Category Archives: Government

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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What Has Doug Hoffer Done to Deserve This?

Illustration from the normally staid Auditor’s homepage. I think he’s running low on fucks to give.

A few days ago, I wrote about two performance audits conducted by Auditor Doug Hoffer concerning Vermont’s approved independent schools. His findings, in brief: they are growing and consuming more Education Fund dollars, and state oversight is lax in a number of important ways. (The two reports are available by way of the Auditor’s website, specifically this page.)

I mentioned in passing that the two audits had gotten very little coverage in the media. The second one went almost completely under the radar; the Big Three of Vermont media (VTDigger, Seven Days, VPR) didn’t cover it at all.

It’s part of a pattern; Hoffer’s audits and reports get perfunctory coverage at best. But this year it took a turn for the worse. At the same time that major media outlets were giving scant attention to Hoffer’s actual work, they were giving plenty of space to Oliver Olsen, a relentless Hoffer critic (and longtime supporter of AIS’s).

For those just joining us, in December and early January Olsen inundated the auditor’s office with requests for records and information — a total of 18 inquiries, four of them filed on Christmas Eve. At the time, Olsen hinted at a deep expose of serious flaws in Hoffer’s work. In a letter to House and Senate leadership, he wrote “My review, which is not yet complete, has identified a number of problems with the auditor’s work that I hope to bring to the Legislature’s attention in the new biennium.”

What have we gotten from Olsen since then? A wet fart. Have the breathless media covered his failure to deliver? Not on your life.

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Ashes, Ashes, We All Fall Up

So, only nine months after losing the Democratic primary for lieutenant governor in spectacular fashion, former Senate President Pro Tem Tim Ashe has landed a new gig. He’ll be Doug Hoffer’s deputy state auditor.

I’ve had more than my share of fun at Ashe’s expense (including the irresistible headline above), but I have to say this job is a perfect fit all around. Ashe is good at finances and numbers, and he knows state government as thoroughly as anyone.

And it provides a side-door re-entry into statewide politics, something that seemed unlikely to happen so quickly after he got his ass handed to him in the primary.

OK, I’ll stop mentioning the primary now.

The first thought that crossed my mind is that maybe, after several years of rumors, Hoffer is actually planning to retire next year and he wanted to give his fellow Progressive/Democrat the inside track to succeed him. It makes all the sense in the world, assuming that Hoffer is thinking politically. As he basically never does, so grain of salt and all that.

Another political thought: Ashe might lend a little more Statehouse heft to the auditor’s office. Hoffer has had a hard time getting the Legislature to take him seriously. In my experience, every time Hoffer testifies before a legislative committee, they politely thank him and then ignore what he had to say. Ashe might help, at least in the Senate. He has many friends in Vermont’s most self-regarding deliberative body, especially among the senior Senators who occupy virtually all the committee chairships.

This hire is also good news for the Progressive Party, which saw its two real contenders for statewide office lose badly last year (Ashe and Dave Zuckerman). Ashe now has the opportunity to re-establish himself in Montpelier, and blaze a trail to a second bid for statewide office.

And a reminder: Although it seems like he’s been around for almost ever, Ashe is still only 44 years old. Time is on his side.

But even if you leave politics aside, it’s a good fit for Hoffer, for Ashe, and for the office of auditor. Kudos all around.

Tears of a Clown

After four years of radio silence, never once speaking to her home-state press, Darcie Johnston emerged from the dank underbelly of the Trump Administration to give a three-minute interview with WCAX’s Darren Perron. During which a tear or three ran down her copious cheek.

(Trigger Warning: This post is going to be kind of mean. All I can say is, she deserves every bit of it.)

Johnston has just concluded an undistinguished four years as a Trump administration political appointee. She was fairly high up in the Department of Health and Human services. And she was deeply involved in the administration’s disastrous handling of the Covid-19 pandemic.

