Author Archives: John S. Walters

About John S. Walters

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

Act Like Nothing’s Wrong

@VTGOP, Exactly As Illustrated

You have to feel a little bit sorry for Deb Billado, chair of the Vermont Republican Party. She’s been working hard for three years now, trying to build a functioning machine out of spare parts and duct tape. But her Trumpian worldview makes her an ineffective advocate for the kind of fiscally conservative, socially moderate organization the VTGOP needs to be.

Now it’s all coming apart, thanks to the January 6 insurrection triggered by President Trump. While Republican Gov. Phil Scott came right out with a call for Trump’s removal from office, Billado issued a statement condemning the violence but didn’t mentioning the President at all.

On Tuesday, Billado issued another statement, this one urging people not to take part in a January 17 Statehouse rally in support of Trump. She began, oddly, with this:

It has come to my attention through various vague media reports that there is a rumor of some kind of protest planned at the capitol building in Montpelier this weekend.

Exsqueeze me?

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Panel Recommends Complete Overhaul of State Tax System Yada Yada Yada

Best: Durfee, meh background but great lighting, sharp business apparel. Worst: Tie between The Invisible Mattos and Breakfastin’ Jim Masland.

A major study of Vermont’s entire tax system, two years in the making, had its debut Friday morning before the House Ways & Means Committee. The panel recommended wide-ranging reforms, each of which would be a very heavy political lift. These include shifting education funding from property tax to income tax, eliminating virtually all exclusions from the state sales tax (which would mean a lowering of the tax rate), imposing an annual registration fee on electric vehicles to replace lost gas-tax revenue in the coming transition to electric transportation, and replacement of the Telephone Personal Property Tax with a comprehensive levy on all telecommunications.

The Tax Structure Commission’s report was labeled a “draft.” It wasn’t made clear how much work remains, and how many changes might be made, before a “final” report is released. (The report can be accessed through the Ways & Means website.)

Commission member Deb Brighton began with a cheery reminder of the typical fate of tax-reform panels. “Every five years or so, the Legislature decides it wants a fresh, hard look at taxation,” she noted. Left unsaid was the fact that these reports are usually consigned to a dusty shelf, because real tax reform means a whole lot of sacred cows get whacked. In light of this SIsyphean history, one can easily conclude that this report is also destined for the dustbin of history.

The most recent tax panel, the Blue Ribbon Tax Structure Commission, delivered its report in 2011. Many of the TSc’s bullet points are strikingly similar to the BRTSC’s. The earlier panel’s fate was partly a matter of realpolitik, but each commission, coincidentally, faces competition from a natural disaster. The Blue Ribbon report was issued less than eight months before Tropical Storm Irene devastated Vermont. The new report, need I say, comes in the middle of a pandemic and resultant economic devastation.

Any tax reform is a complicated, time-consuming process. When it has to compete with a natural disaster, it has almost no chance of getting through. Not that this report is doomed. Just that I’m not sanguine about its chances, even though reform is badly needed.

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For the Women’s Prison, a long slog to respectability

Best room: Karen Dolan, effecrtive minimalist backdrop and good facial lighting. Worst: Tie between Marcia Martel and Linda Joy Sullivan. Bad lighting, odd backdrop, and up-the-nostril camera positioning.

The House committee that oversees the state prison system got its first look today at a devastating report on the Chittenden Regional Correctional Facility, a.k.a. the state women’s prison.

The report by the law firm Downs, Rachlin and Martin was commissioned following a December 2019 investigative piece by Paul Heintz, then working for Seven Days. It unveiled widespread sexual misconduct and drug use between prison staff and inmates. Indeed, at today’s hearing, Acting Corrections Commissioner James Baker credited the Seven Days expose for bringing the issues to light.

The DRM report, released in December, confirmed the substance of Heintz’ story. Today, DRM presented the report to the House Corrections & Institutions Committee. All parties expressed a resolve to fix the problems at the prison, but emphasized that it’s going to take time — and to some degree, progress depend on state investment in personnel, training and facilities, at a time when money is extremely tight in Montpelier.

Jen McDonald, a partner at DRM, said misconduct has occurred “to a significcant degree” in recent years; that many incidents are never reported through DOC channels because of “a belief of inaction” on inmate allegations (indeed, DRM staff uncovered many alleged incidents of misconduct that were never officially reported); and that training on sexual harassment is not mandatory — something that came as an unpleasant surprise to McDonald. She also told lawmakers that she was shocked at the antiquated, unsanitary conditions in CRCF, which were not within the scope of DRM’s work.

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Ex-Politician Undertakes Research Project; Media Outlet Swoons

Olsen’s treasure trove. (Not Exactly As Illustrated)

Last week, VTDigger posted a curiously lopsided story that trumpeted the intention of former state lawmaker Oliver Olsen to “audit the auditor.”

That would be state auditor Doug Hoffer, who seems to have gotten deeply under Olsen’s skin. The Digger piece went on and on about Olsen’s dim view of Hoffer’s work, cited the views of lawmakers with similar misgivings, and… um… barely quoted Hoffer at all. Nor did it include comments from the many lawmakers who have think highly of Hoffer. It kind of reads like a hit job.

