Tag Archives: New Hampshire

Kelly Ayotte should be ashamed

New Hampshire’s junior senator, like the entire Republican caucus, is refusing to give any consideration whatsoever to anyone President Obama nominates to the Supreme Court. And, like the entire Republican caucus, she should be ashamed of herself for abdicating her sworn duty — and for, as usual, undermining the legitimacy of our (twice) duly-elected president.

But Ayotte has an additional, very specific, reason to be ashamed. Her entire political career has its roots in a very unusual act of nonpartisanship. If it wasn’t for a pair of decisions by a Democrat, there would be no Senator Kelly Ayotte.

First, a bit of essential background. New Hampshire’s Attorney General is not elected. It is an appointed position with a four-year term. The governor chooses an AG with the approval of the five-member Executive Council (itself a wacky feature of Granite State governance, go Wikipedia it if you’re curious).

Back in 2004, then-AG Peter Heed resigned. The governor at the time was Craig Benson, a Republican so feckless that he was actually defeated in his first bid for re-election. Yup, served one term and got kicked to the curb. But he was governor at the time, and he nominated a young, ambitious attorney named Kelly Ayotte to replace Heed. And she got the job.

After Benson’s ejection, Ayotte’s partial term ran its course. Democratic Governor John Lynch chose to nominate her for a full term.

And, at the end of that full term, he nominated her once again.

And she ducked out of that term early on, to run for senate in 2010, thus reneging on a promise to Lynch that she would serve her full term as AG.

It is a certainty that, if not for the generosity of Democrat John Lynch, there’s no way Kelly Ayotte would be a U.S. Senator today.

Is she returning the favor? No. She is joining her colleagues in essentially spitting in the President’s face.

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Bully for Bernie

Nice showing for our 74-year-old “junior” Senator in Iowa. And boy, does he have more stamina than most people ten years younger. I loved the footage of him addressing a crowd of hundreds at FIVE O’CLOCK IN THE MORNING as he arrived in New Hampshire.

Anyway, my take on Iowa. I begin with my customary mea culpa when it comes to Bernie; I’m one of those who has underestimated him all along. And somehow, he’s doing quite well in spite of me. However, allow me to be consistent: I still think Hillary Clinton is the favorite.

On the Democratic side, the results were a victory for both candidates. Clinton got to claim the victory; Sanders did better than expected, and continues to ride a seemingly unending wave of momentum. He’s likely to win New Hampshire; after that, the going gets tougher. Bernie  still has a very long way to go.

He has a momentum advantage. He’s also got a surprising asset for an insurgent: a healthy campaign fund and the closest thing to a perpetual-motion fundraising machine. Clinton won’t be able to outspend him into irrelevance.

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Woolf’s Duplicitous Delicatessen

Our Motto: “Where There’s Always a Thumb on the Scale”

It’s been a while since I chronicled the dishonest commentary of Art Woolf, a.k.a. Vermont’s Loudest Economist. Every Thursday, he blesses us with a few hundred words of pro-business bumpf salted with carefully chosen figures designed to conceal the flaws in his reasoning.

Heck, I could easily write a riposte every week, but that gets old after a while.

However, the two most recent entries in the Woolf oeuvre merit scrutiny, because they touch on significant public policy debates: taxes and health care reform.

His November 5 missive revisits one of his favorite themes: Vermont’s taxes are too damn high. Well, he doesn’t say so exactly; but he presents an array of misleading statistics to bolster that popular conservative argument.

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Sorrell versus the record, part 1: the MTBE deal

Earlier this week, former Mark Johnson Show host Mark Johnson produced his first podcast for his new employer, VTDigger. It was a 50-plus-minute interview with Attorney General Bill Sorrell, headlined by Our Eternal General’s stout denials of any wrongdoing. (It was also an excellent example of Johnson’s interviewing skills. His departure from WDEV was a big loss for our public discourse, and I look forward to his Digger podcasts.) Sorrell is, of course, the subject of an independent investigation for campaign finance-related activities.

