Author Archives: John S. Walters

About John S. Walters

Writer, editor, sometime radio personality, author of "Roads Less Traveled: Visionary New England Lives."

The Autumn of Phil’s Discontent

Is this the worst moment in Gov. Phil Scott’s nearly five years in office? I’d have to say yes. Now, there haven’t been that many bad moments. Maybe the time he vetoed not one but two state budgets and nearly triggered a government shutdown. But that turned out to be a blip on the radar.

This? This could be the first time he suffers real political damage. He’s taking simultaneous hits on three fronts: The continuing Covid surge, his administration’s erratic Covid policy in the schools, and yet another retreat on the emergency housing program. In all three cases, he looks less like a compassionate moderate and more like a stubborn conservative.

I’m not saying he’s vulnerable in 2022. He isn’t yet, but the bloom is coming off the rose.

He’s had to abandon his optimism on the Delta variant and admit he doesn’t know what’s happening. Our seven-day rolling average of new cases is still near record highs, and hospitalizations, deaths, and test positivity rate are all distressingly high. Still, Scott continues to signal no change in policy. The longer he does so, the more embarrassing his inevitable comedown will be. Unless he gets lucky and the Delta variant goes away.

The school situation is not getting better anytime soon. The “test to stay” program is still being rolled out more than six weeks into the school year. The administration has touted the program’s success in Massachusetts, but there’s a big difference. In Massachusetts, the program was implemented in late July. There was time for planning and adjustment before the doors opened to students. Up here, Education Secretary Dan French is like an auto mechanic working on a car while it’s being driven.

Actually, since he hasn’t offered any resources to schools, it’s more like he’s in the passenger seat telling the driver to work on the engine while the car is in motion.

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The Ignorables (Updated with notice of two Legislative hearings)

When last we met, I castigated Gov. Phil Scott for his needlessly cruel posture on the emergency housing program, which he insists on shutting down next Friday when it won’t save the state a damn dime.

This time I’d like to widen the frame, and point out that there ain’t nobody making a public stink about this craven retreat from basic humanity. Well, that’s not entirely true; some people, including tireless advocate and two-time statewide candidate Brenda Siegel, have been banging the drum. Otherwise…

Media? An occasional story on VTDigger, and that’s about it. No questions on the subject at Scott’s Tuesday presser.

Legislative leadership? I haven’t heard a peep*. Maybe that’s because they agreed to the original plan to kill the program last spring, so they feel an uneasy sense of complicity. Or maybe it’s because the unhoused aren’t a core constituency.

Update: Two legislative commitees are holding hearings on the program next week. House General Etc. is on Monday morning at 9:00, Statehouse Room 11 or streamed online. The Legislative Committee on Administrative Rules will meet next Thursday at 10:00 in Statehouse Room 24 and streamed online. Hopefully these hearings will prompt some kind of action, and produce some media attention to the issue.

Vermont Democratic Party? Not as far as I can tell. Nothing on its website. The VDP has issued a measly three press releases (according to my inbox) in the last month-plus, and emergency housing was not mentioned at all.

Vermont Progressive Party? You’d think so, but (again, as far as I can tell and I’m open to correction*) no. No press releases, no public statements.

*Correction: I’ve learned that the Progressive Party issued a press release in favor of continuing the emergency housing program in July, when it was first scheduled to end. Since then, Prog lawmakers have continued to speak out in support of the program.

Why the silence? Because we treat the unhoused as if they’re a separate and inferior species, living among us but not really of us. They are The Ignorables.

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A Heartless Policy in Search of a Rationale

The Phil Scott Memorial Emergency Housing Unit

We are, once again, approaching a deadline to kick hundreds of unhoused people out of their temporary lodgings in hopes that they will (a) find permanent housing in a terribly tight rental market or (b) just go away, please. As of next Friday 10/22, more than 500 households are set to lose their housing. The original deadline was in June, and more than half of those housed in motels were kicked out at that time. State officials agreed to extend it for the neediest clients to September. Then, just before it was to expire, Gov. Phil Scott allowed a 30-day “pause” in terminating the program. He didn’t want to label it an extension because that might seem, I don’t know, too capitulative?

Now we’re waiting to see if another extens — sorry, pause — might be in the works. Meanwhile, anxiety levels must be going through the roof for those hundreds of clients.

