By Rachel Goff
With one week leading up to mid-term elections, on Monday, October 27, The Valley Reporter hosted a forum at Big Picture Theater in Waitsfield so that Valley residents could familiarize themselves with the candidates running to represent them—Washington District 7—in the Vermont Legislature.
The four candidates currently campaigning for the district's two seats are incumbents Maxine Grad (D-Moretown) and Adam Greshin (I-Warren) and challengers Heidi Spear (I-Fayston) and Ed Read (I-Fayston). Washington District 7 includes the towns of Warren, Waitsfield, Fayston, Moretown and Duxbury.
Fayston resident Lauren Kolitch moderated the forum, during which each candidate had 60 seconds to respond to questions the community submitted to The Valley Reporter over the past few weeks and questions from the audience.
In their answers, all four candidates stressed the need to lower property taxes through reforming Vermont's education funding system, often sharing the same views on what many residents have identified as the state's most pressing problem and differing only in why they feel they are the best person to bring about reform in Montpelier.
Today, Vermont's schools are divided up amongst over 60 supervisory unions, which cost the state over $32 million annually. When asked about supervisory union consolidation, Grad said she voted against it when it came before the Legislature last year. Instead of talking about consolidation, Grad said she wants to "switch the conversation" to coming up with a new property tax system based on an individual's ability to pay. "We need income sensitivity for all Vermonters," she said.
When asked about the same issue, Greshin said that supervisory union consolidation would be a good way to cut back on administrative costs. "We have too many buildings and too many people in those buildings," he said. However, the $32 million the state spends on supervisory unions—when compared to the total money spent on education—is a relatively small figure, Greshin said, and there are more factors that need to be taken into consideration when talking about school spending.
Echoing Grad and Greshin, Read said that in reforming Vermont's education funding system, "you have to look at everything," including supervisory unions. All of the candidates agreed that the state needs to determine how much it costs to educate a child and, according to Read, each town "can decide whether they want to spend more than that," he said.
Right now, the state "has not set any limit on what [it] will fund," Spear said, explaining that reforming Vermont's education funding system is one of the major reasons she's running for office. Right now, "the costs are burying us," she said, but she spoke out loudly against the consolidation bill because she believes consolidation has no correlation with spending.
In addition to education funding, something needs to be done about health care, the candidates agreed. When asked about the new single-payer system, Read said he did not believe in it, because "there are simply not enough people in the state of Vermont," he said.
Likewise, "I don't believe it's viable," Spear said of the single-payer system. "It's irresponsible to pursue," she said, explaining that the risk and the tax burden it puts on residents is too high. "We're not a nation. We're just a state," Spear said, and when it comes to health care "we are well outside of our core competency." In pursuing the single-payer system "we're wasting a lot of time and money," Spear said, explaining that she'd rather see Vermonters sign up for healthcare.gov.
Echoing Read and Spear, "I'm very concerned about the costs and about the timing" of the roll-out of the single-payer system, Grad said, explaining that she does not see it happening anytime soon. But unlike Spear, Grad believes "We need to keep working on Vermont Health Connect," she said, as she believes its benefits are greater than those included in the federal health care program.
The single-payers system is a "nice concept," Greshin said, but unlike Grad he believes the state has the ability to provide more health care without decoupling it from employment, he said. Greshin also thinks that Vermont is too small for a single-payer system, because "when you only have two insurance companies in the state, you don't have choice," he said.
Read agreed that there is not enough competition in Vermont for the state to have a single-payer system. Health care "is not a business we should be into," he said, explaining that he would rather see Vermonters sign up for healthcare.gov.
While candidates spent the majority of the forum talking taxes, schools and single-payer systems, they also shared their views on drugs and renewable energy, among other things.
When asked if he favored the legalization of marijuana, Read responded that "at some point it will be legalized... but there's no hurry," he said, explaining that he would rather let other states go first and work out the kinks associated with legalization before Vermont attempts to do the same.
Likewise, "It's good not to be first on this one," Spear said, explaining that she is in favor of legalizing marijuana but thinks more research needs to be done on the effects of such a law.
While Grad supported the legalization of medical marijuana and the decriminalization of the drug when it came to the State House last year, she said she is not in favor of legalization at this time because she wants to know more about the health impacts of marijuana and because she believes Vermont needs to focus on other issues, such as opiate addiction.
For Greshin, the push to legalize marijuana "is being driven by the idea that it's fairly widely used," he said, "and that's not enough of a reason." For Vermont to move forward with legislation right now "would take a very strong argument to convince me," he said.
Opiates, on the other hand, need to be addressed immediately, the candidates agreed. When asked how Vermont can combat its heroin problem, Spear said the state needs to look at how addictions are being formed and if doctors are over-prescribing medications.
When it comes to opiates, the state needs to target and refer users to services, Grad said. Vermont needs to ensure they have equal access to treatment and, "of course, there needs to be more [treatment]," she said.
Echoing Spear, Greshin said that in combating its heroin problem, the state needs to look at prescription methodologies, and Read said Vermont needs "wide-ranging policies" that address opiate addiction.
Switching gears slightly, when asked if commercial wind developments are appropriate for Vermont's mountain tops, Grad said she supported "properly sited" projects.
Greshin, on the other hand, said that commercial wind developments are "appropriate but not in Vermont," explaining that "our ridgelines are too precious."
Agreeing with Greshin, Read said that commercial wind developments in the state are not appropriate, especially if Vermont is trying to push tourism, and Spear said she thinks the state can reject ridgeline projects and still succeed in increasing renewable energy use on the whole.
After Kolitch finished asking the questions community members had submitted for the forum, the audience had their opportunity to step up to the microphone, a few soliciting more specific answers to questions about school supervisory unions and spending.
The question: "Why are you the best person to represent all of us?" came as a precursor to the candidates' closing remarks. In their responses, incumbent candidates Grad and Greshin spoke to the value of their years of experience at the State House and how the relationships they've developed in Montpelier have helped them to become more effective legislators.
As a business owner in The Valley, Greshin said he understands the private sector as well as the public sector, and Grad spoke of her ability to get people of different viewpoints together in a room and "to make government work for individuals," she said.
While they don't have the same level of experience, Read and Spear spoke of their drive to bring about change.
Not only does Read feel connected with the people of The Valley and their needs, "making decisions is what I do," he said, and he feels fortitude has been lacking in Montpelier, especially "to take on the big issues."
One of those big issues is property tax, "which is so complicated," Spear said, that Valley residents need someone like her who really understands it in the State House and who "is willing to rock the boat," she said. "We need more vocal, organized and independent leadership."
For those who could not attend the forum Monday night, a video of the event is available online at mrvtv.com, so that residents can choose the candidates they feel will best represent them in the state Legislature when they go to the polls on Tuesday, November 4.