Tag Archives: Vermont Edition

Phil Scott draws a line in the sand

Of course, “a line in the sand” is the easiest thing to erase.

Last Friday on VPR’s “Vermont Edition,” Gov. Phil Scott asserted that Vermont faces a $70-80 million budget shortfall.

Err, well, not quite.

What he actually said was, Vermont “maybe” faces what “could” be a gap of $70-80 million between revenue and spending. And those weren’t the only qualifiers. In fact, if you read a transcript of his remarks, you might wonder what he actually meant to say. (Part of Scott’s charm, and his political appeal, is that if you listen to him long enough you’re almost certain to hear something you can agree with.)

As far as I can recall, this is the first time Scott has made this claim, which seems to be a gauntlet thrown at the legislature’s feet. It’s familiar and politically attractive ground for the Republican governor, who has to deal with a restless base (and a conservative challenger) in the 2020 primary. Being tough on the budget is Scott’s best tactic for shoring up the base — and for drawing a distinction between himself and those evil, big-spending Democrats and their endless appetite for raising taxes.

That’s a joke, by the way. The Dems may be fiscally looser than the Repubs, but they are about as far as you can get from Tax-And-Spend Libertines as you can get. Just ask any of the four money committee chairs.

But let’s get back to the governor’s remarks. (NOTE: All transcripts are mine, and are as accurate as I could get. I left out the stammers and false starts, which were quite numerous. The gov wasn’t on his A-Game.) Start with this… um… not-a-sentence.

We’re seeing a lot of pressures, maybe even creating a $70-80 million gap between what we’re taking in and, if all remains the same, that we would feel.

I listened to this passage several times, and that’s what I heard. Let’s leave aside the disconnect between the beginning and the ending, and focus on the “maybe even creating” part. He’s not claiming an actual $70-80M gap; he’s saying that budgetary pressures could, at worst, create such a gap.

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So unbelievable.

VPR rolled out its latest poll today, conducted by the Castleton Polling Institute. I dutifully pored over the results, about which more later. But for now, one simple stupid thing.

There was an impressive array of questions about issues of concern, Vermonters’ impressions of candidates, how they feel about the presidential election…

… but nothing about voter preferences on the August primary races. No head-to-head numbers. No question asking “If the primary were today, who would you vote for?”

(Or, “for whom would you vote” if you insist.)

So I Tweeted an inquiry and got the following, stupefying response.

“We didn’t do a head-to-head.”

As in, “We didn’t ask the question that would be foremost on the minds of those who care about the polls.”

Double-u Tee Eff.

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Pat Moulton has a great idea.

Commerce Secretary Patricia Moulton was far too busy to comment on the sudden, unexplained departure of Gene Fullam as head of Vermont’s EB-5 office, but she did manage to make time for a live interview on Thursday’s “Vermont Edition.” Subject: EB-5.

Inexplicably, host Jane Lindholm didn’t ask about Fullam’s departure. A deal, perhaps?

UPDATE 7/23: Got this Tweet from Lindholm:

Immediately preceding Moulton was State Auditor Doug Hoffer, who’s been critical of the grant programs administered by her agency. Among other things, he pointed out that it’s impossible to prove whether the state grants actually create economic activity that wouldn’t exist in their absence.

And then Moulton came on and admitted that those programs operate on the honor system. Regarding the Vermont Economic Growth Initiative, she said:

… we believe the CEOs, when they sign an application, that the material is true and correct.

Aww. Isn’t that sweet. “We believe the CEOs.”

Because a CEO would never lie to us.

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Triangulatin’ Tim

Congratulations to Tim Ashe, chair of the Senate Finance Committee, for shepherding this year’s tax bill to the Senate floor. He managed to find some new money for the budget while keeping true to the intention he stated earlier this week:

“In terms of the major tax areas, my goal is not to have the Senate need to go to those sources,” Ashe said.

The final package emerging from Senate Finance and Appropriations:

The lion’s share of the Senate’s revenue package is generated by the miscellaneous fee bill. The Senate version removes an increase in the employer assessment for uninsured workers, as well as a hike in bank taxes.

The latter two were passed by the House.

