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vt.Buzz ~ a political blog

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



The dynamics of the trio

Indeed, House Democrats pulled the education funding bill off the floor Thursday. Not enough votes to pass it. House Speaker Gaye Symington blamed the governor for not lining up support behind it. The governor never pretended he liked the bill.

That happened the same week the Senate leadership conceded the heating fuel surcharge was being drop-kicked out of the energy legislation that would coordinate making people's homes and businesses more energy efficient. They're looking for another funding source. Winning the lottery might be the front-runner.

This in the year when Democrats celebrated winning a plethora of seats in Legislature. They did not expect to be able to swing a hammer of veto-proof majorities on every issue, but they were pretty pleased with their newfound bulk.

So what's going on? Too much fighting going on among the Dems to reach a consensus? Are they afraid of the governor's tongue lashings? Or are these issues just insoluble? After all, the critics of the education funding plan are not flush with alternatives.

- Terri Hallenbeck


False alarm

Some of Washington's insider crowd this week was abuzz with concern about former Senator Jim Jeffords' health after his friend and seatmate, Senator Patrick Leahy, implied in a speech on the Senate floor that JMJ wasn't doing so well in retirement up on the farm in Shrewsbury.

The remarks Wednesday came as Leahy, arguing for inclusion of a $2 million provision taked on to the military spending supplemental bill to fund an education institute at the University of Vermont that bears Jeffords' name, chided Republican Sen. Tom Coburn of Oklahoma for seeking to have the money deleted from the bill.

Here's the key exerpts of what Leahy said.

"Along with the leadership of the Appropriations Committee and the Senate, on both sides of the aisle, I felt this would be a fitting way to honor Senator Jeffords' service to our country while there is still time. Clearly, Senator Coburn does not feel that way. Sadly, that is not going to happen today. I think it is a disgrace. "

"Senator Jeffords did not seek reelection last fall so he could spend more time with his family and to address ongoing health issues. I am sad to note that these health issues continue. "

"Were circumstances different, I would say that we could wait and find regular appropriations vehicles through which to fund this project. I, along with the leadership of the Appropriations Committee and the Senate, believe this would be a fitting way to honor Senator Jeffords' service to our country while there is still time."

By Thursday afternoon, I was getting calls from Washington media asking after Jeffords health. I'd heard nothing but decided to call Jim up just to make sure. "I feel fine," he told me and, if hearing his voice over the phone was any indication, he indeed sounded very much like his usual self.

Dave Carle, Leahy's press secretary, told me his boss never meant to suggest Jeffords health had somehow declined and that people were overreacting to the comments.

Still, the quotes are what they are.

Maybe Leahy was laying it on a little thick because he was so irritated with Coburn and knew that Coburn's amendment to kill the the money for the institute would eventually succeed.

-- Sam Hemingway



Random items ...

... Former Sen. Jim Leddy of Burlington made a Statehouse visit today, his heartbeat set by the pacemaker doctors recently installed inside him. Leddy was on his way home on an airplane recently when he fell ill, landed and rushed to the hospital. He may have been walking a little slower, but once he got talking about the Catamount Health Plan, Leddy had the same old fire. Suffice to say he doesn't think very kindly of the Douglas administration's plans to use from Catamount for other health care programs. He did say, though, that he received excellent medical care himself.

... A few senators had a change on heart Wednesday on the campaign finance bill that passed unanimously on the first vote Tuesday. Wednesday's vote was 23-3, with Sens. Vince Illuzzi, Hull Maynard and George Coppenrath, all Republicans, voted no. Illuzzi said he thinks the state is headed for another expensive lawsuit if this bill becomes law because contribution limits such as $250 for House members are too low.

... The whole Senate went along with a bill that would allow those state workers at the Bennington State Office Building who've come down with sarcoidosis to receive wroerks' compensation. The bill does not include any guarantee of workers' comp for those with asthma, as the union had wanted. The bill also sets up a panel to look at establishing a new office building in downtown Bennington, in case the tainted building from which workers have been moved can never be used again. Testing on the building won't happen until April 30, after more furniture is cleaned and moved out of the building.

... The Vermont State Employees Association has been feuding with the Douglas administration for some time over what employees are allowed to say and what they're not. Some agencies have lengthy policies about what to do when a legislator or a reporter calls seeking information, about who can testify before a legislative committe, then clarifications about how employees are not really restricted from speaking their minds. The latest round came in response to health problems at the state office building on North Avenue in Burlington. One e-mail to employees reminds them that when a reporter calls, all calls should be referred to the commissioner. A follow-up e-mail clarifies that, indeed, employees are free to talk to the media about their own experience, they just can't talk about clients, policies, etc.

- Terri Hallenbeck



The Dean team, revisited

It was about this time four years ago that Gov. Howard Dean's improbable rise to front-runner status in the 2004 race for the Democratic presidential nomination started gaining real traction. Eleven months later, it was all over, and the Dean for America team scattered.

Makes you wonder where they all are, now that the presidential sweepstakes are upon us again. I did a check, and here's a partial list.

