The Soft Abuse of Redistricting Power

Here’s a little bad news for those who think Vermont’s political processes are above reproach. The nonpartisan group RepresentUs, which opposes political abuses of the redistricting process, has rated Vermont as at “high risk” for such abuse. Along with such bulwarks of clean politics as Missouri, Nebraska, Oklahoma and Florida. Not exactly stellar company.

To be clear, RepresentUs isn’t ranking states by the likelihood of gerrymandering or the historical record or the mendacity of a state’s politicians. It simply considers the legal framework of the process. In practice, Vermont’s redistricting process has been fairly clean. But state law leaves the door open to partisan abuse.

Vermont gets low grades on two points: Political officeholders have the final say on redistricting, and the law doesn’t require transparency. You can see how those points could allow politicians to game the system.

By and large, they don’t. Well, they don’t do outrageous things; they don’t create districts that look like abstract art or imaginary amphibians. But partisanship can, and sometimes does, affect the process.

In fact, we might see a more partisan flavor in Vermont’s 2022 redraw, especially in the Senate.

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Hey Hey, We’re the Veepies!

This being midsummer in a non-election year, things are a little bit show in #vtpoliland. Or maybe there’s stuff going on, but since there are practically no reporters on the #vtpoli beat right now, we’d never find out about it.

As a result of this lack of news, this edition of the Veepies (our awards for stupidity and/or obtuseness in the public sphere) roams far afield into the realms of journalistic conflicts of interest, conservatives panicking over nothing, and even sports talk radio.

That’s where we begin. The Please Stop Talking About Something You Know Nothing About Award goes to Rich and Arnie, co-hosts of the afternoon talk show on Burlington’s 101.3 The Game. On Tuesday afternoon, the day Simone Biles withdrew from the team gymnastics competition, the boys pulled down their pants and showed their asses for all to see. (The show is archived on the station’s website and podcast.)

Arnie repeatedly referred to BIles’ mental health crisis as “having a bad day,” and accused Biles of costing her team the gold medal. Rich questioned “the timing” of her withdrawal, and asked, “Was she having a bad day first, or was she having a bad day after she messed up the vault?” (She withdrew after a subpar performance on the vault.)

This happens every time a societal or political issue intrudes on the Toy Department of Life. Sports talk radio is suddenly, horribly out of its depth.

Look, guys. You can’t schedule a mental health crisis. You don’t know what’s going to set it off. When it happens, it can be like a tsunami dragging you down. We know that Biles felt unable to compete safely, so withdrawing was the responsible thing — for her well-being and for the team’s prospects in the competition. So just shut up about issues that you can’t be bothered to learn about, and stop making fools of yourselves.

After the jump: Two cases of conservative hysteria, and a veteran reporter steps in it.

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BCBS Makes Everyone’s Lives Miserable to Save a Little Coin

This won’t be news to any BlueCross BlueShield health insurance client, but the Blues did something this year that added fresh levels of annoyance to the lives of patients and providers throughout Vermont.

The Blues made a big change in its prescription drug coverage. It hired Optum RX as its pharmacy benefits manager. Which led to new, stricter requirements for a broad array of prescription medications. This will presumably save the Blues some money, but it will do so by offloading a lot of pain and extra work onto patients and prescribers.

(Before I go on, tip of the hat to fellow blogger Matt Sutkoski, who posted his own screed on this topic a few days ago. I’d been thinking about this for quite a while, but his essay crystallized my own thoughts.)

If you heard the ringing of a faint bell at the name “Optum,” that’s because it was a key player in then-governor Peter Shumlin’s Vermont Health Connect fiasco. Step with me into the Wayback Machine, which is set for October 31, 2014 — just a few days before the election Shumlin almost fumbled away to challenger Scott Milne.

On that day, we learned that the cost of VHC would be $20 million higher than expected. And that, my friends, was not the bad news. There were a number of horrible particulars, some of which involved Optum. Its employees were said to be poorly trained and making mistakes. A top VHC official observed that Optum had every motivation to let the work drag on and on, because the longer the project the more money it made.

So yeah, a corporation with some definite baggage in these parts.

What is Optum doing to, ahem, Optum-ize the Blues’ prescription drug coverage?

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The Public Utility Commission Needs an Overhaul

The Vermont Public Utility Commission is truly a curious beastie. If it didn’t exist and you were creating a regulatory body afresh, there is no way on God’s green earth that you’d follow the deeply flawed model of our Earth-1 PUC.

Or should I say “Bizarro Earth”?

The PUC is what they call a “quasi-judicial body.” What this means in practice is that it hides behind a judicial cloak when it’s convenient, and ignores judicial conventions when it’s not.

