Tag Archives: Jeb Spaulding

Jobs for the Boys (and Girls)

Patricia Moulton just became the latest high-ranking rat to leave the Good Ship Shumlin. The Commerce Secretary, under whose watch the EB-5 scandal went on undetected for years, has herself a soft landing spot as interim president of Vermont Technical College.

Moulton is one of those seemingly unmovable fixtures of Montpelier life — a species that moves effortlessly between government, private sector, and government-related nonprofits. She’s served in the last two administrations, Douglas and Shumlin; and I wouldn’t be at all surprised if she turned up in a hypothetical Phil Scott cabinet.

What are her credentials to lead an educational institution? Pish tosh. Who needs relevant experience when you’re one of the cross-partisan In Crowd?

“… I can bring to that institution great knowledge about education and workforce for the state of Vermont,” Moulton said in an interview Thursday.

Well, that’s one way to spin it.

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Now that I have their attention

Funny thing happened Thursday, unprecedented in my three-plus years of political blogging.

My sources. Not exactly as illustrated.

My sources. Not exactly as illustrated.

I got calls from not one, not two, but three different top Democrats seeking to gently upbraid me for stuff I’d written this week, and offer some guidance toward alternative views. Their own views, of course.

Which is nice for the ego. They read, and they care.

Also, their messages were valuable. They did offer some good information. But I’m not completely convinced.

The callers offered some pushback on the subject of newsdumps. They insisted that what appear to be newsdumps — the offloading of bad news when people are least likely to see it — were not newsdumps at all, but simply cases of the calendar conspiring against them.

There was a second message: the upcoming round of budget rescissions do not single out Human Services. They don’t deny that AHS is going to feel the pain, but the problem, as they explain it, is that vast areas of the budget are off-limits for rescissions, which makes AHS the only real target of substantial size.

They made some good points. The problem is this: the Shumlin administration has a well-earned reputation for (1) deviousness, (2) political gamesmanship, (3) newsdumps, and (4) targeting Human Services. Their own track record colors my views of recent events. In other words, if I was overly cynical, I put much of the blame on their doorstep.

I’m sure those inside the administration don’t see it that way. For the most part, they honestly believe they’re trying their best to move the state forward through tough times. But the 2014 election should have been a wake-up call: their view of things is often at odds with others’ views. Say, the voters’ views.

Let’s take their points, shall we?

First, on Human Services having to make almost two-thirds of the cuts in the upcoming rescissions. It’s true, but the reason is that AHS takes the lion’s share of general fund money. And only general-fund programs are open to rescission. Schools and transportation don’t get much money from the general fund, for instance.

According to outgoing Administration Secretary Jeb Spaulding, appearing on VPR’s Vermont Edition Friday, AHS accounts for 40% of the total budget — but 75% of General Fund spending.

Which sounds reasonable to me. But…

1. This wouldn’t be the first time the administration targeted AHS. The most notorious case is Shumlin’s ill-fated effort to slash the Earned Income Tax Credit, one of our best bulwarks against the rising tide of income inequality.

2. The rescissions list was released on the Thursday before Thanksgiving. This may or may not have been a newsdump (see below), but it gave little or no opportunity for journalists and bloggers to seek clarification of the raw numbers. When I saw the raw numbers, they looked really, really bad for AHS.

And now, on to newsdumps. I had identified three: the rescissions release, the deadline for submitting rescissions, and the Governor’s release of his single-payer financing plan at the end of this month.

The rescissions release on Thanksgiving Eve wasn’t a newsdump, my callers insist. They had put together the list and informed agency officials earlier that week. Many agencies wanted to tackle the budget-cutting immediately — over the holiday weekend. That meant releasing the list on Wednesday, so the process could begin.

The deadline, Friday Dec. 5, they say, wasn’t a newsdump because they hadn’t planned to release anything on Friday. It was an internal deadline only.

I can accept that. But once again, history informed my cynicism. When I see something bad happening on a Friday or a holiday eve, my Weaselometer begins to howl.

