Tag Archives: David Deen

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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State Senate trying to Norquist ethics reform

Vermont’s Most Sclerotic Deliberative Body has been taking its time with a proposal to set up a state Ethics Commission. Much more time than they took with legalizing marijuana, and probably longer than they’ll take with the frickin’ budget.

Why the slow play? Well, the Senate’s point person on ethics reform makes it abundantly clear.

Sen. Jeanette White, D-Windham and chairwoman of the Government Operations Committee, said, “Because the press keeps saying that we’re the only state without an ethics commission and clearly we have something to hide … I don’t really believe that.”

Credit to the Associated Press’ Dave Gram for capturing that entry into the Quote of the Year competition.

Jeezum Crow. The Senator in charge of ethics reform doesn’t believe ethics reform is necessary. She blames the media for fomenting “a lack of faith in government officials.”

Methinks the good Senator has been in Montpelier too long. She’s been so deep in the system for so long, she’s lost all perspective.

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Welcome aboard, Governor

Seemingly out of nowhere today, Governor Shumlin threw his support behind the idea of an independent state Ethics Commission. The idea’s gotten a lot of push in recent months, thanks to a string of public-sector embarrassments including (but not limited to) Attorney General Bill Sorrell’s squicky relationships with big national law firms, Senate President Pro Tem John Campbell’s landing a state job after he’d lobbied for its creation, the revelation that longtime lawmaker Norm McAllister is (allegedly) a felony-class sleazeball, and most recently, Brent Raymond’s overnight transformation from EB-5 regulator to EB-5 project manager.

So congratulations, Governor, for finally seeing the bright, glaring, blinding light.

His spokesperson Scott Coriell claims, according to VTDigger, that “Wednesday was the first time, to his knowledge, that the governor had been asked whether he supports such a commission.”

That might be true in the narrowest of senses. But until now, Shumlin has been down on the general idea of tougher ethics standards, insisting that we’re all good Vermonters, we all know each other, and we’re above this sort of tawdry behavior. But hey, better late than never.

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Sometimes, “Throw The Bastards Out” seems like the best option

Well, the reaction has been fast, furious, and predictable. Legislative leaders are, for the most part, decidedly cool to the idea of an independent Ethics Commission. This, in spite of a legislative session that saw, in the words of VTDigger’s Anne Galloway, “one outrage followed another in the waning days.”

Still, State Rep. David Deen, chair of the secretive House Ethics Panel, managed to pull a Sergeant Schultz:

“I think putting something like this in place when we seemingly don’t have a major problem I’m aware of makes me wonder, are you stimulating complaints? Are you creating a problem where one doesn’t exist?”

“Seemingly don’t have a major problem”? I think I owe an apology to Sergeant Schultz.

And then there was the chair of the Senate Government Operations Committee, the gatekeeper for potential ethics reform:

When Sen. Jeannette White, D-Windham, heard about the plan, her first response was “No, no, no, that’s not going to happen.”

Good grief.

It’s things like this that make me believe we’d be better off if we fired all 30 state senators and replaced them with Vermonters chosen by lottery.

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I wrote a letter

On Sunday, I wrote a letter to Rep. David Deen, chair of the House Ethics Panel. I requested a review of Rep. Adam Greshin’s activities surrounding H.40, the RESET renewable energy bill. Greshin had proposed an amendment to freeze funding for Efficiency Vermont, and has vigorously campaigned for its adoption in both the House and Senate.

Greshin is co-owner of the Sugarbush ski resort. As I previously noted in this space:

The ski industry is a voracious consumer of electricity.

Efficiency Vermont is funded by ratepayers, with rates approved by the Public Service Board.

Do I need to connect those dots?

If the Greshin amendment is adopted, his ski resort stands to save a pretty penny on its utility bills. It’s already passed the House; it’s now pending before the Senate.

Potential conflicts abound in a citizen Legislature, and there’s a sizable gray area. The single act of voting for a bill, in my mind, is not in itself grounds for a conflict investigation.

But Greshin’s case is a whole different kettle of fish for two reasons.

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Ethics, shmethics: Legislative edition

Maybe it’s my inner flatlander, accustomed to the sometimes shady dealings in other states’ politics, but I get even more cynical than usual on the subject of ethics in the legislature.

The subject comes to mind today because of Paul Heintz’ excellent column in this week’s Seven Days, which chronicles the fitful, woefully inadequate first steps of the newly minted House Ethics Panel.

Until now, as Heintz reports, “Vermont was one of just 10 states without any sort of internal legislative ethics committee empowered to investigate potential wrongdoing… [and] remains one of just eight states without an external ethics commission.” (Emphasis his.)

The House panel barely qualifies as an overseer of ethics. Its chair, David Deen, hopes to keep investigations secret “to protect from public embarrassment those who are wrongly accused.”