SorrellCriminalThe interview reveals Sorrell in all his self-centered, fumblemouthed glory. He is, as always, the innocent target of politically motivated attack and quasi-journalistic hit pieces. But it’s worth taking a close look at how he explains himself, and comparing that to what’s on the record so far. (The independent investigator, Tom Little, is famously tight-lipped about his work, so we have no clue what he may have discovered.)

I’m breaking this up into parts because otherwise, it’d be horrifically long. This installment, Sorrell’s explanation of the MTBE lawsuit, is itself pretty damn long. If you don’t want to read the whole thing, the bottom line is: Sorrell’s interpretations and recollections are self-serving, and often at odds with the facts. In my judgment, it’s unclear whether Sorrell violated the law; but his behavior and his insidery relationships with key players are disturbing at the very least. There is an appearance of wrongdoing, whether there was actual wrongdoing or not.

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Tweeting past the graveyard

Gee, what’s on my Twitter feed this morning? Ah, a fresh bit of puffery from VTGOP Chair David Sunderland!

Fact-checking time!

RealClearPolitics’ average of the top national polls: John Kasich in 10th place with a measly 2.5%.

If that’s a surge, he must have started from negative 10.

Now, if Sunderland is talking New Hampshire specifically, he’s got a bit more ground to stand on. In RCP’s average of NH polls, Kasich is in third place with 10.3%. And he has legitimately “surged” in the Granite State; two months ago, he was down in bottom-feeder territory.

That’s a creditable figure. And a testament to the relatively clear-thinking nature of the NH Republican electorate, which is more interested in frugal, responsible government (and less interested in fact-free, over-the-top rhetoric) than Republicans nationwide.

In short, Sunderland got it right if he meant a very localized surge. But nationally? Kasich’s going nowhere.

The evidence of things not seen

Several Republican presidential candidates, previously characterized as “top-tier,” have been withering away under the reflected glare of the Donald Trump campaign, or whatever it is. One of those unfortunates is Rand Paul, the junior senator from Kentucky. Previously, he looked like someone who could bridge the chasm between the GOP’s nuttier precincts and the mainstream. Now, he looks like someone who’s fallen into that chasm, his poll numbers barely above Rick Perry/Bobby Jindal territory. (RealClearPolitics’s averaging of recent polls: Paul in 10th place with 2.6%. He’s been on a steady downward trajectory since late June, when he briefly topped the field at 13.8%.)

But have no fear, Aqua Buddha fans: State Rep. Paul Dame is here to tell you differently.

It’s no secret that the Republican Party is in need of revitalization. … And while a number of candidates talk a good game about building a “big tent” party, it has been largely empty rhetoric. Everyone agrees that we need to do more – but I only see one candidate for president who is actually DOING it. And that is Rand Paul.

Dame, one of three Vermont lawmakers to endorse Rand Paul, paints an astoundingly rosy picture of his candidate heroically venturing into Democratic* strongholds and converting the unenlightened (read: liberals) to his Libertarian-Lite banner. He is “winning support from minorities” and “young people” and “many independents and even some Democrats.” His recent appearance at a VTGOP fundraiser attracted “nearly 100 people who attended their first-ever Republican fundraiser.” Dame praises Paul’s “boldness” for daring to visit Vermont, as though he had to smash through a Liberal Police checkpoint to get in.

*Well, Dame uses the pejorative “Democrat” formulation, as do most Republicans. It’s “Democratic,” boys.

Reading Dame’s piece, you can see Rand Paul as the contemporary embodiment of the Ayn Rand hero: the granite-jawed Braveheart inspiring the benighted commonfolk with his steely boldness and plain-spoken wisdom.

Yeah, but then you look at those pesky polls and face the fact: Rand Paul is not leading a movement. He is tanking, big-time.

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A high-profile gig for Julia Barnes

The departing Executive Director of the Vermont Democratic Party, Julia Barnes, has landed a new job. She’ll be the New Hampshire state director for the Bernie Sanders campaign.

It’s arguably one of the most important positions in the Sanders effort; the polls show him a strong second behind Hillary Clinton in New Hampshire*, and a strong showing in New Hampshire will be crucial for Bernie’s campaign going forward into the meat of the primary season.

