Tag Archives: Kevin Mullin

The nice and the necessary

Congrats to the House Republican Caucus, which finally came up with something like a budget plan, on the very day the House Appropriations Committee passed a budget. Three observations to begin:

— The committee vote was 11-0. Even so, the Republicans were lambasting the budget even before the vote was taken. Are the committee’s Republican members hypocrites, or is it harder to be a simple-minded partisan when the rubber hits the road and you’re in a small room with your Democratic colleagues, than when you’re facing the camera with fellow Republicans?

— The Republicans clearly didn’t take the budget-writing process very seriously, since they waited until Approps had finished its work before offering a single specific cut. Even worse, during the process Republicans frequently objected to cuts proposed by Democrats — again, without suggesting alternatives.

— The Republicans’ budget plan is unworkable on its face. Its major initiative is a call for zero growth, but that’s (a) impossible because some programs are growing, like it or not (Lake Champlain cleanup, for instance), and (b) an abdication of the Legislature’s responsibility to draw up a budget. The responsible course, as Approps chair Mitzi Johnson has pointed out, is to fulfill the legislature’s duty and make the hard choices. Across-the-board slashing is the coward’s way out.

The GOP caucus did identify some cuts they’d like to make — finally. Most of them are short-sighted as well as mean-spirited:

The cuts [House Minority Leader Don] Turner put on the table Monday include eliminating grants to substance abuse recovery centers, scrapping a childcare subsidy for poor mothers, cutting funding for state colleges by 1 percent, and taking $5 million from a fund that would otherwise provide college aid to Vermont students.

Republicans also say spending reductions on items such as the renter rebate, financial assistance for health insurance and the Vermont Women’s Commission are preferable to increasing revenues that would otherwise be needed to fund levels recommended for those programs in Gov. Peter Shumlin’s budget.

Okay, let’s make it harder for addicts to get clean, harder for poor mothers to hold down a job, make higher education less affordable, and make health insurance less accessible. All those cuts would save money in the short term, but cause even more expensive social damage in the long term. The Democrats are trying to walk a fine line, and craft a budget that’s not fiscally irresponsible while still helping to make Vermont a better place to live.

Which brings me to something that Senate Minority Leader Joe Benning said last Friday on The Mark Johnson Show. I don’t have the exact quote, but the gist was, “There are things that are necessary, and things that are ‘nice.’ At a time like this, we cannot do the things that are ‘nice.'”

That sounds good and responsible, but the devil is in the definitions.

Do you think low-income heating assistance is nice or necessary?

How about broadening access to health care? A social obligation, or an extra?

Let’s talk substance abuse treatment, at a time when Vermont is in the throes of an addiction epidemic. Necessary or nice?

The good Senator apparently believes all these things fall into the “nice” category. Many of us don’t agree.

Okay, now let’s look at some items that aren’t on the Republican cut list — and weren’t on the Democrats’ either, for that matter. Necessary or nice — you make the call!

— The state giving $2.5 million to GlobalFoundries, a move that will do nothing to keep the company in the state. On a worldwide corporate scale, that’s nothing. It amounts to a burnt offering meant to propitiate the corporate gods. And it takes a big leap of faith to think it’ll have any effect whatsoever. Necessary?

— The state continuing to let unclaimed bottle deposits go to bottling companies. That’s a $2 million item, I’ve been told. Is that a necessary giveaway? Hell, I wouldn’t even class that one as “nice.” “Noxious” is closer to the mark.

— When ski resorts purchase major equipment, they don’t have to pay sales tax. That’s another $2 million a year. Is that necessary, in any definition of the word?

— For that matter, we’re letting the ski industry make a fortune thanks in large part to bargain-basement leases of public lands. The industry is understandably loath to reopen the leases, but there are ways to get it done. Instead, we’re letting them ride. Necessary? Hell no. Nice? Only for the resort owners.

— Vermont is one of only a handful of states that exempts dietary supplements from the sales tax. Nice or necessary?

In addition, the state gives quite a bit of money in small grants to private and corporate groups. Here’s a few examples:

— The Vermont Technology Alliance gets a $52,250 grant. Why?

— The Vermont Captive Insurance Association gets $50,000 to pay for “promotional assistance.” I realize the industry is a strong positive for Vermont, but the grant is certainly not necessary.

— The Vermont Ski Areas Association gets $28,500. This is the same group that refuses to reopen the leases. Why are we rewarding their intransigence?

That’s just a few I happen to know about. I’m sure there’s lots more. Are grants to industry “necessary” or “nice”? If we’re asking the poor and downtrodden to take major hits to the social safety net, couldn’t we ask our industries to accept at least a haircut?

