DERBY – Voters in the Orleans-Lamoille House district will have a clear choice on Election Day. At a forum here Monday night, Republican incumbent Mark Higley and Progressive challenger Katherine Sims talked about industrial wind power, the economy, the future of agriculture, health care, and regulation – and they differed, at least in approach, on almost everything.
Ms. Sims is founder and director of the Green Mountain Farm-to-School program, which educates children about healthy food choices and links local farms to local schools. In her opening statement, she said that her father grew up in Vermont, but like so many others, left for better job opportunities. She said lack of economic opportunity is just one of the problems she’d like to remedy as a legislator
“I’d like to bring a new, independent voice to Montpelier,” she said. “I’ll represent our district with hard work and vision.” She said that, knocking on doors recently, she’s realized that most people in the Northeast Kingdom have a similar vision, but she’s not sure that Montpelier shares it.
Mr. Higley is a general contractor who listed his years of experience in public service, both in Lowell and in southern Vermont, as a solid waste management committee member, a lister, and a selectman. He’s worked on a dairy farm and was in the Navy Seabees. For the past four years, he’s served on the House Government Operations Committee, which handles more bills than any other House committee, he said.
On wind power, an issue that certainly has divided both candidates’ hometown of Lowell, Ms. Sims said she strongly supports a moratorium on industrial wind projects, although she also supports renewable energy. “We need to invest in solar, hydro, methane,” she said.
From all she’s heard, Vermont has plenty of power for the next 20 years, so there’s no need to rush, Ms. Sims said. There’s time to study the Lowell wind project and see what the cost of the energy it produces is and what other effects, negative or positive, it will have.
Mr. Higley said he supported the Lowell project. He called it a local issue and a project that 75 percent of Lowell voters supported. Also, he said he’s seen local economic benefits with busy local stores and people who have received jobs as a result.
He added that he would support a two-year moratorium, a period of time long enough to study the important issues in his view. His concern is what baselines would be used in such studies. For instance, he said outside the forum, there’s no question that Lowell property values have gone down because of the economy. Would a study of the wind farm’s effect on property values start with a pre-recession baseline, which would probably be more accurate?
Mr. Higley said he has issues with the state’s energy bill. “I have not supported it because of the aggressive percentage of renewables they want to have in the portfolio.” He’s worried that will lead to much higher energy costs, which will be detrimental to business.
Asked about whether there is too much regulation in Vermont, Ms. Sims said, “I think businesses are the heart of our community.” If businesses are healthy, the community is, too, she said. Regulation should be predictable and reliable, she said, but not gutted. “It should be streamlined and more effective.”
Mr. Higley said he’d like to approach that question from a slightly different angle – his four years as a legislator. Many laws are “well intended with a lot of unintended consequences,” he said.
For instance, a smoking ban in the workplace is ludicrous when it turns out that, if its strictly followed, a farmworker could not have a cigarette while in the cab of a tractor out in the field. Some regulations simply don’t make sense when carried out to their logical consequences, and they throw unnecessary roadblocks in the way of struggling small enterprises, Mr. Higley said.
Ms. Sims said the most important issue facing Vermont in the coming year is probably health care. “I hear from a lot of people about health care,” she said. “They worry about what happens if they get sick. It broke my heart to hear from a nurse who cannot afford health care for herself and her family.”
The details, including the cost, of Vermont’s proposed health care plan are yet to unfold, Ms. Sims said. But, she added, it’s a debate she’d much like to be a part of. “I think a no vote on the health care bill is a vote for the status quo.”
Outside the forum, she said she supports universal health care, which she thinks will save money and ensure better and more comprehensive care.
Mr. Higley said he did not support the health care bill. There are too many unknowns, for one thing. Also, other states have come up with options that could have been looked at. For a third, he’s concerned that the current system is being dismantled before another is in place, which could lead to a worsening of the health care situation for some people.
“I don’t feel that we have the answers,” he said.