Joe Trippi: The former Dean campaign manager is a political analyst for MSNBC and a media advisor for Philiadelphia mayoral candidate Tom Knox, who the polls have as the marginal leader in a seven-way Democratic primary set for May.

Bob Rogan: Dean's deputy campaign manager, he's now Rep. Peter Welch's chief of staff.

Andi Pringle: Another deputy campaign manager, she's working for one of Knox's primary opponents in the Philly mayor's race, Bob Brady.

The McMahon boys: Steve and Tom were longtime consultants to Dean, and they still are. Tom is now the Democratic Party's executive director, Steve is a Democratic National Committee strategist.

Nicco Mele: The Web master wizard of the Dean campaign is now on Republican presidential candidate John McCain's payroll.

Paul Maslin: Dean's pollster is now doing polling for New Mexico Democratic Gov. Bill Richardson's longshot bid for the White House, after serving briefly in the same capacity for Evan Bayh's fleeting presidential bid.

Trica Enright: Dean's presidential spokeswoman worked of Pennsylvania Democratic Gov. Ed Rendell's successful re-election bid last year. Not sure what she's doing for 2008, but she's bound to pop up somewhere.

Jay Carson: He joined the Dean team as communications director just as the campaign was peaking, courtesy of then-Sen. Tom Daschle. He's now former President Bill Clinton's spokesman.

Karen Hicks: Dean's New Hampshire campaign coordinator is now national field director for Hillary Clinton's presidential campaign.

Sara Leonard: Dean's ill-fated Iowa campaign director is now working for Barack Obama's presidential bid.

Stephanie Schriock: A native Montanan, Dean's finance director went on to run Jon Tester's successful Montana Senate campaign in 2006.

Zephyr Teachout: One of the online gurus on the Dean campaign, she's been doing some consulting for Barack Obama's presidential campaign.

Matt Gross: Another one of the sharp bloggers behind Dean's Internet success, Gross helped out Tester in 2006 and now is online advisor to the John Edwards campaign.

Roy Neel: The guy who took over Dean's campaign when Trippi was fired after New Hampshire was recently hired by Al Gore to "coordinate" his global warming campaign.

Susan Elliott: The volunteer coordinator for Dean for America, she's now a staffer for Welch.

I'm sure there's more, and if you know of 'em, send it along. Interesting how the world keeps on turning, isn't it?

-- Sam Hemingway


Presidential consumption

Jim Barnett, the erstwhile head of the Vermont Republican Party who's now consumed with all things John McCain, returned to the Statehouse today to drum up support for his presidential candidate. Barnett is working for McCain's campaign in New England.

He wondered when we'd start covering the presidential primaries. Huh? I said. Didn't he hear that whole gobs of the public were choking over how much attention is already being paid to a race that's two years away? He hadn't. When your job is to promote one of the candidates, you begin to think that's what everybody's thinking about, 24/7.

Standing outside the House chamber as members were coming in Tuesday morning, the boy from Barre showed what happens when you leave home and start seeing how things are in other states. Barnett commented that the Vermont Legislature really needs an electronic voting board in each chamber. I have seen such a scoreboard in the Texas Legislature. Nice ornate room, much like ours, with a big ugly electronic board up front. I'm sure it's very efficient, but it's like having faux-wood paneling in your Victorian home.

He was - not by me - accused of turning into a liberal. Which he denied.

- Terri Hallenbeck



Impeach Part II

Following Saturday's vote to push for an impeachment resolution, House Speaker Gaye Symington said today she's unmoved in her decision not to spend time on the issue.

"They're frustrated with me," she said of her fellow Democrats. "I think it's hard to understand outside the building how little time there is to get things done."

It's not just the time spent debating the issue, but the emotional distraction, she said. Once you throw the flaming torch of impeachment into the middle of the room, the parties retreat to their own corners. It's hard to come back the next day, she said, and go back to working together.

She contended, too, that focusing on impeachment might not produce the quickest route out of Iraq.

Does it matter to her that the governor would hammer the Legislature for debating impeachment? "The governor hammers us no matter what we do," she said.

Speaking of the governor and his hammer, he'll be bringing his "accountability" tour to Essex on Thursday. 6:30 p.m. at the Grange Hall on Route 15 in Essex Center. I'm not sure you'll find that these are widely publicized events. A press release about it went out about 5 minutes after I inquired today.

- Terri Hallenbeck


To impeach or not to impeach

At its annual meeting Saturday, the Democratic State Committee urged the Legislature to act on a resolution that would call for President Bush and Vice President Cheney's impeachment.

The bill is sitting quietly in the House Judiciary Committee, with no plans for its re-emergence.

Party Chairman Ian Carleton said the resolution passed overwhelmingly - though not unanimously - in a voice vote among the 50 or so state committee members. The committee members want to go where few of their own elected leaders will take them.

