State Senate candidates square off on the issues

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Although it is projected that there will be a $120 million dollar defecit facing the state in fiscal year 2012, Sears said he believes the actual figure will be somewhere closer to $150 million.

Sears said there was the $112 million that everyone has "agreed" upon. Then, he said there was an additional $10 million of pressure from corrections, health care, and other issues. The other $30 million that will be added to the deficit for the 2012 fiscal year, Sears said, will come from the Challenges for Change initiative. The state is supposed to save $70 million through the program and Sears said he believes they will fall about $30 million short of that goal.

In order for the budget to be balanced, Sears said that it would have to be scrutinized very carefully.

"To balance that budget we're going to have to really look hard at what we're spending and what programs we have and what programs we can afford and it's not going to be easy," he said. "It bothers me when certain candidates talk about tax cuts on top of what we'll have to do to get our budgets balanced. You have to look at what we can afford and where we can afford to make some reductions."

Hartwell felt that it would be a "combination of things" in order for the budget to be balanced. Part of it, he said will come from the Challenges for Change initiative. Hartwell said they were trying to achieve $38 million in savings this year from the program and that so far they have found about $28 million. "In fiscal year 2012 the real problem is the $112 (million), $120 (million) and it's quite frankly at least that," Hartwell said. "We're looking for $72 million dollars worth of efficiencies in fiscal year 2012, which takes care of part of it if they find them. It's possible that we'll tap into the Rainy Day Fund, but that's pretty unlikely because there isn't much there."

Hartwell continued to say the Legislature was determined to make the cuts without implementing new taxes and believed that was possible. Woodard, on the other hand, believed it would take some time before the budget would be balanced.

"Until people start spending money; until the tourists come back; until the economy starts to uplift a little, we're going to be where we're at," Woodard said. "It's probably not going to get any easier because the stimulus money is going to be stopping."

As for Blair, she said that the state needed to look at government spending to see where efficiencies could be achieved.

"If we make each department responsible for finding some savings, if you leave it up to them, they can usually find savings somewhere," said Blair. "It can be done."

On the issue of supervisory unions and school districts achieving the two percent savings suggested by the Department of Education, Sears and Blair agreed that a bottom up approach was good.

"There's a big push for school consolidation right now," said Blair. "I think that school consolidation at the local level is a good idea."

Sears said that there were two good examples in his district - one being the Mettawee Valley School in Rupert and Pawlet and the other being Twin Valley High School in Woolmington and Whitingham. Sears said both had consolidated in order to provide enhanced educational opportunities as well as to achieve savings. Blair also said that she believed there should be one school admininstrative center to handle all of the schools in Bennington County.

Woodard said he did not feel that the supervisory unions and districts should be compelled to achieve the two percent savings suggested by the Department of Education. The reason, he said, was because he knew of many supervisory unions who already operated on a very tight budget and while he realized that the cuts were voluntary, he said there was still the question of what action the Department of Education might take if certain supervisory unions could not - or would not - make the cuts.

Hartwell, on the other hand, said he felt that generally supervisory unions should feel compelled to make the cuts. However, he said that the two percent may or may not make sense and that it varied depending on the supervisory union.

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"It's very, very hard to do a one size fits all," Hartwell said. "They're going to have to find more than two percent before this is over with because we're losing between 1,200 and 1,500 kids a year in Vermont easily and they're not going to be replaced for the forseeable future."

Hartwell continued to say that in some cases school consolidation would occur, but in other situations he did not feel that it was appropriate.

On the issue of health care, Sears, Hartwell and Blair all said that they wanted to see the options - a single payer system, a system that would include a public option, and a third option created by the consultants - that would be presented in the report that Sears said is expected to be released on Jan. 15.

Hartwell felt that the state would have to have some kind of public option in which the government provision and the private insurers would be competing.

However, he said that he was "not offended" by the single payer system. Either one, he believed, would lower the rising cost of insurance.

While Sears said that he did not have any easy answers, he said one of the things the state could not continue to do was reduce provider payments. In doing so under Medicaid and the cost shift, what the state was doing was creating a hole for people that were in need of services and it made it more difficult to get doctors. Sears said that trying to establish a single payer system was a goal, but that it was going to be difficult to attain. One of the problems, he said, was that people with serious medical problems would not come just to Vermont to deal with those problems. However, Sears said that since he's retired he has been on Medicare, a single payer system, and that it has worked "quite well."

In regards to a single payer system, Woodard said he was not opposed to it - or any other system for that matter.

"Whatever the people want they should be allowed to purchase it," he said. "Accessible and affordable for those who want it. I'm not taking anything off the table."

Woodard continued to say that if people chose not to have insurance he believed that was their decision to make. However, he said he would recommend that they have some form of coverage.

Unlike the other three candidates, Blair does not see the single payer system as an acceptable option and said that it scared her.

"I think if we go the route of single payer (system) it's not necessarily going to be the best thing for Vermont," she said. "Everything's paid differently when you're under a single payer health care system."

Blair continued to say that under a single payer system people would lose the option of choosing from various health insurance plans offered by their employer and it would be very difficult to get those options back if Vermont were to make the switch to a single payer system. When asked about the decision as to whether or not to relicense Vermont Yankee, the state's sole nuclear reactor plant that is seeking authorization to operate past 2012, Sears said that while he was not opposed to nuclear energy, he could not support the decision to relicense Vermont Yankee because he could not trust Entergy - the company that operates the plant. Hartwell also did not support relicensing the plant; not only because he did not trust Entergy, but also because of all the problems the plant has had and the fact that their decommissioning fund is short $400 to $600 million.

Woodard and Blair, on the other hand, were in favor of keeping Vermont Yankee open. Woodard said that while Vermont Yankee had another tritium outbreak recently, the "harsh reality" was that if the plant were to be closed the state was not prepared for it what it would lose in terms of electricity and jobs - among other things.

Blair said that while she was in favor of green energy, "closing Vermont Yankee would be detrimental to the rate payer(s)" because they state did not have other forms of energy production in place at this time.


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