Author Archives: John S. Walters

About John S. Walters

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

Stumping For the American God

Earlier this week, after Liz Cheney was purged by the House’s minority caucus, Gov. Phil Scott was asked about the sorry state of the national GOP. His response, per WCAX: “It appears as there’s a sign that is being placed in the window saying you need not apply and if you don’t adhere to those values or that litmus test, you are no longer welcome.”

A natural follow-up, which went unasked, would have been “In that case, what about the Vermont Republican Party, whose leadership is as intolerant as the national crowd?”

Take, for example, Jay Shepard, Republican National Committeeman and generic Mike Pompeo knock-off. He is one of two VTGOP representatives to the national Republican Committee, which makes him a very big fish in the shallow pool of our conservative politics.

Shepard styles himself a genius of inside politics. He runs Junction Consulting, a conservative firm offering its expertise in campaigns, fundraising and so forth. During the 2018 election cycle, his firm got nearly $200,000 from the Republican State Leadership Council to run ads against select Vermont Democratic lawmakers. Hmm, a Republican committee funneling funds to a Republican committeeman. Sounds a little grifty to me.

Well, Shepard’s got himself a new grift. He’s using the VTGOP email list to pump a national group that he co-founded. So, if you signed up for information about what Vermont Republicans are up to, congratulations. You’re getting Shepard’s fundraising pleas for the group, plus a regular email newsletter from its rhetorician-in-chief.

Said group is the American Council for Education and Knowledge. Named, as is customary in right-wing circles, to apply a mainstreamy veneer on a collection of far-right ideologues. As if that’s going to fool anyone.

And what, pray tell, awaits if you click on the link above?

For starters, how about “The time has come to restore the American God, His natural law, and His code of ethics to their proper roles in everyday life.”

Yep, “the American God.” Just like it says in the Bible.

Not.

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The Well-Off Are Flocking to Vermont

This graph is wonderful news for those who think Vermont’s economy needs to grow. (It is, as I’ve written before, very bad news for our housing supply.) The pandemic has made our state the most desirable in the nation for affluent Americans.

More desirable than our famously low-tax neighbor, New Hampshire. More desirable than the Sun Belt or the tax havens of Texas and Florida. We’re Number One, baby!

It’s too soon to tell if this dramatic shift will continue. But if it does, then it’s time to rethink our policies across the board, from taxation to education to broadband to economic incentives.

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Large Scale Wind Is Dead in Vermont. Is Solar Following the Same Path?

Not Exactly As Illustrated.

The Public Utility Commission is scheduled to hear a case on Friday that could tighten the screws on large-scale solar energy in Vermont, a process that’s sneakily been underway for a while. And to judge by the record to date, its decision seems unlikely to be solar-friendly.

South Street Solar is seeking commission approval for a 30-acre solar array on farmland owned by Middlebury College, which would provide almost one-third of the college’s electricity and help reach its goal of using 100% renewable energy by the year 2028. The project sparked some local opposition because Vermont, but it passed muster with the town planning commission and selectboard.

If the PUC rejects the request or puts significant obstacles in the way, it will underscore a growing problem with solar siting in Vermont: Almost every potential site, even the seemingly ideal, is unacceptable to some.

Everyone is okay with rooftop solar, but there’s simply not enough rooftop acreage to make a real contribution to our renewable energy goals. So where else can it go? We don’t want to clear forest land, we don’t want to impact wetlands or waterways, we don’t want to clutter scenic areas, we don’t want it too close to where we live, and sometimes we don’t even want it on not-at-all-scenic, unused property.

The latter problem killed a solar proposal in Bradford. You know the site if you’ve taken Exit 16 off I-91 or gone shopping at Farm-Way. It’s a large parcel on the outskirts of town within sight of the freeway. There is some commercial development (an auto parts store and a supermarket), but there’s still plenty of vacant land. The site has, I think it’s safe to say, no esthetic appeal whatsoever.

But it didn’t happen because the regional planning commission decided that the land should be reserved for potential development. This site should have been an idea spot for a solar array.

Now, back to Middlebury.

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There Is No Vaccine for Stupid: The Veepies Return Again

When I launched this series, I had no idea how often I’d have enough material for another edition. Turns out, it takes roughly one week. That’s almost one story per day. Here we go again with a healthy dose of Stupidity in the Public Sphere…

The Try to Fix a Problem, It Comes Back, Try the Same Thing Again, It Doesn’t Work, Try It Again, Another Fail, Try Again, You Know What They Say About History Repeating Itself Award goes to the Scott Administration for failing to address the repeated failures of the Labor Department. The weekend brought yet another story about unemployed Vermonters waiting weeks to get their checks or hours on hold to the Department’s call center.

