Category Archives: Vermont State House of Representatives

Winning the Speakership was the easy part

Congratulations to Mitzi Johnson, the apparent successor to Shap Smith as Speaker of the House. She pipped House Majority Leader Sarah Copeland-Hanzas at the post. And although her selection must be ratified by the Democratic caucus and then the full House, there’s no real doubt that she will win.

Johnson is whip-smart and highly capable. She was skillful at managing the House Appropriations Committee, which is a hell of a trick.

As for being Speaker, well, she’s about to discover how different and how difficult that job is.

Shap Smith made it look effortless, but there was constant furious activity below the waterline. He also enjoyed the support of an informal cadre of loyal House members who helped him keep tabs on the ebb and flow of lawmaking and the interpersonal dynamics that must be managed effectively if the House is to function. In that regard, a capable inner circle is just as important as the actual caucus leadership.

Johnson won’t have that. She may or may not realize the importance of having that. But the House is a somewhat random gathering of 150 willful souls with 150 agendas. And by “agendas,” i don’t mean policy; I mean unique admixtures of principle, practicality, intellect (or lack thereof), knowledge (or lack thereof), curiosity (or lack thereof), debts payable and receivable, and ludicrously overdeveloped senses of self-preservation..

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So, predictions.

Let’s get something out there up front. I suck at predictions. I’m not particularly plugged into The People or the political establishment of either party. I’m not a statistical expert; I can’t evaluate the polls for insights and/or flaws. I tend to let my heart get in the way. (Yes, I do have a heart. I’ve been tested.) In 2014, I confidently foresaw an easy re-election win for Peter Shumlin. Which is about the only real test for a would-be prognosticator in my roughly five years of being a Vermont Political Observer.

So stack up the disclaimers like firewood before I take a timorous tiptoe out on a short limb and say…

I think Sue Minter is our next governor.

It’ll be close. Might even need to be affirmed by the Legislature, should Bill Lee draw enough votes to keep her under 50 percent.

Up until three weeks ago, I thought Phil Scott would win. Since then, the momentum is all Minter’s.

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Two bites of the apple

The Progressive Party doesn’t have much of a ticket this year. Many of its candidates are running as Democrats because they stand a better chance of winning. Smart tactics in the short term, and something of a worry for Dems. They’re seeing previously “safe” seats peeled off by the Progs, potentially weakening their legislative caucuses.

This year, we have a new twist on that technique: Progressives running as Democrats, losing the primary, and then refiling as Progs for the same contest.

There are four such candidates (that I know of), all running for the House, and all in “safe” Democratic districts. The Two-Biters:

— Jill Charbonneau, Addison-1

— Steve May, Chittenden-1

— Marci Young, Lamoille-Washington

— Carl Etnier, Washington-5

This is of direct interest to me, because I live in one of those districts.

Each person must make up their own mind. Me personally, I’m disinclined to vote for a Two-Biter.

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Shap Sweeps House Honchos

House Speaker Shap Smith has put out an impressive, if not exactly unexpected, list of endorsements in his bid for lieutenant governor. They include the House Majority Leader, the Assistant Majority Leader, plus the chairs of twelve House committees. He already had the backing of a thirteenth chair — himself, head of House Rules.

The only two Shapstainers are Agriculture Committee chair Carolyn Partridge and Republican Transportation chair Patrick Brennan.

Two of the Shapbackers, Tony Klein and Bill Botzow, had previously endorsed Rep. Kesha Ram, but that was before Smith entered the race.

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Don Turner plays hardball

I don’t know if it’s the Hansen effect or what, but lately House Minority Leader Don Turner has adopted a more aggressive stance toward his job. Instead of loudly complaining about the maneuverings of the Democratic majority, he’s now finding opportunities to play the active obstructionist.

This is kind of a new thing in Vermont politics, and is of a piece with how Congressional Republicans act on the national stage.

Turner’s latest exercise in Human Speedbump concerns S.230, the energy siting bill vetoed last week by Governor Shumlin. He has reportedly crafted a “fix” to the bill that would allow him to sign it; but Turner is vowing to block passage in any way he can.

And it ain’t nothing but politics.

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Who’s paying Meg Hansen’s salary?

Yesterday I outlined the inflammatory, far-right views of Meg Hansen, the person handling “strategic communications” for the state House Republican Caucus.

And the more I thought about it, the more I wondered: who’s paying for her services?

It’s extremely unusual for a Vermont caucus — minority or majority — to have any paid staff whatsoever. The House Speaker has one staffer paid by the state; the Senate President Pro Tem historically has one, but John Campbell’s staff was expanded to two because he needed extra help to handle the job. Nobody else in the Legislature has any staff, unless they use their own money.

So, who’s paying Meg Hansen? Short answer: right now, I have no idea. We might find out more on July 15, the next campaign finance filing deadline; for now, the available information raises more questions than it answers.

