Now comes Auditor Doug Hoffer with all kinds of cheery news about the Agency of Transportation’s road construction effort. His latest performance audit takes a look at VTrans’ work in cost and scheduling of paving projects, and he didn’t find much for former contractor and now Governor Phil Scott to be proud of.
Hoffer looked at 14 major paving projects and found… “significant deviations” in project scheduling, especially in the preliminary engineering phase; “a lack of consistent record-keeping” that made it difficult to determine why delays took place; a lack of performance metrics for scheduling; and while VTrans did fairly well with simpler projects,
… for the more complex projects, VTrans always exceeded the initial cost estimates provided to the Legislature by more than 50 percent and completed them up to six years late.
In a fairly quick hearing on Friday, the House Government Operations and Military Affairs Committee voted 9-3 in favor of a package of election reforms. It was a party line vote with all Democrats in favor, all Republicans opposed, and no Progressives on the committee.
The changes in H.97 (as it is now called) make the package less overtly Democrat-friendly, and add an important improvement for those who need to vote remotely. (Text of bill downloadable from the committee’s webpage.)
The latter first: The bill would allow people to deliver their completed ballots electronically by “a secure online portal developed and maintained by the Secretary of State.” This would make it easier for those who have trouble delivering a ballot in person, including some people with disabilities and — especially — military personnel stationed overseas.
The original bill had drawn criticism for advantaging Democrats largely at the expense of the Progressive Party, but two pro-Dem changes were removed or watered down before the committee vote. The original bill would have barred candidates from running under multiple party labels, which is exactly how many Progressive candidates have won office. It would also have removed limits on donations by a candidate to a political party.
As approved, H.97 would allow candidates to run with multiple labels, but it prescribes the order in which the party names would appear next to the candidate. And donations from a candidate to a party would be capped at $100,000, an increase from the current $10,000.
But the bill, as a whole, remains Democrat-friendly.
There seems to be substantial momentum toward reform of the Vermont Economic Growth Incentive (VEGI) program. Two committee chairs, Democrat Emilie Kornheiser and Republican Michael Marcotte, worked together to craft H.10, which would require much greater transparency in the program among many other things.
That in itself is pretty unusual — leaders of the two major parties cooperating on a big piece of legislation. But what clinches the deal for me is that the Scott administration actually wrote its own version of H.10. It doesn’t usually bother to do that. I take it as a sign that Team Scott thinks some type of reform is inevitable, and they want to influence the process as much as they can. (Both versions of the bill can be accessed via the House Commerce and Economic Development Committee webpage. Archived hearings are on the committee’s YouTube channel.
VEGI is administered by the Vermont Economic Progress Council, a nine-member body including seven gubernatorial appointees. The administration’s version of H.10 was presented by VEPC Executive Director Abbie Sherman, whose interest was clearly in maintaining the current process as much as possible while making pleasant noises about reform. .
Let’s start with the fact that the administration bill would drop the VEGI name and replace it with the decidedly uncatchy Think Vermont Investment Program, or TVIP for short. (Tee-vip? Tuh-vip? Tveep?) When you propose changing the name of an established program, you’re acknowledging that the current name has a bit of stink about it.
Auditor Doug Hoffer, who’s a consistent critic of VEGI because of its lack of transparency and the lack of evidence that it works, is scheduled to testify before House Commerce at 1:00 Wednesday. I’m sure his view will be more comprehensive than mine, but let’s go ahead and take a closer look at VEPC’s version of H.10.
The city of Burlington is in a spot of bother over “numerous errors’ in its Waterfront Tax Increment Financing (TIF) district. According to Auditor Doug Hoffer, the city owes the TIF district $1.2 million and owes the state Education Fund nearly $200,000, because it couldn’t keep proper accounts for its Waterfront TIF. He also found that the city spent $173,000 on bike path improvements that were, uhh, outside the TIF district. Since the total scope of waterfront improvements was $16 million, those mistakes add up to almost 10% of the whole ball of wax. Not inspiring, that.
But Hoffer doesn’t blame Burlington so much as the complex structure of the program itself. In a way, this shouldn’t be surprising; after all, it’s comically difficult to even explain the TIF concept in lay terms, let alone successfully manage one of the damn things.
But heck, let’s give it a shot. A tax increment financing district allows a municipality to incur debt for infrastructure improvements needed for development in the district and pay the debt out of future higher tax revenue. If it works, everybody wins. But the devil’s in the details, and there are hordes of pesky details in Vermont’s TIF program.
Whew. I think that’s in the ballpark at least, but don’t cite me as gospel. The point is, TIFs are complicated as all getout, and Hoffer’s audit indicates that it’s too much for our cities and towns to handle. In his words, ““Managing the complexities of this TIF district proved challenging for even the largest municipality in Vermont.” Says here if we can’t build a program amenable to proper management, maybe we should ashcan the whole thing.
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.
You know it’s serious when a report from State Auditor Doug Hoffer (a) gets a lot of media attention and (b) prompts a chastened response from state officialdom.
