Daily Archives: December 4, 2014

Just wake me when it’s over

Scott Milne, eyes wide shutAs predictable, and as tiresome, as the early-autumn snowfall that sends everybody running to get their snow tires on:

Milne to Delay Gubernatorial Decision — Again

That utterly unsurprising word comes from Mr. Politics Editor, Paul Heintz, who helpfully recounts Scott Milne’s oft-delayed decision on whether he will actively promote his gubernatorial candidacy before the Legislature. When last we heard from Mahatma’s secret redoubt, he was promising a decision this week. But now?

On Thursday, he told Seven Days by text message that the announcement was “sliding into next week.”

And I’ll believe that when I see it.





David Mears seems like a nice guy

DEC Commissioner David Mears was on WDEV’s Mark Johnson Show this morning, mostly talking Lake Champlain cleanup. I’ve been, shall we say, somewhat critical of the Shumlin administration’s response to Champlain’s deteriorating water quality (recent post was entitled “At this rate, Lake Champlain will be cleaned up about the time the sun goes nova and the Earth becomes a cold, dead husk,” which I guess could be taken as critical). So I wanted to hear what he had to say.

The face of earnest concern.

The face of earnest concern.

And a lot of it sounded reasonable. He does, however, have a problem: the cynicism of people like me is based on decades of neglect and delay by multiple administrations — and the bare fact that the current Powers That Be are being forced to act by the feds. So pardon us if we don’t accept bland assurances at face value.

First, he made an important correction. Many news outlets reported (and I echoed the reports) that the Shumlin administration had proposed new levies on “impervious development” and agricultural fertilizers that would raise about $1 million per year for Champlain mitigation. Which is a drop in the bucket.

Well, according to Mears, the $1 million figure was a “for example” number, and the administration actually intendes to set the levies at rates that would produce $4 million to $6 million per year. Mears describes this as “seed money.” And while it still seems rather small, it’s a lot bigger than I thought. (See note at end of this post.)

Overall, Mears made a good case for the administration’s dedication to the issue. And at one point he said, “We’re used to fighting on this issue” in a way that seemed to lay the adversarial blame on both sides.

To which I’d point out that the last two administrations, at least, have been dragged kicking and screaming into taking any action whatsoever. The Conservation Law Foundation’s lawsuit against the state, for violating the Clean Water Act regarding Lake Champlain, was first filed in 2008. And that came after years of diligent efforts to convince state government to live up to its responsibilities without an expensive court battle. So if “we’re used to fighting,” it’s not because the environmental community is feeling a bit stroppy — it’s because they’ve been consistently stonewalled by state  government. There’s been little or no cooperation, at least as far as we can tell in public.

When such obstructionism is practiced by a Republican government, we’re disappointed but not terribly surprised. When it’s done by a Democratic administration that professes to hold a strong environmental ethic, it seems like a betrayal of shared ideals. And it’s the plain truth that the current administration has slow-played the issue to a crawl, even as Champlain’s quality continues to degrade.

Mears’ presentation fell short in some key areas. When Johnson (who did an excellent job holding Mears’ feet to the fire, by the way) asked about items like Ag Secretary Chuck Ross’ decision not to mandate “best practices” for farms near Mississquoi Bay and the potential laying of a natural gas pipeline under the lake, Mears ducked the questions, saying it wasn’t his responsibility.

Well, yes. But as Johnson pointed out, Lake Champlain is his responsibility. We should expect him to be fully informed on issues that affect water quality even if they’re not primarily in his bailiwick.

I came away from the interview with a greater appreciation for the nuances of the issue, and for the administration’s interest in addressing it. But there’s a whole lot of history to overcome regarding Lake Champlain — and regarding the administration’s often-slippery relationship with the truth.

In short, telling me about your plans and dedication isn’t enough. You’ve got to show me.


Postscript. In the interview, Mears noted that he’d been in contact with reporters to correct initial reporting that proposed levies on fertilizers and “impervious development” would raise $1 million per year, rather than the administration’s target of $4 million to $6 million per year. 

Well, Mr. Commissioner, nobody ever contacted me. I realize that I don’t know everything about state government, and my ignorance sometimes results in errors. I am always open to correcting any errors in the most transparent way possible. But rarely, if ever, do I get feedback from the administration. (Generally speaking, I get more feedback from Republicans than Democrats.) Now, I’m not as high on the pecking order as your established media, but I would rather be corrected than allow a mistake to remain in place. I may be a partisan blogger, but I do have a sense of responsibility. 

Shumlin’s Newsdump-a-palooza rolls on

If you regularly read this page, you don’t need to be reminded what a newsdump is. But just in case: it’s the popular maneuver of unloading bad news when the media and the public are least likely to notice. Friday afternoons are the most common times. The final working day before a holiday weekend is ideal.

The Shumlin administration has been making a habit of this lately, and now there are two more newsdumps on the horizon. The first, regarding budget cuts, and the second, Shumlin’s long-awaited big reveal on single-payer health care.

The administration hit a two-fer on the Wednesday before Thanksgiving, ensuring minimal and shallow coverage of its planned $17 million in budget rescissions, and little to no coverage of its plan to make two-thirds of the cuts in Human Services, an agency already said to be underfunded and understaffed.

Shumlin.NewsdumpWell, there’s a sequel to the rescission newsdump. All affected agencies are supposed to submit their proposed cuts by December 5. Hey, what do you know — it’s a Friday!

This should ensure that news about specific cuts will leak out slowly. Or, will perhaps be dumped all at once in a news release issued around 5 p.m. Friday.

It’s also worth noting that the administration gave its agencies less than one business week to make these tough decisions. Its call was issued on Thanksgiving Eve, which meant that the work couldn’t commence in earnest until Monday, December 1.

