COLCHESTER — The two Republican candidates for governor had their first televised, head-to-head debate Monday night and sought to immediately air their grievances with each other, but were short on specific plans.
Lt. Gov. Phil Scott and former Wall Street Executive Bruce Lisman used the hour-long Vermont PBS debate as a chance to highlight their ideas and contradict the assertions made by the other. But throughout the debate, neither ventured far from their broad policy ideas into specific plans.
Both candidates offered spoke of using the office to revitalize Vermont’s economy. Curbing state spending and bringing it in line with the state’s economic growth was a broad goal set forth by both men.
“I believe that Vermont has a great future but I believe we need to be realistic and set goals,” Lisman said. “I believe that we need to focus — refocus — on having a revitalized economy and making Vermont more affordable for Vermont families.”
Lisman said the state has raised about $700 million in taxes and fees in the past six years. He proposed capping state budgets at a 2 percent growth rate and finding another 1 percent savings in efficiencies. That, along with “recruiting the best talent for staff” will help the state’s economy grow, he said.
“I think there’s real possibilities with budget management that makes sense,” he said.
Scott, meanwhile, said the state must consider the previous year’s economic grown when crafting state budgets.
“Let’s look back at what the economy grew, what wages grew,” Scott said. “If it’s half a percent or 1 percent, we put a cap on it.”
“We have an opportunity to change the direction of Vermont and set a parameter and not go over that, a line in the sand,” he added. “I think setting that parameter, setting that target, is what is needed.”
Scott, early on in the debate, accused Lisman of running misleading television ads that mischaracterize his record. Lisman’s latest ad calls into question the more than $2 million in state contracts Scott’s company, Dubois Construction, received while Scott was a state senator and then lieutenant governor.
Scott said candidates should be focused on changing the tone of politics. Lisman, according to Scott, is “acting like one of those typical D.C. politicians where anything goes and you have to tear down your opponent in order to make yourself look better.”
“I believe that I’m part of that change. In fact, I’ve decided to run a positive campaign. My opponent launched another ad today — a deceitful, false ad,” Scott said. “I think Bruce has chosen the low road, the very low road. I think it’s politics as usual.”
The three-term lieutenant governor said he has been “slogging it out here all my life,” seemingly a reference to Lisman’s lucrative career on Wall Street.
“I never moved away and I value my reputation,” Scott said.
Lisman, meanwhile, said he is running a campaign that shows a contrast between the two of them because the media has not done that.
“I’m running a campaign that offers real contrast. I though the media would take care of all that, but instead I am,” Lisman said. “Where he stands and what he has said — I didn’t make him say that single payer might be the answer or that Gov. [Peter] Shumlin is frugal.”
Both candidates agreed that the state could find savings by eliminating the state’s online health insurance marketplace, Vermont Health Connect. And both said there is likely significant savings in the state’s Medicaid program.
Scott said the Medicaid program has grown rapidly. “There are ways to save, I’m sure, ways to save in that area alone,” he said.
Lisman agreed there is a “sizable savings to be had,” but said Scott opposes an audit of the program to determine where the savings can be found.
“Phil has said there’s substantial savings in Medicaid, and I believe it too, but he’s resisted an audit,” Lisman said.
“We’ve done multiple audits over the years. They’re still there and they’re still relevant. The administration and the Legislature have failed to follow through,” Scott responded.
Moderator Joe Merone, a former producer at Vermont PBS, asked both candidates how they plan to work with Democrats who will likely retain significant majorities in both legislative chambers. Scott said he’s been serving in the minority for much of his career and has worked with Democrats.
“I believe that it’s one of my strong suits, facilitating change, facilitating compromise and working together … because we don’t have all the ideas that will help Vermont ourself,” he said. “Working with the Legislature is something I’ve been quite good at.”
Scott said improving the state’s economic fortunes will require everyone in state government “to adopt the idea that we’re facing the crisis of affordability.”
“We have to get everyone on the same page pulling in the same direction to do that,” he said.
Lisman said his election would provide him with a mandate from the voters.
“They’ll know that the people have spoken, that Vermonters that have said no one is listening to me, will say, ‘They are now.’ So, that’s a big deal,” Lisman said.
He said he would focus on three “nonpartisan ideas” early in his first term to build consensus, including cleaning up Lake Champlain, addressing opiate addiction and work force development.
Both candidates rejected the idea of offering free college tuition to Vermont students. All three major Democratic candidates have proposed free tuition to varying degrees.
“There’s nothing free in this world. Somebody has to pay for it somewhere, and we can’t afford that right now,” Scott said, before suggesting a bonding program that would help students borrow money for college at better rates.
Lisman said offering free tuition would pass the cost on to others and not address increasing costs.
“I don’t believe free college is the answers … because all we’re doing is squishing a balloon and making somebody else pay for it,” he said.
The two had another tense exchange when discussing how to address declining revenue from the state’s gas tax. Scott again accused Lisman of misrepresenting his comments at a previous forum to suggest that Scott supports a per-mile tax on vehicles to replace the gas tax.
“Mr. Lisman has chosen to highlight something that I’ve said to take it totally out of context and suggest that I would add a tax,” Scott said. “That’s just not true.”
Rather, Scott said he was discussing a national proposal that has been discussed in Congress. Scott said the country will need to look at how revenue is raised for transportation infrastructure “at some point.”
“Many people are using electric vehicles and not paying a cent for roads and bridges here in the state,” he said. “I would not sign a bill that adds a single tax to Vermonters in the future.”
Lisman insisted his campaign did not misrepresent Scott’s position. He encouraged voters to review Scott’s comments. “Have at it. Take a look at it and let me know what you think,” he said.
Like Scott, Lisman said any solution to boosting revenue for transportation infrastructure should come from Washington.
“Nationally, hopefully with a new president and a new Congress they’ll finally begin to focus on this issue,” he said.
Lisman advocated for finding new funding through bonding, which he said was inexpensive and could be “sponsored by Washington, not our state.”
Scott pounced on Lisman’s idea, claiming the state could not afford to borrow more. He said the state is currently “living within our means now” and paying for road and bridge projects “on a cash basis.”
“Bruce has proposed to bond, to actually borrow money to pay for our roads and bridges. I would say we’ve already borrowed too much in this state. How are we going to pay for that?” he said. “We need to be fiscally prudent and pay for it as we go.”
When Lisman sought to clarify that he was seeking a national program, Scott quickly called it “some sort of Wall Street scam.”
Watch the Vermont PBS debate below: