Tag Archives: Mitzi Johnson

#Election 2020: #vtpoli Winners and Losers

We call this “foreshadowing”

As promised, my lukewarm takes on the Vermont election results in the customary slash lazy columnist “Winners and Losers” style.

Winner Winner Chicken Dinner: Gov. Phil Scott. Highest vote total in history for any gubernatorial candidate. Rode his adequate handling of the pandemic to a lopsided victory over a game but under-resourced Lt. Gov. David Zuckerman. More than half of the Joe Biden voters crossed party lines to elect Scott.

Just to pin that down, Scott unofficially has 248,248 votes while Zuckerman failed to crack six figures. Biden finished with 242,680. Or compare Scott to his Republican ticketmates: Donald Trump took 112,507 votes, Miriam Berry (sacrificial lamb to Peter Welch) 95,763. The voters returned lopsided (and only marginally diminished) Dem/Prog majorities to the Legislature.

Scott also saw the Dems’ chances of overriding his frequent vetoes take a hit, with the loss of a few House seats. Every single seat matters when you’re trying to get to 100. Plus, the Dems and Progs will have to identify new House leadership. A new Speaker needs at least a year to learn the ropes.

If there’s a formula for defeating Phil Scott, the Democrats have yet to identify it. Hell, this year they kinda stopped trying. Which will come back to bite them if Scott makes a run for the next U.S. Senate opening. Successor to Bernie Sanders? There’s some bitter irony for you. (He’d have to relinquish the governorship in 2021 to take on Pat Leahy or [insert Democrat here] in 2022. I don’t see him doing that.)

Losers: Capital-P Progressives and their infrastructure. The good news for the Progs is that they managed to add a seat in the House. Otherwise, 2020 has been a disaster. Tim Ashe bombed out in the LG primary, Zuckerman cratered last night, they lost their two House caucus leaders, Robin Chesnut-Tangerman and Diana Gonzalez*, and Sen. Chris Pearson continues to be the least popular member of the Chittenden delegation.

*Note: After she announced she was stepping away from the Legislature, Gonzalez was replaced by Selene Colburn in the deputy leader role. So it’s incorrect to say that the Progs lost both leaders in the election, although they did lose both during the course of the year.

Until proven otherwise, Bernie Sanders has no coattails. There is no evidence that he can push a Progressive or progressive to victory in Vermont. If he’s building a legacy or a movement that will survive his personal appeal, he ain’t doing it here.

I also have to ask: What exactly does Rights & Democracy accomplish? They spend a lot of money, much of it from Sts. Ben and Jerry, to no visible effect. I see little sign that they’re building a movement that can influence Vermont politics. Or New Hampshire politics, for that matter, since R&D is a twin-state organization. The NH Dems held serve in Congress, but failed to take down Gov. Chris Sununu and are on track for minority status in the NH House and Senate.

I’m sure the progressive Twitterverse will be all over me for this, but look, I’d love to live in a world where we’ve just elected Bernie or (my choice) Elizabeth Warren and we won 55 U.S. Senate seats and we were poised to create the Green Economy and enact universal health care and some serious regulation of the financial sector and court reforms and voting rights protections. But we don’t. And I see no objective evidence to support the notion that there’s an invisible army of progressive voters just waiting for the right “messaging” to get them stampeding to the polls.

After the jump: Room on the Democratic ladder, limited gains for the VTGOP, and more.

Continue reading

When Pigs Fly

In the wake of George Floyd’s murder and the wave of ensuing protests, Vermont’s political leadership is united in calling for criminal justice reform.

They are also united in minimizing expectations for actual, y’know, results.

This shouldn’t be surprising. Law enforcement has always gotten a full, respectful, sometimes dreamy-eyed reception in legislative committees. Police chiefs, sheriffs and state’s attorneys always wield strong influence when it comes to any issue that touches on their work, from criminal justice to substance abuse to cannabis to the deadly perils of Happy Hour.

(This post concerns our top Democratic and Progressive leaders, not Republican Gov. Phil Scott. He has made all the right noises, and I’m sure he will endorse modest reforms. But the expectations ought to be higher for the D’s and P’s.)

