Tag Archives: Phil Scott

I Think I Can See a Little Smoke Coming Out His Ears

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Things are gettin’ a mite testy chez Phil Scott these days. His weekly Covid briefing for September 28 was an exercise in statistical diversion, gaslighting, word salad and straw man punching.

Oh, and the usual journalism FAIL. The reporters get the governor for two hours every week and they rarely take the opportunity to ask probing questions on the biggest immediate challenge we face. The reporting on Scott’s briefings is often more like stenography than journalism. The beginning of this week’s Question Time featured several consecutive questions that weren’t about Covid at all. The end of the sesh came early, after a number of reporters who’d signed up to ask questions decided that, well, actually, they didn’t have anything to ask.

It wasn’t an entirely dismal parade, but it was largely a missed opportunity to quiz the gov and his top officials on, for example, their policy stubbornness, statistical sleight-of-hand, failure to help the schools fight Covid, or the growing chorus of criticism from the medical and public health communities.

There was also, as discussed previously, an almost complete dearth of follow-up when some official evades an inquiry, fumbles an answer, or spews some serious bullshit. Which happens a lot. This is mainly an issue with the format, but it also reflects an unwillingness to abandon prepared questions in favor of follow-up, a lack of advance research, and probably attention spans too short to listen all the way through.

There was one solid journalistic exchange that got a bit too hot for the governor’s taste. It produced a lovely bouquet of evasion, misstatements, verbal stumbles and filibusters. Details after the jump.

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Boo This Man

It’s possible, in this moment of his ultimate disgrace, to feel just a little bit sorry for ex-governor Peter Shumlin. From fall 2014 to summer 2015, he endured three separate political de-pantsings — any one of which could have felled a lesser man in his tracks. First, his near-defeat at the hands of political outsider (and truly terrible campaigner) Scott Milne; then, having to admit failure in his signature push for single-payer health care; and then, in the spring of 2015, finding out that the Quiros/Stenger EB-5 projects were built on fiscal and ethical quicksand.

That said, his governorship will have to go down in history as singularly disastrous.

We know this now because of the dogged efforts of VTDigger to unearth a trove of documents kept secret by state officials. Its pursuit of the EB-5 White Whale was rewarded last week by a federal judge’s ruling that the documents must be made public.

And now, after poring their way through the docs, Alan Keays and Anne Galloway have published one of the most damning political pieces in recent memory. They recount how Shumlin and his team knew by the spring of 2015 that the EB-5 projects were fundamentally fraudulent and doomed to collapse… and yet they kept on flogging the projects for a full year. Their efforts only ended in the spring of 2016 when the feds launched a massive civil suit against Bill Stenger and Ariel Quiros.

That’s bad. But Keays and Galloway document a variety of ways in which the story is even worse than that dreadful topline. Let’s run the highlights, shall we?

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We Are Just Way Too F***in’ Polite Around Here

Painting by Marc Adornato. See note below.

When, in a previous post, I called on Seven Days to fill its vacant “Fair Game” position with a skilled reporter/observer from outside Vermont, I got a response via Twitter that essentially said that #vtpoli is too “insular” for an outsider to penetrate. (Can’t find the tweet now; apologies to the tweeter.) My response to that would be “Exactly!” Vermont’s politics are far too insular. That’s precisely why we need someone from elsewhere who hasn’t internalized all that insularity and/or has too many friends in the bubble. Someone with the perspective that allows them to see that the emperor has no clothes.

We’ve got a really good example of that insularity going on right now. Last week, the state Public Utilities Commission issued a ruling that wasn’t at all surprising, but that defied common sense. The three-member panel rejected a proposed solar farm in Manchester on esthetic grounds.

This, despite the fact that we’ve got to go all-out in our efforts to mitigate climate change, and that Vermont is doing nowhere near its share on the renewable front. Also despite these facts:

  • All the relevant local and regional bodies approved the project.
  • No one, aside from a handful of NIMBY neighbors, objected to it.
  • The developer went above and beyond the call of duty to minimize esthetic impact.
  • The PUC’s own “aesthetics consultant” said the array “would not have an undue adverse effect on aesthetics.”

So it was a stupid decision that strikes a significant blow at renewable development in Vermont. But that’s not what I’m writing about here.

The subject of this sermon is the almost complete silence from those who ought to be outraged by this ruling: the Vermont Democratic Party and The Usual Suspects in the environmental community. Where was the tsunami of protest?

The answer is, we’re way too polite and insular.

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Pay No Attention to the Pandemic Behind the Curtain

Wow. Gov. Phil Scott’s weekly press briefing was a nonstop festival of blame-shifting, convenient rationalization and, well, telling us a shit sandwich is prime roast beef.

Scott took the podium amid a blizzard of bad news — high case counts beyond his administration’s projections, unclear forecasts of Covid’s near future, high numbers of hospitalizations, inadequate contact tracing, and outbreaks of cases in public schools. He had explanations for all of it, few of them convincing.

