Funny thing happened Thursday, unprecedented in my three-plus years of political blogging.
I got calls from not one, not two, but three different top Democrats seeking to gently upbraid me for stuff I’d written this week, and offer some guidance toward alternative views. Their own views, of course.
Which is nice for the ego. They read, and they care.
Also, their messages were valuable. They did offer some good information. But I’m not completely convinced.
The callers offered some pushback on the subject of newsdumps. They insisted that what appear to be newsdumps — the offloading of bad news when people are least likely to see it — were not newsdumps at all, but simply cases of the calendar conspiring against them.
There was a second message: the upcoming round of budget rescissions do not single out Human Services. They don’t deny that AHS is going to feel the pain, but the problem, as they explain it, is that vast areas of the budget are off-limits for rescissions, which makes AHS the only real target of substantial size.
They made some good points. The problem is this: the Shumlin administration has a well-earned reputation for (1) deviousness, (2) political gamesmanship, (3) newsdumps, and (4) targeting Human Services. Their own track record colors my views of recent events. In other words, if I was overly cynical, I put much of the blame on their doorstep.
I’m sure those inside the administration don’t see it that way. For the most part, they honestly believe they’re trying their best to move the state forward through tough times. But the 2014 election should have been a wake-up call: their view of things is often at odds with others’ views. Say, the voters’ views.
Let’s take their points, shall we?
First, on Human Services having to make almost two-thirds of the cuts in the upcoming rescissions. It’s true, but the reason is that AHS takes the lion’s share of general fund money. And only general-fund programs are open to rescission. Schools and transportation don’t get much money from the general fund, for instance.
According to outgoing Administration Secretary Jeb Spaulding, appearing on VPR’s Vermont Edition Friday, AHS accounts for 40% of the total budget — but 75% of General Fund spending.
Which sounds reasonable to me. But…
1. This wouldn’t be the first time the administration targeted AHS. The most notorious case is Shumlin’s ill-fated effort to slash the Earned Income Tax Credit, one of our best bulwarks against the rising tide of income inequality.
2. The rescissions list was released on the Thursday before Thanksgiving. This may or may not have been a newsdump (see below), but it gave little or no opportunity for journalists and bloggers to seek clarification of the raw numbers. When I saw the raw numbers, they looked really, really bad for AHS.
And now, on to newsdumps. I had identified three: the rescissions release, the deadline for submitting rescissions, and the Governor’s release of his single-payer financing plan at the end of this month.
The rescissions release on Thanksgiving Eve wasn’t a newsdump, my callers insist. They had put together the list and informed agency officials earlier that week. Many agencies wanted to tackle the budget-cutting immediately — over the holiday weekend. That meant releasing the list on Wednesday, so the process could begin.
The deadline, Friday Dec. 5, they say, wasn’t a newsdump because they hadn’t planned to release anything on Friday. It was an internal deadline only.
I can accept that. But once again, history informed my cynicism. When I see something bad happening on a Friday or a holiday eve, my Weaselometer begins to howl.
Finally, the long-awaited and catastrophically overdue reveal of the single-payer funding plan (which VTDigger’s Morgan True appears to have uncovered the substance of already) on either Monday December 29 or Tuesday December 30. Many voters will be out of town or otherwise occupied during that time; media outlets will have bare-bones staffing. So of course it looked like a newsdump.
Not so, insist my callers. They blame the calendar, mostly. You see, the 29th and 30th are on Monday and Tuesday. They couldn’t release it on Friday the 26th, and New Year’s Eve would be universally viewed as a newsdump.
The week before is problematic as well. The 24th, 25th, and 26th are out. Monday the 22nd or Tuesday the 23rd would hardly be any better than the 29th or 30th. And the week before that is too early; the plan may not be completely done by then.
Okay, spin it ahead. New Year’s Day is a Thursday; Jan. 2 is not only the day after a holiday, it’s a Friday, so that’s no good.
Which brings us to Monday the 5th — only two days before the Legislature convenes. That week is likely to be a circus, what with Scott Milne’s Dance of the Seven Veils, various ceremonial activities, and other hard news. (Such as the RAND Corp. report on marijuana legalization.)
The fear, so I’m told, is that a single-payer unveil on Jan. 5 could get lost in a blizzard of news. It would also give lawmakers less time to look it over. And, I’m told, lawmakers wanted to get their hands on it as quickly as possible. Hence, a pre-New Year’s release.
Again, it all makes sense. And again, given the administration’s iffy history, you can understand why an outsider would look at a late-December release and scream “Newsdump!”
This all illustrates how much the administration will have to do, to repair its tattered and battered public image. Much of those batterings were self-inflicted, as the administration acted out of unwarranted hubris and, sometimes, arrogance.
They may not believe they acted badly in the past. But a lot of Vermonters, including a whole lot of liberals, are convinced that they did. That’s why Shumlin’s pre-election approval numbers were so dismal, and why his very expensive campaign hardly moved the numbers at all.
And that’s why I’ve said the Governor should avoid newsdumps or anything that looks like a newsdump, or anything that looks like a political maneuver or a transparently bogus explanation. He’d be better served by standing up in broad daylight and owning the bad news, instead of reinforcing his reputation.
Of course, he’d be far better off by having an administration that didn’t produce so much bad news. But that’s another matter.
Callers, thanks for reading theVPO and taking it seriously. And thanks for calling.