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vt.Buzz ~ a political blog

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



Skip this candidate

Political-phile that you are, if you heard the news that Skip Vallee, avid Vermont Republican, was coming home from his ambassadorship in Slovakia, you might begin to wonder if Vallee has any interest in running for political office once he gets back on terra-america.

There are, after all, some vacancies in the Republican slate. Say, for Congress. Maybe for other offices, depending on the plans of certain other people.

You would be wrong.

After 2 1/2 years living in the Little White House on the hill overlooking Bratislava, Vallee is coming home next week, but he'll be returning to the business world not the political arena, he told me today. "I will not be running for anything," he said.

That doesn't mean he won't be paying attention to politics. "I'll try to be helpful to my friend, Governor Douglas," he said.

- Terri Hallenbeck


Fun with snowmen

The other night at the Republican presidential debate, Howard Dean asked a question. Something like why would Americans vote for any Republican when they so clearly want change. He then gestured to his left and said, "We'd like to know" as the camera showed his little buddy, a snowman.

It looks at first blush like Dean was having another one of those regrettable moments. But what Dean was referring to were comments from Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney saying he didn't want to take part in a debate that included questions from snowmen, such as those asked at a Democratic debate with questions from YouTube users.

From the New York Times' Adam Nagourney in July:
"Mr. Romney described some of the YouTube questions as demeaning, singling out a
question on global warming from a snowman. For now, the Republican field seems
content to stay on the traditional road. They are debating Sunday morning on
national television (“This Week with George Stephanopoulos” on ABC News) from
Iowa. You can be sure there will be no snowmen asking questions."

Well, Dean was apparently speaking on the snowman's behalf. See the YouTube video here.

- Terri Hallenbeck


Montpelier high school scores

The 2008 ranking of America's best high schools according to U.S. News & World Report is just out and Montpelier High School ranked No. 5!!!!! This is in a field of 18,790 schools in 40 states.

Gold awards went to the top 100 schools. The next 405 earned silver awards. The next 1,086 were recognized with bronze awards. Five Vermont schools received bronze awards: Arlington Memorial, Danville School, Hazen Union, Randolph Union and Stowe Middle/High School.

Note that all the recognized schools are small.

According to an explanation of the ranking formula included with the report, the methodology was developed by School Evaluation Servcies, an education data research business operated by Standard & Poor's. The principle guiding the evaluation was that a great high school must serve all its students well.

First the evaluators looked at reading and math test results for all students, factored in the percentage of economically disadvantaged students enrolled and then look for schools that were performing better than their statistical expectations.

Then the evaluators compared math and reading proficiency rates among disadvantaged students to see which schools where performing better than the state average.

Finally, schools that made it over these two hurdles were judged nationally on college-readiness performance. "This third step measured which school produced the best college-level achievement for the highest percentage of their students.

It might be interesting to see the raw data on all Vermont schools. As the debate continues over how to slow the growth of school spending, do these results contribute to the discussion? What is the message they send you?

Go here to check out the ranking.

-- Nancy Remsen



Need more news?

New junkies across the state might want to clear their plate for 10 p.m. Monday.

That's when WFFF, Fox 44, will broadcast its brand-spanking-new, 30-minute news broadcast from its brand-spanking-new studio in Colchester.

"We realize that we're going to have to be different from other local news," said WFFF's VP/GM Bill Sally. "We're going to have to give viewers a reason to tune in. That's what we'll be aiming for."

The printed version of the Free Press will have more on this in Saturday's edition, but we can confirm the following:
* Fox 44 has hired 22 people and designed a state-of-the-art 1,200 square foot studio. The news crew has been practice broadcasting most of the fall, and has been reporting stories for months now. Anybody who's been to a news conference around these parts has likely seen the Fox crew at work.
* Greg Navarro, who worked for New England Cable News, will be one anchor. Lauren Maloney, a Lyndon State grad, will be the other.
* The 10 p.m. news will be broadcast seven nights a week.
* It'll be the first all high def news broadcast in the market.
* WFFF's Web site won't be spiffy and newsy like that of WCAX or WPTZ for a couple of months, but Sally said the Web site will be relaunched sometime early in 2008.

Should the CBS and NBC stations in the market be worried? Fox affiliates across the country seem to be having good success with 10 p.m. broadcasts, and with the strength of programs like "American Idol" and "24" Fox certainly has eyeballs to appeal to.

"WCAX and WPTZ are well established in this market and do a very, very credible job reporting the news," said Sally. "They've set a standard we'll have to rise to."

Are you going to watch?