Perron caught her at a vulnerable time, a few hours after she witnessed Trump’s farewell at Andrews Air Force Base. Yep, she was one of the lucky few hundred at the thinly-attended soiree.

Since her chat with Perron was such a rare event, here’s an annotated transcript of her remarks about her tenure in Washington.

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The Efficiency Chimera Strikes Again

It’s magical!

If you had a time machine and chose, not to kill Young Adolf Hitler or have lunch with Jesus or ride horsies with Alexander the Great, but to go back to 2016 and listen to a speech by gubernatorial candidate Phil Scott, you would hear some familiar phrases. “Cradle to Career,” “Affordability,” “Protect the most vulnerable,” stuff he still says all the time.

You would also hear something you couldn’t hear without a time machine because Scott doesn’t say it anymore: “Lean management.” Here’s his campaign pitch, with a specific target number attached:

I believe we can reduce the operational cost of every agency and department by one cent for every dollar currently spent, in my first year in office. Saving one penny on the dollar generates about $55 million in savings. 

Yeah, well, then he got elected and things became much harder. This is what usually happens when a businessperson enters public office convinced that big savings are ripe for the picking, if only a little common-sense efficiency is applied.

The actual results have been embarrassingly puny. When asked about this back in February, after three years of Scott’s governorship, the administration pointed to $13 million in projected savings in his FY2021 (the year starting 7/1/20) budget. More than one-third of that total was due to the proposed closure of the Woodside juvenile facility, which had nothing to do with lean management.

Actual results: Not $55 million in the first year, but something less than $10 million in year four.

And you have to subtract, from whatever the actual savings were, the costs of training hundreds of state workers in lean management processes. (By the administration’s own accounting, 671 workers and managers in all.)

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A Swing and a Miss for Donovan

Attorney General TJ Donovan is clothing himself in the mantle of Taxpayer’s Protector as he tries, once again, to defend his new public records policy. He takes a nice solid swing, but misses. STEEEERIKE TWO!

As you may recall, Donovan recently issued a policy stating that any requester who takes pictures of public records (or scans or whatever) should be charged a copying fee — even though the state would not be providing any service for the fee.

In the days that followed, Democratic Secretary of State Jim Condos and Republican Gov. Phil Scott both disagreed with the new policy. Which is more than a little embarrassing for Our Guy TJ.

Apparently he was feeling the heat, as he and/or his staff took the time to write an opinion piece defending his policy. I could think of better uses for his time; writing opinion pieces is such a 20th Century move. It reaches only the rapidly shrinking population of People Who Read Opinion Pieces.

The more pertinent critique of Donovan’s op-ed is that he misses the point.

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Do the Democrats want to beat Phil Scott?

Stupid question, right?

Ask any Democrat — well, almost any Democrat — and they’ll say of course they want to beat Phil Scott and put one of their own in the corner office.

But I’m not asking any of them.

Instead, I’m looking at their collective actions. And they tell a different story, one full of abject failure to mount competitive races, of convenient excuses for legislative inaction, of top-tier contenders avoiding a tough challenge.

Conventional wisdom says that Scott is a singularly popular Republican thanks to his plain ol’ working-man demeanor and his plausibly moderate stands on the issues. I mean, look: He’s never lost in his 20-year political career. That includes campaigns for state Senate, lieutenant governor and governor. Impressive.

But who has he beaten? How many difficult races has he had to run? How many times did he amble his way to victory?

Short answer: He’s had it about as easy as a politician could hope for.

Scott first ran for Senate in 2000, the year of the great conservative backlash over civil unions for same-sex couples. He secured one of Washington County’s three seats in a race that nearly produced a Republican sweep of the county. (Incumbent Democrat Ann Cummings barely edged out fourth-place Republican Paul Giuliani.)

