Category Archives: Government

I Do Believe Somebody’s Finally Listening to Doug Hoffer

Sometimes I wonder how Doug Hoffer keeps going. He issues report after report, audit after audit, only to see them routinely dismissed by state officials and ignored by the Legislature. This is especially bad when it comes to state business incentive programs, which appear unkillable in spite of a complete lack of evidence that they accomplish anything. And, as Hoffer points out, the programs don’t even require evidence. Decisions are often unreviewable by anyone else, and crucial information is kept private as a statutory deference to business interests.

But now, as a new biennium dawns, there are signs that Hoffer is finally having an impact.

First, there’s H.10, a bill that would require much more transparency in the Vermont Economic Growth Incentive program, which may or may not produce any actual, you know, economic growth. A similar bill got nowhere in the last biennium, but this time its sponsor, Rep. Emilie Kornheiser, is the newly-minted chair of the House Ways & Means Committee. Which is to say, she’s got some freshly acquired heft. And H.10 is co-sponsored by Rep. Michael Marcotte, the Republican chair of the House Committee on Commerce and Economic Development, which is where the bill will be heading.

Bipartisanship, it’s a beautiful thing. But if you listen closely, you can hear Gov. Phil Scott’s legal counsel Jaye Pershing Johnson furiously leafing through the books, searching for a constitutional pretext to oppose the bill. If H.10 does get through the House and Senate, a gubernatorial veto seems likely. After all, the governor is a devoted friend to the business community and he absolutely looooooves him some business incentive programs.

If H.10 gets through the House, it will land in the Senate Economic Development Committee. Former chair Michael Sirotkin was a staunch believer in incentive programs, and it’s easy to imagine him dropping the bill into the circular file. It should be a different story under his successor, Sen. Kesha Ram Hinsdale.

Second, there’s H.24, which would give the auditor’s office greater access to information about entities that get state contracts. The bill is meant to counteract a Vermont Supreme Court decision that denied Hoffer access to payroll information at OneCare Vermont.

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The Best Part of It Was This Guy

After almost an hour of pomp and circumstance (as befits the Green Mountain Boys’ home turf, actually no), Gov. Phil Scott was sworn into office on Thursday and delivered his fourth inaugural address.

We’ll get to all that, but first let’s deal with the highlight of the day: François Clemmons, actor, singer, writer, teacher, the friendly cop in Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood, and Vermont treasure, singing the national anthem with joy, spirit, and power. Good stuff.

(Skip to the 28th minute and enjoy.)

As for the inaugural… on the Phil Scott “Meh” Scale, it was… slightly better than “meh.” He laid out a series of issues that went beyond the usual stuff about workforce and demographics. Oh, those things were in there too, but so were climate change, housing, the opioid epidemic, mental health, and “accountability” in law enforcement. (Trigger warning: His vision of that issue comes straight out of the law ‘n order playbook.)

There was a blessed lack of snide remarks about those who disagree with him, but his customary implication that “working together” means abandoning your ideas in favor of his.

The unifying message of the speech was that we must do more to help rural Vermont catch up with the bigger communities in quality of life and economic opportunity. As I listened to him, I started to realize something: This is a false dichotomy.

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The Inaugural Address You Won’t Be Hearing

Gov. Phil Scott will deliver his fourth inaugural address Thursday afternoon. It’s likely to be another boilerplate session full of the same ol’, same ol’. Here’s the speech he ought to give, but won’t.

My fellow Vermonters, here we are again. My thanks to the voters who gave me their overwhelming support. I am humbled by their trust in my leadership.

These same voters gave the Democratic Party unprecedented majorities in the Legislature. This result may seem baffling from the outside, but I believe the voters were sending a strong and clear message: Get together, figure it out, and act with the interests of Vermonters above all other considerations.

