Category Archives: Internet

The Public Utility Commission Needs an Overhaul

The Vermont Public Utility Commission is truly a curious beastie. If it didn’t exist and you were creating a regulatory body afresh, there is no way on God’s green earth that you’d follow the deeply flawed model of our Earth-1 PUC.

Or should I say “Bizarro Earth”?

The PUC is what they call a “quasi-judicial body.” What this means in practice is that it hides behind a judicial cloak when it’s convenient, and ignores judicial conventions when it’s not.

For those just tuning in, the PUC is a three-member panel whose members serve six-year terms. Candidates are nominated by the governor, vetted by a judicial nominating board and approved by the Senate. By state standards, they are handsomely compensated; PUC Chair Tony Roisman pulls down a tidy $160,763 per year, and the other two members get $107,182 apiece.

The commission is a hugely powerful body that, in the words of its homepage, “regulates the siting of electric and natural gas infrastructure and supervises the rates, quality of service, and overall financial management of Vermont’s public utilities: electric, gas, energy efficiency, telecommunications, cable television (terms of service only, not rates), water, and large wastewater companies.”

That’s, um, quite a lot.

But if you want any insight into its decision-making process, you’re shit out of luck. The commission conceals itself behind its cloak of quasi-judiciality. Its deliberations are conducted behind closed doors. Commissioners refuse to discuss their work because, ahem, they’re quasi-judges.

This makes their jobs easier, but it is decidedly not in the public interest.

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Something Stupid This Way Comes

Yep, it’s time again for another round of The Veepies, our awards for stupidity and/or obtuseness in the public sphere. Got a lovely crop of stupid on offer.

First, we have the It Worked So Splendidly Last Time, Let’s Run It Back Again Award, which goes to the folks responsible for exhuming the cold, rotting carcass of the Sanders Institute. Yep, the Sanders clan’s vanity project think tank is once again open for business, thanks to a big fat chunk o’change from… wait for it… the Bernie Sanders campaign! Gotta do something with all those $27 gifts they couldn’t manage to spend during the actual election season.

For those just joining us, the Sanders Institute was founded in 2016 by Jane Sanders and her son David Driscoll, who — mirabile dictu — emerged from what I’m sure was an exhaustive nationwide search to become SI’s executive director. Well, the Institute posted a bunch of essays (mostly recycled from other media) on its website and had one big conference in 2018, but was shut down in May 2019, sez the AP, “amid criticism that the nonprofit has blurred the lines between family, fundraising and campaigning.” Ya think?

There are a few differences between the original and SI 2.0. Sanders comms guy Mike Cesca told VPR that none of the campaign’s money would go toward pay or bennies for Sanders family members. Which is kind of an admission that they screwed up the first time.

Also, two different spokespeople made reference to “the transition” from winning votes to educating people, which makes you think he’s not running for president again, and makes you wonder whether he’ll run for another Senate term in 2024. The new Institute will also include an archive of Sanders and his family… hmm, sounds like a think tank vanity project.

After the jump: A daycare misfire, a self-inflicted social media disappearance, and incompetent fiber installers.

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Hallquist Hire is Phil Scott At His Best

Ooh, this is embarrassing. From when Republicans saw Hallquist as the enemy.

There is nothing bad to say about Gov. Phil Scott hiring Christine Hallquist as executive director of the newly-minted Vermont Community Broadband Board. It’s the kind of move that makes Scott so likeable to so many people.

How many elected officeholders would hire a former political rival to a high-profile position? Not many. But Scott saw Hallquist as the best person for the job, so he hired her without hesitation. In this day and age, it’s so good to see a politician acting in a completely non-political way, putting policy above politics.

The hire is also noteworthy because it shows that Scott is fully on board with the communications union district model, in which community-based nonprofit CUDs would build fiber connections where no commercial operator had been willing to go.

And, especially if the state is adopting this model, Hallquist is clearly the most capable and experienced person for the post.

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Keep the Cameras On

The House and Senate have been discussing how and when to return to normal operations in the Statehouse. Media coverage has focused on ensuring that reporters have access to any meetings under the Golden Dome. And that’s important.

But there’s one thing that’s more important to far more people, and I haven’t heard beans about it lately.

After their return to the Statehouse, the Legislature should continue livestreaming all hearings and floor sessions, and archiving them all on YouTube.

This would be a bit of a logistical challenge; the committee rooms are cramped, and it’s tough to get a good angle that encompasses all parties. Decent audio quality is also an issue. But here’s the thing: There’s talk of setting up auxiliary rooms in the Statehouse where people could watch a hearing without being in the committee room. That would ease the habitual (and unhealthy) overcrowding at hearings, and provide access to those who feel a little iffy about breathing the same air as a couple dozen others in the teeth of cold and flu season.

Well, if they’re going to send video to auxiliary rooms, there is no reason on Earth why they can’t put the same feed on YouTube. No excuses.

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A Curious Absence of Drama

As I wrote in my last post, this legislative session looked to be a difficult one at its onset. But there’s been a nearly complete lack of drama, as the House and Senate have made their way through allocating federal Covid relief aid, tackling Covid-related challenges, running the Big Bills smoothly through, and also addressing a notable number of issues that could easily have been kicked down the road till next year. As is common practice in the first year of a biennium.

It’s time to give House and Senate leadership a lot of credit for this. Things are getting done with no untimely eruptions, bruised feelings or twisted arms, no visible splits in the majority caucuses. No muss, no fuss.

What makes this more remarkable is that the two leaders, House Speaker Jill Krowinski and Senate President Pro Tem Becca Balint , are each in their first year. Past leadership changes have usually brought rocky times in Year One. Houses-Senate relations get awfully tetchy.

Not this year. And that’s remarkable.

