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The Rutland Herald - Debate Focuses on Disabled Rights

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Location: Brattleboro, VT

The Rutland Herald - Debate Focuses on Disabled Rights

Susan Smallheer

A gubernatorial debate held at the Austine School focused on the rights of people with disabilities Wednesday night, with most of the questions posed in American Sign Language.

Republican Gov. James Douglas and his two challengers, Democratic House Speaker Gaye Symington and independent Anthony Pollina even were asked at one point when the last time was they had spoken or communicated with a deaf person, a homeless person, a person in a wheelchair or a teenager, or someone of a racial or ethnic minority.

Anne Potter, the principal of the school for deaf children, which draws students from all over Vermont, asked the candidates about health care reform, health coverage of mental illness, and whether high property taxes were the result of funding special education.

Later, area residents asked about the high cost of college tuition, what government's role should be in fighting poverty, the impact of the Wall Street meltdown on Vermont, and the future of the Vermont Yankee nuclear plant.

The unusual forum, held at the Austine School and the Vermont Center for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing, was co-sponsored by AARP and Vermont Protection and Advocacy.

It started with Austine students signing the Pledge of Allegiance and was broadcast live on Vermont Public Television.

Potter, who used American Sign Language for the first 10 questions of the forum and had her questions interpreted, asked what the candidates would do to reduce health care costs and improve sensitivity among state workers to deaf people and others with handicaps.

Douglas and Symington said the state had made real strides in getting more and more uninsured Vermonters covered by some kind of health care plan, but Pollina said the whole system should be scrapped in favor of a single insurance plan.

"I believe health care is a right," said Pollina, noting he would call his plan Vermont Self Insurance, "and if you're a Vermonter, you're in it."

Pollina said that 30 percent of every health care dollar goes toward health insurance companies' profits and administration, a figure that Douglas disputed, and said if it were that simple to cut health care costs by 30 percent, he would have done it already.

Douglas and Symington each blamed the other of "shifting costs" in the area of health care reform, and Douglas touted his initiatives into preventative care as the real way of addressing the increasing need for health care.

But some of the strongest applause of the night came on responses from the three candidates on what they would do about the funding of the decommissioning fund at the Vermont Yankee nuclear plant in neighboring Vernon.

Douglas said he would rely on federal regulators to make sure the funds were there when the reactor was ready to be dismantled and cleaned up, while Symington and Pollina said they wanted Entergy Nuclear to make more of a guarantee of the full funding, especially since the Louisiana-based owner was seeking a new corporate ownership plan called Enexus that shifted the responsibility for Vermont Yankee to a new company heavily in debt with few assets.

Vermont Yankee's decommissioning trust fund currently contains about $420 million, while current estimates of the cost are closer to $900 million or higher.

Symington said that without the guarantee from Entergy Nuclear, Douglas was siding with "an out-of-state corporation" over Vermonters, a charge Douglas rejected.

Symington said that Douglas was shifting a $500 million burden onto Vermont taxpayers by vetoing legislation earlier this year which would have required that Entergy put up the money or a letter of credit.

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