Monthly Archives: February 2015

The real lessons of Plasan

Vermont’s pro-business community couldn’t hardly wait to score a cheap political point (and, as usual, soil the state’s reputation) after Plasan’s announcement that it was relocating to Michigan. Decent interval, bah: we’ve got a boilerplate press release ready to go.

Lt. Gov. Phil Scott did the honors for the VTGOP, offering a quick word of sympathy to Plasan’s workforce and then pivoting to the red meat:

This announcement is yet another clear sign that we in Montpelier must put our full focus on not only protecting, but on growing Vermont’s economy and face the reality that we are competing in a regional, national and global marketplace. We cannot continue to blame “forces beyond our control” for our job losses, but turn the mirror back on ourselves and ask ourselves: “What can we do to change the direction of this trend? How can we make Vermont better?”

The best part is Scott’s dismissal of “forces beyond our control,” when Plasan made it abundantly clear that Vermont’s business climate had nothing to do with its decision, and Vermont couldn’t have done anything to change it. But let’s not let a little inconvenient truth get in the way of a stale talking point.

Former Wall Street supremo Bruce Lisman kept it simple; he made time for one self-congratulatory Tweet, with nary a word of sympathy for the workers.

(The link is to WCAX’s story about the Plasan closing.)

Nice, Bruce. Way to show your concern for the common folk.

Okay, so the Usual Suspects reacted in the usual way: grabbing at any available pretext for regurgitating their political cud. (Please chew with your mouths closed.) But there are lessons we can learn from the departure of Plasan and other industries, and things we should bear in mind.

FIrst, let’s re-examine the unique strengths of Vermont. We do have our share of weaknesses, even if you omit the tired bromides of rightist politicos. So why do so many businesses establish themselves here or move here? Why does anybody stay? Why don’t they all move to Michigan or Texas or Mississippi?

Quality of life must be near the top of the list. Our topflight public school system is a draw. We have some very nice cities and small towns, good places to call home. Low rates of violent crime. Abundant recreation. A market small enough that entrepreneurs can gain a foothold before venturing out into the big time. (Ben & Jerry’s would have had a much harder time starting out in a big state with big distribution systems.)

I’m sure there are others. My point is, before we try to tear down Vermont, let’s figure out what we’re good at, do what we can to make it even better, and market the hell out of it.

Okay, so now: what are our weaknesses?

We should certainly review the items on the VTGOP hit list. If there are ways to smooth regulatory pathways without selling our souls, great. If forms or bureaucratic procedures are cumbersome, simplify them. But there’s no way we can compete with bigger states or other countries on things like taxes and incentives. Vermont can’t come anywhere near the packages being offered by New York state, for instance. We can’t be as low-tax as Florida or as development-friendly as Arizona, nor would I want us to be. That’s why our first priority should be identifying and maximizing our strengths.

Beyond the usual GOP talking points, I see three major areas that are drawbacks for Vermont’s business climate. In no particular order:

The high cost of post-high school education. It’s the one thing we consistently hear from business owners (as opposed to their political mouthpieces): “We can’t find enough skilled workers. We can’t fill available jobs.”

The cost of attending our public colleges and universities is absurdly high — especially at the community college level. Governor Shumlin has done some incremental things to nibble away at this problem, but has failed to tackle it in a thorough, systemic way.

Getting around. When Chris Graff wrote his memoir a few years ago, he ranked the top stories in recent Vermont history. His pick for #1: the coming of the interstate freeways. They made it possible to travel and transport goods much more quickly, at least in certain corridors. They brought dramatic change to Vermont — mostly for the good.

But large stretches of Vermont are still remote — or remote enough that it’s a significant competitive disadvantage. The biggest obstacle for places like Bennington and Rutland is the lack of high-speed roadway. The best thing we could do for them is turn U.S. 7 into a freeway. We could also use speedier corridors across central and southern Vermont.

(We pause while liberal readers gasp for breath.)

Also, and just as significantly, we need more public transportation. This is a tough nut to crack in a place with a small, scattered population, but if it was easier to get around Vermont without a car, it’d help convince people to live somewhere besides Chittenden County.

