Tag Archives: rescissions

Now that I have their attention

Funny thing happened Thursday, unprecedented in my three-plus years of political blogging.

My sources. Not exactly as illustrated.

My sources. Not exactly as illustrated.

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.

Shumlin: “We have a structural deficit” and other happy tidings

The Governor addresses the multitudes. (The bearded man begging for change is Dave Gram of the Associated Press.)

The Governor addresses the multitudes. (The bearded man begging for change is Dave Gram of the Associated Press.)

An uncharacteristically subdued Governor Shumlin held an agenda-free news conference this morning. I emphasize “agenda-free” because his past practice has been to piggy-back news conferences onto photo opportunities or policy announcements, leaving much less time for general questions.

Today there were a lot of questions and a lot of substance. In no particular order…

The Vermont Health Connect website will go back online this Saturday, which happens to be the first day of open enrollment. So the relaunch will come on the last possible day. Gee, hope things go right; there’s no margin for error.

Shumlin pronounced himself “optimistic,” saying “I’m encouraged by what I’m hearing.” But given how often he, and we, have been burned in the past, he was reluctant to make any predictions. “I’m always hoping it will work.”

— He dismissed Republican calls to shut down VHC and go with the federal exchange, and he had several good arguments. First of all, it’s far too late to make the change this year, so we’d be limping along with VHC for another year in any case. And there are signs it’s finally getting on track. “We’re turning a corner,” he said. “Why not give it a chance?”

There’s also the fact that the federal exchange’s premium subsidies aren’t as generous as Vermont’s. Switching to the federal system would mean higher premiums for thousands of Vermonters who earn between 100-300% of the poverty line.

And, as he pointed out, the US Supreme Court may well strike down federal subsidies, in which case only states with their own exchanges will be able to offer subsidies.

— Get ready for a slam-bang legislative session. Shumlin is still talking about the next step in health care reform (see below), the legislature is hell-bent on property tax and/or school funding reform, Shumlin is talking about significant changes to energy policy, and perhaps worst of all, the quote atop this post: “We have a structural deficit at this point.” Meaning huge challenges in fashioning a budget. That’s a hell of a lot of big, contentious issues to tackle.

Temba, his arms wide.

Temba, his arms wide.

— Speaking of the budget, Shumlin acknowledged that Vermont and many other states “thought the recovery would be more robust,” and its weakness has caused revenue shortfalls. He’s talking about a second round of rescissions in this year’s budget, although he said nothing is final just yet. And he’s talking about major changes in next year’s budget in order to put an end to annual budget crises.

He wants to put the state on a more sustainable path. Which must be making a few Republicans chuckle, since they’ve been preaching this for years. On the other hand, Shumlin has a valid point: the recovery has been weak. If we’d had a normal recovery with decent wage gains, our tax revenue would be stronger and we wouldn’t be facing this dilemma. The big news on this front is that the Governor now believes we’re facing years of sluggishness, and we need to ratchet down the budget to make it sustainable.

When asked whether this might mean tax increases, he didn’t rule them out, but he made it clear that his first choice is to rein in spending.

— On the push for single-payer health care, he repeated his longstanding support for the idea, but acknowledged that in the wake of the election, everything is on the table. He is aiming for a system that combines affordability with universal access to health care. His preference remains single-payer, but it’s looking like we might settle for less than that.

— He made it clear that yes, he won the election, and he has no doubt that he will serve a third term. He pointed to Vermont’s long tradition of electing the top vote-getter when no one wins a majority: ‘The person who gets the most votes, wins.” He cited the 2002 election for Lieutenant Governor, in which he and Progressive Anthony Pollina combined for a liberal majority but Republican Brian Dubie won the most votes; he and Pollina urged lawmakers to elect Dubie, which they did.

— On school funding and organization, he declared “We have a spending problem,” with high per-pupil costs and administrative structures. In some cases, he said, small class sizes can be harmful to achievement rather than helpful. He’s not in favor of mandatory school consolidation, but it’s clear he will push for consolidation by trying to convince local districts that it’s in their best interest.

He did mention the idea of “prioritizing funding to schools that voluntarily consolidate.” That kind of legislative payola may be effective, but it kinda stretches the definition of “voluntary.”

— In a less wide-ranging news conference, his comments on energy policy might have made headlines. They’re likely to get lost in today’s news. He noted the pending sunset of the SPEED program, which has helped spur the renewables industry in Vermont but has also created controversy because it allows the sale of “green” energy credits in other markets. He and the legislature are working on “ideas to replace SPEED.”

He was asked about the prospects for a carbon tax with offsetting cuts in other taxes — a plan likely to be announced tomorrow by a coalition of environmental groups. He was cool to the idea, saying “It’s tough for a small rural state to do it alone,” and pointing particularly to its impact on gas stations near our state borders. He prefers a regional carbon tax instead; but he said he’s had no conversations with other northeastern governors about the idea. Methinks the enviros will have a hard time gaining traction, when you combine Shumlin’s reluctance with an extremely busy legislative session.

— Finally, he was asked about marijuana legalization. He said he wants to wait until the release of a report on the idea in January before proceeding, but noted that “I support legalization. The question is “when.”