--- Matt Crawford contributed this report



Climate grades

The New England and Eastern Canada 2007 Report Card on Climate Change Action came out Wednesday, noting that the states and provinces are not on target to meet the goals they agreed to in 2001 to reduce greenhouse gas emissions to 1990 levels by 2010.

The report hails Vermont's energy-efficiency program, then slams Gov. Jim Douglas for not going along with expansion of it. This should be no surprise to anyone with a pulse in Vermont. The Vermont section of the report was compiled by the Vermont Public Interest Research Group, nemesis numero uno to Douglas on this issue. Or is it vice-versa?

The report doesn't do much other hailing. It's fairly critical of everybody's efforts, but among other items it highlighted as good:
- Prince Edward Island's achievement of 15 percent of its electricity from wind and biomass, which was three years ahead of schedule.
- Quebec's carbon tax, generating $200 million a year, to fund greenhouse gas emission reduction efforts, much of it public transportation.
- Connecticut's exemption from sales tax of vehicles that achieve 40 mpg or more.
- Connecticut and Rhode Island's building codes, though the report says no state or province has rules that are stringent enough.

As for Vermont's grades, the state received an F for pollution reduction, as did Maine, New Hampshire, Rhode Island, Nova Scotia and New Brunswick.

Vermont's emissions increased from 5 million metric tons carbon equivalent in 1990 to 6 in 2002 and 7 in 2004, the report said.

Vermont received a "C" on climate change policy. The highest grade went to Quebec, a B+.

The report also says Vermont needs "compact transit oriented development" and a strict "fix-it-first" transportation policy. It doesn't mention that the Douglas administration has adopted a fix-it-first policy for roads and bridges.

Transportation is one area where the report card gives Vermont a low grade - a D+, and no state or province is doing enough to reduce this largest and fastest-rising sector.

- Terri Hallenbeck



Not for all the toys in China

Rep. Peter Welch knows a hot issue when he sees one. It's Christmastime and just about all the toys in China are tainted.

Welch followed the suit of his congressional leaders in calling for the resignation of the head of the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission and for better oversight of imported toys.

Indeed, for parents out there, navigating the minefield of toy recalls has got to be a full-time job. Send in your Big Birds, your Doras and Diegos, your Polly Pockets, for they filled with either lead or tiny, swallowable magnets.

Of course, it's not just toys that are the trouble. Have you taken a gander at the items recalled from China this year? Tires, toothpaste, pet food, toys, jewelry.

Are we all headed for trouble? Are you all looking more closely at labels before you buy? Any other ideas about how to stop the bleeding?

- Terri Hallenbeck




Before he'd had his turkey dinner and a healthy dose of tryptophan to calm him down, gubernatorial spokesman Jason Gibbs was feeling a little defensive Wednesday about the governor's global warming announcement of the day before.

Jason sent an e-mail that's much too long for me to share in its entirety. I don't want to give you all eye strain. But here are some excerpts:

"I had to get this off my chest…

"It’s clear from the coverage that the central complaint of the Governor’s critics is that "it doesn't do enough".

"Unfortunately, they had their talking points written before taking the time to evaluating the next steps and the vision the Governor presented yesterday. If these critics had taken just a few minutes to think about what the Governor has proposed—rather than going immediately for the shallow, political rhetoric—they would have realized that he has outlined the framework for a long term, sustainable, self-perpetuating funding mechanism to fund and implement almost everything they outlined in the GCCC Plenary Group report. (Which incidentally carries a $5.2 BILLION price tag—hardly a realistic target without a major, sustainable revenue stream.)


"Because we already lead the nation in this environmental policy area—and others—by a significant margin, the current recommendations from the plenary group would cost hundreds of millions of dollars (in total, they could cost $5.2 billion) to have only an incremental effect in our ongoing efforts and accomplishments. What the Governor has noted is that we would never be able to implement any of these, much less most of them, without a real and sustainable funding mechanism—these things ain’t free or inexpensive.


"That is why leveraging our environmental assets into carbon offsets credits that can be sold, and using that money (and we’re talking about millions of dollars here) to fund the recommendations, and other climate change initiatives, is the way to go. It will be a very significant boost to our efforts to reduce GHG. At the same time, if we do this right, we can create a new economic environment by bringing a substantial portion of the emerging, multi-billion dollar carbon credit industry to Vermont—just like we did with captives. This is why we need UVM and other partners in order to achieve this endeavor.


"But for some, no matter what the Governor does it will never be enough. The more he does, and he has spent millions of dollars on environmental efforts and climate change, the more VPIRG, VNRC, (et. al.) clamor for spending millions more. Millions, by the way, that has competing interests, such as vulnerable Vermonters, health care, housing, economic development and education.

