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



Ralliers online

Advocates of programs that face state budget cuts will be holding rallies around the state Monday.

Don't know whether they will still have the same fire after hearing that legislators plan save VPharm for now and that 600 layoffs won't happen, but the group has a blog with the list of sites for the rallies. Here it is:


- Terri Hallenbeck



True blue

Here's a little statistic that may keep Vermont Republican Party Chairman Rob Roper awake at night.

According to a just-released poll by the Gallup Co., Democratic leaning Vermonters outnumber Republican leaning Vermonters by 33 percentage points. Gallup says that makes the state the fourth bluest state in the country, behind only Rhode Island, Massachusetts and Hawaii. The District of Columbia is even more pro-Democratic, but of course it's not a state.

For a peak at the Gallup findings, click HERE.

The 33 percentage point gap, at first glance, is a jaw-dropper. Most polls I've seen over the years have the Ds five or 10 percentage points up on the Rs. in Vermont but both parties were outnumbered in those polls by people who identified themselves as independents.

The biggest bloc of voters here has long been "independents" who are partial to splitting their ticket and voting for people of different political stripes. That group has accounted for something between 40 percent and 45 percent of the voting public in most polls.

Gallup says it dealt with the independent juggernaut by having so-called independent respondents fess up and say which party they leaned more toward, and then added the lean-Ds and lean-Rs to those who were unabashed Ds and Rs.

The corresponding number Gallup came up with does make some sense, considering our Congressional delegation, both houses of the Legislature and four statewide officeholders all find themselves in Democratic hands right now, as they have been for a while. Still, a 33 percentage point tilt toward the Ds is breathtaking.

If the Republicans are thinking of adopting Howard Dean's 50-state strategy as a way of rebuilding their party like Democrats did over the last four years, Vermont would appear to represent as big a challenge as they are going to face.

-- Sam Hemingway


As the world turns rapidly

Things are moving at lightning speed in the Statehouse. One minute, there is talk of cutting everything, the next it's been restored.

Sens. Peter Shumlin, Susan Bartlett and Jane Kitchel came back from Washington this week feeling pretty good about the stimulus package that's brewing down there. There will be enough federal stimulus money to avoid cutting programs such as VPharm and Reach Up this year ($3 million-plus more will do it). Meanwhile, they said, they will work on making programs more affordable for next year.

Gov. Jim Douglas was dubious today of lawmakers' willingness to make those changes. Some legislators get it, he said, but some don't. Those who don't, he inferred, think you can use federal money to plug holes then resume on course with the leaky ship in 2011.

Shumlin and Bartlett also indicated no way are they going to lay off 600 state workers. It would be bad for the economy, they said, and those workers are going to be needed to put the federal stimulus money to work. Instead of layoffs, they are looking for concessions from the union on hours and such.

Douglas again is dubious. State government has grown too much and needs to shrink, he said. Though he indicated a willingness to talk about the union contract, he also indicated that would not be enough - he wants long-term changes. "We have to make some of these difficult choices," he said.

- Terri Hallenbeck



Rangel refund

Looks like Rep. Peter Welch, D-Vt. 's recent appointment to the House Ethics Committee is going to cost him $19,000 in old campaign contributions.

The Hill, the authoritative journal for the Washington D.C. political establishment, is reporting that Welch has decided to return $19,000 in donations to his campaign to political fundraising committees run by Rep. Charles Rangel, D-N.Y., chairman of the House Ways & Means Committee. Check out the story HERE.

“Since Chairman Rangel requested that the committee investigate matters related to him, Congressman Welch has, in an abundance of caution, returned all prior campaign contributions from Mr. Rangel,” Bob Rogan, Welch's chief of staff, said in a statement quoted by The Hill. Let the record show, however, that Welch's Web site contains no mention of the Rangle refund.

What the Ethics Committee is gearing to look into are claims Rangel was living in rent-subsidized apartments in NYC that he owns, didn't report rental income on a villa in the Dominican Republic that he owns and used his Congressional stationery to write fundraising letters for an education center that bears his name.

Federal Election Commission records show that Welch got three $5,000 donations from Rangel's National Leadership PAC in 2006 and 2007, and two $2,000 donations from his Rangel for Congress group in 2006 and 2007.

