CHI-22 state rep debate

ESSEX JUNCTION — CHI-22 Reps. Lori Houghton (D-Essex Junction) and Karen Dolan (D-Essex Junction) and Republican candidate Seth Adam Manley debated on education, healthcare, criminal justice reform, gun control and housing Sept. 15 as they continue to campaign for the two-seat race.

Houghton and Dolan, both incumbents, answered the questions thoroughly and when necessary leaned on each other for expertise. Manley listed strong points and identified as an open-minded conservative agreeing with the two incumbents on some issues and disagreeing on others.

After the larger questions, moderator Bridget Higdon, managing editor of the Reporter, opened the floor to “30-second answers” and ended on: “Please tell us three ways we might improve accessibility to local politics here in Vermont.”

Houghton answered first and listed civics education in schools, increased viewership of media coverage and to continue Zoom legislation, so the community can view committees and witness votes happening on the floor.

Manley was only provided two answers, education and transparency of meeting times.

“I just recently got involved in politics and, you know, frankly, I didn't realize how much stuff was going on,” Manley said. “I didn't prepare well for this.” 

Dolan followed up to say engaging the youth, continuing access to government meetings through platforms such as YouTube, and examining the part-time legislature opportunities to see how they can garner more community involvement in it.

At the end of the debate, Houghton and Dolan said it was an honor to serve Essex Junction and they hope to continue to do so. Manley encouraged community members to get involved at a grassroots level and said he believes he would work well with Houghton or Dolan if elected.

Read below for a transcript of the debate’s major questions.

Watch the full debate here.

Opening statement: What will be different for the people of your district or the state as a whole because you have been elected to this position and what qualifies you to make those changes happen?

Dolan: It would really be an honor to serve the City of Essex Junction for another biennium. During the past two years. I've advocated and voted in support of key recovery efforts for our state and took action to ensure that the well being of all Vermonters is addressed. 

If elected again, I would continue to do that and build on the foundation that I've created and continue to listen, collaborate and hold up the values of our community. There really are a number of critical issues that are on the horizon such as climate action, affordable housing, mental health, access, and reproductive liberty, that will benefit greatly from my steady, experienced and community focused leadership. And I look forward to bringing that if elected again.

Houghton: I am competing for my fourth term. And I've lived in the City of Essex Junction, now the city for 20 years. My family owns and operates a small business in the City as well. I've served previously eight years as a Village Trustee, and on countless grassroots and community organization efforts. 

I hope that through the 20 years of my activity in the city, that I've proven what I bring to the City, and that is my dedication to the betterment of our residents, our City and Vermonters as a whole through this community volunteerism and the monthly community conversations that we have every session.

I spend time listening and connecting with our residents and with others, to really understand what's affecting them and to bring their voices down to Montpelier. Over the past three terms in the statehouse. I've worked hard to build collaborative and respected relationships with fellow legislators and stakeholders. 

In order to facilitate action for our City residents, to clear examples of my work that has positively impacted the city is the city charter going through the legislature ending near four months with Karen's help and then advocating for the passage and the extension of universal school meals, which Essex Westford School District and many students came and advocated for. So I look forward to continuing that work with the City's help and working with city residents. 

Manley: Mainly the reason I'm running is I believe we really need to restore some balance to the legislature. We've had 20 or 30 years of what seems to be single-sided politics. And although there's a lot of good ideas out there, I think we really need to open up dialogue between all the sides. 

It's really important to express opinions. I think Gov. Scott's done a pretty decent job of providing balance and compromise. But in order to get anything meaningful done to tackle some of the big issues, I think he's going to need some more help from Republicans like myself. I hope we can put special addressed issues on the back burner for a little while and start to work on what the majority of Vermonters really see needs to be done. Not the least of which is the skyrocketing cost of living these days.

As far as my qualifications, I'm a native Vermonter. I grew up in Johnson, Vermont. Let's see, I'm a veteran of the U.S. Army. I'm a college graduate, and I'm also an experienced business owner. I have had quite a number of years owning and operating a small business so I understand some of the challenges there. 

What I can bring to Montpelier, I believe, is my willingness to listen and talk about things. I'm actually a pretty open minded conservative. However sometimes finding the best solution means sometimes it might mean just for the government to step out of the way and let people make their own decisions. So that's where I can bring.

Education: The Legislature can make impacts on how education is funded statewide. Do you see the need for changes to how we fund education and how would you use your office to move changes forward?

Manley: I'm a big supporter of parental choice. One of the issues that's come up is the issue of parents being able to decide where their children attend school. I'm in full support of that. Now. I do understand there's concerns about that, if that happens, some schools may become underfunded. 

I don't see any reason we can't come up with a good compromise and put in place systems so that when a school does become underfunded we can put in measures to reform the school and improve it otherwise we're just gonna end up with failing schools, if we just force using them. So that's probably the biggest issue.

