Daily Archives: December 2, 2014

A moment of sanity in the corner office

Apparently the Governor realized it wasn’t a good idea to begin a new biennium with an inter-branch standoff over budget cuts.

The Shumlin administration has decided not to unilaterally cut $6.7 million from the current fiscal year’s budget. The rescissions instead will be included in the executive branch’s budget adjustment proposal to the Legislature in January.

Can we hear a brief rendition of Fanfare For A Single Kazoo?

[Administration Secretary Jeb] Spaulding said the administration agreed to wait on rescissions, but will “slow down” spending in the meantime.

“(G)etting into a fight with the Legislature on this would be counterproductive,” he said in an email.

In the words of some great philosopher somewhere, “Well, DUHHHHH.”

The Administration, for those just joining us, had claimed the authority to cut current-year spending by up to one percent without legislative approval. And, as reported in this space (and, regrettably, nowhere else), the outlined cuts were very heavy on Human Services. Which probably would have caused even more conflict with the Legislature, as it has done on previous occasions when the Administration sought to balance the budget on the backs of the working poor.

Lawmakers weren’t convinced by the Administration’s legal rationale for unilateral action, even though Attorney General Bill Sorrell rubber-stamped it. Legislative Council had a different view:

In a draft memo drafted Nov. 24, Legislative Council attorney Rebecca Wasserman said the rescissions already approved by the Joint Fiscal Committee in August preclude the administration from making unilateral cuts now.

I hate to say it, but I’ll take Wasserman’s word over Sorrell’s. Finance Commissioner Jim Reardon somehow managed to make a big concession sound like a veiled threat:

“We do believe we have the authority based on the consultation with the AG’s office,” Reardon said. “But for the sake of working with the Legislature, we decided we will propose all of the budget adjustments in January.”

“For the sake of working with the Legislature,” meaning, “We let ’em have this one, so they’d better play ball come January.”

Perhaps I read too much into this. And perhaps, in a more cooperative atmosphere, the massive Human Services cuts will be mitigated. We can but hope.

Messaging 101: Don’t make mistakes in press releases about education

So this happened. Governor Shumlin’s office issued a press release on Monday about education funding — specifically its projection of a two-cent increase in the state property tax for the coming year.

And there was an oopsie. First to spot it was Dave Gram of the Associated Press (and now, apparently, chief Statehouse correspondent for the Burlington Free Press):

And here is the error in context:

“The bottom line is that education spending in Vermont is supported by a wide variety of state revenue sources, not just the property tax,” Gov. Shumlin said. “That’s why I do not think simply shifting more education spending to other sources will address the burden Vermonters feel. We need to tackle this first as a spending challenge because education costs have continued to rise faster than Vermonter’s ability to pay for it, even though our student count has declined.”

It’s bad enough when a gubernatorial missive goes out with a big fat juicy typo. It’s even worse when the subject of said missive is education. Does newly-minted communications chief Scott Coriell need a little proofreading help?

About those rescissions, pt. 2: The poor will always be with you

It seems as though the Shumlin Administration’s cowardly pre-Thanksgiving newsdump was successful: our political media dutifully reported the topline — $17 million in cuts, including $6.7 million to be implemented without legislative approval.

But nobody, at least not yet, has reported any of the details. And there are some noteworthy details. Some entire agencies seem to be getting off scot-free, while others are taking it in the shorts.

Well, one in particular. And if you guessed “Agency of Human Services,” you’d be a cynical observer of Vermont politics.

And you’d be correct.

Human Services is expected to provide almost two-thirds of the total rescissions — more than $10 million.

It must be noted that Human Services is the single biggest agency, so it could be expected to take a hit. But it’s not anywhere near that big. This seems to be a rerun of past Administration efforts to cut human-services spending; I’m reminded in particular of its ill-fated effort to slash the Earned Income Tax Credit. This time, instead of calling for specific (and politically unpopular) cuts, the Administration is dumping the mess into AHS Interim Secretary Harry Chen’s lap.

Gee. Supposedly Shumlin thinks Chen is doing a bang-up job, and would love to have him stay in the post. This is a damn funny way of showing his appreciation.

Most other state agencies come in for some cuts, but nothing close to AHS scale. And there are a couple of agencies that seem to have avoided the budget ax altogether.

Number-one on that list is the Agency of Transportation. It’s one of the bigger state agencies, and it won’t be getting any smaller; it’s being held harmless.

At the same time, the Governor’s hit list gets awfully picayune in spots. The Vermont Humanities Council is being docked $9,000. The Lieutenant Governor’s office is getting nicked by $2,900. And the Vermont Symphony Orchestra is in line to lose $2,000.

I find it hard to believe that Human Services can slash $10 million but Transportation can’t spare a dime. I also find it hard to believe that a process so fine-grained that it could find two grand in savings from classical music couldn’t identify any cuts at all in concrete and asphalt.

My own budgetary chops are pretty limited, so I can’t assess each and every cut. These are a few highlights, obvious even to the untrained eye. It is to be hoped that someone in the media is taking a closer look at the rescission list. There’s definitely some funny stuff going on.

One final note. It’s been widely reported that there’s a potential conflict between Administration and Legislature over the former’s claim that it can cut $6.7 million without lawmakers’ approval. What hasn’t been reported is that the Administration wants the other cuts — the ones requiring legislative approval — to go into effect before the new session begins.

This seems like a pretty devious way to undermine the legislature’s budget-writing authority. It’s yet another potential flashpoint between the two branches of government. And yet another sign that the Governor has already stopped his post-election “listening and learning.” He’s back to taking pre-emptive action and trying to box the legislature into a corner.


Bartley gets the gig

Take heart, mediocrities of the world. There is fresh hope for us all tonight. For the Vermont Republican Party, in its infinite… er… well, “wisdom” isn’t the right word.

Infinite foolishness? That’s more like it.

Anyway, the VTGOP has gone and done it, as Ricky Ricardo would say. It’s hired the serial failure and acolyte of proven Republican strategies for defeat, Jeff Bartley, as its Executive Director. (I recapped his undistinguished career in my previous post. Scroll down for the grim details.) Hard to believe the Republican talent pool is that shallow.

In fairness, it’s dimly possible that Jeff has learned some lessons at the feet of noted political sage Mahatma Milne. After all, Victory Director Bartley can claim credit for Republican pickups in the Legislature, whether he deserves it or not.

Welp, now we’ll find out whether he deserves credit, because he’ll be driving the Republican bus for the time being.  And he’ll be expected to produce additional advances in 2016.

After all, from what I hear he may be the best-paid bus driver in Vermont at roughly $50,000 per. That’s a lotta lettuce for a party whose finances have been dismal for the past several years.

Good luck, Mr. Bartley. And good luck, VTGOP, with your new chauffeur.