Category Archives: Health care reform

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.

Advertisements

The Narrow Parameters of Acceptable Debate

So how many political parties do we have in Vermont? Two? Three? Umpteen, if you count Liberty Union and whatever Cris Ericson and Emily Peyton have going on and the Mad Hatter of #vtpoli, H. Brooke Paige?

(I know, he’s a Republican. But any day I can mention Mr. Paige is a good day.)

Well, looking at recent policy debates in the Statehouse, you might just conclude that we have a grand total of one: The Moosh Party. Because on a whole range of issues, there’s little disagreement on the fundamentals; the discussion is confined to the details. At a time when Vermont faces some huge challenges, there’s a complete lack of bold thinking in the executive and legislative branches. We’re All In The Box.

The most basic area of consensus is on state finances. There’s no serious talk of raising taxes, cutting taxes or even significantly reforming our tax system. There’s no serious talk of raising or cutting spending. Streamlining or reforming government seems as unattainable as ever.

(When Phil Scott was running for governor in 2016, he talked a lot about “Lean management” as a way to make government more efficient and free up money to pay for new programs without raising taxes. He rarely, if ever, brings up that idea anymore. His state website touts his PIVOT program (Program to Improve Vermont Outcomes Together, and someone was paid taxpayer dollars to come up with that pukey acronym) but — deep into the third year of the Scott Era — doesn’t cite any cost savings. It does boast of 44 PIVOT projects underway and the training of hundreds of state managers and employees in Lean practices. Which makes me suspect that spending on PIVOT has outweighed any actual savings.)

When times are good and the state is enjoying unexpected revenue, the broad consensus is that we shouldn’t spend it — or at least not very much of it. The Republican governor and the four Democratic money committee chairs are in agreement on that. Except perhaps at the margins.

There’s also broad agreement that the state shouldn’t be borrowing any more money. Remember Sen. Michael Sirotkin’s ill-fated proposal to launch another $35 million housing bond this year? He’s a powerful committee chair, and his idea went nowhere. One of the loudest voices in opposition: Democratic Treasurer Beth Pearce, who’s fiercely protective of the state’s bond rating.

All this broad consensus leaves room only for piecemeal action. Take, for example, the legislature finding $6 million in this year’s budget to boost child-care subsidies. Nothing to sneeze at, but advocates will tell you that it’s a drop in the bucket compared to the actual need — for parents trying to keep their jobs and for child-care workers trying to make a living.

And it’s one-time money. That’s what passes for significant accomplishment in 2019.

Here’s another. Universal broadband is widely seen as a necessity for rural Vermont to become economically competitive. This year, the state enacted Act 79, which produces $1.2-1.4 million per year for broadband grants and creates a revolving loan fund for existing and startup internet service providers. A nice step, but nothing like a game-changer.

Meanwhile, the overwhelmingly Democratic legislature whiffed on three signature issues: paid family leave, minimum wage and a tax-and-regulate system for cannabis. What’s notable about those three, besides the whiffing, is that none of them would have cost the state much money. Paid leave? A new tax. Minimum wage? Employers would foot the bill. Cannabis? Would have brought new revenue to state coffers.

Not even on the table: Climate change, housing, education, the tattered mental health system, economic development, seriously addressing income inequality and health care reform, among others. No effort, through increased state aid or some sort of student debt forgiveness, to confront our affordability crisis in higher education. Nothing to address Vermont’s demographic crisis — except for the Scott administration’s dink-and-doink grant programs that only benefit a handful of employers and workers. On climate change, leaders of both parties acknowledge the crisis and our lack of progress toward established climate goals. But propose or approve a truly game-changing agenda? Not on your life.

Literally.

For years, politicians on all sides have talked about ending our reliance on out-of-state prisons. But actually doing something about it? Spending money on facilities or enacting new programs to reduce the inmate population? Nah.

Any effort to close the ridiculously large and still growing wealth gap, either through boosting benefits or job training or education affordability — or through increasing taxes on top earners? All talk, no action.

Health care reform would seem to be a critical need, considering that the Green Mountain Care Board just approved whopping insurance-rate premiums. But do you hear anything besides the gentle shuff-shuff of hand-wringing? Nope. I think elected officials of all stripes are still scarred by then-governor Peter Shumlin’s disastrous reform efforts. Nobody wants to call that monster out from under the bed.

The biggest exception to this depressing parade of cromulence was Act 76, which establishes a revenue source and administrative structure for waterways cleanup. Nice. But it only came after years of ducking the issue as long as humanly possible — even as toxic algae blooms make an annual joke of our alleged commitment to environmental purity, not to mention killing dogs and maybe causing Lou Gehrig’s Disease.

And action only came under threat of federal intervention. Yep, we can thank the Trump EPA for forcing Vermont to clean up its water.

This around-the-middle consensus isn’t only frustrating for those on the left. It’s got to be just as galling for conservatives, who believe the answer to Vermont’s problems lies in cutting taxes, spending and regulation. You’re not getting any of that from Team Scott, much less the legislature.

It’s funny. Vermont is widely seen as bluer-than-blue Bernie Country. But our current crop of elected leaders is comfortably at home in a narrow band of non-threatening incrementalism.

 

 

Hey kids! It’s time for Uncle Phil’s Funny Math!!!

So far, our political media has seen fit to abdicate its responsibility to fact-check the gubernatorial campaign. Instead, it has simply reported without comment the cornucopia of questionable numbers endlessly repeated by Phil Scott.

