Tag Archives: Michael Pieciak

Strap a Rocket to His Backside

The second-biggest winner of the campaign cycle so far is (I would argue) Mike Pieciak, newly-minted Democratic nominee for Treasurer. (Lovely 8-bit illo courtesy of Epicenter, a podcast devoted to blockchain, cryptofinance, and other stuff I am blissfully ignorant about.)

I say so despite, and because of, the fact that he sailed unopposed to the nomination.

I completely underestimated the guy. When he entered the race, I saw him as the unknown technocrat who, like Chris Winters, would be vulnerable to a Democratic officeholder with relevant expertise. Kitty Toll, perhaps. Shap Smith. Mitzi Johnson. Etc.

Turned out he wasn’t another Winters. He was another Beth Pearce, a technocrat who blossomed into a political force.

Or maybe it was there all along, and I wasn’t in a position to see his appeal to Democrats of all stripes. As it turned out, Pearce quickly endorsed Pieciak and nobody else even tried to enter the race. (H. Brooke Paige falls into the category of “nobody.”)

Pieciak will be our next Treasurer, and it’s absolutely not out of bounds to see him as a viable gubernatorial candidate in a few years’ time. Maybe even 2024.

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Signs of a Backroom Deal

Did Beth Pearce just hand the treasurer’s office to Michael Pieciak? Consider the timing.

April 27: Gov. Phil Scott’s office announces that Pieciak would step down as Commissioner of the Department of Financial Regulation in mid-May “to pursue other opportunities” of the unspecified variety.

May 4: Pearce announces she will not seek re-election as treasurer. Her decision, she said, was made after being diagnosed with cancer three weeks earlier. Or about two weeks before Pieciak’s departure from the administration.

May 6: Pieciak launches a campaign for treasurer as a Democrat. (He served under Republican Scott, but he was brought into state government by Dem Peter Shumlin.)

Here’s what it looks like: Pearce realizes she’s stepping down and essentially handpicks Pieciak as her successor. How could you look at the sequence of events and think otherwise?

Pearce took a couple weeks after her diagnosis, more than enough time to drop a word to Pieciak. He steps down as commissioner “to pursue other opportunities” only a week before Pearce’s surprise announcement. And he launches his candidacy only two days after Pearce’s announcement.

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Let’s Talk Civility, Shall We?

The Democrats’ Phil Scott playbook seems to consist of rolling over on their backs and begging for a belly scratch. This all-too-familiar pattern recurred this week, when the governor threatened to veto two very important bills on Tuesday… and then was welcomed as part of the Pat Leahy Statehouse lovefest on Wednesday.

I guess if someone tosses a couple of turds in your punchbowl, the appropriate response is to invite them back for High Tea the following day.

As for the governor, his schedule is arranged far in advance. He had to know before his Tuesday presser that he was going to share the stage on Wednesday with all the top Democrats… but nonetheless, he went ahead and trashed the Legislature’s budget and the hard-fought public sector pension reform plan.

Mr. Civility strikes again. And they let him get away with it. As usual.

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Welcome to The Governor’s Weekly Agenda Promotion Event

These things used to be weekly updates on the Covid-19 pandemic but, as of today, that’s no longer the case.

For the second week in a row, Gov. Phil Scott opened the event by declaring he had nothing to say about the pandemic. Instead, he used his platform to tout an administration policy priority. And the first administration official who followed Scott the lectern wasn’t Health Commissioner Dr. Mark Levine or Virus Vaticinator Michael Pieciak or Education Secretary Dan French.

No, it was the person pictured above: Public Service Commissioner June Tierney.

Needless to say, she didn’t talk about Covid. She talked about Scott’s plan to enhance mobile phone service by spending $51 million on new cell towers.

Right off the bat, we get two big tells that the state of the pandemic is no longer the chief subject.

Then came Strike Three. WCAX’s Calvin Cutler wanted to ask about the medical monitoring bill making its way through the Legislature, so he opened by noting that his question was “off topic.”

Scott’s response? “It’s not off topic for our weekly press briefings.”

That’s a new, and I’d say deliberate, change on the governor’s part.

So, per Scott himself, we no longer have weekly Covid briefings. We have weekly administration Happy Hours broadcast live across the state. In an election year, it begins to look less like public information and more like free publicity.

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Pivoting As Fast As He Can

This week’s Covid briefing was devoted to moving the conversation toward that long-sought-after pivot from pandemic to endemic. There were the usual rote reports of vaccination, school policy, forecasting, mask and test distribution &c., but the administration’s heart wasn’t in it.

