Daily Archives: April 2, 2015

Bill Sorrell: worse than I thought?

One of my least favorite people in state government is Eternal General Bill Sorrell. According to those who were around at the time, the only reason he’s AG is that (1) he was Howard Dean’s favorite fartcatcher, (2) Dean wanted to appoint Billy to the Vermont Supreme Court but soon realized he was just about the only Vermonter who thought Sorrell was qualified, (3) Dean then appointed the incumbent Attorney General to the Supreme Court, and (4) Dean slid his acolyte into the convenient vacancy. Since then, Sorrell has enjoyed the perks of incumbency in an office few voters pay much attention to. He’s basically a guy born on third base who thinks he hit a triple. And one of my biggest peeves is politicians with unacceptably high ratios of self-image to accomplishment.

Sorrell’s most recent offense against logic is his balls-to-the-wall prosecution of Dean Corren for the unforgivable crime of accepting an in-kind donation worth $255 from the Democratic Party. This, per Sorrell, is a violation of the public financing law worthy of $70,000 in fines and restitution.

Well, a few days after I ranted about this, Seven Days’ Paul Heintz did what he does best: a journalistic take on Sorrell’s sudden Inspector Javert impersonation. In his “Fair Game” column, Heintz presented abundant evidence that Sorrell isn’t just the relatively harmless doofus I thought he was; rather, he may well be a fundamentally corrupt hack who has based his reputation on lucrative backroom deals between state Attorneys General and some of the nation’s biggest law firms.

"I'm a great guy. Just ask me."

“I’m a great guy. Just ask me.”

There’s plenty of damning stuff in the column, but I want to zero in on something deep down in the piece. It’s about a New York Times expose of “routine lobbying and deal-making” between Attorneys General and law firms trying to gin up multistate lawsuits.

You know, the very lawsuits that Sorrell endlessly trumpets.

I’d never read about this until I saw it in Heintz’ column, but boy does it stink.

These lawsuits are often over consumer-protection issues; the granddaddy of them all, and Sorrell’s favorite touchstone, was the multistate suit against the tobacco industry that resulted in a huge settlement finalized shortly after Governor Dean parachuted Young Billy into the AG’s office. Sorrell endlessly brags about the millions he brought into the treasury on that deal, even though virtually all the negotiations took place before he became AG.

I’d always just assumed that these big lawsuits were the result of cooperation among state AGs. But the Times reported that ideas for multistate lawsuits generally arise from big law firms, who then go trolling for AGs willing to sign on. These firms are nothing more than white-gloved ambulance-chasers, looking for cases they can cash in on. And share the proceeds with the states that play along.

That throws an entirely different light on these allegedly high-minded battles for our rights and pocketbooks.

Worse, Heintz recounts multiple occasions, as reported in the Times, when Sorrell accepted big campaign donations from law firms that were soliciting Vermont’s participation in one of these multistate suits. And I am shocked, shocked to report that Sorrell greenlighted the suits after accepting those donations.

Sorrell insists he is above reproach. And we’ll just have to take his word for it because he’s the one who decides whether to launch an investigation of himself. And I am shocked, shocked to report that Bill Sorrell believes there’s nothing to investigate about Bill Sorrell because Bill Sorrell has done nothing wrong.

Nice work if you can get it.

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The Don Turner Guide to Fiscal Responsibility

House Minority Leader Don Turner was the last soldier at the rhetorical Alamo of opposition to the water bill. Even at the last, he was pushing for no new taxes. His idea for a funding source was to divert small amounts of money from various other places and use it to leverage a bond issue.

We’ve been over this before, but I think it’s time to point out exactly how stupid and fiscally irresponsible that idea was.

First of all, his own estimate for his own plan was about $4.2 million, about half the money in the Democrats’ plan. Since the Dems’ plan is designed to be as cheap as possible while still passing muster with the EPA, it’s hard to imagine Turner’s plan gaining its approval.

And as a reminder, if we don’t adopt an acceptable plan, the EPA will come down like a ton of bricks on the only pollution source under its jurisdiction: municipal water treatment. That would be a far more expensive, and less impactful, solution, but it’s the only tool in the EPA’s box.

