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vt.Buzz ~ a political blog

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



Raising the minimum

The minimum wage goes up tomorrow, to $8.06 an hour.

The wage goes up every year by the consumer price index, or 5 percent, whichever is less. This year that'll be 5 percent.

Whenever this topic comes up, there are those who argue:

- Nobody pays the minimum wage anymore so it doesn't matter what the government sets the minimum wage at.

- On the flipside of that, every time you raise the minimum wage, you kill off a few jobs that employers can no longer afford.

- You can't live on minimum wage, so it should be even higher because everybody deserves a liveable wage.

- On the flipside of that, minimum wage jobs aren't meant to provide a full living. They're meant for teens to earn some bucks, others to supplement their income, so don't deny those people that money by pricing the jobs out of the market.

So I ask you: Are you or is anybody you know making minimum wage? Are they/you trying to make a living with it or a high-schooler trying to save up for a first car? Do you know employers cutting jobs to meet the new wage? Is Vermont doing the right thing by having the fifth highest minimum wage or are we over-extending? Is a 5percent raise at once too much or exactly the right thing in these economic times?

- Terri Hallenbeck


New boss at Corrections

Andy Pallito, who's been acting commissioner of Corrections for a month or so and has been with the department since 2001, had plenty of time to see exactly what he was getting into, but he's taking the job of commissioner anyway.

Being the state's head jailer is a bit of a no-win job. Plenty of things can go wrong with the volatile population at any time and nobody notices when things are going right. Like a hockey goalie or a copy editor.

Pallito, like his predecessor Rob Hofmann, has a management background more than a prison background. Unlike his predecessor, he's kept a low profile.

This is a job of particular prominence because any time something goes wrong (an escape, a prison riot, a probation recommendation that backfires), it's big and dangerous. The state spends quite a wad of money on Corrections and there is tremendous pressure to pull of feats that are in complete conflict with one another: lock away the bad guys, but don't spend much money doing it.

Is this a good appointment?

- Terri Hallenbeck



They're not off to a staggering start

You know how there was talk last week of staggering the start of the legislative session? Well, that was so last week.

Senate President Pro Tempore Peter Shumlin said today they are not going to do that. They'll instead glom themselves onto the congressional delegation and drink every bit of monetary information they can from them, in hopes that it will come in time to make key decisions.

Shumlin said he and Speaker-to-be Shap Smith are committed to operating the Legislature for 16 weeks. So that could mean some sort of hiatus mid-way or near the end to allow budgeting magic to happen without extending the session.

- Terri Hallenbeck


Even Cousin Harold's worried

Hope you all had a nice time off.

How many among you as you gathered for the yuletide were surprised to learn that even Cousin Harold, the successful one, is worried that 2009 will be the year he is laid off? Or that Uncle Reginald, who was going to retire this year, now no longer knows when he is going to retire?

Ah, no time like the holidays to catch up with the family.

Back at home, Tax Commissioner Tom Pelham was catching up with legislative leaders. He has sent them a new letter, a technical addendum, he calls it, with regard to recommended tax rates for 2010.

You might recall that Pelham wrote them a letter Dec. 1 not recommending a tax rate, but recommending flexibility. State law calls for the tax commissioner to issue a recommendation by Dec. 1. Pelham was sued by a few school boards and was due in court today.

Thus the technical addendum, in which he recommends a 2-cent property tax reduction, then just as quickly recommends against it. A 2-cent reduction would actually mean a $31.2 million increase in property taxes, he warns.

- Terri Hallenbeck



Happy holidays

Here's my Christmas present to you: For the rest of the week, we're going to shut down the comment function on the blog and not post anything.

There are plenty of more important things to do the next few days than scan the blogosphere. Spend time with your family. Get outside. Read a book. Volunteer. You know the many options.

And may it not really spew sleet and rain Wednesday as the forecast suggests.

Happy holidays.

- TH



A matter of blogging style

I ran a little impromptu experiment over the weekend. Switched the blog to allow comments for signed-in users only. Which is why none of the comments from the weekend are "anonymous," though neither are any of them fully identified.

We're still working on creating a different system, but in the meantime I just thought I'd have a little holiday fun by trying this.

The change probably cut down on comments, though people may also have been too busy shoveling.

Did any of you anonymous people not post because you didn't want to create a sign-in? Feel free to respond now, the system has been switched back to anonymous.

Did you find this system better, worse or just different?

- Terri Hallenbeck



Here's how the $19.7 million deal came down

Friday morning at the appointed hour for the Joint Fiscal Committee meeting on the package of $19.7 million budget cuts, committee members were jammed in the office of Senate President Pro Tempore Peter Shumlin.

It was clear that the committee wasn't going to rubber stamp the package presented earlier in the week -- not after listening to two afternoons of compelling testimony about the dire affects of some of the cuts.

Shumlin and the presumptive speaker of the House, Rep. Shap Smith, D-Morrisville, talked with Gov. Jim Douglas Thursday about some other options, apparently without securing an agreement. The talks continued Friday.

Mid morning, Secretary of Administration Neale Lunderville and Finance Commissioner Jim Reardon came over from the Pavilion and squeezed into Peter's office. It wasn't too much later, but I wasn't timing, that the pair walked out and left the Statehouse by the side door and headed down Baldwin Street -- the opposite direction from their office.

Around 11 a.m. Smith said there was a deal. It would take another half an hour before a sheet with the details was finalized. Committee members took their seats, prematurely, it turned out, because it took a while for Reardon to appear. He came alone. Lunderville didn't return to the Statehouse Friday.

Reardon wasn't smiling. Lawmakers were. Smith presented the deal, after the committee formally rejected the original package.

Reardon said he had to confer with others in the administration. He needed 15 minutes. Sen. Richard Sears, D-Bennington, said he needed to leave to try to beat the snowstorm. Reardon promised to come back sooner -- but he didn't. He didn't return for another 45 minutes.