Finally, the long-awaited and catastrophically overdue reveal of the single-payer funding plan (which VTDigger’s Morgan True appears to have uncovered the substance of already) on either Monday December 29 or Tuesday December 30. Many voters will be out of town or otherwise occupied during that time; media outlets will have bare-bones staffing. So of course it looked like a newsdump. 

Not so, insist my callers. They blame the calendar, mostly. You see, the 29th and 30th are on Monday and Tuesday. They couldn’t release it on Friday the 26th, and New Year’s Eve would be universally viewed as a newsdump.

The week before is problematic as well. The 24th, 25th, and 26th are out. Monday the 22nd or Tuesday the 23rd would hardly be any better than the 29th or 30th. And the week before that is too early; the plan may not be completely done by then.

Okay, spin it ahead. New Year’s Day is a Thursday; Jan. 2 is not only the day after a holiday, it’s a Friday, so that’s no good.

Which brings us to Monday the 5th — only two days before the Legislature convenes. That week is likely to be a circus, what with Scott Milne’s Dance of the Seven Veils, various ceremonial activities, and other hard news. (Such as the RAND Corp. report on marijuana legalization.)

The fear, so I’m told, is that a single-payer unveil on Jan. 5 could get lost in a blizzard of news. It would also give lawmakers less time to look it over. And, I’m told, lawmakers wanted to get their hands on it as quickly as possible. Hence, a pre-New Year’s release.

Again, it all makes sense. And again, given the administration’s iffy history, you can understand why an outsider would look at a late-December release and scream “Newsdump!”

This all illustrates how much the administration will have to do, to repair its tattered and battered public image. Much of those batterings were self-inflicted, as the administration acted out of unwarranted hubris and, sometimes, arrogance.

They may not believe they acted badly in the past. But a lot of Vermonters, including a whole lot of liberals, are convinced that they did. That’s why Shumlin’s pre-election approval numbers were so dismal, and why his very expensive campaign hardly moved the numbers at all.

And that’s why I’ve said the Governor should avoid newsdumps or anything that looks like a newsdump, or anything that looks like a political maneuver or a transparently bogus explanation. He’d be better served by standing up in broad daylight and owning the bad news, instead of reinforcing his reputation.

Of course, he’d be far better off by having an administration that didn’t produce so much bad news. But that’s another matter.

Callers, thanks for reading theVPO and taking it seriously. And thanks for calling.

A moment of sanity in the corner office

Apparently the Governor realized it wasn’t a good idea to begin a new biennium with an inter-branch standoff over budget cuts.

The Shumlin administration has decided not to unilaterally cut $6.7 million from the current fiscal year’s budget. The rescissions instead will be included in the executive branch’s budget adjustment proposal to the Legislature in January.

Can we hear a brief rendition of Fanfare For A Single Kazoo?

[Administration Secretary Jeb] Spaulding said the administration agreed to wait on rescissions, but will “slow down” spending in the meantime.

“(G)etting into a fight with the Legislature on this would be counterproductive,” he said in an email.

In the words of some great philosopher somewhere, “Well, DUHHHHH.”

The Administration, for those just joining us, had claimed the authority to cut current-year spending by up to one percent without legislative approval. And, as reported in this space (and, regrettably, nowhere else), the outlined cuts were very heavy on Human Services. Which probably would have caused even more conflict with the Legislature, as it has done on previous occasions when the Administration sought to balance the budget on the backs of the working poor.

Lawmakers weren’t convinced by the Administration’s legal rationale for unilateral action, even though Attorney General Bill Sorrell rubber-stamped it. Legislative Council had a different view:

In a draft memo drafted Nov. 24, Legislative Council attorney Rebecca Wasserman said the rescissions already approved by the Joint Fiscal Committee in August preclude the administration from making unilateral cuts now.

