MIDDLEBURY — Addison County candidates for the Vermont House and Senate shared their views on issues ranging from health care to the future of Vermont Yankee at an Oct. 15 political forum at the Middlebury Inn.
The forum, co-hosted by the Addison County Chamber of Commerce and People of Addison County Together, provided one of the final opportunities candidates had to score some points with voters before the Nov. 2 general election. More than 30 people turned out on a rainy Friday morning to take in the debate, moderated by Middlebury College Prof. Emeritus of Political Science and Independent columnist Eric Davis.
Candidates fielded questions on four main issues — the future of health care; the proposed re-licensing of Vermont Yankee; the state of Vermont’s education funding law; and how to bridge a looming 2011-2012 state budget gap currently estimated at $110 million.
The political hopefuls, seated side-by-side at a common table in the inn’s main dining room, offered differing views on whether the Vermont Yankee nuclear power plant should be granted a 20-year license extension when the current license expires in 2012. All of the panelists acknowledged the need to close the plant immediately if it is proven to be a public health threat, though some candidates said they wanted federal authorities to present them with more details about the plant’s status before is put out of commission.
“We have a 40-year-old plant running at 20 percent of capacity with a negative history of maintenance, cooling towers, underground pipes and leaks,” said Sen. Claire Ayer, D-Weybridge. “It took them months to find the tritium leak and now we know we have (radioactive) tritium in a former drinking well … I have some real questions about safety and reliability.”
Ayer added Entergy, the company that owns VY, has offered the state 115 megawatts of power — only 15 percent of the state’s annual electricity needs. She said the company has offered a price of 6.1 cents per kilowatt hour, a rate she believes is no longer competitive.
“I would not (renew Vermont Yankee’s license),” Ayer said. “It’s not a good bargain, it’s not safe and we don’t need it.”
Fellow incumbent Sen. Harold Giard agreed. The Bridport Democrat said the longest running nuclear power facility in the world ran for 47 years, and noted that Vermont Yankee would be headed to a 60-year lifespan if it is extended for another 20 years.
“I think it would be a terrible mistake to push that facility beyond its capacity and specifications,” Giard said. “I voted to close Vermont Yankee on the Senate floor, and I would do that again if they ask us to re-do that vote in 2011.”
State Senate candidate Andrea Ochs, an Orwell Republican, was among those who said the state should receive more information from agencies such as the federal Nuclear Regulatory Commission before deciding on the licensing issue.
“I believe there are questions, but I also believe we need to wait until the final report is in,” Ochs said. “Vermont Yankee does provide quite a bit of our power at a reasonable cost. If it needs to be shut down, then we shouldn’t wait until 2012. But if the reports come back … and it is found that it is safe and able to run, then we should re-license it.”
Whiting Republican Joy Jones, a candidate in the Addison Rutland-1 district, agreed. She added the state shouldn’t feel obligated to re-license the facility for a full 20 years, even if the plant is deemed safe.
“I believe that if federal regulators … go and determine that it is safe, we should consider renewing its contract, however I don’t believe we should look at 20 years, but possibly five or seven or 10 — something where we could check up on it.”
The candidates offered a variety of takes on the future of education funding in Vermont.
Rep. Betty Nuovo, D-Middlebury, said the state’s current school financing laws (Acts 60 and 68) are working well and need not be altered. She said she would oppose any efforts to increase income eligibility requirements in able to benefit from the law. Households earning less than $90,000 currently receive a financial break on school taxes under the law.
“I believe that income sensitivity should continue as it is: I would not reduce it,” Nuovo said. “To be able to pay your taxes at a reasonable rate is important to me.”
Rep. Greg Clark, R-Vergennes, countered that the Legislature should look at bumping the eligibility threshold to qualify for Act 68 help.
“We live in a state where it gets more difficult to pay the bills, when fewer people are actually paying what the true cost (for programs and services) is,” Clark said.
“Everybody has to pay their fair share,” he added, “and school boards and educators and administrators have to continue to take a look at their budgets so the cost doesn’t just keep going up.”
Rep. Diane Lanpher, D-Vergennes, called the income sensitivity provision of Act 68 a “fairness issue.
