Monthly Archives: February 2015

The curious incident of the GOP in the night-time

Gregory (Scotland Yard detective): “Is there any other point to which you would wish to draw my attention?”

Holmes: “To the curious incident of the press release in the night-time.”

Gregory: “Therre was no press release in the night-time.”

Holmes: “That was the curious incident.”

— Not Quite Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

The Vermont Republican Party can’t be counted on for much, but one thing that’s as regular as clockwork is the issuance of potboiler press releases attacking Democrats for political sins, real or imagined. Lately, the circular files of Vermont media have been filled by a series of missives about the Shumlin-Shap Smith Economy, and what a dreadful thing it is. There’s also been plenty of hash — much of it deserved this time — about the Jonathan Gruber billing caper.

But it’s been more than three days since Seven Days’ Terri Hallenbeck spilled the beans on the increased staffing of the Senate President Pro Tem’s office under current occupant John Campbell. And not a peep from the VTGOP.

I find that curious. Don’t you?

If the situation were reversed, and House Speaker Shap Smith was the one who’d padded his office staff to the tune of $72,000 In Taxpayer Dollars, it wouldn’t have taken the Republicans more than a few minutes to try to capitalize.

Why no castigation for Campbell?

Is it because he’s the next best thing to a Republican Pro Tem — allowing the blockage of many a piece of liberal legislation, reliably backing Phil Scott, packing the Committee on Committees with “centrist” figures? Hey, if a Senate majority is out of the VTGOP’s reach, then Campbell is the next best thing.

Is it because Campbell is such a nice guy? Or that he’s no threat to run for higher office? Or because of his rumored girlfriend?

I’m still waiting for the Republican attack on the wasteful spending of John Campbell. But I’m not holding my breath.

Not all businesses think alike. Or, Mr. Barlow, your table is ready.

We have a winner in theVPO’s first-ever giveaway.

In some secluded rendezvous…

In some secluded rendezvous…

As you may recall, earlier this week the Lake Champlain Regional Chamber of Commerce made an ass of itself: one day, its president issued a clarion call for action on Lake Champlain, and the next, its lobbyist strenuously insisted that the LCRCC would fight tax increases to fund cleanup efforts.

Hypocrisy, thine initials are LCRCC. Anyway, in light of that, I offered a free dinner to the first lobbyist who accepted a measure of financial responsibility for his/her group, industry, or membership.

Well, we have a winner, and it’s just who you might expect: Dan Barlow of Vermont Businesses for Social Responsibility.

Dan didn’t nominate himself; a friend in the media, who’d just love to see me spend my money, pointed out to me that at a Statehouse press conference yesterday, Barlow (speaking for VBSR) endorsed Gov. Shumlin’s proposal to close the Medicaid cost gap through a payroll tax. I wasn’t at the presser, but Barlow’s statement has been reported by VTDigger, which is good enough for me.

So Dan, if you want to strap on the ol’ feed bag, let me know.

This brings to mind something that’s been bugging me for a few days. On Monday, the usually impeccable Anne Galloway of VTDigger posted a story entitled “LEGISLATIVE MANDATES HAMPERING RECOVERY, BUSINESS GROUPS SAY.” The story recapped the usual litany of complaints about taxes and costs and regulations — and that hoary old chestnut, “uncertainty.”

Which is just bullshit. Life, by its very nature, is uncertain. Potential legislative changes are one of the smaller aspects of it. To cite just one obvious example: the price of oil. Who predicted its nearly 50% drop in recent months? That alone plunged a fatal dagger into Vermont Gas’ pipeline to Ticonderoga. Fuel costs are a much bigger factor in running a business than anything the legislature might reasonably do.

Galloway’s piece could have been written by a functionary in Jim Harrison’s back office, so one-sided was it. The only note of dissent was a brief comment by House Speaker Shap Smith in the very last paragraph.

Now, you could make an argument for this article as part of VTDigger’s ongoing coverage of the legislature: let’s take a look at how business groups are feeling about the course of the session. Other views will get a hearing elsewhere.

But even on that narrow pretext, the article falls short. By focusing on The Usual Suspects, it fails to reflect the range of views within the unmonolithic “business community.”

It doesn’t, for example, quote VBSR. Not even a little bit. It doesn’t quote business types like Small Dog’s Don Mayer or Fresh Tracks Capital’s Cairn Cross, who have much more nuanced views of the potentially positive role of government in economic development. It doesn’t mention former State Rep. Paul Ralston of Vermont Coffee Company, who’s chairing Shap Smith’s working group on improving the economy. It sure as hell doesn’t quote Ben Cohen or Jerry Greenfield.