And if we want to promote business in Vermont, why not take back all these penny-ante grants, put part of the money into a coordinated statewide campaign (like the one proposed by Lt. Gov. Phil Scott’s economic-development crew) and bank the rest?

Also, the state Senate is considering a bill that would make Vermont’s economic development incentives easier to access. Supporters, such as Republican Sen. Kevin Mullin, posit the bill as an investment in Vermont’s future. 

Which is fine. But so is increasing access to higher education, providing child care for working mothers, and helping addicts get clean. Those social programs aren’t just “giveaways,” they are investments in a safer, healthier, more productive Vermont.

Unfortunately, they are investments on behalf of Vermont’s voiceless. LIHEAP recipients and working mothers and addicts and prison inmates can’t hire lobbyists or mount a PR campaign. So we too often fail to invest in them, while we’re more than happy to invest in corporations that might or might not use the money productively — but in either case, it’s definitely in the “nice” category, not the “necessary.”

So you see, Senator Benning, I agree with you. I just have different definitions of “necessary” and “nice.”

Action needed on vaccines, and we’re not going to get it

As the Great Disneyland Measles Outbreak continues to reverberate, attention is rightly turning to Vermont’s permissive rules on opting out of childhood vaccinations. The state allows parents to claim religious, medical, or philosophical grounds for refusing vaccinations; the vast majority of exemptions, according to the state Health Department, are in the undefined “philosophical” category.

Vaxxer responseMost of these are not philosophical at all; they are the result of anti-vaccine propaganda fomented by the likes of Jenny McCarthy and a disgraced former doctor. Their numbers in Vermont are growing, and getting close to the point where “herd immunity” will no longer be effective, and long-banished disease can make a comeback.

This is exactly the problem that caused the Disneyland outbreak, and it’s only a matter of time before it happens here. One brave lawmaker has stepped up to the plate; Sen. Kevin Mullin has proposed a bill to eliminate the philosophical exemption. He also did so in 2012; the Senate passed the bill, but the House backed away like a frightened child when the anti-vaxxers stormed their gilded corridors.

There seems to be little appetite for a repeat of that debate, in spite of the growing risk. Governor Shumlin, who strongly endorses vaccination, wants no part of another exemption debate, according to spokesman Scott Coriell:

The Governor believes that every child in Vermont should be vaccinated against deadly diseases, not only to protect them but also to protect others. …When it comes to the question of forcing those parents who refuse to follow common sense to do so, the legislature had that debate in 2012 and a bipartisan majority in the legislature passed a bill that requires enhanced education for parents and reporting on vaccination rates.

…While the Governor believes there is no excuse to forgo vaccinations, he thinks we need to be extremely careful about passing laws that put the state in the position of making decisions for children without parental consent.

That sounds almost exactly like the statement that just got New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie in hot water:

“All I can say is we vaccinated ours,” Christie said, while touring a biomedical research facility in Cambridge, England, which makes vaccines.

The New Jersey governor added that “parents need to have some measure of choice in things as well, so that’s the balance that the government has to decide.”

You tell me the difference between Shumlin and Christie. There isn’t any.

And hey, here’s a little tidbit that might make some of our leaders think twice about their timidity: they’re making a daily commute right into the heart of a potential measles vector. According to the latest Health Department figures, kindergartners at Montpelier’s Union Elementary School have a Measles, Mumps and Rubella vaccination rate of only 88.7%. The standard for “herd immunity” is 90%.

The Governor and his fellow anti-vaxx coddlers might want to consider wearing facemasks to Montpelier, especially those with some kind of suppressed immunity.

Now, the anti-vaxxers are framing this the same way Shumlin is: as a matter of parental choice.

Problem: this is a matter of choice the same way smoking in enclosed spaces or wearing your seat belt is a matter of choice. On some issues, the public interest trumps individual rights. When parents opt out of vaccination, they are depending on the rest of us to supply their kids with herd immunity. They also pose a direct health threat to children who cannot be vaccinated for medical reasons, and to anyone with a suppressed immune system.

Vermont is trending in the wrong direction on vaccinations. We are needlessly endangering some of our more vulnerable residents and the general public health. But I guess it will take an actual outbreak before our lawmakers put on their grown-up pants and do the right thing.

Vermont Republicans adopt the Fox News playbook

I don’t know what the hell has happened to Vermont Republicans. With a couple of exceptions (Phil Scott, Kevin Mullin), they seem to have gone batshit crazy.

And crazy in a very particular way. They have taken up the chief weaponry of national Republicans and the Fox News crowd by distilling a complicated issue to a single word.

The issue is health care and the word, of course, is GRUBER!!!!!!