Reardon brought a ream of paper -- the administration's version of the deal, the properly worded motion for its adoption and updated pages of the budget document.

The vote was unanimous. What's the deal? Lawmakers made $1.8 million in changes, including a reduction of the pain that the mentally ill and disabled would feel because of cuts to regional human service agencies. They restored half the funding to the micro-business loan and saving account programs that help the poor earn their way out of poverty. They put a change in eligibility for child care subsidies on life support, suggesting it might start in April instead of January. The administration had proposed elimination of the new eligibility standards.

Where did they find the money? One place was Next Generation scholarship -- sacred ground to the governor. They took $250,000 there and an equal amount from one of their favorite programs - the Vermont Housing and Conservation Board.

The Judiciary offered $245,000 -- which hadn't been on the table earlier in the week. That's a far cry from the $2.4 million that the Douglas administration had suggested as a cut target.

Lawmakers took back most of the dollars that had been earmarked for an energy efficiency loan program. Nobody had applied.

So now they begin work on the next round -- $46 million in budget adjustments.

--Nancy Remsen


$19.7 m cuts modified

The Joint Fiscal Committee has voted this morning on $19.7 million cuts, with some last-minute changes to ease the impact on mental health agencies.

The 4 percent cut they were slated to receive would have translated to cutting 8 percent in the half-year that's left in the fiscal year. Instead, they will get a 5 percent half-year cut.

Makes a few other changes too.

- Terri Hallenbeck



Fearful times, indeed

"It's a fearful time to work at UVM," said Lluvia Mulvaney-Stanak, a University of Vermont staff member at a rally Wednesday to protest budget cuts.

I'm wondering where it's not a fearful time to be working? Are there businesses out there that are booming, employees sitting there feeling secure about their futures? What are those businesses?

- Terri Hallenbeck



Latest budget cut ideas


Welcome to the Lake Champlain Boat Casino

The list of other budget cuts that have been floated is up on the state Web site:


Scanning the list I immediately see some items I'm doing at home, even if I haven't thought of it in so many words (I hardly ever use the word procurement when I'm talking about groceries):

- Freeze all procurement if non-essential items.
- Extend all life cycles of durables like fleet vehicles and technology equipment.

Also on the list:
- Asking UVM and other public entities to cap salaries.
- eliminating some or all public information positions (I'm guessing that one came from the leggie, not the administration).
- 10 percent layoffs (that's 800 people).
- Reopen the state employees' contract (that can only be initiated by the leggie)
- Shorter work week or furloughs of state employees
- Review the purpose of all boards and commissions and repeal the obsolete.
- Consolidate state's attorneys
- Eliminate driver's ed
- Reduce income sensitivity level for property taxes
- Eliminate Next Generation scholarships
- Mothball unpopular state parks
- Eliminate the Commerce Agency.
- Sell some small airports
- Drop the front license plate
- Kill Catamount Health or freeze enrollment (this has Shumlin written all over it)
- More electronic monitoring of low-risk offenders instead of prison
- Send more inmates out of state
- Build a prison and take in other state's prisoners
- Tax junk food
- Tax clothing
- Up the cost of speeding tickets
- Boat-based casino on Lake Champlain (yeah, right)

Those are just some of the options. I'm sure you have more and some thoughts about these.

- Terri Hallenbeck


The 2009 session and you

We are running this appeal in the paper, but I thought I'd post it here too. FYI: We don't use your comments unless you include name and contact info.

The 2009 legislative session starts in January and we want your opinion. What do you think Gov. Jim Douglas and the Legislature should do in response to the current economic downturn? Send your responses by Dec. 23 to Terri Hallenbeck at thallenb@bfp.burlingtonfreepress.com with your name, town, occupation and telephone number.

- TH


The rest (areas) of the story

Lots of budget cuts are hard to get your head around. Say, the Department of Environmental Conservation is going to have fewer people. Well, exactly what does that mean to you and me? Even the people who work there are still trying to figure that out. But closing a rest area, we can understand.

We’ve all been to them, grateful for a clean, safe place to stop and do your business. All the better if they have good coffee and a friendly person behind the desk to make small talk with. I availed myself of all those things at the Highgate rest area just last week. Apparently, the friendly person behind the desk is going to lose her job now.

A bunch of out-of-state drivers want us to keep the rest areas open, according to the Associated Press. Easy for them to say, of course, in that they’re not footing the bill. Ah, but one of them even suggested the state ask for a $1 donation at each rest area.

Most of us would be happy to pay a $1 for a clean, safe rest area, but only if we didn’t have to, and then, well, maybe they’d be happy to pay in theory, just not on this particular visit. Next time, maybe.

I like a nice rest area as much as the next guy. You tend to remember states that have good ones (Tennessee) and bad ones (Arkansas). But the truth is we might all be better off if we got off at an exit, bought a cup of coffee and used the facilities at a commercial venture. If we hadn’t used the Highgate rest area, maybe we would have frequented the Swanton Dunkin’ Donuts.

There’s a nice rest area at the Vermont/New York border in Fair Haven that I haven’t stopped at in years because there are also two convenience stores with clean, plentiful restrooms, good coffee and cheap gas practically within spitting distance.

Why shouldn’t we encourage people to get off at Randolph and visit the convenience store or the McDonald’s rather than the taxpayer-funded rest area?

Would we miss out on the tourism angle? All those maps and fliers for B&Bs and Ben & Jerry’s? Why can’t there be some sort of public-private partnership by which the convenience store displays those?

Is it true, as one traveler told the Associated Press, that “Nothing’s worse than seeing somebody on the side of the highway, going to the bathroom"? I pulled a pop quiz on my husband at the breakfast table this morning. Fill in the blank, I said, Nothing's worse than ... ?