Senate President Pro Tem Peter Shumlin spoke in support of the amendment. House Speaker Gaye Symington wasn't at the meeting, but she's been opposed to having the House spend time debating the issue. The three members of the state's congressional delegation have made it clear they're not interested in pursuing impeachment.

Carleton, walking a careful political line, said he believes some discussion is warranted, but he also understands that the Legislature has the cumbersome issues of property tax reform and health care reform on its plate.

Keep in mind, too that Gov. Douglas would be whapping the Legislature's collective head over spending time on issues over which it has no direct control.

So what do you recommend, folks?

- Terri Hallenbeck



A YouTube ride

Used to be that the only way to see what our delegation was doing in Washington was to go down there and watch for yourself, or hope one of them did something important enough to score some face time on the evening TV news.

No more, thanks to the YouTube phenomenon that's swept the Internet the past year or two.
Yesterday, two of our three guys in D.C. were captured in YouTube moments, Congressman Welch speaking to the House Rules Committee on why he was supporting the military spending bill, and Senator Patrick Leahy telling his Republican colleague Senator Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania in no uncertain terms what he thought of the White House's offer to avoid subpoenas of Karl Rove et all on prosecutor-gate.

Got time for a little political boob tubing, Vermont style? Here you go.

Here's Leahy

And here's Welch

Well, what did you think?

-- Sam Hemingway



Death vote

It was an interesting vote on the physician-assisted death bill yesterday, as somebody noted in the comments on the last item.

It was clear that early on in the roll call that the bill was doomed. Ancel, Botzow, Consejo, Donovan, Evans - all solid Democrats toward the beginning of the alphabet who voted against it.

Proponents said they sensed in the last couple weeks that the votes were slipping to the other side. There was heavy pressure from churches, particularly the Catholic Church, on their parishioners, who were told to call their reps. Whether it was entirely that pressure that tipped the scales is hard to say.

Was the bill the victim of misinformation? One Catholic parishioner said the parish was told this bill was part of an effort to destroy families and then the church.

Or was the bill the victim an idea the public's not really comfortable with?

- Terri Hallenbeck


Protesting Peter

It was an eclectic group of folks who marched down to Congressman Peter Welch's office on Wednesday, half-hoping they would pressure him into opposing the $124 billion military spending bill that the House is about to vote on.

You had old lefty types like state poet Grace Pale, Will Allen, Liz Blum and Liberty Unionites Peter Diamondstone and Boots Wardinski. You had newer lefty folks -- like a couple of UVM students and Liza Earle and Martha Hennessey. And you had a couple of agitator types, like Mike "Snarky Boy" Colby and Dennis "Impeach Bush Now" candidate Morrisseau.

As the afternoon sit-in wore on, the fissions in the group became more evident. They wanted Welch to vote no, but clearly only some saw him as an out-and-out traitor they'd work to defeat if he didn't accede to their wishes. After all, some in the group obviously didn't vote for him last year and won't do so in the future, either, no matter what he does.

They also wrestled with whether it was worth it to get arrested. Would arrests cast a bad light on their demonstration? Did it make sense to get arrested at Welch's office when, at least for the moment, the worst thing they could say about Welch was that he hadn't decided what he was going to do on the bill which, by the way, is mostly opposed by hawkish, Bush-loyalist Republicans.

As it happened, while they were staging their sit-in at Welch's Burlington office, the Congressman's office in Washington was getting scores of e-mails from people urging him too vote yes on the bill. Many of those e-mails were encouraged by MoveOn.org., the potent lefty Internet-driven organization that surely most all of the demonstrators follow closely.

And, irony of ironies, one of the protesters at Welch's office was carrying a yellow "Out of Iraq" sign tha, in small print at the bottom of the poster, displayed MoveOn's logo and identifier information.

-- Sam Hemingway



Random thoughts

... Senate President Pro Tem is known for his ability to come up with snappy sentences that usually involve some sort of analogy. At a news conference today on health care, he got that look on his face like he was just about to launch one of those. Sitting next to him, House Speaker Gaye Symington developed a smirk that indicated she thought one of Shumlin's lines was coming. Then it didn't quite come out in one neat package. Something about people claiming to see catamounts in the woods, and if the governor takes money away from the Catamount Health Plan - as Shumlin claims he's doing - then this catamount too will never be seen. Instead of being snappy, it oozed out like mud. Just goes to show you that he doesn't have those lines all worked out by the time he gets to work each day.

... The House was just settling in for a long debate on physician-assisted death today, when Symington asked the usual question about whether members were ready to vote on the bill, which she expected would be met by a member or two or more rising to be heard on the matter. Symington looked up, saw no one standing and balked in surprise at the possibility that there would be no debate on this. Everybody laughed. Of course, there was then four hours of debate. It just took a second for the first one to step forward.

... Vermont Public Interest Research Group was having a 35th birthday party for the Vermont Yankee nuclear power plant today, with a cake in the Statehouse. This was their way of noting its advanced age and strongly hinting that it was time to retire it. On his way out, VPIRG executive director Paul Burns was carrying a piece of the cake in a Tupperware-style container. It struck me that the piece of cake was in a sort of dry cask storage.

