Windham County Senate hopefuls square off during forums
by Casey Chalbeck
Aug 01, 2014 | 2974 views | 0 0 comments | 73 73 recommendations | email to a friend | print
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TOWNSHEND- Several dozen constituents congregated in the Townshend Town Hall to hear Windham County’s four Democratic senatorial candidates address issues ranging from personal reflections on Democratic values to school consolidation. The first of four such forums sponsored by Windham County Democrats, Thursday’s discussion was moderated by outgoing Senator Peter Galbraith and included incumbent Senator Jeanette White, Roger Allbee, Becca Balint, and Joan Bowman as candidates vying for the county’s two Senate seats.

Galbraith called the forum to order by giving each candidate the opportunity to introduce themselves and their vision for Windham County.

White, a six-term Democrat from Putney who chairs the Senate Committee on Government Operations and co-chairs the Public Records Study Committee, said that her strengths lie in “looking at all sides of an issue” and that she was a member of the Democratic Party because “it isn’t out there to protect big business.”

White also expressed the desire to help change Vermont’s health care system. “I want to move us toward a single payer health care system,” she said while also noting “it’s a very complicated issue.”

Allbee, a Brookline native and resident of Townshend who’s currently serving as the chief executive officer of Grace Cottage Hospital in Townshend, said his goals were to “build jobs in Windham County” and to “make a positive quality of life” based around strengthening health care, education, the economy, and the environment.

Allbee, a former moderate Republican who said he joined the Democratic Party because the Republican Party “no long represents [his] values,” was appointed by former Governor Jim Douglas as the Secretary of Agriculture, Food, and Markets in 2007, and served until 2011.

Bowman, of Putney, has been serving as a navigator for Vermont Health Connect since September 2013. She said she grew up in a union family and had been a Democrat all her life. In addition to operating a business consulting firm, she said she regularly volunteers with local nonprofits. Bowman said her experience as a navigator and her participation in local nonprofits has “embedded [her] in the health community,” and that her goal, should she be elected, is to help Vermont become the first state with a single payer health care system. “I am here for single payer health care,” said Bowman.

Bowman elaborated that her 37 years in business have equipped her to help ensure that public policies are successful in the beginning and sustainable in the long term: “I help businesses get off the ground,” said Bowman.

Balint, a resident of Brattleboro for 17 years and lifelong Democrat, is a former educator in Windham public schools, currently works as a consultant and editorial columnist at the Brattleboro Reformer, and serves as a member of the Workforce Development Committee at the Windham County-based nonprofit Southeast Vermont Economic Development Strategies, or SeVEDS. Balint reflected that her strengths lie in “building coalitions, listening to details, and finding overlap.

“That’s what we do as Vermonters; we put aside political differences and we work together on solving issues. We build coalitions, and that is what I feel like I do well,” said Balint. She also noted that she aims to address workforce development issues and bring more funding to the Vermont judiciary.

In addition to having the opportunity to discuss their general platforms, the candidates were asked to answer specific questions relating to constituent concerns regarding education, energy, the role of local government, the economy, corporate finance, and health care.

School Consolidation

Perhaps the sharpest area of disagreement among the candidates was the possibility of state-mandated school district consolidation. During the last legislative session the House passed a bill on a 76-60 vote that would have consolidated school districts and eliminated town school boards. The bill failed to move out of committee in the Senate. Accordingly, candidates differed sharply in how they would approach the issue in Montpelier.

Regarding its potential to have sweeping effects for Vermont’s 273 school districts, Allbee said nearly every Vermont town would be affected. “It needs to be a local decision,” said Allbee, voicing his opposition to the state-mandated approach. “It has to be driven by local people.”

White also stated her opposition to state-mandated consolidation. “We need to acknowledge differences in different counties,” said White, who added that she believes the issue needs to be driven by local communities.

Bowman, who drew upon her own son’s experience and success in small school settings, concurred. “I believe we need to keep local control of schools,” she said.

In a night in which the candidates might seem generally to overlap, Balint was the sole dissenter and argued that the current conversation was “a bit of a red herring.”

“[Mandatory school consolidation] is going to happen,” said Balint, “but we need to look at how it’s going to happen. We need to be active participants in it.”