He'd just gotten back from visiting his father, who just had quadruple bypass surgery (he's doing well), and his mother, who is sitting home without electricity from last week's ice storm (she's not doing so well). So his first answer was not "seeing somebody on the side of the highway, going to the bathroom."

- Terri Hallenbeck



Where next with the cuts?

OK, so now we know something about the first $20 million of $66 million in state budget cuts. What, then, can we expect the rest to look like?

We know from what Sen. Susan Bartlett has said that the administration has proposed increases in premiums for those on subsidized health-care programs. The Joint Fiscal Committee wanted the full Legislature to be back before deciding that one.

Where else do you think the cuts will be? What do you think they should cut?

On the pr positions, two vacant ones in Human Services and Public Service (Kim O'Leary's and Steve Wark's old jobs) have been cut.

- Terri Hallenbeck



To tell or not to tell

I'm told that some state employees learned the news today that they were on the chopping block while in other agencies those discussions were not had.

Part of the difference appears to be confusion over what's the right way to go. Treasurer Jeb Spaulding told three of his employees that their jobs are on the list to be eliminated.

In other agencies, the thought was that these cuts are definite until the Joint Fiscal Committee says so. Plus there's this whole union process to go through to eliminate a job and bumping of positions that goes on in some cases.

Vermont State Employees Association Executive Director Jes Kraus said he'd prefer that a boss sit down with an employee and tell them the truth in advance of the union process.

- Terri Hallenbeck


What workers were told

Here are two of the memos that went out this morning to state workers. One to the Agency of Natural Resources and the second to Commerce and Community Development.

Commere's in particular was not very enlightening.

First, from ANR Secretary Jonathan Wood:

To: All ANR Staff

From: Jonathan L. Wood, ANR

Subject: Rescission Plan

Today information has been announced that outlines progress on the FY09 budget rescission. The Administration and leadership of the Joint Fiscal Committee have been working to find some $37 million in cuts.

You will see that ANR will be affected in this proposal. At this time, the proposal has not been approved by the full Joint Fiscal Committee and no final agreement has been reached on all of the needed rescissions.

The ANR Management Team worked very hard on our budget rescission exercise. Our goal was to minimize the impacts to ANR staff and programs.

The proposed rescission will include the Reduction in Force (RIF) of a limited number of ANR positions. This was unavoidable given the extent of the rescission.

Because of the provisions of the labor agreement, we will not know the actual impact of this on individual employees. Also, this proposal has not been approved.

I am very aware that this process does not allow for a clear understanding of
individual repercussions. We will do our very best to work through the
process as it develops to provide information to everyone at the Agency.
This process is expected to take several weeks or more.

It is especially difficult to work through this rescission process at this time of
year. Our Human Resources staff is preparing to be of service in any way
it can.

This situation is evolving all across state governments across the country. Here in Vermont, we will strive to implement necessary changes as carefully and thoughtfully as possible.


And from Commerce Deputy Secretary Jim Saudade:

You may have heard that negotiations over the weekend have resulted in some
agreement between the Joint Fiscal Committee and the Administration on about
$20M in budget cuts. These cuts as they affect ACCD are not different from what
was explained to you at our last budget meeting; all cuts were from programmatic
changes and through attrition, not through layoffs. This is the case as of
today. Further reductions in revenues may affect this situation adversely in the
future.As always, we will try to keep everyone informed as best we can.Thank you
for your patience and cooperation,


If you have any of the other memos, we'd love to see them.

- Terri Hallenbeck


The lists: Vermont budget


Not yet

If you're madly clicking on the state's budget rescissions and not getting them, you're not the only one. Apparently, there is a delay in making it happen. The administration says five minutes. Don't know if that's a Seinfeldian Chinese restaurant five minutes, legislative-time five minutes or an actual five minutes.

- TH


From the front lines

What's the word from the front lines of state government today? Can anybody out there tell us what they're being told this morning about cuts in their department?

- Terri Hallenbeck



On the eve of state cuts

We should learn about $20 million or so in state budget cuts Monday morning. Affected state workers are supposed to get the news first thing, then the list goes public on the Web at 10 a.m. You should be able to see it HERE.

This list will not include the sort of deep wounds that leave large numbers of people reeling, according to legislative and administrative negotiators. Those are coming next year.

Even if this isn't the big wallop, there will be layoffs among this group, they say. Not wholesale layoffs, but some number of people will lose their jobs. If the job that's cut happens to be yours, it doesn't matter how many they're talking about, it feels like a wallop.

If the job belongs to the person at the desk next to yours or across the room, it's not a pretty feeling either. I learned a bit about that in recent months and I can tell you that watching layoffs unfold around you is akin to learning someone has died. In effect, something has died - a person's livelihood, their sense of who they are. It's not a small thing.

There are, no doubt, some uneasy state workers tonight. To them, I offer empathy. I've always understood on some level that job layoffs are hard. I have a new understanding for it these days though, and unfortunately, I'm not the only who does.

The administration put out a news release Sunday night saying budget cut negotiations stalled at $19.7 million. When I saw the word "stalled" I thought maybe the cuts weren't going to be announced Monday, but that's not what it meant at all.

To characterize this as a stall is a little odd because both sides were well aware where each other stood on the size of this week's cut.

On Friday, Administration Secretary Neale Lunderville and Sen. Susan Bartlett sat next to each other and described their situations, nodding in affirmation of one another. Lunderville wants the Leggie's Joint Fiscal Committee to do the full $37 million ASAP; the Legislature wants to make non-policy cuts now (about $20 million worth) and wait until the full leggie is back to tackle anything that's a policy decision - i.e. who gets health-care subsidies and who doesn't. Now you can argue that the JFC is taking this policy thing too literally, but to say the talks have stalled suggests there's some surprise screaching halt and that is not the case.

