Tag Archives: Sarah Copeland Hanzas

Surrendering Before the First Shot is Fired, and Other Time-Honored Strategeries

One of the consistent themes running through recent Legislatures is Democratic majorities retreating in the face of the slightest pressure — sometimes, even before they feel any pressure at all.

The latest dispiritng entry in this Chronicle of FAIL is a House/Senate task force on public sector pensions. Despite a Democratic majority on the panel, the task force seems determined to rule out possible new revenue sources for the pension funds. If the panel has its way, employees and retirees would absorb the bulk of the pain in a pension reform plan.

As a reminder, both pension plans were massively underfunded from the early 90s to the mid 2000s. In recent years, pension managers issued overly rosy projections on investment returns. That combo platter of ineptitude has resulted in a massive shortfall in both pensions. The Task Force was created by the Legislature last spring, after a reform plan to from House leadership capsized upon launch.

That plan emphasized benefit cuts and higher payments by employees. Leadership abandoned it after furious blowback from the unions. Well, it now seems that the Task Force is bent on following the same course. Members are not even considering measures that Gov. Phil Scott might veto.

Remind me, what’s the difference between legislative Democrats and the Republican administration? Precious little in this case.

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The Speaker Runs for Cover

Well, that didn’t take long.

After steadfastly insisting that Vermont’s public sector pension plans urgently needed an immediate overhaul, House Speaker Jill Krowinski sounded the retreat Friday morning.

It stands to reason, considering the intense backlash her plan received since it was kinda-sorta unveiled on March 24. (Only nine days ago!) Krowinski has now fallen back on the lawmaker’s favorite way to defer tough decisions: a task force.

I guess the situation somehow got a lot less critical.

She deserves credit for gracefully abandoning an unsustainable position. But how did she not see this coming?

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So Many Sad Crocodiles

I tried to watch Tuesday’s kabuki performance hearing of the House Government Operations Committee, but was repeatedly thwarted by a bad Internet connection. (Thanks, Consolidated Communications!) Still, I saw enough to realize what was going on. And enough to be completely fed up with all the expressions of dismay from Democratic officeholders.

The short version: The fix is in. The skids are greased. Following two days of dog-and-pony public hearings, the committee picked up on Tuesday exactly where it left off on Friday afternoon: Charging ahead with a reform plan that will substantially devalue pensions for teachers and state employees.

So, thanks to all those who testified. For your time and trouble, you get a lovely parting gift: our Pension Reform Home Game. Now you can play God with other people’s pensions, just like our legislative leaders!

One thing every committee member can agree on (well, except the three Republicans, they don’t seem to mind at all) is that these are difficult, painful conversations. In the brief statement she read at the beginning of the second public hearing Monday, committee chair Sarah Copeland Hanzas used the word “difficult” three times. “These are really difficult conversations,” “Everyone has had a tremendously difficult year,” “this conversation couldn’t have come at a more difficult time.” In her testimony on Tuesday, Treasurer Beth Pearce said “When we gave our recommendations, we did so with a great deal of reluctance… these are painful.” Other Dems chimed in with similar expressions of saditude throughout Tuesday’s hearing.

Pardon me if I can’t appreciate the self-pity parade. These conversations are waaaaay less “difficult” for elected officials than for the folks who’ll take it in the shorts if this plan (or something like it) takes effect.

Here’s another thing that’s cratering my sympathy for our poor hard-working betters: They’re lying about where we are in the process.

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Well, it’s not a flaming bag of poo

With no advance warning, the House Government Operations Committee on Wednesday rolled out a reform plan for Vermont’s underfunded public sector pensions. And from the unions’ point of view, it could hardly be worse.

Before I get to the details, I’ll define “no advance warning.” On Wednesday morning, the committee first heard a proposal to restructure the pensions under a single Vermont Retirement Commission. That plan was posted to the committee’s website very shortly before the hearing began. Two lawmakers broadly hinted that they were reading it for the first time, with no chance to digest or formulate questions.

