Monthly Archives: May 2015

VTGOP chair throws his own people under the bus

UPDATE: I was mistaken when I wrote this post. The opinion piece was not written by Sunderland; it was a Times Argus editorial. See this new post for details.

Vermont Republican Party chair David Sunderland, having been eerily quiet during the bulk of this year’s legislative session, is now throwing around boilerplate press releases and opinion pieces like there’s no tomorrow.

A recent missive, published in the May 27 Times Argus, castigates H.361, the education reform bill, as “a mess of a bill,” a “coercive regime,” the result of a “panicked” legislature. He claims the bill “will raise property taxes” (nonsense) and introduce inequity to what he called the “painstaking and thorough quest” that resulted in the adoption of Act 60 in 1997.

Which is funny in itself, because Republicans have been loudly beating the drum for repeal of Act 60 and its 2003 amendment, Act 68. Sunderland may be too young to recall that Act 68 was adopted because of severe problems with Act 60. But hey, if he views the halcyon days of Act 60 through rose-colored glasses, that’s his right. Of course, he may be completely alone in his nostalgia.

But that’s not the real story here. The most significant, nay stunning, aspect of his essay is that H.361 was a bipartisan bill. It was a cooperative effort of Democrats and Republicans in the House Education Committee, and it passed the Legislature with substantial Republican support. In the House, 23 Republicans — almost half the caucus — voted for H.361, including House Minority Leader Don Turner and Assistant Leader Brian Savage.

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The political significance of the state [bleep] chair

First it was Seven Days, and now it’s VTDigger, reporting on State Rep. Bob Helm’s hidden-camera appearance in a TV report about the American Legislative Exchange Council. ALEC is the organization that spreads conservative policy ideas and provides sample legislation to Republican lawmakers nationwide.

Helm was attending an ALEC conference when he was buttonholed by someone he didn’t know was a TV reporter. He told her he was “the state [bleep], the state chair of ALEC,” and acknowledged that lobbyists had helped pay the freight for him and numerous other lawmakers.

The reporting raises questions of ethics and influence-peddling; but to this Political Observer, the most interesting aspect is the growing influence of ALEC in Vermont Republican circles.

Helm boasted to VTDigger that “he has ‘revved up’ the ALEC chapter in Vermont and has boosted the number of members to 20, up from four just a few years ago.”

I’d love to see that membership list. I’ve heard, for instance, that Burlington Rep. Kurt Wright, who tries very hard to position himself as a moderate, is an ALEC member. That may or may not be true, but Wright did push very hard in this year’s session for a bill banning teacher strikes — an idea that’s been promoted by ALEC in other states.

But the bigger point is, 20 may not seem like a lot, but it’s a substantial fraction of the Republican legislative caucus.

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If this was the start of Phil Scott’s gubernatorial campaign, he’s got some work to do

Vermont’s Master of Inoffensive Centrism, Lt. Gov. Phil Scott, made some news today. After years of speculation that sooner or later he’d run for the top job, he took a small tentative step in that direction. Speaking on VPR’s Vermont Edition:

I’m certainly considering it, but I’m a far, a long ways from making that decision.

Well, that’s about as undramatic as a first step could be. But he didn’t stop there.

I think it’s something that you have to really internalize and you have to base your decision less on ego and less on the ability to win and make sure that it’s something that you think you should do for the benefit of all Vermont, ah, all Vermonters. So, you know, I have a long way to go before making that decision, but again, I’m considering, and I should, ah, I know I have to make a decision by the end of the year.

Color me unimpressed. Scott filled the airwaves with words for a solid minute without actually saying much of anything.

It was typical of the entire interview, which was surprisingly inept for a politician as practiced, and seemingly comfortable in his own skin, as Phil Scott. I got the sense that this was a big milestone for him: his first as a potential leader staking out positions of his own instead of depending on the easy personal charm that’s made him a good fit for his current post.

He seemed ill at ease in the new role.

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Win Smith’s 47% Moment

What’s this in my inbox? Why, it’s a heart-rending tale from the desk of Win Smith, co-owner of the Sugarbush ski resort and president of the Vermont Business Roundtable. And former Merrill Lynch executive. And reportedly a member of a secret Wall Street society described as “‘”a sort of one-percenter’s Friars Club’ whose annual dinners are filled with elitist, sexist and homophobic humor.”

(Bruce Lisman’s also a member, but I digress.)

