Vermont governor, main challenger outline visions in debate

Republican Gov. Phil Scott said Thursday he would not seek to raise taxes or fees to help the Vermont state government cope with an expected economic shortfall in next year’s state budget caused by the coronavirus pandemic.

In a radio debate with his Democratic challenger in the November election, Lt. Gov. David Zuckerman, Scott said the looming fiscal challenge is a time for a return to the economic fundamentals. Since he took office, Scott has said his priorities have been protecting the state's most vulnerable while promoting economic growth.

“I think the Legislature usually takes a knee-jerk reaction and raises taxes when money is tight,” Scott said the debate broadcast by Vermont Public Radio. “But I think that’s the easy way out. This isn’t the time to increase the burden on Vermonters."

Scott had proposed a 5% across-the-board budget cut to balance this year’s budget before the state learned that it could weather the current fiscal year relatively easily.

Zuckerman said a 5% cut would have fallen disproportionately on human services, which helps Vermont's neediest. He proposed using a rainy day to cover any shortfall.

He also said the state could use a technique developed by former Republican Gov. Richard Snelling, “who, when times are tight, said we can lean on our wealthiest Vermonters to say ‘let’s help us get through these difficult times.'”

“We need to make sure we do not do an austerity budget that cuts support for our most vulnerable, that will cut the services they need, that will cut the future out from our children,” Zuckerman said.

Scott, 62, of Berlin, is a former construction executive seeking his third two-year term as governor. The only statewide Republican office-holder in a heavily Democratic state, Scott is regularly critical of President Donald Trump and he supports some positions favored by Democrats, including reproductive rights.

Zuckerman, 49, a Hinesburg farmer, was first elected lieutenant governor in 2016 after serving for years in the state Senate and House. While he won the Democratic nomination in Vermont's August primary, he has long been known as a member of the state's Progressive Party.

Zuckerman praised Scott for some of his positions, including his handling of the pandemic and signing in 2018 Vermont's first significant restrictions on gun ownership. But Zuckerman criticized Scott for vetoing a bill that would have required a 24-hour waiting period for the purchase of handguns.

Scott said he didn't think the 24-hour waiting period would have been effective in reducing gun violence, especially suicides.

While they differed on the details on how to achieve the goals, they both agreed on the need to confront global warming and work to end what they see as “systemic racism” in policing.