Decision day looms for Vermont House Bennington-4 District candidates

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MANCHESTER — Three candidates, two seats.

The race for the Bennington-4 district's two chairs in the Vermont House of Representatives is down to its last few days before voters decide on Tuesday, which candidates will get them.

It's one of the few contests in the region and features Democrat Kathleen James of Manchester, a journalist and community organizer, taking on incumbents Brian Keefe of Manchester, a first-term Republican who worked for the late U.S. Sen. Jim Jeffords, and Democrat Cynthia Browning of Arlington, a former economics professor and House member since 2007. The district represents Arlington, Manchester, Sandgate and part of Sunderland.

Keefe, echoing fellow Republican, Gov. Phil Scott, has emphasized the importance of controlling the growth of taxes and fees to make the state more affordable for residents and grow its economy.

"I'm running to maintain the balance needed in the Legislature to pass balanced budgets that fund state priorities without unnecessarily increasing taxes and fees on working Vermonters. We tried the 'raise-taxes-and-spend-more' system under a state government controlled by one party for six years prior to 2016, and it put us into a hole," he said.

Browning has underscored her experience, familiarity with the fine points of state policy and independence as reasons she should be re-elected.

"State policies must be based on reality, not political rhetoric, so that they can really work. I have a proven record of developing and supporting such policies," Browning said. She cited her work for income tax reform "that makes our system more equitable and more efficient" and included an increase in the earned income tax credit for low-income working Vermonters.

James, who is making her first foray into elected politics, said she's running "because I care about the Northshire and the people who live here."

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" I want to help move Vermont forward on critical issues like affordable and accessible health care, high-quality childcare, affordable housing and family-supporting wages. In the 22 years that I've lived and worked and raised my daughters in Manchester, these issues have been recurring challenges for me and for many people I know," she said. "I'm also passionate about protecting the environment and confronting climate change, which should be a priority and can be tackled in a way that boosts rather than hinders our economy."

While James emphasizes she's not a single-issue candidate — she says her overriding concern is equal opportunity for all Vermonters — her support for climate change initiatives and the pursuit of a green power economy has been touted prominently by her supporters.

Her opponents also have environmental bona fides. Browning is a longtime advocate for the Battenkill River and executive director of the Batten Kill Watershed Alliance. Keefe, in defending the Scott administration's commitment to clean water during a candidate's forum, pointed to his work for Jeffords in helping the Lake Champlain Special Designation Act of 1989 become law.

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At a debate in late September, James acknowledged that she was still making up her mind on a carbon tax, over concerns that its unintended consequences could hurt rural Vermonters who rely on fossil fuels to heat their homes and commute to work.

Keefe said Vermonters already pay significant taxes to support renewable energy, and he's against a carbon tax because "it's regressive and puts us at a regional disadvantage."

Browning said she supports reducing use of fossil fuels, but would like to see policies that achieve that goal without hurting ordinary Vermonters. "I personally would like to eliminate some ways in which the tax code subsidizes fossil fuels," she said.

All three candidates were asked what issue has concerned voters the most as they've campaigned.

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In addition to the erosion of political discourse, "people are also worried about the issues that make it hard to live and thrive in Vermont—low wages and a high cost of living," James said.

James also said she'd set priorities to address those issues, and one such example is paid family leave.

"People shouldn't have to choose between taking care of an infant and getting a paycheck. I believe this bill would help businesses with recruitment and retention and promote a stable workforce," James said. "We talk about the challenges of attracting new residents to Vermont, or keeping young Vermonters here in the state. This kind of legislation will help us to do that."

Keefe was succinct when asked about the concerns he's heard on the campaign trail.

"Taxes and affordability, which are linked in many ways, are the biggest issues I hear about. We need to continue to find ways to balance the state budget while taking care of those most vulnerable and without unnecessarily raising taxes. Part of the solution lies in expanding the workforce" he said,.

Browning said she's heard concerns about economic prosperity, education property taxes, environmental protection, and community health and safety. "As an economist, an environmentalist, and an experienced legislator, I have specific proposals to address those concerns," she said.

Browning said she supports investments in telecommuncations, workforce training, and voluntary, paid family leave. She called for changes to the Education Fund to back out costs and programs that are not directly related to K-12 education spending as a means of controlling property taxes. And on the environment, "Everyone must take responsibility for preventing pollution rather than imposing costs on the environment and on their neighbors. We must require polluters to pay for the costs of cleaning up environmental damage, and we must not subsidize polluting activities with tax dollars," she said.


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