Neale Lunderville, the shiniest bauble on the public policy tree

Oh, those darn Democrats. They just can’t seem to resist the dubious charms of former Douglas Administration functionary (and campaign hatchet-man, lest we forget, and I bet Doug Racine hasn’t) Neale Lunderville.

Mmmm, what should I take over next?

Mmmm, what should I take over next?

Back in 2011-12, Lunderville started his run as the Dems’ unlikely go-to guy when he served as Governor Shumlin’s Irene Recovery Czar. This summer, he added another layer of plausible nonpartisanship as Burlington Mayor Miro Weinberger’s choice to be interim head of the Burlington Electric Department, tasked with undertaking a “strategic review” of the organization.

Well, unbeknownst to almost everyone outside of the State House inner circle, Lunderville had already scored a public-policy bingo with his appointment to a not-quite-secret committee tasked with nothing less than crafting an overhaul of Vermont’s public education system. VPR’s Peter Hirschfeld got the goods:

The group isn’t a legislative committee per se – not too many people even know it exists. But members of Smith’s education reform group have been getting together since after the close of the 2014 legislative session. And by year’s end, Smith says he hopes they’ll deliver the policy recommendations that will serve as the basis for an overhaul of the state’s education system.

… He says the advance work being done by the group will give lawmakers the early start they need to get a meaningful bill across the finish line.

The committee is dominated by current and former state lawmakers, most of them Democrats, but also including a couple of Republicans, one former Republican turned independent (Oliver Olsen), one Progressive, and Our Man Neale.

Which makes me again raise the question, Can’t the Democrats find anybody else to take on tough policy challenges? Why do they have to depend on a guy who cut his teeth running the dark side of Jim Douglas’ political operation?

And, especially, why in the Blue Hell do they insist on burnishing the credentials of a guy who might very well be the Republican candidate for Governor in 2016 or 2018?

Ulp. Pardon me for a moment…

Screen Shot 2014-10-27 at 9.10.59 AM

Whew. That’s better. Now, where was i?

Oh yes. Aside from Lunderville’s presence, the committee’s almost total secrecy has to be a concern.

The group’s meetings aren’t warned or open to the public, and minutes aren’t recorded. Smith says the off-the-books arrangement is needed to help members of the group feel more “free” to brainstorm different approaches.

So I guess the fact that this isn’t an official committee exempts it from open-meetings and public-records laws — kinda like Dick Cheney’s infamous energy policy committee. But if the group manages to complete its task, it might well be the most powerful committee in the legislature (even if it no longer exists when the legislature comes back to work). It’ll effectively set the school-reform agenda for the lawmakers who actually have to do their business, inconveniently enough, under the public eye.

Three other things you should know:

— According to one member, the committee is focusing on student-to-teacher ratio. Which might mean mandatory minimum class sizes, or even forced school consolidation.

— Lunderville seems to favor centralizing budgetary authority, which he advocates under the guise of allowing local officials to “devote attention where it belongs: student learning.” Their ability to do anything about student learning without the power of the purse would be sharply constrained, of course. Lunderville would like to “go to more of a model like the state has, where there’s one agency, one department on a regional or state level handling those.” Which would be kind of a radical move.

— Finally, as Hirschfeld reports at the top of his story, “public education – not single-payer health care – will be top of mind for House lawmakers.” Not good news for Governor Shumlin, who continues to insist that single-payer is Job One in the new biennium.

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