Monthly Archives: March 2022

#MeToo Made Barely a Dent in the Statehouse

I hate to say it, but as far as the Vermont Statehouse is concerned, #MeToo kind of was a fad. At the time, there was talk of serious changes; but in the end, the dynamic is essentially unchanged. From the viewpoint of those enduring harassment, the process is entirely in the hands of lawmakers, there is far more opacity than transparency, and as a result, the process is gathering dust and cobwebs ’cause ain’t nobody using it.

That means one of two things: Sexual harassment is a thing of the past, or the process inspires so little faith that nobody dares to use it. From informal conversations, I can tell you it’s the latter.

This issue hit the front burner thanks to a November 2017 article written by the great Alicia Freese, published about six weeks after the Harvey Weinstein case went nuclear. Freese got female Statehouse staffers and lobbyists to talk about their bad experiences — without names attached due to fear of reprisals. The conclusion: Sexual harassment was simply part of the atmosphere, something they had to be prepared for every day. The incidents ranged from inappropriate comments to propositions to actual assaults.

Afterward, legislative leaders asked the Office of Legislative Counsel (then spelled “Council”) to review Statehouse sexual harassment policy. A month later, Leg Counsel “flagged a dozen significant concerns,” according to a follow-up story by Freese. Chief among the concerns: The panels were made up entirely of lawmakers who might be seen as unfair judges of their own colleagues; complainants were told to confront their (alleged) abuser before filing a formal complaint, which is all kinds of awful; the accused lawmaker had more say in how the case was adjudicated than the complainant; and there was absolutely no transparency to the process.

In the wake of the Leg Counsel memo, then-House speaker Mitzi Johnson promised to institute a “gold standard” policy that would serve as a national example of how to prevent sexual harassment.

Indeed, the Legislature did adopt a reformed process — but the result was a real mixed bag. The bullshit about confronting your abuser was deep-sixed and complainants were given somewhat more say in the process, but the panels are still made up entirely of lawmakers and the process is almost entirely shielded from public view.

I wouldn’t call it a gold standard. Pewter, maybe. The proof: The new policy has gone almost entirely unused, while the work environment remains unfriendly to female staff and lobbyists.

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The Study Committee That Never Was

In the past, I have referred to legislative study committees as “the last refuge of legislative delay,” the fallback option when a bill that would actually do something gives lawmakers a raging case of the fantods. The Legislature has an insatiable appetite for creating study committees or task forces or, when they want to look as serious as possible, Blue Ribbon Commissions.

The appointed group then goes out and dutifully performs its task, and reports back to the Legislature — where the findings rarely, if ever, change anybody’s mind. More often than not, the report gets a warm reception followed by a quick trip to a dusty shelf.

There are exceptions; the panel on public sector pension reform did much to move a difficult process forward. But those cases are rare. Usually, formation of a study committee is just another way to kick the can down the road.

But I’ve come across a truly egregious example of a toothless study committee. I found one that seemingly never met, heard testimony, or gathered information, and never filed a report.

I’m talking about the Study Committee on Lobbying Activities of Organizations Receiving State Funds, organized by the state Senate in 2013 after some solons raised concerns with such organizations effectively using taxpayer funds on Statehouse lobbying.

I wrote about this in yesterday’s post exploring two continents on Lobby World. But there’s more to say about what happens when a study committee fails to achieve its purpose.

Which is, apparently, nothing at all.

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A Couple More Continents on the Wide World of Lobbying

When I set out to describe the contours of the Lobby World under the Golden Dome, I knew I’d forget some pieces. Well, here are a couple of biggies — underwritten by you and me, the taxpayers of Vermont: State officials, and agencies that receive state funding, are frequently in the Statehouse lobbying on behalf of their entity.

First and foremost, officials of the Executive Branch. Cabinet secretaries and departmental commissioners spend a lot of time in the Statehouse when the Legislature is in session. This is legitimate when they’re testifying before a committee, but most of their Statehouse activity consists of roaming the halls and the cafeteria, shaking hands and maybe twisting the odd arm. When hospitality professional Al Gobeille was Human Services Secretary, he seemed to be in the Statehouse every day.

And that’s nothing more than taxpayer-subsidized lobbying.

Administration lobbying is, in fact, the most pernicious and effective lobbying of all. Because the Legislature has few resources — if any — for independent information, they are largely dependent on the Executive Branch (and lobbyists) for input. Administration officials cultivate good relationships with lawmakers because it’s beneficial for them and their governor.

This is all a big feedback loop with the infamous “revolving door” between* elective office, officialdom and lobbying proper. Many of the key players have been on one side or the other, sometimes all three, and the relationships carry forward. (And, of course, they habituate the same watering holes and eateries in the evenings.) A long friendship won’t win you the day, but you’re assured of getting a friendly ear if nothing else.

