BRATTLEBORO—With the elections less than two weeks away, 10 candidates responded to questions about human rights in Vermont during a forum held as part of a statewide discussion on building a new Vermont economy.
The candidates had 90 seconds each to answer big questions on healthcare, workers’ rights, supporting Deaf students and adults in the wake of Austine School’s closure, and climate change.
Ahead of the elections, the Vermont Worker’s Center (VWC) — with organizations such as 350VT.org and the Vermont Center for Independent Living — held a series of forums across the state.
The Brattleboro forum attracted 10 of Windham County’s more than 20 candidates to the Marlboro College Graduate Center on Oct. 14.
The Democratic candidate for the Windham-5 House seat, Emily Long of Newfane, could not attend but sent a written statement boiling down to, yes, we agree, and yes, we will support.
However, when it came to the nitty-gritty of how-will-we-do-it, overall, candidates’ responses contained light details.
VWC member and event co-moderator Spoon Agave outlined the organizers’ united vision for Vermont:
People have the right to justice, dignity, and well-being, he said. Food, shelter, comprehensive health care, a healthy environment, and meaningful work are all human rights.
The state is experiencing a human rights crisis, Agave continued. How will its legislators solve problems such as access to health care, lack of labor rights, budget cuts, and climate change without pitting people’s needs against one another?
According to Agave’s statement, the organizers wanted state legislators to develop an equitable tax to fund health care, transition the state to a sustainable economy, support better labor rights and dignity in the workplace, and ground economic development in preserving and sustaining the environment.
The first question posed to the candidates: Do you support publicly financed health care through a progressive tax and build a plan that will help Vermonters overcome obstacles to care?
Yes, the candidates said.
Rep. Mollie Burke, P/D-Brattleboro, attended the forum although she is running unopposed. Burke said that the state’s new health care system should also cover alternative medicine.
Also running unopposed is Rep. Michael Mrowicki, D-Putney, who reminded the audience that Vermont is only in Phase 1 of a long transformation.
Vermont is reforming health insurance, he said. Next comes healthcare reform.
Incumbent Sen. Jeanette White, D-Windham, said health-care should include “above-the-neck [mental health services] and below-the-neck” care as well as dental and vision plans.
None of this will happen, she warned, if Gov. Peter Shumlin loses his bid for re-election. Opponents of health care reform will use his loss as an excuse to say Vermonters don’t want to change healthcare funding.
Aaron Diamondstone, Liberty Union candidate for state senate, summed up many of his responses that evening:
There should be no profits in healthcare; the state needs to develop a socialized system. “Capitalism is going to drive us all to extinction,” he said.
Fellow Liberty Union state senate candidate Jerry Levy strongly agreed, saying that the state needs to develop a cradle-to-grave social system that does away with health insurance companies and institutes a progressive tax that addresses income inequality.
“Where are our resources, who has them, and are we really willing to share?” he asked.
The second question asked whether the candidates support incentives to encourage employers to hire people with disabilities. All answered yes.
White circled back to health care, saying that severing healthcare coverage from employment gives employers more flexibility in hiring people with disabilities.
Rep. Tristan Toleno, D-Brattleboro, who is running unopposed, qualified his support for hiring incentives.
The point is to change the business culture, he said. “Make it easier for people to do the right thing.”
Diamondstone stressed decoupling Vermont’s income tax from the federal government and guaranteeing workers a minimum and maximum income.
Levy said, “We need a legislative commitment in the state that we’ll wipe out poverty.”
He added, “Where there’s commitment, there’s resources.”
Independent House candidate Deborah Wright of Rockingham said that incentives should include funding to support employers taking the time to work with and train new employees.
Wright is running against Democratic incumbents Carolyn Partridge of Windham and Matthew Trieber of Rockingham in the Windham-3 district.
There were a variety of responses to the next question: Under Vermont law, the state budget must be a people’s budget that addresses people’s needs and equity. How will the candidates prevent budget cuts that pit people’s needs against each other?
The candidates agreed they would oppose budget cuts that hurt people, especially any of the state’s most vulnerable. The five incumbent candidates added that they couldn’t do it without citizens’ support.
Many advocates only focus on one issue, said Mrowicki. The Vermont Legislature has 25 committees, each overseeing a portion of budget.
He advised the audience look beyond focused advocacy to a bigger, interconnected budget picture.
Becca Balint of Brattleboro, an educator and Democratic candidate for state senate, said that when problem solving in schools, educators always place students at the center of the equation. She pledged to put citizens at the center of all her work if elected to the Senate.
