Tag Archives: Vermont Workers Center

Galbraith pipped at another progressive post

I don’t know how much influence Rights & Democracy has. It’s a fairly new organization, but it’s made some waves in its brief existence. And it drew a crowd of hundreds Wednesday night for a combination political rally and concert.

At which it endorsed David Zuckerman for lieutenant governor — no surprise there — and Matt Dunne for governor.

Hmm, I thought. Matt Dunne. Not Peter Galbraith. From a group whose stated goal is to advance Bernie Sanders’ political revolution.

Overall, Dunne’s a better candidate than Galbraith, but some of his positions are rather centrist. I would have expected a bit more puritanical and less practical approach from a left-wing group. So I gave R&D chief James Haslam a call to find out how the group settled on Dunne.

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Editorializing by Photograph, Free Press style

It’s Thursday, which means the Burlington Free Press brings us the weekly excretion from the mind of Art Woolf, Vermont’s Leading Economist On Retainer. Woolf’s column is the usual stuff: a handful of statistics and some shallow speculation on What It All Means.

This week’s subject: statistics that show Vermont has a relatively high rate of people receiving federal disability benefits. He points out that this is a drag on the economy, because thousands of potentially employable Vermonters are sitting on their asses collecting gummint checks. Well, he doesn’t say that, but the implication is clear. He begins from the unspoken assumption that we have more than our share of freeloaders. Not that there might be actual reasons for it, or maybe it’s just a statistical fluke; nope, if we have more disability recipients than average, there’s something funny going on.

But that’s not what I’m writing about. No, I’m writing about the photograph that accompanies the column on the Freeploid’s website. Which, as of this writing, is the featured article on the home page. Screenshot below.

Freeps front page, VWCThe image is a file photo showing a kinda scruffy-looking guy in a red T-shirt holding up a sign. The photo is cropped so you can’t see the full context, but there’s enough to tell me this much:

The photo was taken at the Statehouse. That T-shirt is the unofficial uniform of the Vermont Workers’ Center. When VWC people go to the Statehouse to lobby lawmakers, they always wear that shirt.

So what are you saying, Free Press? That the Vermont Workers Center should really be called the Vermont Shirkers Center? They’re layabouts, spending their days at the Statehouse while collecting disability? They’re lobbying for more welfare, so they can live more comfortably at the taxpayer’s expense?

Or was the photo just a quick grab out of the file, no slight intended?

I’m sure the photo will be taken down without explanation sometime soon. And I’m sure that if the Free Press chooses to explain (which they almost certainly won’t), they’ll say it was a mistake. But this is the kind of thing that makes people mistrust them.

Update, late Thursday night: The image is no longer on the Freeploid’s home page, but it still accompanies Woolf’s column. For shame. 

The hidden world of nonprofit advocacy

Okay, so today I Tweeted this:

It’s something I’ve been thinking for a long time. There are more and more “nonprofit organizations” whose official mission is “educational” or some such, but whose actual purpose is political advocacy, including activity that ought to be classified as lobbying but it’s not.

This is one reason I’m less exercised than some about the proposed cap on itemized deductions: a lot of “charitable contributions” are being spent politically. Many wealthy people set up their own nonprofit foundations for the purpose of spreading their political beliefs. The Koch Empire is the prime example of this, but there are lots of others. In Vermont, their number includes the Vermont Workers’ Center, VPIRG, Campaign for Vermont, Energize Vermont, Vermonters for a Clean Environment, Vermonters for Health Care Freedom, the Ethan Allen Institute, and the late unlamented Vermonters First.

That’s a heavy-hitting list of groups trying to influence our politics, and they range from far left to far right. Nobody’s got a patent on this. Although I will say that the quantity of money on the right is much greater than on the lieft. Although although I will say that Vermont is an exception to this rule; our nonprofits lean leftward.

Some of these groups do report direct lobbying activities, but because they are nonprofits, they are not legally obligated to report the source of their revenue. Some voluntarily report to some extent, but as far as I know, none of them provide full donor disclosure. Which would include name, town and state of residence, and amount of donation. (If any group does so, please let me know and I will amend this post.)

I say “Ive been thinking about this for a long time,” so what made me write about it today? Actually, the inspiration was a mistake I made on Twitter, in replying to a Tweet from the corporate-funded folks at “Stop the Vermont Beverage Tax.”

Which brought a quick response from, well, a ready chorus of right-wingers, but let’s stick with the Ethan Allen Institute, Tweeting as @EAIVT:

They’re right. At least they’re partly right. “SPN” is the State Policy Network, which is part of the Koch nonprofit empire. I didn’t lie, though; I mistakenly believed that EAI is Koch-funded. I picked this up from the Center for Media and Democracy’s “Sourcewatch,” which describes SPN thusly:

The State Policy Network (SPN) has franchised, funded, and fostered a growing number of “mini Heritage Foundations” at the state level since the early 1990s.[1] SPN is a web of right-wing “think tanks” in every state across the country. It is an $83 million right-wing empire as of the 2011 funding documents from SPN itself and each of its state “think tank” members.