One thing’s for sure: Vermont Republicans aren’t swimming in money. The VTGOP is perennially short of funds, and can barely keep the lights on at its headquarters.

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The Mormons are coming! The Mormons are coming!

To all those up in arms over Scott Milne’s planned development near Exit 1, or Jesse Sammis’ soon-to-be-downsized proposal at Exit 4, how about this one?

A wealthy Mormon developer is buying land in four towns near the Joseph Smith Memorial in hopes of building a planned community there inspired in part by the founder of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

This doesn't look at all cultish to you, does it?

This doesn’t look at all… cultish, does it?

That’s from the Valley News, which would be Vermont’s best daily newspaper if only it was headquartered in Vermont. After it published a story a few days ago, it was picked up by ol’ buddy BP at Green Mountain Daily. Since then, it’s begun to ripple outwards — as it should. This is a Big Biden Deal.

David Hall has already bought some 900 acores in Royalton, Sharon, Strafford and Tunbridge. His goal is to build a massive development housing “as many as 20,000 people within a few square miles.”

Geesh, talk about changing the Vermont landscape. If fully populated, his hypothetical Mormontown would be the third-largest community in Vermont. Not that we have to panic just yet; he’s looking 30-50 years down the road.

But still. His NewVista Foundation has already invested more than three and a half million dollars in land purchases, and “has about $100 million at its disposal.” That’s enough to carry out the plan, for sure.

If this were to come to pass, it would completely change the character of what is now a largely rural area nestled in the crook of I-89. It would probably lead to continuous development from this area to the Upper Valley. Scott Milne’s plan is dwarfed by comparison.

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State of the State: Tough sledding

Governor Shumlin’s State of the State address wasn’t quite the nothing-burger you might expect from a lame duck. But if early returns are anything to go by, the actual impact of his address may be a lot closer to a nothing-burger.

There were a few notable initiatives and ideas, but most of them got slapped around almost as soon as he left the podium. And I’m not talking about the predictable Republican naysaying; I’m talking about Democratic criticism. In past years, Shumlin has had a very hard time rescuing high-profile initiatives that get off to a rocky start at the Statehouse, and that’s likely to be even more true in his lame-duck year.

Other ideas are sure to garner opposition on January 21, when the Governor delivers his final budget address. That’s when he’ll have to explain how he wants to pay for new or expanded programs that cost money. (As opposed to, say, paid sick leave, which won’t cost the government a dime.) In the past, the Legislature hasn’t reacted kindly to Shumlin’s budget-cutting suggestions (see: Earned Income Tax Credit, 2013), and he hasn’t reacted well to legislative alternatives.

We can break down the new stuff into two categories: items that will cost money, and those that won’t. At least they won’t cost the state any money.

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Greshin cleared; ethical lines remain vague and permissive

Well, the House Ethics Panel quickly disposed of my complaint against Rep. Adam Greshin. I can’t say I’m surprised that he was given a clean bill of ethical health, but I am disappointed.

Reminder: Greshin proposed, and actively lobbied for, an amendment to H.40 that would eliminate a planned increase in funding for Efficiency Vermont, which gets its money from a fee on utility bills. As co-owner of the energy-gobbling Sugarbush ski resort, Greshin stood to profit significantly if his amendment passed.

In my previous post, I covered the questionable process. The panel did its business behind closed doors, which seems an odd move for an ethics panel.

Now it’s time to consider the panel’s decision and reasoning, which leave a lot of room for dubious behavior.

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Another closed door in the People’s House

Constant readers of this blog (Hi, Mom!) will recall that earlier this month, I wrote a letter to the House Ethics Panel asking for a review of Rep. Adam Greshin’s actions regarding H.40, the RESET bill. For less constant readers, my complaint centered on this: Greshin authored an amendment to H.40 stripping away an increase in funding for Efficiency Vermont. (EV had already gotten Public Service Board approval; until this year, legislative review was a mere formality.) He also aggressively lobbied the House and Senate for his amendment.

EV gets its money through a surcharge on utility bills. As co-owner of the Sugarbush Resort, a voracious consumer of electricity ($2 million/year), Greshin stood to gain considerably if his amendment passed.

Well, the Ethics Panel has responded. And as expected, it was a whitewash. Greshin, so they say, did nothing wrong.

I’ll get to the substance of its decision in my next post. First, though, I need to address the process.

Between sending my letter and receiving the Panel’s reply, I didn’t hear anything about it. During the roughly one week between receiving my letter and drafting its ruling, the Panel conducted a review with help from Legislative Counsel. It also met with the House Energy and Natural Resources Committee, and with Greshin himself. (Correction: The panel met with counsel to the House Energy and Natural Resources Committee, but not with the Committee itself.)

None of those meetings were noticed publicly. I was not informed. I was not given the opportunity to be a party to the proceedings.

It seems that the House Ethics Panel has a closed-door policy.

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