"Others say he has done far too much. In my view, that’s an indication that what he is doing is just right.

"The Governor’s vision is comprehensive and well thought out.


"Best Jason"

Couple things to note:

Jason puts a million-dollar price tag on the carbon offsets, but the governor at his Tuesday announcement said he didn't know how much it might bring in, that the idea was brand new. This is the same governor who ripped the Legislature for proposing what he called an ill-defined all-fuels utility.

The governor was responding to the Governor's Commission on Climate Change but at his press conference discounted the value of reaching the goals he had set for the commission and discounted most of what the group recommended. Then why did he appoint the commission?

- Terri Hallenbeck



Talking turkey

So here's my deep question for all you political junkies who check in with this blog -- do you talk about politics with family over the turkey and mashed potatoes and gravy?

Will you talk state politics or presidential politics?

Are your family of friends of one mind on political issues or polar opposites?

By the time the pumpkin pie is served, have you reached consensus or ceased speaking to each other?

I just wonder if political debate takes place at dinner tables anymore, or only out here on the Web. I know growing up that my grandmother (of one political persuasion) and my father (of another) had some fascinating exchanges, all while remaining great friends.

Happy Thanksgiving to you. We'll be back in business Friday.

--Nancy Remsen



Surge protector

Interesting little exchange Monday when, at the very end of a press conference at Sen. Bernie Sanders' offices in Burlington, yours truly asked if the senator and Adjutant General Michael Dubie thought the "surge" was working in Iraq.

"I think it is," responded Dubie quickly, saying that his estimation, the president's decision to temporarily increase troop strength in Iraq has worked to move Iraq toward a more stable situation.

Sanders, who had invited Dubie and Vermont National Guard chaplain Jim McIntyre in to discuss the $3M grant he'd help get to treat returning combat soldiers suffering from the mental wounds of war, begged to disagree.

Sanders acknowledged that the rate of casualties in the war zone was down, and so was the number of violent incidents. But then he said that if the goal of the surge was to bring political stability to Iraq that "does not seem to be happening."

He went on to note that the situation in Afghanistan is not good and expressed worries about Pakistan. Of course, neither of those places were part of the surge mission. Sanders said he remains a staunch opponent of the war and wants to see the troops come home as soon as possible.

So is the surge working or not? Your turn.

-- Sam Hemingway

PS: Dubie also said a major deployment of Vermont National Guard soldiers back to Iraq is inevitable, although he said later it wouldn't be in 2008.



The book on you

At the Democratic state committee meeting Saturday, those assembled watched part of a video (they skipped the part with former Gov. Howard Dean talking, figuring they've heard him before) on grassroots politics. It featured some interesting tidbits. To wit:

It's harder to reach potential voters by traditional means. No longer is TV the great hope for reaching voters, as the average American has 155 channels (that struck me as high, given that there are actual Americans who get no channels, but that's what the Democratic dude said) and that DVR machines allow a good many people to avoid commercials. Radio listening, too, is in decline and phones have changed significantly. First, people have caller ID and second, a growing number of people rely solely on cell phones, which are not conveniently listed in the phone book.

As for mail, well, that brings in one vote for every 400 mailings. Personal phone calls bring in one vote for every 460 calls.

The most efficient method of reaching a voter? The personal visit. That brings in one vote for every 14 visits. It's something, the Dems were told, that the Republicans have used successfully since 2001.

Which means the Dems this year will focus on personal greetings. Party members will reach out to voters in their neighborhoods/towns/regions, make the case for Democratic candidates and keep going back to those people until Election Day. Each activist will be asked to adopt 25 people and to recruit two new activists who will do the same.

They'll take the information they glean from those voters (likely to support our candidate, hell-bent against our candidate, worried about X issue, etc.) and put it into the party's voter file. That will help the party better focus its efforts - not bothering perhaps to call a solid Democratic voter or a solid Republican.

It struck me as I listened to the video that this means Democrats will be fanning out into Vermont neighborhoods over the next year, pumping their neighbors for information about their political views, writing them down and recording them back at headquarters, keeping a sort of book on every Vermont voter they possibly can. Eerie?

This is not new - the parties have been keeping voter files for years - but it is a pumped up version. And, as the guy on the video indicated, Republicans have been beating them at it, so it's not just one party keeping the book on you.

Seems to me, the party activists who are going to be doing this work might not be the most popular people in their neighborhood before the election is over.

- Terri Hallenbeck



An interesting ranking

A Washington D.C. watchdog group -- Good Jobs First -- put out a report late this week that ranked states' use of online disclosure of corporate tax breaks and subsidies, procurement contracts and lobbying information. I know there are lots of rankings, but this one is interesting.

