Monthly Archives: March 2015

Dumbest Bill of the Year: We may have a winner!

This one’s being referred to the House Committee on Goofy Shit.

Tomorrow may be April Fools Day, but one of our lovable, huggable freshman lawmakers chose today to introduce the early front-runner for Dumbest Bill of the Year.

The sponsor is Republican Job Tate of Mendon, he who sent gasps through the House chamber last week when he proposed cutting lawmakers’ already minuscule pay. His new brainchild is H.495. It’s very simple, about a half page long. It’s the very first bill on which he is the one and only sponsor — his first big idea. And what would it do?

It would shift the Legislature from a Tuesday-Friday schedule for four months, to a Saturday-Sunday schedule for eight months.

Let that sink in for a moment. The Legislature meets on weekends exclusively for eight months every year.

The intent, I guess, is to make serving in the Legislature more accessible to those with full-time jobs. And on behalf of working men and women across Vermont, let me just say “Bwahahahahaha.”

Are you kidding me? Do you think anyone with a full-time job would want to devote their weekends for eight solid months to working under the golden dome? As one observer noted, “The divorce rate would skyrocket.”

Not to mention that everyone who has dealings with the Legislature, including numerous state employees, would have their choice of working seven days a week when the Leg is in session, working five-day weeks including Saturday and Sunday and taking two weekdays off, or working weekdays and being constantly on call for legislature-related obligations every weekend.

Lobbyists, who constantly prowl the corridors of power, would be royally screwed. But ehhhh, they’re lobbyists. (How does that joke go, “What do you call a hundred lobbyists buried up to their necks in sand?”)

Okay, of course this bill is going nowhere. But why introduce it in the first place? How did Mr. Tate seize upon this as his inaugural voyage into the waters of lawmaking?

Job Tate is not a fool. He was a Navy Seabee and remains in the reserves. According to his legislative bio, he was…

…a heavy equipment operator, explosives expert, squad leader, and combat warfare specialist who has worked with teams to build vital infrastructure in some of the world’s most challenging conditions.

That takes some brain power and the ability to correctly deploy it. But stuff like H.495, he should know, is a good way to get yourself typed as the Clown Prince of the House.

Look out, here comes the Bee Pollen Brigade

Here’s the topline for today’s developments re: funding for improvements to Vermont’s health care system:

$20 million.

That’s the target figure for new revenue agreed upon by key House leaders. A big comedown from the House Health Care Committee’s $52 million, but enough to make some progress in closing the Medicaid gap*, enhancing access for the working poor, and trying to attract more primary care providers.

*The gap closure is likely to favor primary care doctors, since they’re the front line of health care and also the most financially precarious.

Exactly how the House will get to $20 million is unclear. House Ways and Means is aiming to pass a bill this week*, but it would then face an uncertain fate in the Appropriations Committee. And the House floor. And the Senate.

*Committee vote today postponed due to the absences of two Democratic members.

But $20 million seems etched in stone, at least in the House. So this morning, Ways and Means examined five different tax packages that would raise roughly $20 million per year. The options include: some sort of tax on sugar-sweetened AND diet beverages, removing the sales tax exemptions on candy, sweetened beverages, imposing the rooms and meals tax on vending machiens, increasing taxes on cigarettes and/or tobacco products, and my fave: imposing the sales tax on dietary supplements.

Gasp! Yes, lawmakers might force us to pay sales tax on cranberry extract pills, antioxidants, probiotics, pro-oxidants (is that a thing?), and all those other sundry preparations clogging the shelves of your local food co-op.

I am now counting down to the arrival of the Bee Pollen Brigade with cries of outrage. This could be the next mass invasion of the Statehouse.

But it’s among the least unpalatable options before Ways and Means. As of this writing, there’s no sense of a committee consensus or even a majority behind any of the five tax packages. (Conservative Democrat Jim Condon tried a Hail Mary pass this morning; he floated the idea of selling bonds to pay for some health care reforms. The idea was quickly shot down by the Treasurer’s office, which pointed out that it’s considered improvident to bond for short-term spending. Or, to put it in Treasurer’s terms, “You should make sure the useful life of the asset is at least as long as the life of the bond.”)