My congratulations are tempered with confusion, however. Ashe’s goal would be sensible and reasonable if he were a centrist Democrat in the mold of John Campbell or Dick Mazza, not a Progressive who now lists himself as a D slash P.

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The Governor gives the Republicans a ready-made campaign slogan

Hey, remember last Friday, when Governor Shumlin had to walk back a budget-cutting proposal he’d made less than 24 hours earlier?

Yeah, embarrassing and sad. I mean, how many people looked over the text of his budget address and didn’t realize that “cutting benefits to poor pregnant women” might cause a kerfuffle? Even if the cuts are counterbalanced by new benefits, that’s the worst possible topline for a sales pitch.

Well, maybe second worst to “confiscating crutches from crippled kids,” or possibly “Scrooge was right the first time,” but I digress.

Shumlin rolled out his kneecap-the-preggers initiative on Thursday, and took it back during a Friday appearance on VPR’s “Vermont Edition.” And just in case the abandonment itself wasn’t bad enough, he went and said this. For real.

“I don’t want to use this as a way to cost pregnant women more money,” the governor said on the program. “I said to my team this morning, ‘Listen there’s plenty of ways to save money in the budget. Go back to the Legislature and give them alternatives of other ways to make savings.’”

Wait, what?

“There’s plenty of ways to save money in the budget”?????????

?????????????

This, from a guy in his sixth year as governor, whose tenure has been marked by penny-pinching and an absolute refusal to raise “broad-based taxes” (as he himself defines the term)?

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The McAllister Shuffle

Senate President Pro Tem John Campbell was on VPR’s “Vermont Edition” today. And eventually*, the conversation turned to Norm McAllister.

*More on this below. 

The topline: Campbell expects the Senate will suspend McAllister pending the outcome of his criminal trial.

Yup, the coward’s way out. They don’t have to get their hands dirty, and they’ll have a pretext for keeping him away from the Statehouse, thus limiting the potential media circus. At least they hope so.

Now, Campbell dressed it up in talk of not interfering in McAllister’s right to a fair trial. But that ignores some inconvenient facts:

— If they’d wanted to, Senators could have come up with a way to oust McAllister without trampling on his rights.

— By taking this course of action, the Senate will be putting its own needs ahead of the disenfranchised voters of Franklin County, who will be short one Senator for the entire 2016 session. (Trial is scheduled for March, but there will almost certainly be delays beyond adjournment.)

— Said voters have no recourse. There is no recall provision in state law. The people are dependent on the tender mercies of the Senate, which oh God.

By suspending McAllister, the Senate will drop this hot potato right in the laps of Franklin County Republicans. Because if McAllister is clueless enough to resist the near-universal calls for his resignation, there’s a good chance he will actually run for re-election. (Unless he is convicted and sentenced, but that’s not likely to happen until the campaign is well underway and the filing deadline is past. And if he is convicted, why not appeal and drag it out even longer?)

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A monument departs

Well, geez. I go out of town for a few days, and the Easter Island Statue of Vermont media gets up and leaves.

Veteran Vermont journalist Mark Johnson announced Monday he will be leaving WDEV radio to take a position as senior reporter/editor at the online news site, VTDigger.

Johnson has hosted the popular public affairs, call-in program for 25 years, 16 years with WDEV in Waterbury and for nine years before that with WKDR, a Burlington station that Johnson also co-owned.

His last program is scheduled for Aug. 28.

Disclosure: I’ve been an occasional substitute host on Mark’s show for several years. But this has no bearing on my comments here.

This is a fantastic move by VTDigger, and a tremendous loss for the radio audience and for WDEV.

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If this was the start of Phil Scott’s gubernatorial campaign, he’s got some work to do

Vermont’s Master of Inoffensive Centrism, Lt. Gov. Phil Scott, made some news today. After years of speculation that sooner or later he’d run for the top job, he took a small tentative step in that direction. Speaking on VPR’s Vermont Edition:

I’m certainly considering it, but I’m a far, a long ways from making that decision.

Well, that’s about as undramatic as a first step could be. But he didn’t stop there.