Sourcewatch lists the Ethan Allen Institute as the SPN’s Vermont affiliate. There’s where I made my leap of faith. I’ll take EAI’s word for it that they don’t get money from SPN or the Kochs; too bad for them, since a lot of their fellow SPNers are ridin’ that gravy train.

Still, for EAI to pay for the privilege of SPN affilliation… it’s not correct to call them “Koch-funded,” but they’re definitely “Koch-friendly.”

I will freely admit that I sometimes shoot from the hip, as I did in this case. I try to own up when I’m wrong; this isn’t the first time and I’m sure it won’t be the last. But I could have avoided my mistake if we had better disclosure laws; I could have gone to the source instead of poking around for indirect scraps of information.

But the real point isn’t a matter of my convenience. It’s openness and transparency in our politics.

Organized political parties (and the Democrats, haha) will tell you that campaign finance laws are stacked against them. It’s better in a number of ways for donors to go through their own organizations than through parties: there are effectlvely no limits and few disclosure requirements, and they retain control over how their money is spent. That’s why the Kochs and Sheldon Adelson and Foster Friess and all those people don’t give much money to the Republican Party; they funnel their wealth through their own organizations. And when those groups are nonprofits, We, the Taxpayers, are underwriting their political activities. Nice work if you can get it.

The point is, in this modern world of political nonprofits, we need better disclosure rules. We need to know who’s spending money for what political purpose, whether they’re going through the Ethan Allen Institute or the Vermont Workers’ Center.

Flynn Center Presents: Serenade for Tiny Violins

A state tax reform measure that would cap itemized deductions at 2.5 times the standard deduction has picked up quite a bit of steam in the Legislature. And right on cue, here comes the Flynn Center’s John Killacky to sound the alarm: limiting itemized deductions “could have dire… consequences for Vermont’s nonprofits.”

tiny violinAwwwwwwwwwwwwww.

Pardon me if my heart doesn’t bleed. What he’s saying is that we have to let our wealthiest keep a whole lot of their money in hopes that they’ll give bits of it to charity. It’s a very inefficient way to encourage philanthropy, especially in a day when our regulation of “nonprofits” is so lax, it’s laughable.

Just one example. The Koch Brothers, and many of their fellow megawealthy conservatives, don’t actually donate much to political parties or candidates. No, they set up networks of nonprofit organizations with “educational” missions and — wowee! — promote their ideology while simultaneously pocketing huge tax savings. Yeah, we’re subsidizing conservative propaganda. Feels good, doesn’t it?

(We’re also subsidizing a fair bit of liberal propaganda. The Vermont Workers’ Center has become a very well-funded organization thanks to dozens of annual gifts from nonprofit foundations, many of them set up by wealthy individuals. Its biggest donor is the Ben & Jerry Foundation. I’m not equating the Vermont Workers’ Center with the Koch Brothers, but they both sail along on a rising tide of tax-deductible contributions.)

Back to Vermont. Killacky cites a survey that shows “67 percent of people interviewed confirmed that a decrease in income tax deductions would cause them to contribute less.”

Perhaps. I’d like to see how the study was conducted and how the questions were worded. But even if it’s legit, it should have little to no impact on Vermont’s debate over itemized deductions.

That’s because the big kahuna is the federal deduction. A change in Vermont law would have no effect on that far larger tax benefit. There would still be abundant incentive to contribute.

Killacky also fails to mention that Vermont’s current tax rules for the wealthy are among the most generous in the nation. If we put a cap on deductions, we’d no longer be an outlier in our generosity to our wealthiest citizens, but we’d still be plenty generous.

The scare tactics are entirely out of proportion to the real situation. I can understand why Killacky feels obligated to scurry to the defense of his fat-cat donors, but his arguments are unconvincing.

Fear and loathing under the Golden Dome

Funny thing. The more time goes by since last Thursday’s inaugural protest, the more fearsome and dangerous it seems to become.

We haven’t had any single item more outrageous than Sen. Dick McCormack’s employment of that fine old epithet “fascist.” What we have had is a proliferation of exaggerated characterizations and inconsistent rationales for why the Vermont Workers’ Center went too far.

At first, the ire was mainly concentrated on a single incident, in which a lone protester entered the chamber singing and chanting over the benediction. Regrettable and stupid.

But apparently Our Elected Leaders realize that that one incident fails to justify their reaction, because they’ve been using their creative powers to devise new ways the protest crossed some invisible boundary. I suspect that by the end of the month, the protest will be described as a cross between the Chicago riots, the nude scene from “Hair,” and the supercharged zombie attacks from “World War Z.”