For those just tuning in, the PUC is a three-member panel whose members serve six-year terms. Candidates are nominated by the governor, vetted by a judicial nominating board and approved by the Senate. By state standards, they are handsomely compensated; PUC Chair Tony Roisman pulls down a tidy $160,763 per year, and the other two members get $107,182 apiece.

The commission is a hugely powerful body that, in the words of its homepage, “regulates the siting of electric and natural gas infrastructure and supervises the rates, quality of service, and overall financial management of Vermont’s public utilities: electric, gas, energy efficiency, telecommunications, cable television (terms of service only, not rates), water, and large wastewater companies.”

That’s, um, quite a lot.

But if you want any insight into its decision-making process, you’re shit out of luck. The commission conceals itself behind its cloak of quasi-judiciality. Its deliberations are conducted behind closed doors. Commissioners refuse to discuss their work because, ahem, they’re quasi-judges.

This makes their jobs easier, but it is decidedly not in the public interest.

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A Ridiculous Six-Year Crusade Ends With a Whimper

Something kind of remarkable happened last week, not that anybody in the media noticed. The Vermont Public Utility Commission dismissed an astonishingly picayune case after more than six years of kicking it around.

Case number 8585, which you’ll need to know if you want to look up the documents, pitted the Public Service Department against one David Blittersdorf, prominent renewable energy developer and bete noire of the Energy NIMBY crowd.

But the case wasn’t about a large-scale wind turbine or a field full of solar panels. Nope, it was over a meteorological tower that Blittersdorf built in 2010 on his own land in Irasburg.

The PSD opened its investigation in 2015, after local officials queried whether Blittersdorf had obtained PUC approval for the tower in the form of a certificate of public good.

The PSD took up the case, asserting that Blittersdorf violated the rules by failing to get a CPG. The concept of PUC authority over a structure completely unrelated to energy, utility operations or communications is, on its face, ridiculous. But the PSD pursued the case for six full years. Last week, finally, the PUC tossed the whole thing out.

The Case Summary, with its lengthy list of hearings, postponements, motions and delays, is like something out of Kafka. And what punishment was the PSD recommending?

A fine of $2,500.

Two thousand five hundred dollars.

I wonder how many billable hours were racked up, and how many taxpayer dollars were frittered away, over this clown show.

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R.I.P. GMD

Ashes to ashes, dust to dust… Green Mountain Daily, which was for many years Vermont’s most influential political blog, has officially joined the Choir Eternal. Site founder John Odum did the honors on Saturday, in a post that recalled some of the site’s finer moments.

GMD was a group effort involving a small number of activists, political insiders and sharp-eyed observers. During its prime, GMD did yeoman’s work in keeping liberal politicos honest (well, a bit more honest) and reining down mockage on those who deserved it. The site also broke news more often than you might think. It was taken seriously by Our Betters and was widely read in political/journalistic circles.

And it had a significant impact on the arc of my own, such as it is, career.

For better and for worse, I wouldn’t be doing this Political Observer thing if it wasn’t for GMD. Way back in 2011, during a spate of underemployment, I started posting occasionally on the site. My posts were often promoted to the main page, which encouraged me to continue. (Posts by regulars automatically hit the top of the queue; posts by guests would go into a box along the side, but could be promoted to the queue by any of the regulars.)

After a few months of this, Odum contacted me about becoming a regular. At the time, I still had pretensions of resuming a career in journalism, and I thought that joining GMD would probably kill any chance I had. But after a few months, I decided to sign on.

And boy, did I have fun. I didn’t make a dime, but I could write whatever and whenever I wanted. and I was good at it.

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I Realize We Can’t Be First All the Time, But Can We Please Be First a Little More Often?

Ah, Vermont, home of Bernie, cradle of progressivism, always in the vanguard of positive change.

Or so we like to believe.

In reality, more often than not we lag behind other jurisdictions. And I’ve got not one, not two, but three examples to share.

First, we are now officially behind the Biden administration on the right to repair — which allows consumers to act as if they own the stuff they buy. Second and third, the state of Maine has enacted two bills that put Vermont in the shade. Maine has imposed a virtual ban on the use of PFAS chemicals (so-called “forever chemicals”), the compounds that have created a huge mess in the Bennington area. Also, Maine has passed “extended product responsibility” legislation that makes manufacturers responsible for the ultimate fate of their product packaging.

So why are we behind in these areas? Well, all three touch on corporate interests. Our lawmakers tend to wither and fade when exposed to testimony from the business community. Besides, these are exactly the kinds of bills that Gov. Scott frequently vetoes over vague concerns about competitiveness or costs.

