Category Archives: technology

The Well-Off Are Flocking to Vermont

This graph is wonderful news for those who think Vermont’s economy needs to grow. (It is, as I’ve written before, very bad news for our housing supply.) The pandemic has made our state the most desirable in the nation for affluent Americans.

More desirable than our famously low-tax neighbor, New Hampshire. More desirable than the Sun Belt or the tax havens of Texas and Florida. We’re Number One, baby!

It’s too soon to tell if this dramatic shift will continue. But if it does, then it’s time to rethink our policies across the board, from taxation to education to broadband to economic incentives.

Continue reading

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?

Continue reading

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!

Continue reading

Mr. Milne’s Recycling Bin

Scott Milne tried to make up for his two previous statewide campaigns, which were remarkably issue-free, by releasing a lavishly illustrated and ridiculously detailed 60-point policy agenda this week.

His Tuesday announcement got lost in what turned out to be a very big news day, including Dr. Anthony Fauci’s guest appearance at Gov. Phil Scott’s Covid-19 briefing and Scott’s veto of the Global Warming Solutions Act.

I felt a little sorry for Milne at the time. But having taken a dip in his mile-wide-but-inch-deep policy pool, I decided it’s probably better for him that this stale batch of recycled ideas didn’t attract much notice. The package is dominated by conventional Republican tropes, failed Scott administration proposals, and plenty of filler to make the agenda seem more impressive than it is. You’d think a guy who’s reinvented himself as an edgy cryptocurrency investor would have some fresh ideas to contribute.

What’s even worse is that Milne completely fails to address some of our most critical challenges. There’s nothing about our raging opioid crisis, not a mention of racism, justice, policing or corrections, and barely a nod to climate change.

Since Milne’s document is searchable, we can quantify that. “Opiates” and “racism” are nowhere to be found. The word “climate” occurs precisely once in the 33-page document. And that’s a reference to Vermont’s economic climate.

After the jump: YOU get a tax incentive! And YOU get a tax incentive! EVERYBODY gets a tax incentive!!!

Continue reading

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!

Continue reading

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.

 

 

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.

Continue reading

I think Phil Scott’s Twitter feed has popped a gasket

Until now, @PhilScott4VT has been a repository of fatuous truisms and sketchy statistics. But today, something weird is going on. Either the Twitter feed has been outsourced to a rogue fortune-cookie factory, or it’s simply gone off the rails.

Don’t believe me? Then explain any of these gems.

Today’s Special: Mixed metaphor Pasta.

Here’s a policy we can all get behind. And push over the cliff.

Yeah, incentivize our hopes. That’s the stuff.

Continue reading

Same song, new verse

Here’s a story ripped, as they say, from the headlines.

It’s about a business venture with an ambitious plan to bring new possibilities to an underserved area of Vermont, with large quantities of money obtained through a federal program.

The venture’s head is a prominent, well-connected Vermont businessman. At one point, he hired a top Shumlin administration official to fill a high-profile executive position. The hire raised some concerns about Montpelier’s “revolving door” between public and private sectors. (The hiree was a woman, and is no longer with the company.)

The venture poured lots of outside money into its project. Eventually, people started noticing that the results were far short of what was promised. Inconvenient questions were raised. But through it all, the head of the venture insisted that nothing was wrong. Indeed, he publicly criticized VTDigger for “unfair” reporting.

Okay, I must be talking about Bill Stenger and Jay Peak, right?

Wrong. 

Vermont’s congressional delegation is seeking information from the federal government on the $116 million broadband project that VTel Wireless started in 2010.

Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., and Rep. Peter Welch, D-Vt., have signed a letter asking whether the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Rural Utilities Service has been holding VTel accountable.

Continue reading

BTV throws a technology pickle party

Throughout its history, information technology has been a man’s world. You’d think the most modern of industries would have relatively enlightened attitudes, but not so.

Disappointing. Maddening. But you’d think that the (allegedly) most enlightened of high-tech wannabes, Burlington, would actively promote the role of women in high tech. It is, after all, the Queen City, yo.

Uh…

Well…

Burlington Mayor Miro Weinberger is trying to revitalize BTV Ignite, the two-year-old initiative to turn the city’s high-speed Internet infrastructure into an economic engine. He’s appointed a new Executive Director; more on that in a moment. There’s also a new Board of Directors, and guess what?

The BTV Ignite Board of Directors (not exactly as illustrated)

The BTV Ignite Board of Directors (not exactly as illustrated)

They’re all men.

Stephen, Dan, Neale, Charles, Peter, Jonathan, and Tom.

Well hey, at least they’ll be able to tell dirty jokes and hold board meetings in the sauna.

Jesus Christ, Miro. Did you even think about this? Couldn’t you have found a token woman, at the very least?

Or maybe ask Neale Lunderville to wear heels?

Continue reading