Daily Archives: September 23, 2014

Hey look everybody! Scott Milne has a plan! …oh wait, never mind.

A moment of excitement on my Twitter feed today, courtesy of cigar-smoking VTGOP “Victory Coordinator” Jeff Bartley:

Screen Shot 2014-09-23 at 2.59.30 PM

I could hardly believe my eyes. And I couldn’t wait to click on the link, to a story by WCAX’s Kyle Midura.

After weeks of alluding to his campaign of ideas, Milne provided more details Thursday about his call for a two-year cap on the state property tax.

Well, huzzah. The cap idea has been criticized, by me and many others, as imposing a hard spending cap on local schools. Governor Shumlin said it would erode local control. Midura says that Milne offered a rejoinder to this criticism:

Milne says the cost would shift to other taxes unless schools cut spending. The income tax is most likely — a legislative proposal to move all school costs to that source stalled before lawmakers left Montpelier last May.

It would “shift to other taxes” because the state is legally bound to provide funding to the schools, and if the property tax doesn’t cover it, then it’ll have to come from somewhere. That’s an obvious statement of fact, Mr. Milne. What else you got?

Milne says he would leave how to fill the gap his proposal would create up to legislators.

He is not sharing cost-cutting plans, at least not yet.

“We’ll be talking about our strategies for lowering school costs clearly over the next few weeks,” Milne said.

Awwwww, god DAMN.

A more accurate headline would read, “GOP candidate Milne provides no details of property tax plan.”

The excitement deflates. The Scott Milne Policy Watch continues.

In which I dip my toe into Jim Douglas’ Well of Lost Dreams

A friend in the media loaned me a review copy of ex-Governor Douglas’ memoir, “The Vermont Way.”  And I’ve started working my way through it.

It’ll definitely be “work,” too. I could tell from the first page that, leaving aside my opinion of Jim Douglas, this book is badly written. It’s flat, wooden, and wordy. This sentence, referring to Springfield, Massachusetts, says it all:

It was the county seat, the city where I was born and a municipality adjacent to the suburb, East Longmeadow, in which my family lived.

Boy howdy. Hemingway couldn’t have said it better.

(Photo by the late great Peter Freyne.)

(Photo by the late great Peter Freyne.)

If that was an outlier, Douglas (and his publisher) could be forgiven for a lapse in copy editing. But there’s more. Oh, so much more. Here’s a passage where he might have offered something fresh about Deane Davis, the Republican Governor when Douglas was launching his political career. Instead, he gives us a dry recitation of Davis’ resume:

He was two days away from turning sixty-eight and had completed a successful career as a lawyer, judge, and chief executive officer of the National Life Insurance Company. He had served as president of the American Morgan Horse Association and led Vermont’s Little Hoover Commission, the group that recommended reorganization of state government in the late ’50s.

Morgan Horse Association? What the frack?

If a high school student had written this, he would have gotten dinged for padding the word count. When it comes from Jim Douglas, not only is it lousy writing, but it fails to deliver the kind of insight I’d expect.

Here’s a dinner winner from what should have been a fraught passage — the announcement of the draft lottery during his college years, which would send some of his classmates off to Vietnam. And instead of some hint of emotion or empathy, we get another sentence unworthy of a high school essay:

These days, of course, military service is voluntary, but there have been times in our nation’s history when compulsory induction has been necessary to adequately staff our armed forces.

And by “adequately staff,” he means “replenish our battle-ravaged troops.”

The sentence adds nothing whatsoever to the narrative. Every page has examples of pointless padding, of layer upon layer of verbiage meant to insulate Jim Douglas from betraying actual human feeling or revealing unique insight into his life and career.

Chapter One ends with a passage concerning Douglas’ alleged curiosity about the world outside Vermont. He had studied Russian at Middlebury College; primarily, he says, because it was “the height of the Cold War,” which he defined in a manner, once again, unworthy of a high school essay:

Soviet Premier Nikita Khruschev had proclaimed to the United States and other Western democracies, “We will bury you!” and later, for emphasis, banged his shoe on a desk at the United Nations.

These aren’t the words I’d expect from someone who grew up in the Cold War, with the Cuba missile crisis and air-raid drills and bomb shelters full of rations and bottled water. These are words I’d expect from a youngster who looked up “Cold War” on Wikipedia.

He goes on to talk about this curiosity regarding “other cultures” that “never abated,” and was fulfilled to some degree by his gubernatorial travels. The first “other culture” he mentions is Canada, that strange and distant land and “our largest trading partner.” He then rattles off the other stickers on his gubernatorial steamer trunk: Vietnam (where “the people are very friendly”) and 13 other countries listed in alphabetical order — the most unimaginative rendering possible.

