Category Archives: human services

The Veepies: High and Mighty Edition

Well, it’s Monday, and once again we’ve got a full crop of stupidity in the public sphere. I didn’t intend for this to be a weekly feature, but hey, if they keep serving up the meatballs, I’ll keep swinging for the fences.

This week, the stupid was strong in positions of prominence. We’ve got a U.S. Senator, a State Senate committee, a state’s attorney, and not one but two agencies in the Scott administration. So let’s not keep these important slash self-important folks waiting.

To begin, we’ve got our first-ever Provisional Veepie and our first-ever Sub-Veepie. The P.V. is the I’ma Throw Everybody Under the Bus Award, which goes to none other than St. Patrick Leahy. It’s provisional because it’s about an anonymous second-hand quote from Politico, so there’s a chance that Leahy didn’t say, or mean, this. But if he did, what a doozy.

The article reports that Leahy is expected to run for re-election next year. It includes this line: “The 81-year-old has also indicated to them that he believes he’s ‘the only Democrat that can win the seat,’ said a person briefed on the conversations.”

Woof. Way to simultaneously diss every Democrat in Vermont, Senator.

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Call Dr. Levine, We’ve Got a Full-Fledged Stupidemic On Our Hands

Well, geez. I already had enough material for another edition of the Veepie Awards on Friday, and then the weekend brought a fresh outbreak of The Stupid. So before any more cases are diagnosed, let’s roll out our second-ever awards for Outstanding Stupidity On Public Display…

The We’ve Always Done It This Way, and We’re Going to Keep Doing It This Way Until the Sun is a Cold, Dark Husk Award goes to House leadership for continuing the barnacle-encrusted tradition of appointing one Republican to a committee chairship, no matter how small the Republican caucus. This time it may just bite ’em in the butt. And, more painfully, bite unemployed Vermonters with children.

As reported by VTDigger’s James Finn, the House Commerce and Economic Development Committee is likely to eliminate an additional $50-per-week to unemployment benefits for jobless Vermonters with children, included by the Senate in a bill addressing UI benefits and the unemployment trust fund. This is the committee with the obligatory token Republican chair, Rep. Michael Marcotte. He told Finn that he’s skeptical about the parental bonus, and his committee may strip it from the bill.

We don’t know how other Commerce members feel, because none are quoted in the article. But the chair sets the committee agenda, and has the power to block anything they choose. Heck of a time for a Republican to occupy that seat.

I get the desire for bipartisanship, or at least the plausible appearance of same. I could understand giving a chairship or two to a minority if there’s a close partisan split in the House. But why give away a leadership post to a party that can barely win one-third of available seats? Republicans know it’s a token gesture. It doesn’t stop them from feeling abused and ignored by the majority. It accomplishes nothing. Or, in this case, less than nothing.

After the jump: Stupid Bar Tricks, Art Malappreciation, and a comms guy makes a dumb comms mistake.

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Point of Personal Privilege, Insurance Scams Edition

There’s one thing they’re not telling you…

Seventeen years ago, my spouse and I bought long-term care insurance. We were just about AARP-qualified at the time, and we were trying to get ahead of the age-related increases outlined above. The earlier you buy a plan, the cheaper it is. (Spouse is five years younger than I, so his rate was substantially lower than mine.)

The premiums have remained constant ever since. Until now.

Sticker shock!

My carrier is seeking to raise my rate by 338.6%. Three hundred and thirty-eight point six percent! Kind of defeats the purpose of buying early, doesn’t it? If our carrier can jack rates through the roof when we get older, the only thing we accomplished by buying early is donating tens of thousands of dollars to the company’s shareholders.

The proposed increase is awaiting approval by the Vermont Department of Financial Regulation. I spoke to a very nice lady in the insurance division of DFR, who told me it’s one of the biggest rate hikes she has ever seen — on any kind of insurance.

Last week, my spouse got a rate hike notice.

Of a non-whopping 20%.

The only difference between us, as far as I can see, is that I’m 67 and my spouse is 62.

Looks a lot like age discrimination to me. Or like a carrier winnowing out its high-risk clients through targeted rate hikes.

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Another Flood of Federal Cash: Will We Do the Right Thing?

Vermont is about to receive another tsunami of federal Covid relief. Thanks in part to the diligent “bring home the bacon” efforts of our Congressional delegation, Vermont will be among the top recipients of per capita federal aid. The American Rescue Plan, passed by the U.S. Senate on Saturday, would provide $1.25 billion for Vermont, according to Baconator-in-Chief Pat Leahy. That’s equal to the amount we got from last year’s CARES Act.