The lack of housing, for purchase and rental. One of the biggest drags on our economy is the aging demographic. What do young families need? Rental properties and small- to mid-sized houses. Just what we don’t have.

This is one area of regulation that needs to be loosened in a targeted way. We need to do more to encourage affordable housing — by which I don’t just mean Section 8 or mobile homes, I mean houses costing less than $250,000 and enough rental stock to keep rents reasonable. I’d like to see an emphasis on in-fill housing in existing cities and towns. I don’t want to open the regulatory door to more suburban sprawl.

Housing affordability touches on a fundamental problem with our 21st Century economy: wage stagnation in the middle and working classes. Part of the problem with affordability is depressed wages, something that’s beyond the scope of this post. But as long as young people are starting their lives with college debt and low salaries, we need to help them find housing that fits their budgets.

So there you have it. My initial prescription for improving Vermont’s business climate. And it has nothing (much) to do with taxation or regulation.

Metapost: All right, already

I’ve gotten a couple of comments/complaints about the Header image on this blog. My usual response is, “How dare you besmirch the name of our former President Warren G. Harding?”

Because, in case you didn’t recognize the Great Man in the later stages of his wastrel existence, that is, indeed, a photo of our 29th President, pretending to type. (Note lack of paper in the machine.)

But hey, I’ll acknowledge that after several months of unmediated Harding, it’s time for a shakeup. So I’ve uploaded several images related to writing or newspapering, and set my Header Image on “random.”

You’ll still get Old Winnie from time to time, but he’ll be one element in the rotation instead of a constant, looming presence.

So far, I’ve got six Header Images. I’ll add more when the spirit moves.

Here’s a completely unsurprising bit of news

According to the Valley News, Senate President Pro Tem John Campbell is waving the white flag on legislation that would expand background checks for gun purchases. Campbell is the chief sponsor of the gun bill; he promises to continue fighting for two other provisions: one would create a state crime for possession of a firearm by a convicted felon, the other would restrict access to guns for those declared mentally ill by a court.

The background check provision had been the chief battleground — although now that it’s seemingly off the table, the Orange Vest Brigade is stepping up its attacks on the other two items.

The news is unsurprising because (a) Senate Judiciary Committee panjandrum Dick Sears said earlier this week that the background-check provision would not pass his committee, and (b) I don’t believe Campbell ever intended the bill to pass.

Call me cynical, but I’ve seen too much of John Campbell to believe he was ever serious about background checks. He’s never been visibly pro-gun regulation, he never stakes out politically risky positions, and he rarely takes the lead role on any legislation.

I’d go so far as to speculate that he made himself lead sponsor so he could pull the bill when it became politically expedient.

In vowing to fight on for the rest of the bill, Campbell portrayed himself as a Profile In Courage:

“I’ve been told that my political career’s over because of this, and I’m more than happy to deal with that, but that’s how important it is.”

Good God, what a blowhard. His political career will survive this just fine. For one thing, he represents a completely safe Democratic district; he’ll be a Senator as long as he wants to be. For another, the two remaining provisions simply aren’t that big a deal. Nobody’s going to do an over-the-top charge into No Man’s Land for those two items.

He’s talking tough right now, but I suspect that Campbell has another white flag in his back pocket, ready to wave at the proper time.

Connect the dots, and reveal a black hat

The Senate Government Operations Committee, last seen saying yes to the Fourteenth Star, held a hearing Friday on a bill that would increase disclosure requirements for ad campaigns meant to influence legislative debate.

The bill would require disclosure of public-policy advertising over $1,000 within 48 hours. Under current law, disclosure is only required three times a year: January 25, April 25, and July 25. The April report is the biggie, since it covers the bulk of a legislative session. And it comes at the very end of the session, which means the disclosure is almost useless for finding out who’s spending money to influence which piece of legislation.

The Associated Press’ Wilson Ring was there, and reports that one of the top lobbyists in Montpelier, Andrew MacLean, testified against the idea.

