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Highlights from Vermont lieutenant governor debate with Joe Benning and David Zuckerman

Host Connor Cyrus moderated a debate between Republican state Sen. Joe Benning and Progressive/Democrat David Zuckerman, who was in a remote studio after testing positive for COVID-19.

The two major party candidates for Vermont lieutenant governor met Thursday in a Vermont Public debate moderated by Vermont Edition co-host Connor Cyrus. Republican state Sen. Joe Benning, from Lyndonville, faced off against Progressive/Democrat David Zuckerman, who lives in Hinesburg.

Watch the full debate here.

Here are the highlights.

EMISSIONS AND RENEWABLE ENERGY

Early in the debate, the candidates disagreed on the state’s role in tackling climate change, curbing carbon emissions and adding renewable energy sources.

“One of the best carbon dioxide mitigating things to do is to grow cover crops and do what's called carbon sequestration. On my own farm, we grow many acres of cover crops before and after the other crops were growing,” Zuckerman said. “[I] think the state can do more to work with farmers — and actually farmers have made a lot of progress on growing more cover crops not only to hold soil in place to reduce runoff, but also to sequester carbon and build organic matter in their soil. Across the country, carbon sequestration and agriculture may be the number one method to reduce carbon dioxide in our atmosphere.”

Joe Benning said he thought the issue is a federal government conversation.

“Vermont, for instance, does not have the power to tell Toyota, GM, all the automobile companies what they have to have for carbon emission output by a given date,” he said. “Our transportation fleet, our home heating oils are all critical to every Vermonter whatever they pay on each day, they pull up to the pump or they have somebody come and fill the tank. That is a conversation that we just cannot have at the state level. We can get to resilience for all Vermonters, and that's something I think we can support and be a consensus builder on.”

When asked if they supported wind turbines on Vermont ridgelines, Zuckerman said he does, but not everywhere, in order to mitigate the climate crisis. Benning said no, that they are the wrong tool to fight climate change in Vermont.

AFFORDABLE HOUSING

The candidates disagreed on what was slowing down the process toward gaining more affordable housing.

Zuckerman said he supported adding a rooms tax to the state’s lodging and rental rates.

“We also have the highest percentage of second homes… in this country, with 17%,” he said. “I would look at why those homes are paying lower property taxes than most homeowners in Vermont… and maybe increase their taxes to at least match ours and put that money towards affordable housing.”

Benning said the state just set aside a substantial chunk of money — $90 million, from the ARPA funding — for the specific purpose of actually getting homes built.

“The problem that we have currently is that we don't have laborers with contractors who are ready to swing a hammer and bang and nail,” he said. “I think this is an interesting difference between David and myself… it sounds as if he wants to create another level of bureaucracy and the tax revenue stream that is in existence in perpetuity.”

Zuckerman responded: “There's no need for a new bureaucracy. We have Vermont Housing and Conservation Board that already does a ton of the work in distributing resources for land conservation and affordable housing. And the tax I talked about was almost exclusively on out-of-state individuals.”

More from Vermont Public: A guide to voting in Vermont for the 2022 midterm election

GOVERNMENT SPENDING

The candidates clashed on whether state government should pay for programs like child care, health care and housing, with Benning accusing Zuckerman of not thinking about the start-up costs for his proposals.

“Vermonters are already paying out the nose for the health care they're getting, we pay more than any country in the world, for our health care, we can save money and do it better,” Zuckerman said. “Child care…is a huge cost. At the same time, not having people in the workforce is a huge cost.”

Benning said: "You and I are both business people. I'm a lawyer, you're a farmer, we always look at a given proposal and understand what the startup costs of a project would be. And if I'm hearing you correctly, you have never done a startup cost analysis for any of the programs, either individually or collectively, that you have been advancing during these debates.”

Zuckerman responded: “Actually, some of that work has been done, and often it's dated… Additionally I believe with expanding child care it is to the tune of about $180-$200 million to truly make a universal child care sort of situation. But again, the payback on that will also be tremendous for Vermont and our workforce and our productivity across the state.”

ARTICLE 22

The candidates agreed on Article 22, a proposed constitutional amendment, commonly known as Proposal 5 or Prop 5, that would enshrine reproductive health rights into the state Constitution.

"I'll be voting yes. enthusiastically," Zuckerman said. "I've been helping put up signs across the state, helping inform people about some of the issues that folks are hearing that are incorrect."

“I have been a very strong proponent of Prop 5,” Benning said. “As a Republican, that should surprise a lot of people.”

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