Category Archives: human services

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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That’s right, the woman is smarter

Takeaways from today’s gubernatorial debate on women’s issues, viewable here

1. Bill Lee has nothing to contribute to this campaign.

2. Phil Scott offers empathy, but no ideas or policies on women’s issues.

3. Sue Minter’s getting good at this.

And finally, and most importantly,

4. This debate shows why we need more women in political office.

Let’s take ‘em in order.

Firstly, Bill Lee is a joke of a candidate, even by the oddball standards of Vermont small-party politics. He arrived late, delaying the start of the debate by about 15 minutes. He’d done nothing to prepare. He had little to say on the issues. His answers meandered all over the place. At one point, he appeared to utterly forget the question and just rambled on until his time was up. And here are a few examples of the Spaceman’s forthcoming entry in Bartlett’s:

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Incoherent Rifle-Wielding Man, Blah Blah Blah

In a time when America is averaging more than one mass shooting per day*, the good people of Burlington just suffered through several weeks of a homeless man riding his bike around town with a rifle strapped to his back.

*FBI definition: four or more people shot in a single incident, not including the shooter. We’ve had 29 in July so far. 

Per Seven Days’ Mark Davis, police “found [Malcolm Tanner] to be ‘incoherent,’ and he insisted that laws do not apply to him.” But they did nothing about him because “he did not seem to be breaking any laws.”

Tra la la.

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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.

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Gosh, maybe Vermont isn’t such a bad place after all

We hear a lot of bad news about Vermont, especially from Republicans. They seem to be hoping Vermont will fail, based on their constant bad-mouthing. (Interesting that a plank of Phil Scott’s economic platform is more resources on marketing the state as a place to do business. If Vermont sucked as bad as the VTGOP thinks, any such marketing would be, ahem, lying.)

And then once in a while we get a ray of sunshine piercing through their doom and gloom. Today comes Politico Magazine’s third annual ranking of the 50 states (plus D.C.) in “State of the Union” terms. i.e. which states are in the best (and worst) shape overall.

And where do they rank Vermont?

Third.

Third best in the country.

It should be pointed out here that Politico isn’t exactly leftist. It is, in fact, a bastion of conventional thinking. And this ranking was based on a wide variety of factors: health, education, financial security, unemployment, crime, overall well-being, prosperity. Fourteen categories in all.

Nice little state we’ve got here, eh?

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Phil Scott is right about an “affordability crisis.” He is dead wrong about the causes.

Our Lieutenant Governor is basing his gubernatorial campaign on “the affordability crisis,” the very real phenomenon that has more and more Vermonters pinching every penny and losing ground in areas like saving for retirement and college tuition. Of course, being a Republican, he defines “the affordability crisis” as a matter of burdensome taxation and enterprise-crushing government.

Those may be contributing factors, but they’re not much more than cherries on our affordability sundae. The real, fundamental problem is wage stagnation for the middle and working classes. They’re getting the big squeeze from a financial system that’s benefiting the wealthy at everyone else’s expense. Tax pressures on working Americans are a relatively small factor in the affordability crisis.

And Phil Scott’s agenda will do little to address the fundamental challenges we face. Some of his ideas would actually make things worse.

Evidence galore for the real affordability crisis can be found in Public Assets Institute’s recent report, “State of Working Vermont 2015.” The topline:

… the gross state product as grown since 2010, with a slight dip in 2013. But the rewards of Vermont’s recovery concentrated at the top of the income scale, while everyone else lost ground. In the decade since 2004 median household income fell from $58,328 inflation-adjusted dollars to $54,166.

If the benefits of economic expansion had been shared equally, PAI reports, “median household income would have been nearly $62,000 in 2014 — $7,680 higher than it was.” Under that scenario, we wouldn’t have a middle-class “affordability crisis.”

And it would be impossible for Phil Scott or anyone else to cut taxes enough to make up for that.

Coming up: Charts!

