Daily Archives: November 12, 2014

Shumlin: “We have a structural deficit” and other happy tidings

The Governor addresses the multitudes. (The bearded man begging for change is Dave Gram of the Associated Press.)

The Governor addresses the multitudes. (The bearded man begging for change is Dave Gram of the Associated Press.)

An uncharacteristically subdued Governor Shumlin held an agenda-free news conference this morning. I emphasize “agenda-free” because his past practice has been to piggy-back news conferences onto photo opportunities or policy announcements, leaving much less time for general questions.

Today there were a lot of questions and a lot of substance. In no particular order…

The Vermont Health Connect website will go back online this Saturday, which happens to be the first day of open enrollment. So the relaunch will come on the last possible day. Gee, hope things go right; there’s no margin for error.

Shumlin pronounced himself “optimistic,” saying “I’m encouraged by what I’m hearing.” But given how often he, and we, have been burned in the past, he was reluctant to make any predictions. “I’m always hoping it will work.”

— He dismissed Republican calls to shut down VHC and go with the federal exchange, and he had several good arguments. First of all, it’s far too late to make the change this year, so we’d be limping along with VHC for another year in any case. And there are signs it’s finally getting on track. “We’re turning a corner,” he said. “Why not give it a chance?”

There’s also the fact that the federal exchange’s premium subsidies aren’t as generous as Vermont’s. Switching to the federal system would mean higher premiums for thousands of Vermonters who earn between 100-300% of the poverty line.

And, as he pointed out, the US Supreme Court may well strike down federal subsidies, in which case only states with their own exchanges will be able to offer subsidies.

— Get ready for a slam-bang legislative session. Shumlin is still talking about the next step in health care reform (see below), the legislature is hell-bent on property tax and/or school funding reform, Shumlin is talking about significant changes to energy policy, and perhaps worst of all, the quote atop this post: “We have a structural deficit at this point.” Meaning huge challenges in fashioning a budget. That’s a hell of a lot of big, contentious issues to tackle.

Temba, his arms wide.

Temba, his arms wide.

— Speaking of the budget, Shumlin acknowledged that Vermont and many other states “thought the recovery would be more robust,” and its weakness has caused revenue shortfalls. He’s talking about a second round of rescissions in this year’s budget, although he said nothing is final just yet. And he’s talking about major changes in next year’s budget in order to put an end to annual budget crises.

He wants to put the state on a more sustainable path. Which must be making a few Republicans chuckle, since they’ve been preaching this for years. On the other hand, Shumlin has a valid point: the recovery has been weak. If we’d had a normal recovery with decent wage gains, our tax revenue would be stronger and we wouldn’t be facing this dilemma. The big news on this front is that the Governor now believes we’re facing years of sluggishness, and we need to ratchet down the budget to make it sustainable.

When asked whether this might mean tax increases, he didn’t rule them out, but he made it clear that his first choice is to rein in spending.

— On the push for single-payer health care, he repeated his longstanding support for the idea, but acknowledged that in the wake of the election, everything is on the table. He is aiming for a system that combines affordability with universal access to health care. His preference remains single-payer, but it’s looking like we might settle for less than that.

— He made it clear that yes, he won the election, and he has no doubt that he will serve a third term. He pointed to Vermont’s long tradition of electing the top vote-getter when no one wins a majority: ‘The person who gets the most votes, wins.” He cited the 2002 election for Lieutenant Governor, in which he and Progressive Anthony Pollina combined for a liberal majority but Republican Brian Dubie won the most votes; he and Pollina urged lawmakers to elect Dubie, which they did.

— On school funding and organization, he declared “We have a spending problem,” with high per-pupil costs and administrative structures. In some cases, he said, small class sizes can be harmful to achievement rather than helpful. He’s not in favor of mandatory school consolidation, but it’s clear he will push for consolidation by trying to convince local districts that it’s in their best interest.