Ring failed, however, to deliver the context. Which I will now do. You’re welcome.

MacLean makes a darn fine living representing numerous business interests. He told the committee that the 48-hour disclosure requirement would be difficult for lobbyists to meet.

Which is, pardon my French, pure bullshit.

The same requirement is already placed on political candidates in the last 45 days of a campaign season. If candidates can meet the requirement, surely a well-endowed lobbying firm can do so.

MacLean also efforted the First Amendment argument —  “the proposal… could infringe on free speech rights” — which is also bullshit. Disclosure imposes no limits on speech.

His alternative? “… change your disclosure dates and maybe add one or two.”

Uh-huh. And why, you might ask, is Mr. MacLean so anxious to avoid prompt disclosure? Committee chair Jeanette White gave us a hint:

[White] said the proposal grew out of a case in which a lot of money was spent trying to get members of the House to vote against an issue. She did not say what the issue was.

Well, I’ll tell you what the issue was. It was the 2013 attempt to impose a tax on sugar-sweetened beverages. The beverage and retail industries mounted an all-out effort to kill the bill, spending more than $600,000 in the first three months of 2013. We didn’t find that out until April 25, 2013, by which time the beverage tax was dead.

The chief local lobbyist for that effort? Andrew MacLean.

Fast forward to 2015, when the legislature is once again considering a beverage tax, and Andrew MacLean is once again at the forefront of a very expensive advertising and lobbying campaign against the bill.

Naturally, he prefers disclosure to be as infrequent and untimely as possible.

MacLean’s testimony was motivated by blatant self-interest. I hope the committee sees through that, and proceeds with a reasonable effort to add some transparency to the flow of money through our politics.

A new day in an old way

Vermont lawmakers, in their infinite wisdom, have decided to make a change in the hidebound office of Sergeant-at-Arms. Formerly a sinecure for beloved dodderers, the post is now apparently being filled on merit. Who knew?

In a rather shockingly one-sided vote, Francis Brooks — who was SaA for eight years after serving for 25 as a state representative — was dumped in favor of Janet Miller, deputy director of the Legislative Council. The final tally was 128 Miller, 47 Brooks.

I take it as a sign of a new attitude toward the management of the Statehouse. Gone are the days when an 87-year-old Statehouse fixture (Dwight Dwinell) could hang onto the job as long as he could get up the steps of the building. Now, wewant an actual manager.

Is this a harbinger of tighter security at the people’s house? Perhaps. There’s talk of fire drills and active-shooter drills for lawmakers. (If they’re serious about evacuation procedures, they might want to cut another couple of doors in the House and Senate chambers. The House chamber is a huge room with three exits from the main floor, two of them tiny; the Senate is a smaller room with one main-floor exit plus a small side door that leads to a room right next to the main exit. Hope the desk nearest the door doesn’t catch fire.)

So, a new day, but carried out in old-Vermont fashion. There had been complaints about Brooks, some quantifiable, some passive-aggressively vague, and many of them anonymous: he didn’t run a tight enough ship, security wasn’t up to snuff, he didn’t recruit enough legislative pages from other parts of the state, there was “a general level of discontent,” he was too “grumpy.”

Of course — and this is the “Vermont fashion” part of it — nobody told Brooks about any of this. On the eve of today’s vote, Brooks told VTDigger that “no one came to me… No individuals or group have come up and said it to me that, ‘You were wrong,’ or ‘You should have handled it this way.'”

As a flatlander who’s lived in Vermont for less than a decade, I can tell you this happens A LOT in Vermont. Direct confrontation is avoided; grievances are allowed to accumulate until the situation reaches the breaking point.

To Vermonters, this probably seems like a positive: what’s wrong with politeness?

Well, when it’s used to paper over issues instead of dealing with them, it’s counterproductive. By all accounts, Brooks didn’t see this coming until it was too late. And that’s a shame. My sense is that he operated under the old-timey conception of the job: a low-impact sinecure for a man (cough) of a certain age.