Houghton: One of the reasons that I ran for office in 2016 was because I spent some time at the statehouse and realized there were not many people or legislators who had children in the school system. 

For me it was really important that we have representatives who can support our future and understand what's happening in the schools. I started when [my son] was in third grade. He's just started high school and our school district is absolutely amazing, as are most throughout the state, we do a really amazing job.

 I fully support the collective responsibility of ensuring equitable outcomes for all of our students. And with that, I was happy to support the passage of act 287… [Which] actually updated our weights, which is how we pay for how we'd figure out the cost of funding and significantly higher weights for our multilingual students, which I think will be a big help. 

There's also a lot that was in that bill that is being worked on now. So there'll be a lot of studies that come back and one of them is income based funding, which is interesting, and I think it's something we should be looking at.

When I was started six years ago, it was being talked about and I think it was talked about before that, but really, we've had a lot of changes and our demographics here in Vermont, so I can't really say if I support it or not, but I'm very happy that we're looking at how that could impact our funding going forward.

I [also]  just also want to say that EWSD is a really valuable partner and they are always willing to come down and support our efforts in the statehouse. And it's just nice to have that partnership locally.

Dolan: Education funding really is critical for the well being of our state, not only for our youth but also for the future of Vermont. And as Laurie said, I also have  two school aged children. So I see firsthand the importance of supporting a quality education system in our state. 

I'm also proud to say that I, as of tomorrow, will be starting as a substitute teacher in my district and I really look forward to gaining a better understanding of our school system because we have made a lot of progress, as Lori said, in creating a progressive tax system where we really are pooling resources together to fund our education system. 

It takes into account a lot of factors going into the weights, the weighting system. But the downside is that it's really complicated. It's a complicated system, and it's challenging to explain. So this makes it hard to really explore and tackle and understand all of those things. 

It also can make it hard to explain to other people and build trust in the system. And so as we said earlier, I'm looking forward to the reports that are coming out from our education committees…of how can we continue this work? 

We have a great start here. But there's more to be done and Vermont and it has a place to make that happen. We really don't have time to weigh our education system. They're shifting now to meet current demands or funding needs to as well. 

One point that I'll point out that is connected to the committee I serve on, institutions, is our school construction projects or school buildings are very old. They're getting older and the general maintenance for them is really becoming burdensome, and we need to make sure that there is some secure funding source in there. And that's part of the funding mechanism we need to look at.

Health care: The increasing cost of healthcare is putting pressure on Vermonter’s and the state’s economy. COVID has sharpened our focus on inequities in healthcare. What is next for healthcare changes in Vermont. Please be specific.

Dolan: This is one of the things that are investing with having Rep. Houghton and I serve is that we really collaborate well together and we understand that each of us has different areas of expertise and knowledge. 

Healthcare is one of the ones that I really look to Rep. Houghton for. We kind of divide and conquer the weakness so you know I can provide a brief overview of my understanding of the needs, you know, one in particular that I am looking at as the Health Equity Advisory Commission that we established in 2021. 

The recommendations that are going to be coming out of that are key. But really if I was asked this question, my first thing would be to pick up the phone talk to Laurie what are the things that are going on, and I hope she would do the same for me in my areas, but so I don't know if it's appropriate for me to hand it off to her but like I would look to her and see where things are going.

Houghton: That is the benefit of having a two seat district quite frankly. We can all be experts in everything. I'm not an expert in healthcare, but I have sat on the healthcare committee for three terms. I'm the ranking member. So as Karen said, we have the Health Advisory Committee and one of their charges is actually to provide guidance for the newly created Office of Health Equity. 

I really look forward to us taking that action again, hearing what they have to say this coming year. And moving that forward, obviously COVID showed us what all of our problems are in that area and we really need to focus on it. 

The other thing, we have renewed partnerships coming with our federal government so we have a new Medicaid waiver that will provide us more funding and it's going to require a State match but more funding to help people. One of the really exciting projects we're going to be working on, programs I should say, is wraparound supportive services for people in housing, paid for partly by Medicaid, and that is really going to help and we all know we're in a housing crisis and we all know that there is mental health and substance abuse issues in our state and having those wraparound services will really help people.

We have the opportunity to integrate mental health and substance use disorder together. Right now people go to different places for help, and it makes it very difficult. My personal overarching goal would be that we actually integrate primary care, mental health and substance use disorder in one place so people can go to one doctor, one facility, get all the resources they need.

A really key thing for Vermonters right now is we have subsidies to help people pay for premiums. It passed with ARPA a couple of years ago and with the Inflation Reduction Act, they have been extended for three years. So if someone is buying on the Vermont Health Exchange, or buying direct from Blue Cross Blue Shield or MVP, I really encourage you to go and call Vermont Health Connect. Income qualifications are much higher than they used to be and we already know 23,000 Vermonters are getting help paying their premiums, and we know there's many, many more that are eligible. So I highly encourage that.