Sending back $19,000 to Rangel will hardly break the bank for Welch, who finished up his 2008 non-campaign for re-election with $663,313 in cash on hand.

It's the right thing for Welch to do, even if it is a bit tardy. After all, some of the claims involving Rangel have been out there for months, and the Democratic National Committee under Howard Dean's leadership sent back $100,000 to Rangel last summer.

-- Sam Hemingway

PS: Neither Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., or Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., were ever recipients of Rangel committee money.


Should we know?

Job cuts are under way at IBM in Essex Junction this morning and that makes for a tough day for a lot of people.

Apparently, whether one is inside the building or out, one doesn't know how many cuts there will be.

Under federal law, as you read in this morning's Free Press, a company doesn't have to inform government of even large-scale layoffs if it is giving employees 60 days' notice or severance. In the Statehouse today, people are buzzing about the size of the number with no facts at hand.

The question here isn't so much about law, but about what's right. Should an employer like IBM, knowing the impact they have in this state by virtue of their size, give officials a heads up? Or should they have room to conduct the layoffs the way they want?

I can tell you from personal experience there doesn't seem to be a good way to conduct layoffs. Give plenty of notice or spring it on em suddenly - either way it rots.

- Terri Hallenbeck



Active in retirement

You might have thought when Mike Smith retired last year at age 55 from his job as Administration secretary that he'd resurface as the head of some new banking or insurance system.

Indeed, he has launched a new venture, but I can't say it's quite what I would have expected. He's created http://www.activegeezering.com/, a Web site for active seniors.

You have to admit that when it comes to retiring the man's sense of timing could put him at first violin in a chamber orchestra: He didn't have to deal with putting together the toughest budget in Gov. Jim Douglas' tenure.

Perhaps he'll have good timing by tapping into the surge of baby boomers hitting "senior" status. So far, a glance at his site indicates it's far-ranging - everything from winter hiking to DVD recommendations and encouraging viewers to join in the writing of a novel.

There is senior news from near and far: Trapp Family Lodge and Jack LaLanne at 94, so it's a little hard to tell who his audience is. The restaurant of the month is in San Diego. There is a senior profile, this month focusing on Peter Young, chairman of the Vermont Natural Resources Board and husband of Douglas' legal counsel, Susanne Young.

Smith also plans to have a radio show, A Senior Moment, and a Vermont Public Television series, Active Geezering.

He claims it's been more time-consuming than being secretary of Administration. I think I know of one younger secretary of Administration who would raise doubts about that.

- Terri Hallenbeck



Welch: Thumbs up on Gillibrand

There may be some liberal Democrats upset with N.Y. Gov. David Patterson's decision to appoint Rep. Kirsten Gillibrand to fill Hillary Clinton's Senate seat, but Rep. Peter Welch is clearly not one of them.

Welch was in town Friday to talk about how the federal stimulus package will shore up the state's beleaguered unemployment fund, and was overflowing with praise for Gillibrand, who joined the House the same year Welch did.

"She's sincere, incredibly energetic and politically savvy," Welch said. "She's also had tremendous success at fundraising, which is of course also very important." He called her a "very good member of Congress" during her two years in the House.

Gillibrand's selection, which was announced Friday, came hours after Caroline Kennedy withdrew her name from consideration and, apparently, somebody close to Patterson bad-mouthed Kennedy about the real reasons for her pullout to several New York political reporters -- off the record of course. Weird.

The reason some Democrats are bent out of shape about Gillibrand is that she lacks the credentials and name recognition of some of the other prospects for the seat (like state Attorney General Andrew Cuomo). Gillibrand is from the Albany area, she's pro-gun, no fan of gay marriage and voted against the federal opposed the federal TARP program to rescue banks. Speaker Nancy Pelosi is known to be no fan of Gillibrand.

Welch told reporters the fact Gillibrand was able to win in a traditionally Rebublican district -- twice -- in heavy-duty contests will make her a formidable candidate when she runs for the Senate seat outright in 2010. Maybe that's why Patterson picked her.

Anyone out there with opinions on the Gillibrand selection?

I thought so.

-- Sam Hemingway


A poll on taxes

What do you make of this? A group of advocacy organizations had some questions about raising taxes included in a recent poll and found that Vermonters would support some targeted tax increases to maintain the affordability of the state's health care programs.