Vermont placed 18th. That might sound acceptable, but this organization using one tough scoring system. No grades based on a bell curve here. States scored points for meeting specific standards. As a result, Vermont's grade was a D+. Connecticut ranked first, but received only a B grade.

Here's the scores for Vermont's neighbors. New York ranked fourth with a B- grade. Maine came in 16th with a C-. Massachusetts was 22nd with a D. And New Hampshire ranked 47th with an F.

There's a page in the study that details Vermont's scores. Under the subsidy section, Vermont got a D-. The state also received a D- for the kind of lobbying information that's online. Here's what the report said lobbying.

Vermont provides online access to lobby disclosure information via an easy-to-use database .... but there's no full list of lobbyists or principle organizations, so the user must know a name to search. Financial information is very general and is often missing from lobbyist profiles, and there is no online issue disclosure.

Luckily, the information Vermont makes available online about procurement contracts pulled up the state's overall score. In that area, the state received a B. You ought to check it out. The state provides a lot of information at this site.

To review the entire study, click here: Good Jobs First.

--Nancy Remsen


We're so vain

This might put us back in the random category, but you're just going to have to deal with that.

I saw a survey recently that had Vermont ranked 10th among states for percent of vehicles with vanity license plates. The idea was that we were the 10th most vain state.

Just by pure observation, I had sensed that Vermont has more than than the usual share of motorists using their plates as a personal billboard. I had always assumed that must mean Vermont charges less than other states for the right of vanity.

Turns out that isn't really true. Vermonters pay $60 annual registration fee plus $35 for the vanity plate.

Texas, according to this American Association of Motor Vehicle Administrators survey, had the lowest percentage of vanity plates. I would not necessarily characterize Texas as a particularly unvain state or lacking in people who've got something to say (just based on my relatives who live there). Yet a lower percentage of Texans drive around with clever little messages on their license plates than anywhere else in the country. It costs only $3.80 a year more to get a vanity plate in Texas than it does in Vermont.

Tennessee comes in the second-least vain state, and yet the state charges $38.50 a year less than Vermont for them. Indiana is next and charges $47 less.

OK, so Vermonters who want to say something on their tags are a highly motivated crowd. Hmm. Maybe they'd be willing to pay more - a sort of voluntary tax. After all, what is the risk? That fewer people get vanity plates? And the downside of that? Just a random thought.

- Terri Hallenbeck



Less random, more filling

Special thanks to the anonymous who noted on the last posting, "This is kind of random." Well yeah, that is pretty much what blogging is, sort of random.

Pardonez-moi for the digression into random matter. On to matters less "random."

Twelve Democratic and one Progressive members of the Legislature have written to Gov. Jim Douglas and Attorney General Bill Sorrell seeking a reversal on the governor's call for marijuana busts from state law enforcement agencies in Windsor County to be handled by the AG's office. This all came as a result of State's Attorney Bobby Sand's decision to allow a Windsor County lawyer busted with 2.5 pounds of pot to go through court diversion. (Signers of letters are: Sens. Campbell and McCormack, Reps. Cheney, Emmons, Martin, Mitchell, Pellett, Sweaney, Clarkson, Haas, Masland, Ojibway, Shand).

The legislators are arguing that Douglas is interfering with local government. "The voters of Windsor County have the right to have our local elections respected," the letter to Douglas says.

They explicitly say, "We are not addressing suggested reforms to Vermont's drug laws." But that is the backdrop of this issue. Is marijuana a drug that Vermont considers a serious infraction or not?

In the letter to Sorrell, legislators get at that issue:

"Finally, we are dismayed by the governor's apparent lack of a sense of
proportion. Vermont has recently experienced its worst week of
violent crime in our history. Our larger towns are beset by gang
activity, the effects of which are spreading to our rural communities. Our
correctional facilities are overcrowded and understaffed. It is preposterous
that the governor would choose to focus, not on these problems, but on the
routine decision to send a nonviolent first-time offender to Court Diversion. We
urge you to distance yourself from so irresponsible and distorted a

Yesterday, the Supreme Court justices came before the Legislature's Joint Fiscal Committee to talk about their strained financial situation, largely due to underfunding of employee pay across state government. Chief Justice Paul Reiber told legislators that the state is underfunding the court system it has chosen to have. The discussion evolved into one about the notion of taking a look at the finances of the overall justice system - cops, courts, prosecutors, defenders, prisons, probation - and how the interact.

In that realm, is it worth considering downgrading certain crimes because the state simply can't afford to prosecute them? Or are Democrats setting themselves up for another smackdown on this one? How easy will it be for Republicans to suggest Democrats are getting soft on crime?

