Monthly Archives: November 2014

About those rescissions, part 1

On Thanksgiving Eve, the Shumlin Administration took out some trash. And before I go on, may I just say that pre-weekend newsdumps — and especially pre-holiday newsdumps — are a cowardly way to govern? If you guys think you’re smart enough to manage this state, have the courage to own the bad news. A newsdump might help minimize the immediate impact, but you’d be better off to face the bad news head-on. Be honest with the people who elected you.

(There was a similar Administration newsdump the Friday before Labor day. That one was a damning review of the management of Vermont Health Connect’s IT infrastructure. I look forward, not at all, to the news we might get on Christmas Eve.)

This newsdump concerns a second round of budget rescissions, made necessary by shortfalls in income tax revenue. Which were caused by an anemic economic recovery that has left the middle and working classes behind. Stagnant wages, stagnant tax revenue. While the top earners continue to depress their tax bills through loopholes and high deductions.

The Shumlin Administration wants to cut $17 million from this year’s spending. I’ll have more to say about the specifics in a later post. For now, I’m focusing on the Administration’s claim that it can cut $6,7 million without the Legislature’s approval. The Administration has an Attorney General’s opinion that approves its legal argument for doing so.

That doesn’t sit well with top lawmakers:

Legislators on the House and Senate’s Joint Fiscal Committee share the administration’s sense of urgency, but do not believe that the Shumlin administration has the legal authority to make most of the planned cuts. The Legislative Council, which advises lawmakers on legal matters, supports that position.

“The statute does not give them the authority to do this,” said Sen. Jane Kitchel, D-Caledonia, co-chair of the Joint Fiscal Committee.

I guess we can conclude that Governor Shumlin’s post-election period of listening and learning has come to an end. One seemingly obvious result of the razor-thin gubernatorial election was that Shumlin would need to repair relations with the legislature and act in a more cooperative manner.

Seems like a lesson unlearned there. And it’s not exactly a good portent for what’s going to be, at best, a contentious and difficult biennium.

Seven Days puts on the big-boy pants

I was wondering if someone would swoop in and pick up the pieces after the Burlington Free Press abruptly shuttered its Statehouse Bureau. And now, someone has.

As it expands its coverage of Vermont government and politics, Seven Days has hired veteran Statehouse reporters Terri Hallenbeck and Nancy Remsen.

I couldn’t be happier for Hallenbeck and Remsen personally or for news consumers in Vermont. Seven Days has been steadily upping its game in recent years, but this is a solid, decisive leap into the big time. The little alt-weekly now has a larger politics/Statehouse crew than the once-formidable Free Press. And, even more shocking, a more experienced crew.

The Free Press is supposedly hiring a couple new reporters, but you know what they’re likely to get: bottom-of-the-pay-scale twentysomethings who are proficient with multimedia technology but have little background or experience to inform their reporting. But even if the Freeploid does bring on a couple of seasoned reporters, they won’t be able to replace Hallenbeck and Remsen’s knowledge of the politics and governance of Vermont. They’ll be at the low end of the learning curve, whereas Hallenbeck and Remsen are at the peak.

At a time when newspapers and even many alt-weeklies are in full retreat, Seven Days has taken a bold step forward. Best wishes to the newly enhanced crew, especially to former scurrilous scribe Paul Heintz, now serving as Political Editor.

Our favorite country lawyer spins a yarn

Joe Benning, top Republican in the State Senate, has made a decision. And he wants us all to know about it.

In a short essay posted by VTDigger, the good Senator reveals that when the legislature reconvenes in January, he will vote for Scott Milne for Governor.

Gee, “Scott Milne.” There’s a name I haven’t heard in a while.

Benning’s vote, to hear him tell, has nothing to do with partisanship. The fact that he’s backing the #2 vote-getter, who happens to be a fellow Republican, over the top finisher, a Democrat? Nothing about that in his essay.

Well, not by name. He does, however, depict his vote as an attempt to block the imminent ruin of Vermont at the hands of a certain incumbent governor.

But he begins with a veiled shot at any lawmaker who fails to follow his example in publicly revealing his vote:

 Other legislators may feel differently, but this legislator feels a responsibility to explain his intended vote to his constituents.

Well, yeah, but the choice will be made on a secret ballot. A phrase which conspicuously includes the word “secret.” Feel free to tear back the curtain from your own voting booth, Senator, but don’t imply that those who fail to do so are acting improperly. And yes, that’s what you did.

