A Plan for Thinking About Creating a Process for Possibly Doing Something Years From Now

(Not Exactly As Illustrated.)

Vermont’s public schools aren’t quite this bad, but many districts are burdened by years of deferred maintenance and replacement. The situation has gotten worse in the last decade-plus. And it won’t get better anytime soon. And that’s assuming that the Legislature finally takes action on a bill that would lay the foundation for maybe starting to address the problem a few years from now.

The background: Until 2007, the state of Vermont devoted roughly one-third of its capital budget to public school projects. That year, according to the bill’s text, the Legislature “suspended state aid for school construction in order to permit the Secretary of Education and the Commissioner of Finance and Management to recommend a sustainable plan for state aid for school construction.”

Since then, crickets. And a steadily growing list of needs, and many students learning in unsafe conditions. (See: Burlington High School’s precipitate relocation to the former Macy’s Department Store.) To again quote the bill, “the backlog… has resulted in unsafe and unhealthy learning environments and disparities in the quality of education between wealthier communities and communities in need across the state.”

Which, if unaddressed, could spark a lawsuit invoking the precedent of the Brigham decision. Because, duhh, affluent districts can afford to undertake capital projects while poorer districts are left to hang. Take one of those unfortunates, add an opportunistic (or idealistic, if you prefer) lawyer, and the state finds itself in court. In the uncomfortable position of defending inequity.

Two House committees, Education and Corrections/Institutions, have been trying for three years to identify a solution. Which would either involve (1) cutting deeply into the state’s capital budget or (2) finding a substantial pot of money. Last year they started a bill through the Legislature, but it stalled out because of the onset of Covid-19.

So it’s back this year. Bill 21-0782 is a “committee bill” being crafted by House Education, current text available here.

To be clear, the bill doesn’t invest any funds in school construction. No, we have to start these things very small and roll them out slowly.

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More Carnage at the VDP

According to sources in Vermont Democratic circles, the party’s executive director Scott McNeil has resigned after a vote of “no confidence” from the other paid staffers.

His resignation follows that of ex-staffer Kevin Burgess, who left the party because the organization essentially had its head up its ass.

McNeil came on board in the fall of 2019 after the most recent party scandal — the embezzlement of party funds by former staffer Brandon Batham. McNeil was touted by then-VDP chair Terje Anderson as a bright young man who would organize the hell out of the place.

Guess not.

Unlike Burgess, McNeil has yet to be scrubbed from the party’s website. They’re probably hoping to keep this under wraps until the VDP’s executive committee meets Tuesday night, when the mucky-mucks will presumably try to get their story straight.

Putting the “Ick” in “Democratic”

Well, it finally happened. After years and years of Vermont Democratic Party staffers walking out the door at a rapid rate while keeping their mouths shut for the sake of future career prospects, one of ’em finally busted loose.

Last week, Kevin Burgess resigned from his party post, and his resignation letter was full of words like “toxic,” “failure,” “unorganized,” “poorly managed,” “old boys club,” and “no vision, no plan, and no structure.”

Other than that, Mrs. Lincoln, how was the play?

Burgess must have been well and truly fed up, considering that he moved to Vermont less than six months ago — and he knew that sending his letter would ensure that he’d have to move back out of state. Hope he had a short-term lease.

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Three Atonements

Ah, traditional values.

In the same week when a state lawmaker denied the existence of systemic racism in Vermont, there were hearings on three separate bills designed to atone for some of the most racist passages in state history.

Rep. Art Peterson, R-Of Course, opened his yap and revealed the hatred within during a Wednesday hearing on H.210, which would address racial disparities in health care. If you want details, click the link above. I’ll just note that Peterson (also known for opposing the display of a Black Lives Matter flag) entered the Legislature after narrowly defeating one of the most decent men in the Legislature, Dave Potter, last fall. Definitely not an improvement.

Let’s take the three bills one at a time, shall we?

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An Unsettling Incident in Senate Finance

Senate Finance Committee chair Ann Cummings is a mixed bag. She’s not the most imaginative or energetic policymaker; she barely bothers to campaign and waltzes to re-election every two years. She’s one of the many veteran senators with a very well-developed sense of entitlement.

On the other hand, she knows her stuff. That’s nothing to sneeze at when it comes to issues as complex as taxes and state revenue.