EVen if you accept the premise that an overview of the business community is a worthwhile use of VTDigger’s media platform, this article was woefully incomplete. A rare FAIL for a diligent and trustworthy news source.

The Republicans? They got nothin’

On Wednesday, two of Vermont’s top Republicans took to the VPR airwaves to make their case to the people. And one of them said this about global warming, really, actually:

I think there’s science on both sides of the issue that both sides use against each other.

The Mystery Voice belonged to VTGOP Chair David Sunderland, who had just finished “explaining” how the VTGOP was different from the national Republican Party — more inclusive, less extreme. He doesn’t set a very good example, does he?

The occasion was VPR’s “Vermont Edition,” and neither Sunderland nor fellow guest Don Turner made much of an impression. They stuck to the standard Republican bromides: burdensome taxes and regulation; Vermont is a sucky place to live, work, and own a business; government is full of waste, but don’t ask us for specifics.

It was not a very inspiring performance. Next time, maybe they should send Phil Scott and Joe Benning instead.

The two men’s appearance consumed about 34 minutes of radio time, but I’ll focus on two key segments. Believe me, I’m not leaving out anything good — just the boring stuff, like their insistence that the VTGOP was a welcoming, inclusive, and diverse thing. Because, I guess, they’ve got a handful of young white men to go with their endless supply of older white men. Anyway, onward.

First, that great Republican bugaboo, out-of-control state spending. Sunderland and Turner performed a lovely bit of rhetorical contortionism, first saying that we can’t fix the budget right away:

Solving a budget deficit that’s been created over a period of four to six years is a tall task to take on in a single year, and I think it will take longer than a single year to overcome it.

And then immediately saying that we can balance the budget, no problem:

I think we need to look at what government programs are truly working and are truly efficient, weed out the waste and the abuse that’s in the current system, make our government more streamlined, get more effective in serving Vermonters. And I think by doing that, we’ll get a long way towards closing that gap and quite hopefully all the way.

The mic then passed to Turner, who first said this:

We have a committee working with our appropriations people, that started before the session began, and have started to scrub and comb through all areas of state government. We’ve initially focused on the high cost areas.

Wonderful! Surely all this scrubbing and combing produced a bumper crop of the “waste and abuse” that Sunderland believes is endemic in the public sector.

We believe that we need to keep spending level-funded. We go to each agency and say, Okay, you had this much money to spend last year, this is how much you’ve got to spend this year, how are you going to address that?

Oh, great Christ almighty. That old chestnut? You’ve been scrubbing and combing the budget, and all you can come up with is across-the-board cuts?

This is how it always goes with Republicans. They talk smack about wasteful government spending, but when asked for specifics, they offer broad generalities.

In other words, they can’t find the alleged “waste and abuse.”

Oh, I should slightly amend that. Turner did offer one specific budget cut, but it’s not a new item. He still wants us to kill Vermont Health Connect and go with the federal exchange. Funny thing, though: when he first announced the idea, he insisted we could save $20 million this year.

On Wednesday, he put the savings at between eight and ten million. Call it the Incredible Shrinking Budget Cut.

Now, let’s turn to a favorite talking point of our rebranded VTGOP: “We’re different from the national Republicans. Just don’t ask us how.” Mr. Turner?

I don’t know a lot about the national platform and I don’t participate in the national level, I participate very little in the national level. I think that’s the party’s role. What I’ve — I’m Don Turner, I represent Milton, and I am a much more moderate Republican than many maybe in Washington, and some in my caucus.

We in Vermont believe in helpin’ our neighbors, we believe in makin’ sure that the most vulnerable are addressed, we want to protect the environment, but we want to make sure people can afford to live here. Sometimes that means compromising on some of these issues, maybe more than we want to.

Yeah, another politician who starts droppin’ his G’s when he wants to be real folks. I am puzzled, though, by his lack of intellectual curiosity about his own party.

But if you thought that was weak, just wait till you get a load of Sunderland’s response:

Vermont is a unique place, Vermonters are a unique people within the nation. Likewise, the Vermont Republican Party is different than the national Republican Party.

At this point he was interrupted by host Jane Lindholm, who asked for a specific difference.

I think in, in Vermont we’ve tried very hard over the last 15, 16 months or so to really broaden the base of the party, to be open to different ideas, ah different viewpoints, and to welcome people we may not agree with 100% of the time, but we would agree with 80% of the time. And I think as long as we can agree that the focus of our state right now needs to be on growing our economy and creating jobs, making Vermont more affordable, bringing balance back to the discussion in Montpelier, then there’s a place for you in the Vermont Republican Party.

