“Culture Change” at DOC is a Moral Imperative

More evidence that the long-awaited “culture change” at the Vermont Department of Corrections is still purely conceptual: A new study shows that the Southern State Correctional Facility at Springfield is a hellhole for inmates and staff alike.

It’s bad. Really, really bad. It’s not only an administrative and regulatory failure, it’s a moral failure. It reflects badly on anyone who’s had anything to do with our prison system in recent times: DOC officials, successive governors, union leadership, and the legislators with oversight responsibility. Anyone else? The Judiciary? Prosecutors?

Abigail Crocker, co-founder of the Justice Research Initiative, found many of the study’s results “alarming.” I think that’s an understatement.

One of those findings: 37% of the prison population, and 30% of prison staff, have had suicidal ideations.

So. In a place that’s supposed to be preparing inmates for productive re-entry into society, more than one-third of them are in despair or painfully close to it.

Well, you might say, of course people serving hard time might feel bad. But then you have to explain that 30% figure among staff, which indicates that the prison is just about as horrible for the workers as for the inmates.

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Oh Boy, What Are the Canaan Schools Up To Now? (UPDATED)

Update! Canaan Superintendent Nathan Freeman sent me an email saying that the “Civil Rights Day’ designation was a mistake that’s now been corrected. His full explanation can be found below.

Hey, everybody! Three-day weekend! Monday is Civil Rights Day!

Uhhh… what’s that again?

Yeah, “Civil Rights Day,” the preferred appellation among those who aren’t quite sure about that Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. guy. Kind of a commie, wasn’t he? Definitely a troublemaker. I guess we have to give “them” a holiday, though.

The above image is from the calendar of the Canaan School District, which apparently cannot abide Dr. King’s name. Yes, Canaan, the former employer of Education Secretary Dan French and, lest we forget, the only district in Vermont that never adopted a mask mandate, even during the worst of the pandemic.

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In Which Let’s Grow Kids Suddenly Discovers That Phil Scott’s Child Care Advocacy is Mostly Lip Service

Let’s Grow Kids” has been around the block a few times. It is, according to VTDigger’s Final Reading, “the state’s leading child care advocacy group.” There’s no way they don’t know the score.

How to explain, then, that LGK endorsed Gov. Phil Scott for re-election and did not endorse his Democratic challenger Brenda Siegel?

If you come up with an explanation for that, then riddle me this: How is it that LGK is shocked and disappointed that the governor still holds to his consistent position — that he wants to do something to improve child care but he won’t sign on to tax hikes or LGK’s benchmarks for progress? In the words of VTDigger’s Final Reading:

Scott has long called for additional investments in child care, but never on the scale that advocates argue will be necessary to make a real dent in the problem. Crucially, he’s remained consistent in his belief that the state does not need to levy new broad-based taxes to expand access.

Key words: “remained consistent.” His stance cannot possibly be a surprise to LGK leadership or anyone else who’s been paying attention. It couldn’t have been a surprise when LGK was deciding on its endorsements last year. It’s not only his approach to child care; it’s his default on any social issue. He acknowledges the need, but refuses to commit actual resources to the task. Or actual effort, for that matter.

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I Do Believe Somebody’s Finally Listening to Doug Hoffer

Sometimes I wonder how Doug Hoffer keeps going. He issues report after report, audit after audit, only to see them routinely dismissed by state officials and ignored by the Legislature. This is especially bad when it comes to state business incentive programs, which appear unkillable in spite of a complete lack of evidence that they accomplish anything. And, as Hoffer points out, the programs don’t even require evidence. Decisions are often unreviewable by anyone else, and crucial information is kept private as a statutory deference to business interests.

But now, as a new biennium dawns, there are signs that Hoffer is finally having an impact.

First, there’s H.10, a bill that would require much more transparency in the Vermont Economic Growth Incentive program, which may or may not produce any actual, you know, economic growth. A similar bill got nowhere in the last biennium, but this time its sponsor, Rep. Emilie Kornheiser, is the newly-minted chair of the House Ways & Means Committee. Which is to say, she’s got some freshly acquired heft. And H.10 is co-sponsored by Rep. Michael Marcotte, the Republican chair of the House Committee on Commerce and Economic Development, which is where the bill will be heading.

