This year’s election will trigger a turnover at the top perhaps unprecedented in Vermont history. A new governor, lieutenant governor, attorney general, and new heads of the House and Senate will all be in place by next January. And heading into the campaign, Vermont’s two major parties are offering completely different visions of the state of our state and the mood of its people.
Republicans see Vermonters as tired of high taxes, government intrusion, and the restless reformism (as they see it) of the Shumlin administration.
You’d expect Democrats to be treading cautiously. They are in the tightrope position of simultaneously defending their tenure in power, and crafting a distinctive profile going forward. Not to mention its persistently strong incrementalist tendencies.
However. Driven by Bernie Sanders’ overwhelming success in our primary, the party is moving leftward. There is a sense that Vermonters are ready for even more decisive change, even more government, a more aggressive push to lift up the downtrodden and blunt the sharp edges of capitalism.
Andrew Cuomo gets a lot of grief in progressive circles. New York’s Governor has engaged in a petty spat with progressive New York City Mayor Bill DeBlasio. He created an ethics commission that began cleaning up the Augean stable of Albany politics — and then kneecapped the panel when things got a little too close for comfort. He’s been accused of excessive coziness with Wall Street and big business.
But damn if he didn’t just deliver a couple of big policy initiatives that seem downright unattainable in allegedly progressive Vermont.
On the last day of March, the New York State Legislature finalized a budget deal that included not only a promise to raise the minimum wage to $15, but also the nation’s newest — and by far its strongest and most comprehensive — bill mandating paid-family-leave time for most employees.
That’s right. While Vermont politicos are patting each other on the back for passing a much smaller minimum-wage hike and a minimal paid-sick-leave measure, New York has leapfrogged us (and the nation) on both.
Any time a reporter has a few minutes to spare and wants to buy the Vermont media equivalent of a lottery ticket, all they have to do is give once-and-maybe-future-Senator Norm McAllister a call. If he answers the phone, he’s almost certain to say something dumb or offensive or both.
This week’s winner was Terri Hallenbeck of Seven Days, who wrangled a juicy quote from Good Ol’ Norm, whose internal exile has, unsurprisingly, failed improve his perspective. In fact, he’s showing signs of outright conspiratorialism.
The context: Hallenbeck was previewing this week’s Senate vote on marijuana legalization. At the time, it was looking like a very close thing — maybe one vote either way. Which prompted Hallenbeck to observe that this was “the second of two recent legislative initiatives on which [McAllister] might have swayed the results.” (The other one was the paid sick leave bill.) That is, if he hadn’t been suspended in January because of those pesky sexual assault charges.
Take it away, Norm…
Reached at home in Highgate, McAllister said he would have voted against both measures. “I got an idea that’s probably why some people didn’t want me there.”
Yeah, solid thinking. It wasn’t the multiple felony charges or the pending trial or the embarrassment of having an accused felon in their midst. The Real Truth is that Norm McAllister was simply too dangerous and had to be silenced!
It’s been a tough few years for legislative Republicans. They’re a perpetual minority with little influence. Push comes to shove, about all they can do is call a press conference and let Don Turner bemoan the latest actions of the Democratic majority.
This year, things are looking a little different. Well, they’re still in a minority, but they seem to have gotten a little bit feisty — looking for opportunities to throw their weight around. I’m guessing it as something to do with Phil Scott’s candidacy for governor:
— It’s their best prospect for retaking the corner office since 2010*, which has to boost their morale, and
— The more trouble they cause, the better it is for Scott. (Who, as the Nice Guy in the room, would never ever stoop to chicanery, no sir. Ahem. See below.)
*Yes, Scott Milne almost won in 2014, but nobody thought he stood a chance. He wasn’t considered a prospect until election night. Until then, he was actually a drag on Republicans’ view of their chances.
We’re still early in the session, and we’ve seen two very high-profile spots where Republican lawmakers went out of their way to throw a wrench in the works.
I realize that our universally-liked lieutenant governor is new at this whole “leadership” thing. He’s unaccustomed to taking strong stands and providing firm direction. But if he wants to be Governor, he’d better start practicing. Because right now, he’s displaying the opposite of leadership on the issue of paid sick leave. And the Democrats caught him in the act.
For those just tuning in, paid sick leave almost got through the Legislature in 2015 despite the anguished howls of the business lobby. Phil Scott has been right there alongside them, raising heartfelt concerns about the impact of paid sick leave on small business.
This year, paid sick leave looks certain to pass, with some modest tweaks designed to soothe the tender sensibilities of the bizfolk. And here comes our own Braveheart, triangulating his way to the winning side.
“I like the direction it’s going, and I’m happy to take a position on it once it’s out of committee,” Scott said.
The Democratic Party took note of this and pounced. Here’s a fun Twitter exchange, screengrabbed for your amusement.
It’s been a years-long battle to enact a paid sick leave law in Vermont. The issue came close in 2015, passing the House but failing to survive the Senate. Next year? Bet on it sailing through.
As Seven Days’ Terri Hallenbeck reports, top Democrats (with the consicuous exception of Senate President Pro Tem John Campbell, a PSL skeptic) held a news conference Wednesday at Hen of the Wood Restaurant* to announce that PSL legislation would be on top of their agenda for 2016.
*Nice work if you can get it.
The move was not at all political, no sirree. Just ask declared gubernatorial candidate, House Speaker Shap Smith:
Smith dismissed his political ambitions as a factor Wednesday. “The election has nothing to with it,” he said. “It’s the right thing to do.”
Regardless, Smith will be up against other Democratic candidates who support the concept. If he’s able guide the bill into law in 2016, that success will give him a boost in a Democratic primary race where the issue is likely to resonate.
A while back, I proposed that Vermont’s small retailers ought to open their own interest group. I suggested the Vermont Association of Independent Retailers, or VAIR for short.
The idea came to me while reading about their putative Montpelier representation, the Vermont Retail and Grocers Association, helmed by the very effective Jim Harrison. One of his favorite techniques is to bring some mom-and-pop types to the Statehouse whenever there’s legislation that might touch on retail interests, such as the proposed sugary-beverage tax.
Truth is, Harrison gives a lot of lip service to the little guy, but his real clients are in Big Retail — the WalMarts, Hannafords, and Dollar Generals of the world. And quite often, the interests of Big Retail are at odds with what’s best for small business. Guys like Harrison draw a stark divide between the private sector and government; in fact, the real divide is frequently found between big retail and small. I would ask this of real independent retailers: which is the biggest threat to your existience? A change in state regulations, or the big boxes and dollar stores springing up all over the place?
This is also true in the broader business world. And in that field, there’s a thousand-pound lobbying gorilla called the National Federation of Independent Businesses, or NFIB. Which has a Vermont branch, helmed by veteran corporate lobbyist Shawn Shouldice. (Who also, I can’t help but note, does PR for Bruce Lisman.)
The NFIB sounds like a joint effort of all the mom-and-pops. It bills itself as “the voice of small business.”