Ways and Means is working from five proposed tax packages; all five are outlined, with revenue estimates, on the committee’s website.

So, the details of the revenue package remain unclear, but the bottom line is not.

$20 million for health care.

Just shoot me now.

Vladimir: What do we do now?
Estragon: Wait.
Vladimir: Yes, but while waiting.
Estragon: What about hanging ourselves?
Vladimir: Hmm. It’d give us an erection.
Estragon: (highly excited). An erection!
Vladimir: With all that follows. …
Estragon: Let’s hang ourselves immediately!”
― Samuel Beckett, Waiting for Godot

I don’t honestly get the political media’s fascination with former Wall Street tycoon Bruce Lisman. Yes, he founded (and funded) a vanity proj — er, advocacy group, Campaign for Vermont, to peddle his particular brand of biz-frendly pseudo-centrism. Ever since, the media have been Waiting For Lisman, ever anticipating his supposedly inevitable run for Governor.

And here to brighten up your Monday morning comes VPR’s Peter Hirschfeld with another round of “Who Asked For This?”

As Shumlin’s Approval Numbers Fade, Bruce Lisman Finds His Political Voice

Awww crap.

By “political voice,” Hirschfeld apparently means “Lisman is finally criticizing Governor Shumlin by name instead of in code.” There is little or no evidence that Lisman has found an authentic political self — an identity that can attract broad support.

Until Shumlin’s near defeat in November, Lisman had mostly refrained from personal attacks on the governor, or no-holds-barred criticism of initiatives undertaken under his watch.

“We really were a high-road, certainly nothing that smacked of political action – more policy action,” Lisman says.

Yuh-huh, stop right there, boss. From day one, Lisman’s Campaign for Vermont has consistently been critical of Gov. Shumlin and legislative Democrats. But he never said “Shumlin” or “Democrat” — instead making reference to “Montpelier.” For which, as a resident of Montpelier, I say “thank you for using my town as an epithet.”

Lately though, Lisman has assumed a more contentious tone. And it comes after a close election that Lisman characterizes as a “rebuke” of the sitting governor.

Take cover, boys! Sheriff Lisman’s coming to town!

Let’s be blunt. Lisman’s only political credentials are his Wall Street fortune and his willingness to spend a small fraction of it on a political group that has, as far as anyone can tell, failed to draw much support outside of the narrow band of elites who believe they have evolved beyond mere politics into a higher plane of enlightened self-interest.

(Example: Lisman, who presumably invests a large share of his fortune, has advocated cuts in capital gains taxes. Self-interested much? And he has issued a Mitt Romney-like call for everyone to have “skin in the game,” i.e. pay income tax. Which is an astoundingly regressive position for a “centrist.”)

Here’s what I said the last time I was forced to consider Lisman’s electoral prospects:

Bruce Lisman will never be Governor of Vermont. He’s not terribly well known, in spite of his travels around the state; he’s a lousy campaigner and public speaker; and most importantly of all, Phil Scott stands squarely in his path. Scott is a much better advocate of pretty much the same policy ideas. He’s far better known, he’s a more effective speaker and a proven fundraiser, and he has a major party structure behind him.

Still true. And here’s another: Bruce Lisman has the political instincts of a concrete block. He has dillied and dallied with the notion of running for governor to the frequent detriment of those who share his worldview. One example: In the spring of 2014, when his fellow CFV-er Heidi Scheuermann was mulling a race for governor, there suddenly came word from Lisman that he might just make a run himself.

I can’t say for sure that his brief and pointless flirtation elbowed Scheuermann aside, but it sure didn’t help. And then, as suddenly as he’d encouraged the speculation, Lisman quelled it, leaving the VTGOP to the tender mercies of Scott Milne. If that’s an example of the political acumen we can expect from Lisman, then I see him stumbling out of the gate. That is, if he ever finally decides to get IN the gate. He seems to have a hard time making that call.