Not any more. And the fact that Brooks got a standing ovation after his unceremonious ouster is a very Vermont thing to do: it was a nice tribute to a senior figure, but coming right after the lopsided vote against him, there was something curiously hollow about the gesture. Yeah, let’s have a nice round of applause for the guy we just kicked in the teeth.

Revenge of the Slummin’ Solon

Aww, just when I thought we were rid of the guy, his tainted legacy comes back to haunt us.

GalbraithI speak of the person formerly known as The Most Hated Man in the Senate, Peter Galbraith. In a building full of people convinced that their shit don’t stink, he stood out for his towering self-regard. He saw himself as a master lawmaker and deal-broker, when in fact he was an egotistical meddler always willing to block the process if he thought things could be done better.

By which I mean, of course, that things should be done the way he wanted them done.

One of his more notorious episodes is now making life more difficult for his former Senate colleagues, who now have to relitigate the aid-in-dying law because of a classic Galbraithian power play.

Back in the spring of 2013, after an exhaustive debate across multiple sessions, the state legislature was poised to enact a bill that would have allowed terminally ill patients to seek lethal medication under strictly controlled conditions. The version that passed the House was modeled on Oregon’s successful law.

The Senate vote was expected to be very close. And at a crucial moment, Galbraith and another guy I’m pleased to call “former Senator,” Bob Hartwell, forced a radical rewrite of the bill that basically stripped away all the controls and protections. Galbraith was the driving force behind the idea; he wanted aid-in-dying without any state controls. The idea appealed to no one else, but he refused to budge. In the end, a House-Senate conference committed settled on a Frankenstein monster of a bill that imposed Oregon-style protections at first, but is set to remove them in the year 2016.

It was a ridiculous bill, but it did get aid-in-dying onto the books. And by all accounts, it’s been a success so far: very few people have used it, and even fewer have actually taken a fatal dose, but it does provide a safety valve for those truly in extremis without posing any visible danger to anyone else.

It works. But because of the Galbraith-Hartwell maneuver, the bill has to be reopened this year. Otherwise, we’d enter a Wild West situation, as the Vermont Press Bureau’s Neal Goswami outlines:

If the law is not changed, physicians will no longer be required to tell patients in person and in writing of their diagnosis, prognosis, range of treatment options, risks of taking medication and probable result of taking medication.

Nobody wants that. But thanks to Galbraith and Hartwell, the issue has to be reopened. This week, the Senate Health & Welfare Committee held a hearing on a bill that would continue the current protections beyond 2016. This has given opponents of aid-in-dying a second crack at killing the legislation. According to Goswami:

… opponents of Act 39 will look to repeal it and have allies in the Legislature who will sponsor amendments with that purpose when the legislation to keep the safeguards hits the Senate floor.

Great. We spent endless hours debating aid-in-dying and arrived at a substantial consensus. The resulting bill has worked as intended. But now, in a session already overloaded with contentious issues like the budget, taxes, Lake Champlain cleanup, education reform, and health care, we may have to live through a repeat of the 2013 debate.

And we have Peter Galbraith and his running buddy Bob Hartwell to thank for that. I really, really hope we’ve seen the last of those two assclowns.

Happy budget fun times

The two House committees in charge of the state’s purse strings got together for a joint meeting Wednesday afternoon, and heard a solid hour of sobering news. The state has a substantial budget gap that seems to be widening by the day, and there is little appetite for the scale of cutbacks or tax increases necessary to close it. The two panels: Ways and Means, which acts on taxation and revenue; and Appropriations, which makes the spending decisions. In a tough budget year like this one, each of the two panels wanted to gain a better understanding of the challenges facing the other.

The bulk of the session was a walkthrough of proposed expenditures and revenues for the coming fiscal year, led by Joint Fiscal Office budget guru* Sara Teachout.

*Not necessarily her actual title. 

Sara Teachout of the Joint Fiscal Office, pointing to a large flatscreen display full of dispiriting numbers.

Sara Teachout of the Joint Fiscal Office, pointing to a large flatscreen display full of dispiriting numbers.