- Terri Hallenbeck



Caucus of one

Every Tuesday around 1:15 p.m., you'll see House Democrats drifting into Room 11 at the Statehouse, and House Republicans into Room 10. It's caucus time, when the members discuss issues, raise and answer questions, sign get-well cards, and occasionally rant.

We reporters, along with lobbyists, the governor's staff and other hangers-on duck into the meetings to keep our fingers on the pulses.

Today, if you drifted into Room 10 around 1:15 p.m., you'd have seen Rep. Joe Baker, a West Rutland Republican, sitting alone at the table in front, and a couple of lobbyists in the audience, all of them wondering where everybody had gone.

To Finkerman's BBQ, as it turned out. Joe must not have read his e-mail, but the rest of the caucus did.

Minority Leader Steve Adams said no secret mission was on the agenda - just a chance to socialize. "Team building," he said. They talked about various bills due on the House floor this week, he said.

One Republican House member said, though, it was kind of nice to say whatever they wanted with no outsiders around.

That's something they might not want to get used to. Open caucuses are a healthy tradition.

- Terri Hallenbeck


Neutrality Part II

Yesterday, part 1: the criticism
Today, part 2: the defense

Andrew Savage, who used to enjoy sliding down hills on flat boards but then got swept up in this whole political thing and went to D.C. to be the spokesvoice for Rep. Peter Welch, offered up these arguments in support of carbon credits:

1. They must be combined with other actions. Which he said Welch is doing by backing of the Waxman Safe Climate Act (would reduce U.S. global warming emissions to 1990 levels by 2020 and to 80% below 1990 levels by 2050 through greater reliance on clean, renewable energy and energy efficiency), other measures in the office to conserve energy such as changing to better light bulbs, and drumming up support for climate change legislation among colleagues.

2. These efforts send a message to the world that global warming matters.

3. It's a concrete step that's better than nothing.

The projects slated to be built with the help of Welch's offset contribution are a methane digester project on a Westminster dairy farm and a biomass pellet-fired boiler that will replace a fossil fuel-fired boiler at Vermont Technical College in Randolph.

- Terri Hallenbeck



On neutrality

Rep. Peter Welch is pushing a bill in Congress (H.R. 823, the Carbon Neutrality Act of 2007) that would allow members such as himself to use office-expense money to buy carbon credits. Welch is doing it already, but with personal funds, as the law doesn't let him use our money to do that. This would allow him and others in Congress and the executive branch to offset their emissions with with tax dollars.

Welch makes contributions to two Vermont renewable energy projects for $672 to offset the 56 tons a year in greenhouse gas emissions his Vermont and D.C. offices and his traveling is estimated to produce. Thus, the theory goes, his office is not contributing to global warming.

Welch got a bunch of national press for making the move. Freshman congressman makes environmental splash.

The Middlebury College ski team has also gone carbon neutral, paying $600 to offset its trips hither and yon.

Theoretically, paying to support renewable energy projects is a good thing (that depends of course on who does what with the money and how you feel about that particular source of energy).

Is it, however, just a get-out-of-guilt free card? Does it mean college students just pay some extra money and continue on to the slopes in their gas guzzler? Does it just allow the congressman to make a donation, jet home every weekend and get lots of good press in the process?

Does Al Gore do more good putting out a movie that raises lots of people's awareness or not taking all those plane trips the movie shows him taking?

Are there other ways to fight this fight. Fire up your electric-powered computer and tell us.

- Terri Hallenbeck


Cat fight

Rep. Robert Dostis is already trying to win back the cat vote.

It all started with Dostis, chairman of the House Natural Resources and Energy Committee, was responding last week to a comment Gov. Douglas made:
"You will have the birds and bats being killed by the blades falling down on
you while you try to hike," Douglas said.

Dostis likes wind turbines much better than Douglas does. He responded that cats kill way more birds than wind turbines do, leaving one to wonder what kind of cats per turbine trade-off he was proposing.

The next day, Dostis was carrying a photo of a tabby wearing a "Cats for Dostis" campaign button on its collar. That's bound to bring in more votes than a "Turbines for Dostis" campaign.

- Terri Hallenbeck



Cross about crossover

Senate President Pro Tem Peter Shumlin said he spent a little time today hiding under the table in the Senate Transportation Committee, trying to avoid committee chairmen and chairwomen and lobbyists who want more time to work on bills.

On the door of the pro tem's office is a sign that says:

It's crossover
The answer is no.

Fondly, Peter
(no exceptions)

Crossover is the Legislature's self-imposed deadline for getting bills out of committee and ready to cross over to the other chamber. It hasn't in recent years been strictly adhered to. Shumlin, who's been out of the Legislature for four years, said he didn't realize that until Friday afternoon, but now he's beginning to see why so many people are mad at him. He shook his head in mock shame at the way things were done while he was away.

Leaders in both chambers were holding firm to the deadline today, and that meant bills were flying out of some committees. House Commerce worked until after 11 p.m. Thursday on the broadband bill. Plenty of committees are still at it.