But wait, you might be thinking. Didn’t the Administration decide not to pursue immediate cuts?

That’s right. Rather than risk a confrontation with the Legislature, it opted to hold off on rescissions until January.

However, the December 5 deadline remains in effect. So state agencies are being rushed into critical budget decisions, even though no action will be taken until more than a month later.

Curious. Methinks the administration might get an early start on those cuts, despite its abnegation of unilateral action.

As for the second newsdump… the Governor announced Wednesday that he would unveil the proposed benefits offered by a single-payer health care system by mid-December, and that his financing plan — the real bone of contention — will come out on December 29 or 30.

What, does he have plans for New Year’s Eve? Or would that be just too damn obvious?

Well, I guess it was too damn obvious anyway. Paul Heintz:

…he swears he’s not trying to bury the news in the lull of the holiday season.

“That’s exactly why I wanted to give you the date now,” Shumlin said during a wide-ranging discussion with reporters at Burlington’s Hotel Vermont. “Because I didn’t want to wake up on December 31 and [read], ‘It was a late-night news dump.'”

So I guess I’m helping out by labeling it a newsdump well before New Year’s Eve Morning. Wouldn’t want to spoil the last cappucino of 2014. (Or maybe I shouldn’t assume he drinks Gucci coffee. Folger’s?)

He claims that he wants to get the plan out early to “get it to the legislators before they’re sworn in.” But the specificity, to use a grand old Watergate word, is a little strange. His team, he says, “is working really hard to get this together.” A task involving that much intensive work with a bunch of people would seem, by its nature, to be somewhat open-ended. And the Governor has particularly avoided deadlines in the health care reform process because so many have been flouted in the past.

And yet he can predict, with certainty, that it will all come together on the 29th or 30th.

Somehow I doubt an extra week or so, including a long holiday weekend, will make a whole lot of difference for lawmakers. If the early release isn’t a newsdump, it will certainly have the effect of one: limiting coverage and blunting immediate reaction to the plan, allowing the Administration to prepare counter-arguments and perhaps even refine the plan before it’s formally submitted.

To me, it looks like a newsdump, walks like a newsdump, and quacks like a newsdump.

Some backstory on the militarization of our police

Last week, while I was out of town for a family Thanksgiving, Mark Davis wrote a nice little story in Seven Days about Vermont police agencies picking up a whole lot of military-grade weaponry, thanks to a federal program designed to shore up military contractors’ bottom lines provide local police with “military equipment left over from America’s foreign wars and stockpiles.”

Which brought to mind some of my own past coverage of specific events tied to this story: a small New Hampshire community talked into buying an assault vehicle by a Rush Limbaugh-listenin’, Tea Party-believin’ salesman, and the small-scale invasion of a small Vermont town.

Instrument of peace?

Instrument of peace?

First stop in the Wayback Machine is February 2012, when Keene, NH had received a $300,000 Homeland Security grant to buy an eight-ton armored vehicle called the Lenco Bearcat. This, for a city with a population of 23,000 and virtually no history of violent crime.

But there was all that federal money dangling in front of the city fathers…

During a City Council meeting, the Mayor was heard whispering to a City Councilor “We’re going to have our own tank.”

Better than Viagra. Of course, the grant won’t pay for operating costs like maintenance, training and insurance.

The most fascinating part of the story, to me, was Jim Massery, salesman for vehicle manufacturer Lenco. His pitch was laden with fearmongering about the need for high security everywhere. In fact, one of his quotes was the following:

I don’t think there’s any place in the country where you can say, “That isn’t a likely terrorist target.” How would you know?

There was a whole lot of that, and you can read more in my 2012 post on Green Mountain Daily. Massery, as I discovered, was a true-blue conservative who believed that President Obama was trying to steal our freedoms, and that the government was spending us into oblivion. And yet he had no problem helping the government militarize local police and wastefully spend $300,000 on a Lenco Bearcat that nobody needed. (The notorious Free Staters of Keene probably thought he was an enemy agent tasked with bringing the power of the police state to their own little community.)

One of Massery’s other pitches went like this:

When a Lenco Bearcat shows up at a crime scene where a suicidal killer is holding hostages, it doesn’t show up with a cannon. It shows up with a negotiator.

And, he might have added, that negotiator shows up in grand style, hunkered down in eight tons of steel. Which brings me to story #2. In June of 2012, a man named Alfred Perreault unknowingly touched off a minor invasion of his town of Washington, VT…

A summer scene befitting a Norman Rockwell portrait was spoiled Monday morning when more than a dozen police cruisers, an armored vehicle and the big box truck that houses Vermont’s equivalent of a S.W.A.T. team set up shop in Washington to take what proved to be one unarmed man into custody.

That armored vehicle was, as it happens, a Lenco Bearcat. Purchased by the Vermont State Police with, you guessed it, a Homeland Security grant.

Perreault was known to possess a goodly quantity of firearms, hence the heavy-handed police response. Which must have triggered (sorry) a sizeable panic reaction among townspeople who suddenly saw this caravan o’death roll into town and set up roadblocks.

It all ended peacefully. But as I wrote at the time, there’s an old saying: To the man with a hammer, everything looks like a nail.

Our police agencies have been outfitted with military-grade, up-armored hammers. So naturally, Alfred Perreault looked like a nail.

It’s a lot easier for the authorities to escalate a response when they have the tools of escalation close at hand — indeed, when they may well feel a need to justify the purchase and upkeep of all those hammers. Alfred Perreault clearly needed to be dealt with. But did he warrant such a robust response?

You can bet we’ll be asking these kinds of questions again in the future.