The organizations that sponsored the poll were Vermont NEA, AARP Vermont, B-State Primary Carer Association, Vermont Citizens Campaign for Health Care Security Education Fund and America's Agenda: Health Care for All.

According to their press release, the poll was conducted by Macro on Jan. 17-20. The results are based on responses from 400 Vermonters.

The first question was "In order to keep Catamount Health, Dr. Dynasaur and other state health care programs affordable for low-income Vermonters, would you support a temporary state income tax surcharge for those earning more than $500,000 per year?

The results: 56 percent said they would strongly support such a remedy, 21 could somewhat support, 9 percent would somewhat oppose and 8 percent would strongly oppose. Democrats were the strongest supporters and Republicans the weakest supporters -- but more Republicans supported the tax increase than opposed it.

The same question was asked with a different tax option -- adding $1 to the existing tax on cigarettes. There was even stronger support for this option. 70 percent strongly supported, 12 percent somewhat supported, 7 percent somewhat opposed and 9 percent strongly opposed.

Under this option, even a majority of self-identified Republicans strongly agreed (69 percent) and 81 percent of Democrats were strong supporters.

One has to wonder if any of the respondents were smokers or earned more than $500,000. It would be easy support imposing a tax on someone else, wouldn't it?

Still, it's an interest bit of information that will no doubt play a role as lawmakers and the Douglas administration wrestle over the budget in the coming weeks.

-- Nancy Remsen


Town Meeting extended break

The Legislature will take two weeks off at town meeting instead of the usual week.

The hiatus - and no, they won't be paid for it - is designed to give them time for the economic stimulus in Washington to take shape so they have a better picture of the state budget needs.

It's also designed to limit the session to 16 weeks. That's what Senate leader Peter Shumlin and House Speaker Shap Smith have pledged to do.

Legislators are traditionally off during the week of Town Meeting Day in March so they can go home and attend town meeting. They will also take the week after that off.

My understanding is this didn't go over well with all legislators who think it will put them on hold just when they should be revving up and that this cost-cutting measure is really just a pr move, but Shumlin and Smith insisted.

These week-long furloughs are all the rage these days.

- Terri Hallenbeck



From Vt. to Va.

There's a Vermont connection to one of the eight new Democratic senators busily setting up shop in Washington D.C. right now.

Sen. Mark Warner, D-Va., has hired old friend Luke Albee to be his chief of staff. For Albee, 48, the job title will be the same as the one he held for 11 years with Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt.

Albee has one of the keenest political minds I've ever come across, and he was well respected on both sides of the aisle, both here and in D.C. Many folks credit him as the one who wisely stopped the anthrax letters that were mailed to Leahy in 2001 before anyone was harmed.

Luke left Leahy in 2005 to joining the Washington D.C. political consulting firm of Ricchetti Inc., but I'm guessing he missed the rough and tumble of Senate -- and national -- politics. Warner was smart to nab him.

-- Sam Hemingway



Live coverage of gov's budget address

Tomorrow is the day Gov. Jim Douglas unveils his 2010 budget proposal. Vermonters will find out how he proposes to make up for a $150 million decline in revenues.

There will surely be layoffs of state employees, he has said, but how many and where? There will surely be cuts to programs that people consider untouchable, but which ones and how deep will the cuts be?

You can be among the first to find out by tuning in to live video coverage at www.burlingtonfreepress.com at 2 p.m. Thursday.

- Terri Hallenbeck


DNC farewell

Howard Dean's farewell address as Democratic National Committee chairman, given today:

Farewell Address by DNC Chairman Howard Dean as Prepared for Delivery Washington, DC - The following prepared remarks were delivered by Governor Howard Dean at the Democratic National Committee's Winter Meeting in Washington, DC:
My friends, let me begin by thanking you for the opportunity to lead this Committee and this Party for the last four years.
After logging more than 727,000 miles visiting Democrats in all 56 states and territories, I say with confidence that I return to you a Party stronger than the one we inherited four years ago.
That could not have happened without you, and all the hard work you have done in your states.
It could not have happened without the dedicated, talented and hard working staff at the DNC and your state parties.
It could not have happened without the leadership team we assembled at the DNC, including the outstanding slate of Vice Chairs with whom I have had the privilege of serving for the last four years. Please join me in thanking them all.
At our Winter Meeting in 2005, you elected me as your chairman. Together we set out to rebuild our Party from the ground up in every neighborhood and every community in America.
Together, we pledged that we would never run another 18 state campaign. We promised to compete in every state, for every level of office. We promised to stand up for our Party and fight for an agenda that reflects our values. We promised to show up everywhere and ask everyone for their vote. We promised to modernize our Party, renew our commitment to the grassroots, expand our donor base and draw young voters and new voters into the Party. And that is exactly what we did. Barack Obama won 9 states that President Bush won in 2004. We picked up 8 Senate seats in 2008 and 6 in 2006. We won in places like Alaska and North Carolina-states where no one thought Democrats could be competitive. But we knew better.
We picked up 24 House seats last year after winning 31 in 2006. We had 22 Democratic governors when you elected me your chairman. Today we have 29. Our Party now controls at least 60 of the nation's 98 state legislative chambers, which will not only impact redistricting, but will make our Party's bench even stronger. We brought in more than 1.1 million new donors and raised more than $330 million this cycle. We created a national voter file for the first time in our Party's history. We improved micro-targeting models and developed 21st century campaign tools that merged traditional organizing with new technology.
We reached out to people of faith and invested in regions of the country that hadn't voted for Democrats in quite some time - places like the Southwest and the Southeast. We reached out to young voters and new voters, and recommitted ourselves to seeding the grassroots of our party. We registered millions of new voters, and brought approximately 24 million young Americans to the polls --- with 66% percent of them voting for Barack Obama.
We responded to widespread electoral irregularities in 2000 and 2004 by creating a professional, year-round voter protection effort to make sure that every voter who wants to can cast their ballot and have their vote heard. In other words, we rebuilt our Party and took our country back.
What we have accomplished together over the last four years has been nothing short of remarkable. But I want to be clear. None of it would have been possible if we didn't have the best candidate and the best campaign in my lifetime. At our Winter Meeting in 2007, we were fortunate to hear from the most impressive slate of primary candidates ever fielded by any Party.
One of those candidates was the man sworn in yesterday. In the two years since, America has come to know Barack Obama as a truly transformational leader in American politics. He was as incredible candidate who inspired a new generation of young Americans and new voters to come out, get involved, and change their country.
President Obama led more than a campaign. He inspired a grassroots movement and won a broad and diverse coalition of voters of all backgrounds in every part of the country. He set a new direction and a new tone for our nation and our politics, and people responded. I have no doubt that Barack Obama will be a great President and Joe Biden will be a great Vice President.
Let me also be clear about one more thing: As much as we have accomplished together these last four years, our work is not done.
This has been a truly historic and transformational election --- one that reflects the passing of the torch to a new generation. This new generation wants us to put aside the divisions of the past and come together around the shared task of building a common future. Barack Obama was right in 2004 when he said there are no red states or blue states. There are only American states, and we all share the same values. If we are to keep those voters engaged, and keep them in the fold we need to keep the promises we made.
We cannot afford to lose the millions of new voters and young voters who participated in this campaign for the first time. We have to keep the promises we made, and keep finding ways to engage them. We won in the West and the South because we showed up and asked people for their vote. But we cannot become complacent. We all know that the political landscape can change very quickly. We need to keep showing up and keep asking people for their vote or we can lose those parts of the country just as quickly as we won them.
We must continue to reach out to people of faith. Barack Obama doubled his support among white evangelicals. But we must continue to look for common ground and areas where we can work together. This is not only important for our Party, it's important to healing our country.We erased the Republican Party's technological advantage in one cycle. But they will not stand still, so we cannot afford to either. We must continue to invest in the technological infrastructure of our Party and build new tools to keep a new army of grassroots activists engaged.
In Governor Tim Kaine, President Obama has picked the right man to build on our accomplishments. When I was working with Tim's campaign for governor in 2005, I knew then he would become one of our Party's great leaders. Under his leadership, Virginia was named the best managed state in America. I know he will bring that same leadership to the DNC.
Governor Kaine understands the importance of reaching out to everyone and standing up for our values. He knows that the strength of our party comes from the bottom up and will continue the grassroots approach that has made our party so successful.
Tim is the right choice to lead the Democratic National Committee into this new era of American politics and to support President Obama's agenda. I have always believed that our values are core American values. We value work over wealth, tax policies that invest in the middle class, fiscal discipline, and equality and justice for all. Those are core American values. What we have lacked is a full time, professional party to help communicate those values and organize around them and a leader to inspire people to the cause.
In President Obama, that is exactly what we have. I am humbled by what we have accomplished here over the last four years.
Today, we have a great president and vice president and a Party that is stronger than ever. And we did it by empowering people to take ownership over their democracy. Together, we moved our country forward.