And until the last dollar is spent, there is no excuse for any Vermonter to be struggling. That is, if the Scott administration and the Legislature follow one simple rule: Prioritize relief for those hit hardest by the pandemic. Only then should you think about anything else.

Since the pandemic began, the Vermont Foodbank has been overwhelmed. In 2020, it set an all-time record for delivering food to those in need. Total food distribution was 113% higher than in 2019. And the demand has remained high. “The need has not gone down,” Foodbank CEO John Sayles told me.”Our 300 partners around the state all continue to see the heightened levels we’ve seen since last March.”

As long as there are unspent federal dollars, this should not happen. The food banks ought to be empty. Crickets, tumbleweeds, dust on the canned goods.

Sayles offered plenty of praise for steps the state has taken to reduce hunger, and said his request for fiscal year 2022 has gotten a “really positive response.” If that’s true, I asked him, why has the demand stayed at record levels? “So many people have had massive economic disruption,” he said, citing a UVM study that found 50% of Vermonters have had some kind of financial disruption since the pandemic hit.

Full credit to our political leaders for accomplishing much, but we could be doing even more. Food-insecure Vermonters should be at the front of the line, along with others hard hit by the pandemic. They include people with substance use or mental health issues, and small businesses in sectors like small retail, hospitality and tourism.

What shouldn’t happen is that the money gets used for wish-list projects or non-Covid-related issues.

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Prepping for Disappointment

Well, the incoming leaders of the House and Senate are pouring buckets of cold water on any hopes of a progressive agenda in the next two years.

In some ways, this makes perfect sense. In others, it’s a continuation of the squishy-soft stylings of the outgoing leadership. And that’s disappointing for anyone who was looking forward to the possibility of change.

My former colleagues Xander Landen and Kit Norton have posted a legislative preview, and it’s chock full of Business As Usual — the kind of Democratic strategerizing that’s helped Phil Scott remain governor. Or, shall we say, done little to nothing to draw a clear contrast between Scott and the Dems.

Now, these are extraordinary times. And I have no quarrel with the idea that coronavirus will be first and foremost on the agenda until we’ve vaccinated our way back to normality. The budget alone could occupy the available time between now and adjournment.

So yeah, when Speaker-In-Waiting Jill Krowinski says her top priority is “to bring people together and create a plan of action to beat the virus and it needs to be a recovery plan that leaves no one behind,” I completely agree. Save for the grammatical tic.

But 2022 ought to be a completely different story.

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Adventures in Inadequate Governance, part 2

Just tryin’ to keep up…

In part 1, I brought your attention to some appalling facts about Vermont’s lack of oversight for rental housing. Today we turn to three separate articles concerning nursing homes and the coronavirus that reveal further inadequacy in governance. The first is about an apparently toothless settlement with a for-profit senior facility. The second and third detail the toll Covid-19 is taking on some of our most vulnerable Vermonters.

The Intercept, where Glenn Greenwald used to hang his hat before he went batshit, has shone a fresh light on last spring’s worst outbreak in Vermont — at Burlington Health and Rehab, owned and operated by the troubled Genesis HealthCare chain.

Turns out that only weeks before the pandemic struck, Attorney General TJ Donovan had reached a settlement with Genesis over “allegations of neglect” that led to three injuries and one death. That settlement did little or nothing to improve the situation, and within months, 12 BH&R residents had died of Covid-19.

Under terms of the settlement, proudly announced in the customary AGO press release, three Vermont-located Genesis facilities were to pay a fine and hire a Patient Care Coordinator for the three locations plus an independent monitor to oversee quality of care. Was it enough?

“It’s really baffling that the settlement did not include some type of staffing requirements,” said Brian Lee, the executive director of Families for Better Care, a nonprofit advocating for tighter regulation of nursing homes. “Has [Donovan] arrested anybody? Has he prosecuted anybody? Has anybody gone to jail? No. The settlement should have included a requirement for RN staffing. They were short-staffed prior to the incidents and short-staffed after. It’s pretty negligent on the AG’s office to not include that,” said Lee. “The quality of nursing homes is dependent on staffing.”

You can probably guess the next bit. According to federal regulatory records, Genesis failed to increase staffing to recommended levels. Donovan agreed to let Genesis do the hiring, and there was apparently no follow-through by the state to ensure full compliance. This is a problem with Donovan’s negotiating tactics, and also an issue for state regulators. When a facility is enough of a bad actor to trigger enforcement action, shouldn’t the Human Services Agency perhaps provide some extra scrutiny?

I guess not. Well, I can’t say for sure. But what I can say is that whatever Donovan and AHS did, it wasn’t enough. Let’s remember that, the next time Donovan puts out a self-congratulatory press release.