- Terri Hallenbeck



Is it really raining?

As the snow accumulates outside, here's the question for you all: Should the state use the rainy-day fund or not to close the ever-widening budget holes?

Some have suggested if not now, then when; it's raining like never before.

Secretary of Administration Neale Lunderville says no way, it's too hard to tell how long it'll keep raining and how many more cuts are on the horizon. "That's really deferring the tough decisions," he said.

Bill Sorrell, who is now attorney general but used to have Lunderville's job when Howard Dean was governor, agrees. "I think it's too early to go to the Rainy Day fund, personally," he said. "i would be very reluctant or go to it for only a few million dollars."

- Terri Hallenbeck


It's not nice to hate

So I hope we've put the Terri-hates-Green Mountain Daily speculation out of its misery. She does no such thing. As a wise co-worker once told me, it's not nice to hate.

As I told John Odum, I have contempt for drivers who don't signal. I have contempt for people who stampede Wal-Mart workers to death. I have no contempt for anybody trying to initiate a discussion about democracy.

What I did, however, was jump to conclusions about his write-up of the meeting he hosted on the Dem-Prog issue. Perhaps this is a danger with a blog. One sometimes runs the risk of being more flip or reactionary than one would be in other forms. Sometimes flip is fun. Sometimes it misses the mark.

'Nuf said.

- Terri Hallenbeck



Local officials worried about Ed Fund

The Vermont League of Cities and Towns and the Vermont School Boards Association are worried. Why? Because the Education Fund is projected to have some extra money -- as much as $20 million, according to the tax commissioner.

In lean times, funds with extra dollars are prime targets for raids/loans.

On Dec. 1, Tax Commissioner Tom Pelham sent a letter to legislative leaders advising them of the projected revenues in the Education Fund for the 2010 budget year at the current property tax rates. He predicted there could be an operating surplus if the residential rate remained 87 cents per $100 of assessed value and the commercial rate remained at $1.36.

By law (Title 32, Chapter 135, section 5402b) the commissioner also is directed to recommend adjustments to the rates. If there is enough money to fill the reserve fund with dollars left over, the commissioner is directed to recommend a rate reduction. A rate reduction is a way to put the over-collection dollars back in taxpayers pockets in a upcoming year.

Pelham didn't recommend a tax rate reduction in his letter to leaders. Instead he said, "Given the extraordinary fiscal choices before us, a recommendation from me regarding the 2010 tax rate may be extraneous or even harmful to the flexibility you and the governor need to craft an overall fiscal course for the state in these times."

That shows intent to use these extra property tax dollars for some other purpose, accused Steve Jeffrey, executive director of the Vermont League of City and Towns, and John Nelson, executive director of the Vermont School Boards Association. The pair wrote Pelham demanding that he recommend a tax rate reduction --now.

Pelham said his letter is a bureaucratic exercise and said his recommendation on a tax rate is "inconsequential." Lawmakers set the rates and they frequently change them from the numbers tax commissioners propose in December. He disputed the contention he was laying the groundwork for an alternative use for the $20 million surplus. "There is nothing in that letter implying that the money wouldn't be used for property tax reductions."

Still, Secretary of Administration Neale Lunderville confirms that there has been some discussion of redirecting dollars from one of the current funding streams in the Education Fund to the hurting Transportation Fund instead.

That's clear to stir controversy should it be proposed. Folks don't like "raids" on the Education Fund because it puts pressure on the property tax. Others are determined to make the Transportation Fund whole.

Should be a fun debate, don't you think?

Nancy Remsen



Border crossings

I hadn’t been over the border to Canada in a while. I hadn’t been pulled over for a search at the border in I don’t know how long, if ever, though I’ve been asked to pop the trunk.

No longer is it a border patrol employee asking you to pop the trunk open and take a look-see while you sit there. I got a taste of the new-age, behind-steel-doors, strip-your-dignity search last week as my husband and I were on our way back from seeing Neil Young in concert. Yeah, I knew government had been sinking its fingernails into our skin, I long ago learned to roll with taking my shoes off at the airport, but I didn’t know they’d built whole garage structures just to make you feel shut out.

Often when we go to Montreal we take in some concert or another, but usually they’re bands no one’s heard of and somehow that does not trigger suspicion from border agents. When we went to see Franz Ferdinand, perhaps they thought we were having high-level meetings with the late Archduke of Austria, not grooving to a rock band. The average border agent has probably heard of Neil Young, though, and apparently that leads to the conclusion we must be drug users.

So my husband was told to pull off to the right and go inside the little office. We weren’t told that both of us should go inside, or for what purpose. Inside, we were told to take a seat. My husband was asked for the keys to the car. We were given a customs form to fill out where we declared we had bought nothing. Meanwhile, our car had been whisked into a garage, the door closed behind it. We sat and waited as if we were at the auto repair shop waiting for an oil change we didn’t ask for.

There’s nothing like clean living to make you not sweat about what they might or might not find, but I couldn’t help being put off by the fact that they didn’t tell us what was going on and that they simply took command of our car and our belongings and left us waiting at their mercy. It felt a little bit like being in the airport in Algiers.

After about 20 minutes, we were told we were all set. When we reached our destination, we found that stuff we’d had in the back seat was now in the trunk. As it turns out it was not a big deal, but I had a reason for putting the coat I was going to wear in the back seat, where it would be warm when I needed it, and I had a reason for putting the bottle of water in the back seat, where I would be able to reach it if I was thirsty. Perhaps the border agents had reasons for putting those things in the trunk instead, but I’m not privy to them.

I don’t mind being singled out for a search. I’m not one of those people who thinks just because I don’t look like a terrorist or a drug runner doesn’t mean I’m not one. What I think I minded was the degree to which the government disregarded us. The attitude that we didn’t need to know what they’re doing. That it doesn’t matter what they do with our stuff. That they take the car behind closed doors and do whatever they please.