*Three recent NH polls show Clinton with roughly a 10-point lead. The fourth gives her a 31-point edge; that’d seem to be an outlier.

The problem is, Bernie has already attracted his base; he’ll be hard pressed to build on it. Or to avoid the early-achiever trap that’s derailed so many candidates. Barnes has a heck of a job to do; if Bernie runs strong in New Hampshire, she will have accomplished something quite significant.

She e-mailed me some thoughts on taking the job:

Sen. Sanders is talking about the things that I think are most important to the presidential discussion, namely having an honest conversation about the dissolution of the middle class and the income inequality that makes it hard for many Americans to get ahead. Not even get ahead, but stay afloat. There is an organic desire to see that happen and that is why Sen. Sanders is resonating with so many voters. I am excited to help see that message reach voters in New Hampshire and build the organization needed to help him win the primary there. Given the circus that is happening on the Republican side, it is going to be really rewarding to engage in a substantial conversation with voters through good grassroots organizing techniques.

I also asked her about the fact that most of the top Vermont Democrats — the people she’s worked with and for at the VDP — have gone with Hillary Clinton.

At the end of the day, elected officials are also individual voters and they, like the voters across the country, are entitled to make their decision. Sen. Sanders has been a longtime friend of Vermont Democrats and I know many of them will be supporting his bid.

Good luck, Julia. I think Bernie made a good hire.

The New Hampshire Chimera

See also previous post, “The Bag Man carries a heavy load.” 

The Monster of Jim Harrison's nightmares.

The Monster of Jim Harrison’s nightmares.

Previously in this space, I examined the various arguments against a proposed tax on sugar-sweetened beverages unleashed, helter-skelter, by Jim Harrison of the Vermont Retail and Grocers Association. But I saved the best for last: his frequent invocation of the great mythical devourer of Vermont businesses, the New Hampshire Chimera.

Yes, every time someone proposes a new tax or tax increase, its opponents summon the spectre of businesses shuttering en masse and countless jobs fleeing to the tax haven on our eastern border. There’s some truth in this dire outlook — just enough to keep the fear alive — but far less than its proponents would have you believe.

Let’s start with population. Fewer than 170,000 Vermonters live in the counties that border New Hampshire. Most of those people live close enough for major shopping excursions, which is why you see relatively few large malls or superstores on the Vermont side. That’s a tangible loss to our economy, but its true value is questionable: most of the jobs are low-quality, and we avoid the environmental costs of large-scale retail development. (Just look at the West Lebanon strip. Bleurgh.)

For more casual shopping, such as picking up a few groceries, filling your gas tank or getting a snack, a much smaller fraction live close enough to the border — say, five miles or so. Any more than that, you’re not going out of your way for a quick stop.

Now there’s the matter of crossing the border. There are long stretches where you’d have to travel five miles or more to access the nearest bridge.

Then you come to shopping availability on the other side. The scaremongers see a New Hampshire border bristling with retailers from Canada to the Massachusetts line. In fact, there are three major retail zones in western New Hampshire: Littleton, West Lebanon, and Keene. Otherwise, there are long stretches of Not Much.

Once again, the greatest impact of higher Vermont taxes is not on the mom-and-pop stores so dear to the rhetorical heart of Jim Harrison; it’s on the supermarkets, megamarts and strip malls that you can find in those three retail hubs. And nowhere else.

In sum, New Hampshire is a major draw for mega-shopping, but it’s a relatively minor threat to other economic activity. And border communities with some creativity, like White River Junction and Brattleboro, find ways to juice their economies even in the shadow of the New Hampshire Chimera.

(Harrison likes to throw in Massachsetts and New York as well, but they are no threat. Their taxes are also pretty darn high; relatively few Vermonters live near those borders; and there’s virtually no destination shopping within easy driving distance in either state.)

Given all of these factors, New Hampshire looks like a much smaller threat than it is in the mind of Jim Harrison. There is no reason for us to be a captive of our neighbor’s policies. We should set our tax policies on their own merits, not out of fear of New Hampshire.