I think it’s something that you have to really internalize and you have to base your decision less on ego and less on the ability to win and make sure that it’s something that you think you should do for the benefit of all Vermont, ah, all Vermonters. So, you know, I have a long way to go before making that decision, but again, I’m considering, and I should, ah, I know I have to make a decision by the end of the year.

Color me unimpressed. Scott filled the airwaves with words for a solid minute without actually saying much of anything.

It was typical of the entire interview, which was surprisingly inept for a politician as practiced, and seemingly comfortable in his own skin, as Phil Scott. I got the sense that this was a big milestone for him: his first as a potential leader staking out positions of his own instead of depending on the easy personal charm that’s made him a good fit for his current post.

He seemed ill at ease in the new role.

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The Republicans? They got nothin’

On Wednesday, two of Vermont’s top Republicans took to the VPR airwaves to make their case to the people. And one of them said this about global warming, really, actually:

I think there’s science on both sides of the issue that both sides use against each other.

The Mystery Voice belonged to VTGOP Chair David Sunderland, who had just finished “explaining” how the VTGOP was different from the national Republican Party — more inclusive, less extreme. He doesn’t set a very good example, does he?

The occasion was VPR’s “Vermont Edition,” and neither Sunderland nor fellow guest Don Turner made much of an impression. They stuck to the standard Republican bromides: burdensome taxes and regulation; Vermont is a sucky place to live, work, and own a business; government is full of waste, but don’t ask us for specifics.

It was not a very inspiring performance. Next time, maybe they should send Phil Scott and Joe Benning instead.

The two men’s appearance consumed about 34 minutes of radio time, but I’ll focus on two key segments. Believe me, I’m not leaving out anything good — just the boring stuff, like their insistence that the VTGOP was a welcoming, inclusive, and diverse thing. Because, I guess, they’ve got a handful of young white men to go with their endless supply of older white men. Anyway, onward.

First, that great Republican bugaboo, out-of-control state spending. Sunderland and Turner performed a lovely bit of rhetorical contortionism, first saying that we can’t fix the budget right away:

Solving a budget deficit that’s been created over a period of four to six years is a tall task to take on in a single year, and I think it will take longer than a single year to overcome it.

And then immediately saying that we can balance the budget, no problem:

I think we need to look at what government programs are truly working and are truly efficient, weed out the waste and the abuse that’s in the current system, make our government more streamlined, get more effective in serving Vermonters. And I think by doing that, we’ll get a long way towards closing that gap and quite hopefully all the way.

The mic then passed to Turner, who first said this:

We have a committee working with our appropriations people, that started before the session began, and have started to scrub and comb through all areas of state government. We’ve initially focused on the high cost areas.

Wonderful! Surely all this scrubbing and combing produced a bumper crop of the “waste and abuse” that Sunderland believes is endemic in the public sector.

We believe that we need to keep spending level-funded. We go to each agency and say, Okay, you had this much money to spend last year, this is how much you’ve got to spend this year, how are you going to address that?

Oh, great Christ almighty. That old chestnut? You’ve been scrubbing and combing the budget, and all you can come up with is across-the-board cuts?

This is how it always goes with Republicans. They talk smack about wasteful government spending, but when asked for specifics, they offer broad generalities.

In other words, they can’t find the alleged “waste and abuse.”

Oh, I should slightly amend that. Turner did offer one specific budget cut, but it’s not a new item. He still wants us to kill Vermont Health Connect and go with the federal exchange. Funny thing, though: when he first announced the idea, he insisted we could save $20 million this year.

On Wednesday, he put the savings at between eight and ten million. Call it the Incredible Shrinking Budget Cut.

Now, let’s turn to a favorite talking point of our rebranded VTGOP: “We’re different from the national Republicans. Just don’t ask us how.” Mr. Turner?

I don’t know a lot about the national platform and I don’t participate in the national level, I participate very little in the national level. I think that’s the party’s role. What I’ve — I’m Don Turner, I represent Milton, and I am a much more moderate Republican than many maybe in Washington, and some in my caucus.

We in Vermont believe in helpin’ our neighbors, we believe in makin’ sure that the most vulnerable are addressed, we want to protect the environment, but we want to make sure people can afford to live here. Sometimes that means compromising on some of these issues, maybe more than we want to.

