Category Archives: Government

Our sclerotic Constitution

In the past, I’ve tossed around the notion that Vermont’s Founding Fathers were drunk when they wrote our Constitution. Partly, that’s a matter of historic record. In those days, everyone drank to what we’d consider wretched excess; and it was common practice for men to gather in taverns to talk politics. As a simple matter of probability, those guys were hammered when they drafted our founding document.

But there’s also the matter of content. This has come up in the context of our current ethics debate, in which many lawmakers have asserted that the Constitution gives the Legislature sole authority over the ethics of its members. That seems like a terrible idea on its face.

And kind of undemocratic as well. And it’s far from the only undemocratic thread in our Constitution. At the risk of being overly cynical, you might even conclude that the Constitution was written by political elites to provide themselves a measure of protection from those pesky voters.

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The Governor gives the Republicans a ready-made campaign slogan

Hey, remember last Friday, when Governor Shumlin had to walk back a budget-cutting proposal he’d made less than 24 hours earlier?

Yeah, embarrassing and sad. I mean, how many people looked over the text of his budget address and didn’t realize that “cutting benefits to poor pregnant women” might cause a kerfuffle? Even if the cuts are counterbalanced by new benefits, that’s the worst possible topline for a sales pitch.

Well, maybe second worst to “confiscating crutches from crippled kids,” or possibly “Scrooge was right the first time,” but I digress.

Shumlin rolled out his kneecap-the-preggers initiative on Thursday, and took it back during a Friday appearance on VPR’s “Vermont Edition.” And just in case the abandonment itself wasn’t bad enough, he went and said this. For real.

“I don’t want to use this as a way to cost pregnant women more money,” the governor said on the program. “I said to my team this morning, ‘Listen there’s plenty of ways to save money in the budget. Go back to the Legislature and give them alternatives of other ways to make savings.’”

Wait, what?

“There’s plenty of ways to save money in the budget”?????????

?????????????

This, from a guy in his sixth year as governor, whose tenure has been marked by penny-pinching and an absolute refusal to raise “broad-based taxes” (as he himself defines the term)?

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The Governor prepares a soft landing

Is Peter Shumlin starting to act like a lame duck? It would seem so. To judge by this week’s paltry trinkle of news, he looks to have one eye fixed on the past and the other on his post-gubernatorial future. And he’s already given up on fixing one major debit in his administrative ledger.

As VPR’s Bob Kinzel reports, Shumlin opposes any tax increases to pay for Vermont’s burgeoning Medicaid bill, but he doesn’t want to cut eligibility or benefits either. In fact, he’s washing his hands of the whole mess.

“I don’t know which governor is going to get to solve this problem,” he added. “But I hope a governor gets to solve it soon.”

“…once I’m safely ensconced in the private sector with my lissome new bride,” he might have added under his breath.

Yeah, screw the 2016 session. The Governor, you see, proposed a Medicaid fix last year and the Legislature ungratefully rejected it. So he’s done his duty, and hereby washes his hands of the matter.

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Dubie discredited

There’s quite the journalistic one-two punch on VTDigger today. It’s a story that exposes former Lt. Gov. Brian Dubie’s anti-wind activism for the empty rhetorical shell that it is; it also raises serious ethical questions about a top state official. Or it would, if the state had any serious ethical standards to enforce.

For those just joining us, Dubie emerged from his long political hibernation earlier this year to take up the fight against a proposed seven-turbine wind farm near his home in Swanton. Dubie insisted this wasn’t a case of NIMBYism which, don’t they all. But his political profile lent a bit of suit-and-tie gravitas to the cause.

In addition to the usual discredited arguments about environmental impact, Dubie attacked the Swanton plan as a menace to aviation. And since the guy is a pilot with American Airlines, his words carried some weight. Except it was all bullshit.

This fall, Dubie has been trumpeting a statement from the Federal Aviation Administration to support his stance. But it turns out that the FAA was merely claiming an interest in reviewing the plan. And now it has completed its review, and determined that there is no impact on aviation. None.

In other words, he wasn’t an expert with unique insight. He was just another zealot pushing whatever scraps of “information” he could find.

But what’s worse is that he had a willing accomplice at the highest level of state government: Guy Rouelle, aviation program administrator for the Agency of Transportation.

