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Burlington Free Press - Candidates Debate Business Goals

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Burlington Free Press - Candidates Debate Business Goals

For two hours Thursday afternoon, the three leading candidates for governor tried to persuade an audience of Vermont manufacturers of their understanding and ability to tackle the challenges facing the business community.

Republican Gov. Jim Douglas reminded the crowd of about 100 attending the annual meeting luncheon for Associated Industries of Vermont that he was the one who would protect them from increased taxes. His opponents have advocated various tax increases, he said.

Democratic House Speaker Gaye Symington said she would put in place economic development and energy plans and promote, rather than badmouth Vermont. "I want to emphasize what we do well," she said. "You don't hear that from our governor."

Independent Anthony Pollina suggested partisan bickering between the executive branch Douglas heads and the Legislature where Symington holds a leadership position are to blame for the lack of progress on many issues important to business. "As governor I would be able to end the gridlock."

The candidates faced lengthy, complex questions on eight topics, but had been able to prepare because they received the questions in advance. Symington, who isn't as practiced a public speaker as Douglas or Pollina, consulted notes frequently when answering questions.

Douglas reminded the audience repeatedly of his opposition to increasing Vermonters' tax burden, noting his challengers can't make such a promise.

Pollina asked the business leaders why the word burden was always coupled with taxes but not other hefty expenses. "What about the health care burden, the fuel burden? We need to talk about the overall burden."

The three were asked how they would balance the budget during the current economic downturn.

"State government has to do what families and businesses are doing, tighten our belts," Douglas said.

Pollina criticized Douglas and Symington for spending cuts the administration and legislative leaders agreed upon this summer after projections showed state revenues shrinking. "I find it troubling that in Montpelier they have decided to take tough times and make them tougher for some people."

Symington chided Douglas for keeping his communications staff. "I'd start where we have some fat, the $1 million for public relations."

Symington found herself on the defensive when the topic turned to roads and bridges. Douglas noted her support in 2006 of increasing the gasoline and diesel taxes to pay for road and bridge projects.

She countered that with the extra revenue that would have been raised over the past two years from a 4-cent tax increase, "we would be a lot further ahead." She reminded the audience of the seriousness of some of the road and bridge problems — such as in Richmond where she said a closed bridge is hurting businesses.

However, Symington said a tax increase wasn't an option now that gasoline costs so much more.

Pollina said he would close the loophole in who pays the capital gain tax and use some of the new revenue to cover interest payments on a $75 million bond issue for roads and bridges. He said that's the kind of investment that would really make a difference.

Pollina went on the offensive on health care, criticizing the new Catamount Health program for the uninsured as a patch on a failing system. He advocated having Vermont become a single insurance pool.

"I think going to a government run, single-payer system would be a big mistake," Douglas said. He suggested the state income tax would quadruple.

"Let's not do the fear-mongering," Pollina countered, noting he'd never said the system should be funded from income taxes. He repeated his charge. "What we are doing now is not working."

"Clearly we need to make more progress," Symington said, then took aim at Pollina, saying, "but we need to get real about options."

Nancy Remsen, Burlington Free Press

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