I hate to say it, but I’ll take Wasserman’s word over Sorrell’s. Finance Commissioner Jim Reardon somehow managed to make a big concession sound like a veiled threat:

“We do believe we have the authority based on the consultation with the AG’s office,” Reardon said. “But for the sake of working with the Legislature, we decided we will propose all of the budget adjustments in January.”

“For the sake of working with the Legislature,” meaning, “We let ’em have this one, so they’d better play ball come January.”

Perhaps I read too much into this. And perhaps, in a more cooperative atmosphere, the massive Human Services cuts will be mitigated. We can but hope.

About those rescissions, part 1

On Thanksgiving Eve, the Shumlin Administration took out some trash. And before I go on, may I just say that pre-weekend newsdumps — and especially pre-holiday newsdumps — are a cowardly way to govern? If you guys think you’re smart enough to manage this state, have the courage to own the bad news. A newsdump might help minimize the immediate impact, but you’d be better off to face the bad news head-on. Be honest with the people who elected you.

(There was a similar Administration newsdump the Friday before Labor day. That one was a damning review of the management of Vermont Health Connect’s IT infrastructure. I look forward, not at all, to the news we might get on Christmas Eve.)

This newsdump concerns a second round of budget rescissions, made necessary by shortfalls in income tax revenue. Which were caused by an anemic economic recovery that has left the middle and working classes behind. Stagnant wages, stagnant tax revenue. While the top earners continue to depress their tax bills through loopholes and high deductions.

The Shumlin Administration wants to cut $17 million from this year’s spending. I’ll have more to say about the specifics in a later post. For now, I’m focusing on the Administration’s claim that it can cut $6,7 million without the Legislature’s approval. The Administration has an Attorney General’s opinion that approves its legal argument for doing so.

That doesn’t sit well with top lawmakers:

Legislators on the House and Senate’s Joint Fiscal Committee share the administration’s sense of urgency, but do not believe that the Shumlin administration has the legal authority to make most of the planned cuts. The Legislative Council, which advises lawmakers on legal matters, supports that position.

“The statute does not give them the authority to do this,” said Sen. Jane Kitchel, D-Caledonia, co-chair of the Joint Fiscal Committee.

I guess we can conclude that Governor Shumlin’s post-election period of listening and learning has come to an end. One seemingly obvious result of the razor-thin gubernatorial election was that Shumlin would need to repair relations with the legislature and act in a more cooperative manner.

Seems like a lesson unlearned there. And it’s not exactly a good portent for what’s going to be, at best, a contentious and difficult biennium.

So it was a push, not a jump

Media reports posted after my initial VPO piece on Doug Racine’s departure make it clear that Racine was fired as Human Services Secretary; he did not resign. And he was fired in a sudden and coldblooded way. The best reporting comes from Paul “The Huntsman” Heintz, who got the skinny from the firee himself.

In a phone interview, he said he was summoned to the 5th floor of the Pavilion State Office building at 4 p.m. Monday for a meeting with Shumlin chief of staff Liz Miller and Secretary of Administration Jeb Spaulding.

“I went in and sat down. They said, ‘The governor wants to make a change at your agency.’ I said, ‘Who would that be?’ Jeb looked at me and said, ‘You,’” Racine recalled. “We talked about it for a few minutes and then I went to the office and cleaned out my desk.”

So now we know who wields the hatchet in the corner office. Shumlin did give Racine a call about an hour after the meeting, and it was relatively cordial; but hell, couldn’t he do the actual deed himself? Especially since Racine had handled the hardest and most thankless job in state government for three and a half years?

There was also a Profiles In Courage moment Tuesday afternoon, when Shumlin went kinda wishy-washy on the nature of Racine’s departure, i.e. voluntary or not:

Asked what, specifically, prompted Racine’s exit, Shumlin said, “Specifically answering your question is exactly what I’m not going to do.”

Well, at least it was a head-on refusal to answer instead of the usual “bury ’em in bullshit” routine.

