Lt. Gov. candidates debate health care, guns, carbon taxes

MONTPELIER, Vt. — As candidates for Vermont’s next lieutenant governor met to debate hot issues, Democrats called for gun control, carbon taxes and universal government health care, while the sole Republican stood opposed to all three.

On Thursday night at the Kellogg-Hubbard Library, three Democrats and one Republican met to debate issues that will be on most minds come the November election. The Democrats were state Sen. David Zuckerman, state Rep. Kesha Ram, and former Speaker of the House Shap Smith. Randy Brock, a former state auditor and senator, was the lone Republican.

As candidates debated enacting universal health care, Brock wasted no time getting down to dollars and cents.

“I want to share a secret with you: We don’t have any money. Who’s going to pay for all this?” Brock asked.

“That is a critical question that we need to answer because we don’t even know at this point what these kinds of programs are going to cost. We’ve seen proposals by the advocates for universal primary care that have included ranges from $250 million to I believe $415 million per year.”

While Democrats this year aren’t interested in reviving Gov. Peter Shumlin’s failed $2.6 billion single-payer plan, some candidates have endorsed stepping stones to single-payer ranging from universal primary care to expansion of Dr. Dynasaur, a Medicaid program for kids and pregnant women.

All three democrats promptly endorsed universal healthcare. Smith said he would like to expand Dr. Dynasaur program to include young adults ages 18 to 26. Zuckerman said universal care could create savings by catching health problems early, before they require an emergency room visit. Ram said health care should focus more on substance abuse and psychological evaluations.

On gun rights, all three Democrats said they would support universal background checks. Smith and Ram added they would ban guns in bars and take away guns of people accused of domestic violence — policies that rankle gun owners and have failed to move beyond Burlington’s failed charter changes.

Zuckerman suggested anything is on the table, including regulation of semi-automatic magazine capacity. However, he said none of his gun control views would stop a law-abiding Vermonter buy or shoot firearms.

“None of those things stop any U.S. or Vermont citizen from getting the gun they want if they don’t have that criminal background record,” Zuckerman said.

Brock said he opposes new gun laws and commented that the term “assault rifle” lacks definition and is inconsistent from state to state. He said banning weapons would likely lead to the creation of a black market.

The carbon tax, which environmentalists say is necessary to fight global warming, exposed another rift between Democrats and Republicans. The tax, which would be imposed on heating oil, gasoline, diesel, natural gas and propane, stands to raise $500 million a year by 2028.

Brock blasted the idea that the tax would harm Vermonters and the economy.

“Having a carbon tax as an individual state will mean that Vermont’s reputation as a place that is not welcoming to business and business expansion will increase,” he said. “For people who live in rural areas — like my constituents in Enosburg and Richford, who have to drive 40 or 50 miles per day to Essex or elsewhere to work one way — a carbon tax will be devastating.”

Brock doubted the carbon tax would be redistributed back to the public via tax credits, as is often claimed.

“Based on your past experience, I ask you: do you believe that in fact is going to happen?” he said.

The Democrats spoke favorably of a carbon tax proposal.

“If we don’t take steps to look at what our economy is going to be in the future, then we’ve got our heads buried in the sand,” Zuckerman said.

Zuckerman, an organics farmer from Hinesburg, blamed global warming both for dramatic rain and dry periods at his farm.

Ram said she supports the tax, claiming it would grow jobs, keep money in the state and reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

“A carbon future is not a reality,” Ram said. “We have to shape the change before the change shapes us.”

She added that people need to get away from “single-occupancy vehicles” and home heating fuels. She said a carbon tax effort should include regional states and Vermont, but added that energy efficiency might be a better policy if Vermont is forced to act alone.

Smith called global warming “the existential threat of our time,” adding that carbon pricing is the “most effective way to deal with climate change.”

He said the tax should be looked at if it can be done in conjunction with other states. He said he’s meeting with leaders of neighboring states to discuss collective action.

The candidates tackled lesser issues as well. Zuckerman said marijuana legalization would help spur on Vermont’s economy, and Ram doubled down on her support for Black Lives Matter, despite recent controversies and anti-police violence swirling around the racially charged movement.

Brock called on Vermont to develop more niche industries like the state’s thriving captive insurance industry, and Smith encouraged greater focus on Vermont’s technical schools.

Contact Michael Bielawski at mbielawski@watchdog.org

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