The next paragraph points to the closeness of the election and Milne’s lopsided majority in Benning’s district, and then creates a false equivalency between the tradition of electing the top vote-getter and the freshly minted “tradition” of voting with one’s district. Uh-huh. One tradition has been unbroken for over 150 years, while the other has never been heard of in Vermont until this month.

Myself, I prefer the weightier term “precedent” in referring to this consistent principle in electing a governor. I can see why Benning does not. But there is wisdom in this precedent; to elect someone other than the top finisher creates the appearance that the legislature is thwarting the will of the people, and sows the seeds of partisan rancor.

Which is exactly what happened the last two times that precedent was flouted, in the 1976 lieutenant governor’s race and in the 1853 contest for governor.

The final cowpat in Benning’s castle is his citation of John F. Kennedy and his self-branding as an embodiment of political courage — a Gandalf staring into the gaping maw of chaos and bravely crying, “You shall not pass!”

Sorry, senator. You’re no hero; you’re just another opportunist.

Gruber contract officially downsized

One argument the Republicans have made in their desperate effort to fan the flickering flames of Grubermania is that, although Gov. Shumlin cut off Jonathan Gruber’s pay, his contract remained intact and would require a formal rewrite.

Well, mission accomplished, per the Mitchell Family Organ:

State officials released an amended contract with MIT economist Jonathan Gruber Tuesday evening, lowering the maximum amount payable to $280,000.

… Some Republicans had maintained that the original contract required official changes, and said Gruber’s “handshake agreement” with Lawrence Miller, Shumlin’s chief of health care reform, was not sufficient.

The amended contract reflects the change in pay for Gruber.

The full contract can be viewed at the link above.

I’m sure the Republicans will come up with fresh rationales for their obsession. But the contract can no longer be cited as an issue. And if they possess a shred of intellectual honesty, they’ll stop referring to the Gruber contract as a $450,000 deal and adopt the true figure, $280,000.

Ball’s in your court, guys.

Bedtime for Bartley

Update: Bartley has gone on Twitter and given a thorough apology for his unfortunate comment. 

The VTGOP’s “victory coordinator” Jeff Bartley had himself a nice relaxing Sunday evening, kickin’ back and watching the Giants and Cowboys face off in hard-hittin’ NFL action. And, being a young, tech-savvy pre-Millennial, he occupied his spare moments by live-Tweeting the events.

Including, sadly, this little number.

In the words of the great philosopher Scoobus Doobus, “Ruh-roh.”

Jeff might be too Vermonty to realize that calling a black man a “monkey” is kinda-sorta askin’ for trouble. And he might be too young to recall that a similar comment played a big role in ending Howard Cosell’s Monday Night Football career.

Your move, Jeff. “I apologize to anyone who may have been offended…”?

Vermont Republicans adopt the Fox News playbook

I don’t know what the hell has happened to Vermont Republicans. With a couple of exceptions (Phil Scott, Kevin Mullin), they seem to have gone batshit crazy.

And crazy in a very particular way. They have taken up the chief weaponry of national Republicans and the Fox News crowd by distilling a complicated issue to a single word.

The issue is health care and the word, of course, is GRUBER!!!!!!

Republicans have not been deterred in the last by Gov. Shumlin’s renegotiation of Gruber’s contract, cutting off further payments to Gruber and thus saving the state $120,000 — some of which will go to independent checking of Gruber’s work.

But it doesn’t matter, at least not to Republicans. They’ve decided “Gruber” is an all-purpose cudgel to attack Shumlin, the Democrats, and the cause of health care reform. Their entire health care focus is on Gruber.

It was only a couple weeks ago that the VTGOP had a big post-election news conference to call for repeal of Vermont Health Connect. We don’t hear that anymore; it’s all Gruber, all the time.

It’s the first time I can remember that virtually every notable Republican and conservative activist seems to be singing from the same hymnal. Kurt Wright sounds just like Rob Roper, and Heidi Scheuermann’s doing her best Darcie Johnston.

This fact hit home for me while reading Rep. Wright’s opinion piece in the Sunday Freeploid. Wright asserts that Gruber’s work on single-payer “will undermine the entire process and debate going forward.” When there’s no evidence that Gruber has done anything more than provide top-flight economic modeling. No matter; as ACORN allegedly poisoned the electoral process and Lois Lerner allegedly proved an Obama conspiracy against the right, the mere presence of Gruber fundamentally undercuts everything about single-payer.

So I guess, by Wright’s logic, we have to throw out all the work that’s been done on single-payer over the last three years and start over? Or is he arguing that by axing Gruber now, when the work is virtually complete, the entire process will be purified as if by cleansing flame?

