Monthly Archives: April 2021

What Has Doug Hoffer Done to Deserve This?

Illustration from the normally staid Auditor’s homepage. I think he’s running low on fucks to give.

A few days ago, I wrote about two performance audits conducted by Auditor Doug Hoffer concerning Vermont’s approved independent schools. His findings, in brief: they are growing and consuming more Education Fund dollars, and state oversight is lax in a number of important ways.

I mentioned in passing that the two audits had gotten very little coverage in the media. The second one went almost completely under the radar; the Big Three of Vermont media (VTDigger, Seven Days, VPR) didn’t cover it at all.

It’s part of a pattern; Hoffer’s audits and reports get perfunctory coverage at best. But this year it took a turn for the worse. At the same time that major media outlets were giving scant attention to Hoffer’s actual work, they were giving plenty of space to Oliver Olsen, a relentless Hoffer critic (and longtime supporter of AIS’s).

For those just joining us, in December and early January Olsen inundated the auditor’s office with requests for records and information — a total of 18 inquiries, four of them filed on Christmas Eve. At the time, Olsen hinted at a deep expose of serious flaws in Hoffer’s work. In a letter to House and Senate leadership, he wrote “My review, which is not yet complete, has identified a number of problems with the auditor’s work that I hope to bring to the Legislature’s attention in the new biennium.”

What have we gotten from Olsen since then? A wet fart. Have the breathless media covered his failure to deliver? Not on your life.

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Senator Pukes on Her Own Shoes; Blames the Shoes

The good Senator, seeking guidance from the heavens. None was forthcoming.

Break out the tiny violins for Sen. Jeanette White, who’s had a rough week and change. Her inflammatory comments at an April 2 hearing of the Senate Judiciary Committee went viral, and prompted an avalanche of critical emails and voice mails. One week later, she opened another committee hearing by reading a written statement that hit all the notes in the fakey bullshit “apology” playbook.

Yeah, it’s a shitshow. Strap in.

The committee was discussing H.128, a bill to ban the so-called “gay panic” defense, in which a defendant argues that their crime was excusable because of the gender identity of the victim. The argument has led to acquittals, convictions on lesser charges, and/or greatly reduced sentences – or should I simply say “gross miscarriages of justice.” The bill passed the House on a 144 to 1 vote. (For those keeping score at home, the only “No” vote came from Republican Rodney Graham.)

One hundred forty four. To one. Don’t forget that.

(At this point I’d like to mention the shining star of this clusterfuck: First-term Rep. Taylor Small, the bill’s co-sponsor. On April 9, she gave Senate Judiciary a clear, concise argument in favor of H.128, and did so in an unwaveringly respectful tone. And she may have actually swayed the outcome of the committee’s vote.)

The bill has run into trouble in Senate Judiciary, with two of its five members speaking against it and one — Alice Nitka — never uttering a word in committee deliberations. One opponent is Republican Joe Benning, a defense attorney by trade. He’s fine with a ban on the “gay panic” defense during criminal trials, but he wants it to be in play during the sentencing process. Not that he approves of the tactic; he’s just opposed to any limit on defense arguments at sentencing.

(I’d like to get one thing on the record here. Benning may oppose the ban, but the American Bar Association passed a resolution eight years ago urging “federal, tribal, state, local and territorial governments to take legislative action to curtail the availability and effectiveness of the ‘gay panic’ and ‘trans panic’ defenses.” So his own profession’s largest organization doesn’t share his concern.)

The other opponent is Windham County Democrat Jeanette White. Here’s where things went off the rails.

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Approved Independent Schools Are Under-Regulated and Growing

The High Castle Burr and Burton Academy

State Auditor Doug Hoffer recently issued the second of two performance audits on Vermont’s approved independent schools. You may have missed it because it was virtually ignored by the #vtpoli media. (Both reports can be accessed here.)

The lack of coverage deserves a post of its own. For now, let’s get to the meat of Hoffer’s work. He didn’t find any smoking guns, but he did identify a striking trend and some definite lapses in oversight by the state. It’s a dangerous combination, especially with so many indy-related people on the state board of education.

Hoffer’s first report focused on an educational double standard: the rules for public schools and AIS’s are quite different, and favor the latter. The high points:

  • The Education Secretary is required in state law to ensure that public schools comply with the law. There is no such provision for AIS’s.
  • Public schools must follow public-records and open-meetings laws, ensuring a measure of transparency and accountability. The AIS’s do not.
  • Educational quality standards are much looser for AIS’s than for public schools.
  • Public schoolteachers must be licensed by the state. Not so for AIS’s.