A day to remember?

Barack Obama's inauguration was special for many people at the Statehouse today. I think you could characterize some of them as giddy. Here are some people who'll remember this day a long time:

- Dr. Harret Banda, a pediatric resident at Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center who was at the Statehouse learning how to advocate, comes originally from Malawi and voted for the first time in the U.S. this past November. As one of the few black women in her field, she said she feels the burden of being a role model. When she sees how Barack Obama carries that burden, she finds it easier, she said. "It gives me the sense that I can do it too," she said.

- A group of eighth-graders who are serving as legislative pages sat riveted through the inauguration the way some kids sit riveted through "SpongeBob." They all wished they could have been there in D.C. to see it in person.

"I can't wait to see what he does to help the country," said Stanford Attig, 13, of Barre town.

"I think we're totally going to remember this," said MacKenzie St. Onge, 13, of Stowe.

It struck me after talking to the pages that I can't recall any presidential inaugurations with the kind of specificity these kids expect to remember this one. I can't tell you whether I watched Richard Nixon be sworn in when I was 8. Or Jimmy Carter when I was 16. I can't place where I was when Bill Clinton or either George Bush took the oath.

Some people seem to be suggesting this one is different.

- Terri Hallenbeck


Can you say change?

Activities ceased at the Statehouse for a few hours today -- except for a lot of cheering as lawmakers -- especially Democrats and Progressives -- gathered around televisions in a couple of big rooms to watch the inauguration.

"History will change in the next half hour," a television commentator declared. "Yes," said more than a few in the mostly Democratic audience in Room 11.

The first sighting of Obama on the screen brought the crowd of about 150 to their feet.

When Dianne Feinstein asked everyone to stand while Barack Obama took the oath of office, the crowd rose again -- but quickly sat back down as many wouldn't have been able to see the screen if they stayed standing.

The other room, the legislative lounge, seemed a bit quieter, but attentive -- although I wasn't present for any of the critical moments -- just for Obama's speech.

Not everyone took time out to watch the events. A veterans group tended their display table outside the House chamber. Some Statehouse staff, a few lawmakers and lobbyists had the lunchroom to themselves through the noon hour.

Republican Gov. Jim Douglas was in the crowd in Washington and his staff returned to the privacy of the Pavilion to watch television in the press spokesman's office -- according to Dennise Casey, deputy chief of staff.

Democratic Senate President Pro Tempore Peter Shumlin was somewhere in the crowd in DC, but House Speaker Shap Smith, D-Morristown, dashed into Room 11 just before noon to catch the oath and speech.

"That was great," Smith said afterward. "It is an incredible feeling." Then he was on his way. "Now I have to go to work. We have challenges ahead."

-- Nancy Remsen


Inauguration Day

1.20.09 has arrived.

If you're down there in D.C. with your laptop or your BlackBerry or your wireless telepathy, let us know what the scene looks like. Massive crowds? Bigger than the Mardi Gras parade in Burlington? Stuck underground in the Metro?

What's the mood? The conversation? The dress? The entertainment around you?

Those of you at home, work or far from the Mall can tune in to the inauguration festivities live at www.burlingonfreepress.com. Reporter Candy Page will be blogging about it.

Let us know how the people around you are passing the moment - are your co-workers watching instead of making widgets or does the widget-making go on as always. My husband's going to be in the dentist chair getting his teeth cleaned.

- Terri Hallenbeck



Letter coming to school boards

Later this week, school boards across Vermont will get a letter from Administration Secretary Neale Lunderville asking them to keep their 2009-10 budgets to the same per-pupil spending amount as this year's budgets.

If you need more time to do that, the letter will say, then delay your school vote.