He did mention the idea of “prioritizing funding to schools that voluntarily consolidate.” That kind of legislative payola may be effective, but it kinda stretches the definition of “voluntary.”

— In a less wide-ranging news conference, his comments on energy policy might have made headlines. They’re likely to get lost in today’s news. He noted the pending sunset of the SPEED program, which has helped spur the renewables industry in Vermont but has also created controversy because it allows the sale of “green” energy credits in other markets. He and the legislature are working on “ideas to replace SPEED.”

He was asked about the prospects for a carbon tax with offsetting cuts in other taxes — a plan likely to be announced tomorrow by a coalition of environmental groups. He was cool to the idea, saying “It’s tough for a small rural state to do it alone,” and pointing particularly to its impact on gas stations near our state borders. He prefers a regional carbon tax instead; but he said he’s had no conversations with other northeastern governors about the idea. Methinks the enviros will have a hard time gaining traction, when you combine Shumlin’s reluctance with an extremely busy legislative session.

— Finally, he was asked about marijuana legalization. He said he wants to wait until the release of a report on the idea in January before proceeding, but noted that “I support legalization. The question is “when.”

Milne declines recount; Republican trolling to continue

Note: This post supersedes the earlier one entitled “Super Dave Stands Pat.”

The tedious business of democracy. Clockwise from front: Director of Elections WIll Senning, Secretary of State Jim Condos, Crystal Zevon of the Liberty Union Party, and Kelly Mangan of the Progressive Party. (And at right rear, former Free Press reporter Nancy Remsen.)

The tedious business of democracy. Clockwise from front: Director of Elections WIll Senning, Secretary of State Jim Condos, Crystal Zevon of the Liberty Union Party, and Kelly Mangan of the Progressive Party. (And at right rear, former Free Press reporter Nancy Remsen.)

The state board of canvassers met this morning in a hot, sticky conference room full of media folks awaiting the Big News.

Which, of course, was a complete anticlimax; the election results posted on the Secretary of State’s website were quickly confirmed, with Governor Shumlin holding a 2,434-vote lead over Scott Milne.

A couple hours, later, Milne issued a press release from his secure undisclosed location (seriously, I don’t know how this guy would handle it if he had to meet the media on a regular basis) saying that he would not request a recount. And adding the customary passive-aggressive note: “I trust that Peter Shumlin won the plurality.”

In other words, “I’m pretty sure Jim Condos didn’t steal this puppy.”

Also, he noted that “this race is one of the closest in Vermont history,” and Shumlin’s performance was extremely weak for an incumbent. In other words, “I lost, but I really won.”

And black is white, and war is peace.

Anyway, mighty white of him to forego the recount. But on the larger issue — will he pursue the race into the Legislature? — he was less forthcoming.

Milne plans to address the press and public in an announcement next week regarding the Legislature’s Constitutional duty in January.

“Next week,” by Milne’s standards, might be anytime between tomorrow and Christmas Day.

But I’m not surprised that he’s continuing to troll the entire state with his novel reasoning that the loser should be declared the winner. He’s not alone; VTGOP chair “Super Dave” Sunderland attended the canvassers’ meeting, and did some heavy trolling afterward.

Uh, Dave... I don't think Stewie's buying it.

Uh, Dave… I don’t think Stewie’s buying it.

He told the media that it’s not up to Milne whether to pursue the legislative option because “The Constitution lays out the process that needs to happen. There’s no avoiding a vote in January. It’s required.”

Which is technically true, but in the past, losing candidates have voluntarily withdrawn before the legislature’s vote, to banish uncertainty and allow the winner to get on with the business of governing.

His advice for the candidate?

My advice to Scott is to follow his instincts and do what’s best for Vermont. We certainly have a clear popular vote winner, and you know, how it breaks down in the Legislature district by district tells us maybe a little bit different story, and I think Scott’s weighing those options right now.