It’s been one thing after another for DOL since the beginning of the pandemic. Its excuses have some truth in them; the UI system is a victim of long-term negligence at the federal level, and last spring’s tsunami of unemployment claims was unprecedented and unforeseeable.

Labor Commissioner Michael Harrington was dealt a bad hand, but he’s played it poorly. He has overseen failure after failure. Not only was he not fired or punished or removed to a quiet corner of the DMV, he actually got a promotion while his department was in flames. But it’s not all on him.

After the jump: Conspiracy theorists get their minute in court, a town ducks a feel-bad story, and a newspaper trolls avidly for advertisers’ favor.

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A Curious Absence of Drama

As I wrote in my last post, this legislative session looked to be a difficult one at its onset. But there’s been a nearly complete lack of drama, as the House and Senate have made their way through allocating federal Covid relief aid, tackling Covid-related challenges, running the Big Bills smoothly through, and also addressing a notable number of issues that could easily have been kicked down the road till next year. As is common practice in the first year of a biennium.

It’s time to give House and Senate leadership a lot of credit for this. Things are getting done with no untimely eruptions, bruised feelings or twisted arms, no visible splits in the majority caucuses. No muss, no fuss.

What makes this more remarkable is that the two leaders, House Speaker Jill Krowinski and Senate President Pro Tem Becca Balint , are each in their first year. Past leadership changes have usually brought rocky times in Year One. Houses-Senate relations get awfully tetchy.

Not this year. And that’s remarkable.

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An Excuse I Never Want to Hear Again

Congratulations to the Senate Judiciary Committee for moving quickly on H.225, the “bupe bill,” decriminalizing possession of small amounts of the opioid that’s used as an alternative to more dangerous drugs. Friday morning’s 5-0 vote was not a surprise; last Friday the committee took a straw poll and came up with the same unanimous count. The bill now heads to the full Senate, where it’s certain to win approval by a landslide.

It was only a couple weeks ago that Senate leadership was signaling a slow play on H.225. The bill had been consigned to the Rules Committee, a place where inconvenient bills go to die. Senate President Pro Tem Becca Balint issued a statement that threw some cold water on the bill:

We did not want to vote it out of Rules until we had a sense of how long testimony and due diligence would take. …The Chairs want to be certain that this bill will [address the opioid crisis].

Well, they got convinced in a hurry, and after very little testimony. Friday’s action came a couple days after the Senate Finance Committee’s forced march to craft a universal broadband bill — something that would usually take weeks, and would often be kicked down to the following year’s session. But legislative leadership was dead set on enacting a broadband bill this year, and now they’re on track to accomplish that ambitious task.

The broadband action followed Judiciary’s approval of H.128, the ban on the “gay panic” defense. That saga ended quickly and quietly, but only after committee members repeatedly made fools of themselves in trying to shoot down the bill.

So they’ve proven, over and over again, that they can meet an imminent deadline when properly motivated. Any seemingly insurmountable obstacle can be overcome. And now, you know what I never want to hear again? Leadership saying they can’t possibly act on an issue because there just isn’t enough time.

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When Will We Confront Our Other Agricultural Shame?

Marita Canedo and Jose Ignacio De La Cruz of Justicia Migrante

The first agricultural shame is the polluting of our lakes and waterways. The second: migrant farm labor. This isn’t a new story by any means, but it’s still true that we have failed to come to grips with a system that (a) props up the farm economy with cheap, pliable labor and (b) is, by definition, wage slavery.

Like I said, not a new story. But it got a human face Thursday morning before the House Agriculture and Forestry Committee. Two members of Justicia Migrante, Jose Ignacio and Marita Canedo, spoke to the committee about the sorry state of worker housing on Vermont’s oh-so-picturesque farms. And they offered reasonable, practical ways to address the problem.

They were remarkable witnesses. They aren’t asking for pity, and they certainly have no use for condescension. They do want some basic protections for their working and living conditions (the kind we all take for granted), and they want some funding to help them and the farmers address the housing problem. They can’t do it by themselves, and the farmers can’t afford it.

They also have solid ideas for new kinds of farm housing. Ignacio, who spent four years as a migrant laborer, now works for New Frameworks, a firm creating sustainable, low-cost ways to design and build housing for farmworkers and others.