Okay, beyond the questionable prospects for the Turner plan, the big problem is its dependence on bonds for ongoing expenditures. This is a huge no-no according to the financial whizzes in the state treasurer’s office. Earlier this week, Deputy Treasurer Stephen Wisloski told the House Ways and Means Committee that using bond funds for current expenses is unwise, and a good way to ruin your debt rating. As he put it, “You should make sure the useful life of the asset is at least as long as the life of the bond.”

In simple English: bonding for roads, bridges or buildings GOOD. Bonding for current expenditures BAAAAAAAD. Taking notes, Donnie boy?

And here I thought Republicans were the guardians of fiscal responsibility. In fact, the notion of bonding is a band-aid solution that harms our bond rating in the immediate term and stretches our future finances ever more thinly.

And for what? To avoid a 0.2% tax on property transfers? Yeesh.

I shudder to think how our finances would look if Don Turner or a likeminded Republican was in charge. I certainly wouldn’t look to him for responsible governance.

A pretty darn good day at the Statehouse

Wednesday was a big day for the legislature’s battle to get through a long and tough agenda. The House passed two huge bills, and the Senate approved a positive step in voter access.

Senate first. After Sen. Dustin Degree lost his repeated efforts to derail, slow down, or cripple the bill, the full Senate approved same-day voter registration on a voice vote.

Degree was pushing a mild form of the Republican “voter fraud” canard. The Bush Administration tried very hard for eight years to find and prosecute cases of vote fraud, and produced an average of less than one case per year. But there was Degree, acknowledging that “Fraud may be minuscule,” but insisting we ought to take steps to prevent this mythical plague upon our land.

If the bill passes the House, it wouldn’t take effect until 2017 because Vermont’s town clerks are creatures of habit who are loath to accept change or take on new responsibilities. They insisted on a two-year delay, and still want to fight for tougher rules. Our Public Servants, first and foremost guarding their own turf.

On to the House, which approved two bills that can be fairly described as “landmark.” Neither bill is perfect, but both represent substantial accomplishments.

The “water bill,” H.35, passed on a 126-10 vote, with only a handful of Republicans saying no. It establishes a Clean Water Fund and provides for $8 million a year in funding. This accomplishment is diminished by the fact that the state HAD to do something, or face the regulatory wrath of the feds. Because Vermont is, and has been for a long time, in violation of the Clean Water Act.

Still, getting almost 95% of lawmakers to support a bill that impinges on large segments of the economy and raises new revenue wasn’t a simple task. After a confirmatory vote Thursday, the bill moves to the Senate.

The education bill passed by a narrow margin, but still substantial: 88-59. This one was a tougher sell because education is near and dear to the hearts of every student, parent, grandparent, and community in the state. And near to the wallets of every taxpayer.

This was vividly on display in Wednesday’s Democratic caucus meeting. After an overview of the water bill drew only a couple of questions, the presentation of the ed bill had Dem lawmakers popping up all over the room. Many were specifically concerned about schools and districts in their own communities.

Any kind of education reform bill is a tough haul. This makes substantial reforms in funding and governance. Generally speaking, it’s a decent effort. I think we do have to do something significant to bend the cost curve, and some form of consolidation is almost inevitable. Student populations are declining, especially in rural areas; tiny schools are in no one’s best interest. Not students, not taxpayers, and not other government initiatives that might benefit if the public-school burden wasn’t so heavy.

Both bills will head for the Senate, which makes me cringe. Based on past experience, you never know what the hell they’re going to do. But maybe they’ll surprise me. There are some good folks in the Senate — definitely two more (Becca Balint, Brian Campion) than there were in years past. The atmosphere and legislative product will greatly benefit from the addition by subtraction of Peter Galbraith, whose voluntary retirement from the Senate was a blessing for us all. We should see a lot less capricious obstructionism, if nothing else.

Hard times still to come, many long days and debates — some dramatic, some tedious. But April First was a good day. No foollin’.