Ah, the district-by-district canard. An argument that’s never, ever been raised before in Vermont history. Don’t believe me? Well, Paul Heintz went to an unimpheachable source: former state archivist Gregory Sanford, who said that Milne’s district-by-district idea “simply has no precedent.”

Sanford also outlined all three times when the top vote-getter was not elected governor, and all three had a distinctly fishy smell:

In 1789, legislators ditched incumbent Thomas Chittenden in favor of Moses Robinson after the former was ensnared in a sketchy land deal. In 1835, lawmakers cast 63 inconclusive ballots before giving up and letting lieutenant governor Silas Jennison serve as acting governor. And in 1853, the Democrats and Free Soil Democrats teamed up to steal the state’s top jobs from the Whigs, whose slate of candidates won pluralities.

But Sunderland? This guardian of the Vermont Way is clinging to Milne’s non-precedent. When the former state representative was asked how he would vote if given the chance, he danced around for a while before giving a kinda-sorta answer:

Well, I think every election is different. And I think every legislator is different year to year, session to session, district to district. My district, in this election, voted strongly for Scott Milne, and I would definitely take that into consideration, unless there were some other um strong um… uh… some strong push from a personal conscience standpoint, um, I think I’d be inclined to vote the way my constituents voted in my district. But that’s not to say there might be exceptions.

Yup, the Republican trolling continues apace. They know that the legislature is not going to ignore precedent and choose the loser over the winner. But they want to keep the question open as long as they can, to distract our attention and pester the Democrats.

Super Dave stands pat

The state board of canvassers met this morning. Also, the sun rose.

Nothing unexpected; Gov. Shumlin’s margin over Scott MIlne is 2,434 votes.

Afterward, VTGOP chair “Super Dave” Sunderland spoke to the media. He couldn’t say whether Milne would ask for a recount; he’d have to do so by the end of the day today. Milne, as expected, wasn’t there.

On the larger question, Sunderland kept alive the Repbulican narrative that the Legislture might well choose to elect Milne instead of Shumlin. Indeed, he went so far as to say that if he were still in the legislature, he’d vote for Milne.

More details later.

Metapost: Old Three Hundredth

This is the 300th post on theVPO. Seemed like a good time for a few reminders, especially since I seem to have picked up a lot of new readers in the past couple of weeks.

The contents of this blog are my own creation. This is a place for commentary and analysis of Vermont politics (and the political media) from my point of view, drawing on my thirty-odd years as a journalist and political observer. Having reached the dawn of my senior years, and having found no place for myself in Vermont’s small and shrinking journalistic ecosystem, I decided to make a place of my own. The advantage is I run the joint; the disadvantage is that the rewards are entirely of the intangible variety.

I am a liberal, but not a doctrinaire one. Some of my opinions are not widely shared in liberal circles — for instance, I think development and growth are good things when done in a reasonable manner. For another instance, I don’t think the Vermont Gas pipeline is that big a deal. Also, I don’t shy away from criticizing liberal officeholders when they deserve it. If anything, I try to hold them to a higher standard; they are, after all, carrying my flag.

This site has existed since late June, and it has given me quite a lot of intangible satisfaction.  Readership has consistently grown, which means a lot of people are getting something out of this and the word is spreading. I appreciate your time and attention; I try to be informative and entertaining, and to shine my own unique light on our politics. My only currency is my credibility, and your readership is a nice validation. I thank you, whether you come here for information, entertainment, or (for my many conservative readers) a little something to purge the bile.

I invite you to follow this blog. In the right-hand column, you’ll see a “Follow” button. Click that, submit an email address, and you’ll get a notification every time I write a new post.

I welcome comments. I have enabled comment moderation, which means I have to approve a comment before it goes up. But I’m very generous about it; my grounds for trashing a comment have mainly to do with spam and really abusive stuff.

Thanks for visiting. I hope you come back.

That online petition: color me unimpressed

One of the lesser products of our gubernatorial overtime period is an online petition seeking the election of Scott Milne by the Vermont Legislature. The petition was organized by persons unknown of the conservative persuasion (see below) and posted — ironically — through the petition posting service on MoveOn.org, an organization seeking to promote “progressive political change.”