As you can perhaps tell, I was inspired by their testimony. These people are smart, hardworking, and willing to put their noses to the grindstone to gain a safer, more stable life.

What they’re asking for is really the least we should do. We have a moral obligation to change a broken system that takes advantage of the people who raise and harvest our food.

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A Forced March Through a Dense Thicket of Legalese

It had to be done and done quickly, and they did it.

The Senate Finance Committee, after hours of lengthy discussions packed into three tedious days, finally moved the big broadband bill Wednesday afternoon. I watched about half of the hearings, and boy, I do not envy the committee at all. It was a seemingly never-ending slog.

The House-passed bill, H.360, got the usual hack-and-whack treatment from Senate Finance; the committee passed a “strike all” version, which meant it killed pretty much the entire bill and substituted its own language. But the two H.360s are not all that different in the grand scheme of things. The differences are mostly in the details, which are ridiculously abundant. There’s no doubt that the House and Senate will reach agreement on a broadband bill. Everyone is determined to get it done this session.

Why was it such a slog? Where do I begin?

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Some Rich Guy is Buying Up Southeast Vermont

Until today, I’d never heard of Paul (nee Pavel) Belogour, a native of Belarus who’s made a fortune in international investing and related software. Now, he’s the incoming owner of three newspapers in southern Vermont: the Brattleboro Reformer, Bennington Banner, and Manchester Journal. The big prizes are the Reformer and Banner, the only two daily newspapers south of Rutland.

This is either a really good thing or a really bad thing. When an oligarch swoops in and buys media outlets, it may be out of a true sense of obligation to support journalism. The owner’s deep pockets can counter the effects of the news business’ decline. Or it might just be a matter of collecting trophies and buying influence with little regard to the health of the publications. On the rich-guy scale, this purchase amounts to spare change.

Oh, and his native country is a corrupt dictatorship which ranks… let’s see… 158th on Reporters Without Borders’ ranking of 180 countries. RWB noted that Belarus is “the most dangerous country in Europe for media personnel.” Let’s hope Mr. Belogour doesn’t practice his homeland’s approach to the press.

The Reformer and Banner have been circling the drain for some time. How they’ve survived the pandemic on top of all that, I have no idea. But it’s not surprising that Massachusetts-based New England Newspapers, which bought the papers a few years back with an eye toward enhancing the bare-bones operations, has now decided to sell out.

There is another dimension to this. Belogour has been buying up properties in southeast Vermont at a rapid clip. He’s well on his way to becoming a real economic force in the region. And now he’s going to control the daily newspaper? That’s troubling.

So let’s look at the available Google trail on Mr. Belogour, shall we?

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Hey, We’ve Got an Election Truther on the Committee That Oversees Elections

This isn’t going to matter in the end, because the House Government Operations Committee is going to approve some version of S.15, a bill to improve voter access and the electoral process. But one of the three Republicans on the committee is making a fool of herself by injecting the kind of conspiracy thinking that’s normally absent from legislative debate or mainstream Vermont politics.

All three Republicans are trying to throw cold water on the idea of mail-in ballots, drop boxes and other provisions that drove voter turnout to historic levels last year. Absurd hypotheticals were bustin’ out all over. But first-term Rep. Samantha Lefebvre (R-QAnon) is lapping the field in persistent nuttiness.

(By the way, we’ve got Lefebvre this year instead of defeated Democrat Carl Demrow, which is about as bad a tradeoff as Art Peterson for Dave Potter. 2020 was a sneaky bad year for House Democrats.)

On at least two separate occasions, Lefebvre floated a serious accusation that somebody heard on a call-in radio program without being able to offer any specifics.

So, the details. Apparently, somebody called in to WVMT’s “The Morning Drive with Marcus and Kurt” and said that a Middlebury landlord had seen Middlebury College students collecting and filling out unclaimed absentee ballots. I’m going to reproduce her question in full below, because it’s a real beaut.

The guest on the show was Secretary of State Jim Condos. He urged the caller to file a report so it could be investigated.

This didn’t stop Lefebvre from flogging this third-hand anonymous accusation of something that allegedly happened six months ago as proof that mail-in ballots are an open invitation to vote fraud.

And, of course, neither the caller nor the landlord nor anyone else on God’s green earth ever filed a report with Condos’ office. Hey, it’s easier to push a conspiracy theory if you don’t have to provide actual evidence.

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