I won’t go through the rest of Hirschfeld’s piece in detail because, frankly, I’d rather gouge out my eyes with a hot poker. But I will point out some examples of Bruce Lisman’s downright squicky faux-humility. On running for governor:

“I don’t give it a lot of thought,” Lisman says. “I guess I’m in the same place I’ve been. I don’t give it a ton of thought. Thank you. It’s nice of you to ask it in that way.”

Eeeewwwwww.

“And lots of people have post-election said to me, gosh you should have run, or I hope you run next time,” Lisman says. “And that’s nice. I mean it’s a nice thing to hear. It’s very flattering.”

Bleuuuurrrrrgh.

And finally, what could ol’ Bruce do to put a topper on this cavalcade of self-regard? Oh yeah, he could go third-person.

“Do we need a payroll tax? We think not.”

Ugh. Just threw up in my mouth a little.

But after all this, here’s my message for Bruce Lisman: Go ahead. Run for governor. Pull out all the stops. You won’t win, but at least our media will be able to stop camping out on your metaphorical doorstep.

Estragon: I’m going.
[He does not move.]

The Kingdom EB-5: Spiders in the attic. Lots of ’em.

About 15 years ago, a retired military man appeared in Dover, New Hampshire with an audacious plan: he had a revolutionary design for midsized passenger aircraft, and he was going to start a company — Alliance Aircraft — to build them. He claimed to have solid interest from some of the world’s major air carriers, and he planned to build a factory in some underutilized mill buildings in the middle of town. Good jobs, economic activity, what could be better?

At the time, I was a reporter/anchor for New Hampshire Public Radio, and I did a story about the project. At first everything seemed ideal, but the more I looked into it, the shakier it became. When I talked to experts in aviation and finance, I learned that this guy wasn’t especially well known and that it’s harder than Hell to launch a successful startup in a capital-intensive field like that.

My report raised questions about the project’s viability and public officials’ enthusiastic embrace of same. In the end, Alliance Aircraft fizzled out. No plant, no planes. Mind you, it wasn’t a scam; the head guy was a true believer. There was little or no public investment involved; the project didn’t even get that far.

Which brings us to today in the Northeast Kingdom. If you haven’t read VTDigger’s latest story about Bill Stenger’s EB-5 project, go and do so. It is a must-read.

The story by Anne Galloway focuses on AnC Bio, the biotech facility planned for Newport and funded by EB-5 investment — the federal program that gives green cards to foreign investors who put money into job-creating projects that would otherwise go unfunded. And the story is so full of authentic jaw-dropping “Holy Shit” moments that my mind was drawn back to the halcyon days of Alliance Aircraft.

I’ll recount some of the lowlights here, but please do yourself a favor and read the whole thing. It’s lengthy, but worth your time.

— AnC Bio Vermont is partnered with AnC Bio Korea, which has developed some promising products but has also been in severe financial straits for several years. How severe? Try “its headquarters was auctioned off in 2012” severe.

The Vermont firm is a separate corporation, but it’s entirely dependent on the Korean company for the intellectual property that would be the lifeblood of a Newport plant.

— Stenger’s group said nothing about AnC Bio Korea’s difficulties in its filings with investors or its communications with the state. Galloway: “State officials… weren’t aware of AnC Bio Korea’s problems until in the course of their own research in May 2014, they learned that the Korean headquarters had been sold at auction to satisfy banks and other creditors.”

— After learning of the Korea mess, the state ordered the Stenger group to cease any communication with investors about the Newport plan. This order was ignored. Thanks, Bill.

— Here’s a biggie buried deep in the story. The proposed site of the factory (plus 18 nearby acres) was purchased in 2011 for $3.1 million by a corporation owned by Stenger’s partner Ariel Quiros. Part of the land was sold to the EB-5 consortium, little more than a year later, for $6 million. That’s a tidy profit for Mr. Q. He’d profit even more if the plant is built and his 18 acres are adjacent to a booming factory.

— AnC Bio has yet to seek or receive FDA approval for any of its products, usually a lengthy process. Stenger: “…the FDA approval of products and services will in part be facilitated by the completion of the building.”

Cart before the horse, Bill?

