Four candidates for the two Lamoille-Washington seats in the Vermont House recently debated via Zoom, tackling topics like economic trouble, dependence on federal aid, cost of living, recreational cannabis, systemic racism and education.

The News and Citizen hosted the Oct. 8 debate, featuring Democratic incumbents Avram Patt and Dave Yacovone as they took on Republican challengers Shannara Johnson and Tyler Machia.

Here are some highlights from the evening’s livestream:

The country is in the middle of a pandemic-related recession. People say the Vermont economy has been flagging for years, as the population gets older and is not being replaced with a younger workforce with money to spend. What can the legislature do in the next session to jump start this economy?

Machia said sending resources to towns and municipalities is most important, so that decisions can be made on the local level. He does not agree with the states’ “One size fits all” solutions, like Act 46. He thinks that granting specific exemptions for land use (Act 250) is crucial, as is a more creative approach to the tax code.

Patt focused on diversifying agriculture and keeping food dollars in state. He also pointed out that it's state money that drives small-scale committees and implements decisions at the local level. He also said high-speed internet is a key need for rural communities.

Yacovone suggested a plan to keep food dollars in state. He also wants to reduce expenditure on fossil fuels and make investments that can bring that money back to Vermont.

“If you always do what you did, you’ll always get what you got,” said Yacovone.

He is hopeful that a new president will create immigration changes and open the door for an expanded work force to call Vermont their home.

Johnson suggested opening the economy at any cost, fully and immediately. She wants to cut non-essential spending, and “trim the fat off of loaded bureaucracy.”

The United States Congress has not been accused of being the most efficient legislative body these days. Political impasses have slowed down any flow of federal aid in the pandemic. How can Vermont go it alone without being able to rely on Congress for help?

Patt said no, Vermont cannot go it alone. He said without federal funding healthcare in the state would suffer. He thinks there should be changes to ease gridlock and make funds more accessible.

Yacovone agreed that Vermont cannot go without federal aid, pointing out that Vermont got the second highest COVID relief package in the country per capita. He suggested that we would have been in a very different situation without that money.

Johnson reiterated the need to open the economy as soon as possible. She said that the last COVID-19 death was in July, and Lamoille county has only had one death, “COVID numbers look really, really good,” she said.

Johnson advocated for “herd immunity,” a controversial and dangerous tactic where people are encouraged to become infected.

Machia began by expressing his condolences for the family of Bernie Juskiewicz, a former legislative representative for Cambridge, who died from COVID in April. He then emphasized the importance of local decision-making power.

Our state has struggled in recent years with the high cost of living as exhibited in the cost of housing and childcare. How would you work to ensure those issues remain on the docket amid COVID-19 setbacks?

Johnson highlighted the importance of housing and childcare. Focusing on the repeating cycle of how continuing lockdowns keeps children at home and parents from work.

Tyler Machia continued to focus on giving communities control over these decisions and easing some restrictions to get through tough times.

Patt pointed out the income gap drives the issue of affordable housing, and Vermonters earning in the lower 80 percent are largely treading water or losing ground.

Yacovone said that in order to have good childcare we need well compensated child-care workers. He says that burden can be too great for local communities and how important it is to remain realistic.

How should Vermont address systemic racism? Should the state be looking at reforms to law enforcement protocol and training? If so, what do you think those reforms should entail?

Johnson said that police should be better trained with an eye on de-escalation training, and maybe adding social workers to certain police calls would be helpful, but not replacing police officers with social workers.

Johnson then denied the existence of institutional racism as the laws that once explicitly involved race have been removed, and Black Americans are not disadvantaged by law.

Some social programs treat black Americans like “kids,” Johnson said, and perpetuates a “victim mentality.”

Machia remarked how racism is America's original sin. We have always struggled with it, Machia said, and we have had to pay with a lot of blood to rectify the situation that is still not repaired. He pointed out that the Black Lives Matter movement stems from a group of people that are unhappy with how they are policed. They feel unrepresented and unheard, he said.

Patt highlighted the need to focus on de-escalation of conflict in our policing, training for police and law enforcement needs to be improved across the board. The standards need to remain the same, so the treatment of people does not differ. He pointed out that there are many forms of systemic racism far less visible than law enforcement.

Yacovone said that we need to focus on programs that build strong families and empower people. We need to build resiliency, he said. Diminishing these issues starts with raising accepting children.

Vermont has been able to turn things like craft beer and cider into tax generators and tourism engines for the state. As the state perhaps moves to some sort of cannabis marketplace, what can the state do to make sure that Vermont farmers are able to participate in legalized cannabis farming and create some sort of Vermont brand, and make sure that large out-of-state companies cannot swoop-in and take over production?

Machia suggested regulations that don’t favor large businesses. He supports someone's right to choose to use cannabis and sees an opportunity to “let it grow organically,” referring to both crops and the local business.

Patt pointed out that small producers and retailers will not be shut out. The cannabis marketplace bill that has been passed is incredibly complicated, and some issues will have to be reworked and revisited as this is something that Vermont grows to accommodate and accept, Patt said.

Yacovone sees cannabis as an opportunity for agriculture to expand and succeed. There should be consistent regulation and a standard that drives quality products. Cannabis control boards will make sure that farmers succeed and not corporations, Yacavone said.

Johnson suggests keeping large corporations out of it and offering tax incentives for small farmers.

She expects to see a drop in drug related crime, citing a recent “cartel” shooting. She continued to warn against over-regulation as that has been known to push business out of state and force small businesses to close.

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