Yeah, another politician who starts droppin’ his G’s when he wants to be real folks. I am puzzled, though, by his lack of intellectual curiosity about his own party.

But if you thought that was weak, just wait till you get a load of Sunderland’s response:

Vermont is a unique place, Vermonters are a unique people within the nation. Likewise, the Vermont Republican Party is different than the national Republican Party.

At this point he was interrupted by host Jane Lindholm, who asked for a specific difference.

I think in, in Vermont we’ve tried very hard over the last 15, 16 months or so to really broaden the base of the party, to be open to different ideas, ah different viewpoints, and to welcome people we may not agree with 100% of the time, but we would agree with 80% of the time. And I think as long as we can agree that the focus of our state right now needs to be on growing our economy and creating jobs, making Vermont more affordable, bringing balance back to the discussion in Montpelier, then there’s a place for you in the Vermont Republican Party.

Okay, so. Sunderland completely punts on specifics. And his idea of an “inclusive” party is one that only insists on 80% loyalty instead of 100%.

At this point, immediately after Sunderland’s previous response, Lindholm took a question from a caller, who wanted to know about the VTGOP’s stand on global warming. Turner was, again, an ostrich with his head in the dirt.

You know, I have not spent a lot of time on global warming. I understand that this is a big issue nationally and so on. Vermont is so far ahead of the rest of the country on measures to help with this issue that I don’t think it should be a tip-top issue for us when we have all these other problems.

Well, those who are actually serious about global warming would say that it’s an existential threat to our species, and deserves to be “tip-top” in any list of issues. But what do I know.

This is where Sunderland weighed in with his Koch Brothers-approved know-nothingism.

I think there’s science on both sides of the issue that both sides use against each other. What I think is most interesting is, regardless of your opinion about it, there certainly is a market that Vermont can and should be exploiting to create jobs and grow our economy to address those very issues. So I think regardless, there’s a variety of different opinions within the party and outside the other parties about global warming, man’s impact on climate change, but I would like to see us focus on how our economy and how our state here in Vemront can grow and reflect the values of Vermonters.

There’s a hot mess if I ever saw one. He won’t acknowledge the reality of climate change, but he wants us to somehow capitalize on it even though it might not exist. He then casts another coating of doubt on the science, and finishes with an appeal to “the values of Vermonters.”

Good grief. I’m not particularly happy with what the Democrats are doing these days — weaksauce incrementalism, failing to squarely face serious challenges, and squandering the political capital they’ve gained over the last six years. But the Republicans? Judging by that performance, they have precious little to offer beyond the usual twaddle.

Somebody get Heidi Scheuermann to a Toastmasters meeting, STAT

I’ve often mentioned State Rep. Heidi Scheuermann (R-Stowe) as a potential rising star in Vermont politics. She’s got a lot going for her: a high profile among Republican lawmakers, strong connections to the now-ascendant moderate wing of the VTGOP, co-leadership of the putatively bipartisan Vision to Action Vermont (V2AVT), and founding membership in Campaign for Vermont, presumably giving her an in with CFV moneybags Bruce Lisman.

Some folks had demurred from my view that she’s a rising star because of her shortcomings as a public speaker. Well, based on today’s appearance on VPR’s “Vermont Edition,” they’re right. Scheuermann simply isn’t ready for the spotlight.

Scheuermann appeared on VPR with Senate Minority Leader Joe Benning to discuss Republican legislative priorities for the new session. Here’s one of her answers, faithfully transcribed, including all the um’s, repeats, false starts and pauses. The question, just so you know, concerned the possibility of raising taxes to help balance the state budget. Also, just so you know, there was often a discernible quiver in her voice, revealing an unexpected degree of nervousness in a veteran politician.

Well, um, I guess I would say first and foremost, um, for the past, uh, we sort of have a new normal, uh, in the legislature, and that’s unfortunate. And that normal is the budget deficits, extremely, um, large budget deficits. Every year we come in, ah, we have budget deficits. And that tells me, uh, that we, um, are… that the, the Governor and the legislative leadership and those who support these budgets are doing so, um, w-without an eye on the future and exactly how, how we’re going to pay for it.

