The Democratic candidates for state senate have been put on the defensive over issues such as Vermont Yankee, health care reform, education funding and taxation.
However, incumbent Sen. Jeanette White of Putney and former Ambassador Peter Galbraith of Townshend say they believe a majority of Windham County’s voters will support their views over Republican rivals Lynn Corum and Hilary Cooke (see related story this section).
“We pay a fair amount of taxes, but we get a lot for our money,” said White. “We’re usually ranked at or near the top in education, health care, public safety and environmental quality. If you don’t have public support for these things, you don’t have these services.”
“Why is Vermont a great place to live and great place to do business?” asked Galbraith. “Because people want to live in a place with a solid sense of community. But we’re a small state and can’t be all things to all people. We have to focus on the key things that are important to our quality of life and economic climate. Most of the time, what’s good for quality of life — a clean environment, good schools, an effective government — are good for business too.”
White has served in the Senate for eight years and works as a grant manager for the town of Brattleboro. Galbraith served as U.S. ambassador to Croatia during the Clinton administration and most recently as a United Nations’ Deputy Special Representative for Afghanistan. He also was a staff member of the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee from 1979 to 1993.
The VY question
Both White and Galbraith support shutting down the Vermont Yankee nuclear plant in Vernon when its current operating license expires in 2012.
White said she takes the tritium leak at Vermont Yankee seriously. “At other nuclear plants that have had these leaks, the ‘big three’ — strontium, cesium and plutonium — are never far behind. Traces of these elements have been already been found at VY.”
To her, the argument over Vermont Yankee comes down to one thing — the plant is nearly 40 years old and cannot be counted upon to run safely for another 20 years.
“The power purchase agreement offered by Entergy wasn’t a good deal,” White said. “If it was, CVPS and Green Mountain Power would have taken it. They have already moved on and replaced the power they’ve bought from VY with other sources. They don’t need VY anymore.”
“VY is a very small part of the New England grid,” said Galbraith. “We’re not going to be running out of electricity anytime soon.”
White also believes the economic impact of the plant’s closure has been overstated.
“I hate to see anybody lose their job, but the state has laid off more workers in the past year than there are employees at VY,” she said. “Yes, there will be a short-term loss of jobs and revenues if VY closes, but it won’t be as devastating as people think.”
“There will still be a significant number of people working at VY after it shuts down,” said Galbraith. “And many of the people who work there will do fine. They are specialists with skills that are in demand, and they’ll find jobs elsewhere.”
Galbraith believes that VY’s fate has already been decided in the Senate this year, and the focus should instead be on the decommissioning process and making sure Windham County receives help with the transition.
“You had 70 percent of the Republicans and 90 percent of the Democrats voting no. They did so after hearing hundreds of hours of testimony and took a vote as required by state law. The issue is settled, and it is time to come together as a community and move on. From my years as a diplomat, I’ve learned that when you convince people to turn away from their seriously held positions and focus instead on their interests, you can make progress.”
White agrees that there will not be another vote in the Senate, or the House, on VY’s future.
“Take another vote? We’ve said what we had to say,” said White of the 26-4 vote in the Senate earlier this year on Vermont Yankee’s relicensing. “In the eight years I’ve been in the Senate, we’ve taken tons of testimony on VY, and I think people finally got sick of seeing Entergy’s people come to the Statehouse and lie to us.”
Health care options
On health care, White wholeheartedly supports a single-payer system, while Galbraith has taken a more nuanced approach.
“I think we can do single-payer health care, absolutely,” said White. “It’s simple — one entity handles the payments to the doctors and the hospitals, everyone pays in and everyone is covered, just like Medicare. I have Medicare, and it’s a great plan. There’s no reason why Vermonters can’t have the same kind of coverage.”
While Galbraith believes that single-payer “is the ideal for health care,” he questions how feasible it would be for a single state to create its own system.
“You would need to capture all the federal dollars, and solve the issue of tax deductibility for health insurance,” he said. “Those would be difficult things to do.”
So, Galbraith proposes an alternate solution — a public insurance option that would be a “not-for-profit, open-to-all insurance plan.” It would offer a minimum catastrophic coverage policy “to keep people from medical bankruptcy” and preventive care coverage that would pay for routine visits, screenings and tests up to $1,000 per person.
White admits that the current education funding system “is a bit of mess,” but believes that it hews to “the basic tenets of the Brigham decision — that every Vermont child should have access to an adequate education.”
She said the system needs some tinkering, but that the so-called “prebate” system where Vermonters pay their property taxes based on their income is worth preserving.
“I lived here for almost 40 years, and there have been four or five different tries in that time at coming up with a way to fund education,” she said. “There is no perfect funding system that everyone will like, but what we have does what it needs to do.”
Galbraith said that the biggest problem with the system established by Acts 60 and 68 is that “the funding mechanism is so complex, no one can understand it. And in my experience, when policymakers do not have a simple explanation for how a program works, you lose the support of the people.”
White says Vermont has one of the best affordable house programs in the country. She points to the collaboration between the Vermont Housing and Conservation Board and the Vermont Housing Finance Agency to work with housing and conservation nonprofits and historic preservation groups to both conserve and protect the Vermont landscape and revive historic downtown districts.
“I’ve talked to people around the country, and they want to copy the Vermont approach,” said White. “But the Douglas administration wanted to dismantle this program, and a Dubie administration will likely try to. It would be a huge mistake.”
Galbraith said he is a believer in protecting and preserving open space in Vermont, but he would like to see Act 250, the state’s development law, simplified somewhat.
“To be clear, I’m not interested in weakening Act 250,” he said. “I would like to see the procedures for review and taking public testimony to be more streamlined and that a finer distinction is made between large-scale business development and small landowners.”
And, as he has frequently said on the campaign trail, expanded broadband Internet and cell phone service is a must for Vermont.
“It’s a disgrace that Afghanistan and East Timor, two of the poorest countries in East Asia, have better cell phone service than Windham County,” he said.