Clavelle, Douglas square off in gubernatorial debate

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(Host) The candidates for governor participated in their first debates of the General Election on Thursday. Republican incumbent Jim Douglas and Democratic candidate Peter Clavelle squared off on health care, permit reform and energy issues.

VPR’s John Dillon was there.

(Dillon) Clavelle has waited all summer for a chance to debate Governor Douglas. And when the opportunity came before an audience of business leaders in Montpelier, the Burlington mayor seemed more than primed. He launched an aggressive assault on the governor’s record on health care.

(Clavelle) “I don’t have to tell anybody in this room this, but the health care system in this state is broken, badly broken. And it seems everyone has known this for quite some time. Everyone but Jim Douglas. He doesn’t seem to understand that we have a crisis in the state of Vermont. And in two years, this is a crisis that has not been addressed and the health care crisis worsens.”

(Dillon) The debate came just a day after Clavelle unveiled a health care reform program that would have the state collect $90 million from health insurance companies. Clavelle has described it as a plan to recapture the money that’s now built into insurance premiums and covers the health costs of people without insurance.

But the Douglas campaign has already put out an ad that brands the Clavelle plan as a $90 million tax hike. And like Clavelle, Douglas was ready with a sharp critique.

(Douglas) “I thought it was interesting, Pete, at your press conference yesterday that a reporter asked well, isn’t this a tax, and you said no. Well, aren’t you extracting $90 million from the private sector and turning it over to the government, well yes. Well isn’t that a tax? Well no. Well, that’s a tax. And it’s a $90 million program that’s not financially sustainable, and that’s why it’s not the right direction in which our state should go.”

(Dillon) The two candidates also clashed over environmental and energy issues. The governor said his permit reform plan that the Legislature passed should solve some of the problems confronting developers in the environmental review process. The legislation consolidated permit appeals to an expanded environmental court.

(Douglas) “I believe that consolidating five different tribunals into one at the state level for permit appeals is going to make the process more expeditious and predictable. And the certainty of a legally trained judge making decisions I think is an important consideration, as the Legislature agreed.”

(Dillon) But Clavelle said the Douglas permit reform plan won’t create jobs, unless you count the new judge and a few law clerks. The candidate pointed out that Douglas should know that having a judge rule on permits may not make things work any better, since it was a federal judge who halted work on the Chittenden County Circumferential Highway, a road project that’s a top priority for the administration.

(Clavelle) “Last year, in essentially the same week, one day the governor spoke to the unpredictability of judges when the Circumferential Highway project was stopped by a judge. And then in the same week he spoke about how this permit reform is so grand for us, because now we’re going to have a judge offering a predictable process in the review of permits in the state of Vermont. I was just struck by that irony. I think we need permit reform in the state of Vermont and we don’t have it. We’re long way from it.”

(Dillon) Douglas and Clavelle were also asked about their favorite Vermont governors. Douglas said he greatly admires the late governor Richard Snelling, for whom he worked in the 1970s. Clavelle said his political hero is Democratic former Governor Phil Hoff, the last governor to unseat a first-term incumbent.

For Vermont Public Radio, I’m John Dillon in Montpelier.

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