I could go on, but you can read it all at VTDigger. Suffice it to say that this reeks eight ways from Sunday. And beyond the potential implications for the company, its investors, and the city of Newport, this could blow up big-time in Governor Shumlin’s face. He’s been Head Cheerleader for the Stenger projects, frequently traveling overseas to help Stenger and Quiros court investors. His administration set up a conveniently Stenger-friendly regulatory mechanism.

Not to mention that Shumlin’s former right hand, Alex MacLean, was working with the Stenger group through much of this troubled time. If she wasn’t pipelining information back to the administration about all this, she certainly wasn’t doing her political mentor any favors.

If the Newport project implodes or suffers any of several extremely realistic setbacks, it will be another black eye for Peter Shumlin’s tattered reputation for good management. A largely self-inflicted black eye, at that; he didn’t have to identify himself so closely with this project. But he got stars in his eyes, and he may well pay a heavy price.

Glass half full, glass half empty

There are two ways of looking at the 2015 legislative session so far. Well, two if you’re on the left-of-center side of the political equation. The right, I suppose, is probably in full Ted Cruz “The World Is On Fire” mode.

You can look at it like Progressive Rep. Chris Pearson during last week’s House budget debate, lamenting big cuts to human services: “There have been program cuts every year since I joined the legislature in 2006.”

The glass is half empty. If you’re a liberal or progressive Vermonter, it seems like we’ve been in constant retreat since Peter Shumlin took office. And it got worse after the November election, with conventional wisdom telling us that Republican gains were due to Democratic overreach, the governor abandoning single-payer health care, and Democrats scurrying to the center.

Then there’s the glass-half-full approach. House Ways and Means Committee chair Janet Ancel noted that this year’s tax bill represented the biggest one-year revenue increase in all her years on the committee. And Health Care Committee chair BIll Lippert had this phlegmatic reaction to the rapid diminution of the health care reform bill:

We knew when we put that together it was robust. That was our job, to articulate priorities and how to get there. But I think in the context of the $35 million that was raised on the floor [in the tax bill], and $8 million for the lake [Champlain], if we were so fortunate as to have $20 million for health care, that’s a pretty big appetite for raising revenue in one year. So I would be pleased to have that much dedicated to health care in a year that’s as financially difficult as this.

And, the unspoken corollary: “I won’t be surprised if we get less than $20 million.”

Which leads back to my previous post, “Peter Shumlin: Defender of Liberalism.” If the House is stripping most or all the funding from health care initiatives, we’ll have to depend on the Governor’s political muscle — if he still has any — to get it back.

Anyway, which way do you see it: glass half full or glass half empty?

The current situation has echoes throughout the five-plus-year tenure of Gov. Shumlin. He’s delivered some good stuff, more than many liberals are willing to admit, while keeping the ship afloat in tough budgetary times. Plus, he’s been swimming against three powerful tides: a sluggish recovery which has yet to benefit the middle or working classes, a tax system that has failed to keep up with our changing economy, and the effort to fully fund public-sector pension plans that were revenue-starved by previous administrations. (Lookin’ at you, Tom Pelham.)

On the other hand, many of Shumlin’s promises have been curtailed or abandoned — most notably single payer health care, the issue that arguably won him the 2010 Democratic primary and hence the governorship. Plus, liberal expectations were inflated, fairly or not, possibly both, by the size of the Democratic majority. Shumlin and legislative Democrats never seemed to realize how much political capital they had; and now, much of it is gone, unspent.

And on the other other hand, it’s not as if the last five years have been without accomplishment. And it’s not as if this legislative session will be a failure if we don’t get significant movement on health care reform.

It’ll just kinda feel like one.

Lifestyles of the affluent and connected

Both halves of one of Vermont’s top power couples are on the move. Eric Miller is in line to be the next U.S. Attorney for Vermont, while loyal spouse Liz Miller just announced her exit from Governor Shumlin’s office, destination TBA.

Eric M. will presumably take a hefty pay cut in his move from principal at Sheehey, Furling & Behm to Humble Servant of the People. Liz is about to forego her six-figure salary as a H.S.O.P., but could presumably have her pick of lucrative jobs in lawyerin’, lobbyin’, or corporate fixin’.