Incumbent John Moran, D-Wardsboro, said that Montpelier builds its budget through a siloed system. It starts with how much money it has and then allocates it.
Instead, said Moran, the state should start with needs and allocate from there.
Moran is challenged in this election by two independent candidates from Dover: Laura Sibilia and Philip Gilpin Jr. Neither attended the forum.
Wright said that she heard a lot of “nos” from the incumbents.
“I want to find away to get to yes,” she said, then pledged to “turn the budget on its head” and start with funding those who need services the most.
Wright added that she would “hunt down” program redundancies and shift funding from unnecessary programs to needed ones.
Mary Hasson of Brattleboro, an independent candidate for state senate, said the state was facing a substantial budget deficit.
“Programs are going to be cut,” she said.
Hasson ran for state senate in 2012 as Mary Cain.
The incumbents have contributed to the budget problems in Montpelier. If reelected they’ll do it again, Hasson warned.
Referencing the Vermont Constitution, Hasson said that Montpelier is supposed to be frugal but has moved away from that.
“We are in for really difficult times,” she said.
Whoever is elected to the statehouse will have to do the impossible, Hasson said.
She added that she’s done the impossible, and so have most of the members of the audience.
Question No. 4: Since the Austine School has closed, what would you do to help the 650 students served by the Vermont Center for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing and help the Deaf community get its school and culture back?
This garnered the greatest variety of answers from the candidates.
Mrowicki said that he, White, and Moran had warned management at Austine for years that it needed to “rightsize” the school and watch its finances.
Education philosophy in Vermont values not separating students because of differences, he said. The Deaf and Hard of Hearing communities also debate specialized schooling versus mainstreaming.
“It’s not a simple situation, Mrowicki said.
Mrowicki said he’s happy to work with anyone on the issue of the Austine School, but movement forward needs to consider how to use resources to the benefit of everyone.
“Vermont is failing these 650 children,” Wright said. “I’m ashamed and appalled.”
The state should have found a solution to preserve Austine and provide a space for Deaf culture, she added.
“Mainstreaming education is setting them up to fail,” Wright said.
Hasson, who has often advocated for the Austine School, said that the Deaf community “hear that we’re not listening.”
The 14 members of the Austine board of directors failed the Deaf community, she continued. The board did not oversee the grants it received and failed to protect the Deaf community’s civil rights.
If elected, Hasson said, “right beside me will be an interpreter. I would cut my salary in half” to pay an interpreter, she said.
A legislator’s annual salary is $10,600, Mrowicki said.
The candidates gave their emphatic support to a question regarding dignity in the workplace, including policies around livable wages, paid sick leave, and the right to collective bargaining.
Balint, who serves on SeVEDS workforce development committee, said that the county needs workforce development at all levels.
A longtime supporter of workers’ rights, Moran listed his efforts on employment policy, most recently a paid sick time bill — that did not make it out of the House —- and raising the minimum wage.
Wright, a business owner, said she agreed, but pointed out that 60 percent of businesses in Vermont have fewer than 20 employees. The state has to change its business climate and not overburden businesses with taxes.
Unless that part of the system changes, she said, most businesses won’t have any money to pay workers more.
The final question posed to candidates: How will the candidates transition Vermont to a sustainable economy, and did they support divesting the state’s pension funds from fossil fuels as an effort to combat climate change?
Everyone but Levy said yes. Levy called divestment “too little, too late” and said the state must develop a mass-transit system that uses less energy and emits less carbon dioxide.
Diamondstone, in support of divestment, said he recognized in the early 1980s that “the country and world were on a collision course of fate” regarding climate change.
Conservation and reducing energy consumption, however, is the biggest step toward slowing climate change, he added.
Balint cautioned against “holier than thou” attitudes that she suggested Vermonters often adopt. Some who live in the country feel superior because their houses are off the grid, she said. Meanwhile, people living in town feel superior because they can walk to the store.
“The truth is, we all have an impact and we all need to own that,” Balint said.
Wright said she was “appalled” that the state, despite its eco-friendly talk, did not invest its workers’ pension money in eco-friendly funds.
Wright said that, if elected, she would create a document for municipalities to shift to 30 percent sustainable energy within five years.
While it is good that individuals are changing their energy-use habits, she said, getting municipalities to change first will make piggybacking on renewable energy programs easier for everyone else.
Mrowicki said Treasurer Beth Pierce has created an option for state employees to choose carbon-free investment funds.
“We can do more,” he said.