A little bit slow and a fair bit lacking

This whole Stengerville fiasco presents a quandary for the three Democratic candidates for governor. On the one hand, it’s the biggest political scandal in years, ensnaring most of the state’s power elite in its icky-sticky web. You’ve gotta say something. On the other hand, well, it blew up on Governor Shumlin’s watch, and you’ve got to draw a careful line when criticizing your own party’s incumbent.

I guess that explains why it took Matt Dunne, Sue Minter, and Peter Galbraith a solid four days to issue any sort of response. And why, in the interim, the candidates’ press-release operations carried on as if nothing had happened.

There was Sue Minter on Thursday, holding a doomed-to-obscurity presser on “an aggressive plan” to address water quality issues from PFOA to Lake Champlain and beyond. A really nimble campaign might have taken notice of the Wednesday night SEC raid on Stengerville and postponed the event, but maybe that’s asking too much.

Matt Dunne did no better; on Friday he disclosed his personal financial information, as if anybody cared at that particular point. It may be unfair to conclude that the release was a double-barreled newsdump: it came on a Friday when everybody’s attention was focused elsewhere. Yes, it may be unfair, but these are cynical days.

As for Peter Galbraith, that rarest of phenomena: the sound of silence.

Finally, on Monday, all three came out with a gun or two a-blazing, but none have fully addressed the issues raised by this scandal — our scattershot approach to helping specific businesses and the lack of transparency and accountability in the process.

I’m not only talking about EB-5; I’m also talking the Enterprise Fund and the state’s  $100,000 grant to the Lake Champlain Regional Chamber of Commerce for promoting Vermont to businesses in Quebec. (Any results, or was that just a boondoggle?) And any other business grants or development giveaways that might exist.

If the response to this scandal focuses solely on EB-5, then it will be a missed opportunity. And the three Democratic candidates are in the best position to establish a new approach to business promotion.

As for the Republicans, well, I’ll deal with them in a separate post. For now, suffice it to say they’re likely to be long on criticism and short on policy specifics. It’s just the way they roll.

Dunne was first out of the gate with a call for the disclosure of all emails relevant to the state’s relationship with the Stengerville crowd. There was one deft touch: his request included both the Shumlin and Douglas administrations, which is appropriate since the alleged criminality went back to 2008. Any investigation of this scandal must needs include the Douglas years, since that was when the Stenger project originated and the ground rules were established.

Minter, in the parlance of no-limit hold ’em, re-raised. Her announcement drew the obvious connection with the broader issue of ethics. She called for an independent ethics commission — the kind currently being strangled in its crib by Our Elected Lawmakers — and stronger laws on ethics, transparency, and conflicts of interest. And then she threw in a call for release of all emails relevant to the EB-5 imbroglio.

Dunne then followed with a fundraising appeal repeating his previously announced support for a fully staffed and funded Ethics Commission, plus the release of the emails.

Galbraith, naturally, took the grandstanding approach, holding a press conference in front of the Statehouse to deliver his pronouncement on the scandal. He was very tough on the Governor and his administration, and called for an independent commission to review the whole mess.

And, in one crucial way, he missed the point.

“In short, what did the governor know? When did he know it? And what did he do about it?” Galbraith said, paraphrasing the late U.S. senator Howard Baker at the height of the Watergate hearings.

Those questions do need to be answered. But that’s only a small part of this whole story. Most of this stuff happened far below the Shumlin level, mainly within the Agency of Commerce and Community Development. Galbraith is inferring outright corruption by Shumlin, when the most likely reality is sloppy, inadequate regulation.

All three fell short of the mark by failing to turn from an examination of the past to establishing better processes for the future. EB-5 has its own unique problems, but the state’s general approach to direct business support (including grants and tax breaks) shares the same negligent approach toward regulation. A shiny new quarter to the first candidate who calls for the following reforms:

— Transparency in the consideration and approval of any grants, tax breaks, or other financial support for business. This includes public disclosure of all relevant information. If a business wants to dip into the public treasury, it must be willing to open itself up for scrutiny.

— Standards for evaluating the success (or failure) of each grant. Currently, all grants from the Enterprise Fund include unverifiable claims. Auditor Doug Hoffer has said there isn’t enough information to conduct an audit of EF grants. That must change.

— A mechanism for retrieval of public funds if a business fails to meet the agreed-upon measurables.

— A sunset date for any business-assistance program, with a full evaluation required before it can be extended. If a program doesn’t measure up, it should be put out of our misery.

— For the EB-5 program, we must decide whether Vermont can handle the job responsibly from now on. If not, we should get out of the EB-5 business entirely.

Aside from all that, I would counsel a generally skeptical attitude toward such programs. There’s a lot of evidence that we are better off making broad improvements in the business environment (infrastructure, education, addiction treatment, crime prevention) than making targeted investments in specific businesses.

There’s your progressive agenda for the post-Stenger world. Now, let’s hear from the Folks Who Would Be Governor.

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