Voters in the Grand Isle Chittenden district will choose two of the four candidates running for a House seat in the general election November 6. Ahead of the vote, the Milton Independent posed three questions to Democrat incumbents Mitzi Johnson and Ben Joseph of the Islands and Republican challengers Lee and Michael Morgan of Milton, giving them 500 words to split between their responses.
Here are our questions; the candidates’ answers follow.
What is your strategy to balance the state budget? What taxes or fees, if any, would you be willing to increase? What services, if any, would you cut?
Vermont legalized recreational marijuana last legislative session. Should the state tax and regulate it — why or why not?
Is the state doing enough to clean up Lake Champlain? Explain.
Editor’s note: Responses edited only for newspaper style.
MITZI JOHNSON Democrat, Incumbent
- Since the recession, we’ve made tough decisions to balance the budget each year, but I’m happy to report the state budget is balanced and even better, now running a surplus. Yes, you read that right! We’ve worked over the last five years to bring down spending and make the budget sustainable. The legislature is working with state employees to reduce inefficiencies through LEAN process management – with more work to do – and do a better job investing Vermonters’ money where we get results. If re-elected, my first budget priority will be continuing the work of finding efficiencies. Second, I’ll make sure we don’t kick the can down the road. Some of the surplus is a 1-2 year windfall from federal corporate taxes. That means we need to use it on 1 or 2 year expenses, like extra money for weatherization to reduce fuel costs, paying down state debt to save interest charges, or catching up on deferred maintenance for state buildings and infrastructure. I don’t want Vermonters stuck paying for on-going costs in a year or two when that federal money dries up.
- It’s a tough question. The governor’s year-long task force on tax and regulate has recommendations due in December. I’ve learned in eight states and D.C. where voters legalized via referendum, those legislatures then decided to regulate it for better surveillance, monitoring, safety reasons, and to undermine the underground market where buyers might also be introduced to more addictive drugs, or get marijuana that’s tainted with something lethal, like fentanyl. I’m concerned about highway safety and increasing kids’ access with the current unregulated, home-grow situation, but we had those problems before legalization, too! If we had more money, the first places I’d invest in are enforcement, more prevention, highway safety, and because teens’ riskiest behaviors happen afterschool, I’d put more money into afterschool programming.
- No, we’re not doing enough yet to clean up the lake! I support long-term, sustainable solutions. A healthy Lake Champlain is critical for our regional and state economy, drinking water, quality of life, and future environmental quality. You may hear candidates give vague answers about finding money within current resources, but that won’t get the job done. Sounds good, but we’ve already done that. Treasurer Beth Pearce did a great job scrubbing $25 million from current resources to begin clean-up. That money will soon be used up on projects that just scratch the surface of what’s needed to stop the flow of phosphorus into the lake and rivers from municipal, agricultural and residential sources. The EPA is watching closely. We risk heavy fines and having the EPA take control if we don’t significantly reduce pollution. For people questioning “But can we afford that?” I would ask, how much would a new water source cost for Milton and the Champlain Water District? What happens to our economy and property values if tourism and recreation dry up? And what would we say if years from now our grandchildren or great grandchildren ask “Why didn’t you do more?”
BEN JOSEPH Democrat, Incumbent
- In order to keep the budget balanced, I would rely more on the progressive state income tax as opposed to residential property taxes. Vermonters making more than $200,000 per year have just been given a dramatic reduction in their federal income taxes. The total reduction amounts to $239 million per year. We should raise the state income tax on annual incomes of more than $200,000 just enough to take that $239 million and use it, among other things, to clean up Lake Champlain, reduce taxes on residential properties, and provide child care services for working parents. I do not think that residents who were paying this money to the federal government will leave Vermont because they will now have to pay the same amount to the state.
- The commercialization of recreational marijuana sales will result in increased use of the drug. As a result, there will be more deaths and injuries on our roads and increased instances of addiction and mental health problems.