In announcing her move, Liz M. said something that could be taken one of two ways:

Liz Miller said Thursday that the two moves are coincidental. But she said the timing was good for her to leave a grueling job as he prepares to begin one.

“It would be difficult on the bill-paying and the dog, if nothing else,” she said.

I’m pretty sure she meant “difficult on the bill-paying” as a simple statement of time management: if both of them are burning the midnight oil as H.S.O.P.s, who tends to the duties of home and hearth?

LizMillerOn the other hand, if she meant it’d be hard for a childless couple with Ivy League law degrees and a costly home on Lake Champlain, plus extensive experience and connections in Vermont’s corridors of power, to make ends meet… well, no sympathy here.

At risk of losing my License to Blog, I’m willing to accept the less silver-spoony interpretation. Although I will point out that, whatever job Liz Miller takes next, they could probably afford to hre a part-time secretary/dog walker. Hey, jobs for Vermonters.

Peter Shumlin, Defender of Liberalism

So this is what we’ve come down to: as the House continues to slash away at health care reform, Governor Shumlin has become its stoutest defender.

Isn’t it ironic, don’tcha think. A little sad, too.

Here’s the situation: the House Health Care Committee originally came up with a $52 million package that would have greatly reduced the Medicaid gap, made health care more accessible to our growing cohort of working poor*, expanded proven measures to enhance delivery while holding down costs, and boosted incentives for badly-needed primary care providers.

*Thanks to our top-heavy economic recovery, which has produced stagnant wages and lots of jobs with unlivable wages while fattening the pockets of the wealthy and corporate.  

The Ways and Means Committee couldn’t agree on any tax scheme to pay for the $52 million — or even part of it. So the ball got bounced back to Health Care with a new diktat: devise a bill that will only cost $20 million a year.

The two committees remain at loggerheads, with each other and within their own ranks. Health Care can’t decide how to downsize its deftly-woven tapestry without the whole thing unraveling, and Ways and Means can’t reach consensus on a tax plan to produce $20 million.

Which almost certainly means the package will be further reduced before it even gets to the full House.

This is where Peter Shumlin, Defender of Liberalism comes in.

“I think that it’s really important that we make real progress here, and you’re not going to make real progress with $10 or $20 million,” the governor said in an interview Friday.

That interview was with the Vermont Press Bureau’s Neal Goswami, who wrote a front-page story in today’s Times Argus about the developing tussle between cautious lawmakers and a determined governor. (The story is paywalled, but you can listen to the interview for free.)

Shumlin rightly points out that a modest health care package would leave “$100 million of federal [matching] money on the table,” and would reduce private insurance rates by closing the Medicaid gap. Penny wise and pound foolish, you might say.

Problem is, the legislature is in penny-pinching mode after approving a tax bill that will raise $33 million in new revenue. Well, that’s the next problem. The first problem is Ways and Means, which has just enough centrist votes to effectively roadblock any of the tax plans outlined by Shumlin or the Health Care Committee.

Hmmm. And who, pray tell, appointed the committee? Oh yeah: Mr. Speaker.

Ways and Means has eleven members. A bill needs at least six votes to pass. But wait, you might be saying, there are seven Democrats on the committee and only three Republicans.

Well yeah, but two of the Democrats are definitely in the party’s centrist wing. Jim Condon is one of the most conservative Dems in the legislature, and Sam Young is definitely a taxation skeptic. The lone independent, ski resort mogul Adam Greshin, might as well be a Republican.

That leaves five relatively liberal votes, and a tough task for committee chair Janet Ancel to find a majority for any tax proposal.

Problem is, the Governor is right: spending more up front would make the system more robust and effective, and bring down costs for private payers. It’d also bring in the aforementioned truckload of federal matching funds.

And oh yes, if you’re interested in the “humanity” angle, it’d make health care accessible to thousands more Vermonters.

Goswami reports that Shumlin “may have to turn his attention to the Senate if he is to rescue his own plans.”

Oh boy. The disorganized, testosterone-and-ego-fueled Senate, with the centrist Cerebus of John Campbell, Dick Mazza and Phil Scott guarding the portal.

Good luck with that, Governor.