Sound drastic? Well, these are drastic times, the governor argues. The state budget is going through drastic cuts because there is a lot less money coming in to state coffers, and so school budgets have to live under the same conditions, he says.

Will school boards take the request and do as the governor asks? Or resent the intrusion?

- Terri Hallenbeck



Leahy love fest

The chances that Republican Gov. Jim Douglas will run against Democratic Senator Patrick Leahy when the six-term senator runs for re-election in 2010 are slim to none, but just in case Douglas was toying with the idea, new poll results suggest he might want to stay put in Montpelier.

The poll was done for Daily Kos by Research 2000, and it says Leahy would beat Douglas 58 percent to 36 percent if the election were today. Just as significant, Leahy laps Douglas easily in the favorability category: 63 percent are thumbs up on Leahy and 33 percent are thumbs down, while its 52 percent favorable, 41 percent unfavorable for Douglas.

The governor, through new spokesman Steve Wark, is letting it be known that politics isn't on Douglas' radar right now; he's totally focused on confronting the state's financial situation.

Good strategy, that. It's hard to imagine why Vermonters would turn out the most powerful (in terms of seniority) senator in the history of the state in favor of Douglas, who would be a freshman Republican in the minority party.

But then, the clock is ticking on Douglas' chances to move on to bigger things in Washington, so you never know.

-- Sam Hemingway



Going to the inauguration

Gov. Jim Douglas will be attending Barack Obama's inauguration next week. He had initially said it looked like too much of a logistical nightmare to get around, but today he said that had been resolved so that he thought it wouldn't be too bad.

Most of the states' governors will be there, he said, as they were for George Bush's last inauguration.

Senate President Pro Tempore Peter Shumlin will also be making the trip, he said Wednesday.

- Terri Hallenbeck



Tiff over talking about their talks

House Speaker Shap Smith, D-Morristown, and Senate President Pro Tempore Peter Shumlin, D-Windham, held a joint news conference today (Wednesday) to report on a meeting they had yesterday with Gov. Jim Douglas. Reporters are always curious about those closed door meetings.

The pair of legislative leaders said the talks went well. Shumlin said he and Smith made four points.
  • that they wanted to work with the administration to develop the best possible list of projects on which to spend federal stimulus dollars.
  • that they wanted to cooperate in considering ideas that could generate new jobs.
  • that they would evaluate any idea the administration has to improve the way the state pays for schools.

When Shumlin got to the fourth point, he indicated he issued Douglas a warning.

  • that they didn't want him to build some of his controversial education proposals into the budget he will present next week -- because the ideas -- such as taking teacher retirement funding from the Education Fund instead of the General Fund -- had little support.

"We are concerned about building a budget with numbers that won't fly," Smith said.

"We begged him not to do that," Shumlin added.

Smith said the mood at the meeting was good.

The mood wasn't so good after the news conference.

Dennise Casey, deputy chief of staff for Douglas, charged Smith and Shumlin with violating the terms of the talk with Douglas. It was a private meeting. That's what they asked for, she said. She suggested this was setting the tone for relations between the leaders and the administration.

Yikes. It's only the second week.

-- Nancy Remsen



Committee assignments: Where they landed

After last week's hurrah, this week legislators settle in to their committees. There are a few changes worth noting.

- Rep. David Zuckerman, the Progressive from Burlington whose other job is raising vegetables, was ousted from the chairmanship of the House Agriculture Committee. New Speaker Shap Smith had to find a place for Rep. Carolyn Partridge, who'd bowed out of challenging Smith for the speaker's job. Partridge is a sheep farmer from Windham. Zuckerman wasn't happy to lose his chairmanship, but given that reality, he wasn't displeased with where he landed: House Ways & Means, the tax-writing committee.

- Rep. Johanna Donovan, D-Burlington, another who bowed out of the speaker's race, was rewarded with the chairmanship of the House Education Committee. Smith's other speaker rival, Mark Larson, was rewarded with retaining his position as vice chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, which would have been tough to improve upon.

- Republican retained one chairmanship - Rep. Rich Westman in House Transportation. They weren't complaining. Rep. Steve Adams, who was challenging Smith for the speaker's job too, becomes vice chairman of the House Fish, Wildlife and Water Resources.

In the Senate, changes were few.

