Author Archives: John S. Walters

About John S. Walters

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

TJ Gets to Keep His Fig Leaf

Huzzah, hooray, the Vermont Supreme Court has upheld the state’s ban on high-capacity firearm magazines. It’s a nice little victory for a law that will mainly be used to add another charge to an offender’s charging document.

Because hey, nobody’s going to be out there doing primary enforcement of this thing. It’ll be enforced after the fact, when someone has been arrested for some other offense.

More importantly for Vermont’s top legal eagle, the court has allowed Attorney General T.J. Donovan to press his case against notorious asshole white supremacist Max Misch.

For those with short memories, Donovan filed the firearms charge against Misch after declining to prosecute Misch for hate crimes — particularly his open harassment of former state representative Kiah Morris, who left the Legislature because she was targeted by haters.

His decision not to pursue hate crime charges triggered a backlash from those who thought Misch deserved some kind of punishment, and that Morris deserved some kind of recourse in the law. After all, the police barely lifted a finger* to investigate her complaints of harassment. Ditto the Bennington County State’s Attorney. Donovan’s decision not to prosecute Misch meant that Morris got absolutely zero protection from the criminal justice system.

*In fact, Police Chief Paul Doucette’s biggest issue with the case was that “it is damaging the reputation of the Town of Bennington, the Bennington Police Department and myself personally.” He has also accused Morris of profiting financially off her claims. Nice guy.

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That “Big Tent” Lacks an Entrance or Two

It was probably inevitable that Kolby LaMarche would resign as chair of the Burlington Republicans. A bit less so that he left the GOP altogether. But here we are.

Whenever she’s asked about extreme elements in the party, VTGOP chair Deb Billado resorts to the “big tent’ analogy. The party, she says, is big enough to include all comers.

Nice theory, but it’s not working in practice. The kind of die-hard Trump supporters who still believe he was cheated out of the election are more than welcome in the party ranks and, what the heck, leadership. But people like LaMarche, who believe the GOP must abandon the Trump delusion, are made to feel so unwelcome that they eventually leave. And the party’s rightward tilt gets that much more pronounced.

If the VTGOP really believes in the “big tent,” then Billado and her colleagues would be pounding the phones, begging LaMarche to give them another chance. Somehow I doubt that’s the case. Because to the chair and her allies, including vice chair Deb Bucknam and national committee members Jay Shepard and Suzanne Butterfield, fealty to Trump is a litmus test for good Republicans. Not to mention local party officials like Ron Lawrence of Essex, co-instigator of the CovidCruiser that went to Washington for Trump’s attempted insurrection on January 6. That’d be the same Lawrence who launched a petition drive to get Gov. Phil Scott to abandon his party affiliation.

Yes, the Phil Scott who is the one and only Republican success story in statewide elections. According to Lawrence and the 2200-odd signers, he’s the real problem in the VTGOP.

Did Billado rush to Scott’s defense? Uhh, no. She “declined comment” on the petition, claiming she hadn’t read the thing and wasn’t involved. No “big tent” references this time.

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Waiting for the Catfight

Leadership Negotiation. (Not Exactly As Illustrated)

So I have yet to weigh in on “Vermont Has Her Back,” the petition drive seeking gender equity in the state’s media corps. Until now.

I certainly agree with the substance of the letter. There are too many men and not enough women (or people of color, ftm) in the political reporting sphere and, perhaps even worse, on the editorial plane. (Editors make assignments and have final review of stories.) This isn’t a matter of overt misogyny; it’s the result of structural barriers and unconscious bias in hiring and promotion.

(Not addressed in the letter are similar and even more impactful biases in our politics. Something must be wrong (and not just with our media) when Vermont has yet to send a woman to Congress, while New Hampshire ‘s delegation has three women and one man — and not that long ago, all four were women. Plus the governor. Vermont offers a stark contrast.)

The unconscious bias is becoming apparent in coverage of legislative leadership. Now that the House Speaker and Senate President Pro Tem are both women, the press is on high alert for signs of discord between the two.

A catfight, in other words.

Jill Krowinski and Becca Balint are doing their best to create a positive House/Senate relationship, but differences will inevitably surface. The two leaders will be under intense scrutiny over how they handle conflict. Opportunities for sexist blather will abound.

We’re already getting a little taste.

