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It's leadership, stupid: Top candidates in governor's race contrast abilities

By Shay Totten | Vermont Guardian

Posted October 27, 2006

At a recent debate before a roomful of energy industry insiders, Democratic gubernatorial hopeful Scudder Parker charged that incumbent Gov. Jim Douglas has failed to lead on the issue of finding how out Vermonters will heat or power their homes and businesses in the coming decade.

In 2012, the license for Vermont Yankee (VY), the state’s only nuclear power plant, expires, and in the four years following, contracts with Hydro-Quebec will also expire.

“How can you talk about an affordability agenda and not talk about energy?” asked Parker, referring to Douglas’ campaign theme — the Agenda of Affordability. The line was one of a few that Parker delivered which drew applause from the audience.

In response, Douglas said Vermonters have other issues on their minds when he talks to them. “To be perfectly honest, and I know it’s impolitic to say in this room, but I go around the state and talk with thousands of Vermonters. It’s property taxes, the cost of housing, high tuition at our colleges, and the cost of health care that are most on their minds,” he said.

Douglas’ failure to lead has become a campaign theme of late for Parker.

“I think the reality is that Jim Douglas is unfamiliar with the concept of running on your record,” said Parker. “When he first ran for reelection, he could sort of duck and weave and say that he was still dealing with the problems created by the Dean administration, but now after four years in he is responsible. And, rather than running on a record of performance, he is running on an agenda of affordability which I believe is implicitly a critique of his own failures to lead.”

On energy, Parker said during the Oct. 19 debate that “Jim Douglas has a record of non-performance on energy. He has failed to plan, and when he has planned the plan ... when he has not acted, he has missed opportunities.”

Douglas countered that his administration is planning for the future. He is trying to ensure that Hydro-Quebec remains a part of Vermont’ s electric supply. A federal review has begun on Entergy’s proposal to extend VY’s license, and he said the state will pay close attention to that review.

“I think there are some trying to inflame the discussion and manufacture a crisis that doesn’t exist,” said Douglas.

On the broader issue of being ineffective as a leader, Douglas says if he were a challenger he’d probably find something to complain about, too.

“I think people do feel good about the state generally and the progress we’ve made,” said Douglas. “We haven’t made enough and we have more to do over the next couple of years, which is why I laid out my affordability agenda earlier this year.”

Douglas said it’s a theme that has resonated with Vermonters.

One proposal that has caught the attention of voters is a cap on the increases in local school budgets, to keep them from rising at rates faster than that of inflation. Schools that are seeing an increase in population would be allowed to increase their budgets to match the need, and residents — by a more than 60 percent margin — could vote to override the cap. Also, capital costs and special education funding needs would be exempt from the cap.

Parker says the proposal is merely symbolic as it doesn’t address what is driving up the costs of school budgets in Vermont: Health care, unfunded mandates from Washington, and energy. Parker said the state must also look hard at the possibility of helping some schools to consolidate, thereby sharing more resources and lowering costs.

Parker said Douglas proposed decreasing income sensitivity for some Vermonters, and funding some projects out of the Education Fund, moves which would have raised property taxes by nearly $22 million. This, Parker says, contrasts with the public image Douglas is trying to exude.

“What Jim really wants to do is have all attention focused on the property tax and he hasn’t done anything structural on the issues that are raising taxes,” said Parker. “What he really wants to focus on is an anti-tax message.”

As part of that anti-tax message, Douglas and his allies often point to recent U.S. Census data that places Vermont at the top of the heap in terms of per capita state tax burden, and to help ease that burden the state needs to attract more employers.

Critics have taken issue with that assessment, saying Vermont’s shift to a statewide property tax to fund education skews the data compared to other states. And, they say that Douglas’ claims of job growth are not near the reality.

Douglas like to claim that since he has taken office the number of “employed” people has risen by 12,000.

A recent analysis by Working Vermont, a coalition of labor unions, found that many of these jobs are self-employed positions, which often means limited, to no, benefits and security. And, of the private sector jobs that were created, many are paying, on average, less than the jobs they replace. This is mainly due to the loss of about 2,000 well-paying manufacturing jobs.

Douglas, however, doesn’t buy their argument and says their figures are just plain “wrong.”

“Obviously there has been some growth in the retail sector, but a lot of growth has been in health services, education, and professional services and financial services,” said Douglas. “The bottom line is that we ended the fiscal year with $35.75 million in surplus, so our fiscal strength is good and that’s because people are working at good jobs and paying taxes.”

But, he agrees with Working Vermont’s analysis that family incomes aren’t rising fast enough, and that is contributing to what he calls an “affordability crisis.”