Balint, who acknowledged that schools frequently serve as the “glue” of Vermont’s communities, stated that she would work with constituents to build up alternative institutions to help keep communities strong.

Energy

The candidates were also asked which energy resources they would encourage, and which ones they would discourage. All of the candidates emphasized increasing energy efficiency, but varied in regards to which issues would be the focal points of their energy plans.

Bowman, who said that increasing public transportation, the walkability of towns, and promoting energy efficiency were all goals, emphasized the importance of the political process in making energy policy decisions. “Nothing is off the table,” Bowman said, before declaring that policy makers need to “bring [this issue] back to locals.”

Balint, who also said she was “not in support of taking anything off the table,” plans to focus on reducing Vermont’s carbon footprint by lowering vehicle emissions, which she said account for 47% of Vermont’s greenhouse gases.

For Allbee, increasing home efficiency through proper weatherization is the pragmatic place to start. “The most bang for your buck is weatherization for homes,” said Allbee, who sees the potential for savings as a win for homeowners and lawmakers alike.

White emphasized the need for strong, thorough regional plans that make clear which resources and areas need to be preserved, and which ones could be used to help satisfy energy needs. White also stated her support for bringing more resources to local farmers who help satisfy Vermont’s energy demands, and increasing efficiency.

Along similar lines, candidates were asked about the role local governments should have in making decisions about renewable energy sources promoted by the state, and whether or not they should be empowered to veto decisions made by public service boards.

Allbee was the sole candidate to support the idea, and argued that town plans should be given greater weight if the town completes a thorough, “intensive” research project regarding the issue.

White disagreed, saying “Regional plans should be weighed heavily in public service boards,” and added that she doesn’t want one town to be able to veto something that might benefit the entire state.

Echoing White, Balint noted that local veto power risks creating a slippery slope, but she said it is important that local voices be included in the decision-making process.

While agreeing that locals need to be involved in what energy resources might be coming to their towns, Bowman opted not to take a position on the issue until discussing it further with her would-be constituents.

Local economic development

In response to a question about how they would promote business expansion in Windham County, the candidates each highlighted different elements of their economic plans.

Balint stated the need for a comprehensive workforce development plan that would begin by helping students develop skills and connect with local businesses. “Workforce development is the key to economic development in Windham County,” said Balint.

Bowman stated that she would draw on over 30 years of experience in business to help young people start profitable, sustainable businesses.

White noted that successful businesses are often the product of strong cultural and social environments, and that economic development is not just about creating jobs “but making this a place people want to come and live in.” On the economic front she would work to develop loans with “Creative payback mechanisms, work with nonprofits, and help to establish an educational collaborative.

Allbee said his own experience bringing businesses into Windham County, coupled with his current business management skills, would allow him to provide the appropriate resources to innovators.

Campaign finance

Allbee and Bowman said that they would move to ban corporate contributions from political campaigns outright.

Balint, however, stated that she would only be in favor of it if rules were implemented to restrict the amount of personal money candidates could funnel into their campaigns. Current laws, she argued, disproportionately benefit wealthy candidates over the working class.

White, who voted against a comprehensive campaign finance bill in 2013 that would have restricted corporate contributions, and voted for a bill that would increase the total acceptable amount of contributions to parties, called for nuance in the policy discussion regarding the issue. White also noted that corporate money in campaigns could be shrouded by the advent of political action committees in the event that corporations are prevented from donating, making the issue “very complicated.”

“The devil is in the details,” said White, who went on to state that she would have to consider each bill individually.

Paying for single payer health care

As is the case across the state, the candidates had no clear strategy for paying for single payer health care, but all agreed that it’s a project the state needs to tackle.

Bowman said she wouldn’t support a plan that wasn’t sustainable, while Allbee said he would look at maximizing efficiency in order to lower costs. White said that paying for single payer would likely involve increases in payroll and income taxes that would offset the cost of premiums.

“I absolutely believe that we need single payer health care,” said Balint, who cited moral, economic, and workers’ rights as reasons. But Balint emphasized that a single payer health care plan needed to “work” and that she wouldn’t commit to a plan without knowing the details.

“It needs to make sense for middle class Vermonters in Windham County,” said Balint, “it needs to make sense for families and small businesses.”

The next candidates’ forum is scheduled for Thursday, July 31,, at 6:30 pm, at the Bellow Falls Opera House.
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