Manley: This is definitely a big issue and it may be one that we may have trouble finding compromise. One thing I got to point out right up front: socialized healthcare has failed. 

We can see that over the course of the last 15 years. Obamacare was billed as the Affordable Health Care Act. I think all of us understand that. What happened was health care costs or at least insurance more than quadrupled over that right after it was put in place. 

Not only did insurance quadruple health care costs themselves went up. Now we're faced with this situation. Regular people can't afford it and now they're forced to go on to these subsidy programs. I believe the only way to go forward is to get government out of the health care business. 

It should be up to the individual health care providers to decide for themselves, what treatment and how to provide that treatment to their patients to foster competition. One of the biggest costs in health care, I'm sure you understand, is the bureaucracy that they have to go through to meet the filing requirements to the government. 

There's a lot of talk of free Medicare for all, you know, again, this is another socialist program that's unworkable, it's unfeasible and I'll ask you this question, I don't believe it's a God given right for anybody to have goods and services provided to them for free. The only example anytime that that's going to happen, the only way to accomplish free goods and services is to have a slave culture or to steal from somebody else. 

To provide those services is just a fundamental thing that, you know, we may disagree on now, I'm not opposed at all to having programs available for those needy and I'm sure while we get government out of these industries, there's going to be a transition period, but that's one of the things we need to work on. Socialized healthcare is a proven failure. 

Criminal Justice Reform: How does Chittenden County address crime? Is there a program with policing that needs reform? How would you address community safety?

Houghton: I learned over the years from a mentor that you can't be an expert in everything, andKaren really is on this one. I will say specific to Essex Junction, we have seen crime rise like everywhere else. We had a bike stolen out of our garage one Sunday afternoon. 

I firmly believe in the work of the restorative justice center. I firmly believe in the work that the police do. But I also believe there's a place for the community and we need to support people we need to support children. We need to support families in such a way that they don't feel that crime is what's going to help them get out of whatever situation they're in. 

So to have the resources available, not just the police resources which we need, but to have crisis, mental health services, to have the restorative justice and honestly to have community members who care and who can provide safe places. 

Dolan: The justice system really is an area of focus for me, my current work at the Essex Community Justice Center, and my previous job I was a service provider at the Women's correctional facility. 

It really provided me with an in-depth understanding of our justice system. When looking at how crime is addressed in Chittenden County, I feel like the key word there is the county piece of it, because a lot of folks might not realize that it's different from county to county and Vermont.

The tools available to address crime vary from county to county, and it's based on the different folks who are in the positions of state's attorney or the judges seat or within the different police departments.

While our state really values local input, I think we need to balance that with our responsibility and government to have a baseline of services or justice tools in each community to show that there's equity in the system across the state. 

In Chittenden County, we're really fortunate we have a lot of the tools available to us. Those folks who are in those positions, those stakeholder positions, really have bought into this large variety of tools, such as restorative justice, justice, drug courts, the traditional sentencing method, methadone clinics, court diversion, the list goes on for that. 

This is really essential because crime is a complicated issue. The overwhelming majority of crime is non-violent crime, and it's rooted in system gaps around poverty, around mental health, substance use or there's inequities in the system.

We need to address crime by filling these gaps while we're also working to support those who [are harmed] by a crime.Looking ahead, how we need to address crime is looking at our safety net systems. When our safety net systems are strained, and our justice system is strained, that's not gonna work out there. They go together hand in hand. Looking ahead to the next legislative session, I want to look to really build up our safety nets. So folks aren't having those gaps in systems and they'll be less crime and folks are going to be better served.

Manley: Obviously, violence, violent crimes have gone up tremendously, especially over the last few years. They always talk about causation versus the root cause. But obviously, we can say, well, since we defunded the police, these crimes have gone up endlessly.

We need to look at enforcing the laws that we have on the books. And there's really too, I agree, and I can definitely compromise with the ladies about finding and attacking the root causes for the crime, rather than taking care of it afterwards.

One of them would definitely be our education system again for citizens of the state. Definitely, we need to provide our children with adequate education so that they have hope for the future. One of the problems though, is a lot of the crime that’s being committed it's being imported from the bigger cities down south.

So there's a lot of things that we can work on. I would look forward to working with one of the ladies to go forward to find out real solutions, and not just provide their party bosses solution.

Written By

Staff Writer

Kate Vanni is a staff writer and recent graduate of the University of Vermont where she worked as the editor-in-chief of the Vermont Cynic, UVM’s student newspaper. Email kvanni@orourkemediagroup.com to get in contact with Kate.

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