- Terri Hallenbeck


Staggering story from Illinois

From the realm of you-can't-make-this-up:


The Chicago Tribiune

Gov. Rod Blagojevich and his chief of staff, John Harris, were arrested today by
FBI agents for what U.S. Atty. Patrick Fitzgerald called a "staggering" level of
corruption involving pay-to-play politics in Illinois' top office.
Blagojevich is accused of a wide-ranging criminal conspiracy, including alleged attempts by the governor to try to sell or trade the U.S. Senate seat left vacant by
President-elect Barack Obama in exchange for financial benefits for the governor
and his wife. Blagojevich also is accused of obtaining campaign contributions in
exchange for other official actions.
Blagojevich was taken into federal custody at his North Side home this morning--one day shy of his 52nd birthday.
At a news conference late this morning, Fitzgerald said Blagojevich "has taken us to a truly new low" and went on "a political corruption crime spree. We acted to stop that crime spree."Fitzgerald also accused Blagojevich of attempting "to sell the U.S. Senate seat" that President-elect Barack Obama vacated.

_ Terri Hallenbeck



That funeral home lure

Not many people would use the terms "funeral home" and "lure" in the same sentence, but Duane Marsh would.

The president of the Vermont Chamber of Commerce has accepted a new job as executive director of the Illinois Funeral Directors Association. Marsh, who has been with the Vermont Chamber since September of 2003, will begin his new position in early January, the news release says, then comes the quote:
“As a former funeral director, with family still in the business in Michigan,
the lure of renewing the funeral service connection made this position highly
desirable,” Marsh said.

Rick Milliken, chairman of the Vermont Chamber of Commerce Board of Directors, called Marsh a tireless worker who has built a great team of professionals.
Milliken said he is working with the Vermont Chamber leadership to create a transition team.

Marsh cited these accomplishments as highlights in his five years: The Vermont Chamber’s ability and willingness to challenge the status quo, protecting and promoting a strong business environment in Vermont, and establishing a real-time voting record for state legislators.

- Terri Hallenbeck



All smiles at the Democratic caucus

No one was smiling as Steve Klein reviewed the state's fiscal challenges, but once that nasty piece of business was completed, House Democrats were hugging and clapping and unanimous in their selection of new leadership.

Rep. Shap Smith, the Democratic nominee for House speaker, and his now former rival, Rep. Mark Larson, sat side-by-side and Larson nominated Smith. "I know Shap shared my values," Larson said. "I'm proud and prepared to stand by his side when he becomes speaker of the House."

When Smith took the microphone, he complimented each of his rivals -- Rep. John Rodgers of Glover, Rep. Johannah Donovan of Burlington, Rep. Carolyn Partridge of Windham and Larson. Larson and Smith both spoke of spending their first two years in the Legislature on the same committee -- Fish and Wildlife. Smith said of Larson, "I'm incredibly grateful to call you my friend and really look forward to the next two years, working together."

What does that mean? Will there be some committee chairmanship for Larson?

Similarly, Rep. Janet Ancel nominated Rep. Floyd Nease to be House Democratic Leader, noting that since she only pulled out of the race Friday, she hadn't had a lot of time to work on her speech. Ancel said Nease had many strengths, "but I don't think one is his choice of a barber." Nease was sporting a new hairstyle -- a kind of buzz cut.

Nease called Ancel "a class act." He joked that he hoped the caucus wouldn't have "buyers' remorse because "you didn't elect the smartest person."

Rep. Steve Maier, D-Middlebury, nominated Rep. Lucy Leriche, D-Hardwick, to be assistant leader, then noted she wasn't at the caucus. She was on the other side of the globe on a long-planned vacation -- scuba diving.

Rep. Jason Lorber, D-Burlington, had been a candidate for the assistant leader slot. In endorsement Leriche, he said, "You need someone who will be straight with you." He kept a straight face while the caucus giggled. Lorber is gay. He tried another line, saying Lucy would always have "the skinny" on issues, a reference to her slim build. He didn't get much reaction to that line. "OK, not as good as the first one."

As is usual at these organizational caucuses, everybody was talking unity. Partridge, stepping down after four years as House Democratic Leader including the last two with a 93-member caucus, identified the big challenge. Democrats now have an even bigger majority -- 95.

"That can be a great blessing or it can be a great curse," she said. Saturday, Democrats were hopeful they could transform their majority into a blessing.

-- Nancy Remsen



The race for House speaker is over

The race for the Democratic House caucus nomination for speaker is over.

Mark Larson of Burlington has pulled out of the race, leaving Shap Smith of Morrisville to accept the nomination Saturday from the 95-member Democratic caucus. That also means he's sewn up the election, which officially takes place when the House reconvenes on Jan. 7.

Also, Janet Ancel of Calais decided to pull out of the race for House Democratic Leader last night, so that gives the job to Floyd Nease of Johnson, currently assistant House Democratic Leader.

Both of the candidates who have withdrawn sounded upbeat and supportive of the winners. No hard feelings.

-- Nancy Remsen


This couple not ready to marry

This didn’t come up until near the end of last night’s forum, but I think it’s key to the question of whether Vermont’s Progressives and Democrats should work more closely together: Prog +
Dem does not necessarily equal victory.

Put another way: 21+21=42.

Independent/Progressive Anthony Pollina won 21 percent of the vote in this year’s gubernatorial race. Democrat Gaye Symington won 21 percent. Together they don’t add up to enough to beat Republican Jim Douglas, who won 55 percent. So if the goal of the Progs/Dems is to beat the Republicans, will they achieve that by working together? I don’t think so.

For starters, other than defeating Republicans, the two parties don’t always have the same goals. They agree on a lot of issues, but they have some real differences. That became clear at last night’s forum.