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An Excuse I Never Want to Hear Again

Congratulations to the Senate Judiciary Committee for moving quickly on H.225, the “bupe bill,” decriminalizing possession of small amounts of the opioid that’s used as an alternative to more dangerous drugs. Friday morning’s 5-0 vote was not a surprise; last Friday the committee took a straw poll and came up with the same unanimous count. The bill now heads to the full Senate, where it’s certain to win approval by a landslide.

It was only a couple weeks ago that Senate leadership was signaling a slow play on H.225. The bill had been consigned to the Rules Committee, a place where inconvenient bills go to die. Senate President Pro Tem Becca Balint issued a statement that threw some cold water on the bill:

We did not want to vote it out of Rules until we had a sense of how long testimony and due diligence would take. …The Chairs want to be certain that this bill will [address the opioid crisis].

Well, they got convinced in a hurry, and after very little testimony. Friday’s action came a couple days after the Senate Finance Committee’s forced march to craft a universal broadband bill — something that would usually take weeks, and would often be kicked down to the following year’s session. But legislative leadership was dead set on enacting a broadband bill this year, and now they’re on track to accomplish that ambitious task.

The broadband action followed Judiciary’s approval of H.128, the ban on the “gay panic” defense. That saga ended quickly and quietly, but only after committee members repeatedly made fools of themselves in trying to shoot down the bill.

So they’ve proven, over and over again, that they can meet an imminent deadline when properly motivated. Any seemingly insurmountable obstacle can be overcome. And now, you know what I never want to hear again? Leadership saying they can’t possibly act on an issue because there just isn’t enough time.

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A Forced March Through a Dense Thicket of Legalese

It had to be done and done quickly, and they did it.

The Senate Finance Committee, after hours of lengthy discussions packed into three tedious days, finally moved the big broadband bill Wednesday afternoon. I watched about half of the hearings, and boy, I do not envy the committee at all. It was a seemingly never-ending slog.

The House-passed bill, H.360, got the usual hack-and-whack treatment from Senate Finance; the committee passed a “strike all” version, which meant it killed pretty much the entire bill and substituted its own language. But the two H.360s are not all that different in the grand scheme of things. The differences are mostly in the details, which are ridiculously abundant. There’s no doubt that the House and Senate will reach agreement on a broadband bill. Everyone is determined to get it done this session.

Why was it such a slog? Where do I begin?

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Broadband Is Happening Right Now. But How and By Whom?

Coming soon to an unserved area near you!

Christine Hallquist made a strong but unintentional cargument for universal broadband on Thursday. The former utility executive and gubernatorial candidate is now working to bring broadband to northern Vermont, as administrator for NEK Community Broadband and for Lamoille FiberNet.

Hallquist was a witness at a Thursday hearing on broadband, appearing, as is everyone, via Zoom. And her testimony was delayed by several minutes because of trouble with her Starlink internet connection.

Once she finally managed to be heard, Hallquist made a strong case for achieving universal broadband through the “communication union districts” around the state, including her own.

(She also wins the imaginary “See, I Told You So” award. Several years ago, she was talking up the electric utility infrastructure as the best, easiest and cheapest delivery system for broadband. Lo and behold, that’s the backbone for getting high-speed internet to every corner of the state.)

Broadband is no longer an unrealized dream but a near-future reality, thanks to the Covid pandemic. With many Vermonters working and schooling their children from home, broadband suddenly became a necessity. And the federal government’s Covid relief packages have injected billions into the nationwide broadband project, with hundreds of millions flowing into Vermont’s effort.

But the devil is in the details, and those details are being worked out right now in the Legislature. Anyone interested in broadband should be paying close attention, and giving their lawmakers an earful.

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It’s Amazing What You Can Do With a Billion Dollars

In purely political terms, the Covid pandemic is the best thing that’s ever happened to Gov. Phil Scott. He got to be seen as a decisive leader simply by outperforming the likes of Donald Trump. Throughout the 2020 campaign, he enjoyed a twice-weekly platform on live statewide television and radio. He absolutely dominated every news cycle, and walked to victory in something bigger than a landslide.

And now, state government is swimming in federal relief cash — with more likely on the way. Trump’s CARES Act provided the equivalent of 20 percent of Vermont’s GDP. President Biden’s American Rescue Plan Act is pumping in even more. And if Biden gets his infrastructure bill through, Vermont will get a third massive infusion in less than two years’ time.

The CARES Act alone floated Vermont through 2020 “in aggregate,” as state economist Jeffrey Carr put it. There was pain aplenty, to be sure. But there were winners as well, and the impact was greatly softened by the federal government’s ability (and willingness) to deficit spend. The governor is dead set against raising revenue or increasing the size of state government, but he’s perfectly happy to take whatever the feds will give him.

On Tuesday, Scott unveiled his billion-dollar plan to use a big chunk of the federal ARPA money. It includes just about everything on everybody’s wish list, and provides a huge boost to state initiatives that Scott insisted we couldn’t afford on our own. And the money will be spent over the next four years, which will make it extremely difficult to run against Scott in the next two cycles.

So, hooray for the pandemic!

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BREAKING: Jim Condos puts his pants on one leg at a time

Ah, Vermont’s esteemed Secretary of State… champion of transparency, guardian against election tampering, epitome of the principled politician…

Turns out, he can fall for an Internet scam just like the rest of us.

You may have heard about the Facebook ad for discount chain Costco, which offered customers a $75 coupon if they reposted the ad and provided some personal information.

Err… problem is, it was a fake. The real Costco wasn’t involved, and there was no $75 offer. But a lot of people fell for it, despite the fact that this same offer (or a very similar one) has been posted — and debunked — multiple times in the past.

One of those suckers: Vermont Secretary of State Jim Condos.

Yeah, sorry about that, Jim. No coupon for you!

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