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vt.Buzz ~ a political blog

Political notes from Free Press staff writers Terri Hallenbeck, Sam Hemingway and Nancy Remsen



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- Terri Hallenbeck

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Challenging changes unveiled today

Lawmakers briefed Monday on how the Douglas administration plans to save $38 million using a new budget strategy predict much hand wringing today when the rest of the Legislature and special interest groups see the document.

Monday’s briefings – working sessions, according to the administration -- weren’t open to the public.

“People will look at this and see big heartburn,” said Senate Appropriations Chairwoman Susan Bartlett, D-Lamoille, after her briefing. She noted, however, that lawmakers would have a say whether the administration’s proposals go forward.

Under a bill passed earlier in the session, the Legislature agreed that the Douglas administration would address one portion of next year’s $150 million revenue shortfall using a new budgeting technique. The Legislature set a total savings target, $38 million, and listed the outcomes it wanted achieved in selected areas of government operation. It left to the executive branch the task of figuring out how to achieve the outcomes and the savings.

The report that will be unveiled at noon today in a hearing in the House chamber represents the administration’s first response to the challenge, “but there is not going to be a detailed list that adds up to $38 million,” said Tom Evslin, the administration’s point man for the project.

The plan also includes law and rule changes the Legislature would need to make before adjourning should lawmakers agree to the administration’s proposals and suggested measures of outcomes.

Evslin said of the report, “There are certainly going to be things that are controversial. There will be lots of topics for heated discussion.”
Evslin said there are five themes that recur: Improved integration of programs and services; increased use of technology to improve efficiency and access; more personal attention from professionals when appropriate; creation of “paths to independence” to wean people from services; and performance incentives for vendors and groups that receive grants.

“There were some interesting ideas, some of which would be pretty challenging” said House Speaker Shap Smith, D-Morristown, without elaborating. He expects House committees to begin vetting the proposals immediately. They have less than two weeks to refine proposals or offer alternatives that would produce both the required outcomes and needed savings.

The challenge strategy doesn’t ask state managers and staff if they can save $38 million. They have to – the money isn’t available to spend. The challenge is to take the money that is available and figure out how to deliver the same or better service.

“There is going to be plenty in here to criticize,” said Senate President Pro Tempore Peter Shumlin, D-Windham. “It is incumbent on us to find new approaches in area where we have concerns.”

For example, one challenge concerns economic development. Bartlett said Monday she didn’t like the administration’s recommendations. “There are other ways to reach the results.”

The “challenges for change” law directed the Douglas administration to redesign the state’s economic development initiatives to focus on spending that gets measurable results. The law suggested potential savings of $3.4 million, but allowed for $400,000 to be spent on planning and development of measurement infrastructure.

Julie Tessler, executive director of the Vermont Council of Developmental and Mental Health, said her group is wary of ideas affecting human services that it heard about during discussions state officials had earlier this month with developmental and mental health providers.

“There are ideas on the table that have potential, but they are going to take time to analyze and work through,” Tessler said. She worried Monday that big changes were on a fast track that could jeopardize the health and well being of vulnerable Vermonters.

“The Vermont Council does not want to obstruct the process,” Tessler said. Slow it down – absolutely.

-- Nancy Remsen




Analyst: No value in VY

Stock analysts saw last week’s news that New York state utility regulators nixed the Enexus move by which Vermont Yankee would be sliced off into a new company with five other nuclear power plants as the end of the line for the deal.

“We expect this vote in New York will end the spin-off plans,” Morningstar stock analysts said.

They also don’t seem to give two hoots about Vermont Yankee’s continued operation after 2012, which makes one wonder if Entergy Corp.’s board of directors will feel the same way.

“Renewal or no renewal, we see little incremental value in the Yankee plant for shareholders based on its relatively high cost, small capacity, and onerous power purchase contracts that we expect to persist for at least another decade. We think a decision to shut down Vermont Yankee when its license expires in March 2012 would not have a substantial impact on our fair value estimate,” the report said.

_ Terri Hallenbeck



Survey: Vters r agnst txtg

Keeping in mind that this is an unscientific survey, Sen. Bill Doyle’s annual Town Meeting Day results are in, and survey says: Vermonters are quite solid on the notion that drivers should not be allowed to text.