“It allows people to pay their property taxes, which is the number one concern of people I’m sure everybody up here has heard for a number of years,” Lanpher said, gesturing to her colleagues. “This (income sensitivity) allows 70 percent of Vermonters to be able to pay fairly, based on their income.”
Bristol Republican John “Peeker” Heffernan voiced concern about the overall manner in which the state pays for education.
“I’m not sure if (Act 68) is broken or not, but I don’t believe the property tax is a fair way to assess the education tax,” Heffernan said.
He questioned the logic under the current financing system of the state collecting property taxes and then returning them to people who qualify for assistance under Act 68.
“If you are going to do it based on income, do the whole system based on income, right across the board,” he said.
Ripton resident Robert Wagner, an independent candidate for state Senate, agreed the state should examine different ways of paying for education. He specifically suggested a tax on Vermont natural resources products that are extracted and exported out of state.
“We have to look at this in the broader context; Vermont is desperately in need of tax reform,” Wagner said. He alluded to the high cost of living in the state, along with its real estate prices.
“We need to shift taxes off of structures, off of improvements to land, and onto the land itself, onto natural resources that are extracted from Vermont and exported,” he said. “We export $1.2 billion worth of natural resources each year, tax-free. We’ve got to tax that.”
Orwell Republican Mark Young, a candidate for state Senate, said he does not think Act 68 is broken, “but it might need a tweak here and there.” Young, the long-time president of the First National Bank of Orwell and former state representative who served on the House Commerce Committee, said there should be more audits of financial transactions made through Act 68.
“We should try to verify whether people are being forthcoming about household income,” said Young, who added that it is clear some people are “gaming the system.” And as a banker and town treasurer for Orwell, he said he encounters many people who simply don’t understand Act 68.
Candidates were asked to weigh in on the state’s budget deficit and health care reform.
Bristol Republican Fred Baser said he would work to protect programs for the most vulnerable; not tear down programs that would cost more to restore later or that would result in a loss of federal funding; advocate for spending cuts; and create a new entity — as has been done in Maryland — to prescribe specific reimbursement fees for medical procedures.
“You can reduce the cost-shift and have administrative simplicity,” Baser said.
Weybridge Democrat Spence Putnam, a candidate in the Addison-5 House district, recalled his 12 years as a top administrator at Vermont Teddy Bear, during which he said he had to spend a lot of time researching the most appropriate health care plan for his employees.
“One of the problems of our current ‘non-system’ is that insurance follows employment; we shouldn’t have to worry about insurance when we move from job to job,” Putnam said.
“It’s time for our society to step up and provide insurance for all of us, and it does need to be partially publicly funded,” he added.
Rep. Michael Fisher, D-Lincoln, said the state is at an “interesting time” in its health care reform efforts. The Vermont Health Care Commission has hired Harvard economist William Hsiao to design three models for health care financing — including a single-payer version, a public option and third, to-be-defined option.
“I’m hopeful Dr. Hsiao is going to help us chart a path through this, where we can have a good fit for Vermont,” Fisher said.
As for the anticipated state budget shortfall, Fisher said it would be important to make sure the state preserves its safety net for its most needy and vulnerable citizens.
New Haven Republican Harvey Smith, a House candidate in Addison-5, opposes the concept of a state-run health care system. He advocated for bringing additional insurance companies into the state, which he believes would stabilize costs.
He said increasing taxes should be considered “a last resort” in the strategy to deal with the state’s fiscal problems.
“We should be looking at ways to cut our spending,” Smith said.
Middlebury Democrat Paul Ralston said state government cannot look at health care independently from the many issues it affects.
“We have to look at health care as part of the cost of education; we have to look at it as one of the biggest costs of government; we have to look at it as one of the biggest factors in economic development,” said Ralston, the president and founder of Middlebury-based Vermont Coffee Co. He noted his own business is having to compete for employees with other businesses that are able to offer better health care benefits. He said more health care reform could level the recruiting playing field between Vermont and out-of-state businesses.
Addison Independent readers can learn more about the local House and Senate candidates’ positions on the issues through a series of questionnaire responses that will be published up to Nov. 2. The first installment of responses appeared in the Thursday, Oct. 14, issue.
Reporter John Flowers is at [email protected]