There were jabs but no real punches thrown in the second debate between Milton’s own Don Turner and Lt. Gov. David Zuckerman, both candidates for the second-highest statewide office.
Turner, the Republican House minority leader, and Democrat/Progressive incumbent Zuckerman faced off in the jointly sponsored Vermont Public Radio-Vermont Public Television debate last Wednesday, Oct. 10.
The hourlong debate featured three rounds, each giving Turner and Zuckerman 60 seconds to answer questions posed by moderator Peter Hirschfeld of VPR, by constituents and by one another.
The candidates’ differences were perhaps most evident in discussing property taxes and education funding. Both agreed taxes and education spending are high – particularly because schools are providing more social services than ever before, they said – but disagreed on how to fix it.
Zuckerman said wealthy Vermonters don’t pay their fair share and noted he supports a measure to equalize the tax rate for all residents. Later in the debate, Zuckerman said he regretted voting against creating Act 60, which set up the present-day education funding system based on property values, in the late ’90s.
“Do I think it could be improved? Absolutely, but it actually is the longest standing formula we’ve had in the state,” he said. “It’s withstood the test of time. It of course needs some adjustments … maybe different adjustments from the two of us.”
Turner said the state’s student population is declining and suggested the current funding mechanism is unfair and unsustainable. He said Vermont’s high per pupil spending has resulted in only moderate student outcomes, an assertion Zuckerman rebutted.
“We need to find ways to find efficiencies within our education system,” Turner continued, positing paraprofessionals, teachers, classrooms and technology should be shared among multiple schools.
Later, a viewer asked how the candidates would improve Vermont’s economy. Turner said Vermont needs to be more affordable to live and do business to draw people to the state.
“We can’t expect people to come here if they can’t stay here to make a living,” he said.
Zuckerman spoke to this point later on, saying Vermont needs to build broadband and institute paid family leave instead of harping on the education system.
“That won’t draw family-aged people to Vermont,” he said. “[Broadband and paid leave] are the kinds of policies that will actually draw people to Vermont, not rhetoric about how hard it is to be here.”
Another sparring point was on partisanship and whether either candidate has worked to strengthen party lines or make them more flexible. Both candidates agreed Vermont politics have gotten more partisan and defended their efforts to undo the divide.
Turner said Zuckerman’s office has become more partisan, noting he wasn’t invited to discuss legislation there until the pair ended up working on a marijuana tax-and-regulate effort at last session’s end. Zuckerman refuted the characterization, saying he regularly features guests from other parties on his weekly town hall sessions on Facebook Live.
The topic resurfaced when Turner and Zuckerman questioned one another. Turner asked Zuckerman to name three bills he’d cosponsored with Republicans over the last 20 years as a lawmaker. Zuckerman named cannabis, water quality, farm-to-plate and marriage equality as tri-partisan efforts, but the answer didn’t seem to satisfy Turner.
On his turn, Zuckerman asked Turner to clarify how Turner works across party lines when he “led the partisan divide” after Republican Gov. Phil Scott threatened a budget veto at the end of last session. Turner was one of 14 Republicans to vote no.
“If the majority was going to raise the taxes we had to stand strong,” Turner said. “We worked with the administration. I was clear with the speaker: If the taxes were going to go up, then I would not support the budget.”
“But a majority did support the budget, even in your own caucus, even after all that,” Zuckerman challenged.
“They all stood together and sustained the veto as well,” Turner replied.
“In a partisan manner,” Zuckerman said.
From there, Turner asked his opponent about his support for a carbon tax. Zuckerman qualified that, saying he’d be in favor as long as Vermonters living in rural areas or with long commutes are “held whole,” perhaps by getting a dividend from the tax revenue.
Turner said he believes in climate change but doesn’t think it’s realistic for Vermont to source 90 percent of its energy from renewables by 2050 since it would require costly government subsidies. He thinks Vermonters should have more local control on large scale wind and solar projects.
The debate also touched on the opiate crisis, helping dairy farmers, water quality and more. In closing, neither candidate would say whether he aspires to be Vermont’s governor one day, both saying they’re focused on their current campaigns.
As of October 1, Turner has outspent Zuckerman by nearly $74,000, campaign finance records filed with the Vt. Secretary of State show. Turner has raised $191,500 and spent just under $98,300, and Zuckerman has raised $117,700 and spent just over $72,000.
Early voting is now open for the Nov. 6 election.