Daily Archives: January 5, 2015

The Legislature’s vote for governor will not be close

The Man Alone, Scott Milne, briefly emerged from his hidey-hole a few days ago to tell the Associated Press’ Dave Gram that his chances of being elected governor “are getting better on a weekly basis, if not a daily basis.”

Curious thing to say, with less than a week until the vote. Speaking calendrically, there ain’t no more “weekly” left. But if you think that’s a bit confusing, wait till you read what he told VTDigger’s Anne Galloway: 

Milne said on Sunday his “chances are improving.” When asked how many lawmakers support his candidacy, he said his statement was “non-mathematical.”

“I’m not counting votes, and if I was, I don’t think I’d have close to 91,” Milne said. He said he could get 25 or 100 votes, but “more likely I’m going to lose, I don’t really know.”

Scott Milne, the lone constant in an ever-changing world.

Scott Milne, the Man From Another Dimension.

I make that a quintuple spinaroonie: up, down, down, up, down. Whatever happens, he’ll be both disappointed and vindicated, I guess.

Anyway, if he thinks he’s gaining ground, he’s wrong. The Legislature’s vote will not be close. Gov. Shumlin will win, with perhaps a handful of Democrats crossing party lines to vote for Milne.

At this point, the cynical among you might be saying, “Hey, didn’t you predict an easy win for Shumlin in November?”

Yup, me and every other pundit and politico in Vermont. But I feel confident enough to tiptoe out on a limb once again. The Legislative vote is a whole different animal than the general election.

In November, a whole lot of liberals and card-carrying Democrats voted for someone other than Shumlin or simply left their ballots blank. There’s substantial evidence that the Democratic vote was far smaller in the gubernatorial race than elsewhere. It was easy to cast a protest vote when “everybody knew” that Shumlin would win. I certainly believed that Shumlin didn’t really need my vote. After the results came in, a liberal friend who voted for Milne swore never to cast a protest vote again.

The ironic but unmistakable conclusion: if people had thought the race was close, Shumlin would have done better. To put it another way, if voters had thought they might actually elect Scott Milne, he wouldn’t have done so well.

In the legislative vote for governor, there’s no kidding around. When you’re one out of 200,000, you can tell yourself your vote doesn’t count that much. When you’re one of 180, you really can’t. Each lawmaker is going to take the vote seriously.

And while leadership insists they aren’t twisting any arms, party discipline does — rightly — play a role. Parties are based on some sense of shared purpose and loyalty, which is why I’ve been so harsh on John Campbell and Dick Mazza for their open support of Lt. Gov. Phil Scott.

When push comes to shove, and all the cards are on the table, how many Democrats are really going to vote for the other guy? Even if the ballot is secret, it wouldn’t be hard to figure out who voted which way. I expect Milne to get a modest number of Democratic votes, but no more than that.

Besides party loyalty, there’s also Vermonters’ tendency to stick with the familiar. Shumlin may have lost a lot of voters, he may have cost some lawmakers their seats, he may have turned his back on his signature policy proposal, but he’s still “Our Guy.” If the Senate Democratic Caucus gave near-unanimous support to Our Guys John Campbell and Dick Mazza, how many would abandon Peter Shumlin, who’s another one of Our Guys?

There’s also this: Just about everybody in the Statehouse knows that Scott Milne would be a disaster as governor. Well, at best he’d be a two-year placeholder. At worst, Legislative leadership would work around him. But nobody except Scott Milne wants Scott Milne to be governor.

Including all the Republicans who’ll vote for him on Thursday. I’ve written this before and it continues to be true: do you ever see Milne and the top Republicans together? Do you see any mention of “Governor Milne” when Republicans talk about their plans?

Is Milne involved at all in Phil Scott’s little “pitch session” with business leaders on Wednesday?

Nope, nope, and nope.

If the Republicans believed that Milne had the remotest chance of winning, they’d have him out front at every VTGOP event. But they don’t, in spite of their utterances to the contrary, so he remains The Invisible Man.

And on Thursday, he will formally become the losing candidate for governor. As he should be.

(And if I’m wrong, I will cheerfully fess up.)

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The Assassination of Mary Morrissey by the Coward Shap Smith

The Burlington Free Press doesn’t have much time for state government these days, what with the dismissal of its entire Statehouse bureau and its obvious skeleton-crewing in recent weeks.

But boy, they’ve got plenty of time to spare for the potential reassignment of a single Republican back-bencher.

[State Rep. Mary] Morrissey, [R-Bennington]… confirmed Friday she has been told that House Speaker Shap Smith, D-Morristown has plans to reassign her to a yet to be determined committee.

… Morrissey said she sees the move as an effort to silence a legislator who has been forced to ask tough questions that Democrats are not asking themselves.

Or, to put it another way, it’s a routine committee reshuffle, the kind that happens every couple of years. A whole lot of others will be shifted around in the next few days. It is within the purview of the Speaker to make committee assignments.