*I know, I know, you can’t say “between” three things. But “among” doesn’t sound right either. What this is is a three-way revolving door, which would best be illustrated by M.C. Escher.

It’d be interesting but impossible — but interesting — to tally up all the hours that top administration officials spend in the Statehouse, assign a very generous executive-level hourly rate to the activity, and find out exactly how much lobbying we are directly paying for.

After the jump… lobbying by agencies that receive state funds… and a Senate study of the issue that maybe possibly never happened.

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The Wide, Wide, Almost Infinitely Wide World of Lobbying

Once in a while, some media outlet will publish a formulaic piece about Statehouse lobbying. It happens when lobbyists and clients are required to report their spending with the Secretary of State’s office. A reporter will pore over the filings, point out the highest-grossing lobbying firms and some big-dollar clients, and get both-sides quotes from (a) those concerned with lobbyist influence and (b) those (mostly lobbyists) who think it’s not a big deal. And that’s it.

Last week, I started looking at the finance reports from the latest deadline, March 15, with an eye toward writing such a roundup. But the more I read, the more I realized that I didn’t know. After spending several days on the subject, I’ve concluded that the actual world of lobbying in Montpelier is just about unknowable. Those finance reports represent one sector of lobbying activity, and probably a small one at that.

Let’s start with a quick quiz. How many individuals are registered as lobbyists with the Vermont Secretary of State?

50?

100?

200?

How about… 604.

Six hundred and four.

Now, if all those people were roaming the Statehouse on the same day, it’d be like that episode of Star Trek with the overpopulated planet that needed Captain Kirk’s germs (transmissible only by a kiss with a beautiful blond) to thin the crowds. Most lobbyists aren’t there every day. Some of them are rarely, or never, there. But that’s the size of the universe we’re talking about.

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PARKING PANIC!!! And the Reactionary Nature of Local TV News

Local TV news does more than its share of ridiculous things, but this one from WPTZ really got my goat. It’s about the modest changes to North Winooski Avenue approved by Burlington City Council Monday night. And it’s called…

Businesses in Burlington’s Old North End unsure of their future as North Winooski Parking Plan is set to happen

AAAAUUGGGHHH Parking Panic!!!!!!!!

The story, such as it was, quoted two — count ’em, two — Old North End business owners worried about the plan’s reduction of 40 parking spaces along the corridor.

This sort of thing is the red meat of local TV news: Raising fears about the unknown.

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When “Opportunistic Investors” Grab a Chunk of Your Town

Is it just me, or is something slightly… off… about the sale of South Burlington’s University Mall to a global investment firm?

On the surface it seems like good news. Taconic Capital Advisors and Eastern Real Estate will buy the Mall for a tidy $60 million, which happens to be $26.2 million north of its assessed value.

Let’s stop there. A big investment fund buying a declining property in a dying industry for nearly double its assessed value?

Things that make you go hmmmm…

Taconic describes its traders as “opportunistic investors” looking for market inefficiencies. That’s usually Wall Street-speak for “we buy low on assets and squeeze every last dollar out of them.” See: Every time an investment firm buys newspapers.

The above chart, courtesy of the investor-information website “WhaleWisdom,” shows a damn high churn rate for Taconic. The different colors represent different market sectors. As you can see, Taconic specializes on diving into market sectors where they see potential profit and getting out just as quickly.

Given that history, it’s a little hard to credit Taconic’s stated intention to “reenergize” the mall and “build on its success.” First of all, long-term stewardship of an asset doesn’t seem to be Taconic’s game. And second, success?

“That does not compute,” said Mr. Spock when asked for comment.

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Performative Lawmaking After All

Hey, remember when Senate President Pro Tem (and Congressional candidate) Becca Balint ended legislative efforts to pass a mask mandate? Because Gov. Phil Scott was certain to veto such a bill, she said pursuing the idea would be nothing but a “performative act.” As if it was a bad thing.

Well, late last week the curtain came down on not one, but two “performative acts” that were allowed to go on into the third month of the session before slinking off the stage. Both measures were co-sponsored by Balint and fellow Congressional candidate Sen. Kesha Ram Hinsdale, among others. But most of the opprobrium falls to Balint for two reasons: She’s the boss, and she’s the one who decried performative lawmaking.

The two doomed bills would have established ranked choice voting in Vermont elections and put limits on qualified immunity for law enforcement personnel.