No surprise then, that Dem/Prog Senate President Pro Tem Tim Ashe and Dem House Speaker Mitzi Johnson have already put the kibosh on any talk of cutting the Vermont State Police budget. Ashe, who believes it’s time for him to move up the ladder to the lieutenant governorship, offered this in lieu of leadership: “It’s one thing to say that, to communicate as part of this national discussion, but how you actually implement such a proposal is not a one size fits all.”

Spoken like a politician fleeing a hot-button issue.

Johnson asserted that Vermont has “a very different law enforcement structure than a lot of other states,” so those notorious one-size-fits-all solutions just won’t work here.

Well, I’d like to know more about how Vermont’s structure of state police, county sheriffs and municipal police departments, whose officers are armed with lethal weapons and who are primarily responsible for responding to a variety of public safety situations, is so dramatically different from the police structure elsewhere.

And whose officers have a track record of disproportionately stopping or arresting people of color and of using deadly force in dealing with the mentally ill.

Eh, I don’t think out “structure” is so different. Johnson is simply making another meaningless callout to Vermont exceptionalism.

As for Attorney General T.J. Donovan, he has tweeted that America’s criminal justice system is “broken,” and the time to fix it is “now.” But his proposed fixes are from the lipstick-on-a-pig bargain bin.

Continue reading

Caution in the face of crisis

Gov. Phil Scott has taken something of a ribbing on The Twitter Machine for saying that when it comes to climate change, “I’m not looking to reinvent the wheel, I’m not looking to come out with something dramatic,”

Because heaven forfend we should respond to a crisis with “something dramatic.” I mean, if your house is on fire, do you really want the fire department waking up the neighborhood with their sirens and flashers? Do you want firefighters trampling all over your lawn?

Scott’s comment was in a truly dispiriting article by VTDigger’s Elizabeth Gribkoff about how state leaders have given up on meeting Vermont’s near-term climate goals, including a 2007 law which mandates a 50% reduction (from 1992 levels) in greenhouse gas emissions by the year 2028 and a goal of weatherizing 80,000 Vermont homes by, ahem, next year. (Of course, the legislature had the foresight to impose no penalties for breaking the GHG law, so no harm, no foul, right?)

More on Our Cautious Governor in a moment. But first I’d like to point out that legislative leadership doesn’t look any better. Senate President Pro Tem Tim Ashe, The State’s Most Conservative Progressive, talked of “a pretty serious conceptual shift” that kinda-sorta makes those goals… irrelevant?

As Ashe put it, “And so we might think about things differently today than we did when those particular goals were made in terms of timing and strategies.”

Umm, okay. For her part, House Speaker Mitzi Johnson meets the challenge with a profusion of past participles: “In order to have met that goal, we needed to have been keeping closer track of it all along the way,” said Johnson.

I get it. We’re gonna bullshit our way out of the crisis.

In the meantime, I look forward to the passage of legislation officially removing our climate goals from the law. It’d be honest, if nothing else.

Continue reading

Arise, Teen Selfie Stars

Climate activist and current darling of the free world Greta Thunberg has had enough of your adulation.

Everywhere I have been the situation is more or less same. The people in power, their beautiful words are the same. The number of politicians and celebrities who want to take selfies with us are the same. The empty promises are the same. The lies are the same, and the inaction is the same. Nowhere have I found anyone in power who dares to tell it like it is, because no matter where you are, even that burden they leave to us, us teenagers, us children.

She said that last Friday, at a climate strike rally in New York City. And she’s dead right. Thunberg’s critics have been thoroughly condescending about this pigtailed teenager telling us how to run the world — and her supporters have offered a more subtle form of condescension. There’s an undercurrent of “how cute” and “isn’t it amazing that this teenager is so bright, so committed?” not unlike when Joe Biden called Barack Obama clean and articulate, as if that’s surprising to see in a black man. We applaud Thunberg, we get a selfie, maybe we even give her the Nobel Peace Prize, and we feel like we’ve made a statement on the world’s climate crisis.

When, in fact, we’ve done jack shit. Thunberg made this even more explicit in her Sunday address at the United Nations:

This is all wrong. I shouldn’t be up here. I should be in school on the other side of the ocean. Yet you come to us young people for hope. How dare you. You have stolen my dreams and my childhood with your empty words.”

