Category Archives: Phil Scott

Let Us Now Praise Doomed Policy Proposals

The fine folks at the Vermont ACLU got together Tuesday to unveil a plan that would cut the state’s inmate population by hundreds — which would, among other things, allow Vermont to bring its out-of-state inmates back home. (It’d also save money in a bloated corrections budget.)

Great idea. And in the words of Rice University Prof. Quincy Maddox, “Ain’t nothin’ gon’ happen.”

Seriously, I have to admire the dedication of these public interest advocates who do all kinds of research and put together plausible policy proposals in professional-quality brochures and pdfs that you just know are destined to get the bone-saw treatment in the legislative abbatoir. (Not on the official public tour.)

The plan calls for an end to cash bail (at any moment, hundreds of Vermonters are behind bars for failure to post bail), expanding alternatives to incarceration, better treatment for mental illness and substance use disorders, sentencing and prosecutorial reform, decriminalization of certain offenses including sex work, and better options for released inmates.

For years now, our political leaders have paid lip service to the notion of bringing all our inmates back home. But even as we’ve seen scandals and problems and questionable policies at out-of-state prisons, our leaders have failed to follow through.

This time, as usual, there’s plenty of lip service to be had.

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Caution in the face of crisis

Gov. Phil Scott has taken something of a ribbing on The Twitter Machine for saying that when it comes to climate change, “I’m not looking to reinvent the wheel, I’m not looking to come out with something dramatic,”

Because heaven forfend we should respond to a crisis with “something dramatic.” I mean, if your house is on fire, do you really want the fire department waking up the neighborhood with their sirens and flashers? Do you want firefighters trampling all over your lawn?

Scott’s comment was in a truly dispiriting article by VTDigger’s Elizabeth Gribkoff about how state leaders have given up on meeting Vermont’s near-term climate goals, including a 2007 law which mandates a 50% reduction (from 1992 levels) in greenhouse gas emissions by the year 2028 and a goal of weatherizing 80,000 Vermont homes by, ahem, next year. (Of course, the legislature had the foresight to impose no penalties for breaking the GHG law, so no harm, no foul, right?)

More on Our Cautious Governor in a moment. But first I’d like to point out that legislative leadership doesn’t look any better. Senate President Pro Tem Tim Ashe, The State’s Most Conservative Progressive, talked of “a pretty serious conceptual shift” that kinda-sorta makes those goals… irrelevant?

As Ashe put it, “And so we might think about things differently today than we did when those particular goals were made in terms of timing and strategies.”

Umm, okay. For her part, House Speaker Mitzi Johnson meets the challenge with a profusion of past participles: “In order to have met that goal, we needed to have been keeping closer track of it all along the way,” said Johnson.

I get it. We’re gonna bullshit our way out of the crisis.

In the meantime, I look forward to the passage of legislation officially removing our climate goals from the law. It’d be honest, if nothing else.

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State ethics panel whitewashes its own past

This week, the Vermont State Ethics Commission withdrew its October 2018 advisory opinion about Gov. Phil Scott’s relationship with DuBois Construction, the firm he co-owned before becoming governor. It was a thorough exercise in retconning: The panel retroactively changed the rules of its own game.

Ironic, isn’t it, that a government body that’s all about ethics would try to whitewash its own past. It has even removed the original opinion from its website, replacing it with the following brief statement:

The Vermont State Ethics Commission at its September 4, 2019 meeting approved Executor Director Larry Novins’ recommendation to withdraw Advisory Opinion 18-01 issued on October 1, 2018. The opinion discussed the governor’s financial relationship with his former company which contracts with the State of Vermont. The Commission concluded that the process used at the time was incorrect.

Yeah, great, whatever. I don’t know why the commission chose to make this move almost a year after the fact. I suspect (but cannot prove) that there was pressure from the Scott administration to remove this blemish from the gov’s record. After all, Scott and his minions seem far more concerned about the opinion than anyone else in state government or politics. The voters certainly didn’t care when they overwhelmingly re-elected the guy last November.

To recap the DuBois saga… When Scott became governor, he had to divest himself of his half-ownership in DuBois, which frequently bids on state contracts. His $2.5 million stake represented the lion’s share of his own net worth.

The simplest remedy was to sell his share. Problem is, DuBois’ net worth is tied up in land, buildings and equipment. And a $2.5 million bank loan would have been a millstone around DuBois’ neck. Scott’s solution: He financed the loan himself.