Wright’s words are identical in meaning to Rob Roper’s. Over at his Koch-funded nonprofit, the Ethan Allen Institute, he claims that Gruber’s entire body of work is useless and cannot be used at all. And Darcie “Hack” Johnston, Tweeting out her policy stances, pronounes Gruber’s work is “tainted” and…

Just watch him, Darcie.

Meanwhile, Sen. Joe Benning is clearly intoxicated by his sudden Fox News fame, referring on his Facebook page to Gruber as “the gift that keeps on giving.” Which sounds disconcertingly like naked political opportunism. He goes on to brag that “FOX wants me back!”

Of course they want you back, Joe: you fit right in with their agenda. And I don’t mean that as a compliment.

On another front, House Republicans have filed a public-records request for Gruber’s work for the state and for communications between Gruber and the Shumlin Administration, I’d applaud them for trying to learn the truth, but given all their public remarks, it seems more like a Darrell Issa-type fishing expedition. What they’re really hoping for is more Gruberisms.

And then there’s the proto-Republicans at Campaign for Vermont, still flogging their online petition calling for Gruber’s firing. Too bad that since Shumlin’s termination of payment, CFV’s petition has pretty much stalled out. As of this writing, it’s at 233 signatures, and it’s been in the low 200s for several days now.

This isn’t about the truth. It’s about using a handful of remarks by Jonathan Gruber to try to undermine the push for single-payer health care.

The weird thing about this is, we just went through an election that provided two object lessons (Phil Scott and Scott Milne) in how Republicans can win in Vermont: by presenting a moderate, inclusive image. Now they’re all foaming at the mouth as though the election never happened and “Angry Jack” Lindley is still running the joint.

They would be well advised to rein in their inflammatory rhetoric lest they alienate the very voters they just managed to attract.

Mikey Pom-Poms gets pwned

Really, I wasn’t planning on today being Bag On The Freeploid Day, but here comes Michael Townsend, Executive Editor and Chief Gannett Cheerleader of the Burlington Free Press, spending another sad Friday night drunk-Tweeting.

Or just being extra gullible.

Now, I love a good Sarah Palin malaprop as much as the next liberal, but this story is from The Daily Currant, a satirical website.

This story is a fake. Just like the other ones on The Daily Currant, such as…

Marijuana Overdoses Kill 37 in Colorado On First Day of Legalization

California approves $587 Billion High-Speed Rail Link to Hawaii

Pope Benedict Comes Out as Gay

Aw, Mikey, Mikey. Are you gonna unTweet that, let it lie quietly, or try to claim you knew it was funny all along?

Which, the latter, bullshit.

Really, Free Press? Really?

I shouldn’t spend so much time bagging on the Burlington Free Press, but they just keep doing bag-worthy stuff. Like this — the current homepage on its website. Featuring News!!

Screen Shot 2014-11-21 at 1.40.26 PM

Yeah, we’re all, like Diogenes, in search the perfect pumpkin pie.

There are two additional bitchslaps to the corpse of Joe Pulitzer here. The first is that the pumpkin pie article was written by Candace Page, who used to do a fine job covering the environment for the Free Press; her byline is a reminder of better days long gone. The second is the tiny headline at the lower right: “Food donations ‘critically low'” at Burlington food bank. The gourmet foodie thing gets top billing, while the plight of the poor gets the shortest possible shrift.

But after all, the plight of the poor makes lousy clickbait.

This, on top of the Freeploid’s announcement of its new btvfoodie app, part of its ongoing pivot away from serious journalism and toward audience-friendly “content.” I have to say, this makes me feel that much better about reducing my subscription — er, sorry, account. “Subscription” is so 20th Century, isn’t it?

When I first dubbed the Free Press “Seven Days Lite,” I was half kidding. But it looks more and more like I was dead-on. The Free Press is doing its best to poach Seven Days’ ad-friendly endeavors while decreasing its serious coverage to alt-weekly levels.

I know, I know: the Free Press is in a tough spot, with decreasing revenues and a profit-hungry corporate parent mandating its every move. Given the situation, it makes sense to reposition the Free Press as a Burlington-centered, feature-oriented newspap — sorry, multimedia content platform.

I get that. What I don’t like is Michael Townsend insisting that the Free Press is still a serious force. It is, in fact, becoming largely irrelevant to those of us who (1) are interested in solid coverage of state politics and policy, and (2) don’t live in Chittenden County.  For us, the Free Press has fallen to fifth place, behind VTDigger, VPR, the Mitchell Family Organ, and — yes, I’ll say it — Seven Days.