Take the size of the tent. Dems have a big one. Progs a little one. Both on purpose. Progressive Rep. David Zuckerman accused the Dems of being willing to accept anybody – pro or anti-choice, for example. Burlington City Democratic Chairman Jake Perkinson suggested the Progs focus on special interests at the expense of taking on the full gamut of public policy.

There are other differences.

Democratic Rep. Johanna Donovan argued that Dems are more realistic. They move issues, even if it means compromise, because they see value in taking steps. Think Catamount. Progressive Burlington City Councilor Jane Knodell said the Progs’ role is to generate innovative ideas. She cited use of land trusts for affordable housing.

All four panel members concede they are fairly far left on the political spectrum. What was missing from Thursday’s debate was a more centrist Democrat and what was telling was that no one at the debate seemed to care about that.

How eager would those centrists be to have the Democratic Party lock arms with the Progs? When the sounds of kumbaya start coming out, you might expect centrists to grow squeamish. What are they going to do then? Vote Republican.

It could be the quickest way to help rejuvenate the Republican Party in Vermont.

If you look at Thursday’s debate as one of several pre-marital counseling sessions between the Progs and the Dems, I think you come away thinking the counselor is going to advise this couple to think twice about tying any knots.

(Thanks to Seven Days for hosting it and to Seven Days blogger Cathy Resmer for linking to our blog during the event. Perhaps it was a lack of dexterity on my part but I didn’t manage to check in on their blogging while I was doing my blogging.)

- Terri Hallenbeck



Ahh. I just lost my wrapup on last night's session. Apparently, save doesn't always mean save on blogger.com. I will attempt to start over, but first I have to go kick a wall or something.




We'll wrap this up after I've had something to eat. Or maybe tomorrow.


Sponge Bob candidates

What about sponge candidates - the guy who ran with Kesha Ram but said flat out he wouldn't serve?

Perkinson: Don't think that candidate had much impact.

Donovan: Progs have done that in my district.

Zuckerman: But that sponge would have been willing to serve. In this case, it was the difference.


Back to the governor's race

Will parties work together on gubernatorial candidate?

Zuckerman: If left-leaning candidate runs, we'll get out of way. Didn't run against Racine, Peter Clavelle or Parker, but this time no D was running well into the season.

Donovan: Yes.

What about conservative Dem?

Zuckerman: If it's a conservative Democrat we don't get farther.


More on dissent

Zuckerman: Didn't speak out against Anthony Pollina's decision to run as independent, even though didn't agree with it.



Is there dissent allowed in parties?

Donovan: A lot of those discussions happen in private. Maybe they should happen more in public.

Zuckerman: Once you're a Prog you're more apt to agree.


The race for governor

Woman: This was a missed opportunity to elect Barack Obama to the White House and not defeat Jim Douglas in Statehouse. What do different in next two years?

Donovan: Those conversations are occurring now.



Colchester: Dem tent is so wide that they elected Walter Freed as speaker. Would you all support notion that 10 parties better than 2?

Perkinson: There's more than 2 parties now.

Knodell: Choice is good thing. (Yes, she has been silent all this time - that's what happens when you share a mic with Zuckerman).


Is it wrong to just run?

High school student: Do we believe something wrong with two candidates with similar beliefs running against each other?

Perkinson: "I think that's exactly what should happen."

Zuckerman: If Progs ran hard in every race with D, the "you know what would hit the you know what." (i.e. Republicans would win.) That would set the issues back.

Perkinson: If individuals want to run, they should run. You're suggesting that decision should be made by somene other than voters.



Mike Bayer, Addison County Prog: Why did you support Catamount instead of forcing Douglas to veto it? He contended gubernatorial candidate Scudder Parker would have had more to run on if the bill had failed.
Donovan: I agree.
Zuckerman: How often do Democrats speak against their leadership?


Audience questions

Terry Bouricius, founder of Progressive Coalition, had more of a statement: I'm at extreme left end of Prog coalition. Democratic Party includes people who are extremely right wing, like Bill Clinton. Other countries have mulitple parties. Need a voting method that allows multiple parties to run without splitting. Change the rules, not the parties.

Pressed to form a question, he asked if one party is more anti-capitalist than other.

Zuckerman: Progs supported changing capital gains tax.

Donovan: That was also Jim Douglas' position.


Cavorting with the enemy?

In a have you ever supported a Communist-type question: Have you as a P ever supported a D vs. P or as a D supported a P vs. D?

Donovan: That would be matter of confession.
Zuckerman: Yes, Doug Racine over Michael Badamo in 2002.


Primary battles?

Should P's run in D primary or vice-versa?

Zuckerman: You can only run in one primary. "Eventually we'd all be Democrats." On the other hand, interesting to look at. Tim Ashe did this in the Chittenden County Senate race. In statewide races, the real solution is instant runoff voting.

Perkinson: No problem with people running a D/P. But P's don't like it. It's not a two-way street. P party by-laws prohibit cross candidacy for Dems.


The media

Speaking of media, nobody asks longer questions than Shay Totten.



Donovan: It was not some sort of presentation to councilor Perry that we would put somebody up against her. We had number of young people interested in running. They spoke to Perry and it became clear it was in her best interest to run as Dem.

"I don't think we can orchestrate that all the time and tell people they can't run."

Zuckerman: David can't go a minute without talking about how things are portrayed in the "media." I don't mean to be paranoid, as he accuses Donovan of being, but ...


Burlington dirt

Knodell: Takes issue with Perkinson's comment about Progs siding with GOP just for power's sake. It's not about retaining power. It's about the issues.

Perkinson: Takes issue with Knodell. Last city council election. Barbara Perry changed to D and was actively campaigned against because she was no longer an independent.

Knodell: "You have to let me respond to that."
For Dems to take majority would compromise health of city. Democrats should have let her alone and let her run as Dem, but Dems told her she had to run as a D or they'd run somebody against her.