Morrissey and her allies are depicting this move as an effort to stymie oversight of health care reform. Which, frankly, gives a hell of a lot of credit to Morrissey. In my brief exposure to her work, she seems to be a garden-variety naysayer on health care reform, ideologically opposed to Obamacare and Shummycare under any circumstances, and not offering any special expertise on the subject.

The Speaker himself put it this way:

“I’ve spent a lot of time looking at a group of people that will work well together to come up with policy,” Smith said.

“I want to put together people who will work effectively together and don’t have baggage from past fights,” Smith said.

Since Morrissey is toting a steamer trunk full of conservative dogma, Smith seems to have reason for her removal. It has less to do with the alleged danger she poses to Democrats, and more to do with her kneejerk opposition. She’s not a watchdog, she’s a fallen tree in the roadway.

Her possible removal from the Health Care Committee is standard operating practice. And, frankly, not that big a deal. It’s not like she’s the only one who can ask inconvenient questions, and it’s not like she has special knowledge of the health care system.

Well, if she does, she hasn’t shown it.

Our still-broken inpatient psychiatric system

One of journalism’s highest purposes is to lance the boils of society — to expose unpleasant truths that everybody is doing their best to ignore.

A prime example appears on VTDigger today: a story by Morgan True about the continuing problems in the state’s psychiatric care system, and particularly the brand shiny new state hospital in Berlin.

Among the key points:

— Even after the facility’s opening, some psychiatric patients have found themselves parked in emergency rooms for days or even weeks.

— There have been 59 documented attacks by patients on hospital staff, some resulting in significant injuries.

— The hospital houses a couple dozen of the most severely ill people in Vermont. Many have been convicted of violent felonies. One doctor told True that the hospital is “one of the most dangerous workplaces in Vermont.”

— State law strictly limits the restraint or medication of patients against their will. Even the most violent.

— In part because of this dangerous work environment, the hospital has been consistently understaffed since its opening. As a result, it has yet to operate at full capacity.

Which brings us back to point one: several months after the hospital’s opening, severely mentally ill people are still being warehoused in ERs.

This is a whole lotta bad stuff. It shows a mental health care system that’s still functioning poorly even after the Shumlin Administration’s entire plan has been put in place.

The Department of Mental Health, for its part, seems to be taking a remarkably lax and unforthcoming attitude toward the situation. DMH knows the total number of attacks on staff, but it won’t release any information on staff injuries.

And according to DMH Deputy Commissioner Frank Reed, the department “has not tried to compare the number of violent incidents at VPCH to other psychiatric hospitals.”

Well, why the hell not? I’d think you’d want to know whether our problems are unique, or simply the natural consequence of caring for the most severely mentally ill.

Reed also flunks the transparency test when it comes to waiting times in hospital emergency rooms. He says average wait times have decreased, but…

Reed was unable to provide documentation of average wait times, saying those figures are still being “pulled together.” The numbers will be presented to a legislative oversight committee in January.

Perhaps Mr. True should apologize for inquiring at an inopportune time. But it shouldn’t be that hard to assemble those numbers. Indeed, I’d expect a Department that’s doing its job to compile those figures on an ongoing basis.

In fact, I’d be very surprised if DMH doesn’t have the numbers already. It’s Management 101, isn’t it? Keep track of your most important statistical markers?

True’s report raises all kinds of questions about state law, the Shumlin Administration’s concept of a mental health care system, and how many resources were spent trying to develop a system that was undersized from the start. DMH officials are talking about supplementing the system with a new 14-bed secure residential facility, but acknowledge that it’ll be a tough sell when lawmakers are under the gun to cut the budget. DMH may have already squandered its best opportunity to create a good system.

And please don’t insult me with the “No one could have foreseen” excuse. The people responsible for inpatient care were all saying the same thing after Irene: the Shumlin Administration’s plan was so bare-bones that it was almost doomed to fail. While their advice was ignored, how many millions did the Administration spend on inadequate plans, patchwork facilities, and extra costs? (One example: according to True, the state has paid more than $1 million since 2012 for sheriff’s deputies to monitor psychiatric patients in hospital ERs.)

And it turns out, to the surprise of no one who works in the field, that a 24-bed hospital costs nearly as much to run as the old 50-bed facility, and costs more on a per-bed basis because the foundational staffing needs are so high.

And, given that the new hospital has some of the same kinds of problems as the old one, I have to ask if our laws are out of whack. I mean, look: We’re talking about the two dozen  sickest people in Vermont, many of them violently, dangerously sick. The restrictions on restraint or medication without patient approval may be the best thing for the vast majority of patients; I believe different standards should apply to the very sickest. They are the ones least capable of exercising sound judgment, and most capable of inflicting harm on staff or fellow patients.

One commonality between the old hospital and the new is our strongly patient-centric laws. It seems clear to me that those laws are on point for the vast majority of patients, but that there should be a different standard for patients in the state hospital.