But hey, don’t worry; pretty soon they won’t have a roof for their anxiety to go through. See, it all works out.

This is bad and heartless enough. (There’s also an element of blackmail, but more on that later.) But what makes it a moral calamity is that there is no goddamn reason to end this program right now. It’s not costing the state a dime because the feds are paying the freight through the end of this year. Plus, Vermont is swimming in federal Covid relief funds so there’s no excuse for kicking people out onto the street. Or campground, since that’s one resource being offered to the dispossessed.

Remind me again how the governor is devoted to protecting the most vulnerable. Or is that nothing but eyewash?

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Scott to Vermont: ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

After weeks of staunchly denying that there was a monster in the attic, the tactic is finally becoming untenable. The pounding, stomping and grunting is just too loud to ignore. So now we’ve switched to “Yes, there’s a monster and we don’t know what his intentions are, but we think it will go away on its own. No need to do anything.”

Yeah, the Scott administration’s carefully posed optimism was on short supply in the latest gubernatorial Covid briefing. After several days of case counts between 200 and 300, a rising test positivity rate, dozens of hospitalizations and a high death count, Gov. Phil Scott and his top officials have retreated from their Happy Place.

Still, despite the bad numbers and failed projections, he still insists that there’s no need for any additional action. It’s all about the vaccine, baby. Get your shots and you’ll be fine.

Well, maybe. At least you’ll be less likely to end up in a hospital or a grave.

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Dan French, Purposeful Cipher

Education Secretary Dan French is not the most inspiring sort of leader. If anything, he’s kind of just there. His facial expression and vocal affect are persistently flat. He tends to say nothing with a maximum amount of verbal camouflage. When he’s reading a prepared statement, his eyes rarely stray from the page. And when they do stray, it’s a brief upward glance and then right back down.

Which probably makes him the perfect education secretary for Gov. Phil Scott, who’s also fond of laying down large swaths of verbal camouflage and, well, doesn’t seem to care that much about the public schools except they should somehow operate more cheaply.

In the past couple weeks, French’s persona has not served him well in the public sphere. Although again, his boss is probably just fine with his performance.

At the October 5 Covid briefing, French mentioned in passing that he’d made a visit to the Canaan school district the previous day. It only occurred to me later that (a) Canaan is the only district in Vermont without a mask mandate and (b) Canaan is French’s old stomping grounds. It was there he rose from teacher to superintendent before moving on to bigger things.

That Canaan meeting was apparently not recorded. Or if it was, the recording has not been made available. That’s a shame, because I’d really like to know what he said about the advisability of masking.

Especially since, as someone who viewed the meeting told me, French did not wear a mask himself.

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The GlobalFoundries Deal Is Bad, But Maybe Not Quite Terrible

Had a polite conversation (well, it was testy at first) with someone in the Scott administration who’s involved in the talks with GlobalFoundries over its desire to create its own utility exempt from laws and regulations that apply to all other utilities. As a reminder, the Scott administration and GF have signed a Letter of Intent en route to a formal agreement that would allow GF to have its way.

I came away from the chat with a bit more perspective, but my fundamental belief remains: This is a case of government bowing to the demands of an employer that’s too big to deny.

I’m not naming the official because our chat was off the record, and also because this post reflects my own view of the situation and not theirs.

First, a significant correction. I wrote that the Global Warming Solutions Act set a greenhouse gas emission baseline of 1990 while the LOI uses 2005, when emissions were at their peak. In fact, the GWSA also uses 2005 as its baseline for the 2025 target. 1990 applies for other, later targets.

So in the LOI, GF is agreeing to abide by the 2025 emissions target in the Global Warming Solutions Act. But three things are still true: First, GF’s current emissions are only a tick higher than the 2025 target so the company won’t have to do much at all. Second, the letter is riddled with exceptions and exemptions that would allow GF to exceed the target. Third, the LOI would allow GF to exceed its target under a variety of circumstances.

But there is one line in the LOI that leaves the door open for further state action.

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That GlobalFoundries Deal is All Kinds of Terrible

Working on the Memorandum of Understanding (Not Exactly As Illustrated)

A few days ago, I wrote about GlobalFoundries’ bid to break away from Green Mountain Power and establish its own boutique utility. Well, it’s far worse than I thought. I’ve gotten a look at the Letter of Intent between GF and the Scott administration — no scoops, it’s a public document — and maaaaan, is it bad. Like, historically, unprecedentedly bad.

