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Crowd grills Washington County Senate candidates

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October 19, 2006

By Erin Post

An overflow crowd at the Big Picture Theater in Waitsfield Tuesday grilled the six candidates vying to represent Washington County in Montpelier on everything from energy policy and property taxes to bike lanes and small business development.

Incumbents Bill Doyle (R-Montpelier), Ann Cummings (D-Montpelier) and Phil Scott (R-Montpelier) appeared alongside challengers Kim Cheney (D-Middlesex), Donny Osman (D-Plainfield) and Jim Parker (R-Warren) Tuesday night for the 2006 Candidates Forum, sponsored by MRVTV-TV, Channel 44 and <MI>The Valley Reporter<D>.

The event featured prepared questions from moderator Lisa Loomis, editor of <MI>The Valley Reporter<D>¸ as well as questions from audience members.

Voters go to the polls November 7 to elect three of the six candidates to the Vermont State Senate.

On Tuesday night, Vermont's energy policy was one focus of debate.

Many candidates voiced support for exploring alternative sources of energy, including biodiesel and wind, both as a way to reduce dependence on foreign sources of fossil fuel and to combat global warming.

It's a viable goal to have 25 percent of the state's energy reserves come from a mix of sources other than fossil fuels in 10 to 15 years, Parker said, noting that biodiesel is a particularly strong choice. As a small business owner, he said he is experimenting with powering three vehicles with biodiesel, calling the fuel source clean, renewable and a boon for farmers.

Improving the state's public transportation infrastructure including railroads and bus networks as well as changing regulations to allow fuel efficient diesel vehicles to be purchased in the state should all be goals, Scott said.

"We have to conserve now," said Scott, the three-term senator and vice-chair of the transportation committee. "We have to lead by example in that regard."

Whether or not nuclear energy belonged in the mix divided the candidates largely along party lines. 

"I think it should be on the table," Doyle said. Scott and Parker, the two other Republican candidates, also voiced tempered support for the option.

"I'm not an advocate for nuclear power," Scott said, but given the choice between depending on "fossil fuel and big oil," and supplementing the power supply with nuclear energy, he said he would support the latter.

On the other side of the aisle, Cummings said her work on the senate committee that regulates utilities has opened her eyes to the problems with nuclear power, in particular the nuclear waste that is "piling up in Vermont." 

"Future technology may make it fine but at the present time I'm concerned," said the 10-year veteran of the state senate and former mayor of Montpelier.

Cheney said his term of service as Vermont's attorney general allowed him to witness firsthand the problems dealing with spent fuel rods, leaving him "skeptical" of the option.

Two incumbents sparred with Osman regarding the state's decision to forgo purchasing a series of hydro-electric dams on the Connecticut River during the last legislative session.

Osman called the decision a "misstep" and said state ownership of the dams would have been better for residents in the long-term, despite the initial cost.  

"We could have owned those dams and produced energy much cheaper," said Osman, a three-term veteran of the Vermont House of Representatives.

But Cummings, who said she served on the commission working on the issue, called the "death knell" for the proposal the realization that the state could not use tax-free bonding for the purchase. The cost came in "millions [of dollars] higher" than even the consultants hired by the state anticipated, she said.  

"I regret that we didn't do it, that we weren't able to do it," she said.

Scott echoed Cumming's sentiments; he said taking on the amount of debt necessary to purchase the dams, tens of millions of dollars, was simply not feasible for the state.

"When the price came in, it was too high," he said.

Several audience members questioned the candidates about spiraling property taxes as related to education funding, pressing the panel to provide specific steps they would take to deal with the rising cost of education.

A controversial movement to repeal the statewide property tax, founded by a group of five Republican legislators, also entered into the debate. 

Osman compared the situation with property taxes to "managing a chronic disease," pointing to the lack of an industrial base in the state as one reason residential property owners are feeling the squeeze.

As far as reigning in costs, he said focusing on early intervention and making sure children move up the grades with a good base of skills and knowledge would help to lower the cost of special education, which he identified as a major cost driver.

When it comes to paying for education, Doyle, vice-chair of the education committee and an instructor at Johnson State College, said pressure must be put on Washington to fund mandates handed down as part of the No Child Left Behind Act, including those for special education.

He suggested looking at a multi-grading system as an alternative to school consolidation.

Cummings countered during her response by calling it unrealistic to expect any more money from the federal government and instead suggested a dialogue that encompasses a range of options including possible locations for school consolidation.

In response to Warren resident John Donaldson's question about how to attract more environmentally-friendly businesses to Vermont, many candidates cited the Mad River Valley as a model.

Doyle pointed to Northern Power Systems and Small Dog Electronics as examples of the type of business Vermont needs, a point echoed by one of his challengers.

"To the extent that I have any real insight...it is right here in the Mad River Valley," Cheney said, adding that grants and incentives need to be available to creative people willing to take a risk.

Sound tax policy is also important, said Warren resident Parker.

"We need to change the perception that Vermont is an unfriendly place for business," he said, pointing to broadband internet access and cell towers as necessary investments.

The 2006 Candidates Forum will be aired on Channel 44 in the coming weeks. Visit www.mrvtv.com for a broadcast schedule.

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