I do give ‘em credit for reporting Scott’s frequent non-answers and failures to give specifics on his own damn policy proposals. But they need to go farther. Especially since the Scott campaign has apparently decided not to respond to my own inquiries for substantiation.

Some of Scott’s figgers need a better man than I to assess, me not being a budget expert. But others are so transparently phony that even a muggle like me can see through them.

In this post, I’ll sometimes stand on the shoulders of Vermont’s number-one budget expert, Private Citizen* Doug Hoffer. In the absence of any oversight by the media, Hoffer has begun a projected series of essays examining Phil Scott’s favorite numbers.

*He’s also State Auditor, but he’s writing these pieces outside the auspices of his elected position.

First, let’s take Phil Scott’s constant claim that taxes and fees have risen by $700 million during the past six years of Democratic governance. Team Scott has failed to provide any documentation, but there is a little something in his economic plan.

Continue reading

On journalism and blogging

If you’re not following me on Twitter, you missed a downright Pharisaical disputation about journalism and blogging and bias, and what exactly it is that I do.

My end of the argument has been severely restricted by Twitter’s character limit, so I thought I’d address the question in greater length here.

The critics are, quelle surprise, Phil Scott fans. In fact, the most persistent was Hayden Dublois, a nice young man who’s a paid staffer on the Scott campaign.

His complaint, echoed by others, is that I’ve been unfair to Scott because I’ve frequently criticized him while never scrutinizing Sue Minter.

Which is, as a matter of fact, not true. I was sharply critical of her campaign in its first several months; I thought she was getting left in the dust by Matt Dunne. I’ve criticized her for too often following Dunne’s lead and for failing to articulate differences between herself and the Shumlin administration. I criticized her performance in the post-primary debate for missing opportunities to confront Scott and for appearing overly programmed.

It is accurate, however, to say that I’ve been far more critical of Phil Scott. So, why is that?

Continue reading

The race for governor will offer a stark contrast

This year’s election will trigger a turnover at the top perhaps unprecedented in Vermont history. A new governor, lieutenant governor, attorney general, and new heads of the House and Senate will all be in place by next January. And heading into the campaign, Vermont’s two major parties are offering completely different visions of the state of our state and the mood of its people.

Republicans see Vermonters as tired of high taxes, government intrusion, and the restless reformism (as they see it) of the Shumlin administration.

You’d expect Democrats to be treading cautiously. They are in the tightrope position of simultaneously defending their tenure in power, and crafting a distinctive profile going forward. Not to mention its persistently strong incrementalist tendencies.

However. Driven by Bernie Sanders’ overwhelming success in our primary, the party is moving leftward. There is a sense that Vermonters are ready for even more decisive change, even more government, a more aggressive push to lift up the downtrodden and blunt the sharp edges of capitalism.

Continue reading

A bad session for Shumlin, but all was not lost

The media postmortems on Legislature ’16 are rolling in, and they’re not kind to Governor Shumlin.

The Burlington Free Press’ Sunday front page has a big ol’ photo of the Guv looking nonplussed, the bright lights showcasing the furrows on his brow, with a headline reading “BIG REQUESTS FALL SHORT.” The story emphasizes his pushes for legalized marijuana and divestment from some fossil fuel stocks, which both fell short.

Over at VTDigger, the headline slyly referred to Shumlin’s legislative accomplishments as “nothing burgers,” a phrase destined for his headstone. The story, by ol’ buddy Mark Johnson, was just shy of devastating.

While the governor touted numerous accomplishments in his final late-night adjournment address — and some lawmakers did too — many who serve in the Legislature saw something different this session: a once powerful chief executive weakened by a close election, who lost support on the left when he dropped plans for a single-payer health care system, was hurt by ongoing problems with the health care exchange and then saw any remaining leverage dissipate when he announced last year that he would not seek re-election.

Indeed, Shumlin’s 2016 agenda was largely jettisoned by lawmakers. But there is another way to look at the just-concluded session. It accomplished quite a few things that went almost unnoticed in Vermont, but would have been big news almost anywhere else.

Continue reading

Shoot the Messenger

As its final months drag onward, the Shumlin administration is remaining true to one of its core principles: Shoot the messenger. We have two prime examples of this time-tested strategery today: a top state official slams a respected media outlet, a move that has backfired big-time in the past; and the administration puts a big fat price tag on transparency.

First, Lawrence Miller, Vermont Health Connect czar, has beef with VTDigger.

[Miller] testified Wednesday in the House and challenged the veracity of a VTDigger story that said the state has been unhappy with its current Vermont Health Connect contractor and is negotiating with another company.

… [Miller said] that any frustration he expressed in emails was a normal part of negotiations.

Digger’s earlier story had quoted emails from a state official expressing dissatisfaction with VHC contractor Optum. Which would be noteworthy, since Optum was supposedly the savior of Vermont Health Connect. Miller pooh-poohed the story’s assertion, saying that a certain amount of “friction” is a normal part of the process.

Maybe that’s true, but here’s the problem. This is the same “Lawrence Miller” who was in charge of the Agency for Commerce and Community Development when it was happily attempting to both promote and regulate the ill-fated EB-5 program. He headed ACCD from 2011 to 2014, when he was tasked with cleaning up the Vermont Health Connect mess.

In other words, Miller has been hip-deep in two of the Shumlin administration’s signature disasters. Is it possible he negotiated Shumlin’s original land deal with jerry Dodge?

Continue reading