There’s more, but that gives you the general idea that the indies can cut lots and lots of corners, and are less accountable for how they spend Education Fund money.

Now we get to Hoffer’s second report, which reveals that the AIS’s are taking a larger and larger share of K-12 dollars. Details after the jump.

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Bennington Still Pooping the Bed on Racial Equity

Ah, Bennington. Gateway to southern Vermont. Scrappy little town with loads of history. A downtown worth an afternoon’s ramble. The Blue Benn Diner. Bakkerij Krijnen.

And a police department that may be the most racist in Vermont.

And a town government that steadfastly, blindly supports its racist police.

This time, the cops and the town have literally chased an interracial couple out of town. And the couple, with the help of the Vermont ACLU, has filed a complaint with the state Human Rights Commission.

Will this get Bennington’s attention? Eh, probably not. After all, the town has continued to support its police department after a Black man was railroaded to prison only to have his conviction overturned, having the cops’ racist approach to traffic enforcement documented by a UVM researcher, and seeing a consultant hired by the town describe a “warrior mentality” in the BPD that had “sown deep mistrust” between community and cops.

The details of the latest case, as reported by Seven Days’ Derek Brouwer, are grim.

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Postscript: A Brief Note on Hypocrisy

In my previous post, I wrote about the series of Covid-triggered political windfalls enjoyed by Gov. Phil Scott. There’s one point I made in passing that deserves a bit more consideration.

The governor is dead set against raising revenue or increasing the size of state government, but he’s perfectly happy to take whatever the feds will give him.

Yeah, the governor is a fiscal hypocrite. He hasn’t raised an eyebrow over the federal government’s rampant deficit spending. And he is benefiting mightily from the ongoing tsunami of Biden Bucks.

And yet he wouldn’t be caught dead raising taxes in Vermont or spending outside his comfort level. He refuses to countenance any increase in the size of state government.

Now, there’s one big structural difference. States can’t deficit spend, and the feds can. But, if only as a fig leaf to cover his tacit opportunism, he might want to express the merest hint of concern over the fact that Covid relief and Biden’s infrastructure plan are classic examples of Keynesian economics — spending our way out of trouble with no concern for long-term fiscal ramifications.

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It’s Amazing What You Can Do With a Billion Dollars

In purely political terms, the Covid pandemic is the best thing that’s ever happened to Gov. Phil Scott. He got to be seen as a decisive leader simply by outperforming the likes of Donald Trump. Throughout the 2020 campaign, he enjoyed a twice-weekly platform on live statewide television and radio. He absolutely dominated every news cycle, and walked to victory in something bigger than a landslide.

And now, state government is swimming in federal relief cash — with more likely on the way. Trump’s CARES Act provided the equivalent of 20 percent of Vermont’s GDP. President Biden’s American Rescue Plan Act is pumping in even more. And if Biden gets his infrastructure bill through, Vermont will get a third massive infusion in less than two years’ time.

The CARES Act alone floated Vermont through 2020 “in aggregate,” as state economist Jeffrey Carr put it. There was pain aplenty, to be sure. But there were winners as well, and the impact was greatly softened by the federal government’s ability (and willingness) to deficit spend. The governor is dead set against raising revenue or increasing the size of state government, but he’s perfectly happy to take whatever the feds will give him.

On Tuesday, Scott unveiled his billion-dollar plan to use a big chunk of the federal ARPA money. It includes just about everything on everybody’s wish list, and provides a huge boost to state initiatives that Scott insisted we couldn’t afford on our own. And the money will be spent over the next four years, which will make it extremely difficult to run against Scott in the next two cycles.

So, hooray for the pandemic!

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Ashes, Ashes, We All Fall Up

So, only nine months after losing the Democratic primary for lieutenant governor in spectacular fashion, former Senate President Pro Tem Tim Ashe has landed a new gig. He’ll be Doug Hoffer’s deputy state auditor.

I’ve had more than my share of fun at Ashe’s expense (including the irresistible headline above), but I have to say this job is a perfect fit all around. Ashe is good at finances and numbers, and he knows state government as thoroughly as anyone.

And it provides a side-door re-entry into statewide politics, something that seemed unlikely to happen so quickly after he got his ass handed to him in the primary.

OK, I’ll stop mentioning the primary now.

The first thought that crossed my mind is that maybe, after several years of rumors, Hoffer is actually planning to retire next year and he wanted to give his fellow Progressive/Democrat the inside track to succeed him. It makes all the sense in the world, assuming that Hoffer is thinking politically. As he basically never does, so grain of salt and all that.