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Koch lapdogs peddle bogus “baby parts” scoop

No sooner does the generally useless Vermont Watchdog score an actual journalistic coup, than it slips back into its usual nut-wing flackatoid ways.

The ‘Dog, for those just joining us, is the Vermont outpost of a 50-state network of right-wing “news” sites funded by the Koch brothers and their allies. Most of its stories are standard right-wing fodder; a prime recent example is its unfounded fearmongering about Russians trying to get Vermont driver privilege cards. (They applied, they got caught, they got no licenses, end of story.) But earlier this month, VW’s Bruce Parker got a legitimate scoop: he broke the story of a backroom legislative deal that netted the Lake Champlain Regional Chamber of Commerce a $100,000 no-bid grant.

A few days later, Parker reported some widely divergent legislative memories on how this grant weaseled its way into law. Also useful information.

Well, enough of the real journalism. Today, it’s trumpeting the notion that state funds “may be supporting the sale of baby body parts” via Planned Parenthood. Note the inclusion of “may be.”

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The downside of subcontracting human services

We had an unintended confluence on the Thursday edition of the Mark Johnson Show, hosted by Yours Truly. Back-to-back interviews with VTDigger’s Morgan True and State Auditor Doug Hoffer turned out to cover some common themes.

True had reported on problems at Rutland Mental Health Services, one of the state’s “designated agencies” for providing social services. Hoffer had just released a very critical performance audit of the Corrections Department’s transitional housing program. I was in the middle of the show when the light bulb went off. Both interviews were kind of about the same thing: Inadequate oversight of human services contractors.

In both cases, an Agency of Human Services program is contracted out to nonprofit agencies that get virtually all their funding from the state. In a way, it’s a mutually captive relationship: the agencies are completely dependent on the state, and the state effectively has no options for replacing a poorly-performing contractor.

In their own way, True and Hoffer found similar problems in different areas of AHS: lack of consistent oversight, gaps in service provision, and inadequate methods for tracking performance. (In the case of RMHS, the situation boiled over into scandal.) The result is a system that looks good from a distance, not so good up close. Its failures are partly due to lax oversight; but we should also consider whether poor contractor performance may also be due, at least in part, to bare-bones funding by the state.

After the show was over, I pondered another issue: What does the Rutland situation have to say, if anything, about the Shumlin administration’s community-based mental health care system? Because those designated agencies are the front-line troops in that effort.

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theVPO Media Crossover Event!

Hey, WDEV’s Mark Johnson is on his annual summer vacation, and I’ll be sitting in for Mark during some of those days. This week, Tuesday the 16th and Wednesday the 17th. I’ll also be in the big chair the 25th, 26th, and 29th. (Please note: When I’m hosting the show, I set my politics aside as much as possible, and give my guests the chance to share their views and ideas. Don’t expect any polemics. That’s not my role on WDEV.)

Guests for the next two days:

9:00 am Tuesday: State Rep. Tom Stevens, D-Waterbury. He recently became president of Downstreet Housing ahd Community Development. We’ll talk about his new gig, the housing issues facing Vermont, and probably touch on some other issues as well.

10:00 am Tuesday: Erica Heilman, creator/host of Rumble Strip Vermont, a podcast that tells Vermonters’ real life stories and explores aspects of Vermont life.

9:00 am Wednesday: Doug Racine, former Lieutenant Governor, State Senator, and Human Services Secretary. He’ll talk about his service in the Shumlin administration, his views on the political scene, and his own thoughts about running for Governor.

10:00 am Wednesday: Ben T. Matchstick and Pete Talbot of the Cardboard Teck Instantute (sic). They’ve invented a working pinball machine made out of cardboard; they hope to develop a gaming platform from their simple base. They just got back from Washington, D.C., where they showcased their invention at a national Maker Faire.

WDEV broadcasts out of Waterbury and can be heard in most of northern and central Vermont on 96.1 FM and 550 AM. The show can be livestreamed online at wdevradio.com. Hope you can join me!