BRADFORD, Vt. — State Sens. Jane Kitchel and Joe Benning have represented the Caledonia district in the Vermont Senate for 16 years and 10 years, respectively.
And though Kitchel, a Danville Democrat, and Benning, a Republican from Lyndon, seldom agree on policy, they separately offered similar arguments for their reelection, in which they face each other and three other candidates: experience matters.
“I don’t think this is any time for newbies,” Benning, 63, said in an interview.
“It’s not a time for somebody to learn,” said Kitchel, 75.
The two longtime state senators echoed each other because the state is facing a financial crisis in handling the coronavirus pandemic, and, they said, the Senate will need experienced hands to steer a course through it. The St. Johnsbury-area Caledonia district includes the Orange County towns of Fairlee, West Fairlee, Bradford, Newbury, Topsham and Orange.
Of the three candidates running to unseat the incumbents, only one, former state Sen. Matthew Choate, 49, a Danville Democrat, has legislative experience, having served in the state Senate in 2009-10. The other two candidates are J.T. Dodge, a Libertarian from Newbury, and Republican Charles W. Wilson, of Lyndon, who are making their first bids for legislative office.
Dodge, a 47-year-old systems engineer who works at Garnet Hill in Franconia, N.H., said he chose to run because of “a lack of political bravery on the part of my current sitting senators.” He is the founder of No Carbon Tax Vermont, an organization that advocates against any form of carbon tax to address climate change. He also opposes the Global Warming Solutions Act, which the Legislature passed earlier this year, then enacted by overriding a veto by Gov. Phil Scott.
The new law is bad for Vermonters because, in Dodge’s view, it puts unelected bureaucrats in charge of climate change policies and regulations.
Benning, a defense attorney by trade, made a similar argument: “The problem is, it creates a new state bureaucracy,” which he said was only “somewhat accountable to the Legislature.”
Wilson, 72, said he would have voted against the climate bill, too. “Yes, there is pollution problems and so forth that need to be dealt with, but the Global Warming Solutions Act is a horrible piece of work,” said Wilson, a retired small business owner and painting contractor.
The new law creates the Vermont Climate Council, a 23-member body charged with developing plans to meet the law’s stringent goals of reducing the state’s production of greenhouse gases.
Critics of the law, such as Benning, who voted against it, argue that the council is bound to draw up some form of carbon tax, since the state’s main sources of greenhouse gases are the burning of home heating oil and fuel for cars and trucks.
“The council will have to focus on those two areas,” Benning said. “What they will do is put on a carbon tax.”
Kitchel, who voted in favor of the bill and of the override, said this stance misrepresents the law.
“The council cannot tax, the council cannot pass laws, the council cannot promulgate regulations,” she said. “All of that comes back to the Legislature.”
She also noted that while the law expressly allows the state to be sued if it doesn’t meet its goals, the state can be sued now, as it was over the ongoing pollution of Lake Champlain. The Global Warming Solutions Act instead narrows the terms under which a suit could be filed, said Kitchel, who served in state government, including as Human Services secretary under Gov. Howard Dean, before serving in the Senate.
Choate, the chief nursing officer at Central Vermont Medical Center in Berlin, said he is “lukewarm supportive” of the Global Warming Solutions Act.
“To me it’s a small, directional, incremental move,” he said, adding that he “wasn’t privy to any of the debate or discussion on it,” and therefore didn’t feel able to praise or condemn the new law.
Both Benning and Choate said that a true solution to climate change is going to require a national and global approach. While Kitchel agreed, she said that didn’t mean the state shouldn’t do its part.
“We all have to take some responsibility,” she said, adding that the state has taken steps to help lower-income residents to reduce their carbon footprint, including funds in the transportation bill last year to help lower-income people buy cars that get better mileage. Kitchel chairs the Senate Appropriations Committee, which oversees spending.
By and large, the candidates said they felt the state has done well managing the coronavirus pandemic.
“I don’t know that any state has done better than Vermont and our numbers are demonstrating that,” Benning said.
Wilson and Dodge both said that, in Wilson’s words, “people need to get back to work.”
By now, “there are people that we already know are vulnerable to getting sick,” Dodge said. “People need to use their heads, socially distance and go back to work.”
But the other three candidates said that while the economic impacts of the pandemic have been severe, the state needs to continue its measured approach to opening workplaces.
“I think the slow reopening strategy has worked pretty well,” Choate said.
The next steps are going to require careful management, the incumbents said. The Legislature parceled out $1.25 billion in federal funding in ways that addressed immediate needs, but also looked at the longer term, Kitchel said, such as providing funding to build emergency and temporary housing for people who need it.
“I wanted to spend a lot more on broadband,” she said, but was thwarted by the federal guidelines.
“I would like to see us prepare better for the next time,” Choate said.
Other issues of concern to the candidates: Choate said he’d like to pay particular attention to housing to help ease the state’s affordability crisis. Dodge said he would like to see Act 94, a gun control law, repealed. Benning has been shepherding a legal structure for the sale of taxed and regulated cannabis that would provide revenue for law enforcement and education and would like to see it through. Wilson said he’s “concerned about the opiate problem,” and would like to ease regulations and taxes affecting small businesses. Kitchel remains focused on issues of economic justice.
Alex Hanson can be reached at email@example.com or 603-727-3207.
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