I won’t say the administration is acting as GF’s procurer, but I will say it’s told Vermont to put on a sequined microskirt and show the corporation a good time.

Really, I’m kinda shocked that there’s been no media coverage of this. It’s definitely newsworthy. Utility regulation is one of those boring, complicated matters chock full of legalese that tends to scare away reporters and editors. And readers, for that matter.

But compared to the usual thickets of legal and regulatory matters, this is an easy story to tell. It’s a story of a government bowing and scraping before a big business, sacrificing principle and sound policy in the process.

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Sh*t My Governor Says

The topline of yesterday’s Covid presser was all about the schools. Id est, how the Scott administration is imposing policies and expectations on the schools but refusing to lift a finger to help them handle the additional workload.

But there were several other statements we shouldn’t allow to pass unmocked. So here’s a sampler, a Children’s Treasury if you will, of dumb stuff said by the governor plus a couple of entries from Finance Commissioner and Number Cruncher Extraordinaire Michael Pieciak.

We’ll start with Scott playing pure politics, something he likes to accuse other people of doing. As he continues to resist calls for tighter anti-Covid measures, he was asked what he’d do if the Legislature passed such measures and sent them to his desk.

“I don’t think it’s necessary,” he said. “If they want to come back into session and they want to introduce a mask mandate, they want to limit travel, they want to shut down bars and restaurants, they want to limit gatherings, they want to cancel Christmas, I mean, that’s up to them.”

The deliberate exaggeration of opposing views is classic passive-aggressive Phil Scott. But cancel Christmas? When did the governor start watching Fox News?

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Gov Sends Thoughts, Prayers to Public Schools

“It’s unfortunate, the number of deaths,” he said. Yes, he did.

If the Scott administration were devising a pandemic strategy meant to put maximum pressure on our schools, it couldn’t do much better than this. At his weekly Covid presser, Gov. Phil Scott made it clear that he expects school officials to do everything they can to keep kids in the classroom, but they’re on their own for staffing an ever-evolving, incomplete regimen of Covid testing.

Other than that, Mrs. Lincoln, how was the play?

After brief statements from Scott and others, including the customary parade of carefully curated statistics from Finance Commissioner and CovidMeister Michael Pieciak, Education Secretary Dan French took to the podium and made it clear that the administration expected school systems to “maximize in-person learning” by any means necessary. His latest brainfart, “test to stay,” is a regimen of testing done at the beginning of the school day. Students who test negative can stay in class.

This policy, which is still being rolled out more than a month into the school year, puts the onus on school staff to conduct quick tests first thing in the morning. As for how the understaffed and overstressed schools should handle the additional work, French said, “I expect schools will add staff or reassign existing staff.”

But don’t think the state will kick in a single damn dime to cover the cost. French helpfully suggested that the schools use federal Covid relief funds to pay the freight. “Funding shouldn’t be the problem,” he said. I wonder how many districts have gobs of uncommitted federal dollars sloshing around right now.

But wait, it gets worse!

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We’ve Got an Overflow in the Moral Sewer of Vermont Politics

Something stinks around here, and it looks like the Powers That Be are scrambling to keep anyone from identifying the source of the stench.

For those just tuning in, tonight’s VTDigger brings us the happy tidings of an agreement between federal prosecutors and Bill Stenger, one of the defendants in the EB-5 fraud case. The two sides have agreed on what evidence will be presented in Stenger’s case… and in exchange, Stenger’s lawyers won’t force a whole bunch of well-connected Vermonters to testify under oath.

See, Stenger’s defense had argued that state officials knew about the fraud long before it was publicly revealed and did nothing to stop it. Given the contents of a recent document dump, it’s clear that Team Shumlin knew a great deal and did their best to keep it under the rug. So their appearances under oath would have been at least embarrassing and perhaps incriminating.

The Vermonters in question include former governor Peter Shumlin and at least five top officials in his administration. They would have taken the stand next week, so this deal is a last-minute reprieve for these worthies. And yet another roadblock in the path of public disclosure. This fraud goes back at least a decade, and we’ve still only seen the faint outlines of official complicity.

Imagine, just for shits and giggles, Shumlin takes the stand and his testimony is at odds with the evidentiary record. Or he ducks the questions and pleads the Fifth. Not a good look, that.

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