Category Archives: technology

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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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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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.

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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.

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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?

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Correction: Vermont’s doing better than the FCC thinks

A couple of days ago, I wrote a post about Vermont’s awful performance on broadband Internet access. It was based on the Federal Communications Commission’s most recent figures on broadband availability, which showed 80% of Vermonters don’t have FCC-standard high-speed Internet. (25 MB for downloads, 3 MB for uploads.)

Well, turns out the FCC has it wrong. The actual figure is 29%, not 80%. Which is a whole lot different.

It’s not the FCC’s fault; it was given faulty information by an unnamed state functionary.

“The mapping initiative involved several parties,” explained Jim Porter, Director of the Telecommunications and Connectivity Division of the Vermont Public Service Department. “For the FCC, VCGI [Vermont Center for Geographic Information] was the entity that reported to the FCC. The guy who submitted the data failed to include Comcast.”

That guy.

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Internet access: We’re shooting behind a moving target

Note: This post cited incorrect FCC information. Please read the following post for an update.

Ever since he became Governor, Peter Shumlin has put a high priority on providing high-speed Internet access to everyone in Vermont:

In early January 2011, Shumlin created Connect VT, “an ambitious plan to deliver broadband and cell service to every corner of Vermont,” he said soon after in his State of the State address.

His initial promises were overly optimistic; reaching every nook and cranny of a sparsely-populated, rugged state is a tough task. But in late 2013, Shumlin was able to announce that over 99% of Vermont residences had high-speed Internet.

Hooray, right?

Perhaps not. The Federal Communications Commission tells a completely different story. When you look at the FCC’s state-by-state data for broadband Internet access, Vermont ranks 49th in the nation with 80% of our people lacking broadband. Only Montana is worse, at 87%.

No other state has more than 60% unconnected, and only three others are in the 50s — Arkansas, West Virginia, and Idaho.

So how can the Governor claim 99% high-speed Internet access, while the federal government puts us at a measly 20%?

The secret is how you define “high-speed Internet access.”

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