Ditto the pension reform plan. It was posted to the committee’s “Documents & Handouts” webpage only two minutes before its hearing was to begin.

For an issue as complicated as pension reform, this is unconscionable.

Well, it’d be fine if we were at the beginning of a normal legislative timeline with plenty of hearings and back-and-forth and rewrites of the legislation. But as far as I can see, we’re not going to get any of that. As I said in my previous post, legislative leaders are hellbent on enacting pension reform this year. If they’re going to hew to that ambitious timeline, Gov Ops would have to vote out an actual bill within days.

There were a few signs of exactly how rushed these proposals were. Rep. Bob Hooper asked if a cost analysis had been done on the new Retirement Commission. The answer was “No.” Later he noted that the reduction in benefits seemed out of proportion with projected savings; apparently a full fiscal analysis has yet to be done.

Whenever they want to slow-play an issue, legislative leaders usually claim that there’s not enough time to give the issue the scrutiny it deserves. If this pension plan gets fast-tracked, I don’t ever want to hear that excuse again.

After the jump: The grim details.

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Watchdog group: Vermont’s ethics commission is worthless

According to a new report from the nonprofit Coalition for Integrity, Vermont is one of the worst states in the nation for ethics enforcement in government.

The C4I’s report (first reported in Vermont by VTDigger) compares the ethics processes of all 50 states plus the District of Columbia. Vermont is in a three-way tie for next-to-last, along with Utah and Virginia. All three states have an entirely toothless ethics process. (Five states — Arizona, Idaho, New Mexico, North Dakota and Wyoming — have no ethics agency at all.)

The report’s Vermont section is a depressing read. It notes that our Ethics Commission is purely an advisory body with “no authority to investigate or enforce the ethics laws.” All it can do is review ethics complaints and refer them on to agencies with actual power. And all of its activity is shielded from public scrutiny.

This is no surprise to anyone who’s been following my coverage of the Commission’s establishment on this blog and in the pages of Seven Days. (If you do a site search for “ethics,” you’ll find the relevant stories.) Indeed, an entirely toothless ethics process is exactly what the legislature intended. After staunchly resisting the very idea that Vermont needed ethical standards, lawmakers did just barely enough to make it seem like they cared. But they don’t.

And the Democratic majority bears the responsibility for this sad state of affairs, because Democrats have the power. They used it to stonewall every idea for real ethics enforcement. They show every sign of continuing to hold that position. In fact, lawmakers essentially bullied the Ethics Commission into rewriting its own rules on advisory opinions to end any possibility that any of the panel’s work would ever be available for public inspection.

A secret ethics process. Isn’t it ironic, don’tcha think?

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Winning the Speakership was the easy part

Congratulations to Mitzi Johnson, the apparent successor to Shap Smith as Speaker of the House. She pipped House Majority Leader Sarah Copeland-Hanzas at the post. And although her selection must be ratified by the Democratic caucus and then the full House, there’s no real doubt that she will win.

Johnson is whip-smart and highly capable. She was skillful at managing the House Appropriations Committee, which is a hell of a trick.

As for being Speaker, well, she’s about to discover how different and how difficult that job is.

Shap Smith made it look effortless, but there was constant furious activity below the waterline. He also enjoyed the support of an informal cadre of loyal House members who helped him keep tabs on the ebb and flow of lawmaking and the interpersonal dynamics that must be managed effectively if the House is to function. In that regard, a capable inner circle is just as important as the actual caucus leadership.

Johnson won’t have that. She may or may not realize the importance of having that. But the House is a somewhat random gathering of 150 willful souls with 150 agendas. And by “agendas,” i don’t mean policy; I mean unique admixtures of principle, practicality, intellect (or lack thereof), knowledge (or lack thereof), curiosity (or lack thereof), debts payable and receivable, and ludicrously overdeveloped senses of self-preservation..