The RCV bill was introduced with great fanfare — and then got dumped into the circular file. Only a single committee hearing was held, and that didn’t happen until last Friday, the deadline day for bills to clear their committees. Not only were Balint and Ram Hinsdale among the eight co-sponsors, but they both appeared in a VPIRG video ad endorsing RCV with some urgency.

I have to say, if the leader of a legislative body feels that strongly about a bill, it would maybe have gotten more consideration. Unless her stance was more performance than substance, that is.

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Senate Reapportionment, a.k.a. The Incumbency Protection Act of 2022

Random Unrelated Illustration

If there was ever any doubt that the state Senate is a club unto itself, well, a close look at the chamber’s likely reapportionment map will make things perfectly clear.

First, the circumstances: After weeks and weeks of vaguely-defined “discussion,” the committee burped out its map in a 26-minute-long hearing on Thursday. Seriously, before Thursday, the agenda for each of its previous 13 meetings merely said “Committee Discussion.” At least they were open hearings, I guess.

According to VTDigger, the hearing was not warned in advance as required by law, and the map wasn’t made public until after the hearing. A procedural fail to be sure, and a worrying one by a committee chaired by Sen. Jeanette White, who chairs the Senate Government Operations Committee. You know — the one that deals with open meetings and public records laws?

Aside from process flaws, the map itself is problematic in many ways. At virtually every turn, it bows the knee to incumbency — even when doing so is a setback for the Democratic Party. You know, the party that allegedly controls the process?

If this map is enacted, it will be harder for the Democrats to keep their Senate supermajority. It will help Republicans pick up some ground, but maybe not right away; and the new Chittenden County map is the best thing to happen to the Progressive Party since David Zuckerman became lieutenant governor. (It also gives the Republicans a real shot at a Chittenden seat for the first time since Diane Snelling left the chamber.)

The newly created, three-seat Chittenden Central district includes Winooski and part of Burlington. It seems custom-made to give the Progs a real shot at winning all three seats.

Looking at the committee lineup, this may have been a case of Prog/Dem Sen. Chris Pearson pulling one over on sleepy Democrats’ eyes. He was the only member from Chittenden County, which is weird in itself. There were four Dems on the committee: the barely-there Jeanette White, the almost-a-Republican Bobby Starr, everybody’s friend Alison Clarkson, and quiet second-termer Andrew Perchlik. The two Republicans were part-time Vermonter Brian Collamore and the politically savvy Randy Brock. In sheer political terms, Pearson and Brock could run rings around the other five.

And it sure looks like they did just that.

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Dregs of the Ballot: The Essex Brigade

Three seats on the Essex-Westford School Board are up for grabs on April 12, and wouldn’t you know it, there’s a trio of stealth conservative candidates hiding their true agendas behind a thicket of bland rhetoric. It’s the usual stuff: Parental involvement, transparency, focus on basic education, financial responsibility, defusing “tension” and “divisive issues” in the schools.

This stuff is right out of the national conservative playbook: Right-wing candidates running for school board behind the same list of inoffensive ideas.

And concealing their true beliefs and agenda.

As I have before, I will state again: Conservatives have every right to run for any office. But they ought to be transparent about who they are and what they believe. When they hide their true selves, they are subverting the electoral process — and tacitly admitting that they can’t win if they are open about their agenda.

The three hopefuls from Essex and Essex Town all have military backgrounds. Two of them are people of color. Great, a little diversity — but only in heritage, not in platform.

The election is nonpartisan, but the Essex Republican committee has endorsed them and referred to them as “our candidates.” This is the committee that thinks the civic embarrassment Liz Cady is a peachy keen school trustee.

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Big Money in the Democratic LG Race (And Other Campaign Finance Notes)

The big takeaway from the first campaign finance deadline of 2022 (for state candidates only, not federal) is that the Democratic primary for lieutenant governor is going to be a heated affair. All four candidates raised respectable amounts of money, with a couple of them clearly rising to the top.

Disclaimer: Fundraising is not the only measure of a campaign’s health. Organization and grassroots appeal are also key, but it’s very hard to measure those and very simple to read financial filings, So we look for the missing keys under the streetlight where we can see.

Leading the pack is former state Rep. Kitty Toll, widely believed to be the choice of most party regulars. She raised $118,000, which is quite a lot for this early in an LG race. She had 323 separate donors, 227 of them giving less than $100 apiece.

Coming in a sollid second is former LG David Zuckerman, with $92,000. Patricia Preston, head of the Vermont Council on World Affairs, raised $89,000 with a big fat asterisk: $23,000 of her total came from in-kind donations. That’s a very high total, and it means she has far less cash on hand than it appears at first glance. Rep. Charlie Kimbell is a distant fourth with $44,000 raised.

You want deets? We got deets.

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