It may be time for Vermont’s own teen selfie stars to adopt the same attitude.

Continue reading

A little target practice for Mitzi Johnson

A moment of silence for the advancement hopes of Linda Myers, veteran Republican lawmaker now offered up as her caucus’ sacrificial lamb. House Minority Leader Don Turner promised a challenger to Speaker-in-Waiting Mitzi Johnson; it just isn’t possible that the 76-year-old Myers was the first name on his list.

Nothing against Ms. Myers, a pillar of her community and, by all accounts, a good person. But when I consulted The Google for traces of legislative accomplishment or leadership, I found astonishingly little.

As far as I can tell, she’s never held a position in the Republican caucus leadership, which tells you a lot about how she’s perceived by her colleagues. She’s been “parked for years” (in the words of one Statehouse observer) as vice chair of the House Committee on Corrections and Institutions, her service not terribly memorable but not malign enough to prompt her removal.

Well, I hope she enjoyed her vice chairship; after she loses the race for Speaker, she might very well lose the position. (A desirable post, since the committee oversees capital expenditures.) More often than not, there are consequences for such a challenge.

Continue reading

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..

Continue reading

The Chittenden Trap

One of the top items on the Vermont Democratic Party’s to-do list is a makeover of its relationship with the Progressive Party. Nothing drastic, just some overdue maintenance. The core issue: how to deal with Progs running as Dems — and, in some cases, running as Dems and then re-entering the fray as Progs after losing a Democratic primary.

But I would argue that another issue might be more urgent: the party’s increasingly Chittenden-centric orientation.

Writing this post was in the works before today’s news that Rep. Mitzi Johnson has edged out Rep. Sarah Copeland-Hanzas to be the next Speaker of the House. Now, it seems even more pertinent. The leaders of both houses will come from Chittenden County’s sphere of influence: Johnson from South Hero (basically a bedroom community for Burlington), Senate President Pro Tem Tim Ashe from Chittenden County. And the three members of the Senate’s Committee on Committees all being from Chittenden.

When I say “Chittenden County,” I define it broadly; from the southern half of the Champlain Islands down to Shelburne at least, and southwestward to Richmond if not Waterbury.

Chittenden County itself accounts for one-fourth of Vermont’s population. Its Senate delegation is twice as large as the next biggest county — and in fact, based purely on population, it ought to have one more Senator. (And will certainly get at least one more after the 2020 Census.)

Beyond the mere numbers, Chittenden is home turf for the Democratic Party’s urban-ish, tech-oriented core. And its donor base.

Continue reading

The sun sets on the Vermont Enterprise Fund

Hey, remember in January, when the state Emergency Board approved two grants from the Vermont Enterprise Fund? GlobalFoundries was given $1 million, and $200,000 went to BHS Composites. Well, turns out those will be the last VEF grants ever awarded. During its recently concluded session, the Legislature rejected Governor Shumlin’s bid to add new money to the Fund — and decided not to extend the program.

The Fund is empty, and in the absence of legislative action, the program will sunset at the end of the fiscal year.

“It’s disappointing,” says Shumlin spox Scott Coriell*. “The Enterprise Fund has been a useful tool, but we do have other tools at our disposal.”

*Say that five times fast.

There was some funny business around those January grants that may have sealed the fate of the two-year-old program.

Continue reading

Rent-to-own: Fixin’ a hole

This morning, I sat in on a House Appropriations Committee hearing on S.73, a bill that would set limits on the rent-to-own industry — an industry that’s virtually unregulated and preys on cash-poor Vermonters.

For those unfamiliar, RTOs offer household furnishings and appliances with very little cash up front, but interest rates that’d make a banker blush. Not to mention undisclosed fees and charges. According to Legislative Counsel David Hall, current state law gives the Attorney General rule-making authority; but RTOs write their contracts in a way that effectively puts them beyond the reach of current law.

Hey, I’m sure that’s just a coincidence.

The result is a Wild West marketplace that, according to VPIRG, results in consumers “paying many times the original price of the original item- far more than they would pay if they purchased the item from a traditional retail establishment.”

The bill would establish price caps and disclosure requirements on the industry.

Continue reading

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.”