Bipartisanship, it’s a beautiful thing. But if you listen closely, you can hear Gov. Phil Scott’s legal counsel Jaye Pershing Johnson furiously leafing through the books, searching for a constitutional pretext to oppose the bill. If H.10 does get through the House and Senate, a gubernatorial veto seems likely. After all, the governor is a devoted friend to the business community and he absolutely looooooves him some business incentive programs.

If H.10 gets through the House, it will land in the Senate Economic Development Committee. Former chair Michael Sirotkin was a staunch believer in incentive programs, and it’s easy to imagine him dropping the bill into the circular file. It should be a different story under his successor, Sen. Kesha Ram Hinsdale.

Second, there’s H.24, which would give the auditor’s office greater access to information about entities that get state contracts. The bill is meant to counteract a Vermont Supreme Court decision that denied Hoffer access to payroll information at OneCare Vermont.

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Mea Culpa, Mea Maxima Culpa

Turns out that in writing my post “Paul Dame Measures Once, Cuts Twice,” I myself was guilty of measuring once and cutting twice.

In his weekly screed to VTGOP members, Dame had some complaints about how the Democratic majority had reshuffled committee memberships and structure. One of them was about the Senate Natural Resources and Energy Committee. Dame bemoaned the absence of Republicans on said committee, and I snarked back that Republican Sen. Richard Westman was on SNRE.

Well, he’s not. Dame was right. No Republicans. What’s more, the new committee looks to be substantially to the left of the previous version, thanks to the additions of new Senators Anne Watson and Becca White.

Dame remains wrong about the other stuff, but that doesn’t excuse my mistake. I was wrong, and I apologize. I’ll add a correction to the post itself.

Paul Dame Measures Once, Cuts Twice (Updated with CORRECTION)

Update! Dame’s essay has been posted on True North Reports. The “Donahue” typo is fixed, but nothing else.

Update Update. I got something badly wrong. I wrote that Sen. Richard Westman is a Republican presence on the Senate Natural Resources and Energy Committee. He is not. Dame was right about that, and I apologize for my mistake.

I could write a blogpost every week about VTGOP Chair Paul Dame’s weekly email to party members, but that would be a big waste of my time and yours. Once in a while, though, it’s too good to pass up.

Take this week’s message. Please, take it. It’s entitled “Democrat Steamrollers” because (1) he’d rather be ungrammatical than refer to the Democratic Party as “Democratic,” and (2) he sees the Democratic majorities in the Legislature running roughshod over everything. In his essay, he takes three big swings and misses all three. Yer Out!

Dame’s complaints begin with the reassigning of Rep. Anne Donahue from the Health Care Committee to Human Services. The House majority had “punished” Donahue “by stripping her of her [Health Care] Vice Chair position and assigning her to another committee entirely.”

A few things. First, he’s deeply concerned about Rep. Donahue’s status but he couldn’t be bothered to spell her name correctly. That’s right, he called her “Donohue.”

Second, exiling Donahue to Human Services is a pretty damn soft landing. That committee is also heavily involved with mental health care, so she’ll still have a chance to put her knowledge and passion to good use.

Third, the Dems’ alleged machinations are picayune compared to what Dame’s fellow Republicans in the U.S. House are doing with their majority. So far, I’ve heard no hint that Speaker Jill Krowinski has ordered a bunch of investigations of Gov. Phil Scott’s family.

Finally, whatever the Democrats may have done to reduce Republican influence is nothing compared to what the Republicans did to themselves by running an incompetent campaign and allowing the Dems to win a supermajority!

Enough of that. Let’s get on to the real whoppers.

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Nothing to See Here, Just Dozens More Covid Deaths

I’ll give you one guess on which day the Vermont Department of Health chose to reveal that it had undercounted Covid-19 deaths in 2022 by a mere 86.

If you said “Friday,” well, you know your newsdumps.