Thank you for calling the Burlington Free Press. How may we ruin your day?

The newspaper business is in trouble for reasons beyond its control: new technology, changes in consumer preferences, and especially changes in advertiser preferences.

But beyond all that, the newspaper industry seems hellbent on killing itself.

call-centerI just had a most unpleasant interaction with the Burlington Free Press’ “customer service” system. Not the call center employee I finally managed to talk to after about 20 minutes of voice-mail slogging; she was perfectly fine. But everything else, good God.

Here’s my situation. I’ve been a subscriber to the digital service plus home delivery Thursday through Sunday. What I wanted to do was cut back to Sunday only delivery because, since the Free Press shut down its Statehouse bureau, it’s become less relevant to me. And the Sunday paper is basically a freebie, thrown in with digital access because they want me to get all the advertising in the Sunday paper.

First of all, I went online to the “My Account” page, and there was a button that offered me the chance to Manage Account. But when I clicked on this button, it offered me three options: “Increase delivery frequency,” “Update credit card,” and “View account history.”

See, you can increase your subscription, but you can’t decrease it or cancel it. It’s the Roach Motel of online customer service.

So I called the toll-free Customer Service line, and went straight into voice-mail hell. Early on, there was a nasty surprise: a recorded voice informed me that the Thanksgiving Day newspaper is automatically included in every subscription whether you usually receive the Thursday paper or not, and would cost more than the usual Thursday paper. You see, it offers so much “reader value,” i.e. advertising, that the costs of delivery are reputedly higher “because of the complicity of home delivery.”

Seriously, “complicity.”  That’s what the voice said. Representing a newspaper.

Aside from the sloppy illiteracy, that’s just a cheap-ass way to make your customers feel dumped on. And if I hadn’t called Customer Service for an unrelated issue, I wouldn’t have known about this extra charge until it was too late.

The voice mail prompts went on and on. And after I’d provided all kinds of answers, including name, address, and phone number, I was asked whether I wanted a live operator or more voice mail. I chose “live operator” immediately. Whereupon I was informed that my wait time would be *nine* miinutes.

If I didn’t want to wait, I was offered the option of a call-back “within seven to twelve minutes.” When I selected that, I was asked to provide my name and phone number.

Seven to twelve minutes later, I got a call back. From voice mail! It asked me for my name and other information, again. Finally, I was connected to the call center.

Where, let me stress once again, the live operator was very nice and helpful. Didn’t even try to talk me out of reducing my subscription.

She did, however, note that I’d still get next Thursday’s paper. And be charged for it.

I declined. To her credit, she didn’t fight back; she just took my order and thanked me for calling.

So now the Free Press’ “customer service” has left me upset and feeling like the mark in a three-card monte game instead of a “valued customer.” And left me hoping I never have to call them again.

Really, does Gannett even want to be in the newspaper business? They’re not acting like it.

At this rate, Lake Champlain will be cleaned up about the time the sun goes nova and the Earth becomes a cold, dead husk

Among the news stories buried in the avalanche of Grubermania are three separate developments regarding Lake Champlain. They adhere to a familiar pattern: one baby step forward, one big step back, and yet another dopeslap from the feds.

Yep, we’re making progress by… uh… well, it’s not leaps and bounds. Creeps and crawls?

A reminder before we begin on this week. The stoutly environmental Green Mountain State would still be ignoring its stewardship of Champlain if not for the Conservation Law Foundation’s 2008 lawsuit that compelled the EPA to enforce the Clean Water Act for Lake Champlain. Specifically, to set a Total Maximum Daily Load (TMDL) for phosphorus, the chief nutrient responsible for our festive annual outbreaks of toxic algae.

Our pride and joy.

Our pride and joy.

Yeah, Green Mountains and, er, a green scummy lake. Nice.

In response to the suit, EPA decided to force tighter standards on Vermont. That happened in January 2010. In the nearly five years since, EPA has been chasing the state in an extreme slo-mo version of a Benny Hill scene, with Yakety Sax playing at 78 r.p.m. (Ask Grandpa, kids.)

(Historical sidelight: In January 2010, Louis Porter was CLF’s Lake Champlain Lakekeeper, and he hailed the EPA decision as signaling a new day and “a new, science-based approach to cleaning up Lake Champlain and making sure it remains a safe and enjoyable resource.” Today he’s a top Shumlin Administration official, which either means he’s a double agent working from within or he’s gone over to the Dark Side.)