Okay, so. Sunderland completely punts on specifics. And his idea of an “inclusive” party is one that only insists on 80% loyalty instead of 100%.

At this point, immediately after Sunderland’s previous response, Lindholm took a question from a caller, who wanted to know about the VTGOP’s stand on global warming. Turner was, again, an ostrich with his head in the dirt.

You know, I have not spent a lot of time on global warming. I understand that this is a big issue nationally and so on. Vermont is so far ahead of the rest of the country on measures to help with this issue that I don’t think it should be a tip-top issue for us when we have all these other problems.

Well, those who are actually serious about global warming would say that it’s an existential threat to our species, and deserves to be “tip-top” in any list of issues. But what do I know.

This is where Sunderland weighed in with his Koch Brothers-approved know-nothingism.

I think there’s science on both sides of the issue that both sides use against each other. What I think is most interesting is, regardless of your opinion about it, there certainly is a market that Vermont can and should be exploiting to create jobs and grow our economy to address those very issues. So I think regardless, there’s a variety of different opinions within the party and outside the other parties about global warming, man’s impact on climate change, but I would like to see us focus on how our economy and how our state here in Vemront can grow and reflect the values of Vermonters.

There’s a hot mess if I ever saw one. He won’t acknowledge the reality of climate change, but he wants us to somehow capitalize on it even though it might not exist. He then casts another coating of doubt on the science, and finishes with an appeal to “the values of Vermonters.”

Good grief. I’m not particularly happy with what the Democrats are doing these days — weaksauce incrementalism, failing to squarely face serious challenges, and squandering the political capital they’ve gained over the last six years. But the Republicans? Judging by that performance, they have precious little to offer beyond the usual twaddle.

Free offer: Dinner’s on me

VPR’s John Dillon has captured and preserved a lovely bit of flamboyant hypocrisy from the fine folks at Your Chambers of Commerce. On the one hand:

Tom Torti, president of the Lake Champlain Regional Chamber of Commerce, told lawmakers last week that Vermont’s brand is defined by its clean environment. A polluted lake hurts the state economically because visitors will chose not to return, he said.

On the other hand:

A day later, Katie Taylor, a lobbyist for Torti’s organization was in a House committee. She delivered a different message.

…Taylor made clear the Lake Champlain chamber will fight a tax increase aimed at the tourism industry to pay for water pollution controls.

,,, Kendal Melvin of the Vermont Chamber of Commerce also opposed the half-cent rooms and meals tax increase. When one lawmaker asked her to recommend alternatives, she offered nothing.

Yeah, well, thanks for nothing.

Which brings me to my Free Offer. The first lobbyist who accepts financial responsibility, in whole or in part, for a problem or issue facing Vermont, will be treated to dinner by me at the restaurant of their choice. Hen of the Wood? Great. Leunig’s? Fine. J. Morgan’s? Predictable but acceptable. Slum it at Al’s Frys? Outstanding.

To meet my conditions, the statement has to go something like this: “We realize we have a real problem with _________ in Vermont, and we accept that our [industry/company/group/granfalloon] plays a part in solving this problem. We are willing to bear our share of the costs of ___________.” You can add as many bells and whistles as you like.

The lobbyist must represent an entity with “skin in the game” — exposure to increased costs in taxes or fees. This, unfortunately, disqualifies most public-interest groups.

The statement must be delivered in testimony to a relevant legislative committee, and submitted to theVPO in transcript or audio recording.

Caveats: Judging is by theVPO. Judge’s decisions are final. There will be a limit on the bar tab — a reasonable one.

This offer is good until the legislature adjourns for the year. C’mon, lobbyists — do the right thing, and earn yourself a free feed in the process!

The Campbell Assessment, updated

My previous post concerned apparent featherbedding by Senate President Pro Tem John Campbell. Traditionally, the Speaker and Pro Tem each get one full-time aide, at a salary in the $55,000 range. The Speaker is still there, but Campbell now has two full-time staffers drawing a combined salary of $111,000.

Since Campbell started padding his staff following his disastrous performance in the 2011-12 biennium, I called the difference “the price tag for John Campbell’s incompetence.” We could shorten that to The Campbell Assessment if you like.

In response, commenter Seth Hopkins pointed out that a state worker gets more than a salary; there are also public-sector-quality benefits. Since Campbell has added a second staffer, his payroll now includes full-time bennies for both.

What does that cost? The answer, from the state HR Department website:

The State’s total compensation package for employees features an outstanding set of employee benefits that are worth about 30% of your salary.

