In the final two weeks of the election season, candidates for Georgia’s lone seat in the Vermont House offered their views on everything from Act 46 to the opioid epidemic at a forum co-sponsored by Lake Champlain Access Television and the Milton Independent.
Democrat Caroline Bright and Republican Carl Rosenquist sat down with LCATV executive director Kevin Christopher for a 30-minute Q&A in LCATV’s Colchester studio last Tuesday, Oct. 25. They answered questions from Christopher, the Independent and several submitted by viewers.
At 26, Bright said she would bring a fresh perspective to Montpelier, where the average age of a legislator is 69 – a stark contrast to that of the average Vermonter, who, at age 34, could stand to be better reflected in the State House, Bright argued.
Meanwhile, Rosenquist offered his decades of private sector experience, including managing the former Wyeth Nutritionals plant in Georgia for 17 years, as qualification for the job. He said his time managing employees and building budgets would improve Vermont’s business climate.
Both candidates agreed on a top priority: Act 46. The landmark legislation law that asks schools to merge into more cost effective structures by 2019 needs fixing, they said, echoing fellow Georgians’ concerns that high school choice be preserved for the K-8 district here.
“I have attended Georgia public schools; I have benefited from school choice,” Bright said. “Expanded school choice statewide has some intriguing possibilities as well.”
The forum took place two days before Franklin West Supervisory Union’s Act 46 study committee voted unanimously last Thursday to disband after 10 months of work. The 10-member group of representatives from Georgia, Fairfax and Fletcher agreed there was no clear path to unification for the three FWSU schools. Georgia hopes to prove its district is viable as-is, despite its average daily membership falling just short of the state’s 900-student threshold.
While they largely agreed on Act 46, Bright and Rosenquist sharply differed in their thinking about a livable wage.
“I’m not a proponent of a minimum or livable wage,” Rosenquist said. “Market forces should drive what people earn and not be set by the government or some bureaucratic process.”
Vermont’s minimum wage is $9.60 an hour with planned increases to $10 in January 2017 and $10.50 in 2018. Democratic gubernatorial candidate Sue Minter proposed raising the minimum wage to $12.50 an hour by 2018, gradually increasing to $15 an hour, which Rosenquist argued would adversely affect small businesses and prevent them from hiring more people.
Bright strongly disagreed and questioned Rosenquist’s assertion that most minimum wage jobs are held by teenagers or college students.
“There are many, many, many people who are supporting their families working the jobs that are available to them with the educational level or the experience that they have,” Bright countered. “My basic philosophy is, if you are going to work 40 hours a week … you should be able to support yourself and your family on the salary that you earn.”
On Vermont Health Connect, the candidates partially agreed – the failed rollout was “disastrous,” which Bright attributed to a lack of understanding of technology and its limits.
“Vermont Health Connect is theoretically a great idea,” she said, noting her mother – a small business owner with no health insurance through her job – relied on the system while recovering from a stroke several months ago. “It is absolutely critical that we have affordable health care available to every single Vermonter.”
Rosenquist, though, called for Vermont to move to the federal exchange. As Georgia’s state rep, he would work to expand competition from out-of-state insurers to lower healthcare plan costs and prevent an all-payer system.
“This is certainly not a new venture that I think Vermont should try to take on,” he said of the model.
He also unequivocally opposed a carbon tax, calling the idea “a preposterous proposal” given what he termed the state’s affordability crisis. A carbon tax would also drive people out of state, he argued.
Bright said a carbon tax would be unfair to Vermonters who require oil to heat their homes through the long, cold winters and gas to commute to work. She said she would oppose the tax due to its regressive nature, but was intrigued by alternatives like a reduced sales tax to offset such a cost should it come to fruition.
Both candidates struggled to offer concrete suggestions for tackling Vermont’s opiate epidemic, though the issue hit close to home for Bright.
“I can think off the top of my head of five friends who I’ve known who have either gone to rehab or gone to prison or who have tragically died of a drug overdose,” she said.
To her, the issue is multifaceted and not as simple as “provide jobs and then people won’t use drugs.”
Rosenquist said the state should focus on education and prevention, similar to the way the robust anti-smoking campaign dissuaded people from using tobacco.
“We need to educate our youth that it is really a mistake to even experiment,” he said.
In closing, the contenders offered contrasting views on the state of the state.
Rosenquist bemoaned Vermont’s “over-regulation, over-taxation and runaway spending,” accusing lawmakers of balancing budgets with “smoke and mirrors” and beginning every fiscal year in a deficit.
“Our children are moving out of state,” he said. “They just can’t afford to live here anymore.”
Though Bright agreed affordability was an issue, she had a different take.
“I’m 26 – I’m choosing to live in Vermont … I want to raise a family in the town that I grew up in,” she said, citing IRS statistics she said refute the idea of a mass exodus of young people from the state. “Roughly the same number of people are moving to Vermont as are leaving Vermont.”
In Montpelier, Bright would work to enact laws that “treat people fairly” and provide “equal access to resources and opportunities,” she said, while Rosenquist pledged to make Vermont more business friendly and address constituents’ economic concerns.
Voters head to the polls Tuesday, Nov. 8, when Franklin-1 voters cast their ballots from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. at Georgia Elementary and Middle School.