Since early 2010, the state’s response has consisted of delay, baby steps, delay, lip service, promises, delay, half-baked initiatives, delay, pleas of poverty, delay, and… checking my figures here… delay.

Fast forward to this week.

First, the Shumlin Administration proposed a new fee on “impervious development” and a 1% hike in the fertilizer tax. The moves made sense, because agricultural fertilization and impervious development are two prime contributors to our plentiful nutrient flows into the Lake. Problem is, the two measures combined — assuming the Legislature approves them — would raise $1 million a year for lake remediation.

With cleanup costs estimated at $150 million, that’s a drop in the bucket.

(Addendum, 12/4/14. According to DEC Commissioner David Mears, the $1 million figure was basically a “for-example” sort of thing, and the administration wants to set the tax and fee rates high enough to produce $4 million to $6 million in annual revenue.) 

Second, the Administration released a 36-page Clean Water Initiative that promises to tighten water-related regulations and establish a Clean Water Fund (revenue sources decidedly sketchy) to help pay for needed improvements, One of the Initiative’s provisions involved a pirouette by the Governor; in August he downplayed the need for upgrading wastewater treatment facilities, but the Initiative called for more investment in wastewater treatment.

Then there was a step back. Or, at least, a refusal to step up, from Ag Secretary Chuck Ross. He decided not to mandate “best management practices” for farms in the Missisquoi Bay watershed, one of the most phosphorus-laden parts of the Lake. Ross gave two primary reasons, per VPR: 

— Mandating best practices “would be inconsistent with EPA’s ongoing process for water quality improvement in the Lake.” Which sounds downright Orwellian to me; limiting ag runoff “would be inconsistent” with EPA’s efforts to, uh, limit ag runoff?

— Also, “the state doesn’t have the resources available to help the basin’s farmers achieve compliance.” As if EPA is hat in hand, making a polite inquiry, rather than enforcing compliance with the Clean Water Act. Does Ross expect that, upon hearing his plea of poverty, EPA will say, “Oh, sorry. Never mind, then.”

And finally, a regional EPA official said the newly-minted Clean Water Initiative “does not go far enough to comply with federal regulations.” Stephen Perkins noted that phosphorus loads are still on the rise in many sections of the Lake, and said:

It’s going to take an awful lot of work to take those red trend lines and get them to bend down in a different direction.

VTDigger’s John Herrick summed up the bad news:

Even if the state’s plan were fully implemented, projected phosphorus levels in South Lake A and B and Missisquoi Bay would still exceed phosphorus limits set by the EPA. These are sections of the lake where phosphorus levels already must be cut by more than 50 percent to meet the federal requirements, according to the EPA.

And let me remind you that some of the worst pollution, caused by us Vermonters, is at the upstream end of the lake, in southern Quebec. We’re lucky Canada isn’t suing our asses.

In response to his comments, Perkins got some vintage rope-a-dope:

David Mears, commissioner of the Department of Environmental Conservation, said Monday that his agency has no other proposals to present to the EPA at this time. “We’ll continue to have our sleeves rolled up and we’ll continue to work.” he said.

Mears pointed to the additional but intangible impact of “technical assistance and educational outreach” programs, which he admits cannot be quantified, “but we expect it will be substantial.”

If ifs and buts were candy and nuts, we’d have a clean Lake by Christmas.

And then Mears pulled a Chuck Ross:

“We don’t want to put forward a plan that we can’t actually achieve,” he said.

Instead, I guess, EPA is supposed to be happy with a completely inadequate — but achievable — plan.

This isn’t all the Shumlin Administration’s fault. They’re dealing with the consequences of decades and decades of ignoring the problem and letting it get worse. But it has fallen in their laps, and their response has been… how did I put it… delay, lip service, delay, pleas of poverty, delay, half-baked initiatives, and delay. It’s safe to say the only way we’ll get a good cleanup plan is if EPA holds our feet to the fire until they’re glowing red.

For a liberal administration in a state that’s supposed to have a strong environmental ethic, this just sucks. To think that Vermont is having to be dragged, kicking and screaming, to do stuff we should have been doing all along, well, it makes me doubt the existence of our strong environmental ethic.

The public response to all this has been underwhelming, to say the least. Little attention seems to be paid. Even the environmental community, which ought to be spitting fire, seems oddly passive. (I’m sure CLF would say they’re working hard behind the scenes, but I don’t see it.) We look at that $150 million figure and shrug our shoulders. What can we do?

Well, apparently, our inclination is to keep loading our prize jewel with guck, and put off our day of reckoning as long as we can.