She began the session by outlining one of the little-known worms in the budgetary apple: cuts in spending would take effect on July 1, the start of FY 2016, but many of the potential revenue enhancements would not. For example: If the state eliminates a tax deduction on personal income, that revenue would not be realized until April 2016, when 2015 tax returns are due. That’s three-quarters of the way through FY 2016.

Much of Teachout’s presentation was a repeat of her tax-budget tutorial I heard at a recent Ways and Means meeting; I wrote three reports on the meeting, which can be found here, here, and here. (If you don’t want to wade through all three, do the last one first.) She did offer more detail at this joint meeting, including a very specific listing of the real costs of various tax expenditures and deductions. (All of her documents are posted on the Ways and Means webpage.)

There was some limited discussion after Teachout’s teach-in. Most significantly, Ways and Means chair Janet Ancel restated her support for a cap on tax deductions: “Speaking for myself, it’s the right thing to do if we’re looking for new revenue.” Rep. Mary Hooper, a member of the Appropriations Committee, noted that a cap on deductions “spreads out the impact, rather than zeroing in on specific exemptions or deductions.”

As I reported previously, Vermont’s tax rules allow the average million-dollar earner to claim hundreds of thousands of dollars in deductions. That’s why top earners pay an effective income tax rate of 5.1% instead of the statutory rate of 8.95%.

Two years ago, the House approved a cap on itemized tax deductions at 2.5 times the standard deduction; the measure died, mostly because of Governor Shumlin’s opposition. This year, he has signaled his openness to changing deductions and expenditures, even as he remains steadfast in opposing increases on his Big Three taxes: income, sales, and rooms & meals.

The cap would, IMO, greatly enhance the fairness of our state tax system. Currently, top earners pay a lower proportion of their earnings in state and local taxes than people in any other income group.

There was also some support in the room for looking at some of the sales-tax exemptions. For example, the state could impose a ceiling on clothing purchases — making them tax-exempt only below a certain dollar amount.

Rep. Mitzi Johnson, Appropriations chair, said her committee will “begin a conversaiton soon to lay out targets [for spending cuts].” She noted the importance of the joint meeting for gaining a clearer picture of “where the revenue could be coming from.”

The meeting was one more small step in what promises to be a long, grinding process leading to decisions that will make at least some constituencies unhappy. As one Statehouse observer told me — only half jokingly — “it might take until July” before they can work everything out.

Shocker: Gun bill “hits snag”

As VPR’s Peter Hirschfeld reports, the bill that would expand background checks for gun sales “has hit a major snag.”

The snag’s name is Judiciary Committee chair Dick Sears, a.k.a. The Human Snag.

“I don’t believe that the background check portion of the bill has the votes in this committee to pass out of this committee,” Sears said Tuesday.

That’s a nicely passive-aggressive way of putting it. Sears is opposed to the background check portion, and nothing gets through his committee without his consent. I dare say if Sears was the only member of the committee opposed, it still wouldn’t get through.

Hirschfeld notes that it’s still “theoretically” possible that the provision could be passed through some other committee (I’d suggest Agriculture, just for sh*ts and giggles). But the Senate is notoriously deferential to its senior members, and nobody demands more deference than good old Dick.

No surprise anyway. The background check debate was a shadow play from the start. The bill had no chance, given the loud and well-organized opposition of the gun-rights community. Like the Allied soldiers at Gallipoli, it wasn’t a question of whether this bill would die on the beach. The question was, which beach would it die on.

Background check bill, welcome to Sears Beach.

Ethics, shmethics: Legislative edition

Maybe it’s my inner flatlander, accustomed to the sometimes shady dealings in other states’ politics, but I get even more cynical than usual on the subject of ethics in the legislature.

The subject comes to mind today because of Paul Heintz’ excellent column in this week’s Seven Days, which chronicles the fitful, woefully inadequate first steps of the newly minted House Ethics Panel.

Until now, as Heintz reports, “Vermont was one of just 10 states without any sort of internal legislative ethics committee empowered to investigate potential wrongdoing… [and] remains one of just eight states without an external ethics commission.” (Emphasis his.)