That removed him from ownership and management. However, it tied up most of his net worth in a long-term loan to DuBois, and it provided a nice $75,000 per month year income stream from the company’s monthly payments. In short, Scott had no ownership interest, but he still had a huge financial interest in DuBois’ prosperity.

And that’s clearly a violation of the state ethics code as it’s currently written.

Of course, part of the commission’s retconning exercise is a rewrite of the ethics code. Something tells me it will be carefully crafted to put DuBois-style arrangements in the clear. The other part is a rewrite of its internal processes, which will prevent future cases like l’affaire Scott.

The commission’s current processes were established by legislation in 2018. Those processes occur entirely behind closed doors, exempt from open-meetings and public-records law — with one exception: The issuance of advisory opinions at the request of state officials, employees, or anyone else. Those opinions were the only commission function subject to public release.

It was the “anyone else” that triggered all this mess. The Vermont Public Interest Research Group requested an advisory opinion instead of filing a complaint, because VPIRG wanted the end product to be made public. And it got exactly what it wanted. The state ethics commission ruled that the DuBois deal was in violation of the ethics code — and released that opinion, as it was bound to do.

The opinion was not enforceable. It was purely advisory. But Scott didn’t like it, not one little bit.

Ironically enough, neither did Democratic lawmakers, who might have been expected to exploit the opinion for political gain. Instead, legislative leaders sided with the governor, and raked the commission over the coals during the 2019 session. Their intent, they asserted, had never been to allow outsiders to seek advisory opinions. Well, they had only themselves to blame; they wrote the law that allowed such a move. The commission made submissive noises and promised to make changes, so the legislature dropped any effort to rewrite the law.

And now the commission is following through on the submission routine.

Let me make one thing clear. I don’t suspect the governor of any actual wrongdoing. He’s an honest guy, and it would take a determined (and criminal) effort to subvert the state’s contracting process.

But the ethics code is designed to prevent the appearance of conflict as well as actual conflict itself. I know Scott was between a rock and a hard place on how to divest from DuBois. But ethical standards exist for a reason.

Retconning the standards to benefit a single individual who’s in a tough spot is fundamentally antithetical to the purpose of having an ethics code in the first place. It’s just one more sign that no one in state government is actually serious about ethics — they just want to make it look like they’re serious, so folks like me and VPIRG will shut our yaps and go away.

 

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.

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.

 

 

The Boys’ Club of Vermont Political Media

In what turned out to be my final column for Seven Days, I wrote about the lack of ethnic and racial diversity in Vermont media organizations. Seven Days and Vermont Public Radio have no people of color in their newsrooms; VTDigger has one; the Burlington Free Press has two.

I had originally intended to cover gender equity as well, but available space would not allow. I would have followed up in a future column if I still had a job, but you know. So I’ll use my available platform instead.

Vermont media score better on gender equity, including in management and ownership, than on race or ethnicity. But there’s one glaring exception to that relatively rosy picture: The people who cover Vermont politics and policy are almost exclusively men.

During the 2019 legislative session, the Statehouse press corps included three men from Seven Days, two men from VPR, male reporters for the state’s three leading TV stations* and a male-leaning group from Digger. Its three Statehouse generalists were men (Colin Meyn, Xander Landen and Kit Norton), as was political columnist Jon Margolis. Digger policy specialists Lola Duffort and Elizabeth Gribkoff were often present, but not usually at gubernatorial pressers. McCullum was under the dome only occasionally, as other duties at the Free Press took precedence.

*Me, Taylor Dobbs, Kevin McCallum, Peter Hirschfeld, Bob Kinzel, Neal Goswami, Stewart Ledbetter and Spencer Conlin.

That’s a lotta sausage.

Feminist champion Gov. Phil Scott pointed out this fact at one of his weekly press conferences earlier this year. The subject was boosting STEM (Science, technology, engineering, math*) education in Vermont public schools. One reporter asked if the new initiative included any effort to address the broad and persistent gender gap in those fields. Scott looked around the assembled reporters, who included a bunch of men plus McCullum, and commented, “Well, there are a lot of fields that could use more gender equity.”

His observation was echoed by House Majority Leader Jill Krowinski (D-Burlington). “When I think about the press conferences I attended, the majority of the time all the reporters were male,” she said. “It’s important that the press corps looks like the people they’re writing about. There can be implicit bias.”