After that, Scott’s fortunes were buoyed by the super-strong incumbent’s edge in state Senate races. He finished a strong third in 2002. 2004 was the closest call of his entire political career; he won the third seat by a margin of only 230 votes. 2006 and 2008 were easy wins for all three incumbents — Scott, Cummings, and the redoubtable Bill Doyle.

As a reasonably inoffensive Republican, Scott benefited from the good will of Democratic leadership. He served as vice chair of the Senate Transportation Committee and chair of  Senate Institutions, burnishing his reputation for working across the aisle.

In 2010, Scott ran for lieutenant governor and won, beating then-state representative Steve Howard by 49-42 percent.  That was the closest call he’s had in this entire decade.

As LG, Scott’s reputation for bipartisanship was given a boost by then-governor Peter Shumlin, who included Scott in his cabinet. Not the kind of move you make if you really wanted a fellow Democrat to take Scott’s place.

Unsurprisingly, the potential A-List or B-List candidates for Lite-Gov kept their distance, allowing relative unknowns Cassandra Gekas (2012) and Dean Corren (2014) to mount the altar as sacrificial lambs. Scott beat Gekas by 17 points and Corren by an astounding 26.

And that set the stage for Scott’s elevation to governor in 2016. His Democratic opponent Sue Minter was a former state representative and cabinet official, but she’d never run for statewide office and was little known outside of Montpelier and Waterbury. She lost by nine points. In 2018, the top tier of Democrats was nowhere to be seen; former utility executive Christine Hallquist made history by becoming the first openly transgender person to win a major party’s gubernatorial nomination, but she had no chance in November. Scott sailed to a 15-point victory.

Now, you tell me. Who’s more responsible for the remarkable political career of Phil Scott? The man himself — or the Democratic Party that has consistently failed to seriously challenge him, and the Democratic officeholders who’ve consistently given him a hand up?

That also goes for top Democrats who are more than happy to make public appearances with Scott, even during his 2018 re-election campaign. The governor could fill a thousand campaign brochures with photos of himself making nice with Democratic officeholders, from the legislature to statewide officials to members of our congressional delegation.

I know, we’re all proud of Vermont’s tradition of political comity. But at some point, don’t you have to be just a little bit partisan?

Now, let’s look at the Democrat-dominated legislature, where Scott provides a convenient excuse for not getting stuff done. Over and over again in the past three years, the Dems have failed to advance key bills because of the potential for a gubernatorial veto. Just as often, they’ve ended up negotiating against themselves — weakening legislation in hopes of winning the governor’s approval.

Y’know, if they had a progressive-minded Democratic governor, they’d have to actually try to craft effective legislation. This didn’t work out too well with Shumlin’s health care reform push, did it? Much safer to flail helplessly in the face of a Republican governor.

They’ve also reached a comfy non-confrontational position on taxes and spending. There was little dispute over the 2020 budget. There is no real effort to challenge Scott on taxes. VTGOP press releases will tell a different story, chronicling every tax or fee increase proposed by every single Dem or Progressive lawmaker — even though the vast majority were dead on arrival.

During the 2019 session, the Dems undermined much of their own agenda. They spent week after week trying to come up with weaker and weaker versions of key bills. In some cases, that effort prevented bills from gaining legislative approval at all. Scott didn’t have to veto a minimum wage increase, a paid family leave program or a commercial marketplace for cannabis — three high priority issues for the Dems. They also failed to confront the governor on other contentious issues, including legalization of personal possession of buprenorphine. They disappointed their liberal base by failing to seriously address climate change.

Point being, the fear of a veto was powerful juju, turning the Dem/Prog supermajority into so many zombies. And leaving potential 2020 gubernatorial candidates with precious little material to run on. For the sake of anyone willing to challenge Scott, the legislature had better come prepared next January to hold the governor’s feet to the fire. Force him to make difficult choices. Show that there’s a real difference between the Democrats and the Republican governor.

Or, well, just sit back, relax, let some schmo lose to Scott by double digits, and get back to the established routine of shadowboxing the big bad governor.