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The Burlington Free Press - Challengers Go After Douglas Over Economy

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The Burlington Free Press - Challengers Go After Douglas Over Economy

Nancy Remsen

The Wall Street meltdown has helped Vermont's gubernatorial challengers win attention for the charge they want to lay on Republican Gov. Jim Douglas -- that he hasn't done enough to prepare Vermont to weather the current economic turbulence or grow in the future.

A string of recent plant closings and layoffs has brought economic worries close to home. Vermonters need look no further than Hinesburg last week, St. Johnsbury in September or Williston in August for news of neighbors losing their jobs.

"The Douglas administration has failed to provide the leadership we need to build a robust economy for the future," Democrat Gaye Symington accused last week. "Instead, with Jim Douglas at the helm, we've seen our economy stagnate, the highest unemployment in 15 years, increasing income disparity and fewer opportunities for working Vermonters."

"If he had a plan, it is a failure," independent Anthony Pollina charged Friday. Conceding that Douglas isn't to blame for high gas prices or the mortgage crisis, Pollina said, "I do blame him for not planning ahead to strengthen the Vermont economy against what is going on nationally."

The relentless bad news from Wall Street has also given Douglas the opportunity to argue to voters that in these uncertain times, his steady, experienced hand should remain at the helm of state.

"I'm the only candidate with a plan," Douglas asserted on a Friday radio show. In a campaign statement released the same day, he charged, "My opponents do have plans -- plans for higher taxes and more debt -- but that's the last thing our state needs right now."

Douglas finds himself on the defensive in this election in part because he's a three-term incumbent with a record at which his challengers can take aim. "I've proposed a lot of ideas," he told a Vermont Public Radio audience Friday. He blamed limited progress in areas such as permit and workers-compensation reform on the Legislature, controlled by Democrats for the past four years. Lawmakers rejected or revised many of his initiatives, he said. "Every stop along the way, I get resisted."

He also made himself a target by declaring as far back as his first fun for governor in 2002 that "Jim = Jobs." His effectiveness on the job count has been especially controversial.

He claimed last winter in his state of the state address that 12,000 jobs had been added during his tenure. As recently as Friday, he pegged the number at 10,200. Critics say he's exaggerating and failing to acknowledge that many of the new jobs are low-paying service jobs.

Using data on the Department of Labor Web site, a comparison of workers covered under the state unemployment compensation law in the first quarter of 2003 -- when Douglas took office -- and the first quarter of this year -- the most recent tally -- showed a net increase of 9,287 jobs. A comparison of the monthly surveys of nonfarm payroll for January 2003 and August 2008 shows an estimated net job increase of 7,900.

Despite Douglas' radio claim, all three candidates have "plans" to address the state's economic challenges. All three also have business supporters who offer insight into their strengths in addressing the issue weighing most heavily on Vermonters' minds this fall.

A Stowe business executive says Douglas has the team and the experience to bring in more business.

The president of a Hinesburg wind technology firm says Symington has the vision to see new opportunities for Vermont.

The proprietor of a tiny retail business in Colchester says Pollina has concrete ideas, not just promises, that could bring relief soon.

Supporting Douglas

Adam Rousselle considered Michigan and Vermont when he decided to move the headquarters of his 3-year-old technology firm, Utility Risk Management Corp., out of Pennsylvania.

Vermont won, the president and founder said, because of the assistance provided Douglas and his economic-development staff. The company set up shop this summer in Stowe.

"The governor had his team take the time to understand my issues and see what benefits were available," Rousselle recounted. URMC will receive financial benefits under the Vermont Employment Growth Incentive, a program to reward job creation.

Rousselle's company has 14 employees, "but in six months, we are going to have 45," he said. He noted that while the economic incentives were attractive, the deciding factor was access to "technically savvy professionals."

"I'm telling you, there are a lot of qualified people here," Rousselle said. "We have a compelling place where people love to live. We have to start selling it."

He added, referring to Douglas: "I do know one thing: That man and his staff know how to do it. He has a good plan. It works today. It attracted me."

Douglas has been touring the state in recent days, outlining seven proposals -- some old and some new -- to spur economic growth. It's a package he would like the Legislature to act on within 100 days and includes:

An innovation challenge or contest that would reward businesses with tax breaks if they solve some of society's most vexing problems here.

Tax credits for jobs created in cutting-edge industries.

Another round of reforms to the state regulation process.

Tax incentives to promote the reuse of vacant industrial buildings.

Tax incentives to encourage residential use of downtown buildings.