Smith’s business partner in Sugarbush is, of course, State Rep. Adam Greshin, who wrote and lobbied for an amendment that forestalls a significant increase in Sugarbush’s sizable utility bills. And was, dubiously and privately, cleared by the House Ethics Panel.

Smith’s essay is being distributed to Vermont news outlets; I’m sure it will shortly be cluttering up your local paper’s content-hungry Op-Ed page. It’s a pretty amazing piece of work, managing to be both politically and literarily obnoxious. It’s a subtle retelling of stale conservative myths about poverty and government. You know the stuff: welfare mothers with Cadillacs, poor folks lulled into dependency by public-sector largesse, and the myth that “47% of Americans pay no taxes” and therefore have no stake in responsible government.

Smith begins with the sad story of “a childhood friend of mine” whose mother expressed her love by serving “large portions of tasty food.”

Unfortunately, Mom’s generosity had deadly results.

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Nobody’s figured out how to make this economy work

Vermont Republicans are fond of slamming the Shumlin Economy, cherrypicking statistics that make the Governor’s record look bad. They criticize his policies as crippling to economic growth and middle-class prosperity. (And now that Bernie Sanders is running for President, they try to blame all the ills of the last three decades on him, even though he hasn’t been running the place and would clearly have adopted very different policies if he had been. Protip to Republicans: correlation is not causation.)

And yes, in spite of very low unemployment, it’s inarguable that the recovery has been slow and spotty for most Vermonters. Their purchasing power has remained stagnant. But this isn’t just a Vermont phenomenon, and if you look at other states with conservative governments, they’re failing at least as badly as we are.

Last Friday, Talking Points Memo posted a piece about how four Republican governors are seeing their presidential aspirations undercut by severe budget problems back home — problems attributable to the failure of their policies to hotwire their economies.

The basic concept is as cartoonish as when it was first sketched on a napkin by Arthur Laffer: cut taxes and the economy will flourish. Revenues will rise, as government takes a smaller slice of a growing pie. Business, freed of its public-sector shackles, will lead us into a prosperous future.

Trouble is, it doesn’t work. In Louisiana, WIsconsin, Ohio and New Jersey, Republican tax-cutting policies have failed: all four states have sluggish economies and huge budget shortfalls. It’s worse on both sides than anything Peter Shumlin has inflicted on the state of Vermont.

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So, Bernie.

I don’t want to sound churlish here, but I probably will. Yesterday’s Bernie Sanders campaign kickoff was a nice event. If nothing else, it was a celebration (and validation) of #FeelTheBern’s unlikely political career; whatever else he accomplishes is gravy. If he can fight the good fight and push progressive issues into the mainstream political discourse, he will have done something meaningful.

My problem is this. In advance of the kickoff, the Vermont media was stuffed to the gunnels with Bernie coverage. The most ardent Bernie outlets were the Burlington Free Press and VPR, which previewed the event as though it was a combination of the Gettysburg Address and Woodstock. Both outlets posted previews entitled “What You Need to Know About Sanders’ Campaign Kickoff” or something like that. To which my response was, “I don’t need to know anything about that.”

Nothing against Bernie. I just can’t get excited about an opening gambit in a year-and-a-half-long process. And I can’t get excited about reading endless, breathless Bernie coverage. I already know what I need to know about the man and his politics.

For the Vermont media, Bernie’s presidential bid is the best kind of clickbait. It draws eyeballs AND it’s certifiably “important” in journalistic terms. There’s a corner of the editorial heart that curdles a little bit whenever they have to post another Heady Topper piece or foodie listicle; when they can have their clickbait cake and eat it too, as with Bernie, well, it’s open season.

After the last few days of #BernieBernieBernie, I’m already tired of it. And I’m sure I’ll be reading a whole lot more over the next year or so.

Well, actually, I won’t be reading it; I’ll be skipping over the Bernie coverage and looking for other news.

As for this blog, I’ll write about Bernie on occasion, when the spirit moves. But I won’t be following his every move, posting his every press release, or seeking his comment on campaign happenings. There’s not enough hours in the day, and there’s lots of other stuff to write about.

Greshin cleared; ethical lines remain vague and permissive

Well, the House Ethics Panel quickly disposed of my complaint against Rep. Adam Greshin. I can’t say I’m surprised that he was given a clean bill of ethical health, but I am disappointed.

Reminder: Greshin proposed, and actively lobbied for, an amendment to H.40 that would eliminate a planned increase in funding for Efficiency Vermont, which gets its money from a fee on utility bills. As co-owner of the energy-gobbling Sugarbush ski resort, Greshin stood to profit significantly if his amendment passed.