Across the hall from each other, House Judiciary and Education were working on death and taxes (physician-assisted death and education funding). As Benjamin Franklin said: "In this world nothing is certain but death and taxes."

Certainty aside, it appeared that wrestling with death was actually easier than wrestling with taxes.

- Terri Hallenbeck



Dean the diplomat

Howard Dean didn't make it to the White House in 2004, but in his capacity as chairman of the Democratic National Committee, he seems to be acting something like a president in abstentia for his party.

At least that's what it sounds like in an on-line interview with Politico, in which Dean discloses that he's in contact with various countries around the world and constituencies back home, firming up relationships should a Democrat take over residency at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. in early 2009.

"I am trying to build relationships with other governments in preparation for a Democratic takeover," Dean tells Politco. "I want to make clear that there is an opposition in America and that we are ready to take power and that when we do, we are going to have much better relationships with them."

He also says he's been schmoozing well-known Christian evangelical leaders back in the USA, in hopes of helping build better relations with them, too.

"We're never going to convince them on civil rights for gay people or abortion rights," Dean says. "But we certainly can focus on the things that we both care about a lot: global warming, poverty and the materiality of our culture."

For a complete read of Politico article, click HERE.

By the way, the question of whether Dean might someday run for prez. again came up.

"I have no idea," Dean responded. "I hope we are going to elect a Democratic president, and I won't have to think about it until 2016. In which case, I will be a lot older than I am now."

68, to be exact.

-- Sam Hemingway



Is it his?

Sen. John Campbell, D-Windsor, waved a copy of a letter the secretary of agriculture had sent to dairy farmers in late February. It explained how to participate in the "Vermont Target Price Program." That's the state program that will provide dairy farmers with another payment to help them cope with bad weather, high fuel prices and low milk prices. It's a continuation of a program that provided dairy farmers with $8.6 million in assistance during the fall. Lawmakers approved money to cover one more payment this month.

Campbell was waving the letter in protest because he felt the second sentence made it seem the program was the governor's since it included the phrase "his direct payment program."

Campbell argued it was the Legislature's idea to send dairy farmers another payment this winter, not the Republican Gov. Jim Douglas'. The letter, the Democratic majority leader said, "is a total distortion of what really happened."

Secretary of Agriculture Roger Allbee wasn't available to comment Tuesday afternoon on the use of the adjective "his" to describe the direct payment program, but Anson Tebbetts, his new deputy, called back.

"What it looks like to me is a typo," Tebbetts explained. The intended adjective was "this" not "his."

Tebbetts added, "We all know it took all of us to get it done."

-- Nancy Remsen


Back in class

Legislators streamed back to the Statehouse today, like students headed straight into final exams, fresh from being admonished by their parents about their grades.

And just like at a typical school, some of them grumbled. There were more than a few snide comments about the governor's accusations that they hadn't been working hard. And there was some resistance to the whole idea of meeting Friday's crossover deadline for getting bills out of committee.

In a meeting of Senate committee chairs and vice chairs, some complained that everybody's gotten away with blowing crossover deadlines in the past, that in other years they've received House bills in the last weeks of the session that had been sitting around for a year and a half.

Senate President Pro Tem Peter Shumlin played the role of the teacher. "We've definitely got to make crossover," he told them. "We've got the governor beating on us for not doing anything."

Legislators are not all in agreement on the work they are doing. In Senate and House caucus meetings today, there were questions about the bills in the works that target education spending, and whether that's really going to provide Vermonters with the property tax relief they're expecting.

Shumlin warned Senate Democrats in their caucus that if they have ideas, now's the time to share them with the committees, then it'll be time to get behind their colleagues' work. "Let's not get on the floor and not be one big happy family," he said.

He also warned that some people's expectations might be too high. "Vermonters who expect a 20, 30 or 40 percent reduction in their property taxes are going to be disappointed," he said. "There's going to be no ticker tape parade for us on property taxes."

- Terri Hallenbeck



Where are my boots?

Yikes, Gov. Jim Douglas has just asked the Vermont National Guard to help Montpelier get ready for The Flood.

A group of 18-20 Guard members will assemble early Tuesday to help fill sandbags. The Guard has some kind of machine that fills 250 sandbags in an hour. Guard members will help distribute these bags around the downtown. All this will take place as lawmakers get back down to business up the hill after their Town Meeting break.

The Winooski River looks so peaceful, frozen like a rock, except for some puddles and a small channel, but I've seen what can happen.

I wasn't here for this river's last uprising, but I saw what an ice jam could do in Bangor, Maine many years ago. There was a sudden thaw and a downpour on a February day and suddenly the placid, ice-crusted Kenduskeag Stream became a gushing onslaught in a canal running through the downtown. Where the stream joined the Penobscot River, the ice jammed against a railroad bridge. The water in the Kenduskeag might have broken the icy barrier, but the Penobscot River is tidal all the way to Bangor and high tide pressed back against that ice.