Republicans have not been deterred in the last by Gov. Shumlin’s renegotiation of Gruber’s contract, cutting off further payments to Gruber and thus saving the state $120,000 — some of which will go to independent checking of Gruber’s work.

But it doesn’t matter, at least not to Republicans. They’ve decided “Gruber” is an all-purpose cudgel to attack Shumlin, the Democrats, and the cause of health care reform. Their entire health care focus is on Gruber.

It was only a couple weeks ago that the VTGOP had a big post-election news conference to call for repeal of Vermont Health Connect. We don’t hear that anymore; it’s all Gruber, all the time.

It’s the first time I can remember that virtually every notable Republican and conservative activist seems to be singing from the same hymnal. Kurt Wright sounds just like Rob Roper, and Heidi Scheuermann’s doing her best Darcie Johnston.

This fact hit home for me while reading Rep. Wright’s opinion piece in the Sunday Freeploid. Wright asserts that Gruber’s work on single-payer “will undermine the entire process and debate going forward.” When there’s no evidence that Gruber has done anything more than provide top-flight economic modeling. No matter; as ACORN allegedly poisoned the electoral process and Lois Lerner allegedly proved an Obama conspiracy against the right, the mere presence of Gruber fundamentally undercuts everything about single-payer.

So I guess, by Wright’s logic, we have to throw out all the work that’s been done on single-payer over the last three years and start over? Or is he arguing that by axing Gruber now, when the work is virtually complete, the entire process will be purified as if by cleansing flame?

Wright’s words are identical in meaning to Rob Roper’s. Over at his Koch-funded nonprofit, the Ethan Allen Institute, he claims that Gruber’s entire body of work is useless and cannot be used at all. And Darcie “Hack” Johnston, Tweeting out her policy stances, pronounes Gruber’s work is “tainted” and…

Just watch him, Darcie.

Meanwhile, Sen. Joe Benning is clearly intoxicated by his sudden Fox News fame, referring on his Facebook page to Gruber as “the gift that keeps on giving.” Which sounds disconcertingly like naked political opportunism. He goes on to brag that “FOX wants me back!”

Of course they want you back, Joe: you fit right in with their agenda. And I don’t mean that as a compliment.

On another front, House Republicans have filed a public-records request for Gruber’s work for the state and for communications between Gruber and the Shumlin Administration, I’d applaud them for trying to learn the truth, but given all their public remarks, it seems more like a Darrell Issa-type fishing expedition. What they’re really hoping for is more Gruberisms.

And then there’s the proto-Republicans at Campaign for Vermont, still flogging their online petition calling for Gruber’s firing. Too bad that since Shumlin’s termination of payment, CFV’s petition has pretty much stalled out. As of this writing, it’s at 233 signatures, and it’s been in the low 200s for several days now.

This isn’t about the truth. It’s about using a handful of remarks by Jonathan Gruber to try to undermine the push for single-payer health care.

The weird thing about this is, we just went through an election that provided two object lessons (Phil Scott and Scott Milne) in how Republicans can win in Vermont: by presenting a moderate, inclusive image. Now they’re all foaming at the mouth as though the election never happened and “Angry Jack” Lindley is still running the joint.

They would be well advised to rein in their inflammatory rhetoric lest they alienate the very voters they just managed to attract.

The Milne campaign does something smart. Stop laughing, I mean it.

Do Not Adjust Your Set. It’s True, It’s Damn True.

Scott Milne’s people, a.k.a. Brent Burns, put out a press release listing the names of prominent Republicans who have endorsed his candidacy.

And it’s an impressive list. 42 names of current and former officeholders. It puts to shame the tiny number of dead-enders and no-hopers who’ve opted for Libertarian Dan Feliciano.

It begins with former Governor Jim Douglas, the shining star of contemporary Republicanism. Unlike other people I could name (ahem, Phil Scott), Douglas has come out of his hidey hole and actually campaigned for Milne. His endorsement alone is worth approximately 1,000 Darcie “Hack” Johnstons.

After that, you get most of the VTGOP’s Senate delegation – Bill Doyle, Joe Benning, Norm McAllister, Peg Flory, and Kevin Mullin. From the House, add Kurt Wright, Heidi Scheuermann, Patti Komline, Chuck Pearce, Tom Koch, and Duncan Kilmartin and many more, plus former Rep and current Senate candidate Pat McDonald. A couple of interesting names: former Representative and current Senate candidate Dustin Degree and current Rep. Tony Terenzini, neither of whom are particularly moderate folks.

This primary-eve blast should put to rest any talk of a Feliciano groundswell. A couple of state party officials may have turned their backs on Milne, but the bulk of its officeholders – those with proven appeal to actual voters – are solidly behind him.