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The Chittenden Trap

One of the top items on the Vermont Democratic Party’s to-do list is a makeover of its relationship with the Progressive Party. Nothing drastic, just some overdue maintenance. The core issue: how to deal with Progs running as Dems — and, in some cases, running as Dems and then re-entering the fray as Progs after losing a Democratic primary.

But I would argue that another issue might be more urgent: the party’s increasingly Chittenden-centric orientation.

Writing this post was in the works before today’s news that Rep. Mitzi Johnson has edged out Rep. Sarah Copeland-Hanzas to be the next Speaker of the House. Now, it seems even more pertinent. The leaders of both houses will come from Chittenden County’s sphere of influence: Johnson from South Hero (basically a bedroom community for Burlington), Senate President Pro Tem Tim Ashe from Chittenden County. And the three members of the Senate’s Committee on Committees all being from Chittenden.

When I say “Chittenden County,” I define it broadly; from the southern half of the Champlain Islands down to Shelburne at least, and southwestward to Richmond if not Waterbury.

Chittenden County itself accounts for one-fourth of Vermont’s population. Its Senate delegation is twice as large as the next biggest county — and in fact, based purely on population, it ought to have one more Senator. (And will certainly get at least one more after the 2020 Census.)

Beyond the mere numbers, Chittenden is home turf for the Democratic Party’s urban-ish, tech-oriented core. And its donor base.

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Budget Kabuki

The Vermont House passed a budget this week. Pretty quick and pretty painless, considering the state’s fiscal situation. Lawmakers found money in a lot of places that won’t directly impact working Vermonters’ take-home pay.

Much of the new revenue comes from raising fees on registration of mutual funds. That’s a minuscule line item in funds’ expenses, so the actual effect on The People will be negligible at most. Ditto with an increase in registration fees for large banks. In general, the House found ways to prop up necessary state programs with some fairly reasonable tax and fee hikes. Mostly fees.

Republicans, of course didn’t see it that way. There were the usual, utterly predictable cries of outrage that are repeated every time a tax or fee is increased — even when a fee hike simply reflects the impact of inflation. (Fees are fixed; if you don’t raise ’em occasionally, you’re narrowing your revenue stream.) It doesn’t help Republicans’ credibility when every single revenue enhancement, no matter how small, is a punishing blow to struggling Vermonters and a mortal threat to the economy.

This time, there were loud laments over being shut out of the process. Which, first of all, c’mon. When the Republicans ruled this roost for over a century, how much credence did they give to Democratic ideas? When state lawmakers in Kansas or Oklahoma or Michigan or any other state with a Republican majority sets policy, do you think they allow Democrats to have a fair say?

Of course not. Shoe’s on the other foot, guys. Suck it up.

House Minority Leader (and Chief Budget Scold) Don Turner presented an additional argument this time.

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Further thoughts on the Lite-Gov race

My recent post on Sen. David Zuckerman’s candidacy for lieutenant governor drew a couple of intelligent comments, which prompted this return to the subject. But I’ll begin with another reminder from the archives, which creates some doubt about Rep. Kesha Ram’s appeal to Dem officeholders and party regulars.

Almost exactly one year ago, when the House Democratic caucus met to elect officers. Willem Jewett was stepping down as Majority Leader, and two women — Sarah Copeland-Hanzas and Kesha Ram — competed to replace him.

Those familiar with the House org chart know that Copeland-Hanzas came out on top. In fact, Ram withdrew before the vote. Which is what people do when they know they’re going to lose. She claimed it was “a very close race,” and cited concerns about the Chittenden-centric nature of House leadership. (Copeland-Hanzas is from Bradford.)

Okay, whatevs. But political bloggers and other tinfoil-hat wearers can’t help but wonder why her colleagues turned elsewhere for leadership. There is some sentiment that Ram is a bit of a climber, aching for the spotlight before being truly ready. That’s one way to read things. Maybe it was a simple matter of geography. But maybe there are doubts among key Democrats about Ram.