- The state is not doing enough to clean up Lake Champlain. A real clean up would cost at least $35 million per year for 25 years. The lake is our most valuable asset. We should act now to save it.
LELAND MORGAN Republican
- A balanced budget is a budget in which revenues equal expenditures. We are at a point in Vermont where we can no longer keep trying to balance it by continually taking money from the taxpayers of Vermont to pay for a continual increase in expenditures. We can no longer afford increased taxes, fees, surcharges and new taxes. A new tax that our present representatives want to see is the carbon tax! It would increase the price of gasoline by as much as 88 cents per gallon; the price of coal, diesel, kerosene, propane and others would also increase drastically. Just think about how that will affect the economy within the state of Vermont and the people that live in it. It is essential that politicians stop taxing and start cutting back on spending within the state government. It may not be necessary to cut services, but it is necessary for the government to really get serious and reduce spending.
- Vermont legalized recreational marijuana last legislative session (I would have voted no.) I certainly would be in favor of regulating it-highly regulating it. Remember, it is still against federal law. Taxing it? No new taxes! Alcohol and cigarettes cause enough sickness, abuse, neglect, heartbreak and death. Did we really need to add another substance to the list?
- The answer to this question is no. The state has spent millions of dollars on cleaning up Lake Champlain. Most of the money goes into studies and discussions, but no action is ever taken. The cities and towns continually have problems with treatment plants and millions of gallons of raw sewage keep going into the lake. We are always told that environmental issues stem from farming, yet less than 40 percent of pollution comes from farms. Water can’t soak into millions of acres of asphalt. Millions of acres of nice green lawns cannot absorb all the fertilizers. Treated water flows into the rivers and lake every day and that is water far from clean. The state has to make a long, long term plan and enact it. Until some new technology is invented the water will never be perfect but we can improve upon what we presently have. Lake Champlain is a very valuable resource for Grand Isle County, West Milton and the rest of Vermont. We must protect and improve it.
MIKE MORGAN Republican
- Our state’s politicians need to realize that we are no longer able to continue to elevate taxes, fees and surcharges (all technically taxes) on its citizens. Ninety percent plus of our citizens are not able to live with the current exponential climb of taxation that is being levied upon them. The hard-working citizens that make up the bulk of our workforce are essentially asked to go to work for less net income every subsequent near. This can’t continue! We are breaking the backs of the average Vermonter. As I canvass our district, I have yet to speak with anyone that feels that the current rate of taxation is affordable to them. In fact, just today, as I write this, I spoke with a Vermonter that has successfully run two lucrative businesses here. He would like to continue doing business here with his talents, but like many, he is heavily considering departing Vermont for the southern states of the country and conduct business where it is cheaper to do so. It is no mystery that many have done so and are continuing to do such while our state shutters business after business. What a shame that we have to take a native of the state that has provided good quality jobs for its citizens and make him not welcome here any longer due to our tax burden!
- As most know, small-scale home use/possession of marijuana became legal in our state in the last legislative session. It is simple for me. No new taxes means no new taxes. Let’s leave it alone where it is and not go any further (I would have voted no on the initial bill.) I have heard from many that give me the “Well, it’s no worse than alcohol” argument. Although that may be very true, why would we want to compound problems and widen the spectrum of issues associated with mind-altering substances? Don’t we already have enough ruined lives, families, violence and other associated problems in our society? Do we really want to compound the response that law enforcement is already swamped with, by additional concerns being thrown into the mix?
- Lake Champlain and her associated waters that flow into it are vital to the five Grand Isle County towns and the town of Milton. All six communities rely on these waterways for recreation, drinking water and a source of tourist revenue. Many are quick to point the blame of our pollution issues on our friends and family in the agricultural business. But, in fact, less than 40 percent of lake contamination is due to agriculture. We need to take the monies we have and start acting with solutions instead of constantly “studying and looking into” the problem. Why is it that certain larger communities in the state consistently dump millions of gallons of raw sewage into the lake with no consequences or penalties to mitigate the damage done? We need to get to the root of where all the other run-off is coming from.