There are two quotations from Hoffer, both apparently taken from emails. In fact, I asked Hoffer if he’d been interviewed by the reporter. “We had no phone conversations at all,” he said. “I had no chance to respond to the allegations [by Olsen].”

Well, that’s Journalism 101, isn’t it? A former editor of mine used to hammer repeatedly on the obligation of reporters to talk to everyone mentioned in a story. That doesn’t seem to be the standard at Digger.

So the article was a little malpractice-y. What about the substance?

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State Officials Play Hot Potato With Militia Training Ground

Okay, this is a disgrace.

VPR’s Peter Hirschfeld and Nina Keck have produced a whopper of a story that, among other things, outlines the state’s complete abdication of responsibility for investigating the Slate Ridge tactical shooting range and militia training facility in West Pawlet.

VTDigger first broke the story in November, detailing how many residents live in fear of Slate Ridge and its owner, Daniel Banyai. Digger also reported that concerned residents have tried repeatedly and failed to get any kind of enforcement or investigation of Slate Ridge or Banyai, despite his threatening behavior and criminal record.

The VPR story exposes quite a bit of new ground. The most egregious revelation: State authorities have played an energetic game of pass-the-buck regarding Slate Ridge, with the result that there is no investigation at all currently in progress. This, despite the fact that Banyai is openly flouting Act 250 rules. That’s pretty cut-and-dried, right? It shouldn’t be hard to get him on that.

Well, never underestimate the creativity of bureaucrats in avoiding a difficult task.

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Is the VTGOP About to Break Apart?

He’s definitely up to something.

The Vermont Republican Party is a dysfunctional mess. For pretty much as long as I’ve been writing about #vtpoli — 10th anniversary coming up this year — the party has struggled in fundraising, organizing, candidate recruitment, and choosing an ideological lane. There’s been tension between its elected officials, who recognize that they have to appeal to the center in order to win, and the party faithful, who are profoundly conservative.

During the Trump years, that split has gotten wider. Gov. Phil Scott has essentially divorced himself from the party since November 2017, when he backed Mike “Not The Reporter” Donohue for party chair, only to see incumbent Deb Billado narrowly re-elected by the state committee. (Donohue is pretty conservative but he’s a realist, not a fanatic.) The party hierarchy is now full of Trump true believers, including Billado, vice chair Deb Bucknam (last seen filing a nutty lawsuit over Gov. Scott’s Covid-19 policies), and the two national committee members, Jay Shepard and Suzanne Butterfield.

Well, now the VTGOP’s split is going public. Rep. Scott Beck of St. Johnsbury is calling for the resignation of party officials who refuse to advocate for Trump’s removal from office, and he’s gathering support among Republican electeds.

“I have had some pointed comments at VTGOP leadership, and I have said to them, ‘If you cannot cross these bridges, I think it’s time for you to move on,’” Beck told Seven Days on Tuesday.

Sen. Corey Parent and Rep. Anne Donahue have joined the call for Billado to resign, after she issued a mealy-mouthed condemnation of the January 6 Capitol riot that didn’t mention Trump at all.

Beck et al. are clearly right about this; the current VTGOP is doomed to permanent minority status. But if they’re serious, it’s going to be a long, hard struggle. Things would get a lot worse before they start getting better, and “getting better” is not a sure bet. Because if they succeed in dislodging the hard-core Trumpers, there will hardly be anything left.

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Gov Tells Steve From the Kingdom, “Talk to the Hand”

The governor reacts to Guy Page as if he’d just bitten into a lemon.

One of the features/bugs of Gov. Phil Scott’s twice-weekly Covid-19 briefings is that a lot of reporters beyond The Usual Suspects get to participate. Sometimes this is a good thing; scribes from Vermont’s many local weeklies often ask solid questions.

And then there’s Steve Merrill aka “Steve from the Kingdom” and Guy Page, two hard-core right-wingers known for asking irrelevant questions that go nowhere.

Well, today they outdid themselves. Page brought a QAnon-inspired question to the party, and Merrill tried to provoke an argument with Scott. (Page and Merrill appeared back-to-back near the end of the briefing; Page begins around the 1 hour, 46 minute mark of the video, viewable at the above link.)

For those unfamiliar with the weedier patches of the Vermont media ecosystem, Page is a longtime fixture around the Statehouse and a genuinely nice guy. He used to lobby for nuclear power; now he’s kind of a one-man band of right-wing partisan journalism. He operates a couple of websites and, during legislative sessions, he produces an occasional newsletter.

Merrill is the volunteer host of a little-known and seldom-viewed talk show on NEK-TV, the Kingdom’s community access service. Which is enough to get them on the briefing list.

What follows is their “contribution” to today’s briefing.

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Meet the New Senate, Distressingly Similar to the Old Senate

One of the younger members of the Vermont Senate (Not Exactly As Illustrated)

Well, it looked like the Vermont Senate (a.k.a. The State’s Most Sclerotic Deliberative Body) was in for something of a makeover. New leadership! All female! Two new members on the three-person Committee on Committees! An Actual PERSON OF COLOR!!!