Perkinson: "That is false."


Burlington vs. ROV

That's "rest of Vermont."

Zuckerman: It's not in Burlington vs. out. It's old vs. new. Those who resent Bernie Sanders' election in 1981 will always hate Progs.

Most times parties find way to work together, but Zuckerman said, Dems shouldn't challenge incumbent Progs. That, of course, was a very, very, very thorny issue in his district this election, when fellow Prog Chris Pearson lost to Dem newcomer Kesha Ram.


What about GOP?

How do you define selves in terms of Republicans?

Knodell: In Burlington, Progs are fiscally conservative and share that with Republicans, but have a more activist government. Supporte municipal telecom, which is more in line with Dems.

Perkinson: "The Progressives will align with whoever is in power." Less an agreement on issues than a cold calculation on how to get issues passed.

Dems don't view selves as opposite to Progs. See selves in opposition to Republicans.



Have Dems moved too slowly on liberal issues?

Donovan: "I don't think we have squandered our ability to move a progressive agenda forward."
Large caucus can fracture, but Dems didn't do that last four years.

Zuckerman: Dems have done well on progress with minimum wage, gender equity. But housing bill considered afforable as $250,000. Can't vote for that.


The differences

Knodell on differences between the parties: "We've been the location for innovative ideas in government."

She cited the use of a land trust for creating affordable housing. The party will remain strong if it keeps doing that, she said.

Zuckerman: Donovan has said that there's no room to work on gay marriage because of economy. Progs will put it on the table anyway, he said.

Donovan: Support gay marriage, but questioned timing.

Zuckerman: That message tells public less likely to take up.


Getting elected

Why aren't more Progs getting elected?

Zuckerman: We don't always get our message out as well as we should. Progs push issues in Montpelier and then turn the reins over to Dems to put it through, he said. "The Democratic Party is the default party."


The difference?

Perkinson said Progs should go ahead and show how they are different from Dems.

That raises the question: Do they?

Moderator Shay Totten asked the panel: How would a newcomer know which party is right for them?

Zuckerman: The platforms are very similar. Progs have helped bring Dems farther left. If you want to go farther left, support the Progs "because we''re going to move that anchor."

There are times when Democratic Party reverts to a more moderate stance, he said. If you want the Democratic Party to move farther left, join the Progs, he said.

Donovan: At Dem caucus Wednesday night she saw a lot of young new people. If you want to get involved, join Democrats to make things happen and take into consideration all factors, she said.


Tent size

Donovan defended the Democratic Party principles and now Zuckerman is suggesting that Dems have such a large tent they're willing to take anybody - for or against abortion choice, for example.



Democratic state Rep. Johanna Donovan of Burlington: "Until we can join hands and really sing Kumbaya there has to be a few more funerals." And, she added, a few more egoes put aside.


The Progs

Jane Knodell, Progressive city councilor from Ward 2 in Burlington: Perhaps the two could work better together. She looks to party leaders to pull that off.

David Zuckerman, Progressive state rep from Burlington: The Progs define themselves narrowly on purpose to focus on certain issues, but they've worked well with Dems in the leggie. He, for example, was named chair of the House Ag Committee by a Democratic speaker.


First foray

Jake Perkinson, chairman of the Burlington city Democratic Committee: D's and P's not getting along is no more of a surprise than Coke and Pepsi not getting along.

So which one has more fizz? He didn't say.

The solution to the standoff, though, is with the voters, he said. Parties shouldn't dictate who the candidates are.


Can they, should they get along?

Wondering whether Vermont's Democrats and Progressives can get along? We'll explore that topic tonight.

We're live at the Waterfront Theatre in Burlington at a forum sponsored by Seven Days. The title: "Why can't Progs and Dems just get along?" The reason for it? Well, there's the 2008 election.

The seats are about three-fifths full in the film house. Nice to see this building used for something. Stay tune.

- Terri Hallenbeck


Can they, should they get along?

Wondering if Vermont's Democrats and Progressives can work together? We'll explore that topic tonight.

We're live at the forum Seven Days is sponsoring at the Waterfront Theatre in Burlington. The title of the event: "Why can't Progs and Dems just get along?" The reason for the question? Well, there's the 2008 election, for one.

- Terri Hallenbeck


Dems looking for new leader

Jill Krowinski, who took a break as Vermont Democratic Party executive director to run Gaye Symington's gubernatorial campaign, won't be returning to the party job.

"This is a good time in my life to explore other opportunities," Krowinski said. She said she plans to stay in Vermont and is considering graduate school or nonprofit organizations.

The party is advertising for a new director.

Party Chairman Ian Carleton said Kristina Althoff, who had been filling in for Krowinski, is considering whether to apply for the job.

- Terri Hallenbeck


All the president's visits

As Vermont Daily Briefing pointed out, The Washington Times has a column today about President George W. Bush's aversion to Vermont.

In it, Vermont Republican Party Chairman Rob Roper earns the characterization of a typical laid-back Vermonter.

I actually don't think we'll see the president here in the next two months.

- Terri Hallenbeck



DPS, the RFP and the PSB

Legislative leaders have put their 2 cents in about the energy efficiency program the state has outlined in its request for proposals. They don't think the program matches the law and they've formally told the Public Service Board so.

Vermont Public Interest Research Group has also objected, as I reported last month. The state Department of Public Service is expected to respond, but today Sarah Hofmann, director for Public Advocacy, asked for a second extension. It seems that the transfer of Steve Wark from DPS to the governor's office has left them a little short-staffed at DPS.

