Category Archives: Politics

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.

 

 

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Finding a positive response to the election

Like many other liberals, I’ve been dealing with the pending Caligula Administration with studious avoidance. Not watching the news (not even Rachel), ignoring all the stuff coming out of Washington these days.

Not a healthy long-term solution, but I just can’t spend much time staring into the void without it staring back. Fortunately for me, I write about Vermont politics, so I can remain engaged without focusing on the potential horrors of the next two years.

Also helps that I’m a cis white male, so my immediate freedom, security, and personal safety are not at risk.

But still, not a long-term solution. A correspondent writes:

I still feel physically ill from last week, and am only now dipping back into the news. And trying to figure out what to do that might be useful. And not coming up with a lot yet.

I have some ideas that don’t involve moving to Canada or taking part in ineffectual protests on our safe Vermont streets or the left’s favorite pastime, the circular firing squad. They don’t immediately involve political action of any sort, because it kinda feels toxic right now and there’s plenty of time to plan for 2018’s Return Of The Jedi.

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Do campaigns matter anymore?

On the national level and in Vermont, the Democratic Party had the vastly superior organization. They were solidly networked from grassroots to leadership. They had more paid staff, more field offices, bigger phone banks, more robust GOTV efforts.

Now that it’s all over, those seemingly bulletproof advantages didn’t make a damn bit of difference.

Here in Vermont, as I wrote (and VTDigger’s Jon Margolis sees it the same way), you might as well have had no campaign whatsoever. If we’d had the election a year ago, Phil Scott would have beaten Democrat X by five to ten percentage points on the basis of (a) his popularity and name recognition, and (b) the unpopularity of Governor Shumlin.

And after a campaign of unprecedented length and expense, Phil Scott won by eight percent. Big whoop.

Elsewhere, the 2016 election shuffled some names, but the political landscape remains virtually unchanged. The Dems continue to hold the non-Phil Scott statewide offices and the Legislature’s partisan balance barely moved. For all of Scott’s assertions to the contrary, this was no mandate for his agenda — it was a mandate for him personally. The Republican platform got precisely nowhere except for his candidacy.

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Julie, we hardly knew ye (UPDATED below) (UPDATED again)

Minor sidelight, but entertaining. The Phil Scott campaign has a small but vociferous band of supporters on Twitter. Among the most frequent tweeters are John Quinn, Thomas Joseph, Hayden Dublois, whoever ghostwrites the @PhilScott4VT account, and someone named Julie Kennedy.

jk-bioKennedy presents herself as a dedicated ticket-splitter, a presumed liberal who’s voting for a lot of Democrats — but not Sue Minter. According to her Twitter bio, she lives in Brattleboro and just opened her Twitter account in August of this year.

Remember the “Brattleboro” part, because Julie just screwed up. She posted a photo of her ballot, showing votes for Phil Scott and Randy Brock (more on that below).

But the ballot was not from Brattleboro, it was from Washington County District 1, which includes Northfield and Berlin. More than a hundred miles from Brattleboro.

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Hey, Bernie: the door IS open

The purpose of this post is not to relitigate the events of the Nevada convention or figure out who insulted whom first or whose outrage is the most righteous. It’s not even to parse the subtle nuances of speeches given extemporaneously before large crowds.

No, the purpose is to point out something Bernie Sanders said Tuesday night that’s just plan nonsense. Here it is.

“The Democratic Party is going to have to make a very, very, profound and important decision. It can do the right thing and open its doors and welcome into the party people who are prepared to fight for real economic and social change. That is the Democratic Party I want to see.” Sanders said.

“I say to the leadership of the Democratic Party: Open the doors, let the people in! Or the other option for the Democratic Party, which I see as a very sad and tragic option is to choose and maintain its status quo structure, remain dependent on big money campaign contributions and be a party with limited participation and limited energy,” he said.

Now, I am not a party person. I have never been a member of any political party. Sitting through party meetings, which I sometimes do for the sake of this gig, makes me itchy. Also, I’m not a mingler and I’m uncomfortable in rooms full of people. So there’s that.

But I have witnessed party proceedings, and here’s one thing you can take to the bank: The doors of every political party are wide open, all the time, to all comers.

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Our sclerotic Constitution

In the past, I’ve tossed around the notion that Vermont’s Founding Fathers were drunk when they wrote our Constitution. Partly, that’s a matter of historic record. In those days, everyone drank to what we’d consider wretched excess; and it was common practice for men to gather in taverns to talk politics. As a simple matter of probability, those guys were hammered when they drafted our founding document.

But there’s also the matter of content. This has come up in the context of our current ethics debate, in which many lawmakers have asserted that the Constitution gives the Legislature sole authority over the ethics of its members. That seems like a terrible idea on its face.

And kind of undemocratic as well. And it’s far from the only undemocratic thread in our Constitution. At the risk of being overly cynical, you might even conclude that the Constitution was written by political elites to provide themselves a measure of protection from those pesky voters.

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A departure not to be overlooked

A new name has joined the growing list of political departures in Vermont. Last night, Rep. Tim Jerman informed constituents in Essex that he would not seek re-election to the House. He’s been in the House for twelve years, and has been a valued player in the Democratic caucus leadership team.

Nothing dramatic in his announcement; “It’s time to pass the torch,” he wrote in a message to his email list. “We have a strong bench locally to keep us moving forward.”

Tim’s not flashy or self-promoting. He’s what I call a glue guy, one of those people who tries to make the party and the system work better. Those people don’t grab headlines, but they play a crucial role in the political process. The job of the next House Speaker just got a little bit harder.

He’s a vice chair of the Vermont Democratic Party. For the past several years, he has served as the liaison between the House Democratic caucus and the state party executive committee. Myself, I hope he sticks around in his party role; it can use good people like him, people with more principle than ego.