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Parade of the Usual Suspects

On Wednesday morning the House Natural Resources, Fish and Wildlife Committee held a session of Hearing Kabuki, a popular style of performative lawmaking. For the better part of three hours the panel heard from a parade of witnesses, all but one testifying exactly how you’d expect: from a position of naked self-interest. The only exception was Alyssa Hill, an eighth grader from Williston.

She was also the only witness with no financial or professional stake in the issue at hand. Or, to put it another way, the only “real person.” This hearing, as is the case almost every time, was dominated by special interests and paid lobbyists. The usual suspects.

The subject of the hearing was H.175, which would expand Vermont’s beverage container deposit system, a.k.a. the Bottle Bill. The deposit would be raised from five cents per container to 10, and it would apply to a much wider range of drinks: Water, wine, carbonated, uncarbonated. MIlk, dairy and non-dairy alternatives would be exempt. The bill would also increase the “handling fee,” paid to retailers and redemption centers, from four cents per container to five.

This idea has come up before, and it’s been somewhat divisive among lawmakers who prioritize environmental issues. Some want the bill extended to cover beverages that have gained popularity since the original bill took effect in 1973, such as water, iced tea, sports drinks and energy drinks. Others have argued the Bottle Bill is outdated in this era of single-stream recycling.

That argument seems a bit less compelling of late, as the markets for many recycled materials have plummeted. Somehow, that fact never came up in the hearing. There was barely a mention of roadside litter, which was the impetus for the original Bottle Bill.

So, what did come up?

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A Plan for Thinking About Creating a Process for Possibly Doing Something Years From Now

(Not Exactly As Illustrated.)

Vermont’s public schools aren’t quite this bad, but many districts are burdened by years of deferred maintenance and replacement. The situation has gotten worse in the last decade-plus. And it won’t get better anytime soon. And that’s assuming that the Legislature finally takes action on a bill that would lay the foundation for maybe starting to address the problem a few years from now.

The background: Until 2007, the state of Vermont devoted roughly one-third of its capital budget to public school projects. That year, according to the bill’s text, the Legislature “suspended state aid for school construction in order to permit the Secretary of Education and the Commissioner of Finance and Management to recommend a sustainable plan for state aid for school construction.”

Since then, crickets. And a steadily growing list of needs, and many students learning in unsafe conditions. (See: Burlington High School’s precipitate relocation to the former Macy’s Department Store.) To again quote the bill, “the backlog… has resulted in unsafe and unhealthy learning environments and disparities in the quality of education between wealthier communities and communities in need across the state.”

Which, if unaddressed, could spark a lawsuit invoking the precedent of the Brigham decision. Because, duhh, affluent districts can afford to undertake capital projects while poorer districts are left to hang. Take one of those unfortunates, add an opportunistic (or idealistic, if you prefer) lawyer, and the state finds itself in court. In the uncomfortable position of defending inequity.

Two House committees, Education and Corrections/Institutions, have been trying for three years to identify a solution. Which would either involve (1) cutting deeply into the state’s capital budget or (2) finding a substantial pot of money. Last year they started a bill through the Legislature, but it stalled out because of the onset of Covid-19.

So it’s back this year. Bill 21-0782 is a “committee bill” being crafted by House Education, current text available here.

To be clear, the bill doesn’t invest any funds in school construction. No, we have to start these things very small and roll them out slowly.

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More Carnage at the VDP

According to sources in Vermont Democratic circles, the party’s executive director Scott McNeil has resigned after a vote of “no confidence” from the other paid staffers.

His resignation follows that of ex-staffer Kevin Burgess, who left the party because the organization essentially had its head up its ass.

McNeil came on board in the fall of 2019 after the most recent party scandal — the embezzlement of party funds by former staffer Brandon Batham. McNeil was touted by then-VDP chair Terje Anderson as a bright young man who would organize the hell out of the place.

Guess not.

Unlike Burgess, McNeil has yet to be scrubbed from the party’s website. They’re probably hoping to keep this under wraps until the VDP’s executive committee meets Tuesday night, when the mucky-mucks will presumably try to get their story straight.

Putting the “Ick” in “Democratic”

Well, it finally happened. After years and years of Vermont Democratic Party staffers walking out the door at a rapid rate while keeping their mouths shut for the sake of future career prospects, one of ’em finally busted loose.

Last week, Kevin Burgess resigned from his party post, and his resignation letter was full of words like “toxic,” “failure,” “unorganized,” “poorly managed,” “old boys club,” and “no vision, no plan, and no structure.”