And now: letters, we get letters…

Veteran blogger nanuqFC posed a couple of good points.

— First, on whether Zuckerman’s push for public financing could even the playing field. I didn’t mention this because I don’t see it as a factor. Under current law, Zuckerman is disqualified from public financing due to his early entry into the race. He and Dean Corren are challenging the law in court, and he’s also pushing for the Legislature to reform the process. But even if he prevails on either track, it’s unlikely to come soon enough to help him in 2016. So he’s on his own, as far as I’m concerned.

— Also, nanuq noted that Dem/Prog fractiousness is not only a Chittenden County phenomenon. Which is true; it’s at its height in Chittenden, but it exists elsewhere. That’s a negative for Zuckerman’s chances. On the other hand, it’s an open primary, so nothing would stop non-Dems from supporting Zuckerman. Overall, a slight negative. (See also: the impact of the gubernatorial primary, below.)

And now meet our second correspondent, David Grant.

— He gives Zuckerman a slight edge in Chittenden County due to name recognition; so what about the rest of the state? Well, Zuckerman’s name recognition advantage is bigger elsewhere. It’s up to Ram to raise her profile. She should have the resources and the contacts to do so; whether she truly connects, remains to be seen.

Her presence in the House Dem Caucus ought to be a big help; state representatives can be the backbone of a statewide campaign. She had a strong turnout of officeholders at her campaign launch, which is a positive sign. There is, however, that failed run for Majority Leader, which makes you wonder if her colleagues will back her with enthusiasm. We shall see.

— Grant also points out the importance of building a quality campaign staff, and wonders who has the advantage there. I don’t know who’s signed on with whom. But I can say this: the Democrats have an undeniable edge in experienced, effective campaign operatives. Ram’s ability to draw on that talent pool is a significant advantage for her.

— He also asks how the gubernatorial primary will impact the Lite-Gov race. I gave a bit of an answer last time — Sue Minter might give Ram some coattails among voters who feel that men have been far too dominant in Vermont politics, which they have. But I ignored the elephant in the room: The gubernatorial primary will drive turnout higher, and will put the Lite-Gov race on the back burner.

The Democratic primary is certain to draw the largest turnout since 2010 at least. Many of those voters will have followed the Minter/Dunne contest and given little thought to Ram/Zuckerman. They’ll be making quick, uninformed decisions. Do they remember Zuckerman’s name from past Senate debates? Do they opt for the female candidate for both offices?

And there’s the surprise twist ending. I’ve sifted through this factor and that, and finally realized that they all pale in comparison to a primary that will be heavily focused on the race for governor. For every voter who carefully weighs the pros and cons of Kesha Ram and David Zuckerman, there’ll be another (or two or three) who’s flipping a coin in the booth.

So yeah, all my sound and fury signifies not much.

Shumlin doubles down on bashing fellow Democrats

If you thought there was a chance that Governor Shumlin would tone down his insistence on last-minute spending cuts, well, think again. Earlier, he’d called two key Senate committee chairs on the ceremonial carpet to argue for tax reductions and spending cuts — in a spending bill that had already passed the Senate Appropriations Committee. This didn’t go over well with Democxratic lawmakers, per Paul Heintz:

Gov. Peter Shumlin’s erstwhile allies in the Democratic legislature lashed out at him Thursday for pushing new cuts after the Senate Appropriations Committee signed off on the budget.

“It’s insulting to the process,” complained one top Dem.

… “It’s been pretty lonely in there all winter,” Sen. Bobby Starr (D-Essex/Orleans) said, referring to the Appropriations Committee, on which he serves. “I woulda thought they would’ve been in at least a month ago, if not five, six weeks ago, offering some suggestions.”

House Majority Leader Sarah Copeland Hanzas noted that the House-passed tax and spending bills actually called for less spending than the Governor’s original budget plan. She called the gubernatorial disconnect “perplexing.”

Welp, the Governor is unbowed by all the pushback.

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