- Sen. Bobby Starr, D-Essex/Orleans, becomes chairman of the Education Committee after Sen. Donald Collins lost his re-election bid.

- Freshman Prog/Dem Tim Ashe landed spots on Senate Economic Development and Institutions, an indication that Senate President Pro Tem Peter Shumlin likes the guy.

- Fellow freshman Randy Brock, the Republican who beat Collins in Franklin County, landed on Government Operations and Education, perhaps an indication he has yet to win Shumlin over.

- Room was made for Democratic freshman Matt Choate, a nurse from Caledonia County, on Health & Welfare, costing Sen. Jeanette White her seat there, but she will have a chance to influence mental health issues such as the future of the Vermont State Hospital on Institutions.

- Terri Hallenbeck



Former lawmaker is ill

Former Rep. Michael Flaherty, a Blue Dog Democrat from South Burlington who helped temper the liberal agenda in the late 1990s, is struggling with cancer.

It was the late Peter Freyne who dubbed Flaherty and his Chittenden County pals "the Blue Dogs." Once ignored as lawmakers more interested in golf than government, the group demonstrated their political punch in 1999 when they forced consideration of an income tax cut.

The original Blue Dogs included Jim McNamara and Hank Gretkowski of Burlington, Michael Vinton of Colchester and Rene Blanchard of Essex.

In an interview in 1999, Flaherty explained the groups' philosophy. "We're pretty laid-back and have a lot of fun," he said, flashing his trademark smile. "But you shouldn't take that to mean we don't take being lawmakers seriously. We take it very seriously."

All five have left the Legislature. Flaherty, Gretkowski and Blanchard retired in 2000. The pals have remained close, said Paula Flaherty. Now the Blue Dogs gather at her husband's bedside. Hopefully, they are sharing some stories and laughs and Mike is giving them one of those mile-wide grins.

-- Nancy Remsen


Douglas pitches his plans at chamber breakfast

Sometimes I wish we had the tradition of the British Parliament in the Legislature and at sessions such as the today's breakfast sponsored by the Lake Champlain Chamber of Commerce and the Greater Burlington Industrial Corp. You know the tradition I'm talking about -- "hear, hear" or the mumbling and shouts of displeasure.

I'm not looking for lack of civility so much as some reaction. Surely the more than 300 people who heard Gov. Jim Douglas outline his plans this morning have some reaction to his suggestions to freeze school spending, consider a merger of the University of Vermont and the state colleges and revise the permit system -- but there wasn't any detectable buzz. Just determined forking of eggs and bacon and coffee-drinking.

Too soon to decide? Too many nuances to consider?

Douglas warned the assembled business and civic leaders that the fiscal news would get worse tomorrow when economists present a revised revenue report for adoption by a special board on which he and four legislators sit.

"There is not a situation we there we can just tweak and tinker," he said. Nor would dismantling state government be the answer, he said. "We can't just make draconian cuts to our programs on which so many Vermonters rely."

Douglas acknowledged that his proposals, made in his inaugural address, hadn't received an enthusiastic response among legislators. "I outlined a few thoughts last week that were, in some cases, provocative."

He appealed to the business crowd when he explained his proposal to freeze school budgets at current levels. What business could have its customer base decline by 10 percent and afford to increase its staff by 25 percent? he asked.

He noted that state government faces the same challenges to belt-tightening as school districts -- fixed labor contract, increasing energy and health care expenses. "I say, welcome to my world."

The questions were submitted on cards -- which was more efficient, but took away any feeling the questioners might have expressed along their queries. Douglas was asked about the impact of divided government -- a Republican executive and Legislature dominated by Democrats.

He joked that voters didn't cast their ballots hoping for gridlock. Can he and legislative leaders work together? "I think we can. The fact that there are different perspectives I hope will be helpful," he said. "I'm sure there will be lot of back and forth ... that will make you wonder." Still he predicted eventual cooperation.

A lot of that back and forth could be short-circuited if the two sides could gauge public/political support for their positions. So how about some "hear, hears" on something.

-- Nancy Remsen


Marrying off the candidates

First, Peter Welch and now his former opponent, Martha Rainville.

Welch got married earlier this month to state Rep. Margaret Cheney.