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Greeting Card Governance

Typical Vermont community (Not Exactly As Illustrated)

I have to admit I felt a little twinge of the warm fuzzies when I heard about Gov. Phil Scott’s “Vermont LIghts the Way” initiative. I mean, who could resist this pitch:

“I think it’s time to lift our spirits. Let’s get creative and show the world that Vermonters are here for each other and that even through these dark and difficult times, Vermont Lights the Way. …I hope this effort will spread joy and hope, especially for our kids.”

Yeah, mmm, hot cocoa, puppy hugs, flannel blankies, freshly fallen snow snow, plush teddy bears, holiday music, Mom’s chicken soup.

But of course, I’m a cynical old blogger, so my thoughts quickly turned. “What does this have to do with governance?” I asked myself.

Nothing. It’s good politics, that’s all. And there’s nothing wrong with good politics in its place. But this message is aimed at the comfortable among us — the ones with homes and well-stocked pantries, a bit of disposable income and paid-up utility bills, the ones who’d like to feel as though they’re making a difference without leaving the comfort of home and hearth.

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Panic on Church Street

The Church Street Marketplace (Not Exactly As Illustrated)

The good merchants of Burlington’s Church Street are up in arms over an alleged plague of loitering and related bad behavior. Or, as several dozen of them described their charming streetscape in a letter to Chittenden County state senators, “public intoxication, open drug use, public urination and defecation, public sex acts, aggressive and harassing behavior, commandeering and blocking public thoroughfares, and sleeping or camping in both private and public spaces.”

Ick. Well, I haven’t been on Church Street since the pandemic hit, but that sounds more like my old stomping grounds in Detroit (pictured above) than the crown jewel of Vermont downtowns.

Anyway, they are asking for tougher state laws on various abuses of the common. And their lament drew a quick and caustic response from the progressive Twitterverse. “Bicycles & Books” wrote, “Throwing more cops at a problem is never the solution.” Josh Lisenby added, “Merchants want to lock up the poor.” Mairead Catherine suggested a boycott of the merchants.

And this from Chittenden County State’s Attorney Sarah Fair George:

But actually, I feel quite a bit of sympathy for the merchants. They’re suffering from two consecutive seasons, with no end in sight, of greatly reduced foot traffic on the Marketplace. If the pandemic continues much longer, which it seems certain to do, it’s very likely that one-third or more of those merchants will be out of business within months. A lot of people would suffer, a lot of workers would lose jobs, and Church Street would be in danger of losing the critical mass of merchants it needs to remain vibrant.

The merchants can’t do anything about Covid-19, so they’re looking for anything else that might help. But no, making criminals of the least among us is not the answer.

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Can’t solve a problem? Then make it invisible.

(Not exactly as illustrated)

The traffic jams that formed outside “Farmers to Families” food giveaways around Vermont weren’t quite this bad, but they were bad. Embarrassing, appalling, a sign of exactly how much food insecurity exists in our great (but not as great as we like to think) state.

Well, last week, the state found an answer. If you can’t find enough food for your people, at least prevent them from creating a public spectacle. This week, in advance of scheduled food drops in Middlebury (Wednesday), Brattleboro (Thursday) and Morristown (Friday), the state Emergency Operations Center switched to a registration system. You can’t just show up; you have to sign up in advance for specific time slots.

This is definitely a service to those who might otherwise wait in line for hours, their cars idling away throughout. But it also eliminates the politically charged images that have resulted from past giveaways. News coverage, if any, will be focused on grateful recipients and hard-working volunteers rather than the desperation of food-insecure Vermonters or the unprecedented demand on our system of charitable food distribution.

Those pictures were, again, unfortunate for all involved. But they made an undeniable point — underscoring the need for more resources. This, at a time when state anti-hunger organizations are warning that the system could collapse without a fresh infusion of state aid.

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Phil Scott’s charity appears to be violating state tax law

Wheels for Warmth is a great thing. It turns an unutilized resource (winter tires sitting in garages) into money for emergency home heating assistance. It also gives many a Vermonter a chance to buy perfectly good snows on the cheap.

Win-win, and a testament to Phil Scott’s community-mindedness.

But when you run a charitable enterprise, no matter how noble, you have to play by the rules.

Charities that sell stuff to raise money are supposed to collect and pay sales tax. And as far as I can tell, Wheels for Warmth doesn’t do so.

An inquiry to the Tax Department produced the following information courtesy of Kirby Keeton, Tax Policy Analyst Interim General Counsel for the Department.

The state “cannot disclose tax information related to a specific taxpayer,” Keeton wrote. However, it can say whether an entity is registered to collect and pay sales tax.

Wheels for Warmth is not so registered.

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