Beckett makes first House bid

By Kim Howard
Observer staff

Editor’s note: This is the last in a series of profiles of the four candidates running for Williston’s two open seats in the Vermont House of Representatives.

Republican Deb Beckett doesn’t like the partisanship she sees in Montpelier.

“There’s a lot of things I would like to see changed,” Beckett said in an interview last week. “I think I can do better at the compromise.”

Though she has “always wanted to run” for the Legislature, Beckett said various people in and out of Williston encouraged her to do it this year. She agreed.

Beckett is one of four candidates running to represent Williston in the Vermont House of Representatives. Incumbents Jim McCullough and Mary Peterson, both Democrats, and Republican Mike Quaid also are running in the Nov. 7 election. The four will be vying for two seats.

The only one of the four candidates who has not been a Representative – Quaid served two terms from 1999 to 2002 – Beckett said it is her “well rounded” public service in Williston that makes her qualified for the position. Beckett has served as town clerk and treasurer for nearly eight years, and has served in several volunteer positions since the early 1990s.

She said her top priorities if elected include reducing education spending in elementary and secondary schools; making housing, health care and college more affordable; and seeking alternative energy sources for the state.

Education funding

Beckett sees no drawbacks to Gov. Jim Douglas’ proposal to cap increases in education spending to roughly the rate of inflation annually.

“I think the schools need to work within that,” Beckett said.

Beckett believes the biggest savings in education spending can be found in salaries and benefits. Though she believes Williston’s student-to-teacher ratios are reasonable, the ratios in smaller schools are not.

“If ( Vermont’s) student population is going down, why isn’t the number of our teachers going down?” Beckett asked.

With “far too much administration” in school systems, Beckett said, the state needs to look at consolidating school districts and closing small schools, though she acknowledged those are hard decisions. Regional teachers contracts would also help reduce salary costs, Beckett believes, though she also supports teachers’ right to strike.

Beckett, like all three of her competitors, believes the state’s current education funding structure needs work. She supports repealing current education funding law that relies on property taxes, with modifications to individual taxes based on income. Beckett supports a system that is more reliant on income tax, though some property tax would be necessary, she said.

Beckett is opposed to proposals for universal pre-school education and would rather see that money go toward colleges and the university.

“We put so little into our higher education system. We have to look at our priorities,” Beckett said.

She supports the governor’s proposal for college scholarships for Vermont students who stay in state, but disagrees the money should come from a tobacco lawsuit settlement. Instead, she would look at all current education funds, she said, to see how increasing efficiency and shifting priorities might help higher education get more.

Not a ‘yes woman’

Beckett said as a Representative she would not be a “yes woman” to Gov. Douglas if he was re-elected. Though she said there aren’t many of the governor’s positions with which she disagrees, there are some.

Beckett said she supports all tobacco lawsuit settlement money going toward health education and anti-smoking initiatives; the governor wants some of it for scholarships. She supports development of wind power more than she believes the governor does.

Overall Beckett believes Catamount Health, a health care bill passed last session, is good.

One provision she would not have supported, she said, requires employers to pay for health insurance for temporary workers, even if they have coverage through a spouse or parent. Beckett said that seems unfair to employers.

Also on the issue of employers, Beckett said she would not have supported the law, signed in 2005, increasing the state minimum wage. The law raised the minimum wage from $7 to $7.25 an hour starting this year, with incremental increases annually thereafter.

Social values: ‘It depends’

Beckett said how she describes herself on social issues “depends on which ones,” though her answers to a political survey suggest she leans more conservative than liberal.

She is opposed to the death penalty and physician-assisted suicide. Abortions should be legal, Beckett believes, only when the pregnancy resulted from incest or rape or the life of a woman is endangered. Parents “absolutely” have the right to be notified before a minor child has an abortion, she said.

Beckett does not support affirmative action in public employment or college and university admissions, nor does she support crimes based on protected categories such as race, religion or sexual orientation be prosecuted as hate crimes. When asked if she would have supported a bill this last session banning discrimination in employment on the basis of gender identity, she shook her head.

“No, why?” she said. “I think our laws cover that right now.”

Though the bill was supported by a majority of legislators, the governor vetoed it this last legislative session.

Leaning in a more liberal direction, Beckett supports sex education programs that address contraception as well as abstinence.

Beckett said she has “no problem” with civil unions.

Doing both jobs

If elected, Beckett will retain her job as town clerk. She said other town clerks – both in smaller towns and in larger ones – have managed both jobs simultaneously. Beckett has a firm response to one of her opponents who, at a candidate forum recently, said being a legislator is a full-time job.

“It’s not,” she said during her interview. “We have a part-time Legislature.”

Prior to agreeing to run for office, Beckett said she asked the assistant town clerks if they would help cover her duties if she was elected. She said they’d agreed, as they had when she was deployed to Kuwait with the National Guard last year for 14 months.

Beckett plans to work half time as town clerk during the months the Legislature is in session, January through April or May. On Mondays, when the Legislature does not convene, Beckett will work 10 hours. On other days, she’ll come in early mornings or afternoons. Her clerk salary will be reduced by 50 percent during these months, she said.

When asked how she would respond to residents who ask why they pay for a full-time town clerk if the job can be done half time with the help of assistants who already work full-time, Beckett appeared surprised by the question. In an email after the interview, she emphasized that being a town clerk is a “24/7 responsibility.”

It’s not uncommon for her to go into the office on an evening or weekend, she wrote, to issue a marriage license, a certified copy of a birth certificate for someone wanting to travel to Canada, or locate the owner of a lost dog. Those duties are on top of evening meetings with the Board of Abatement, the Board of Civil Authority, the Cemetery Commission or for a tax appeal hearing, she said.

“A Town Clerk is a true public servant all of the time – not just during regular office hours,” she wrote. “I truly do not see that changing.”

‘Moderate person’

Beckett said she most wants Williston residents to know that she’s a moderate.

“I like to look at both sides of an issue, to listen, before making a decision,” she said. “I don’t see where that’s happened necessarily all the time this past session.”