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The Rutland Herald - Candidates Discuss State's Economy

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Location: Barre, VT

The Rutland Herald - Candidates Discuss State's Economy

Louis Porter

Candidates for governor faced questions about their ability to protect the state's economy at a critical time for the nation during a debate Thursday night.

While the U.S. Congress considers a massive bailout of the credit market and with a recent record-setting drop in the stock market, Vermont businesses have been reminded in recent days they are far from immune from national economic disasters.

Thursday's debate at the Barre Opera House was sponsored by the Vermont Coalition for Employment and Prosperity, a group of business associations including the Home Builders and Remodelers of Northern Vermont, the Vermont Grocers Association, the Vermont Chamber of Commerce, the National Federation of Independent Businesses, the Vermont Fuel Dealers and others.

Frank Vanecek, vice president for academic affairs at Norwich University and the former head of the college's business program, moderated the debate and a group of cadets from the school watched from the audience.

It was a crowd — and a topic — that clearly put Gov. James Douglas, a Republican who has long argued he keeps lawmakers from going overboard with taxes and regulations, at his ease. There have already been gubernatorial debates or forums hosted by the Vermont teachers union, environmental and land use groups and municipalities, among others. Economic issues have been at the top of his list since he became governor in 2002, Douglas said. He rattled off a list of his initiatives in the area, including a permit reform initiative early in his tenure and a recent economic stimulus package earlier this year.

His goal now is to prepare Vermont to rebound from the economic slump "faster than any other state," Douglas said.

But given the weakness of the country's economy — and the effect of those problems in Vermont — Douglas faced some sharp challenges over his record from Democrat Gaye Symington and independent Anthony Pollina.

Symington said the governor has not been honest with Vermonters about how his programs are paid for and said more needs to be done to increase the opportunities for higher education and renewable energy businesses in the state.

"I see tremendous opportunities for this state, building on our strengths and addressing our challenges in a straightforward way."

Pollina said neither of the other candidates — both of whom now hold office in Vermont — have done the job.

"Things are not going very well in our economy," Pollina said. "A lot of those problems have simply not gotten better under the current administration."

The topics that were the subject of questions from business leaders in the audience were not a surprise — they included health care costs, taxes and where the state's electricity is going to come from.

On health care Pollina said the Catamount Health program, a compromise between the Douglas administration and the Legislature led by Symington, speaker of the House, is not working.

"I don't support the expansion of Catamount Health because it is simply one more patchwork," Pollina said. Instead every person in the state should be in one insurance pool, effectively a health maintenance organization that would include all Vermonters, he said.

Douglas said Catamount is helping to insure more Vermonters, but that the program went too far in one respect, by including a fee assessed on employers to fund the program.

"Overall I think it is a good compromise," he said.

Symington said the program is a good one, but for the governor to say that Catamount did not need the employer assessment is just wrong.

"Catamount Health was an important first step," she said. "To imply we should initiate the program without actually paying for it is a bit of double talk."

The business owners and workers who asked questions at the debate were also worried about the same things as other Vermonters, such as deteriorating bridges and roads.

Symington said she has considered additional bonding to pay for highway repairs.

"In my town of Middlesex the bridge fell down," Pollina said. "That raises my taxes and it is a disgrace."

"He didn't start the crumbling, but he has done nothing to stop it," Pollina said of Douglas.

Douglas said while Pollina and Symington have suggested or considered additional borrowing to pay for bridge repairs, he did just that as part of his economic stimulus package earlier this year.

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