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

Burgess must have been well and truly fed up, considering that he moved to Vermont less than six months ago — and he knew that sending his letter would ensure that he’d have to move back out of state. Hope he had a short-term lease.

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Three Atonements

Ah, traditional values.

In the same week when a state lawmaker denied the existence of systemic racism in Vermont, there were hearings on three separate bills designed to atone for some of the most racist passages in state history.

Rep. Art Peterson, R-Of Course, opened his yap and revealed the hatred within during a Wednesday hearing on H.210, which would address racial disparities in health care. If you want details, click the link above. I’ll just note that Peterson (also known for opposing the display of a Black Lives Matter flag) entered the Legislature after narrowly defeating one of the most decent men in the Legislature, Dave Potter, last fall. Definitely not an improvement.

Let’s take the three bills one at a time, shall we?

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An Unsettling Incident in Senate Finance

Senate Finance Committee chair Ann Cummings is a mixed bag. She’s not the most imaginative or energetic policymaker; she barely bothers to campaign and waltzes to re-election every two years. She’s one of the many veteran senators with a very well-developed sense of entitlement.

On the other hand, she knows her stuff. That’s nothing to sneeze at when it comes to issues as complex as taxes and state revenue.

But that didn’t seem to be the case during a Thursday committee hearing. Quite the opposite; she was shockingly uninformed on one of the biggest financial issues facing state government in 2021. I couldn’t believe it at first, but then she did it again.

The subject was S.59, a bill introduced by Sen. Cheryl Hooker and four other senators. The bill is an attempt to address the glaring shortfalls in the state teachers’ and public employees’ pension funds — an issue brought to the forefront by Treasurer Beth Pearce this year. After having defended the funds throughout her tenure, she started ringing the alarm bell on funding shortfalls and advocating substantial changes.

The Dem-dominated Legislature now faces a choice between finding a big new pot of money for the funds, and imposing pain on two of the party’s most important constituencies. S.59 opts for the former; it would add a 3% income tax surcharge on Vermonters with incomes of $500,000 or more, and devote the revenue to filling the hole in the pension funds. Sen. Ruth Hardy, a member of Senate Finance and an S.59 co-sponsor, presented an initial look at the bill. It didn’t go well.

Pearce’s pivot has been the unexpected policy story of 2021 (so far). She’s been making the rounds of relevant legislative committees, laying out the problems and presenting lawmakers with the unpleasant policy choice described in the previous paragraph. On February 4, she offered her pension testimony to Senate Finance.

One week later, Cummings made it clear she didn’t have a clue about Pearce’s position or the status of the pension plans.

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Straw Men and Uppity Women (UPDATED)

So the big question on #vtpoli Twitter today was: Did Public Safety Commissioner Michael Schirling call Rep. Tanya Vyhovsky “uppity”?

Short answer: Yeah, kinda.

See note below: Schirling has issued a kinda-apology.

It happened in a Thursday hearing by the House Judiciary and Government Operations committees, to consider a statewide use-of-force policy for law enforcement personnel. I didn’t monitor the hearing live, but after seeing some outraged tweets, I listened to the passage in question. (One of the benefits of the Zoom Legislature is that all hearings are streamed live, and archived, on YouTube. I hope they continue the practice after We All Return To Whatever Normal Is.)

Vyhovsky and Schirling had a lengthy colloquy about current policy and practice. She questioned whether police should be trained, “first and foremost,” in de-escalation tactics instead of resorting to force. Schirling acknowledged the need to review training practices, but said her premise (that police use force more often than they should because of the training they receive) was dead wrong.

I’ll go through the confab in more detail after the jump, but first we’ll cut to the chase. At the end of the back-and-forth, Schirling made reference to “the somewhat uppity exchange that the Representative and I had.” He paused before “uppity.” I think he was searching for the right word. He chose the wrong one.

He did not actually refer to Vyhovsky as “uppity,” but that’s how he characterized their discussion. The problem is, “uppity” is often used to describe women or people of color who don’t “know their place.” It definitely has a pejorative connotation. And I doubt he would characterize himself as “uppity.”

Schirling committed another offense, albeit a very common one, elsewhere in the exchange. He consistently misinterpreted Vyhovsky’s points and instead whaled away at straw men of his own devising. He didn’t take her arguments seriously. Which is a subtler kind of sexism than calling someone “uppity.”

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