The economy is the biggest problem facing Vermont, Mr. Higley said. “From what I’ve heard from folks, the economy is the number one issue.” There are many thoughts about how best to tackle that, he noted, but he’d like to think he’s done his part, sometimes by voting for a bill, sometimes by voting against one.
The state often quietly taxes people and small businesses through fees and rules that don’t get much attention but do add up, Mr. Higley said. “You can’t keep increasing taxes at all levels – it just makes it harder and harder for folks in Vermont.”
The candidates were also asked their thoughts on what changes will come to the Northeast Kingdom as a result of huge development plans for Jay Peak, Burke Mountain, and Newport.
“I’ve thought about that,” Mr. Higley said. “My biggest answer is to make sure we are involved.”
“We know we need more jobs for kids who want to stay here,” Ms. Sims said. “Ten thousand jobs sound great, but what kind of jobs?” They need to be full-time, permanent jobs that earn a living wage, she said.
Also, she said, the promise of development is an opportunity, but it’s important not to destroy the parts of the Northeast Kingdom people love in the process. “It needs to be smart growth, not just any growth.”
The candidates were also asked about the future of agriculture, a subject Ms. Sims said is near and dear to her heart.
“I think Vermont’s agricultural economy has a bright future,” she said. While dairy farming has been in steady decline, there’s been a Renaissance in diversified agriculture – vegetables, cheese making, value-added products, she said.
The buy local movement is extremely important, Ms. Sims said. For instance, she said, the prison in Newport spends $500,000 a year on food each year. If just 10 percent of that were spent locally, that would be $50,000 injected into the local farm economy.
Mr. Higley agreed that diversification is likely the key to a healthy farm economy in Vermont. He also mentioned the Working Lands Enterprise Board, which is comprised of 15 members from agricultural and forestry sectors. He said he hopes the board will collaborate and come up with some big ideas, even though it does not have much money to work with.
On a question about death with dignity, basically physician-assisted suicide, Mr. Higley said he does not support it. Ms. Sims said she does.
Mr. Higley does not support decriminalizing marijuana possession. Ms. Sims does.
Neither supports a tax on business services, such as hiring a plumber or electrician.
In response to a question from Mr. Higley, Ms. Sims said she would like to serve on either the education or agriculture committees.
In response to a question from Ms. Sims, Mr. Higley said the legislation he’s presented that he’s most proud of is a bill he spoke to on the floor about public records. “I think it’s important that the press, as well as citizens, have access to information that’s public,” he said.
“I’m here before you, in part, because my grandmother took me to meet the first female governor of Vermont,” Ms. Sims said in her closing statement. That was an inspiring experience, she said, that contributed to her desire to work in public service.
“I have a proven record of making a difference,” Ms. Sims said. “My commitment is that I will continue to work hard, I will listen, and ask questions.”
She said she would post a monthly update on her website and send it to newspapers as well so her constituents would know what issues are coming up that would affect them.
Mr. Higley said that one of the most rewarding parts of his job is dealing with constituent problems. Big issues are the ones that make the news, he said, but they aren’t always the ones that most directly affect people. Often a legislator can make a difference simply by navigating the bureaucratic process on behalf of a citizen, he said.
“I’m in the minority down there,” he said. But he believes that the minority voice he represents needs to be heard, and he’s happy to help his constituents if possible.
Lowell, Jay, Westfield, Eden, and part of Troy are in the district.
This series of forums was sponsored by the Chronicle, Vermont’s Northland Journal, the Orleans County Record, the Newport Daily Express, WMOO, NEK TV, IROC and the East Side Restaurant and moderated by Tod Pronto. The full forum will air on NEK TV, which is channel 15 on Comcast cable.
Both the House district forums will air on Wednesday, October 24, at 9 a.m., Thursday at 9 a.m. and 9 p.m., and Friday at 2 p.m. They will be rebroadcast at other times as well. For more information, see www.nektvonline.com.
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