- Terri Hallenbeck


Piece of the puzzle

In Friday's New York Times crossword puzzle, #14 across was about none other than Vermont's junior senator. "Vermont senator Sanders," the clue reads. There are six space for the answer.

If you're sitting in Toledo doing the crossword, this one's probably harder than #60 across: "Engine manufacturer Briggs & _____." In this case, the puzzler has to know not only who Vermont's senator Sanders is, but that he goes by Bernie rather than Bernard.

- Terri Hallenbeck



Chess match

I’m wondering what y’all make of Anthony Pollina’s strategy.

First, there’s his Saturday non-announcement. Before Saturday, he was considering running for governor. Someday down the line he might announce he’s running for governor. Saturday, apparently, he was apparently doing something between those two steps. I told him I hadn’t been aware there was a step between those other two. He said he seems to have invented one.

That interim step may have helped rev up the Prog troops and it may have put the Dems more on the spot in deciding whether Pollina could be the coalition candidate, but does it also serve to merely confuse the average Joe Six-Pack? Is Joe sitting home on his couch thinking this Pollina guy can’t seem to decide whether he’s running or not?

Then, Pollina told me yesterday that John Campbell, one of the Democrats consider a possible candidate for governor, won't cut it for Progs. As far as the Progs are concerned, Campbell is too much of a legislative insider and a successful candidate ought to be someone who can come at the issues another way, he said. Read: Pollina.

How’s that sit with Dems? Are they still in a position, as the larger party, to call the shots? If so, how do they manage to regain the upper hand?

- Terri Hallenbeck



Pollina tosses his hat

As you may have read on an inside page of the Free Press Sunday, Anthony Pollina told members of the Vermont Progressive Party that he would be a candidate for governor in 2008.

I've already seen some commentary that suggests Republican Gov. Jim Douglas won't have any trouble being re-elected because Pollina and whichever Democrat runs will split the vote on their end of the political spectrum.

We'll be adding to this discussion, but let the chat begin on the obvious first question -- whether Douglas and his strategists are breathing easy today? And are Democrats with packing up their gubernatorial political ambitions for 2010?

-- Nancy Remsen



Governor to governor

Gov. Jim Douglas appealed to President George Bush today (Friday) to let California have its waiver for tougher vehicular emission standards and let other states enact those tougher standards, too, if they so choose, as allowed under the federal Clean Air Act.

In his letter, Douglas reminds Bush of his political roots -- or at least one segment of his roots -- as a former governor. I'm paraphrasing, but Douglas basically says remember when you wanted flexibility and didn't want someone in Washington telling you what to do?

I wondered if Bush looked at letters like this and if he replies. Jason Gibbs, Douglas spokesman, said, "We usually get an acknowledgement" from White House staff.

The tone of the letter, which is copied below, is understated disappointment. Why not use some tougher language? Gibbs said, "It is hoped that by writing out of respect, the president will intervene." Douglas wants Bush to call off the U.S. Department of Transportation, which has been pressing the Environmental Protection Agency to deny California its waiver.

So which will get the desired response from the federal government, this letter (which you can check out below) or the lawsuit California filed and Vermont has joined?

Dear Mr. President:

I'm writing to urge you to support the states that are ready to enforce their own
tougher regulations on emissions from cars, trucks and sport utility vehicles by directing
the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to grant California's request for a waiver
under the Clean Air Act.

I would also like to take this opportunity to express my disappointment that
members of your administration have lobbied Congress, and the EPA, in an effort to
undermine the ability of states to adopt their own emissions standards. I know that you,
as a former governor, appreciate the need for federal flexibility and it is my hope you will
support the latitude required to implement these responsible and innovative state policies
and communicate this support to your administration.

As you know, under the federal Clean Air Act, California is the only state
permitted to develop and adopt motor vehicle emission standards provided that EPA
grants California a "waiver." Congress gave California this special status in 1967
because of their pioneering efforts to address air pollution from motor vehicles. The
Clean Air Act also provides other states with the option of adopting California's emission
standards, but the standards are not enforceable until EPA grants California's request for
a WaIver.

A federal district court has upheld Vermont's regulations that adopt California's
greenhouse gas emission standards for new motor vehicles and rejected claims by the
automobile industry that the regulations were unlawful. The court concluded: "In light of
public statements of industry representatives, history of compliance with previous
technical challenges, and the state of the record, the Court remains unconvinced
automakers cannot meet the challenges of Vermont and California's [greenhouse gas]

This decision is a victory for the citizens of California, Vermont and the other
states that have adopted these emissions standards. Moreover, the decision provides
persuasive legal authority for additional states to move forward with adopting these
standards and deflates threats of litigation made by the auto industry.

