Tag Archives: Cairn Cross

Sooner or later the VTGOP will have to address Rutland

Got a lot of blowback on my recent post about the Syrian refugee debate in Rutland. More than one correspondent kindly pointed out that I had misidentified Mayor Chris Louras as a Republican.

They were right and I was wrong. He switched to independent several years ago.

But contrary to their claims, my argument still stands. The refugee proposal is likely to be the dominant issue in next March’s city elections, and if opponents put up candidates who would reject the plan, then the Vermont Republican Party and its hypothetical Governor Phil Scott would face a critical choice:

Do they support the refugee plan, or do they embrace the Trumpian fear tactics of the opponents?

That doesn’t change because Chris Louras is an independent, and I’ma tell you why.

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Shap the Triangulator

“It’s probably better to have him inside the tent pissing out, than outside the tent pissing in.” 

                      –Lyndon B. Johnson

ICYMI, House Speaker Shap Smith has done something a bit unusual on two key issues, education funding and economic development. He solicited public input, and created special brainstorming committees to evaluate ideas.

Let's… Make… a Deal!

Let’s… Make… a Deal!

The existence of these committees is interesting enough; it smacks of a legislative leader angling for the bigger stage. This process amounts to an informal, back-office policy shop, and gives Smith  a very central role in crafting policy instead of, say, waiting for Governor Shumlin to initiate. His work with the committees also can’t help but endear him to some pretty prominent people.

More evidence of ambition can be found the makeup of the two groups. The education panel included ten current and former lawmakers: Democrats, Republicans, and independents. Good for building nonpartisan street cred.

The economy group included many of The Great And Good of Vermont’s business community, including Betsy Bishop of the Vermont Chamber of Commerce, Tom Torti of the Lake Champlain Regional Chamber of Commerce, and (Lord help us) Bruce Lisman of Campaign for Vermont Prosperity. The chair, Paul Ralston, is a former Democratic legislator who alienated many of his caucus mates during his single term*, and ended by partnering with Republican Rep. Heidi Scheuermann in Vision to Action Vermont, a PAC that’s just about as nonpartisan as Campaign for Vermont.

*I’ve heard him described as a junior-grade version of Peter Galbraith for his self-centered ways. Love his coffee, though.  

The group also includes a healthy share of relatively progressive businessfolks, like Andrew Savage of All Earth Renewables, Andrea Cohen of Vermont Businesses for Social Responsibility, and Cairn Cross of FreshTracks Capital. But there was no one from the labor movement, and no one from any progressive or environmental organization.

It smacks of triangulation, the favored strategery of upwardly mobile Democrats and the bane of liberals. And it smacks of building networks of support among the deep-pocketed donor class. Which tends to lead to centrist policymaking, not to mention one of Gov. Shumlin’s favorite pastime, kicking the hippies.

I’m not ready to call Smith a sellout. A recent report on VPR lists some ideas emerging from the job-creation committee, and they actually sound pretty good: identifying ways to unlock capital for small businesses and startups, matching technical-school curricula with the needs of Vermont tech companies. Also, Cross is quoted as saying that Vermont’s business climate has more to do with quality of life and a clean environment than the old bromides of tax breaks and deregulation.

That sounds like a relatively progressive approach to economic development. And truth be told, there’s a need for a strategy that cuts through the standard liberal/business debate — that encourages job growth without abandoning liberal principles.

For instance, there is probably room for — and please don’t shoot me — some modest reform in the permitting process. The very phrase “permit reform” has been uttered by so many Republicans for so many years, it raises immediate hackles in the liberal community. Can we find a way to ease the process for the kinds of enterprise that create good jobs and contribute to our economic vitality without simply greasing the skids for strip malls and subdivisions? We probably can, and maybe — just maybe — Smith is trying to break the usual pattern and find a third way.

I’m willing to wait and see what emerges before passing judgment on the process and on Smith’s motivations.

As for the political question: Is Shap Smith running for governor? I don’t know. And at this point, he probably doesn’t either. But he’s certainly developing relationships and laying the groundwork for a future run, should he decide to do so.

Not all businesses think alike. Or, Mr. Barlow, your table is ready.

We have a winner in theVPO’s first-ever giveaway.

In some secluded rendezvous…

In some secluded rendezvous…

As you may recall, earlier this week the Lake Champlain Regional Chamber of Commerce made an ass of itself: one day, its president issued a clarion call for action on Lake Champlain, and the next, its lobbyist strenuously insisted that the LCRCC would fight tax increases to fund cleanup efforts.

Hypocrisy, thine initials are LCRCC. Anyway, in light of that, I offered a free dinner to the first lobbyist who accepted a measure of financial responsibility for his/her group, industry, or membership.

Well, we have a winner, and it’s just who you might expect: Dan Barlow of Vermont Businesses for Social Responsibility.

