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House candidates in Bristol area debate

BRISTOL — More than 60 people showed up at Bristol’s Holley Hall this past Wednesday evening to hear a debate between the candidates vying for the two seats representing the Addison-4 House district.
The debate, sponsored by the Addison Independent, featured participation of all four Addison-4 hopefuls: Incumbent Democrats Mike Fisher of Lincoln and Dave Sharpe of Bristol, and Republican challengers Fred Baser of Bristol and Valerie Mullin of Monkton. The Addison-4 district includes the towns of Bristol, Monkton, Starksboro and Lincoln.
The candidates addressed a variety of questions ranging from property tax reform to the state’s new solid waste/recycling law, Act 148. They were also asked a handful of questions from a very attentive crowd.
Baser and Mullin touted their respective backgrounds in business as potential assets if elected to the House. Sharpe and Fisher said their experience under the Golden Dome would allow them to get results for constituents. Sharpe is a ranking member of the House Ways and Means Committee, while Fisher is chairman of the House Health Care Committee.
But Baser and Mullin argued that incumbency could be seen as a disadvantage in this race. They argued Fisher should take some blame for the failed launch of the Vermont Health Connect website, and challenged Sharpe for supporting new taxes.
Fisher acknowledged the website failures and said that this problem was not imagined back in 2011, when the state’s federally mandated health exchange was being planned.
Sharpe acknowledged supporting new taxes — such as a bump in the gas tax — but said he did so because the revenues helped replace two Bristol bridges and make improvements to the state’s roads and culverts.
Mullin and Baser both took aim at Act 68, the state’s education funding law.
Mullin said the law should be scrapped and the state should embrace school choice.
“Effective schools would rise and others would have to step up to compete,” she said.
Baser called Act 68 “broken,” and said the Legislature should look at a different menu of taxes (other than primarily property taxes) to fund public education.
Fisher and Sharpe both acknowledged Vermont has an “overreliance” on the property tax for funding programs. Sharpe said other states rely on the property tax to the tune of around 40 percent, while he noted Vermont is at around 61 percent. Sharpe said the tax system should better reflect a resident’s ability to pay, and Fisher also called for more balance within the tax system.
The candidates also shared their views on the issue of school consolidation, an idea floated by some lawmakers as a way for Vermont to deal with the current trend of declining student enrollment and growing education expenses. While none of the four candidates came out in favor of school consolidation, they agreed the state should consider some structural changes in order to save money. They agreed that Vermonters cherish local control over their schools. Baser said the state could consider a statewide teachers’ contract to help cut costs and streamline negotiations. Sharpe criticized that idea as having the potential to raise education expenses for rural school districts that would have to pay their teachers the same as in more urban districts, like Burlington.
All four candidates said they supported the Addison Rutland Natural Gas Project pipeline for its potential to bring lower fuel costs to local homes and businesses, but Fisher and Sharpe criticized Vermont Gas for the manner in which it had been negotiating with affected property owners — particularly those in Monkton. Fisher said some property owners along the pipeline route have complained of being bullied by Vermont Gas officials.
Sharpe specifically took issue with the Vermont Public Service Board’s dominant role in evaluating utility projects like the proposed pipeline, a three-phase project that would deliver gas to Middlebury, Vergennes, the International Paper Co., Rutland and also parts of Bristol and New Haven. Sharpe said he plans to co-sponsor a bill that would leverage natural gas ratepayer funds to pay for lawyers to represent interested parties in major utility applications.
MORE THAN 70 local residents turned out for last week’s Addison-4 House candidate debate at Holley Hall in Bristol. Independent photo/Trent Campbell
SOLID WASTE LAW
All four candidates had strong views about Vermont’s Act 148, which will dramatically cut down the amount of material that can be taken to landfills and transfer stations through the year 2020, when food scraps will have to be diverted from the waste stream.
Act 148 is a particularly touchy subject in Bristol, home of one of only two unlined landfills left in the state. The other is in Salisbury. Bristol has around $600,000 saved in its landfill closure fund, but needs around $1 million more to do the job, noted Bristol Selectman Joel Bouvier. He said state officials have suddenly begun to put pressure on the town to close its landfill, raising fears that the town will have to raise the additional $1 million to close it. And Bristol taxpayers (along with those in New Haven, Starksboro, Monkton and Lincoln) are already looking at the prospect of funding a $32.6 million Mount Abraham Union High School project (to be decided Nov. 4). Bristol residents next spring are also likely to be asked to fund a new fire station.
Fisher said he understands Bristol’s concerns about Act 148, and said there is enough time for the Legislature to make some changes to the law to perhaps soften its impact.
Baser said Bristol’s landfill has been an asset to the town, and said he would work with the Vermont Agency of Natural Resources to try and get an agreement that would allow for the landfill to keep receiving trash until sufficient funds are raised to close it properly.
Mullin was the lone candidate who said the state should not consider legalizing possession of small amounts of marijuana, a step that has been taken by Colorado and Washington state. Mullin added she agrees with the Legislature’s recent decision to decriminalize possession of small amounts of the drug, for which offenders are now issued a civil ticket.
Fisher and Sharpe said the legalization question deserved discussion, though perhaps not at a time when other, weightier issues are before the Legislature.
Fisher said, “More people than I would have imagined are smoking pot … And those people are supporting a black market. It’s a black market I would entertain closing, if I could.”
Baser said he is concerned about marijuana’s potential as a “gateway” drug, something that could lead users to take more powerful drugs, and he said he has more questions than answers at this point about the idea of legalization.
The Oct. 22 debate was recorded by Northeast Addison Television (NEAT TV) local cable access Channel 16. NEAT TV officials said the debate would be broadcast on the cable channel and be available to view on the company’s website, www.neatbristol.com, under the “On Demand” category. Station manager Mary Arbuckle said the debate will be broadcast on Channel 16 in the Bristol area daily through Election Day at 11 a.m. and 7 p.m., except for Monday, Oct. 27, when the station will broadcast the Bristol selectboard meeting at 7 p.m. For more information on its scheduled broadcast and the ability to view it on demand via computer, log on to www.neatbristol.com.
John Flowers, who moderated the Oct. 22 debate, can be reached at [email protected].

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