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Something Stupid This Way Comes

Yep, it’s time again for another round of The Veepies, our awards for stupidity and/or obtuseness in the public sphere. Got a lovely crop of stupid on offer.

First, we have the It Worked So Splendidly Last Time, Let’s Run It Back Again Award, which goes to the folks responsible for exhuming the cold, rotting carcass of the Sanders Institute. Yep, the Sanders clan’s vanity project think tank is once again open for business, thanks to a big fat chunk o’change from… wait for it… the Bernie Sanders campaign! Gotta do something with all those $27 gifts they couldn’t manage to spend during the actual election season.

For those just joining us, the Sanders Institute was founded in 2016 by Jane Sanders and her son David Driscoll, who — mirabile dictu — emerged from what I’m sure was an exhaustive nationwide search to become SI’s executive director. Well, the Institute posted a bunch of essays (mostly recycled from other media) on its website and had one big conference in 2018, but was shut down in May 2019, sez the AP, “amid criticism that the nonprofit has blurred the lines between family, fundraising and campaigning.” Ya think?

There are a few differences between the original and SI 2.0. Sanders comms guy Mike Cesca told VPR that none of the campaign’s money would go toward pay or bennies for Sanders family members. Which is kind of an admission that they screwed up the first time.

Also, two different spokespeople made reference to “the transition” from winning votes to educating people, which makes you think he’s not running for president again, and makes you wonder whether he’ll run for another Senate term in 2024. The new Institute will also include an archive of Sanders and his family… hmm, sounds like a think tank vanity project.

After the jump: A daycare misfire, a self-inflicted social media disappearance, and incompetent fiber installers.

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UVM Prof Boards the Klar Klan Kruiser

Oh boy, oh boy, tonight brings us another stop in the Klar Klan Kruiser’s “Waah Waah Critical Race Theory” tour. This time it’s in St. Albans, and the speakers include one Aaron Kindsvatter, professor of counseling in the UVM College of Education and Social Services, and, to be perfectly frank, one whiny little bitch.

Kindsvatter became a source of controversy on campus earlier this year when he posted a video on YouTube entitled “Racism and the Secular Religion at the University of Vermont.” In it, he complains about being stigmatized because of his race and being labeled a racist because he didn’t accept the “secular religion” of, well, critical race theory. He didn’t use that term, but his presence on the KKK’s roster shows you where his head is at.

Kindsvatter’s video triggered a petition drive aimed at getting him to resign. It’s gathered 3,445 signatures out of a goal of 5,000. This isn’t his first go-round with race-based campus controversy; back in 2016 he objected to the actions of the UVM Bias Response Team, which looks into reports of bias on campus. He said the team “opens the doors for censorship of anyone of any ideological perspective who says something in class that could potentially offend somebody else.”

Now, I can understand how a white man could feel a little uncomfortable with all the anti-racist efforts in his workplace. But that, in itself, is a great measure of white privilege. White people are used to being the norm. Their views, feelings and concerns are the ones that matter. That’s not true anymore, but it’s not as though white people are being ostracized or genocided or enslaved or lynched or engenicized or targeted by excessive police force.

A few decades ago, a study was done of male/female participation in group conversations. What they found was that women tend to speak about 25% of the time. If they start talking more often than that — say, 30-35% — then everyone in the group thinks the women are talking too much. Even the women. In reality, all they’ve done is try to make a small step toward equity.

What’s amazing to me is that a professor of counseling could possess such a complete lack of empathy. He sees everything through the lens of his own experience. That’s something that white people used to be able to get away with and can’t always do so now, which makes them feel oppressed.

In his video and in a subsequent interview with a right-wing media outlet, Kindsvatter makes some statements that reveal a total obliviousness about the experiences of others.

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Hallquist Hire is Phil Scott At His Best

Ooh, this is embarrassing. From when Republicans saw Hallquist as the enemy.

There is nothing bad to say about Gov. Phil Scott hiring Christine Hallquist as executive director of the newly-minted Vermont Community Broadband Board. It’s the kind of move that makes Scott so likeable to so many people.

How many elected officeholders would hire a former political rival to a high-profile position? Not many. But Scott saw Hallquist as the best person for the job, so he hired her without hesitation. In this day and age, it’s so good to see a politician acting in a completely non-political way, putting policy above politics.

The hire is also noteworthy because it shows that Scott is fully on board with the communications union district model, in which community-based nonprofit CUDs would build fiber connections where no commercial operator had been willing to go.

And, especially if the state is adopting this model, Hallquist is clearly the most capable and experienced person for the post.

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