Our greenhouse gas emission standards are divided into 2 sets - one set for
passenger cars and smaller light duty trucks, and another for heavier light duty trucks and
medium duty passenger vehicles - that will be phased in on a graduated basis between
model years 2009 and 2016. Automobile manufacturers may use multiple approaches to
meet the standards, including using alternative fuels, taking advantage of air conditioning
credits, and improving engine and powertrain efficiency.

In Vermont alone the standards are expected to reduce greenhouse gas emissions
frommotorvehiclesby approximately30%- or morethan2,600tonsper day.
Moreover, the standards will also reduce emissions of other air pollutants such as
benzene, non-methane organic gases, oxides of nitrogen, and carbon monoxide.

The court's decision in Vermont has cleared the way for EPA to grant a waiver
for California's greenhouse gas emission standards. The court's finding that the evidence
"supports the conclusion that regulation of greenhouse gases emitted from vehicles has a
place in the broader struggle to address global warming" disposes of any argument that
California does not need the standards to meet compelling and extraordinary conditions.

Perhaps most notably, the court's conclusion that the automakers "failed to carry
their burden to demonstrate that the regulation is not technologically feasible or
economically practicable" illustrates that the California standards are indeed consistent
with the relevant section of the Clean Air Act. I again urge you to direct the EPA to grant
the waiver without any further delay.

-- Nancy Remsen



Lofin' over to N.H.

Bill Lofy, the behind-the-scenes communications consultant to House Speaker Gaye Symington and Senate President Pro Tempore Peter Shumlin, will be leaving Vermont for the 2008 election season to work on the New Hampshire Democratic campaign for U.S. Senate.

Lofy, who used to work for the late Minnesota Sen. Paul Wellstone, sees it as going back to his roots to work on a senatorial race. His mission is to see to the unseating of Republican Sen. John Sununu. Former Gov. Jeanne Shaheen is running against Sununu, a rematch of the 2002 race that will be a hot one with lots of money and lots of fire.

Lofy ran the Democratic coordinated campaign here in Vermont last election, the one where they were more coordinated than usual. He is a political junkie and when you're that kind of person, you seize the job that makes your blood flow. Lofy was going to work for Symington and Shumlin, paid by their PACS, again next legislative session until this job found him.

He said he'll be back to Vermont when the campaign is over, though. His wife is on maternity leave from her teaching job here and will resume teaching next fall.

So where does that leave Symington and Shumlin? They'll have one less experienced political person to bounce strategy off and coordinate the Democratic caucus. But publicly, the two leaders will be their same selves. Lofy may have been their adviser, but when Symington speaks, it's Symington's voice and ultimately her style that she speaks with. Same with Shumlin.

The two, in some ways, couldn't be more different. Symington ponders, Shumlin shoots from the hip. How Lofy managed to advise both of them is a mystery to me.

One of these days over in the New Hampshire, Lofy's going to run into another political junkie with Vermont in his blood. Politically, Lofy and Jim Barnett, who's running John McCain's presidential campaign there, couldn't be much more different, but they have the same love of the game.

- Terri Hallenbeck



The school dance

It's about as awkward as a seventh-grade school dance, the issue of school mergers is. Nobody wants to be the one to take this one out on the dance floor.

Yesterday, Essex, Essex Junction and Westford rejected a merger. So did Whiting and Sudbury.

This, of course, comes at a time when there is hue and cry over school spending and subsequent property taxes. One of the solutions considered last legislative session: consolidate some of Vermont 88 gazillion school districts. Legislators pondered the issue right up until the public told them not us, not here. Education Commissioner Richard Cate went out on the road to take the pulse of Vermont on the issue and heard from school board members everywhere - not us, not here.

Yesterday, more towns added to the cry of not us, not here.

Today at the governor's press conference, which Cate happened to be attending on another matter, he and Gov. Jim Douglas danced the awkward shuffle.

Cate says: If the state wants fewer schools it's going to take some sort of state-driven solution, as in a mandate from Montpelier, but whether that's what the "state" wants he leaves up to others.

Douglas says: He'll wait to hear what Cate's report on his tour of the state says. Can he picture forcing communities to consolidate their schools? "I think we ought to withhold judgment," he said. "It's a touchy subject to say the least."

A touchy subject no one is likely to want to be the first to touch.

- Terri Hallenbeck


A new leaf?