But that didn’t seem to be the case during a Thursday committee hearing. Quite the opposite; she was shockingly uninformed on one of the biggest financial issues facing state government in 2021. I couldn’t believe it at first, but then she did it again.

The subject was S.59, a bill introduced by Sen. Cheryl Hooker and four other senators. The bill is an attempt to address the glaring shortfalls in the state teachers’ and public employees’ pension funds — an issue brought to the forefront by Treasurer Beth Pearce this year. After having defended the funds throughout her tenure, she started ringing the alarm bell on funding shortfalls and advocating substantial changes.

The Dem-dominated Legislature now faces a choice between finding a big new pot of money for the funds, and imposing pain on two of the party’s most important constituencies. S.59 opts for the former; it would add a 3% income tax surcharge on Vermonters with incomes of $500,000 or more, and devote the revenue to filling the hole in the pension funds. Sen. Ruth Hardy, a member of Senate Finance and an S.59 co-sponsor, presented an initial look at the bill. It didn’t go well.

Pearce’s pivot has been the unexpected policy story of 2021 (so far). She’s been making the rounds of relevant legislative committees, laying out the problems and presenting lawmakers with the unpleasant policy choice described in the previous paragraph. On February 4, she offered her pension testimony to Senate Finance.

One week later, Cummings made it clear she didn’t have a clue about Pearce’s position or the status of the pension plans.

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Straw Men and Uppity Women (UPDATED)

So the big question on #vtpoli Twitter today was: Did Public Safety Commissioner Michael Schirling call Rep. Tanya Vyhovsky “uppity”?

Short answer: Yeah, kinda.

See note below: Schirling has issued a kinda-apology.

It happened in a Thursday hearing by the House Judiciary and Government Operations committees, to consider a statewide use-of-force policy for law enforcement personnel. I didn’t monitor the hearing live, but after seeing some outraged tweets, I listened to the passage in question. (One of the benefits of the Zoom Legislature is that all hearings are streamed live, and archived, on YouTube. I hope they continue the practice after We All Return To Whatever Normal Is.)

Vyhovsky and Schirling had a lengthy colloquy about current policy and practice. She questioned whether police should be trained, “first and foremost,” in de-escalation tactics instead of resorting to force. Schirling acknowledged the need to review training practices, but said her premise (that police use force more often than they should because of the training they receive) was dead wrong.

I’ll go through the confab in more detail after the jump, but first we’ll cut to the chase. At the end of the back-and-forth, Schirling made reference to “the somewhat uppity exchange that the Representative and I had.” He paused before “uppity.” I think he was searching for the right word. He chose the wrong one.

He did not actually refer to Vyhovsky as “uppity,” but that’s how he characterized their discussion. The problem is, “uppity” is often used to describe women or people of color who don’t “know their place.” It definitely has a pejorative connotation. And I doubt he would characterize himself as “uppity.”

Schirling committed another offense, albeit a very common one, elsewhere in the exchange. He consistently misinterpreted Vyhovsky’s points and instead whaled away at straw men of his own devising. He didn’t take her arguments seriously. Which is a subtler kind of sexism than calling someone “uppity.”

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Tell me again why we can’t defund the police

One of the homey little touches in my local newspaper, the Times Argus, is the regular listing from the police blotter. This is labeled “a sampler” from the log; I can’t say how they choose what they print. I’d assume it’s somewhat representative.

Well, if it is, then Montpelier could probably get by with a couple fewer cops. The latest Police Log largely contains calls that didn’t require an armed response, and every log is simliar in content. Let’s run it down, shall we?

Feb. 1: On Northfield Street, a report of someone having seizures who was using alcohol and Valium was unfounded.

Well, ehh. Better handled by a trained social worker. Which is one of the ideas offered by the “Defund the Police” movement: Fewer cops and more social worker/counselor types.

A vehicle broke down on Main Street.

I’d suggest calling Bob’s Sunoco. Very prompt towing service. Or AAA if you’re a member.

Someone from Oregon called to report their Vermont phone number was prank called. They were told to contact their local police.

Yeah, no.

Feb. 2: A trash can was blocking a sidewalk plow on Pearl Street.

Get out of the truck and move the damn thing.

After the jump: The carnage continues.