Oh, that’s nice. We wouldn’t want one of our public servants to suffer embarrassment. What say we apply the same standard to court cases? If a lawmaker needs to be shielded from “public embarrassment” over an ethical matter, how much worse is the potential embarrassment of, say, a charge of murder?

I’d also remind the good Representative of something that often gets lost under the Golden Dome of Silence: these people work for us, and should be answerable to us. If that includes the occasional “public embarrassment,” well, tough.

The purest form of insular Statehouse sentiment comes from the Senate, which remains blissfully unencumbered by any sort of ethics committee. President Pro Tem John Campbell assures us that “Vermont is one of the cleanest states.”

No way to prove that, of course.  Not without an ethics panel. Which we don’t need, because John Campbell says so.

I really don’t know if Vermont is a particularly clean state. We certainly have our share of public corruption, especially in situations where no one is on guard — such as the numerous cases of embezzlement by small-town officials or the odd drug addict overseeing a police evidence storage room.

Most of our public servants do have good intentions and work hard for very little reward, but there’s a whole lot of potential for ethical violations baked into our system. Lawmakers routinely cast votes that have an effect on their non-legislative work. They spend a substantial amount of time with lobbyists, and many friendships result. (Campbell is, I’ve been told, best buds with one of the top Black Hats in town.) They depend heavily on those lobbyists for political contributions and for policy advice, since all but the top leaders have no staff support.

To some extent, Vermont has some measure of protection from serious scandal because it’s such a small place. But in other ways, our smallness makes us more vulnerable. Example: the Colchester Police Department brusquely dismissed initial complaints about Tyler Kinney because, well, he was One Of Us and couldn’t possibly have been a thief and addict who compromised countless criminal investigations.

Except he was.

There may be no big undiscovered scandals at the Statehouse, but there is a faintly rancid smell about the clubbiness of the place. It could use the occasional blast of fresh air. And we could use an ethics panel with independence, transparency, and a good sharp set of teeth.

The drift

The legislature is about a quarter of the way through its four-month session, and Governor Shumlin’s proposals are falling like tin ducks in a shooting gallery. Lake Champlain tax plan? Dead. Education plan? “A place to start the conversation.” Payroll tax to close the Medicaid gap? Flatlining.

Not that this is terribly surprising; the governor exited the 2014 election with significantly diminished political capital. So much so that when Shumlin unveiled his proposals last month, the question wasn’t so much whether they would pass or not, as whether he meant them seriously in the first place or knew from the start that they were doomed.

(Evidence for the latter: an education plan that did nothing to provide near-term property tax relief. That, at least, was a non-starter.)

Not sure what else he could have done after his near-defeat. He could have taken the George W. Bush approach, pressing on regardless of his mandate-free victory, but that’s not who he is. Shumlin likes to talk bold and act incrementally.

Now he’s added deference to incrementalism, and it’s up to the Legislature to generate some vision. The consensus-seeking, conflict-avoidant Legislature. I’m not holding my breath.

I do expect our lawmakers to do some good work; I just don’t expect them to produce anything truly impactful. And we face a bunch of issues that call for some strong, progressive action.

Take, for example, the House Fish, Wildlife and Water Resources Committee, chaired by one of the good people of the Statehouse, David Deen. The committee has already ditched Shumlin’s proposed tax hikes to help pay for Lake Champlain cleanup. The fertilizer fee’s down the tubes because the farmers didn’t like it; the fee for stormwater runoff from developed sites is as good as dead because it would be “difficult to implement.”

Instead, Deen’s panel is looking at a smorgasbord of tax and fee hikes — more numerous than Shumlin’s plan, and less directly tied to the sources of Champlain pollution. The governor’s plan was simpler and made more sense. The committee’s approach will open the door to Republican charges that the Dems are just raising taxes wherever they can. Deen is considering at least four separate tax or fee increases instead of Shumlin’s two.

More important than the specifics of the Champlain plan, though, is the strong signal it sends: Lawmakers — even those who are solid on policy — are loath to take risks. Or, as Deen himself put it:

“There are some very strong voices in the hall opposed to it. And we are reacting to political reality around here,” the Westminster Democrat said Friday.

This session is looking like a big fat lost opportunity given that this is an off-year, and new programs or reforms would have a year and a half to take root before lawmakers have to run for re-election. Ya think next year’s gonna be any better?

This is a typical duck-and-cover reaction, but it plays right into the Republicans’ hands. Let’s say Phil Scott runs for Governor, as everybody believes he’s going to do. He’s strongly positioned as a centrist willing to consider all ideas. And he’s a nice guy to boot.

If voters have a choice between the Democrats’ fear-based centrist incrementalism with a bias toward inaction and Phil Scott’s natural centrist incrementalism with a bias toward inaction, which one do you think they’re going to choose?

I hope I’m wrong about this. It’s still early in the session, and there’s more than enough time to come up with at least one piece of solid small-p progressivism. But I’m not holding my breath.