The Health Department announced that its pandemic death toll was now 877, up from the previous 791. And the increase meant that 2022 was the deadliest year of the pandemic in Vermont.

Isn’t it nice to know that we’re over this whole Covid thing? And with a scary new variant on the march, too.

But you know what’s bothering me? One of the stated reasons for the undercount. Health Commissioner Dr. Mark “Nothing to See Here” Levine said his department had fewer staffers compiling Covid data than earlier in the pandemic.

So, not enough staff to keep good data? Great.

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Shocker! Politician Discovers Politics In… Politics!

Rep. Anne Donahue is having a sad.

According to VTDigger’s excellent Final Reading, Donahue believes she’s the victim of political retaliation.

During the campaign, Donahue was the primary public voice of the anti-abortion movement seeking to defeat Article 22, the reproductive rights amendment. It struck me as a bit risky. After all, Donahue has long been a respected presence, known for her capacity for hard work and her tenacious activism on mental health issues. She’s served on two committees — Human Services and Health Care — that touch on those issues, which was a recognition of her skills and expertise. She was even elevated to vice chair of Health Care, a notable achievement for a member of the minority caucus.

But now she finds herself shuffled back to Human Services and stripped of committee leadership. And she’s crying foul. She believes the change is a simple matter of political retaliation for her strong opposition to Article 22.

Maybe she’s right. I don’t know. But if she is right, so what?

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The Best Part of It Was This Guy

After almost an hour of pomp and circumstance (as befits the Green Mountain Boys’ home turf, actually no), Gov. Phil Scott was sworn into office on Thursday and delivered his fourth inaugural address.

We’ll get to all that, but first let’s deal with the highlight of the day: François Clemmons, actor, singer, writer, teacher, the friendly cop in Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood, and Vermont treasure, singing the national anthem with joy, spirit, and power. Good stuff.

(Skip to the 28th minute and enjoy.)

As for the inaugural… on the Phil Scott “Meh” Scale, it was… slightly better than “meh.” He laid out a series of issues that went beyond the usual stuff about workforce and demographics. Oh, those things were in there too, but so were climate change, housing, the opioid epidemic, mental health, and “accountability” in law enforcement. (Trigger warning: His vision of that issue comes straight out of the law ‘n order playbook.)

There was a blessed lack of snide remarks about those who disagree with him, but his customary implication that “working together” means abandoning your ideas in favor of his.

The unifying message of the speech was that we must do more to help rural Vermont catch up with the bigger communities in quality of life and economic opportunity. As I listened to him, I started to realize something: This is a false dichotomy.

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The Inaugural Address You Won’t Be Hearing

Gov. Phil Scott will deliver his fourth inaugural address Thursday afternoon. It’s likely to be another boilerplate session full of the same ol’, same ol’. Here’s the speech he ought to give, but won’t.

My fellow Vermonters, here we are again. My thanks to the voters who gave me their overwhelming support. I am humbled by their trust in my leadership.

These same voters gave the Democratic Party unprecedented majorities in the Legislature. This result may seem baffling from the outside, but I believe the voters were sending a strong and clear message: Get together, figure it out, and act with the interests of Vermonters above all other considerations.

I can claim a mandate. So can legislative Democrats. We should not argue about whose mandate is more meaningful; we should accept the obvious decision of the voters that we must work together to make Vermont a more livable, prosperous, and dynamic place. A better place to live, work, and raise a family. A place doing its best to battle the effects of climate change and environmental degradation. A place where every Vermonter, regardless of circumstances, can live secure, productive lives.

Right now, working together is more important than ever. We face many challenges that present both peril and opportunity. We can’t waste time and energy sniping at each other. Working together means fighting for principle but always listening to the other side, and being open to the idea that your idea might be better than mine.

At times, I have fallen short of that standard. As you all know, I own the all-time record for gubernatorial vetoes. Sometimes a veto is necessary, but every single veto represents a failure to work together and be open to ideas that are not my own.

From this day forward, I commit myself to a new era of cooperation across party lines. An era where we won’t just talk about bipartisanship, we will live it every single day.

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