I can claim a mandate. So can legislative Democrats. We should not argue about whose mandate is more meaningful; we should accept the obvious decision of the voters that we must work together to make Vermont a more livable, prosperous, and dynamic place. A better place to live, work, and raise a family. A place doing its best to battle the effects of climate change and environmental degradation. A place where every Vermonter, regardless of circumstances, can live secure, productive lives.

Right now, working together is more important than ever. We face many challenges that present both peril and opportunity. We can’t waste time and energy sniping at each other. Working together means fighting for principle but always listening to the other side, and being open to the idea that your idea might be better than mine.

At times, I have fallen short of that standard. As you all know, I own the all-time record for gubernatorial vetoes. Sometimes a veto is necessary, but every single veto represents a failure to work together and be open to ideas that are not my own.

From this day forward, I commit myself to a new era of cooperation across party lines. An era where we won’t just talk about bipartisanship, we will live it every single day.

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Edifice Complex

I’ve gotten some blowback from people I respect about my comment that the Statehouse is just a pile of bricks. I understand their point of view, but I don’t share it. Here’s a bit of exposition that I’m sure won’t change anyone’s mind.

There’s a saying in National Football League circles: “Protect the Shield.” The NFL logo is a blue shield with white stars and a white football, and “NFL” in big red letters. The saying is invoked when there’s some threat to the league’s reputation (don’t laugh), but I’ve always thought it was completely backwards. Because a shield, by definition, is the thing that protects, not the thing that needs protection. It’s as if you had a bulletproof vest and did everything you could to keep it in mint condition.

I see this all over the place, the conflation of symbol with substance. Many a Trumpy Republican carries a pocket Constitution, but it’s more a fetish than a guidebook. They don’t mind trashing our principles when convenient, but they carry their pocket Constitutions like, well, NFL shields. Same with their obligatory flag lapel pin.

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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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Still the Luckiest Man in Vermont

Today’s State of the State Address was another exercise in Repurposed Content. Gov. Phil Scott is still leaning on the usual uncatchy catchphrases and political shibboleths, and recycling the same points he’s been making since 2015.

There ‘s not a lot new to say about this midwinter summer rerun, so I’m going to follow Governor Nice GuyTM‘s example and repurpose some old content myself. Because as Scott’s address made clear, it’s still true.

Last January, I wrote a post called “The Luckiest Man in Vermont,” which noted that Scott has rarely faced a political challenge in all his election campaigns. He floated to the top due to circumstance and his brand of bland, passive-aggressive charm. On top of that, the pandemic has given him a tremendous political gift.

I’m not talking about the credit he’s gotten, merited and otherwise, for his handling of Covid-19. I’m talking about the ever-flowing Niagara of federal relief funds buoying our economy and fattening public treasuries. Today’s speech re-emphasized that fact.

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The Land of Generic Expertise

The appointment of Don Rendall as interim chair of the state Natural Resources Board reminded me of something I’ve been pondering for quite some time: Our state government relies heavily on generic expertise. People are often hired to state positions outside of their professional experience. People within the executive branch are frequently swapped around as if they are interchangeable pieces. And people from the same small pool get hired over and over again to different positions. Rarely is someone with specific outside expertise hired for a relevant public sector post. Rendall has been a gas and utility executive, but he has no particular experience in environmental or land-use matters.

This is a long-running theme in state government, but it seems more prevalent in the Scott administration. Every time a top-level vacancy opens up, it’s filled laterally from elsewhere in the executive branch (Mike Schirling, from Commerce to Public Safety) or vertically from within an agency’s ranks (Lindsay Kurrle replacing Schirling, Wanda Minoli replacing Robert Ide) — or the hire goes to someone like Rendall, who brings no specific expertise to the job.

These kinds of hires do have advantages. If you’ve got experience in one part of state government, you have a base of knowledge that’s useful elsewhere. (Susanne Young has been an effective administrator in multiple roles under Jim Douglas and Phil Scott.) If you’ve been successful outside state government, you have skills that can be brought to bear in the public sector. Neale Lunderville has had success in both spheres, and has been called upon more than once for crisis management.