The House panel barely qualifies as an overseer of ethics. Its chair, David Deen, hopes to keep investigations secret “to protect from public embarrassment those who are wrongly accused.”

Oh, that’s nice. We wouldn’t want one of our public servants to suffer embarrassment. What say we apply the same standard to court cases? If a lawmaker needs to be shielded from “public embarrassment” over an ethical matter, how much worse is the potential embarrassment of, say, a charge of murder?

I’d also remind the good Representative of something that often gets lost under the Golden Dome of Silence: these people work for us, and should be answerable to us. If that includes the occasional “public embarrassment,” well, tough.

The purest form of insular Statehouse sentiment comes from the Senate, which remains blissfully unencumbered by any sort of ethics committee. President Pro Tem John Campbell assures us that “Vermont is one of the cleanest states.”

No way to prove that, of course.  Not without an ethics panel. Which we don’t need, because John Campbell says so.

I really don’t know if Vermont is a particularly clean state. We certainly have our share of public corruption, especially in situations where no one is on guard — such as the numerous cases of embezzlement by small-town officials or the odd drug addict overseeing a police evidence storage room.

Most of our public servants do have good intentions and work hard for very little reward, but there’s a whole lot of potential for ethical violations baked into our system. Lawmakers routinely cast votes that have an effect on their non-legislative work. They spend a substantial amount of time with lobbyists, and many friendships result. (Campbell is, I’ve been told, best buds with one of the top Black Hats in town.) They depend heavily on those lobbyists for political contributions and for policy advice, since all but the top leaders have no staff support.

To some extent, Vermont has some measure of protection from serious scandal because it’s such a small place. But in other ways, our smallness makes us more vulnerable. Example: the Colchester Police Department brusquely dismissed initial complaints about Tyler Kinney because, well, he was One Of Us and couldn’t possibly have been a thief and addict who compromised countless criminal investigations.

Except he was.

There may be no big undiscovered scandals at the Statehouse, but there is a faintly rancid smell about the clubbiness of the place. It could use the occasional blast of fresh air. And we could use an ethics panel with independence, transparency, and a good sharp set of teeth.

New vaccine poll probably accurate, but deeply flawed

A new survey shows strong support for new limits on a parent’s ability to opt out of childhood vaccinations, but it probably won’t do much to move the debate.

The poll was commissioned by Every Child By Two, a national nonprofit that supports vaccinations. It found that 68% of Vermonters do not believe there should be a philosophical exemption available to parents, and that 73% of respondents support changing state law to eliminate the philosophical exemption.

The poll results are probably an accurate reflection of public sentiment (the anti-vaxxer crowd is a noisy minority), but the poll’s value is greatly diminished by the wording of the questions. They almost constitute a push poll — a series of questions designed to elicit a predetermined response.

The first question is objective: “Do you believe that parents should be able to opt out of vaccinating their children for school for philosophical reasons, also known as personal belief exemptions?” 68% say no, 20% say yes, and the rest are unsure. That result is almost certainly valid.

But then the survey grabs respondents by the nose and leads them down a preset path. It brings up the recent measles outbreak centered in California and raises the possibility that it could spread to Vermont. It then highlights the danger to “people with compromised immune systems… for lack of a vaccinated population.”

Then, a leading question, “Now that you are aware that people with cancer and other medical disorders are at risk, are you more concerned about a person’s decision to vaccinate?”

After that comes the clincher: “Should children whose parents have opted not to vaccinate be allowed to attend public schools and licensed daycares, potentially putting other children at risk?” (Emphasis mine.)

The final question asks if you would now support a bill that would allow exemptions for medical reasons only, “and keep the same vaccination requirements as most other states“. (Emphasis mine.)

After all that, support for limiting the exemption rises from 68% to 73%, while opposition falls from 20% to 13%.

I agree with those who sponsored the survey: Vermont’s vaccination rates are falling, the bulk of scientific evidence supports the safety and efficacy of vaccines, and the potential loss of herd immunity poses a serious threat. In these circumstances, I believe we should end the philosophical exemption.  But this deeply flawed poll won’t help the cause.