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Adventures in Bureaucracy, Capitol Security Division

“Bureaucracy” is usually a pejorative term meaning excessive complication and expense, especially in the public sector. That’s one side of it, for sure. On the other hand, the public’s business must inevitably involve some level of bureaucracy.

Take, for example, security in Montpelier’s Capitol Complex. The map above shows it almost exactly. The borders, more or less, are the Winooski River in the south, Bailey Avenue on the west, Terrace Street and somewhere behind the Statehouse on the north, and Governor Aiken Street/Taylor Street to the east. It’s a mix of state buildings, privately owned buildings, lawns and parking lots. The state properties include all three branches of government plus offices for statewide elected officials.

Security in the area involves numerous entities, including the Capitol Police, the Department of Buildings and General Services, the judiciary’s security team, the Montpelier Police Department, the Washington County Sheriff’s office, and the Vermont State Police.

That’s a lot of bureaucracies, and they need seamless coordination to provide effective security. This was the subject of a Tuesday hearing before the Senate Institutions Committee which, frankly, was bone-dry at times — but nonetheless crucial, if we’re to have the best security in and around the Capitol.

Which has become much more urgent in recent years, with frequent demonstrations in and around the Statehouse and the threat of potentially violent protests around President Biden’s election and inauguration.

Security protocols for the complex are laid out in a Memorandum of Understanding involving the Capitol Police, BGS and judicial branch security. The most recent version was crafted in 2016, and committee chair Joe Benning believes there’s a pressing need to “rebuild [the MOU] from scratch.” He wants to come up with a draft MOU by the end of this month.

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Any room for expanded opioid treatment in the budget?

Just askin’.

It’s clear that opioid use disorder has gotten more prevalent since the pandemic began, both nationally and in Vermont. The Centers for Disease Control published a report in December that said overdose deaths rose sharply after the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic, due to “a larger supply of illegal drugs, reduced access to addiction and overdose treatment, and the lethality of synthetic fentanyl.” A study published in Population Health Management reports that, while testing for illicit drugs plummeted in the early weeks of the pandemic, positive test results for opioids went through the roof.

The American Medical Association says that “More than 40 states have reported increases in opioid-related mortality as well as ongoing concerns for those with a mental illness or substance use disorder,” and recommended action “to remove barriers to evidence-based treatment for those with a substance use disorder as well as for harm reduction services.”

Which leads me to the question posed above.

Maybe there has been an expansion of treatment, harm reduction and availability of naloxone, buprenorphine and other relevant medications. Maybe the feds’ Covid relief bills brought some funding to the states for such programs. Maybe the state acted on its own to fight this aspect of the pandemic’s impact on society.

But if they have, it’s news to me.

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Maybe We’re Finally On Our Way to a Functioning Mental Health System

“Temporary facility,” well beyond its sell-by date.

Congratulations to the Scott administration for finally making a long-overdue commitment to the state’s mental health system. Its FY22 capital budget includes $11.6 million to build a replacement to the rattletrap pictured above. That, in all its prefab glory, is the Middlesex Therapeutic Community Residence, which houses people who are transitioning from psychiatric hospitalization to independent living.

The MTCR was built in the aftermath of Tropical Storm Irene, which flooded the old state psychiatric hospital in Waterbury. It was thrown up quickly using a pair of modular units, and opened in 2013 as a stopgap. Its time has come and gone.

It’s also too small for demand. Its seven beds are almost always full. The new digs would have 16 beds. The idea is that a larger step-down facility would allow more patients to be discharged from hospitals sooner, freeing up those beds and (hopefully) eliminating the constant issue of severely ill patients being parked in emergency rooms for lack of psychiatric beds.

This all sends me down Memory Lane. I’ve been following the state’s woeful efforts to rebuild the system since 2011. In the wake of Irene, the Shumlin administration announced plans to craft a new, much more community-oriented system. Such a system would theoretically require fewer inpatient beds because more people would get treatment sooner, before they got really sick.

Shumlin’s original plan for a new psychiatric hospital called for 16 beds. At the same time, embarrassingly, the then-medical director for the mental health department Dr. Jay Batra was saying the new hospital should be at least as large as Waterbury’s 50-plus beds.

At the time, administration officials pooh-poohed Batra.

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