Okay, so add 30% to the cost of Campbell’s staff. That brings us to $144,000, more or less. It might end up being more than that; Campbell’s previous aide, Rebecca Ramos, piled up $23,000 in overtime and comp time in her last year on the job. But let’s stick with $144,000.

House Speaker Shap Smith’s aide earns $55,000. Add 30% for bennies ($16,500), and you get $71,500. So the baseline Campbell Assessment is $72,500.

But hey, he’s a great guy. You just can’t put a price tag on that. Can you?

We can now put a price tag on John Campbell’s incompetence

…thanks to Terri Hallenbeck, pinch-hitting for Paul Heintz in the Freyne Memorial Chair:

In the last two years, [Senate President Pro Tem John Campbell has] quietly increased his office’s staffing and more than doubled his payroll.

He’s done so — without any explicit policy change, nor anyone else’s approval — even as lawmakers consider cutting other state jobs to close yet another budget gap. Some say the situation reveals a disturbing lack of oversight. Others consider the money well spent, given that his enhanced staff has helped restore order under the oft-distracted and perpetually disorganized Campbell.

Aww, that’s nice. We’re spending a bunch of extra money because John Campbell can’t keep his shit together. And yet the Democratic caucus keeps re-electing him out of classic Vermonty loyalty to “my grandfather’s lightbulb.” 

Now, the amount of money isn’t that much in state budget terms — somewhere in the $50,000 to $70,000 range. The Pro Tem staff historically consists of one person paid roughly $50K per year. When Campbell hired Rebecca Ramos to pull his fat out of the fire after a disastrous 2012 Senate session, her starting salary was $70K. But in her last year on the job, she took home $103,000 thanks to a whole lot of overtime and unused comp time.

Campbell has replaced her — with not one, but two staffers, with total compensation of $111,000. By comparison, Hallenbeck reports that House Speaker Shap Smith’s sole staffer makes $55,000, and Lt. Gov. Phil Scott’s staffing cost is roughly the same.

I think we’re safe in concluding that the taxpayers of Vermont are shelling out an extra $60,000 or so to keep John Campbell in a job he can’t handle.

But he’s such a nice guy!

Postscript. As commenter Seth Hopkins pointed out, my $60,000 estimate is almost certainly low. Now that Campbell has hired two staffers, they’re presumably drawing the state benefits package — health care, pension, etc. So the real price of Campbell’s incompetence is more than 60K. 

Gun owners lose a skirmish, win the war

Pro wrestling, for whatever you might think of its artistic merits, has some of the most delicious vocabulary you can find.

Today’s entries are “work” and “shoot.” A work is a fake fight meant to look absolutely real to the audience. A shoot is a rare occasion when the confrontation actually is real. (Wrestlers are friends and coworkers behind the scenes, but tempers can run high in a testosterone-fueled industry based on [scripted] physical altercations.)

Cut to a hearing of the Senate Judiciary Committee this morning, as reported by VPR’s Peter Hirschfeld. Ed Cutler of Gun Owners of Vermont is testifying,when he suddenly draws the ire of committee chair Dick Sears. Hirschfeld offers a lengthy account of the affair, which is a fun read; here’s the trigger moment, when Cutler bemoans the annual introduction of gun legislation.

Ed Cutler and Dick Sears, with the corpse of S.31. Not exactly as illustrated.

Ed Cutler and Dick Sears, with the corpse of S.31. Not exactly as illustrated.

“The problem, and you guys, you’ve been thinking about … doing this for years now, trying to figure out some way to do this,” Cutler said.

Sears chuckled.

“How do you know this,” Sears asked.

“Because you keep putting this bill in,” Cutler said.

It was at this moment that Sears’ face began to redden.

“What? Now wait a minute. I keep putting this bill in? Ed! Ed! I have never introduced a gun bill. Ever!”

Sears’ anger continued for quite a while; at one point Cutler’s hands began to shake.

Eventually the moment passed, and after the hearing, the two men shared a hearty handshake.

Bringing us to the question: work or shoot?

Well, I don’t actually think the confrontation was staged — a pretend show of prickly independence by a veteran lawmaker. But the “prickly independence” itself? That’s a work.

These guys are on the same side. Sears said so himself. And if you have any doubts about that, the Burlington Free Press is reporting this statement from Sears regarding the gun bill:

“S.31 is not on the table,” said Sen. Dick Sears, D-Bennington, the chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee. “Quite frankly, it’s dead.”

It might have been a few uncomfortable minutes for Ed Cutler, but in the end it was just a dominance display by one of the Senate’s leading cocks. And in the end, the two men run in the same pack.