BENNINGTON >> Democratic gubernatorial candidate Sue Minter paid a visit to Bennington on Wednesday, and took the time to discuss a number of issues important to local voters.
Minter's visit coincided with a public meeting on perfluorooctanoic acid, or PFOA, which has been found in private wells in Bennington and North Bennington, and in part of the municipal water supply in Pownal. In April, Minter released her plan for dealing with contaminated water across the state, one aspect of which, the creation of a Clean Water Bond program, was specifically designed to help municipalities struggling with ensuring clean water for their residents. The program would use state, local, and federal dollars to "invest in the modernization and upgrades to wastewater, storm water and drinking water infrastructure," according to a release from her office.
"It wouldn't just be for one area, it would be statewide, but I think an area facing a health emergency would qualify for highly expedited effort to solve that crisis," she said, "Obviously, PFOA is unique, but investment in our infrastructure, particularly our water and wastewater infrastructure, is something we really need to increase our investment in throughout the state, not just for health and safety, but also for economic development."
She also said that, while it was impossible to force companies such as Saint-Gobain, which was deemed probably responsible for the contamination, to pay for the removal of PFOA, it is possible to make sure that, in the future, the polluter pays. For its part, Saint-Gobain has been working closely with state and local officials to distribute bottled water to affected residents and install point-of-entry systems to remove PFOA from the water. The state is currently hoping that the company will agree to extend municipal water lines to affected homes in Bennington and North Bennington, which could cost upwards of $30 million, but that agreement has not yet been reached.
"We are fortunate right now that the company is working in partnership," Minter said, "and let's hope we can continue that relationship. Certainly I would aim to do that as governor, but we will not be leaving Vermonters behind with poisoned wells."
She also talked about a proposal she called "Vermont Promise," which would offer two free years of tuition to the Community College of Vermont or Vermont Technical College for recent graduates of Vermont high schools. "For me, this is something I will push very hard, and am very excited about," she said of the program, which is modeled after Tennessee Promise, the first state program offered on this scale, "and what a difference in makes in terms of, first, breaking down barriers of access to continued education past high school. In Vermont we do a great job of getting through high school, among the top rates in the country, but we are at the bottom of the country when it comes to continuation." According to her campaign, Vermont ranks among the top five states in high school graduation rate, at 90 percent, but among the worst nationally in college matriculation, at 60 percent. The graduation rate for Bennington County matches the state at about 90 percent, and according to data collected by Mount Anthony Union High School, the matriculation rate is about 50 percent.
"I am not satisfied that four out of 10 Vermont high school graduates will not continue their education, because it means they don't have the qualifications for livable wage jobs," she said, "We are not going to break the generational cycle of poverty unless we address what I call an opportunity gap. So I'm very committed to this program. It isn't just about education, it's about workforce development. Workforce development is economic development. Everywhere I go, I hear businesses can't grow, because they can't find qualified workers... It's a win-win-win. Obviously the students win, and the employees win. But our economy also wins, because we know, on average, students who get an associate's degree make $12,000 more per year than those that do not, and on a bachelor's degree it's $32,000 more a year, so the earning potential of these students increases. We all benefit when people are making more money."
She said the program would be paid for by an increase to the bank franchise fee – aimed at banks with over $750 million worth of deposits – which has remained flat for the past decade. "We're tapping the resources of big banks, because I believe banks should pay their fair share, and that students should get a fair shake."
She said that, while it was not a part of that program, re-education and re-employment of adult workers who may have seen their industries out-sourced away from the state is also critical to economic development. "For me, the goal isn't just by 2025 to have 75 percent of kids go to college, it's also going to be re-employing those who have been dislocated. We all benefit when people don't have to rely on public subsidies to have their basic needs met."
She stressed smart investments, especially in public infrastructure, education, and energy, as incredibly important, and argued that not making those investments due to the cost was not a viable strategy. "If you don't pay for it now," she said, "you're going to pay for it later."
Derek Carson can be reached for comment at 802-447-7567, ext. 122.