The result was lightning fast flooding of a downtown parking lot, small row of shops and a few streets. People noticed the rising stream, ran out of buildings only to find their cars already bobbing. One woman made it to her vehicle (really her father's which was why she was in such a rush), but couldn't start it and then couldn't get out. The rising water pressed hard against the doors. She couldn't open the windows, either -- electric. She had her nose at the ceiling in a pocket of air when a guy driving by plunged in and pulled her from car. They had to be rescued off the car roof.

So I'm getting nervous about where my car is parked here in Montpelier. For Terri Hallenbeck and me, as well as out-of-town lobbyists, some legislators and lots of state workers, there aren't a lot of parking options in the best of circumstances and none are on high ground.

I appreciate that city and state officials, including Gov. Jim Douglas, are taking this flood hazard seriously. We are, too. We've got the evacuation map posted on our bulletin board. I just hope I know soon enough so I can move my car -- somewhere.

--Nancy Remsen



Communications gap

With money being in short supply for the 2008 state budget, there are sure to be some differences of opinion between the administration, the House and the Senate on what's in, what's out.

Here's one of them: The administration's communications staff.

House Speaker Gaye Symington was decrying some of the cuts proposed in Gov. Jim Douglas budget recommendations. I asked her, if not those things, then what would she cut?

Her answer: some of the $769,000 worth of salaries connected to people whose jobs focus on communications. It's one of the things under consideration in the House Appropriations Committee, she said.

The administration will have to get its team of communications people together to defend that one.

- Terri Hallenbeck



Night at the Ritz

Rich Tarrant, the weathy IDX c0-founder and, more recently, defeated Senate candidate recently spent a night at the swank Ritz- Carlton Hotel in Naples, Fla.

No surprise there. The guy is a multi-millionaire.

But what if you knew that self-proclaimed Socialist and common-man champion Senator Bernie Sanders was also there -- on the very same night.

It's true. Tarrant gave me a call Friday to spin the tale of how he and wife, along with Richard Corley and his wife, had been patrons at the $1000-a-night Ritz and that he was in the business of checking out the next morning when he recognized what he jokingly called "a ghost from my past."

Yep. It was Bernie alright. Turns out Sanders had spent the night at the very same Ritz with his wife, Jane. Tarrant tapped the Vermont junior senator on the shoulder and asked him the obvious "What are YOU doing here?" Bernie mumbled something about attending a Democratic Party function of some sort.

Next thing you know, Tarrant had persuaded Sanders to walk arm-in-arm with him out the front door in order to surprise the Corleys and Tarrant's wife, who outside waiting for Rich to catch up with them.

"Deb's jaw dropped to her belt," Tarrant said of his wife's reaction. He also reported that Sanders was a "good sport" about it all.

Turns out, according to Sanders' press spokeswoman, that Bernie was in Naples along with a half-dozen other Senators as the guests of Senator Chuck Shumer and the Democratic Senate Campaign Committee.

Tarrant, by the way, said he's splitting his time this winter between his homes in Florida and Vermont and was in town this week. Can't stay away from his kids and grandkids, he explained.

-- Sam Hemingway


Hearing the same chorus

Last legislative biennium, when health care was the big issue, Republican Gov. Jim Douglas and the Democratic legislative leaders would come forth and declare what they'd heard from Vermonters. It often seemed like they were listening to a whole different set of Vermonters.

When House Speaker Gaye Symington told me to today that she'd been out listening to voters in southern Vermont the other day I was half-expecting her to have heard something wholly different from what Douglas heard in the Northeast Kingdom.

It didn't happen, though.

Symington said the message she heard was that voters didn't want to take their frustrations out on their local school budgets, but that they are frustrated by property taxes, health care costs, energy costs and myriad of other pocketbook strains.

Hmmm. That's the same thing Douglas was hearing.

She said she also heard people say they want property tax reform but they're not comfortable with some of the proposals they're hearing. They're scared of having their local control taken away.

Hmmm. Same thing Douglas heard.

They don't like Douglas' school budget increase cap. They're wary of of the education commissioner's school district consolidation plan, and they don't like the Legislature's proposal of tightening the penalty for schools that spend more than average.

Symington said, nonetheless, she thinks that last one has particular promise. Exactly what the governor said.

The only difference is Symington doesn't like the tone of the governor's criticisms - or a good many of his budget choices, and Douglas doesn't like the fact that the Legislature isn't embracing his ideas. If they can just get past that, they might have some common ground. At least they're hearing the same things. Maybe they should go on tour together.

- Terri Hallenbeck



Legislative break time

The Legislature is, of course, off this week for its annual Town Meeting week recess. Gives legislators a chance to go home and hear from constituents, lets the business they're pondering settle into the folds of their brains, allows the Statehouse cafeteria crew to regroup and allows some legislators to work on their tans in tropical climes.

It wasn't always so. According to the state archivist's office, the Legislature has only taken the full week off regularly since 1996 (they would have shut down for Town Meeting Day, though). There's nothing in statutes prescribing the break. It's something the House and Senate agree to by joint resolution each year.