Anyone can use its service, and that’s where our persons unknown have put up their petition. In spite of the distinctly liberal company they’re keeping.

I say “persons unknown” because the petitioner is identified only as C.A.C.M. I don’t recognize the acronym, and MoveOn doesn’t provide any further information. (Any relation to t.A.T.u.?) MoveOn does offer the opportunity to send an email to C.A.C.M., and I did so on Monday, asking them to identify themselves.

Haven’t gotten an answer. Somehow, I don’t think I will. Need I comment on the irony in a movement claiming to represent the voice of the people hiding behind an obscure acronym?

(If I hear from someone at C.A.C.M., I’ll be happy to strike the above comment and report on its identity.)

The petition has drawn a bit of attention in the media, first from VPR and today from VTDigger. Both stories refer to the petition having been signed by “thousands.”

That’s technically true; as of 7 p.m. on November 11, there were 3,152 electronic signatures. When VPR posted its story last Friday, the total was about 2,500. But while “thousands” is correct on the bare fact, I’d argue that it’s misleading. When I see “thousands,” I think a lot more than two or three thousand. To say “thousands” in the headline gives the petition drive a bit too much credit.

Even by the diminutive standards of the Vermont electorate, 3,000 isn’t really an overwhelming response. And to judge by the comments appended by signers, the petition’s appeal is obviously to the dead-ender, hard-core anti-Shumlin part of the electorate. There’s no reason that this petition should have any effect whatsoever on the process going forward.

One more thing. In order to sign the petition, you have to provide your name, email address, and physical address. The small print below the petition box says:

By signing, you agree to receive email messages from MoveOn.org Civic Action and MoveOn.org Political Action. You may unsubscribe at any time.

So all these disgruntled conservatives are handing over their contact information to one of our country’s leading progressive groups. I hope they’re ready for the progressive email messages they’re about to start receiving.

Mikey Pom-Poms does the Big Balls Dance*

*See demo here. 

Mike Townsend, Burlington Free Press Executive Editor and Gannett Cheerleader-in-Chief, is feeling a little braggy today. He’s repeatedly taken to Twitter to praise the work of his own staffers, throw shade on other media.

A bit of overcompensation, perhaps, for all the criticism that’s come his way since the departures of the Freeploid’s two Statehouse reporters plus at least three other reporters in recent weeks.

Are staffers expected to accept fulsome praise in compensation for persistent job insecurity and ever-tougher productivity demands? Maybe so, because Townsend was also quick to lavish Tweetpraise on reporter April Burbank, who pulled the hard duty of Burlington School Board coverage.

Mikey follows that up with another Tweetbumpf, at which point old buddy Shay Totten chimes in.

Screen Shot 2014-11-11 at 8.00.54 PM

And then, a bit later, a bizarre and condescending slap at competitors unnamed:

Screen Shot 2014-11-11 at 8.02.14 PM

I can’t explain that last one. Maybe Townsend had a mild stroke?

In all my years in media, I can’t say I’ve ever seen a case of Bunched Knickers Syndrome as bad as the one that’s circulating around the Free Press newsroom. This outburst of braggadocio is unbecoming the chief of a reputable news operation. Here’s a hint, Mike: let your work speak for itself.

Also, despite this outbreak of Big Balls Dance, the diminution of the Free Press is already obvious. Since Terri Hallenbeck and Nancy Remsen left, the Free Press’ coverage of the ongoing state election mess has largely depended on the Associated Press. Hardly any original coverage at all.

And really, it’s perfectly understandable: your resources are dwindling, so why not deploy them in your core market — Chittenden County? Just don’t expect us to notice that Statehouse coverage has already fallen largely off the map as a day-to-day matter.

Big Balls Tweets may impress the suits at Gannett. It doesn’t impress those of us who see the product every day.