Promotion of technology to create a "smart grid" that lets Vermonters monitor electricity use.

Use of incentives such as special loan rates and expedited permit processing to promote development of businesses in green growth zones around renewable energy projects.

"This comprehensive plan," Douglas said, "coupled with a steady hand at the helm of state government, will ensure Vermont emerges from this national downturn with a strong economy and more and better-paying jobs."

Backing Symington

Jan Blittersdorf is president of a company that's on a rocket ride as the country looks with increasing urgency at wind energy as one of the renewable alternatives to fossil fuels.

NRG Systems Inc., is a 25-year-old business based in Hinesburg that develops and manufactures technology that helps evaluate the potential of windy spots to become wind-power generation sites. It employs 101 people and has watched its annual revenues jump by 50 percent in recent years to $60 million.

At national conferences on wind energy, Blittersdorf said she's heard pitches from governors of Pennsylvania, Iowa and elsewhere. "They talk about what they are doing to encourage the renewable-energy industry."

In Symington, Blittersdorf said, she sees a leader who would catapult Vermont onto the renewable-energy bandwagon. "She will lead, but I think she is also fairly practical. She knows how to make small steps."

"There is quite a bit of potential here, especially given Vermont's environmental reputation," Blittersdorf said. "It's a matter of wanting to make it happen in your state."

"We clearly need to change course," Symington said last week as she unveiled her 21st Century Initiative Economic Plan, a package of proposals she's been talking about individually throughout her campaign. Her plan includes:

Establishing a measure of the effectiveness of tax credits, economic development programs and other incentives to decide whether to keep them.

A "Bridge to Opportunity" program to encourage more students to pursue higher education.

Expanded child care to support working parents.

Promotion of Vermont as a legal home for businesses that operate in cyberspace.

Support for local food production and farms.

Regulation changes and advocacy for renewable-power generation projects and renewable-energy businesses.

More investments in energy efficiency with, for example, a program to help homeowners buy money-saving energy devices.

Bigger investments in road and bridge repairs, and expansions of rail and public transit, tapping all federal dollars and bonding potential.

"Jim Douglas' policies have produced the worst economy in memory," Symington charged. "We need a new governor who will move quickly to establish Vermont as a leader in the cyber economy, create good-paying jobs in the agricultural and energy sectors, and improve our transportation and communications infrastructure, which are the backbone of a strong economy."

Cheering Pollina

Laurie Hammond owns Triple Loop, a small retail and rental shop offering figure skating and dance outfits and the big attraction this time of year -- Halloween costumes.

It's just Hammond and another full-time employee and a couple of part-time students sewing and selling specialty apparel and renting costumes, she said.

Small businesses like hers are called "the backbone of the state," Hammond said, but many are financially fragile. That's why Hammond decided to join a new Vermont Merchants United network -- proposed by Pollina -- to help businesses negotiate lower fees from credit card processing companies.

"Anthony Pollina decided it was such a great opportunity for all of us, he wasn't waiting until after the election to get it started," Hammond said. "I would be saving a fair amount of money," she said. "It will give me a little more job security."

"I really like his ideas," Hammond continued. "I just feel Anthony Pollina has a much more down-to-earth, clearer vision."

Pollina accuses his rivals of offering slogans and generalities. "I don't see anybody else putting concrete options on the table. I'm trying to be specific about how we are going to do things." His plans include:

Eliminating the 40 percent exemption in the capital gains tax to generate about $20 million a year. He would earmark $5 million to cover interest payments on a $75 million bond issue for road and bridge work -- which he sees as a big job generator. Douglas attacked this idea in a debate last week, saying there wouldn't be capital gains revenue in the current economy. A year ago, Douglas proposed closing the same loophole and using the revenue to reduce taxes on middle-class Vermonters. This week, Tax Commissioner Tom Pelham said the $20 million estimate offered with the governor's capital gains proposal was calculated to be sustainable through the economy's ups and downs.

Establishing VermontCare, a credit card that would invest a percentage of every purchase in a fund to help farms and renewable energy projects instead of pay for gifts or airline miles.

Seeking investments from the endowments of state institutions for a fund to help finance renewable energy and broadband infrastructure.

Allowing municipalities to bond for local renewable-energy projects like a regional wood energy plant or a loan program to help homeowners "go solar."

"You can't blame Douglas for the national economic troubles," Pollina said. "You can wonder how he can continue to support the failed economic policies of Bush and McCain, and we can blame him for doing nothing to project Vermont families and Vermont jobs."

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