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The Brattleboro Reformer - Candidate Debate Focuses on Economy, Health Care

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Location: Brattleboro, VT

The Brattleboro Reformer - Candidate Debate Focuses on Economy, Health Care

Chris Garofolo

In a faceoff that continually returned to discussions on the state's economy, Gov. James Douglas portrayed himself as the seasoned politician to right Vermont's ship during the storm as challengers Gaye Symington and Anthony Pollina chipped away at the image he presented.

After a Sept. 10 debate in Randolph which focused entirely on education, Wednesday's talks between the three top candidates revolved around health care and the economy.

Held in Croker Hall at the Austine School for the Deaf, with more than 300 residents in attendance, the three front-runners responded to questions about health care and the parallels with disability issues in the state.

Moderator Anne Potter, director of the school, posed her first four questions about health care and the needs of residents with disabilities.

As the House Speaker, Democrat Symington said one of her highest priorities was to get affordable insurance for all Vermonters. While the governor focused on the insurance companies, the legislators were focused on health care for Vermonters, she said. "We need to move forward to continue to pull together our health care system."

Symington and Douglas bickered at times over health care, again and again putting the blame on the other candidate, but both agreed it is important to reach out and listen to the concerns of disabled Vermonters, especially when dealing with law enforcement.

In his response to the health care questions, Douglas said he will continue to find ways to reduce costs related to health care without reducing quality.

Other areas of the nation are using the Catamount Plan as an example for their own programs, a sign it is working, he said.

"I think it will make a real difference for the future of our state," said Douglas. "The rest of the country is looking at Vermont."

Progressive-turned-independent Pollina suggested creating one state plan known as the Vermont Self-Insurance Program, to help provide coverage to the 61,000 state residents without health insurance, a figure with which Douglas disagreed.

"I believe health care is a right," said Pollina. People need health care, not insurance companies, he added.

The longtime activist said the current health care plans are "patchwork programs" which do not offer the services to disabled residents that they need.

Calling his time working with families that have children with disabilities "one of the most rewarding experiences I ever had," Pollina said the state needs to establish a working group to sit down and have conversations about what is important to residents with special needs.

In response, Douglas said there already is a group, called the Governor's Committee on Employment of People with Disabilities, that in the recent past has worked with veterans and Vermont youth.

With slightly more than a month before the election, the incumbent Douglas said residents have been let down by Wall Street and lawmakers in Washington, but that through his leadership, Vermont is well-prepared for the future.

"What I want for everyone in this state is a chance to succeed," he said.

But Symington and Pollina disputed the claims of the three-term Republican governor, saying Vermont has seen wages decrease and a lack of good jobs under Douglas.

Symington said Vermonters do not want repackaged old ideas, but proactive ideas to establish new, well-paying jobs, including software and "green" positions that can be attracted to the state.

"We need to be more creative and have more leadership on the top to do that," she said.

Pollina, saying he has watched Vermont families struggle over the years, went one step further than Symington and offered to create jobs repairing the infrastructure and building affordable homes.

Both Symington and Pollina called for Entergy to fund the decommissioning of Vermont Yankee, where Douglas said the plant offers an emissions-free, comprehensive source of power for the state.

"This has been an important part of that result" for the lowest electric rates in New England, said Douglas. "We have the least reliance on fossil fuels."

Unless the power plant lives up to its promise, that decommissioning cost will get passed on to Vermont taxpayers, said Symington.

Entergy has to pay the cost of "cleaning up after itself," she said, adding the plant is not emissions-free because of the high level of waste on the banks of the Connecticut River.

Pollina, a longtime opponent of nuclear power, echoed Symington, saying he does not like it when corporate interests pull more weight around the state than the voters.

He said he wanted to focus the state's energy future on a locally owned company and that "frankly, Vermont Yankee does not fit the definition of Vermont-owned and Vermont-controlled."

Douglas responded to the attacks saying he has put into place the economic stimulus package, pointing to the tax-free holiday held in July, and a business-friendly environment as keys to recovering from the current financial downturn.

"We're in better shape than most states," he said, adding he is in favor of capping the property tax to cut down on the expenses of the average Vermonter.

He also defended the frequent jabs about caring more about corporate interests than the Vermont people, a statement he called "obscene."

Absent from the Austine stage was Liberty Union candidate Peter Diamondstone, but the longtime challenger briefly attended the debate. Diamondstone, who was expelled from the Waitsfield debate in July, participated in the Sept. 24 debate sponsored by Vermont Public Radio with the three top candidates.

The event was sponsored by the Vermont AARP, the Vermont Protection and Advocacy Inc., the Austine School, ALANA Community Organization, the Southeast Vermont League of Women Voters Unit and the Vermont Center for Independent Living.

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