Gov. Jim Douglas, the Legislature's chief critic, suggested the break is inappropriate for a number of reasons: They didn't do it when he was in the Legislature; it's a break in momentum just as legislators are hitting the halfway point in the session; some legislators can't exactly just jump back into their real-life jobs for just a week, so there they are without pay from anywhere for a week; and it extends the session.

What's your take? Is it a healthy break that allows them to regroup or an unnecessary interruption?

- Terri Hallenbeck



Road show

It was standing-room-only - about 125 people - in the Lyndonville fire house Wednesday night for the first stop on Gov. Jim Douglas' "accountability" tour.

He was preaching to the Kingdom converted. Rising property values have plenty of Kingdom residents infuriated over the state's property taxing system. They're also sick of taking the rest of Vermont's trash, inmates, wind towers - you name it.

It's clear, too, that they lay the bulk of the blame for their woes not on Douglas, but the Legislature, if one were to summarize the feelings in the room.

Douglas, of course, was careful to schedule his first stop in such a place. He'll ease his way into the tour with subsequent stops in Springfield, Rutland and Barre.

It will be interesting to see if he holds a meeting in Burlington.

- Terri Hallenbeck



From the gym floor

I spent my Town Meeting Day in Westford, where the chili was just right and the meeting kept to a good pace.

When Westford residents hear the report about their school budget, taxes and the like, they are getting it from none other than Martha Heath, who chairwoman of the Legislature's House Appropriations Committee as well as chairwoman of the Westford school board. I can assure you that residents in many other towns are not getting as thorough or as knowledgable a run-down on Act 68.

From the audience's questions, it was apparent that some were well abreast of the discussion. I have a feeling others were not. Heath concedes every time lawmakers make repairs to the spending system, it adds a layer of complication.

There are new things to learn about it all the time. This year, of course, Vermonters with household incomes of less than $105,000 will no longer get prebate checks to help pay their property tax, but instead that amount will be applied directly to their property taxes. In Westford, residents pay their property taxes in four increments. A resident asked if the "prebate" will be applied to each payment or the first or what?

The answer, in Westford, is that it will be applied to the first. So what can residents who pay their taxes through their mortgages expect? Well, that's probably up to the mortgage company - whether to adjust the monthly payments or provide a refund. Yikes. That should be easy enough to explain to the person on the other end of the phone of a mortgage company based in New Jersey.

- Terri Hallenbeck



Keeping the pressure on

Just in case taxpayers needed prompting tonight or tomorrow at Town Meeting, the folks at Revolt and Repeal have bought radio and newspaper advertising with some questions they suggest Vermonters ask their legislators. Legislators, of course, make guest appearances at most town and school district meetings.

Missed the ads? Follow this link and hit one of the last two buttons on the menu running down the left column.

Revolt and Repeal was set up last summer by a group of Republican House members who advocate repealing the existing school funding statutes (Act 60 and 68) and starting over. They have taken a lot of criticism for failing to specify how to replace the current funding scheme.

Anyway, earlier this winter with considerable fanfare, the Democratic House Speaker and Senate President Pro Tempore joined the Republican Governor to announce they had agreed on a "framework" for studying how to curb growth in property taxes. Note they didn't agree on how to curb taxes, just how to study how to curb taxes.

Over the past two weeks, Gov. Jim Douglas has expressed dissatisfaction with the progress toward finding some remedies to school spending growth, which is related to property tax increases. Revolt and Repeal has joined the Douglas chorus.

The radio ad uses silence to make a point about Revolt and Repeal's view of the Legislature's progress. It states that lawmakers failed to repay money due the Education Fund because of an error last year. The budget adjustment bill, which has passed the House and Senate, but in different forms, included money due the fund this year -- in what is called a waterfall. That's surplus that's not yet a sure bet. That's why the ad criticizes lawmakers, said Rep. Rick Hube, R-South Londonderry. "There is no guarantee there will be water in the waterfall."

Hube said the ad campaign is intended to keep pressure on the Legislature, which is controlled by Democrats.

So if you feel the urge to make your legislators squirm, try asking what they've done for you so far this session. Don't expect to leave quickly after you ask, however, because lawmakers have plenty of talking points. There won't be radio silence.

-- Nancy Remsen


Town meeting talk

Tomorrow you all will stop the normal course of your lives, huddle up with your neighbors and decide whether that new fire truck is really needed. Right? Well, you should.

You spend enough time – on this blog, in your living rooms and at diners – griping about the people you elect to make decisions for you. This time, you get to make the decisions yourself. If your town still does it the right way, you can bicker over any item in the town or school budget, take it out, add to it. Few in the world get this kind of local control. But you do.

While you’re there, you’ll see the annual – in fact it’s the 39th annual – Sen. Bill Doyle Town Meeting Say Survey. It’ll give you a chance to voice your opinion on some things you don’t have direct control over.