Let’s take an example right out of the Jim Harrison playbook. Here’s one of his vague-on-details anecdotes:

Two years ago, the legislature needed some more money for roads and bridges. They increased Vermont’s gas tax. At that time, the gas tax was 13 cents more per gallon than it was in neighboring NH. Within months, four gas stations on the Vermont side of the Connecticut River Valley closed.

Wow. That’s an oddly specific and limited horror story. It raises a host of questions.

— Where, exactly, were these gas stations?

— Can a direct line be drawn between their closures and the gas tax hike?

— If they closed “within months,” were they marginal businesses before the gas tax took effect? It sure sounds like it.

— Had any of them been planning to close anyway? Small businesses do tend to come and go at a rather alarming rate under any circumstances.

— How many gas stations are there in that zone? I’m guessing several hundred. And while the closure of any business is a sad thing, four is a pretty small number by comparison.

— If the gas tax increase had that great an impact, I’d think the closures would have continued beyond “within months.” Did they, or was the damage limited to four?

And finally…

— Is Harrison saying we shouldn’t have raised the gas tax? If not, then what exactly is he arguing for?

He would probably reply that border convenience stores have already taken a hit, so we shouldn’t hit them again. That’s an arguable point, but how much of a gas station’s business consists of customers buying sugary drinks and nothing else? If the gas tax didn’t chase them across the border, why would a tax on sugary drinks, which represent a smaller slice of their business?

The more likely outcome, it seems to me, is that customers will pay the extra freight or switch to unsweetened beverages — diet sodas, iced tea, flavored waters. There’s quite a variety of drinks with no added sugar. Dairy drinks, even with added sugar, wouldn’t be covered by the tax. Coffee wouldn’t be, no matter how sweet you like it. (Smart retailers will load up on the non-sugary options and feature them in shelving and advertising.)

This is especially true for the typical convenience store stop: filling the tank, using the restroom, buying a drink for the road.  The drink is one small part of the equation. And again, if you’re not going to New Hampshire for the cheaper gas, you’re not going there because your Coke costs an extra quarter.

The bigger burden of a beverage tax would fall on — say it with me, children — Big Retail. Places you go when you want a 12-pack or a case or some two-liters at the lowest price. You wouldn’t drive an extra ten miles to save a quarter on a Mountain Dew, but you would to save a few bucks on a case as part of a big trip to the supermarket.

Which is the point I made in my previous post: the tax poses the biggest threat to Big Retail and Big Beverage, and they’re the ones providing the big money behind the opposition to the beverage tax. The mom and pops are the poster children, but their actual victimhood is significantly limited.

And if you’re worried about the loss of Big Retail in Vermont’s economy, bear in mind that the border regions are largely empty of Big Retail. They’ve already departed for the low-cost option.

In sum, there is a cost to the beverage tax. It should be considered as part of the equation. But the effect is nowhere near the monster that inhabits Jim Harrison’s dreams. And it should not be a decisive consideration in the coming legislative debate.

No, we are not moving our primary

It’s the best kind of legislative story for the media: easy to encapsulate, kicks up some dust, and isn’t going anywhere. Makes a great filler story, and lends the appearance of serious journalism without the difficulty.

In this case, I’m talking about Sen. Anthony Pollina’s proposal to move Vermont’s presidential primary to the same day as New Hampshire’s.

Lots of states have tried to do this, and it never amounts to a hill of beans. And it won’t here either, even if the idea had broad support in our legislature. Which it doesn’t.

Beyond the virtual certainty that this bill will die a quick death in committee, there are two massive obstacles in the way of an early primary.

— New Hampshire state law allows the Secretary of State to move the primary ahead of any other state. If Pollina’s bill became law, all we’d do is start a vicious circle with New Hampshire.

— Primary calendars are subject to approval by the two major parties, and neither is amenable to a change in the traditional opening — Iowa caucuses, then New Hampshire primary.

Doesn’t matter if it makes any sense or not. Iowa and New Hampshire are clearly unrepresentative of the nation as a whole, and their results have been making less and less of a difference in recent campaigns. But their status is cemented in tradition, and nothing’s gonna change. Certainly not on Vermont’s say-so.

Pollina’s bill is a bit of a sideshow, that’s all.