The big tell came right at the beginning, when Gov. Phil Scott announced he had nothing to say about Covid-19. Instead, he pivoted to a brief repetition of his favorite policy points — workforce, technical training, how to spend federal Covid relief money and the surplus in the Education Fund (TL;DR: “not on public schools”).

I realize the numbers are coming down, as they inevitably had to. But isn’t it just a little bit early to start the George Aiken process of declaring victory and going home? After all, ICU admissions have yet to decline and deaths are still on the increase. Perhaps the briefest of pauses would be wise.

Of course, it’s almost certain that hospitalizations and deaths will decline within a few weeks. But let’s not get carried away. We’re returning to a decidedly unhealthy baseline. The positive view of our numbers is that we are getting back to, ahem, the bad old days of the Delta variant. That’s no cause for celebration.

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Welfare for the Well-Off

Say, have I told you about my can’t-miss economic development plan for Vermont?

It’s called “The Vermont Open Redistribution of Resources Program (VORRP),” a.k.a. throwing money around. All you do is send state vehicles around Vermont, tossing handfuls of cash out the windows.

Just think. It cuts out all the bureaucracy and red tape that bedevil most government programs. It gets money into the hands of Vermonters as quickly as possible. And unlike many such programs, this one is tried and tested. The multiplier effect, a well-established idea in the world of economics, shows that when the government increases spending, it generates far more economic activity than the original investment.

Trust me. It works.

Well, it probably works at least as well as Vermont’s renowned worker grant programs. They reimburse relocation expenses to people who move to Vermont or move to economically distressed areas in Vermont. Their actual effect is completely unproven, as State Auditor Doug Hoffer has repeatedly shown.

And it remains unproven in spite of a relentlessly sunny study of the programs ordered by the Legislature and released on December 15 by the Department of Financial Regulation. VTDigger posted a story yesterday that reports the study’s findings and Hoffer’s criticism of them. (Which is remarkable in itself. Digger has a habit of ignoring Hoffer’s work.) From my point of view, not only is Hoffer right, but I thought he was a little too easy on the report.

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Phil’s Funny Figgers Factory

Well, if the governor is spouting fake optimism and citing carefully curated statistics, it must be Tuesday. This week, Gov. Phil Scott and his team had to admit that the Omicron variant is about to hit Vermont just as the holidays arrive. The combination will almost certainly trigger another several weeks of high case counts — higher than ever before — and overburdened health care workers.

So, in the face of all that bad news, Scott kicked off the presser by reminding us all of how much better off we are now than in December 2020 thanks to his administration’s wise policymaking and the innate goodness of Vermonters, who can be trusted to Do The Right Thing without any orders from above.

Sure, if you make the comparison right there. No one would dispute that Scott handled the first 15-odd months of the pandemic very well. But his convenient comparison elides the fact that his handling of the Delta variant has been woefully bad. His administration has consistently underestimated the impact of Delta, which has meant policies that have proved inadequate to the task or too little, too late.

There was hardly any mention of last week’s hot statistic: Scott’s claim that only 5% of adult Vermonters are unvaccinated. I’ve previously documented some of the holes in that figure; Middlebury College physicist Eilat Glikman exposed another one on Twitter:

I used the numbers on the Vermont vaccine dashboard to compute the actual percentage of adults >18yo who are vaccinated in the state. The answer is 81% not 95%.

On Monday morning, I emailed Health Department spokesman Ben Truman asking for an explanation of how the dashboard percentages were calculated and what figure they are using for the population of Vermont. I have yet to receive an answer. (Finance Commissioner and Chief Number Cruncher Michael Pieciak may have dropped a hint; he off-handedly referred to Vermont’s population as around 630,000. The latest Census count is 643,000.)

The magic number of 5% got no mention in the administration’s extensive opening remarks. It did arise during the Q&A, when a reporter brought up (in broad terms) the problems with it. Scott responded with an aggressive defense of his favorite statistic. Unfortunately, the reporter didn’t arm himself with enough facts to question Scott’s bold-faced assertiveness. Nor did he or anyone else query Health Commissioner Dr. Mark Levine on the public health usefulness of that figure: How valuable, in terms of measuring our Covid resistance, is it to count only those over 18? Why count those who’ve received as little as a single dose, when the administration is urging everyone to get the full course plus a booster? How much protection does a single dose offer?

No answers to any of that. No reporter armed themselves with the information necessary to effectively query the administration.