He began by doubling down on his policy of encouraging vaccinations and little else. “This is a pandemic of the unvaccinated,” he said, pointing to numbers that show the vast majority of severe cases are among the unjabbed. True enough, but just because the odds are better for the vaccinated doesn’t mean the risk is acceptable.

Scott’s message: The blame shouldn’t fall to administration policy, it’s with the stubbornly unvaccinated. If you all would just get your shots, everything would be peachy. There’s truth in that, but he’s doing nothing to get more people vaccinated besides the same old earnest advice. IF he’s putting all his chips on vaccination, he might want to enact policies that incentivize vaccination and disincentivize stubborn resistance.

Scott again insisted that any tougher measures would require a state of emergency, which he again refused to consider. This, despite the fact that rates of cases, hospitalizations and deaths are equal to or greater than levels last seen in the winter of 2021 — when Scott was happy to continue a state of emergency.

He also dipped a toe into the murky waters of surrender. “Covid-19, like the flu, is going to be here for a while,” he said, ignoring the fact that Covid-19 is far more dangerous than your average flu. Unless he meant the deadly Spanish Flu of 1918.

After the jump: Please ignore the facts.

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We Seem to be Turning the Wrong Corner

A startling admission came Friday from Finance Commissioner and Lord High CoronaDamus Mike Pieciak. After weeks of confident predictions that the Delta variant would peak and then decline, Pieciak told Seven Days’ Anne Wallace Allen that actually, he has no idea what’s coming next.

It’s too early, he said, to predict whether Vermont’s COVID-19 infection rate will decline, remain stable, or rise.

Pieciak’s agency produced a chart that underlines his statement.

Yeah, that just about covers the available turf. And leaves completely in the dark about the near future.

I hope Pieciak isn’t in too much trouble with his political masters for this belated bit of honesty. And I hope he faces some tough questions at this week’s gubernatorial press briefing. I’d suggest something along the lines of “WTF, Commissioner?”

Really, there’s too much evidence to the contrary for Pieciak to keep on the sunny side. But it’s a dramatic volte face for the administration. It remains to be seen whether Gov. Phil Scott will finally acknowledge that maybe, possibly, he might have failed to take Delta seriously enough.

There’s abundant evidence that the Scott administration has been far too confident in its Delta policy – or should I say, lack of policy. Let’s start with the weekend Covid counts, which are downright depressing. Three straight days over 200? Dramatically higher 7-day rolling count and weekly total? Ugh.

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It Sure Looks Like the Administration Wasn’t Prepared for the Delta Variant

This week’s news has been very bad for the Scott administration’s reputation for sound management of the Covid pandemic. On Wednesday, Seven Days reported that the state’s contact tracing effort has failed to keep pace with the recent surge in cases. That same day, VTDigger reported that Vermont’s public schools are trying to do contact tracing on their own and are having trouble getting timely advice from the Health Department.

This appears to be a Delta variant phenomenon; the administration’s response was much more robust in earlier phases of the pandemic. Did they get overconfident in early summer, when Covid-19 seemed to be on the wane? Were they over-reliant on the protection offered by widespread vaccination? I’m guessing yes on both counts.

In 2020, Health Department staffers conducted much of the contact tracing, and pulled in other state workers and National Guard troops to assist. This spring the administration outsourced the work to an out-of-state contractor, which was caught unprepared for the arrival of the Delta variant. And the administration has been slow to respond. I have to think they badly underestimated the impact of the Delta surge.

Why do I think that? First, Governor Scott has been very slow to institute tougher measures. Second, his people were slow to realize that Delta would create a need for a vigorous contact tracing system. That became a critical failure as the schools began to reopen.

“Within two weeks, 67 schools should have full contact tracing,” Human Services Secretary Mike Smith said at this week’s Covid briefing. There are 250 public schools in Vermont. Smith is acknowledging that only one-fourth of them will have full contact tracing by late September. That’s appalling.

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A Disturbing Trend in State Covid Stats, and Other Notes on Today’s Presser

This here chart illustrates a troubling development in the last week-plus: Vermont’s initial daily Covid count has been consistently revised upward a day later. Some of the revisions are dramatic. And, as VTDigger reported, the trend continued big-time over the Labor Day weekend. The original case counts for Saturday, Sunday and Monday totaled 242 cases. The one-day-later revised counts totaled 438. Yep, they almost doubled from original report to later revision.

This is problematic in two ways. First, most people who follow this stuff check the daily number on the Covid Dashboard, and that’s all they do. They never spot the revisions. Second, the revisions are not easy to find. They are reflected in the Health Department’s Covid charts, but only if you know where to look. It took me a while, and I’m a frequent Dashboard visitor. It ain’t exactly transparency.

