Candidates clash over sex offender laws, energy policy and budget issues

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(Host) Republican Governor Jim Douglas and his Democratic challenger Gaye Symington clashed over sex offender laws, energy policy and budget issues in a VPR broadcast debate last night.

Independent candidate Anthony Pollina accused Douglas of ducking debates and he blamed the major parties for inaction in Montpelier.

Liberty Union challenger Peter Diamondstone staked out positions far afield from the other three by calling for a government takeover of energy and health care industries.

VPR’s John Dillon reports.

(Dillon) The debate allowed the candidates to ask each other questions. And when it was Governor Douglas’s turn, he focused on Symington, the speaker of the Vermont House.

He pressed the Democrat on a law and order issue that was highlighted this summer by the kidnapping and murder of a 12 year old girl. A convicted sex offender has been charged with the kidnapping.

(Douglas) Four years ago, you opposed a stronger version of a sex offender registry law and said more or less in these words: I believe that it is safer to release a convicted sex offender successfully into the community in order to make the community safer. Would you explain to the parents, the teachers, family, the communities of our state why we shouldn’t have a tougher sex offender law?

(Dillon) Speaker Symington shot back that she is committed to protecting the public from sexual violence. And she accused Douglas of failing to fund dedicated state police officers to work with prosecutors on sex crimes.

(Symington) The most effective way to keep our communities safe and make sure that get our offenders to get the convictions that will be required of any length sentence is to have special investigative units around the state. The budgets that the legislature passed under my leadership included funding for those – yours did not – and over the last two years you have not expanded those special investigative units statewide.

(Dillon) Douglas denied the charge. He said his administration – quote – "has made progress" – in beefing up the state police units.

The exchange captured the tone of the debate: There were sharp disagreements between the candidates on budget issues, the Vermont Yankee nuclear power plant, college scholarships, and renewable energy.

Independent Anthony Pollina said that on budget issues, both parties had their priorities wrong.

(Pollina) When the governor said let’s cut programs for the frail and elderly Vermonters, let’s cut programs for the chronically ill, let’s cut for affordable housing, the Legislature did go along with those, so they have all been willing to join together to make hard times harder for Vermonters.

(Dillon) Liberty Union candidate Peter Diamondstone called for raising the income tax to pay for education. And he said the government should take over key industries.

(Diamonstone) First thing we need to do is nationalize Vermont Yankee and then we, the citizens of Vermont, can decide whether to close it down, keep it running, what needs to be done with it. Next step is nationalize all electric power production and distribution in the state of Vermont. If you can’t guess that I’m a socialist, it won’t take long before the evening is over.

(Dillon) Symington picked a Vermont Yankee issue her first question for the governor. She pointed out that the governor blocked legislation that called for the nuclear plant’s owners to fully fund its decommissioning.

(Symington) You vetoed that would have protected Vermont taxpayers for cleaning up after decommissioning. Why do you refuse to plan for after Vermont Yankee closes?

(Dillon) Douglas said he’s concerned about safety at the plant. But he said Yankee provides relatively low-cost power.

(Douglas) What we don’t need is more taxes on Vermont Yankee which will ultimately be passed on to the ratepayers of our state.

(Dillon) Douglas’ last question for Symington was if the Democrat supported a Wal-Mart store in St. Albans. Symington said that’s for local and regional officials to decide. But she says building a Wal-Mart is not an economic development plan.

For VPR News, I’m John Dillon in Montpelier.

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