The 96 percent who said it should be prohibited set Doyle Town Meeting poll history. No question in the survey’s 41-year history has ever received that kind of response, said Doyle, R-Washington.

A texting ban is in the works in the Legislature, though it is complicated by the fact that the House added a number of other driving restrictions to the bill that the Senate doesn’t like and they’ve got to work that out. The survey found 74 percent also thought prohibiting cell phone use while driving was a good idea.

Doyle’s survey, which attracted 12,500 responses from 150 communities, also found a shift in support for the future of the Vermont Yankee nuclear power plant. This year, 52 percent said its license should not be renewed in 2012. Last year, only 37 percent thought that. There were also 17 percent this year who were unsure.

In other results, 53 percent said President Barack Obama was doing a good job; 49 percent did not think federal stimulus funds have been well-spent; 67 percent agreed with reducing Vermont’s prison population through alternatives; 43 percent said the University of Vermont should restore baseball and softball, but 40 percent were unsure.

- Terri Hallenbeck

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Condos plans kickoff

Former state Sen. Jim Condos will announce Wednesday that he’s running for secretary of state. He plans a 12:30 p.m. news conference at the Statehouse.

The Democrat who represented Chittenden County in the Senate and was chairman of the South Burlington City Council for many years, now lives in Montpelier. He is government affairs director for Vermont Gas Systems Inc.

He will face Charlie Merriman, a Middlesex lawyer, in the Democratic primary.

Interest in the seat is driven by the lack of an incumbent, as Secretary of State Deb Markowitz is running for governor. There will likely also be a Republican primary race, as announced candidate Chris Roy, a Williston lawyer, could face a challenge from Forest, Parks & Recreations Commissioner Jason Gibbs of Duxbury.

- Terri Hallenbeck

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Snelling sets staff

Mark Snelling, one of two Republican candidates for lieutenant governor, will have three people chairing his campaign — Mary Evslin, Stephan Morse, and Bill Stenger.

Evslin was founding chairwoman of the Vermont Telecommunications Authority. Morse is a former speaker of the Vermont House of Representatives. Stenger is president and chief executive officer of Jay Peak.

Snelling also named John Kleinhans of Lyndon as campaign coordinator and Charles Kittredge of Shelburne as campaign treasurer.

“It is a campaign dream team,“ Snelling said.

Sen. Phil Scott, a Republican, is also running.

— Nancy Remsen



So when is the primary?

When is the primary election?

We still don’t know.

The House and Senate have said they want to reschedule this year’s primary election to the fourth Tuesday in August – Aug. 24 – in order to give election officials a bigger window to get ballots to and from voters who are overseas. Because of a technical issue, the bill has pingponged between the two chambers over the past week. It has yet to be sent to the governor.

Will Gov. Jim Douglas agree to a new date even though he says the change is politically motivated? He argues Democrats want to give their gubernatorial candidate more time to recover after the primary election – which as of now features five candidates. Douglas says there would be other ways to make sure the military can vote.

Douglas will have five days from the date the bill arrives in his office to decide what to do. He could sign it, veto it or let it become law without his signature.

“I have to pick my fights,“ Douglas said last week. Is this a fight worth having?— Nancy Remsen



Plenty of chances to see Dems

There seem to be endless opportunities to hear the five Democratic gubernatorial candidates. Here are a few dates to note:

- THURSDAY: Labor unions have lined up a debate, 7:30-9 p.m. at the Old Labor Hall, Barre. Vermont Public Television will air the event live on the tube and the Web.

- APRIL 11: Addison County and Middlebury College Democrats will hold a debate, 2-4 p.m., Dana Auditorium, Middlebury College.

- APRIL 12, South Burlington and Shelburne Democratic committees will hold a forum, 7-9 p.m. Shelburne Town Hall.

— Nancy Remsen/Terri Hallenbeck




Roy heralds McCain endorsement

Republican Secretary of State candidate Chris Roy has landed the endorsement of U.S. Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., the erstwhile presidential candidate.

"This is an exciting day and a huge boost to our campaign," said Roy.

He cited McCain as a leader in issues of reform and government spending and quoted McCain as saying the two have known each other for more than 10 years.

Charles Merriman, a Democratic candidate for the seat, criticized the endorsement.

"Vermont deserves a Secretary of State dedicated to promoting open, responsive government and civic participation at the local and state level, not one focused on obtaining endorsements," Merriman said in a statement.

