MANCHESTER >> Education reform, the regional economy and healthcare were all major points of discussion among four major gubernatorial candidates during a forum on Thursday.
Democrats Matt Dunne, Peter Galbraith and Sue Minter, and Republican Bruce Lisman drew a packed house at Burr and Burton Academy's Riley Center for the Arts. Republican candidate Lt. Gov. Phil Scott was originally slated to attend, but could not attend, due to the one-day legislative session called to revisit S. 230, an energy siting bill which had been vetoed by Gov. Peter Shumlin last week. Scott is the presiding officer of the state Senate. The Bennington County Republican and Democratic Committees hosted the forum, for which Manchester Journal Editor Andrew McKeever was moderator.
Candidates referenced southern Vermont's dire economic straits, as outlined in a report released late last year. Workforce development — fostering skills in Vermonters that employers need — will both bring jobs to the state and retain residents, they said.
Dunne, of Hartland, stressed broadband internet availability and cellular phone coverage should be expanded, given their importance to telecommuters and entrepreneurs with startup companies.
Minter, of Waterbury, said rail service from Bennington to the Albany, N.Y. region would boost the economy. Both she and Dunne said leaders need to look beyond the state borders for opportunities.
Galbraith, of Townshend, said the way the region can win is by focusing on fundamentals.
"We are not going to be able to spend our way out of the economic development problems we face," he said.
Lisman, of Shelburne, said the regional business community will need to step up in a way different than it has in the last 15 to 20 years. He said he worried about major employers like Energizer in Bennington.
"We need to build relationships with employers so they grow here, and if they are going to restructure, that they do it here," he said.
Dunne, Galbraith and Minter spoke of offering residents free tuition to state colleges. Galbraith said that could be paid for by eliminating special interest tax breaks.
Candidates had varying opinions about the state's controversial education reform bill, Act 46.
Lisman called it "a bad piece of legislation" with property tax increases that are "unnecessarily burdensome." It limits choice and removes local control, he said, and he would urge legislation to repeal it and consider alternatives.
Minter said she would not push for its repeal, but would ask for flexibility in how it's implemented. She spoke about her own district voting to consolidate, an action she said will "create better quality and efficiencies." But, she noted, that's not the case everywhere.
Dunne said he'd push for efficiencies like consolidating payroll, which would allow focusing dollars on teaching.
On energy policy, Lisman said he would ask for a two-year moratorium on large-scale solar and wind projects. It's not fair to small towns, he said, "who have no money to defend themselves."
Gailbraith said he opposes new industrial wind turbines, saying they're "environmentally destructive and never wanted by the communities where they're stuck."
Dunne said his first priority would be solar, followed by energy efficiency. Both Dunne and Minter said promoting efficiency projects would create jobs while reducing the state's carbon footprint and reducing costs of homeowners and tenants.
On healthcare, Lisman said he would push to audit Medicaid participants. Lisman said he would move the state off of the state "connect" to the federal one.
Minter said the state Healthcare Connect is a serious challenge and her goal would be to make it functional.
Dunne said he'd use his background in technology to bring in a team to fix the website
On legalizing marijuana, Dunne, Galbraith and Minter all said they'd be in support if it was sold and regulated in the same way alcohol is. They said the state would benefit from tax revenue and believe that minors would be less likely to get it if it was more regulated.
Lisman said he would oppose it because of a lack of a roadside test for drivers and said additional police would be needed if it passed.
Thursday's forum was filmed by and will be rebroadcast by Greater Northshire Access Television (GNAT).
Contact Edward Damon at 413-770-6979