The Inaugural Protest. (Not exactly as illustrated.)

The Inaugural Protest. (Not exactly as illustrated.)

Anyone who’s experienced real political turmoil would have to admit that the VWC was remarkably restrained. They did not, as many media outlets have reported, “disrupt” or “interfere with” the proceedings.

I listened on the radio, and I heard very little of the protesters — and I heard no interruptions in the proceedings. If those in attendance couldn’t hear, they could have asked that the sound system be turned up.

Recently, we’ve heard that some lawmakers felt uneasy about proceeding into the House chamber through a crowd, even though police officers lined their path. (And even though there was no hint of any violent intent by the protesters.) Indignant lawmakers have stopped referring to the benediction incident in favor of overly-broad depictions of the protest as loud or disruptive, which is only true if the expectation is library-standard quiet. We’ve heard references to possible fire-code violations — in a building whose last major fire was, I believe, in 1857. (We haven’t heard a peep from the police or the Sergeant At Arms about the fire code; that’s all come from opportunistic Republicans.)

Today we had the unedifying spectacle of Republican lawmakers threatening to walk out of the Governor’s budget address on Thursday should the protesters return, on the transparently specious grounds that they fear a stampede in case of a fire. Hell, those protesters are probably better organized than the assembled dignitaries. I suspect they’d be fully capable of calmly proceeding to the nearest egress.

We’ve also heard a whole lot of blaming the protest for potential security upgrades at the Statehouse. Which is ridiculous. First, because the protesters did not pose a threat to anyone with an ounce of common sense. And second, because enhanced security has been on the table for quite a while now — and will inevitably penetrate the hallowed halls. Because that’s just the way the world is these days. To blame it on that protest is utterly disingenuous.

Most of all, we’ve heard repeated appeals to respect and dignity and civility.

What this is really about is a set of crusty old traditions about the Statehouse. Voices are generally lowered, at what might be termed a “power mumble.” (It’s hell for old radio guys like me, with moderately compromised hearing.) There’s an unspoken expectation that men shall wear button-down shirts and ties. VWC members have one strike against them from the gitgo, since they dare to wear red T-shirts while roaming the sacred halls.

Playing by the unwritten rules is important to Statehouse regulars. The longer they’ve served (McCormack, a total of 22 years), the more wedded to Statehouse mores they become. And the more they resent it when the outside world dares to intrude.

They call it the People’s House, and accuse the protesters of disrupting the People’s business. But they themselves want everyone to treat it like a cross between a museum and a mausoleum.

It’s too bad when democracy — the People’s real business — gets a little messy and intrudes on what some consider sacred space. But I don’t feel sorry for them, not at all.

And those traditions? Throw ’em out with the trash, if you ask me.

Don’t expect the Vermont Workers’ Center to go away anytime soon

Those dirty hippies who made Joe Benning walk the gauntlet on Inauguration Day are most likely in this for the long haul. I say this because the Vermont Workers’ Center is a rapidly-growing organization with surprising financial muscle.

According to the nonprofit’s most recent IRS filing, VWC had revenue of nearly $680,000 in the year 2013. VWC head James Haslam told VTDigger’s Morgan True that this year, the figure will be around $800,000. As recently as 2009, its intake was less than $200,000; you do the math.

That’s pocket change in Koch World, but in Vermont it makes VWC a power to be reckoned with, beyond its ability to draw a crowd to the Statehouse.

Aside from money, it’s also tapped into a deep vein of dissatisfaction with/alienation from politics as usual. Its members are committed enough to turn out large numbers for a demonstration or flood the Statehouse hallways when needed. They are also willing to financially commit: VWC charges membership dues, and pulls in about 30% of its budget from members without much apparent effort.

My big question, when I saw VWC revenues in the high six figures, was: where is it all coming from?  Haslam:

That work is supported by a combination of foundations which, typically, is about half of our support or maybe a little bit more. The other half is from our base, which is individuals and trade unions. I think it’s something like 20% unions, 30% individuals. It fluctuates year to year, but that’s about right.

I didn’t ask him for a list of foundations; as a nonprofit, VWC is not obligated to release donor information. VTDigger’s Morgan True reports that the Ben & Jerry’s Foundation is its largest nonprofit donor, having given $50,000 this year and a total of $160,000 since 2010. True also reports that VWC has strong ties to a national network of progressive organizations; “We’re part of a broader people’s movement to turn things around for working people,” Haslam told him. Well, if its largest foundation gift was 50K and they’re pulling in 400K from foundations, then they’re drawing from a large donor pool.