In my previous post, I covered the questionable process. The panel did its business behind closed doors, which seems an odd move for an ethics panel.

Now it’s time to consider the panel’s decision and reasoning, which leave a lot of room for dubious behavior.

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Another closed door in the People’s House

Constant readers of this blog (Hi, Mom!) will recall that earlier this month, I wrote a letter to the House Ethics Panel asking for a review of Rep. Adam Greshin’s actions regarding H.40, the RESET bill. For less constant readers, my complaint centered on this: Greshin authored an amendment to H.40 stripping away an increase in funding for Efficiency Vermont. (EV had already gotten Public Service Board approval; until this year, legislative review was a mere formality.) He also aggressively lobbied the House and Senate for his amendment.

EV gets its money through a surcharge on utility bills. As co-owner of the Sugarbush Resort, a voracious consumer of electricity ($2 million/year), Greshin stood to gain considerably if his amendment passed.

Well, the Ethics Panel has responded. And as expected, it was a whitewash. Greshin, so they say, did nothing wrong.

I’ll get to the substance of its decision in my next post. First, though, I need to address the process.

Between sending my letter and receiving the Panel’s reply, I didn’t hear anything about it. During the roughly one week between receiving my letter and drafting its ruling, the Panel conducted a review with help from Legislative Counsel. It also met with the House Energy and Natural Resources Committee, and with Greshin himself. (Correction: The panel met with counsel to the House Energy and Natural Resources Committee, but not with the Committee itself.)

None of those meetings were noticed publicly. I was not informed. I was not given the opportunity to be a party to the proceedings.

It seems that the House Ethics Panel has a closed-door policy.

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A Memorial Day story

On July 15, 1917, a young man I’ll call W. reported for duty with the 4th Ohio National Guard. He was an executive with a bright future in the Goodyear Tire and Rubber Company; he had gotten married only two months earlier. But the Allies were desperate for help against Germany, and the United States was mobilizing as quickly as it could. W., a veteran of the 4th Ohio’s campaign against Pancho Villa the previous year, was a Second Lieutenant.

At the time, the U.S. had the merest shadow of a standing military, so the Guard troops were pressed into service. The 4th Ohio was folded into the new 42nd (Rainbow) Division of the U.S. Army, which included Guard troops from several states. (Hence “Rainbow.”) After training in Ohio and New York, the men shipped out to Europe in mid-October. They suffered a very rough two-week crossing in a hastily refitted cargo ship that had formerly carried fruit from South America. It was only the first of many privations they would endure.

The war was not going well. After three years of stalemate on the Western Front, Germany was winning elsewhere. Russia was collapsing, and Italy was in retreat. Soon, Germany would be able to concentrate its forces in the West. The poorly trained and outfitted Americans were desperately needed to prevent the Germans from overrunning the battered French and British forces.

The winter of 1917-18 was one of the coldest on record. The men of the 42nd trained, marched, and bivouacked in extreme discomfort. But that would seem mild in comparison to the harsh fighting of the spring and summer, as the Germans mounted an all-out offensive and the Allies desperately fought to turn the tide.

In mid-February, the 42nd was ordered into the front lines. On the transport train, Lieutenant W. began to suffer intense pain. From his diary:

“Rt. upper bicuspid which had nerve killed, formed abscess. Grew extremely painful so had Bill Seamans our dentist try to yank it out. He pulled and hauled and then broke it off. Wow! But that relieved the pressure on the abscess, and I was able to sleep a bit.”

His stoicism would serve him well. From late February to late June, Lieutenant W. and his men served in the trenches of the Western Front, a scene of unimaginable devastation.

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Weekend forecast: widely scattered blogging with a chance of getting other stuff done

Hey there. You may have noticed a lack of activity around here the last couple of days. I’ll be back Tuesday morning with at least one big story, a VPO exclusive. And I’m about to post a story of one fallen soldier in honor of Memorial Day.

If you’ve been repeatedly visiting theVPO in search of fresh material, here’s a tip: In the right-hand column, you’ll find a box that says “FOLLOW BLOG VIA EMAIL.” If you enter your email address, you’ll get a notice every time I post new material here. It’s a handy way to keep in touch, and it’s absolutely free. Just like the rest of this blog, come to think of it.

See you Tuesday. Between now and then, thank a vet. Attend a parade. Visit a gravesite. Give a thought to those who have died in our service.