As Secretary of Administration Michael Smith outlined a "concept" that the Douglas administration floated Tuesday -- to lease the state lottery -- he said his willingness to share this idea with legislators early represented a change in practice. "This is the new and open Mike Smith," he joked, and I laughed heartily. He said Sen. Susan Bartlett, D-Lamoille had the same reaction when he gave her the same line.

Has there been a change of tone and strategy from the fifth floor this past week?

Friday, the Douglas administration set out to tighten the state personnel spending belt a notch by directing managers across state government to reduce staff as vacancies develop. The target is 150 fewer jobs by June and another 250 cuts by July 2008. The new and open Michael Smith made sure Democratic legislative leaders knew the score shortly after state employees found out.

Monday, when Douglas spokesman Jason Gibbs was asked for comment about the decision of the House Ways and Means Committee to continue to explore an income tax for education, he noted that legislators and the governor share a goal of reducing the property tax burden on Vermonters. Where was the usual attack on the stupidity of lawmakers to even talk about such a tax switch? Absent.

Tuesday, Smith floats the lottery leasing scheme, calling lottery officials (obviously necessary) and legislative leaders. He noted in a telephone interview that he could have waited, investigated the idea for a few more weeks and had Gov. Jim Douglas spring the idea in his state of the state or budget addresses. That's when he said, "This is the new and open Mike Smith."

Smith explained that failing to include lawmakers in the discussion early had backfired in Illinois. Officials there have shared this lesson with Smith, he said.

So does a "new openness" signal a greater willingness to look for compromises during the upcoming session? It will be an election year and all sides have to worry about image. We'll see.

-- Nancy Remsen



Impeachment meltdown

You wanted a vote on impeaching Vice President Dick Cheney? (Some of you out there did, anyway) You got it. Today in the U.S. House, courtesy of the Republicans. I'm not making this up.

It went like this, according to the AP:

House Democrats on Tuesday narrowly managed to avert a bruising debate on a
proposal to impeach Dick Cheney after Republicans, in a surprise maneuver, voted
in favor of taking up the measure.

Republicans, changing course midway through a vote, tried to force
Democrats into a debate on the resolution sponsored by longshot presidential
candidate Dennis Kucinich. The anti-war Ohio Democrat, in his resolution,
accused Cheney of purposely leading the country into war against Iraq and
manipulating intelligence about Iraq’s ties with al-Qaida.

“We’re going to help them out, to explain themselves,” said Rep. Pete
Sessions, R-Texas. “We’re going to give them their day in court.”

Democrats countered by offering a motion to refer the proposal to the House
Judiciary Committee for further study, effectively preventing a debate on the
House floor. That motion passed by a largely party-line vote of 218-194.

Rep. Peter Welch, D-Vt., voted with his party to refer the resolution to committee.

The White House used the same line Gov. Jim Douglas used about Democrats in Montpelier, saying that Democrats were shirking responsibilities on issues such as children's health insurance “and yet they find time to waste an afternoon on an impeachment vote against the vice president. ... This is why Americans shake their head in wonder about the priorities of this Congress.”

Of course, it would lasted only a short while in the House if the Republicans hadn't weighed in.

- Terri Hallenbeck


Terms of endearment

A majority of Vermonters want four-year terms for governor instead of the current two years, according to a poll the Snelling Center for Government commissioned and released today.

Results indicate that 58 percent of the 400 Vermonters polled would go for the four-year term for governor. That's up from 53 percent a year ago.

When it came to the Legislature, only 49 percent said they'd support a four-year term for senators and 43 percent for representatives.

Respondents were pretty clear (70 percent) that they'd like to make the choice separately for each office rather than in lump sum, if they were going to be making a choice. Changing the terms would require a constitutional amendment, a long process. If it's going to happen any time in the near future it has to pass the Legislature in 2008. It would have to pass the Senate by a two-thirds majority and the House by a majority, then pass a majority in both chambers again under a newly elected Legislature in 2009 before going to a public vote.

The poll asked respondents why they'd support the longer terms. The primary reason was that it would bring fewer election cycles and less politics. The second most common reason was it would allow more time to solve complex issues.

Those who opposed longer terms said it would reduce accountability.

What sort of person was most apt to support longer terms? Those in the 50-59 age group who describe themselves as independents and were either fairly poor (income of $25,000-$35,000) or wealthy (income over $100,000). It didn't matter what county they came from. They were more apt to be male and have a college degree.

Those less apt to support longer terms were Progressives and young people ages 18-29.

Perhaps what this means is we become more tired of elections as we get older.

- Terri Hallenbeck



Field trip

Our colleague over at the Vermont Field Journal blog, Matt Crawford, is asking a question that might tickle the fancy of some of you vt.Buzz devotees.

