Here's how they responded:
Dunne: Vermont-based (he claimed the hyphen made it one, not two words)
All the Democrats expressed frustration with the Douglas administration's ongoing cuts to community-based mental health and substance abuse systems, and the failure to close down the Vermont State Hospital.
"While this governor has been out cutting ribbons, they've left the job to be done for the next governor," said Shumlin, who noted the state has lost out on $63 million in federal funds due to the loss of federal certification.
Dunne, Racine and Shumlin said they would give the community hospital-based replacement approach one final chance to work, but otherwise would support building a stand-alone replacement VSH, preferably in Waterbury.
Bartlett and Markowitz both said they would want to pull stakeholders together to craft a more definitive plan, and stick to it.
Markowitz said she would reinstitute an office of planning as part of the governor's office to better tackle big-picture tasks and long-term projects.
"Also, the answers are not all in Montpelier; the answers are in our communities," said Markowitz. "I would want to put in place mission-based managers and take the politics out of this, and put people first."
A mother asked the panel what they would tell her autistic son when he learns he can no longer live on his own in the community, due to lack of support.
All candidates said they wouldn't let that happen.
"I wish that Gov. Jim Douglas and Brian Dubie were hear to answer your question," said Racine, to loud applause.
Lt. Gov. Brian Dubie, the sole Republican candidate for governor, was invited to attend but declined. He has chosen not to engage in public forums until after the Democratic primary.
Dubie also declined to answer questions posed by the council so that they could be posted for members to read at a later date.