Dan didn’t nominate himself; a friend in the media, who’d just love to see me spend my money, pointed out to me that at a Statehouse press conference yesterday, Barlow (speaking for VBSR) endorsed Gov. Shumlin’s proposal to close the Medicaid cost gap through a payroll tax. I wasn’t at the presser, but Barlow’s statement has been reported by VTDigger, which is good enough for me.

So Dan, if you want to strap on the ol’ feed bag, let me know.

This brings to mind something that’s been bugging me for a few days. On Monday, the usually impeccable Anne Galloway of VTDigger posted a story entitled “LEGISLATIVE MANDATES HAMPERING RECOVERY, BUSINESS GROUPS SAY.” The story recapped the usual litany of complaints about taxes and costs and regulations — and that hoary old chestnut, “uncertainty.”

Which is just bullshit. Life, by its very nature, is uncertain. Potential legislative changes are one of the smaller aspects of it. To cite just one obvious example: the price of oil. Who predicted its nearly 50% drop in recent months? That alone plunged a fatal dagger into Vermont Gas’ pipeline to Ticonderoga. Fuel costs are a much bigger factor in running a business than anything the legislature might reasonably do.

Galloway’s piece could have been written by a functionary in Jim Harrison’s back office, so one-sided was it. The only note of dissent was a brief comment by House Speaker Shap Smith in the very last paragraph.

Now, you could make an argument for this article as part of VTDigger’s ongoing coverage of the legislature: let’s take a look at how business groups are feeling about the course of the session. Other views will get a hearing elsewhere.

But even on that narrow pretext, the article falls short. By focusing on The Usual Suspects, it fails to reflect the range of views within the unmonolithic “business community.”

It doesn’t, for example, quote VBSR. Not even a little bit. It doesn’t quote business types like Small Dog’s Don Mayer or Fresh Tracks Capital’s Cairn Cross, who have much more nuanced views of the potentially positive role of government in economic development. It doesn’t mention former State Rep. Paul Ralston of Vermont Coffee Company, who’s chairing Shap Smith’s working group on improving the economy. It sure as hell doesn’t quote Ben Cohen or Jerry Greenfield.

EVen if you accept the premise that an overview of the business community is a worthwhile use of VTDigger’s media platform, this article was woefully incomplete. A rare FAIL for a diligent and trustworthy news source.

A powerful display of self-interest, enlightened and otherwise

Lt. Gov. Phil Scott And Friends held their little Vermont Economy Pitch thingy last night. I couldn’t attend, more’s the pity. Scanning the available news sources, I see only two reports: one from VPR’s Steve Zind, and one from WCAX’s Eva McKend.

The event’s purpose was to solicit input from the business community on how to improve Vermont’s economy. (And, thinking cynically, position Scott as the business community’s leading advocate in Montpelier.)

Because, as we all know, no one in Montpelier ever listens to the business community. Truly, they are the voiceless among us. Cough, choke.

From what I read, the event failed to produce anything like a consensus. Quite the opposite: it seemingly delivered a parade of self-interest. Speaker after speaker suggested ideas aimed at helping his or her own sector.

Zind has a businessman from Stowe calling for more promotion of tourism. There’s a shocker.

On the other hand, representatives of manufacturing and technology called for the state to market itself less as a rural throwback and more as a great place to live and run a business.

Enough with the covered bridges already! Let’s fill our tourism brochures with pictures of factories, subdivisions, and strip malls!

Here’s my favorite:

Frank Cioffi of the Lake Champlain Chamber of Commerce suggested that up to 10 businesses in each county be designated strategic employers and the state should focus on helping them.

How about that. The number-one cheerleader for IBM says we should focus on the state’s biggest businesses. Seems short-sighted to me; for one thing, big employers often make siting decisions without regard to Vermont policy. Including IBM itself, of course. For another, it’s reactive instead of proactive: we’d be helping the already established, instead of encouraging the up-and-comers who are actually creating new jobs. But what else would you expect from Frank Cioffi?

And here’s a tidbit from WCAX:

Matthew Dodds of Brandthropology says the state has a branding problem…

Gee, the head of a firm that helps clients “steward brands intelligently” thinks Vermont needs better stewardship of its brand.

Next we have an educator who says the biggest problem is, you guessed it, education.

Vermont Technical College President Dan Smith… said employers are eager for the college’s graduates, but financial woes caused by the low level of state funding are preventing VTC from meeting the demand for skilled workers.

One more, and I hate to do this because he’s a good guy. But Cairn Cross of Fresh Tracks Capital, believes the problem is inadequate access to capital. (I do give him credit for spotlighting a single statute, the Licensed Lender Law, as a roadblock. Far better than the usual “cut regulations, lower taxes, permit reform” blah-blah-blah.)

I’m sure there’s some wisdom in all these suggestions, but it adds up to a “Blind Men and the Elephant” scenario, with speakers interpreting the situation in light of their own viewpoints.

VPR’s Zind does report that there were some “recurring themes,” including job training, making housing more affordable, and (yes) access to capital.

But there’s not much new there. And the business community isn’t helping its cause in Montpelier if they’re all preaching from their own separate Scriptures.