Um, so when we come in with a budget of fi — with a five, four or five percent increase and, and tax receipts of, or an economy growing at two percent, um, that’s, you know, that’s a real problem and I think we should, we need to, like Joe said, really, uh, really concentrate on, on where we go from here, um, and understand that this can’t be a new normal, and that we have to address it in a comprehensive and fundamental way, and that is bringing the government into the 21st century, in my view. I think we are still stuck in a, um, 19th and 20th century state government, um, and I think we have to move it into the, into the 21st century with, um, with, ah, services being provided more efficiently and effectively, um, with… um… with m-more, um, communication with the outside instead of this internal sort of, of, functioning government that we have, with, with people in the offices, ah, five days a week, um, reading reports. Um, again, they work hard, our state employees work hard, but, ah, but I think we need to move the government into a, into um, into the 21st century.

That said, um, I also think we need to focus first and foremost, um, on our economy and the health of our state’s economy, and we have neglected that for years, and, um, and that’s why we’re in the position we’re in.

Scheuermann has now spoken for almost two minutes. She tries to continue, but host Jane Lindholm interrupts with a redirect. She asks what Scheuermann would suggest in terms of streamlining government or making budget cuts. The answer?

I guess I would say, well, again, um, ah, I wouldn’t propose specific cuts right now until we really get into it. It’s really, it’s very difficult as a legis — as a citizen legislature, um, to get into specific departments and micromanage those departments. I think it needs to come from the administration and the leadership of the administration to set a, uh, to set an agenda for how exactly we’re going to do this, and streamline, and um have more effective and efficient services. I would say for example, again, when you’re talking about economic, the uh economy, and really trying to grow our economy, um, so that it is long-term sort of um… uh… laser-like focus on the economy, I think for example the Agency of Commerce, um, people should be in their offices once a week, [chuckle] one day a week. And they should be out in the fields four days a week and really just talking to people, seeing what businesses need, seeing what our, uh, small employers need, um, and what their challenges are, what their opportunities are, and where we as a state might be able to help.

So that is just one example. Again, I’ll go back to the economy. When you have, we have personal income tax — the reason we’re in these… in the situation we’re in is our personal income tax receipts are down. Um, and that, and that’s due to payroll and, and, and that our economy is stagnant. And, um, so we really need to focus on growing our economy. I hope that that will be, uh, the number one priority for our legislature.

Holy Mother of God. That’s almost Milnesque in its cringeworthy awkwardness. Although admittedly it’s not nearly down to Milne level in terms of positional confusion. It also took three and a half minutes of radio time, including Lindholm’s interjection.

For now, I’ll pass by the policy howlers (Empty out the Agency of Commerce four days a week? Not a single idea for budget cuts, after eight years in the legislature? Content-free references to the 21st century? A transparently token sop to state workers?) and keep my laser-like focus on her delivery. Heidi Scheuermann is an unpolished and unappealing speaker who can’t fight her way out of a sentence.

If she wants to stay where she is now — representing a safe Republican district and being one of the more prominent voices in the legislative minority — she can keep on doing what she’s doing.

But if she wants to be taken seriously for a leadership position or as a candidate for statewide office, then she needs to clean up her rhetorical game big-time.

For an example of how to do it right, just listen to her fellow guest, Joe Benning. He was comfortable and articulate, he got to the point, he kept things simple, and was very quotable.

One protip for Scheuermann: Don’t be so afraid of dead air. Don’t fill up every available space with “ums” and repeated phrases. Let it breathe. It takes some time and practice, but it’s a worthwhile investment. I’ve never been to Toastmasters, but I hear it’s a great place to hone your public-speaking skills in a friendly environment.

Postscript. One unrelated piece of advice. In the process of writing this post I Googled “Heidi Scheuermann” and this is a screenshot of the second match:

Scheuermann Google

Yeah, I don’t think that’s her real nickname.

Intrigued, I clicked on the link to her campaign website, and saw several porny inserts in green type scattered around her “About” page. If you roll your cursor over the site, the porny inserts all disappear. If you exit the site and then go back in, the green inserts reappear. They remain on the page as long as you keep your cursor outside the frame.

This doesn’t look like an ideological attack, because the inserts are so random. But the good Representative may want to check on her website’s security.