There is evidence of such bias. Krowinski cites the 2020 budget, which included a one-time $6 million boost in chid care subsidies. It was an important step on a key priority — but it got almost no coverage in the press.  Except for an article written by, well whad’ya know, Lola Duffort.

Advocates say the new money for subsidies will make a real difference on the ground. The state’s current caseload for subsidies is about 8,000 kids a month, and 2,700 of them should see their benefit increase, according to an analysis by Let’s Grow Kids.

Nothing to sneeze at. Or ignore, just because mens’ minds are less occupied with child care.

In the category of Digger Giveth and Digger Taketh Away, Krowinski cites an infamous Margolis essay about paid family leave and the minimum wage. Margolis wrote that paid leave “particularly benefits women,” which is horseshit unless you believe that family responsibilities are naturally the province of women. He then went on to assert that Johnson’s support for paid leave over minimum wage was because “she is entirely female.”

Yeah, those darn women, always thinking with their uteruses.

When I asked VPR news director Sarah Ashworth what we’re missing in our coverage because of the lack of women, she replied: “We know that we don’t know which stories we’re not seeing or hearing. It’s a blindspot. You don’t know what it would look like with a more diverse press corps.”

Within the political press corps is the tiny contingent of columnists, which basically consists of Margolis’ part-time gig plus whoever fills my seat at Seven Days. And that position, just like our Congressional delegation, has never been filled by a woman.

“There is not a lack of women who could fill those roles,” said Krowinski. “Do they not apply? Have they not been invited in?”

Good question. My take: It’s not a conscious effort to make political coverage a Man’s World. But even if an employer creates an open, fair process, it’s often not enough. Women face barriers that men do not in all the stages before they get to the door of a prospective employer. That requires conscious action to encourage women applicants and hire them whenever possible.

And lest you scoff at the idea of implicit bias, let’s take a brief visit to the world of symphony orchestras. The Guardian:

As late as 1970, the top five orchestras in the U.S. had fewer than 5% women. It wasn’t until 1980 that any of these top orchestras had 10% female musicians. But by 1997 they were up to 25% and today some of them are well into the 30s.

What changed? One very simple thing. In the late 70s, those orchestras began holding blind auditions for musicians. Those with hiring authority couldn’t see the gender or race of any applicant. And suddenly, a lot more women were getting hired. Just like that.

Funny thing about Vermont’s gender imbalance is, if you go back a few years the equity picture was a lot better.

“We’ve lost Candace Page, Nancy Remsen, Terri Hallenbeck, Alicia Freese [all from Seven Days], Elizabeth Hewitt, Erin Mansfield [Digger] and now Jess Aloe [Free Press], just in the last couple of years,” Ledbetter said.  “Most have been replaced by men.”

This is a problem for Ledbetter as host of Vermont Public Television’s “Vermont This Week.” He usually ends up with male-heavy panels because of the male-heavy pool he draws from. “It’s not intentional,” he said. “I’d love to have [the panels] be perfectly balanced. It’s up to the people who hire in our news organizations.”

Yes, it is. Our own recent past is proof that women can write about politics, and write damn well. The hiring decisions for this relatively small pool of jobs is spread over several separate entities, which makes it difficult to single out any one as a special offender. But we do need more women covering state policy and politics. Starting with my replacement as “Fair Game” columnist. The boys have had that perch to themselves for far too long.

*”Math” was originally, and wrongly, written as “medicine.”

Change of address

 

 

On a hill under a raven sky
I have no idea exactly what I’ve drawn
Some kind of change, some kind of spinning away
With every single line moving further out in time

— Brian Eno, “Spinning Away”

It’s been a hell of a ride.

I started blogging almost exactly five years ago, out of a kind of professional desperation. There’d been some dead ends, a seeming lack of opportunity in the ever-shrinking media landscape. So, on the invitation of John Odum, I joined the gang at Green Mountain Daily and started blogging about Vermont politics.

And I loved it. I loved using my brain and my experience to reflect on the political scene. I loved playing with language and form. So I just kinda kept on doing it, slowly building a reputation and an audience.

In the summer of 2014 I went solo, launching this blog out of a feeling that I was too dominant a voice at GMD. Too much of me, not enough of the variety of viewpoints that the blog was designed to provide.

And I wanted to captain my own ship.

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