There are no revealing anecdotes, no indication of what he learned or where his alleged curiosity took him. I suspect it mostly took him to official meetings and staged VIP tours. Either way, we get no hint that his journeys gave him any insight. After this perfunctory paragraph, “China,” “Vietnam,” and “Korea” only appear once in the book’s index. All three are mentioned on the same page, in a tossed-off recap of a trip “with business leaders” that “generated a large number of investors and inquiries.”

This is supposedly one area of human experience that really engages Jim Douglas’ intellect, and it’s reduced to a dry, soulless recitation of facts.

I’m only through part of chapter three, but one thing I can tell you:  Whatever you think of Jim Douglas as a politician or leader, this book has to be a disappointment. It is so much less than it could have been.

VHC and the NFL

The National Football League, the unstoppable beast of modern sports, is having a bad time of it. Commissioner Roger Goodell, team owners, and players are under scrutiny for what appears to be an epidemic of bad behavior toward women and children, and a casual attitude toward violent offenders.

In actual fact, there are no more or fewer incidents than there have ever been. The problem is the league’s hypocrisy, backtracking, dishonesty, and double-dealing. Or, as we learned from the Watergate scandal — well, we should have learned it — it’s not the crime that gets you, it’s the cover-up. If the NFL had gotten out in front and taken plausibly strong action, its current PR crisis would never have happened.

Which brings me to Vermont Health Connect, our long-troubled and (temporarily?) sidelined health care exchange. And particularly the need for a heavy dose of the best disinfectant: sunshine.

To begin with the takeaway: Please, let there be no more surprises. If there are unrevealed problems, call a news conference ASAP and get all the bad stuff out in the open at once. No more dribs and drabs, no more Friday afternoon newsdumps; just a public accounting for everything. Take heed of the NFL’s tribulations, made worse every time new information comes out or a prominent figure sticks his foot in his mouth.

Maybe there’s no bad news left. Maybe we know it all. That would be great, if true. But the Administration’s recent track record doesn’t fill me with confidence.

Go back, first of all, to the Friday afternoon newsdump to end all Friday afternoon newsdumps: the release of the Optum report detailing serious problems with the state’s oversight of the VHC website’s construction. Not problems with the technology or software; but serious management shortcomings by Shumlin Administration officials. The report was released the Friday before Labor Day, so maybe you missed it.

At the time, the words of responsible officials were not reassuring. Health care reform chief Lawurence Miller said the Optum report would help chart “the best way forward,” which seemed to preclude any accounting for past maladministration. And Health Access Commissioner Mark Larson, who has since been sidelined from VHC oversight, allowed as to how his takeaway from the report was that “we have worked hard with our vendor partners.”

Well, yeah, hard. But not effectively.

On September 15 came the temporary VHC shutdown. It was first announced as a way to streamline repairs and upgrades in advance of the next open enrollment period. It made sense, and I praised it at the time: stop futzing around, get it fixed, and set the stage for the single-payer debate.

Since then, a couple things have happened that cast doubt on my sunny interpretation. A few days later, VTDigger’s Morgan True reported that the VHC shutdown had as much to do with a site-security crisis as with a sudden onset of managerial diligence.

Over the summer the federal government provided a timeline for reducing security risks, which expired 10 days ago…

Miller and Harry Chen, the secretary of the Agency of Human Services, decided to take down the website last weekend because the state was unable to meet a Sept. 8 federal deadline for security controls; the determination was not the result of a security breach or a specific threat.

“Rather than asking for more time, we decided to disconnect from the federal hub,” Miller said.

Miller could not rule out the possibility that the feds might have ordered a VHC shutdown if the state had failed to act.

Which puts quite a different complexion on the shutdown. And Miller didn’t reassure much when, speaking about security issues, he had trouble with verb tenses:

… it needs to be a high priority; it needed to be a higher priority than it was.

A curiously passive tone, methinks.

The very next day, we learned that top state lawmakers were displeased that they learned of the VHC shutdown through the media. Sen. Ginny Lyons, chair of the Senate Health Care Oversight Committee, said “We’re legislators, so we need to know.” Miller’s response? Officials kept it quiet for security reasons.

“The nature of the announcement was also an abundance of caution. Security advisers say when you’re going to do something for security reasons you do not telegraph that ahead of time.”

Uh, sorry, but no.

The federal government has crafted ways to share top-secret information about things like war, terrorism, and intelligence with appropriate members of Congress. I think Shumlin’s people could have passed a quiet word to, say, legislative leadership and the chairs of the health care committees. I think those people could have been trusted to keep a secret, for a couple of days, for good reason.

Miller’s explanation, of course, implies that lawmakers cannot be trusted. I think if I were Ginny Lyons or Mike Fisher, I’d be insulted by that.

And next winter, when Shumlin starts the push for single-payer, he’s going to need the support, good will, and trust of those leaders. Well, Miller as much as said he didn’t trust them.

I sincerely hope we’ve emptied out the Pandora’s Box of VHC. If there are still some dark, unexamined corners and crevices, then I implore the Administration to throw open the lid and let the sun shine in.