He has a posting that asks the question, "Has Jim Douglas been a boon for the sporting community (in your view)? Why or why not?" (It's the third post from the top at the moment).

Wander over there, take a look, and weigh in if you feel your waders are tall enough. Just click on the words Vermont Field Journal and you will be transported there.

- Terri Hallenbeck


Election Day thoughts

Most of us here in Vermont will pass Election Day tomorrow without any voting to think about. (Those of you in the Essex, Essex Junction, Westford school district are among the exceptions).

The Snelling Center for Government is offering the hard-core politicos a chance to do something Election Day-like anyway. The center will release results Tuesday night of a poll that looks at whether Vermonters are inclined to increase term lengths for Governor, other constitutional offices and the Legislature.

The poll results come in conjunction with a debate on the subject with
former Gov. Madeleine Kunin and UVM Professor Frank Bryan. That's at 7 p.m. in the Montpelier Room of the Capitol Plaza Hotel in Montpelier, with a response panel including Martha Abbott, co-chair of the Vermont Progressive Party, Ian Carleton, chair of the Vermont Democratic Party and Rob Roper, chair of the Vermont Republican Party.

The Snelling Center has taken on this issue of whether the state should pass a constitutional amendment changing the term limits. Vermont is one of only two states that still has the two year governor's term.

Whether this issue is going anywhere in the Legislature, I have my doubts. There is this irreconcilable stumbling block: Is the Legislature willing to expand the governor's term without also expanding legislators' terms? Would the House stand by while the Senate's terms were increased? Would the public stand by while any of them are increased?

Would any term increases give us better government, which after all should be the only barometer? There are arguments that it would - a four-year governor might have more time to sink his/her teeth into planning? Might be less inclined to attend every ribbon cutting out there. And of course there are arguments against it - Vermonters wouldn't have their say every two years. If we are the sort that is disinclined to vote out incumbents, would a four-year term solidify incumbency even more?

All those questions and more.

- Terri Hallenbeck



Leahy says no to Mukasey

Sen. Patrick Leahy stiffed the Washington press corps by coming home and having his press conference on the nomination of Judge Michael Mukasey as attorney general here in Vermont. Nothing personal, he said, he just had planned a long weekend at home.

So it was that Leahy announced this afternoon in his Burlington office that he would not be supporting Mukasey because the retired judge had not come out and explicitly said waterboarding is illegal under any circumstances.

How many of you out there knew what waterboarding was before this all hit the waves? Not wakeboarding, not waterskiing, though sometimes when you wipe out while waterskiing you do get more water up your nose than you'd like.

It'll drive you nuts, though, as you read the national stories about this nomination many of them assume you know what waterboarding is. This is an ABC News explanation:

The prisoner is bound to an inclined board, feet raised and head slightly
below the feet. Cellophane is wrapped over the prisoner's face and water is
poured over him. Unavoidably, the gag reflex kicks in and a terrifying fear of
drowning leads to almost instant pleas to bring the treatment to a halt.

"The person believes they are being killed, and as such, it really amounts
to a mock execution, which is illegal under international law," said John Sifton
of Human Rights Watch.

Mukasey, in his response to Leahy's questions, called the practice repugnant, said it was against U.S. military rules but when it came to the CIA, he said didn't have access to classified details of the agency's interrogation program.

As a result, Leahy's not voting for him next Tuesday when the committee votes. Whether the committee goes as the chairman goes remains to be seen.

- Terri Hallenbeck



There's no Sleeper candidate

You know you live in a small state with a small pool of possibilities when a guy announces he's retiring as Public Safety commissioner and he immediately becomes a rumored candidate for some political office or other.

Welcome to Kerry Sleeper's world.

Well, move on to the next name, because Sleeper tells me unequivocally that he's not going into politics. "No, I am not running for any political office."

Not only that. If you were wondering, as some have, whose camp he'd be in - he says neither, that he's not now nor has he at any time been affiliated with a political party. "I am a fiercely independent Vermonter."

What Sleeper is looking at once he leaves state government at the end of the year is possibly working in D.C. as a consultant on the National Information Sharing Strategy - the Justice Department's efforts to provide a means of various law enforcement agencies sharing info that might prevent terrorist attacks and the like.

Anyway, check his name off the list of possible candidates for whatever.

It's a credit to Sleeper that people zoomed in on him as a possible political candidate, but it's also true that people have a tendency to zoom in pretty readily in their thirst to fuel political speculation. It's also a credit to Sleeper that his secretary at Public Safety, when I told her I was calling about "his future," suggested that I try to get him to stay on as commissioner. He wasn't biting on that either.

- Terri Hallenbeck

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