There were, as usual, more statistical follies on offer.

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Scott to Critics: Please Shut Up

For Gov. Phil Scott, that “freedom of the press” stuff has become awfully inconvenient. On multiple occasions during this week’s Covid briefing, he basically told critics and reporters they should keep quiet for the good of the state.

“Having the continued debate about whether [masks] should be mandated… is just making the problem worse from my standpoint,” Scott said. “It’s dividing people even further, it’s hardening people further.”

So by Scott’s reckoning, anyone who publicly disagrees with him is doing harm to the state. And if you think I’m being unfair, let’s scroll down to where VTDigger’s Erin Petenko asked Scott about an essay by former Health Commissioner Dr. Harry Chen advocating for an indoor mask mandate.

We judt have a difference of opinion on that. What we do share in a common goal, I think Dr. Chen would probably agree, is that we want people to wear masks when they’re indoors. So let’s focus on the area where we agree, and not keep focusing on the controversial mask mandate.

Which is a gross misrepresentation of Dr. Chen’s position. But we’ll leave that aside and get to the governor’s kicker.

Erin, you could be very helpful in this regard.

Oh, so now it’s the press’s duty to support administration policy? Is that what you’re saying? Really?

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Is It Blind-Squirrel Time?

This week’s gubernatorial Covid briefing had a different feel to it. There was, dare I say it, a bit of hope in the air. Not because Gov. Phil Scott’s Covid policies are finally paying off, but because vaccination for children ages 5-11 will soon arrive to pull his fat out of the fire.

So that was the message, repeated ad nauseam. The children’s vaccine is coming! Any day now! Please get your kids jabbed ASAP!

The message was hammered home by guest presenter Dr. Rebecca Bell, president of the Vermont chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics. She delivered a thorough, well-supported endorsement of vaccines in general and the Covid shot in particular. The development and testing process, she said, had produced “safe and effective” vaccine regimens for children. For parents on the fence about kiddie jabs, she noted that the uncertainty isn’t with the vaccine; it’s with the virus.

The only downbeat note came from DFR Commissioner and Statistical Soothsayer Michael Pieciak, whose crystal ball was once again pretty damn foggy. “Things could potentially improve significantly,” he said, before adding “They could get worse as well.”

Gee, thanks.

Scott and his minions laid out their plan to immediately vaccinate as many kids as possible. If federal approval came tonight, they said, vaccinations could start as soon as Thursday. (UPDATE: It appears that final approval will come tonight. The CDC’s vaccine advisory committee voted unanimously in favor; CDC director Rachelle Wolensky is expected to follow suit.)

There’s good reason for all the haste. Kiddie-vax may be the key to finally bringing down case counts to acceptable levels and, dare I say, actually turning the corner on the coronavirus.

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Scott Preaches ‘Personal Responsibility,’ Refuses to Accept Any

Even by the usual dismal standards, this was a doozy of a weekly briefing. Gov. Phil Scott acknowledged that his policies haven’t been effective against the Delta variant, he had no idea why, yet he would keep doing the same things he’s been doing and just hope it starts to work. Definition of insanity, anyone?

His opening remarks were heavy on “personal responsibility,” which sounds like good old Vermont plain talk. But the underlying message is that it’s our fault his policies haven’t worked. If only we’d all take personal responsibility, everything would be just fine and his genius would be revealed for all to see.

Pushing vaccination was the sum-total of his policy. Vaccines and boosters. Boosters and vaccines. No hint of a fallback policy if we never achieve herd immunity because even in Vermont, some people are anti-vaxxers or Covid skeptics and some will never become eligible. Good public policy doesn’t depend on every single person being personally responsible; it tries to make up for and/or rein in our weaknesses and misbehaviors. I mean, if everyone took personal responsibility, we wouldn’t need prisons or police. Or laws.

That’s why vaccination plus a sensible masking policy has worked so much better than vaccination alone. It would work here too, but Scott is too stubborn and/or beholden to business interests to even consider any mask mandates or limits on travel or public gatherings.

His administration proudly trumpets the percentage of eligible Vermonters who’ve gotten at least one vaccine shot. It’s now an impressive 88.9%. Which obscures the fact that the percentage of all Vermonters with at least one jab is more like 70%. You never, ever hear that figure at the Tuesday pressers.

In fact, a recent tweet from Scott’s official account completely obliterated that key difference:

That, children, is what we in the business call “a lie.”

Meanwhile, take a gander at this map from the New York Times.

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