SUNDERLAND — Education, economic development and taxes were among the issues raised during a forum with candidates for the Vermont House in Bennington's District 4 on Thursday.
Incumbent state Representatives Steve Berry and Cynthia Browning, both Democrats, and Republican challenger Brian Keefe, took part in the candidates' roundtable and open house at Greater Northshire Access Television's (GNAT) studios in Sunderland.
Andrew McKeever, GNAT news director, moderated the candidates, who are vying for two seats to represent Arlington, Manchester, Sunderland and Sandgate.
On education, Berry said he voted for the Act 46 education consolidation bill to ensure all Vermonters get the best education. Local conversations in small towns are important, he said.
Browning said consolidation and mergers should be made where it makes educational and financial sense. But she took issue with the state having the power to force districts to merge and that nearby districts may not be able to merge if they aren't similar enough.
Keefe said the act was taylored to Chittenden County towns and he criticized the state Department of Education for discouraging and denying school choice, although nothing in the law says it will be denied.
On the economy, Browning said more focus should be policies that help all Vermont businesses. He said too much focus is on Chittenden County and tax breaks, subsidies and other benefits to bring businesses to the state, a move she said isn't a long-term fix,
"They'll leave when someone else gives them a better offer," she said.
She said uncertainties around health care policy and tax rates are the worst things for businesses. And she said more should be done to enhance telecommunications, which Berry agreed with.
Broadband in small towns would draw entrepreneurs to the state, Berry said, and digital coding should be taught in schools.
"If we don't do it, we've absolutely missed the boat," Berry said.
Keefe spoke against a carbon tax and said Vermont does more than many states to reduce its carbon footprint. And its wooded forests remove more carbon dioxide than its population emits, he said.
Keefe also took issue with Berry's voting record and that Berry had voted for nearly every budget and tax increase.
"I would not continue that pattern," Keefe said.
But Berry, who had spoken about services he said were essential for the growth of Vermont and the most vulnerable populations, defended his votes. Home energy efficiency upgrades, among other programs, are necessary, he said.
"I'd love to ask where you'd make the cuts," Berry responded, saying that Keefe would follow a "slash and burn" route in Montpelier.
Keefe, who quipped that he's not as vicious as Berry portrayed him, said legislators need to be more careful with how they spend taxpayers' money. He pointed to projects like an $8 to $9 million cleanup of Lake Champlain and questioned why southwestern Vermont residents should pay for that.
Browning said many programs have not been audited or tested for meeting performance goals. She hasn't voted for a spending and tax plan in several years, she said, because "doing so validated the irresponsible approach they were taking." She called for budget and tax reform.
"If we continue the way we have been, we won't be able to provide services because we will have squandered taxpayer dollars," she said.
On the question of legalized marijuana, Browning said she voted against it and will need proof it would curb abuse of other substances, as well as a roadside sobriety test to check for impairment and a plan for the federal government, which still classifies it as a schedule one drug. Berry said he voted against recreational marijuana, but was in favor of medicinal use. Full legalization shouldn't be an economic question, he said, and added that states like Colorado "are getting a lot of money but getting a lot of problems," but that he thinks Vermonters should be able to grow their own if they follow the rules. Keefe said he thinks medical marijuana is fine, but that Vermont still has questions to work out about full legalization.
The general election will be held on Nov. 8.
The debate will be re-aired on GNAT and will be posted on its website: http://gnat-tv.org.
Contact Ed Damon at 802-447-7567, ext. 111.