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The right to recall

At yesterday’s Senate Rules Committee hearing, one of the main arguments against suspending the Predator Senator, Norm McAllister, was that suspension would unfairly deprive his constituents of full representation.

Which is a good argument if you ignore, oh, y’know, morality and stuff. It’s an argument that may very well result in a court ruling in McAllister’s favor. A constituent who doesn’t mind being represented by a self-admitted sexual predator can say, “Look, by population Franklin County deserves two Senators, and until McAllister’s suspension is lifted we only have one.”

There are, on the other hand, the interests of constituents who don’t want to be represented by a felon-in-waiting. They have no recourse whatsoever until the next election, because Vermont is one of 14 states with no provision for recalling elected officials.

No matter what those officials might do.

Let’s say, purely hypothetically, choosing a name out of thin air, Dick Mazza runs into the Senate chamber wielding a pickaxe and starts hackin’ and slashin’. After he’s been subdued and taken away in handcuffs and the blood is washed off the walls, furnishings, and light fixtures, the Senate meets to consider what to do.

And decides it can’t do anything until the criminal case is resolved. Congratulations, good people of the Grand Isle district! Like it or not, you shall be represented by an *alleged* axe murderer until the next election! Provisions shall be made for Senator Mazza to participate in committee meetings, floor debates and Senate votes by video feed from his jail cell.

Yes, outlandish, I know. But what are the alternatives under the present system?

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Tom Pelham is mad as hell. And just as wrong

Now that Bruce Lisman has cut ties with his vanity platform, Campaign for Vermont, the organization is foundering financially and, worse, is stuck with budget scold Tom Pelham as its chief public voice.

Pelham has spent the last five years writing opinion piece after opinion piece slamming the Shumlin administration over taxation and budgets. Now, his temperature appears to be rising — to the point that he might want to check his blood pressure. Reading his latest commentary, I can practically see steam shooting out his ears.

His point, as ever, is that the Shumlin administration is bankrupting the state, wrecking the economy, and imperiling our futures by overtaxing and overspending. And in the process, he repeats a fundamental misperception about money that’s commonly held by budget hawks everywhere.

See if you can spot it:

Excluding federal funds, the state budget passed by the Legislature and signed by the governor in 2011 required $2.954 billion in revenues extracted from the Vermont economy through taxes, fees, fines, assessments, settlements, etc., and deposited into various state funds.

The key word there is “extracted,” which he repeats three times. Pelham appears to believe that all government revenue is collected, thrown onto the burn pile, and set ablaze. Which is so completely wrong it’d be funny if so many serious, influential people didn’t share that belief.

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The Hoffer report: an indictment of inertia

State Auditor Doug Hoffer did something unusual on Friday: he pre-released one of his reports, embargoed until this morning at 10 a.m. Usually, he just releases them when he releases them.

The reason he did so, I infer, is that this may be the most explosive document to emerge from his office, and he wanted to give us media folks time to digest it. The report is entitled “Sole Source Contracts: Extraordinary Use in Ordinary Times.” The topline: state agencies issue a whole lot of contracts without any competitive bidding. And while sole-source contracts are absolutely justified in many circumstances, the quantity is staggering — and, too often, the stated rationale for bypassing the bidding process was wafer-thin.

Background: In the course of his work, Hoffer had repeatedly come across instances of sole-source contracts. Eventually he decided to assess the scope of the situation. His team reviewed nearly 1,000 contracts issued during FY2015 by five state agencies. (Reviewing all state contracts would have been a monumental task.)

The report paints a picture of administrative laziness at best, corruption at worst. Some key passages from the Executive Summary:

The SAO [State Auditor’s Office] found that while sole source contracts are intended for extraordinary circumstances, this selection method is commonplace for some departments and agencies. … Sole source contracts accounted for 41% of these contracts, and they valued $68 million, or 27% of the total amount.

… While some sole source selections were justified, many were not. Numerous memos lacked a justification for using a sole source selection, and others lacked evidence to substantiate claims. We identified memos based on erroneous information and time constraints that appeared to be of agencies’ own making. …Furthermore, familiarity with contractors often took precedence over an open and competitive process.

… The high frequency of sole source contracts across the five departments and agencies in this analysis raises serious questions about the effectiveness of the State’s contract management.

Yeah, it sure does.

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