This issue rightfully came up at Gov. Phil Scott’s weekly briefing today. And the answers were, shall we say, less than informative.

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Phil Scott’s Power Grab

Recent news coverage of Brattleboro’s attempt to impose a mask mandate has revealed something that went under the radar in June, and I have questions.

Last week, Gov. Phil Scott rejected the Brattleboro ban. In doing so, the administration cited an executive order posted on June 15. The order came at the end of Vermont’s state of emergency, and outlined next steps in fighting Covid-19. They included use of the National Guard in “vaccination and other recovery services,” extending a measure allowing bars and restaurants to sell take-out alcoholic drinks, extending emergency housing measures, and…

What seems to be a remarkable concentration of power in the governor’s office: “Changes in public health mitigation measures or requirements impacting the general population shall require approval of the Governor.”

By itself, the order seems to apply to measures taken by the state. But just before that sentence comes a statement that the Vermont Department of Health “shall oversee COVID-19 related investigation and mitigation efforts,” including those by municipal authorities. That sets the stage for the assertion of executive power.

I’m no lawyer and this could all be completely kosher. But it seems a bit dictatorial to me, and I’m surprised that it failed to attract a single bit of coverage or criticism. Other parts of the order, like the housing bit and the liquor permission, were covered extensively. But not the assumption of unitary power by the governor.

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Nothing to See Here

Yeah, we hit a single-day total of 189 Covid cases on Saturday. Yeah, our seven-day total is nearing the peak levels of March. Yeah, as schools reopen around the country, we’re getting reports of Covid outbreaks. Yeah, Covid cases among young children are peaking. Yeah, it looks like vaccines are less effective than believed at preventing severe illness. Yeah, the Centers for Disease Control says that universal masking should be practiced in schools. Yeah, a single teacher who briefly umasked apparently spread Covid to a couple dozen kids. Yeah, Vermont schools are reopening with no mask mandate. Yeah, Vermont has the highest proportion of childhood Covid of the 50 states. Yeah, school boards across the state are being harassed by unruly anti-maskers. Yeah, there’s a story or three every damn day that gives you pause.

But please ignore the sea of red flags. Nothing to see here. According to the Scott administration.

I know, there’s plenty of evidence on the other side. I wouldn’t be surprised if the Delta variant dwindles away as projected. It’s quite possible we’re going to get through this with a minimum amount of damage. But what if we don’t? The situation seems to call for vigilance and an abundance of caution.

The most concerning thing for me, as a senior citizen with risk factors, is the news that vaccines are less effective at preventing hospitalizations than was previously believed. There’s also a study showing that vaccine protection isn’t as strong among the immunocompromised. That’s a lot of folks who may not be as safe as they thought.

For Vermonters as a whole, the big worry is the potential for widespread illness among children. With kids under 12 still unvaccinated, every elementary school and child care facility is an outbreak waiting to happen. Let’s run down some back-to-school bad news… after the jump.

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The Stouthearted Man of Principle Stands Alone

The Telltale Smirk.

Gov. Phil Scott has many admirable traits, as well as many politically advantageous ones. But the hackles rise whenever he accuses his opponents of playing politics. He did it again at his press briefing on August 24, shortly after House Speaker Jill Krowinski and Senate President Pro Tem Becca Balint called for stronger action against Covid-19.

“I think it’s unfortunate to play politics at this point in time,” he said in response to a question about the Democratic leaders’ statements. “I think one of the reasons our pandemic response has been the best in the nation is that we never politicized our response, as other states and other ambitious leaders have done throughout the country.”

“Other ambitious leaders,” eh? Got any particular House or Senate leaders in mind there?

It’s bullshit, in a word. He casts himself as the sole champion of pure reason in a grubby little world of political hackery. In fact, Scott has been a politician far longer than Krowinski or Balint. Longer than the two of them combined. Legislating and policymaking are inherently political enterprises. If you’re in that sandbox, you are playing politics.

His definition of “playing politics” appears to be “disagreeing with me.” If you’re on board with his Covid policy, you’re dutifully following the science and the data. If you differ, well, you’re being (ugh) political.

So tell me, are the 91 Health Department employees who just wrote a letter expressing their “deep concern” over the state’s “lack of adequate COVID-19 prevention guidance” playing politics? Are the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which has called for universal masking in school buildings and recommended masking in all indoor spaces regardless of vaccination status? Is the American Academy of Pediatricians, which calls for school mask mandates and vaccination of all eligible persons? Is the World Health Organization, which recommends not only universal indoor masking but avoiding indoor spaces, especially crowded ones, whenever possible?

That’s a hell of a lot of non-politicians who, by Scott’s definition, are playing politics.

I wish he’d cut the “playing politics” innuendo. It’s unnecessary. It’s the very definition of political.

What’s wrong with a simple “Reasonable people may disagree, but I believe my policy is right”?