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The Burlington Free Press - Governor Candidates Trade Barbs in Debate

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The Burlington Free Press - Governor Candidates Trade Barbs in Debate

Terri Hallenbeck

Two challengers criticized the incumbent governor on issues from jobs to budget cuts while Gov. Jim Douglas fired back in defense Wednesday night in a debate.

Democrat Gaye Symington and independent Anthony Pollina parried with Republican Douglas as a fish tank bubbled in the background in a debate broadcast on WPTZ-TV from the Echo Lake Aquarium and Science Center in Burlington.

With Lake Champlain just feet away, they went to bat over its condition.

The state has spent $85 million on cleanup efforts, Symington said, but has no clear idea of whether those efforts are working. "I think that's a failure of Gov. Douglas' leadership," Symington said, a charge she has made a central part of her campaign on a variety of issues facing the state.

"It's a failure of both the governor and the legislative leadership," Pollina countered, seeking to drive home his argument that Douglas and Symington, who has been speaker of the House for four years, are bogged down in partisan bickering that creates gridlock and leads to weak compromises.

Douglas fought back. By criticizing the lake cleanup, his opponents had insulted thousands of Vermonters who are working to improve the lake, he said.

The response to this summer's death of 12-year-old Brooke Bennett, allegedly at the hands of a convicted sex offender who'd been released early from probation, generated barbs between Douglas and Symington.

Symington praised the work of the Senate Judiciary Committee, which held hearings this fall about the state's sex offender laws. The committee will recommend the Legislature next year create a new crime of aggravated sexual assault on a child with a 25-year minimum sentence.

"It's important that we took the time," she said, criticizing Douglas' call for more immediate changes that had prosecutors and victims' advocates wary. "If we had just jumped in and changed our laws without doing that, we could have put our communities at risk."

Douglas responded: "Speaker Symington says it's OK to wait and have lots of hearings."

A few minutes later, Symington shot back: "We could have changed laws in ways that would have made our communities less safe."

Symington sought to paint Douglas as a governor who has not planned for the future, shifts blame for problems to others and doesn't foster cooperation between agencies.

"We don't need contests and tax credits," she said in reference to Douglas' proposal to offer incentives to innovators and tax credits to software developers. "We need substantive solutions."

Pollina accused Douglas of creating slogans but not solutions. "If you listen to the governor, frankly, we've solved all the problems," Pollina said.

Douglas portrayed his opponents as unrealistic. "I'm shocked to hear Speaker Symington say tax credits don't make a difference," he said.

Douglas criticized Pollina's proposal to close a capital gains tax loophole and use the money to bond for road and bridge repairs, saying there won't be any capital gains to tax in the current economy.

"I'm the only candidate who has a real plan to get our economy moving again," Douglas said.

The state's economy is hurting, he said, but its unemployment rate is the second lowest in New England, and the state has 10,000 more jobs than when he took office in 2003.

Symington countered that 90 percent of the jobs are low-wage. Pollina contended that most Vermonters would say they are not better off today than when Douglas took office.

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