When I call AHS Secretary the “hardest and most thankless job,” here’s what I mean. It handles a whole lot of disparate programs aimed at helping our most unfortunate. It’s a huge agency by Vermont standards. As I noted earlier, it was hit hard by the Douglas Administration’s ill-fated Challenges for Change initiative, not to mention its misadventures with technology contracts (which were at least as bad as Shumlin’s). And it was ground zero for the health care reform effort and all the attendant troubles.

In addition, AHS’ challenges were compounded by Tropical Storm Irene, which left a whole lot of people in need of help — and which scattered the agency’s personnel to rented spaces in multiple communities because of the flooding in Waterbury. And they are still scattered today. Not to mention the flooding and forced closure of the Vermont State Hospital and the ensuing years of chaos in the mental health care system. 

Doug Racine handled all of that with grace and dignity. He kept his nose to the grindstone and almost never uttered a discouraging word in public. I’d think that was a good thing, but apparently he was too quiet for Shumlin’s taste:

According to Racine, the governor wanted a secretary more willing to engage with the news media and interest groups.

“If anything, it was perhaps not being out there enough,” Racine said.

I always thought Racine’s quiet style was perhaps exactly what Shumlin wanted from his longtime political rival. Either that, or Racine himself opted for the low-profile approach because he didn’t want to come across as bitter or as a potential political threat.

As I said in my previous post, I understand the need for a sacrificial lamb. And between the problems with health care and DCYF, I can see why Racine got the axe. But the way it was done? I think Racine deserved better.

You never know what’s gonna stick

Funny thing about blogging. You put a lot of stuff out there, and you have no idea what will make a lasting impact and what will sink like a stone. I’ve had my share of stories I thought were important, but saw them vanish without a trace. My cogent analyses of current politics? In one collective ear and out the other.

And then there’s a little offhand thing I posted in January 2013 after a gubernatorial news conference. At the time, Governor Shumlin had just proposed a tax on break-open tickets — those small-stakes lotteries you can find at fraternal societies and many bars around Vermont. A little meaningless chat about bars and beer ensued, featuring Shumlin, Seven Days’ Paul Heintz, and Admininstration Secretary Jeb Spaulding…

Heintz: Do you ever play the break-open tickets?

Shumlin: Oh yeah, anyone who drinks beer has played break-open tickets.

Heintz: I drink a lot of beer, and I haven’t played any.

Shumlin: Oh yeah? Well, you’re not drinkin’ in the right place.

Jeb Spaulding: You’re drinking those five-dollar beers.

Heintz: Where do you buy them?

Shumlin: Oh, you can get ’em at any club or bar in Vermont. I’m a Windham County boy, so I’ve played ’em in Windham County. Rockingham, the Elks, the Brattleboro Legion. I can take you there if you want, I’ll even buy you a beer. But you’re not gettin’ that Gucci beer. We’re drinkin’, you know, Budweiser.

Okay, I knew the Governor didn’t really mean it. When he starts droppin’ his G’s, he’s putting on his Good Old Vermonter Boy persona, painting himself as a Man of the People. I, however, seizing the opportunity to stir up a teapot tempest, wrote it up on Green Mountain Daily under the title: BREAKING… URGENT… Shumlin Disses Vermont Beer!!!

Hahaha, very funny. Got a few sideways glances from the Governor after that went viral.

Well, apparently my little jape has legs. Today, the Governor has been putting out a series of Tweets about the honestly impressive Vermont brewing sector, which is not only an artistic success but a growing part of our economy. And Neal Goswami, chief State House scribe for the Mitchell Family Organs, replied thusly…

Screen Shot 2014-07-17 at 2.29.02 PM

I am honored, sir, by my apparent inclusion in the Vermont political lexicon. It was one of the least meaningful things I ever wrote, and it’s had a larger ripple effect than any of my meaty, weighty, serious works of commentary. If I died tomorrow, they might just put “Gucci Beer Guy” on my headstone.

And the Governor might happily toss a shovelful of dirt on the casket.