Here's the leggie's letter:

December 3, 2008
Dear Members of the Public Service Board,
We have reviewed the Request for Proposal (RFP) issued by
the Department of Public Service (DPS) pursuant to Act 92 (30 V.S.A.
The RFP disregards the legislature’s intent of creating
a successful long term program to provide efficiency services to those currently
not eligible, specifically the middle class and small business owners.
Rising oil prices and climate change present both immediate
and long-term challenges to our state.
To address these challenges the legislature passed
legislation to grant more Vermont families and businesses the ability to improve
the efficiency of their buildings and save them money on their heating
This comprehensive, long term approach was also intended
to stimulate Vermont’s economic development and create good paying jobs in
energy efficiency services. In Act 92, we proposed a program to meet these goals
by directing the DPS to “Ensure that all retail consumers,regardless of retail
electricity, gas, or heating or process fuel provider, will have an opportunity
to participate in and benefit from a comprehensive set of cost effective energy
efficiency programs and initiatives designed to overcome barriers to
participation.” (VSATitle 30, Section 235(d)(1)).
The above passage directs the DPS to design an
efficiency program targeting the population that currently lacks access to
assistance for building efficiency.
We are concerned that the RFP issued by the DPSpursuant
to that Act ignores this mandate for an inclusive program. Instead, the DPS’ RFP
seeks proposals to “Provide weatherization services to primarily low-income
populations.”Assisting Vermonters who need help meeting their needs is a
criticalaspect of the legislature’s work.
The Legislature has done so byconsistently supporting
increases in the low-income weatherization program budget, even when the current
administration has opposed increases. While Governor Douglas either level funded
or under funded the program in his past three budgets, the legislature
successfully fought for increases of $750,000, $750,000 and $1 million in
fiscal years 2007, 2008 and 2009, respectively.
The revenue stream allocated in Act 92 is targeted at a
different population of Vermonters.In addition, Act 92 directs the DPS to
“Provide a reasonably stable multiyear budget and planning cycle and in order to
promote program improvement, program stability, enhanced access to capital
and personnel, improved integration of program designs with the budgets
of regulated companies providing energy services, and maturation of programs and
delivery resources.” (Section 235(d)(7)).
The one-year timeframe set forth in the RFP undermines the
stability of the program and limits any applicant’s ability to build the
work force or invest in the equipment necessary to make the program a
long-term success. With oil prices likely to rise again and the
increasing fragility of our economy, middle class Vermonters and small
business owners need a program designed for long-term success.

Senator Shumlin
Representative Klein
Senator Lyons

- Terri Hallenbeck


Speaker's race narrows, then expands

The speaker's race is down to two Democrats. Rep. Carolyn Partridge of Windham has withdrawn.

Reps. Shap Smith of Morristown and Mark Larson of Burlington are said to be in a tight battle. To be decided by House Democrats on Saturday.

Not to be left out, Republicans have a candidate too. Rep. Steve Adams, who had served the last two years as House minority leader, says he's running. He's realistic about his chances - Republicans hold only 48 of the 150 seats. But he said he wants to make sure legislators have a choice in January.

- Terri Hallenbeck



Obama to Douglas: You must be quite a politician

Gov. Jim Douglas and his fellow governors met today with President-elect Barack Obama and Vice President-elect Joe Biden.

Obama insisted on greeting each governor personally before getting down to business, Douglas said. His comment to Douglas:

"He said, 'You must be quite a politician to get elected repeatedly in Vermont' or something like that," Douglas said. "I said, 'Sir, I just grabbed onto your coattails."

The group met with Obama and Biden for an hour and a half, sharing the pain of the economy and the governors asking for Medicaid and highway help. No promises from the incoming leaders, but it sounds like the states have a seat at the table.

- Terri Hallenbeck



States pass collection plate

Gov. Jim Douglas joined colleagues from the National Governors Association and the National Council on State Legislatures today in asking House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and other D.C. purse-string-holders for money.

They weren't specific about how much, but they weren't talking about spare change, either.

- As much as $136 billion for infrastructure work. NGA Chairman Edward Rendell. in a telephonic news conference at which the microphone seemed to be in the next ZIP code, said more than 70 percent of that would be roads/bridges, but it would also include wastewater treatment plants, broadband infrastructure and other projects.

- More than $20 billion in boosted Medicaid money. That's how much states got in 2003, Douglas said, and this year is worse.

Rendell said the infrastructure money would go for projects the states could start immediately. They could speed up to a two-week bid process and he discounted any difficulty over environmental permits.

Douglas said states are feeling the pain now, but it'll keep coming as there is a lag time for people seeking Medicaid and food stamps between the time they lose their job and the time they realize they're broke. "This is a downturn that's going to be with us for a couple of years," Douglas said.

Meanwhile, this on the wires:

WASHINGTON (AP) — A panel of the National Bureau of Economic Research says the U.S. economy fell into a recession last year. The NBER says its group of
academic economists who determine business cycles met and decided that the U.S.
recession began in December 2007.
Many economists believe the current downturn will last until the middle of 2009 and will be the most severe slump since the 1981-82 recession.

I'm no economist, but that seems optimistic.

- Terri Hallenbeck


On running for governor

A few thoughts on the notion that state Treasurer Jeb Spaulding is mulling a run for governor in 2010:

- The declaration makes him an instant enemy of the state, so to speak. Gov. Jim Douglas acknowledged earlier this year after House Speaker Gaye Symington started making noise about running that it can't help but change the dynamics to work with someone you know is coveting your job.

- On the other hand, Spaulding also declared he did not want to publicly criticize the sitting governor. That's got to sit well with the sitting governor, and would make it tough to campaign against him. It wouldn't, however, endear Spaulding to the pack of active Democrats who want to criticize Douglas with every breath they take.

- Spaulding won't be the only one doing this kind of mulling. As I reported in a post-election story, Democrats have already started talking about how not to be the last ones out of the gate for 2010. In a sense, it is very early to be talking about 2010, yet not early at all.

- Terri Hallenbeck

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