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VY's announcement

Vermont Yankee officials declared victory this morning over the nuclear power plant's tritium leak. Free Press photographer Glenn Russell has video of the announcement.

Check it out HERE:

Meanwhile, New York state utility regulators were delivering the plant's owners bad news in Albany - they rejected Entergy Corp.'s plans to move six nuclear power plants _ two in New York state and Vermont Yankee among them _ into a separate company.

- Terri Hallenbeck




Poll: Dubie leads all Dems

These poll numbers are not likely to be something the Vermont Democratic Party will be touting.

Rasmussen Reports says that likely Vermont voters would choose Republican Brian Dubie over any of his five possible Democratic opponents for governor this year.

In the poll taken March 18 of 500 likely Vermont voters, Dubie, a four-term lieutenant governor from Essex, had a:

- 46-39 percent lead over Secretary of State Deb Markowitz of Montpelier.
- 48-35 percent over Sen. Doug Racine of Richmond.
- 51-33 percent over Sen. Peter Shumlin of Putney.
- 51-29 percent over former Sen. Matt Dunne of Hartland.
- 52-26 percent over Sen. Susan Bartlett of Hyde Park.

Rasmussen's report on the poll indicated that this early in the race that will be decided in November, the percentage spread was less important than the percent of voters who feel particularly strongly one way or the other about each of the candidates.

Dubie led with a 31 percent very favorable rating. Markowitz had 22 percent, Shumlin and Racine each had 10 percent, Dunne had 8 percent, Bartlett had 5 percent.

When it came to very unfavorable ratings, Shumlin led with 23 percent, Bartlett had 16 percent, Dunne had 15 percent, Markowitz and Racine had 14 percent and Dubie had 13 percent. The poll had a margin of error of 4.5 percentage points.

Rasmussen concluded that Dubie and Markowitz are the best-known candidates while Dunne and Racine are the least-known, even though Racine is a former lieutenant governor.

Dubie's campaign heralded the poll numbers in an e-mail to supporters Wednesday and used the occasion to ask supporters for donations.

You can pore over the numbers HERE.

- Terri Hallenbeck

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Douglas has more fans than Obama

The Rasmussen poll also asked Vermont voters how they felt about President Obama and Gov. Douglas. Guess who's more popular?

Keeping in mind the numbers are within the margin for error, Obama won a favorable rating from 60 percent, Douglas from 64 percent. For Obama, 39 percent disapproved, while Douglas had a 36 percent disapproval rating.

Obama's fans and detractors were more feverish - he had 36 percent strongly favoring him and 29 percent strongly disapproving, while Douglas had 30 percent strongly favoring and 15 percent strongly disapproving.

Vermonters also showed support for the just-passed health care plan and were not keen on the state challenging the requirement that all buy health insurance in court. They got their way - 13 states are challenging it and Vermont is not among them.

You can see the poll questions and responses HERE.

- Terri Hallenbeck

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Election 2010: Vermont Senate

A Rasmussen report on a poll on Vermont's U.S. Senate race started out this way:

"Longtime Vermont Senator Patrick Leahy is comfortably on his way to a seventh term in Washington so far."

Republican challenger Len Britton took that as good news. When Britton saw the poll Monday he wasn't focused on those comments, he was looking at the number of people who said flat out without knowing who his opponent might be would vote against veteran U.S. Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt.

33 percent is that number. Britton, a Woodstock businessman, thought that was a good place to start.

The poll also found 58 percent would vote for Leahy.

Never mind, too, that Rasmussen's report said, "
No major Republican candidate has entered the race. Businessman Len Britton, a political newcomer, is the only declared GOP Senate candidate thus far."

Rasmussen also said that Leahy "clears an important early hurdle for an incumbent. At this early stage of a campaign, incumbents who earn less than 50% of the voter are considered potentially vulnerable."

Rasmussen also found:
- Male voters in the state break close to even between Leahy and the generic Republican, but women voters give the Democrat 67% support.

- Voters not affiliated with either major party prefer Leahy by a 49% to 36% margin.

- While a bare majority (52%) of Vermont voters think it would be better for the country if most incumbents in Congress were defeated this November, 51% say their local representative deserves reelection.

The poll was conducted March 18 of 500 likely voters, with a margin of error 3 percentage points.

There's more HERE.

- Terri Hallenbeck

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