The future of the Vermont Yankee nuclear power plant in Vernon has overshadowed almost every other issue in this year’s political campaigns in Windham County.
And no race in the county has been more heated in regards to VY than the Windham-1 House race between Republican Mike Hebert of Vernon and Democrat Richard Davis of Guilford.
Hebert and Davis are running for the seat being vacated by Republican Patricia O’Donnell of Vernon, who is stepping down after 12 years in the Legislature.
About the only common ground between Davis and Hebert is that they both are health care workers. Davis has been a registered nurse in Vermont for 33 years, and Hebert, a registered pulmonary therapist, has worked several hospitals around New England.
Beyond that, there are sharp differences between the two candidates.
Hebert supports extending Vermont Yankee’s operating license. The plant’s original 40-year operating license expires in 2012.
“I think everyone agrees that if the plant isn’t safe, it should be shut down,” said Hebert. “But that shouldn’t be a legislative decision. That’s for the Nuclear Regulatory Commission to decide. It’s something that should be left to the experts, the ones with the scientific knowledge to make a sound decision.”
In Herbert’s view, Vermont Yankee is safe. “I know the people who work there, and I’ve been inside the plant,” he said. “At this point in time, I think it’s safe.”
Davis believes the plant should be shut down at the end of its current operating license in 2012. He said he has been going door to door in Vernon and has found a surprising number of people who support the idea that VY should be decommissioned.
“The things I hear the most is that they don’t trust Entergy and that they think the plant is too old,” Davis said. “People, or at least the ones who don’t work at the plant, aren’t as concerned about jobs or the economy as they are about safety. And some of these people used to be supporters of the plant. It’s just a difficult thing to talk openly about in Vernon.”
Davis said that he “doesn’t buy the economic arguments” about the need to keep the plant open past 2012. “There are about 650 workers at VY and about half of them live in Vermont. I have a hard time believing that the loss of 300 jobs will wreck our economy.”
He also is quick to point out that the possibility that the plant could shut down in 2012 “shouldn’t have come as a surprise to anyone. Everyone has had fair warning, but not a lot of planning has been done.”
Heath care contrasts
Davis said that all you need to know about how Republicans feel about health care reform is that the party’s candidates have avoided forums on the subject all across the state. In the recent forum sponsored by the Vermont Workers’ Center in Brattleboro, only state Senate candidate Hilary Cooke showed up for the GOP.
“The Republicans say we can’t afford health care reform,” said Davis, “but I think we can’t afford not to do something about it.”
Davis serves as executive director of the Vermont Citizens Campaign for Health, a statewide grassroots organization that advocates for a single-payer health care system in Vermont. He admits that after all these years, the phrase “single payer” makes people tune out.
“When you explain to small businesses and others how a single-payer plan works, they think it’s a good deal,” said Davis. “Most people are going to end up paying less. Whatever tax is needed to pay for universal health care is going to be less than what they pay now for insurance premiums, and everyone will be covered.”
Davis said he thinks paying into a universal health care system should be tiered — with people who earn more, paying more — but that access should be equal.
Hebert agrees with Davis that changes to the health care system are needed, but that a single-payer plan is not the answer.
“I’m more open-minded on this issue than people think,” he said. “The issue is not about health care, for people aren’t refused care if they can’t afford it. The problem is that the cost is shifted on someone else. Richard and I both agree that there needs to be some kind of resolution of the problem, and we just can’t keep kicking it around.”
Hebert says he supports a variation of the Massachusetts model, where all residents are required to have health insurance and subsidies are provided for those who can’t afford it.
“The Legislature should determine what a basic health care policy should look like, and then have a means-tested program where every one has to buy in, but help is available for those who can’t,” he said.
As someone who has served on town and regional school boards for years, Hebert said educational issues were as much a motivation for him to run for O’Donnell’s seat as health care and Vermont Yankee’s future.
“I think we need more school choice,” Hebert said. “We need a system that funds students, not schools.”
Hebert points to Vernon, where students in grades 7-12 have a choice of which school they wish to attend. Vernon students can be found at Northfield-Mount Hermon and Pioneer Valley Regional across the border in Massachusetts, as well as at Brattleboro Union High School. The town pays the cost of educating students up to the state’s average per-pupil cost, and parents pay the rest.
Davis said he has heard the complaints about Acts 60 and 68, “but I haven’t heard anyone offering a workable solution” to fund education in Vermont.
“The Brigham decision was pretty clear about what needed to be done to adequately fund our schools,” he said. “People want local control, but unless you are willing to give up all state and federal funding, it can’t happen.”
Davis and Hebert are scheduled to hold a debate at the Broad Brook Grange in Guilford on Oct. 28. No debate is planned in Vernon, but a “meet the candidates” night will be held on Oct. 27 from 6:30-9 p.m. at the Vernon Elementary School.