One other note from Thursday’s protest. It’s been reported that five of the 29 people arrested that day were paid by VWC, which has raised some hackles. Haslam says the five are members of VWC’s ten-person staff. He says they did not receive any remuneration beyond their regular pay for taking part in the protest or for being arrested.

At a planning meeting before the protest, Haslam told me, people were asked whether they would be willing to be arrested if necessary. “We were hoping that nobody would be arrested,” he said, “but our members felt that it was important for us to take a bold stand.”

Those who volunteered for arrest, he said, “were all people who had had first-hand experience with the health care crisis.” Five of them happened to be VWC staff. “That was a voluntary act for sure,” he says. “We have a number of staff people who didn’t do it.” Including, as it happens, Haslam himself.

With a committed membership and a growing financial base, VWC shows no signs of being a flash in the pan, or some sort of Occupy movement that will burn brightly for a brief time and then flame out. They look to be in this for the long haul, on a broad variety of issues. Whether or not they continue to declare themselves at big political events, they’ll be around, promoting their causes and making it harder to ignore their issues.

A passel o’ peevishness on Inauguration Day (Part One)

Many a knicker was tightly knotted yesterday, judging by some of the statements made and actions taken at the inaugural ceremony.

Most of the collywobbles arose from the protest by advocates of single-payer health care. Many politicians were vocally incensed at such goings-on. And some of the protesters were shocked — shocked — that they might be handled roughly by police.

The rest of the peevishness came from Republicans reacting, even more childishly than usual, to Gov. Shumlin’s inaugural address. I’ll cover that in a separate post.  Back to the demonstration.

The folks from the Vermont Workers Center went a bit too far when they disrupted the closing benediction. Otherwise their protest was peaceful if occasionally intrusive.

The assembled dignitaries, however, just couldn’t stomach this disturbance of their sacred space. Sen Dick McCormack wins the honor for Biggest Overreaction; he called the protest “fascist.” Protip for public figures: never ever ever ever ever use the word “fascist” unless you’re talking about a violent, oppressive, murderous regime.

Sen. Bobby Starr, D-Hicktown, resorted to the “You Kids Get Off My Lawn” meme: “I think they should get a job.” Dirty hippies!

Senate Penitent Pro Tem John Campbell was among several lawmakers who told protesters they were hurting their own cause.

Snort. As if.

Two points. First, single payer is dead for the foreseeable future. Second, any lawmaker who casts a future vote because of yesterday’s demonstration is failing his/her duty.

And the Governor, speaking today on WDEV’s Mark Johnson Show, said the protesters had “hurt the cause” by showing a “lack of respect for the process.”

Awww. Would that be the same process (and the same governor) who built up their hopes and expectations for years, only to dash them all in a single moment? Shumlin reaped the benefits of single-payer advocates’ support through three election cycles, and then abruptly trashed it all.

Advocates are understandably upset about that, and the inauguration of Peter Shumlin was an appropriate time to express their outrage. It was, in fact, the perfect time. The Governor shouldn’t play with people’s beliefs, and expect to be shielded from the consequences by his sense of decorum. As a Mark Johnson Show caller pointed out, disruption is the only way for people who feel disenfranchised to make their voices heard.

So, no sympathy for the hurt fee-fees of our distinguished leaders.

Not that the protesters are without blame. The single moment where things went too far was during the closing prayer. Protesters were outside, singing. One of them, Ki Walker, entered the balcony and continued to sing. A protest organizer later claimed that Walker thought the ceremony was over. But Walker was right there at center stage. He could see that the ceremony was continuing. And he kept on singing.

Afterward, he explained himself to Seven Days’ Paul Heintz:

 “Our tone was, like, nice or whatever,” Walker said.

Duuuuuuude. 

But the Whiniest Protester Award goes to Sheila Linton, who was part of the group occupying the House floor after the ceremony. When police began trying to remove the group, very politely, she refused to move or speak. When they tried to lift her arms, she began screaming as though they were using a chainsaw. (You can see the video on Seven Days’ website.)

Okay, here’s a lesson for Vermont’s Junior Gandhis. Your commitment to passive resistance  includes the possibility of what one trooper called “pain compliance” — the application of discomfort to those who resist police action. And this wasn’t Bull Connor with firehoses and Dobermans; these were state troopers acting with restraint and deliberation. Sorry, Ms. Linton, no sympathy here.

The demonstration itself was relatively mild, Mr. Walker being a notable exception. So was the police response. People on both sides got way more upset than they should have been.

The best reaction came from House Speaker Shap Smith, quoted by the Vermont Press Bureau’s Neal Goswami:

“I think this was an incredible example of the openness of our democracy,” he said. “In the people’s house, people are allowed to petition, and I would expect that over the coming weeks, we’ll talk with people about setting up hearings.”

Measured, reasonable, respectful. Just about perfect.

(Still to come: VTGOPeevishness.)