The two major-party candidates for Lieutenant Governor stood their ground and clearly articulated their positions in their first debate this morning. Incumbent Republican Phil Scott and Prog/Dem Dean Corren debated on WDEVs Mark Johnson Show, broadcasting from a windy, chilly Tunbridge World’s Fair.
Scott and Corren provided the voters with a clear choice… although the Scott option involves his usual bobbing and weaving on the issues. But that’s Phil Scott, and he said as much in his closing statement: if you like the job I’ve been doing, I promise two more years of the same. Corren made a strong, understandable case for his progressive agenda, particularly single-payer health care.
Neither candidate made any notable stumbles. If you went in a Phil Scott fan, you almost certainly left as one. Ditto Dean Corren. Undecideds were given a lot to think about, and a clear choice between two contrasting styles and philosophies.
I also have to say a word on behalf of host/moderator Mark Johnson. He conducted the proceedings without a hard-and-fast format, which often results in a stilted faux-conversation; instead, Johnson was able to maintain a flow and pursue follow-up questions as he saw fit.
The first half of the debate was dominated by health care reform, and especially whether to
pursue single-payer. That was to Corren’s advantage; since he has a clear position.
He began with the fiscal case for single-payer. He argued that single-payer would be simpler than the former or current system, and far better for controlling health care costs. It will require new taxes, he acknowledged, but the current system is extremely burdensome; single-payer will reduce the overall burden. As Lieutenant Governor, he would be an advocate for single-payer, communicating its virtues and being a “watchdog” to ensure that the details are done correctly.
Cost control efforts have failed, Corren argued, because no one entity has full control over all the costs. If a reform cuts costs in one area, those costs are actually shifted to an unregulated area. Single-payer would allow for a unified effort to cut costs.
Scott remains “skeptical” — his favorite word, as he himself admitted. He wants to see the details before making a decision on single-payer, but he clearly prefers to stick with the current system instead. Which involved a bit of tortured logic: he said that the rollout of Vermont Health Connect has been “disastrous,” but that nonetheless, having a health care exchange “makes sense.”
He also said that reform may be difficult because Vermont is such a small state, and offered the idea of a tri-state insurance “coalition” involving Vermont, New Hampshire, and Maine. Not sure he articulated the advantage of such an approach, but there you go.
Personality and approach: Scott kinda tried to have it both ways — but hey, that’s the way he is. He played up the advantage of his “collaborative” approach but also claimed that “I stick to my guns.” When asked to cite an example of an issue he feels strongly about, he offered the environment and growing the economy. Not a convincing display of passion or principle; everybody is in favor of both. The devil is in the details.
Corren portrayed himself as a strong progressive voice on the issues. As such, he’d be a valuable part of Governor Shumlin’s team. But at the same time, he’d be independent enough to take stands when he sees fit. As such, he argued, he’d be a better “watchdog” over health care reform than Scott because he truly wants it to be successful: “We need a Lieutenant Governor who will work for reform, not be skeptical.”
Party problems: When asked about past differences between Progs and Dems, including his own criticism of the Dems, he said that was all behind him, and asserted that the Democratic Party and the electorate in general have moved to the left, making a better fit between D and P. “I feel very comfortable working with the Democrats,” he said. “I’m proud of what the Democratic majority has done.”
Scott was asked why the Republican Party struggled so much in Vermont. He blamed perceptions of the national party’s stands, especially on social issues. He said the “core of Vermont Republlicanism” was embodied by leaders like George Aiken, Bob Stafford, and Jim Jeffords, and said “We lost that, and we need to refocus.”
Property taxes and school funding: Scott said he was “disappointed in the Legislature” for failing to tackle the issue this year. He said “we need to do it,” but acknowledged that “it’s difficult.” He said that education costs need to be brought under control and acknowledged that might require some school consolidation. But he said it should be on a “case by case basis” instead of an overall mandate.
Corren said the school funding system has hurt the middle class more than anyone; the wealthy pay a smaller proportion on a per capita basis, and income sensitivity eases the burden on poor and working Vermonters. He advocated expanding income sensitivity to the entire populace — which would presumably shift some of the burden upward. He also pointed out that health care is perhaps the biggest driver of school cost increases, and again stumped for single-payer.
Energy. Corren is a strong proponent of developing renewables, including wind. He referred to the “imagined horrors” of living near wind farms, which won’t make him any friends in the Annette Smith camp. He did say that the state should have a clear plan that includes specific areas where wind should be developed and where it should not.
Scott is, to use his favorite word, a wind power “skeptic.” He declared himself a “big proponent of renewable energy,” but emphasized solar power over wind. He repeated his earlier support for a moratorium on new wind projects.
On the Vermont Gas pipeline, Scott tried to have it both ways, expressing his support for the project as a “bridge to the future,” but also supporting a second look at the project by the Public Service Board. Corren declared himself a “skeptic,” saying the economic and environmental benefits of the pipeline are “not proven.”
Children and DCF: Neither candidate had much to offer. Corren said that “problems persist” but acknowledged that he’s “not sure what to do.” Scott said that the Department of Children and Families is full of “good people doing good work,” and wondered if they needed more resources without committing to it. And he returned to his hobby-horse of economic development, arguing that the “affordability crisis” puts more “stress on families.”
Top priorities: As a closing question, Johnson asked each man what they would pledge to do in the next two years.
Corren: He would “work on the details of health care reform, and make sure we have a sustainable plan.” He also promised to work on jobs and development, particularly in the renewable energy sector. He sees that as a major growth opportunity for Vermont.
Scott promised “the same thing as in the past. A collaborative effort to bring people together as a team to move Vermont forward.”
And then, given the last word, he fired a shot at the Democrats. In the last legislative session, he said, there were hundreds of bills, but only about 20 of them had to do with growing the economy. And most of those, he added, failed to pass.
The truth of that assertion probably depends on your definition of bills that have to do with the economy. But Corren didn’t have the chance to respond.
With that, the debate was over. I have to say that, thanks to Johnson’s stellar work as moderator and two candidates who can articulate their positions well, it was one of the more informative debates I’ve ever heard. Too bad there will only be three more, thanks to Phil Scott’s reluctance.