Another political thought: Ashe might lend a little more Statehouse heft to the auditor’s office. Hoffer has had a hard time getting the Legislature to take him seriously. In my experience, every time Hoffer testifies before a legislative committee, they politely thank him and then ignore what he had to say. Ashe might help, at least in the Senate. He has many friends in Vermont’s most self-regarding deliberative body, especially among the senior Senators who occupy virtually all the committee chairships.

This hire is also good news for the Progressive Party, which saw its two real contenders for statewide office lose badly last year (Ashe and Dave Zuckerman). Ashe now has the opportunity to re-establish himself in Montpelier, and blaze a trail to a second bid for statewide office.

And a reminder: Although it seems like he’s been around for almost ever, Ashe is still only 44 years old. Time is on his side.

But even if you leave politics aside, it’s a good fit for Hoffer, for Ashe, and for the office of auditor. Kudos all around.

Another BLM Brouhaha, This Time in Essex

Hey, remember when a couple of QAnon-ish Trumpers ran for Barre City Council because they were upset over the flying of the “Black Lives Matter” flag? Well, we got us another BLM hater.

Meet Liz Cady, candidate for Essex Westford School Board (election 4/13). Her brand of fringe politics is more subtle than the Barre Boys, but it’s pretty out there. Since the Essex Reporter’s bland ‘n boring candidate profile didn’t dig into her anti-BLM advocacy, it falls to this here blog to fill the gap.

Cady is running against two-term incumbent Liz Subin. And if you carefully read the above campaign mailer, you’ll see quite a few plausibly deniable conservative dog whistles. But let’s get to a couple of telling details first.

Cady doesn’t say so on the flyer, but both of her children are in private school. She tries to elide this inconvenient fact on the flip side of her mailer, which starts “Like all parents, I want my two school-age children to receive the best education possible.”

She’s a district resident and (presumably) a taxpayer, so there’s nothing wrong with her running for school board. But if I were a district voter, I’d think twice about electing someone who has pulled her kids out of the schools.

But the bigger deal is her antipathy toward Black Lives Matter. Last year, after more than 100 students signed a petition to fly the BLM flag, the school board voted to do so. Last September, Cady spoke to the school board during public comment time and unleashed an often ungrammatical screed that, I am not kidding, called BLM a carbon copy of the Nazi movement. (Meeting is archived online; her comments start at about the 18:50 mark.)

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Why the Sudden Reticence, Madame Treasurer?

This kinda got lost in the wake of Speaker Jill Krowinski’s retreat on pension reform, but Treasurer Beth Pearce has taken a curious stand on fund management. She seems dead set against a legislative review of the pension funds’ track record.

Normally she’s a fiscal bloodhound, whenever shy about exploring any and all financial issues to the last decimal point and sounding the alarm when she sees fit. But not this one time.

As a reminder, the state treasurer occupies one of seven seats on the Vermont Pension Investment Committee, which makes the investment decisions.

I’d been wondering how the pensions underperformed badly during a historically long bull market. I mean, couldn’t a roomful of monkeys with Bloomberg terminals make money on Wall Street these days? Now, Seven Days’ Kevin McCallum has put numbers to my feeling.

Over the last decade, the S&P 500, a benchmark for the U.S. stock market, enjoyed an average annual return of 13.6 percent. Over that same period, Vermont’s public pension funds earned an average of just 7.2 percent a year from its investments.

That’s not an entirely fair comparison, as McCallum pointed out, since pension funds can’t take chances with their investments. But then he compared Vermont’s funds to other similarly sized public pension funds, and found that Vermont ranked 69th out of 100. Not exactly sterling.

Members of the House Government Operations Committee, who risked political suicide by exploring Krowinski’s reform plan, aren’t happy with the funds’ performance. Committee vice chair John Gannon, who has financial credentials to rival Pearce’s*, called the funds’ performance “horrendous.” Yikes.

*Eleven years at the Securities and Exchange Commission and several at the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority.

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The Speaker Runs for Cover

Well, that didn’t take long.

After steadfastly insisting that Vermont’s public sector pension plans urgently needed an immediate overhaul, House Speaker Jill Krowinski sounded the retreat Friday morning.

It stands to reason, considering the intense backlash her plan received since it was kinda-sorta unveiled on March 24. (Only nine days ago!) Krowinski has now fallen back on the lawmaker’s favorite way to defer tough decisions: a task force.

I guess the situation somehow got a lot less critical.

She deserves credit for gracefully abandoning an unsustainable position. But how did she not see this coming?

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