But there are also drawbacks. Hiring from within an agency, or swapping people around within state government, can foster stagnation, satisfaction with the status quo, a lack of vision for positive change. Two examples: The DMV under Ide and Minoli, which has had repeated issues with undocumented immigrants (and has been slow to adapt modern technology); and the Department of Corrections, whose upper ranks are full of DOC lifers — and where interim commissioner James Baker has been struggling to “change the culture.”

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Yes, the Legislature Will Challenge Scott’s Vetoes

Sen. Joe Benning addressing the media

It was a little like Old Home Week. Eleven of the 30 state Senators, none wearing a mask, gathered on the steps of the Statehouse Wednesday morning for a… live, in person PRESS CONFERENCE. Wowee.

Everyone was happy to be back together, and even happy to see a gaggle of reporters hoping to glean some actual news out of the occasion.

The cause for the gathering was a mutual wankfest recap of the Senate’s legislative record in the past session. Hearty congratulations all around, and seldom was heard a discouraging word. I’m sure the assembled solons would love for me to recap their lengthy list of accomplishments, but, well, not my job.

They did manage to make some news amidst all the mutual back-slapping. “We’ll be back for a veto session,” said Senate President Pro Tem Becca Balint, ending all doubt on that score. She said the House and Senate are likely to try to override all three (and counting) of Gov. Phil Scott’s vetoes. Also, if time allows, the Legislature may try to pass a few bills that came just short of the finish line before adjournment. Balint didn’t offer any particulars; she was due to meet with House Speaker Jill Krowinski Wednesday afternoon to plan the session, which would probably happen later this month.

I’m glad to see that the Kumbaya stuff has its limits. Legislative leadership made a point of trying to maintain a good relationship with Gov. Phil Scott during the session, and that’s fine. It’s even better that they know there’s a time for the Kumbaya to end. And Scott struck the first blow with his three questionable vetoes. Good to see leadership respond appropriately. If they can actually override all three, they’ll be sending a strong message to the fifth floor.

Other news came courtesy of Senate Institutions Committee chair Sen. Joe Benning. He talked of preparations for reopening the Statehouse for the 2022 session.

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Nice Guy Sets Record for Not Being Nice

The inevitable has finally happened. Gov. Phil Scott has bested Howard Dean’s all-time record for gubernatorial vetoes — and he did it in less than half the time it took Dean.

On Tuesday, Scott issued his second and third vetoes of 2021, bringing his total to 22 in four-and-a-half years in office. Dean was in office for 12 years, and racked up a total of 20 vetoes. (In its story on Tuesday’s vetoes, Seven Days did not mention the record.)

Tell me again how nice a guy Scott is, and how much he values cooperation across the aisle.

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Our Very Own Joe Manchin

You kids get off my lawn!

West Virginia’s occasionally Democratic Senator Joe Manchin gets a lot of grief in liberal circles because of his fondness for the filibuster. And yes, he’s a roadblock. But it says here that our very own liberal lion, Pat Leahy, isn’t materially different from Manchin.

Leahy is one of a number of Democratic senators who’ve been maddeningly opaque on the filibuster. It takes some doing to find any public statement by Leahy on the subject. The most recent one I could find was from way back in mid-November in the Washington Post:

“I agree with Thomas Jefferson [who] said, you know, it’s the saucer where things cool,” Leahy responded. “What I want to do though is see us come back to voting on things.”

This quote is taken from Vote Save America’s rundown of each senator’s known position on the filibuster. And it’s pretty damn close to an endorsement of the filibuster.

But hey, that was months ago, and maybe his tune has changed in the face of Republican obstructionism. So I wrote to David Carle, Leahy’s comms guy, and asked him for the Senator’s present position. This is what I got in return.

He continues to discuss this with other senators, and there’s a lot of that going on.

Gee, thanks.

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