That’s just what happened Monday with the release of Hoffer’s performance audit of the Department of Corrections’ prisoner grievance process. A process that was so lacking that Hoffer couldn’t even conduct a full audit because of poor recordkeeping. A process so lacking that to even call it a “process” is an indignity against the English language.
And no, I’m not exaggerating. Hoffer found that DOC records do not “have reliable, basic information to determine the number, type, status or outcome of prisoner grievances.”
Aside from that, Mrs. Lincoln, how was the play?
But wait, there’s more! Inaccurate data, missing records, no submission or response dates, inadequate training for staffers who use the system, and no DOC administrator specifically tasked with managing the grievance process.
It’s a great system if your goal is to avoid accountability.
State Auditor Doug Hoffer has issued a damning indictment of the Vermont Employment Growth Incentive, or VEGI for short. He has, in the past, pointed out the fundamental flaws in the program: the “but for” test at its foundation is impossible to prove and routinely ignored, employers who get these “job creation” grants often fail to actually create jobs, grantees sometimes cut operations or even leave the area despite getting the grants. And while the incentives are big money for the state, they’re peanuts for big employers and they really don’t incentivize anything.
We know that. What we didn’t know — or shall I say, I didn’t know — is that the program is run completely independently by an appointed board. There is no provision in state law for any oversight or review of granting decisions. You can’t take it to court, either. And that board often flouts its own standards. It’s the Wild West.
Funny, this is exactly why Gov. Phil Scott vetoes bill after bill — he decries decision-making by state entities without any legislative or executive review. One would think he’d be leading the charge for VEGI reform. But he’s not, because he’s just fine with giving bags of money to businesses with no strings attached.
Just imagine if a welfare program worked that way: a recipient claims a need but doesn’t have to provide evidence or seek employment. They just get the money.
As if it needed any more emphasis, the September 1 campaign finance reports starkly illustrate the difference in fortune between the Vermont Democratic and Republican Parties. In case you need to be told, the Dems’ war chest is on the left; the VTGOP’s is on the right. The exception is Gov. Phil Scott, who seems to finally be taking the campaign seriously. Maybe he’s a little worried about Brenda Siegel?
Fundraising numbers to date for statewide races besides governor:
Lieutenant Governor: David Zuckerman $236,687, Joe Benning $38,546. That’s the good one for the Republicans.
Treasurer: Mike Pieciak $126,500, H. Brooke Paige 0.
Secretary of State: Sarah Copeland Hanzas $74,078, H. Brooke Paige 0.
Attorney General: Charity Clark $129, 835, Mike Tagliavia 0.
Auditor: Invincible incumbent Doug Hoffer $100 plus a $1,115 surplus from 2020, Rick Morton 0.
Do high courts do Friday newsdumps? It would seem so. The Vermont Supreme Court issued a ruling on Friday, July 1 — heading into a three-day holiday weekend — with massive implications for independent oversight of OneCare Vermont, our favorite too-big-to-fail institution, and for the state auditor’s office.
The newsdump worked like a charm. VTDigger cranked out a quickie same-day story that hit the Internet at a time when lots of people had stopped paying attention to the news. By Tuesday, July 5, the decision had pretty much vanished from public attention. A strong statement from Auditor Doug Hoffer blasting the decision went largely unnoticed. But I sure hope responsible parties in the Legislature have taken note, because something needs to be done to fix this.
The unanimous decision denied Hoffer access to OneCare’s payroll information. He had sought access after OneCare’s payroll and benefits expenses jumped from $8.7 million in fiscal year 2019 to $11.8 million the following year. He understandably wanted to find out why. It’s an issue that should concern us all because OneCare is (a) kind of a rolling experiment that’s (b) playing with massive amounts of public money for which it is (c) not very accountable at all.
I’ll get back to OneCare, our most mysterious of public sector black boxes, but first I want to discuss the Auditor’s part of this. The court ruled that the Auditor has no authority in statute or in contract to access OneCare’s financial records. It asserted that financial oversight belongs solely to the Green Mountain Care Board, which is essentially OneCare’s captive partner in this grand experiment.
Well then, I ask, what in hell do we have an auditor for?
Second in a series on the July 1 campaign finance reports. The first installment covered the race for lieutenant governor.
We’re livin’ in an upside-down world, I tell ya.
There are six campaigns for statewide office. Second from the bottom, from a fundraising perspective, is the race for governor.
Gov. Phil Scott and Brenda Siegel have raised a combined total of $82K. The only cheaper campaign is Auditor Doug Hoffer’s bid for re-election. He has raised precisely zero dollars in the past year. He carried forward a $1,115 surplus from 2020; he’s spent $862 of that, including a $200 donation to the Vermont Democratic Party. I guess he’s not worried about taking on H. Brooke Paige or whatever patsy the VTGOP digs up to take Paige’s place.
Otherwise? The six candidates for lieutenant governor have raised a combined $324K, including a paltry $16K for the two Republicans. The two Democrats running for attorney general check in at $154K. The three Dems competing for Secretary of State have raised a combined $120K. And good ol’ MIke Pieciak, running all by his lonesome for the Democratic nomination to succeed Beth Pearce, has raised $106K.
Meanwhile, the race for governor tootles along below the radar.