But an irresistible undertow drags the Senate, like boats against the current, back ceaselessly into the past. (Finally, that liberal arts degree is paying off.)

Because the 2021-22 version of the Senate looks a lot like the 2019-20 edition. Lots of old folks in positions of authority, and the weight of tradition hanging like an iron albatross around its neck. Except that in some ways, it might be even worse.

It’s not the most promising of debuts for new President Pro Tem Becca Balint. But in her defense, this is far from your typical legislative year. The pandemic has forced the Legislature to meet remotely, which puts a damper on everything — and emphasizes the value of experience in committee leadership.

(Reminder: Each Senator serves on two committees.)

Still. Out of 14 standing committees, there’s a new chair on precisely one. And that one, former Education Committee chair Phil Baruth, (1) voluntarily vacated the post and (2) was, hard to believe, the youngest committee chair in the Senate. He turns 59 next month.

Last time I checked, the average Senate committee chair was 72 years old. Baruth’s successor Brian Campion brings down the average just a bit — although everybody else is another year older. It’s probably a wash.

There are some new, and younger, vice chairs. That would seem to indicate that some of our most senior Senators may be moving toward the exit in 2022. Relatively junior Senators Ruth Hardy, Andrew Perchlik and Cheryl Hooker are now vice chair of Health and Welfare, Transportation and Education respectively. And Baruth, vice chair of Judiciary, remains on the younger side of the demographic.

But that’s where the youth movement ends in committee leadership. Other vice chairs include longtime Social Security recipients Alice Nitka (Appropriations), Mark MacDonald (Finance),, Anthony Pollina (Government Operations), Dick McCormack (Institutions) and Dick Mazza (Rules).

This is, I write with a heavy sigh, business as usual. On top of all that, there are a few puzzling things about the new committee lineup.

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Down the Rabbit Hole With Our Lady of the CovidCruiser

Meet Ellie Martin, dedicated Trumper, devout pro-lifer, resident of Underhill, organizer of the CovidCruiser bus that carried 51 Vermonters to the Trump-inspired riot of January 6. Has a passing acquaintance with grammar and spelling. She posted the above message on her Facebook page the day after the Capitol riot.

I’m sure Ellie is a nice person in non-political life. I’ve known people like her, and they’d greet you warmly, be sincerely interested in your problems, bake you a casserole or sincerely offer to pray for you.

But in politics, she’s a nutball inflamed by Trump and far-right media — and by whatever totalitarian impulse lies hidden in many a Christian heart. And if you think “totalitarian” is a stretch, how about this:

That’s the stuff! You think we’re exaggerating the motives of the Capitol storm troopers? You think VTDigger was a little permissive with its article referring to “a friendly mob” and freely quoting from CovidCruiser participants without much of a pushback?

Look, there are always a few crazies willing to believe anything and prepare for The Final Battle. What’s really dangerous is when the “nice people” like Ellie Martin start believing trash like this.

That’s right. Donald Trump, habitual liar, racist, thrice-married cheater, con man, is God’s representative on Earth. Because Jesus just couldn’t cut it with all that “love they neighbor” and “blessed are the poor” weaksauce.

After the jump: More goodies from Ms. Martin’s Facebook page.

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Dr. Levine Susan Collinses the CovidCruiser

Friday’s Scott-free* Covid briefing featured multiple questions about the CovidCruiser, which took a busload of Vermonters down to Washington for Wednesday’s pro-Trump rally turned riot. And the answers revealed a surprisingly laissez-faire attitude toward the dozens of participants who were clearly shown violating public health guidelines. During a 10-hour one-way trip in an enclosed space, which seemed ideal for superspreading.

*The governor was not present. His absence had been planned for days; it was not an attempt to duck questions about the Trump-encouraged D.C. riots.

Essentially, the state wagged its finger at the travelers.

Health commissioner Dr. Mark Levine labeled the trip as “a high risk enterprise,” and said the state issued very clear guidance on testing, mask wearing, social distancing and quarantining requirements upon returning to Vermont. But, he added, “we don’t really have the regulatory power to enforce somebody being quarantined when they are not yet a [Covid-19] case… But we’ve been very strong with the information about quarantining and testing.”

He didn’t specifically say he was concerned or disappointed, but he was obviously following the Susan Collins approach to non-ideal developments.

Public Safety Commissioner Michael Schirling was asked if the state had obtained a list of travelers, for purposes of communication and possible contact tracing. “We do not have a comprehensive list of the folks that were on the bus,” he replied. He said the state had no intention to get such a list. He added that the state did contact the bus company, which “graciously agreed to make an announcement to all of the folks that were on the bus to reinforce the quarantine guidelines.”

In all, a remarkably passive response to a clear superspreader threat. I mean, you’ve got a busload of people who were clearly shown on video riding in close proximity with nary a mask in sight. I’d think that would warrant a more robust response. Not mandatory quarantining, but getting that list and closely following the occupants for signs of illness. And something more than a mere suggestion to get tested.

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