Here’s a glance at what’s on this year’s survey:

Should drivers be prohibited from using cell phones while driving?

Should the Vermont Legislature permit same-sex marriage?

Do you believe Vermont is an affordable place in which to live?

Should school tax increase be kept at the rate of inflation?

You can even pick your choice for president in 2008.

Then you can gripe about the one who wins. But if you don’t go to town meeting, the first person you should gripe about is yourself.

- Terri Hallenbeck


Nothing funny about corrrections

Rep. Jason Lorber, D-Burlington, is a stand-up comic, but he says his newest on-screen endeavor isn't one bit funny. Lorber is taping a series of interviews, which he has entitled Correcting Corrections, for Channel 17. He said he's hoping through the interviews and subsequent audience response, that some new ideas might emerge about how to reverse the seemingly unstoppable growth in the state's prison population.

Lorber became interested in this topic through his service on the House Institutions Committee and as a member of the Corrections Oversight Committee. In 2005, Lorber did his first in-depth research into the prison problem, producing a written document called 53 Voices. It was based on interviews with a host of different people connected with prisons. You can check it out here

Lorber's first guest for his new television series was newly elected Chittenden County State's Attorney T.J. Donovan. The interview already aired, but Lorber said a podcast is available at this address

This week, Lorber tapes his next show, which will feature Rita Whalen McCaffrey, executive director of Dismas of VT Inc., Cara Gleason, executive director of Northern Lights, and Hal Colston, executive director of NeighborKeepers. These guests will talk about helping former inmates rejoin and become productive members of society.

He expects the show to air within the next two weeks. There is no set schedule.

If you have ideas to share, guests to suggest for future shows or reaction, Lorber said he would welcome them. His email is jlorber@leg.state.vt.us.

He also wants reaction to a bill he has introduced, H.386, which calls for a 10-10-30 work group to develop a 10-year plan to decrease selected crime rates by 10 percent and reduce the prison population by 30 percent.

So why do this show? Lorber said the public needs to know that Vermont's prison population is growing at a faster rate than all but four other states. "It's important for people to talk about this."

--Nancy Remsen



Remote control

The Iraq war debate planned for the House chamber today is said to be "on time," though rarely is anything the Legislature does exactly "on time."

But here's another thing. You don't necessarily have to leave the comfort of your home or office to hear the debate. The Senate Economic Development, Housing & General Affairs Committee has a conference call set up for its meetings today. Here are the details for how to tap in at noon and the list of speakers:

SR 11 - Calling for the Orderly Withdrawal of American Military Forces From
Iraq to Commence ImmediatelyMeeting available by Conference Call:1-877-278-8686
Pin#: 621994 ***Inclement Weather: This meeting is ON TIME. Held: House Chamber,
State House.
Cindy Sheehan, Founder and President of Gold Star
Families for Peace, an organization of family of those killed in Iraq. http://www.gsfp.org/
Vicki Strong, Gold Star Mother, Albany
Helen Therrien, Gold Star Mother
Marion Gray, Gold Star Mother
Lisa Johnson, Gold Star Mother
Drew Cameron, Former Army Sgt., Field Artillery Soldier in Balad, Iraq
Linda Perham, Past National Vice Commander, American Legion
Matthew Howard, Former
Marine Cpl., Served Two Combat Tours in Iraq
Brenda Cruickshank, Retired Army Nurse; Representing Veterans of Foreign Wars
Adrienne Kinne, Former Army Sgt., Arabic Linguist in Military Intelligence
Matt Bedia, Taskforce Red Leg, Iraq
Lt. Col. Steve Russell

- Terri Hallenbeck



Weather or not

The weather forecast has the Legislature in a frenzy. The House and Senate stayed late and did their Friday work today. Committees are working into the evening to finish bills that are supposed to be out before the Town Meeting week break. Some committees may be back tomorrow, but the full chambers won't meet.

Sen. Vince Illuzzi was scouring the National Weather Service Web site trying to figure out if war critic Cindy Sheehan will get here tomorrow for a hearing featuring those for and against the war. She's flying from Turkey, which you might recall is a long ways from here.

Given that Illuzzi could find only one other Vermont event cancellation, he was reluctant to pull the plug on it yet. So last we heard Thursday evening, it was a go, but folks can check the Senate Economic Development Committee's AGENDA for updates Friday.

Illuzzi noted this event is a rarity - a public debate with people on both sides of the war issue.

He had requested use of the House chamber in case the debate between Sheehan and war supporters draws too big a crowd for the Senate chamber to handle. The House Rules Committee took up that request Thursday afternoon. There were concerns about the fact that Sheehan is a highly partisan speaker being heard in connection with a resolution that passed two weeks ago.

Plus, there's this whole Senate-House rivalry. The Senate has cushier chairs, roomier rooms, and a penchant for turning down Statehouse expansion proposals. There was some talk of stuffing the senators into a small, oxygen-deprived room, but finally the committee relented by a 4-2 vote.

"Even though they're senators," House Speaker Gaye Symington said.

- Terri Hallenbeck

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