Shumlin, Milne go head-to-head in debate

SOUTH BURLINGTON — Vermont Gov. Peter Shumlin and his Republican challenger, Scott Milne, sounded familiar chords Wednesday evening in their first one-on-one debate.

None of the other five gubernatorial candidates, including Libertarian Dan Feliciano or Liberty Union Party nominee Peter Diamondstone, was included in the hour-long event televised live by WCAX.

Gov. Peter Shumlin (left) and Republican challenger Scott Milne participate in a televised debate at WCAX studios in South Burlington on Wednesday night. Photo by Hilary Niles/VTDigger

Gov. Peter Shumlin (left) and Republican challenger Scott Milne participate in a televised debate at WCAX studios in South Burlington on Wednesday night. Photo by Hilary Niles/VTDigger

Wednesday’s was the second of the day for Shumlin and Milne, following a Web-streamed session with the Burlington Free Press. With two more to go this week, the candidates were less than energetic, but not tired enough to veer from their respective messages.

Shumlin emphasized what he believes is the need for health care reform to save Vermont’s economic future. Milne called Shumlin’s urgency for single-payer health care “reckless” and “a failed experiment.”

Milne said Shumlin’s record in the state Senate and the governor’s office has left Vermont with a reputation as not being business-friendly. Shumlin touted his record on the economy, citing the state’s low unemployment rate.

Shumlin insisted that the majority of the state enjoys high-speed Internet, despite widespread recognition that the threshold he’s using to define “high-speed” is outdated. He said his accomplishment in administering the largest public-private partnership in state history to build out a telecommunications infrastructure is one of his administration’s greatest successes.

Milne spent more time criticizing Shumlin for “broken promises” — for example, incomplete broadband and cell coverage — than offering his own solutions. Nonetheless, he repeatedly found time to squeeze in criticism of Shumlin’s frequent out-of-state travel, despite having between just 30 seconds and 90 seconds for each response.

The debate was moderated by WCAX evening news anchor and executive producer Kristin Kelly and morning news anchor Steve Bottari. Reporters Kyle Midura and Gina Bullard made appearances from off-set, where they spent the hour scouring Twitter and Facebook for questions from the public.

Shumlin and Milne also had the chance to ask each other questions, and Milne’s shot at Shumlin opened the debate. In the course of a long preamble, he referenced an allegation by former Agency of Human Services Secretary Doug Racine that the governor had not met with him for a year prior to Shumlin’s firing of him in August. This despite the amount of the state budget the agency commands, and despite the summer controversy after the death of two toddlers under supervision of the Department for Children and Families.

Yet his question to Shumlin played like an invitation for the governor’s own campaign pitch. “Can you look at Vermonters and tell them why you think you’d do a better job as governor than Scott Milne,” the Republican from North Pomfret asked. The answer was yes, and Shumlin took his entire allotted time to say it.

The tables turned, and Shumlin asked Milne about his assertions in previous debates that he didn’t like certain legislation that’s passed or been proposed, but if it came to his desk as governor, he would sign it. In a recent debate on Vermont Public Radio, for example, Milne said as much about legalizing marijuana.

Governors have to lead, Shumlin said. "What kind of leadership can Vermonters expect from you?” In keeping with Milne’s measured approach, he said his promise as governor would be to “listen before I act.”

Milne said his willingness to sign legislation he might not support reflects his belief in the priority of local control. If enough legislators respond to constituents by passing a bill, he seemed to say, it’s worth signing.

On school spending and property taxes, Shumlin continued to forward the notion that schools need to be encouraged to find cost-savings to bring their budgets in line with smaller public school enrollments. Milne promoted the idea of a two-year cap on property tax rate increases. He said critics who insist that approach would shift costs to local communities are “uninformed.”

They exchanged a brief round of barbed banter about which candidate understands education finance less, but otherwise the debate maintained a fairly cordial tone.

From the moderator’s seat, Kelly had to remind Milne at one point that the question he had been asked was about his own proposed solutions to the ever-rising costs of health care. He never quite mustered a response beyond characterizing Shumlin’s plan as “reckless” one more time.

"It’s not enough to simply tear plans down,” Shumlin responded. "Leadership is about solving the problems.”

A woman named Kelly Bradley on Facebook lamented that the state does not do enough to make Vermont a financially viable place to live. “Instead they come up with more laws, more taxes, more fines, and they wonder why no one wants to stay,” she wrote.

Shumlin responded in much the same way he summed up his closing remarks.

“We’ve got a lot to do coming out of the recession,” he said. Vermont’s high school graduates need to acquire more skills through post-secondary education to bolster the state’s workforce and make businesses successful, he said. The lakes and environment must be protected, health care needs to become affordable to keep from “bankrupting” residents and businesses, and climate change technology should be ramped up as an industry and a response to climate change, Shumlin said.

In one of Milne’s more succinct moments, he responded to Bradley by saying, “My vision is a governor that doesn’t make promises that end up broken.” In his closing remarks, Milne invoked the memory of his mother, Marion Milne, co-founder of the family business Milne Travel and a three-term state legislator who died in August.

"I’m naive enough to believe that I can make a difference,” Milne said, repeating her campaign theme. He said as governor, he would bring a more moderate direction and balance to Montpelier.

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Hilary Niles

About Hilary

Hilary Niles joined VTDigger in June 2013 as data specialist and business reporter. She returns to New England from the Missouri School of Journalism in Columbia, where she completed her master's coursework. While there, she worked at Investigative Reporters & Editors and covered state and local government for radio, print and the Web. She’s been a researcher-in-residence at American University’s Investigative Reporting Workshop in Washington, D.C.; a reporter and community radio program director in the New Hampshire; and, in Boston, a public radio producer. She studied English at the University of New Hampshire and documentary writing at the Salt Institute for Documentary Studies in Maine.

Email: [email protected]

Follow Hilary on Twitter @nilesmedia

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