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The Rutland Herald - Gubernatorial Hopefuls Debate Budget, Health Care

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Location: Burlington, VT


The Rutland Herald - Gubernatorial Hopefuls Debate Budget, Health Care

Daniel Burlow

The three major candidates for governor all had differing views on the direction of Vermont's economy as they spoke before an audience of business leaders Thursday afternoon.

The third gubernatorial debate between incumbent Republican Gov. James Douglas, Democratic House Speaker Gaye Symington and independent Anthony Pollina focused mostly on cuts to the state budget, road infrastructure and job growth.

Differences among the three candidates were clear in their answers, but this session at Burlington's swank Hilton Hotel provided few, if any, new proposals or political jabs.

Douglas, who is seeking a fourth term as governor, stuck to his mantra that the tax burden is already too high in Vermont to consider new taxes to raise state revenues. He defended the $32 million in cuts state government is undergoing and said his administration has made efforts to combine departments to reduce costs.

"State government needs to do what families and businesses do during tough times and that is tightening the belt," Douglas said.

Symington, a Democrat from Jericho whose party has worked with the Douglas administration on the cuts to state government, said the state needs to retain the services that help needy Vermonters. And she attacked the incumbent for retaining a slate of public relations officials, which she says cost taxpayers about $1 million annually.

"We are spending this money on public relations officials so that they can tell the story of how we are delivering services rather than actually delivering those services," Symington said.

Pollina, who dropped his Vermont Progressive Party label this summer to run as an independent, said the state should be making investments in infrastructure to generate job growth in the construction sector. He displayed a chart showing sharp growth under former Gov. Howard Dean and slight or stagnant growth under Douglas.

"We can do more to stimulate the economy by putting Vermonters to work so that they can pay their bills and afford to take their families out for pizza on a Friday night," Pollina said.

Both Symington and Pollina hit Douglas for allegedly not putting enough state funds up for road and bridge repairs and replacement. Symington said she would rather spend "a dollar today to repair a culvert than $10 later to build a new road." And Pollina said that tourists to the state "write home about the crumbling bridges in Washington County."

"More and more Vermonters are using one-way bridges to get to work," Symington said. "And in some areas, they are facing no-way bridges."

Meanwhile, Douglas blamed the Vermont Legislature for "raiding" the state's Transportation Fund — the money set aside by the gas tax for road and bridge repairs — and putting it in the General Fund. He added that historic preservation requirements also often delay some bridge replacement and repair projects.

"To be perfectly honest, we're going to need some more help from Uncle Sam," Douglas said.

Clear differences among the candidates were revealed during questions on energy and health care.

Pollina said Vermont has done a good job by keeping energy demand down through efficiency efforts, but he said the state needs to do more to generate energy through local and renewable programs as it continues to cut down on its need.

"Rates are important to look at, but what is more important is to look at how much you are using and why," he said.

Douglas said Vermont is moving toward more renewables and cited projects such as small hydroelectric facilities, small-scale wind turbines and landfill methane production as evidence. But he also said the state needs to maintain a good relationship with its two largest energy suppliers, Vermont Yankee nuclear power plant and Hydro-Quebec.

"We need to be sure that these long-term relationships are maintained," he said.

Symington criticized Douglas for not leading on the state's energy future. She has a plan to generate 20 percent of the state's energy needs through wind turbines over the next 10 years.

"Vermont does not have a plan for its energy future right now," she said. "And we are approaching the end of these contracts with no alternatives in our back pocket. That makes no sense."

On health care, Douglas said cost containment is key to reducing the burden of costs on the state and employers. He touted state efforts under the Blueprint for Health program, which is aimed at promoting exercise and health eating habits to reduce costly health problems

He also reiterated that he does not support a single-payer health care system, which he said would not get at the problem of rising health care costs. It would mean "quadrupling the income tax" to pay for such a program, he said.

"Whether it is a premium or a tax, costs would continue to go up and we would be broke either way," he said.

Symington said health care spending in Vermont is now around $4 billion annually and noted that her own family feels the heat: Their health insurance costs have gone from $750 to nearly $1,500 per month. She said Catamount Health — a new state-sponsored health insurance program offered through private companies — is a step toward fixing the system.

"We need to keep our eye on the goal," she said. "And Catamount moves us one step closer to that goal."

Pollina outright endorsed a single-payer health care system, which he said would take the burden off businesses in Vermont. He also accused Douglas of using scare tactics by saying it would result in an increase in the income tax.

In addition, Pollina said he doesn't believe Catamount has been too effective in reducing the number of uninsured Vermonters.

"Catamount works for some people who qualify," Pollina said. "But we are still using our tax dollars to subsidize plans from the private insurance companies. That just doesn't make sense."

Thursday's debate was sponsored by the Associated Industries of Vermont and was held shortly after the lunch during their annual meeting. About 200 people attended the event.

The general election is Tuesday, Nov. 4.


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