Rainville, former adjutant general of the Vermont National Guard who was Welch's Republican opponent in 2006, found someone with whom she shares both politics and military. She recently became engaged to Paul McHale, a former Democratic congressman who has enough ties to Republicans to have served as assistant defense secretary in the Bush administration, according to a news report.

Here's the story from the Express-Times in Easton, Pa.:

Congrats to the soon-to-be newlywed.

- Terri Hallenbeck



Fuel for thought

Matt Cota of the Vermont Fuel Dealers Association tells me that his uncle, Sean Cota, will be interviewed in a "60 Minutes" segment this Sunday about fuel price speculation. Sean Cota is the proprietor of Cota & Cota fuel in Bellows Falls and has been active on the issue of fuel prices in Washington.

"60 Minutes" indicates that this is the gist of the story they'll be running: The historic swings in oil prices last year were the result of financial speculation from Wall Street and not supply and demand, several sources from the financial and oil communities tell Steve Kroft.

- Terri Hallenbeck



Obama-Dean divide?

Looks like soon-to-be president Barack Obama isn't going to show the love for former Vt. Gov. Howard Dean and all his good-soldier efforts the past four years as chairman of the Democratic National Committee.

Politico is reporting today that Obama chose to visit DNC headquarters Thursday for a joint press conference with Dean's DNC replacement, Gov. Tim Kaine, on a day that Dean happened to be in American Samoa, about 7,000 miles away from Washington D.C., fulfilling a promise to visit every state and U.S. territory as DNC chairman.

Dean loyalists are quoted as not being happy about the slight, not at all.

"The snub today was no accident," one unnamed Dean all is quoted as saying in the Politico piece. “I guarantee you he would have rescheduled his trip if asked to attend. It’s easy to [screw] over people when you are riding high in the polls, let's see how many people are singing his praises in six months."

Dean's brother, Jim, who heads the Democracy for America grassroots organizating group and PAC that was born out of Dean's failed 2004 presidential campaign, said he was sore about what was going on, too.

“If he had been asked to go to that event, he would have been there,” Jim Dean said. To read the piece in its entirety, click HERE.

Jim Dean's comment explains what had previously been sort of a mystery to me, a recent DFA call for supporters to contact the DNC and urge them to "immediately reinstate" Howard's vaunted 50-state strategy. The appeal initially struck me as odd considering no one including Obama has said the strategy was being abandoned. Now I get it.

Howard Dean's official take on all this appears to be that he's not bummed out that he may not be part of the Obama administration.

"I`m very happy that Barack Obama is president, and I think he`s picked a great cabinet. And I`m pretty happy," Dean told Hardball's Chris Matthews recently. "I wouldn`t trade my position for any other position right now. I`m going to go into the private sector, make a living making speeches, and do a lot of stuff on health care policy."

I can believe that, sort of, because I saw how quickly he got over his own demise as a presidential candidate four years ago. Few people could have bounced back as fast as he did after the humiliation of watching his presidential dreams crash and burn so suddenly and so viciously.

But don't think for a minute that part of him is still waiting for a call from Barack.

After I wrote a Buzz piece earlier this week about him not getting the Surgeon General nod, someone at the DNC took time to call and make sure I understood Dean didn't feel like he was "passed over" for the post because he wasn't hoping to be the SG anyway.

Why make a call like that if your guy isn't still hoping to land a job with Team Obama?

-- Sam Hemingway



After the deluge

So, you've had a chance to hear the governor's speech or read it.

He delivered a wallop to schools - he wants to level-fund their 2010 spending per pupil. He wants to get rid of income sensitivity for households earning $75,000 or more instead of $90,000 or more.

He says schools aren't feeling the pain the way the rest of society is.

In the Legislature, I think you can spell the response this way: DOA.

Income sensitivity is huge to the Democratic majority. They would love to see everyone pay their property taxes based on income.

Level-funding spending didn't go over very well either.

There were other items in the address that are also likely DOA. Permit reform, for instance. He proposed taking into consideration a project's value to the state in terms of economic development when granting permits and lightening up on the front end of permit regulations while strengthening enforcement if things go awry.

You can read the speech on our Web site: www.burlingtonfreepress.com. Read it over. What do you think? Should the Legislature dismiss education funding constraints? What about permit reform?

- Terri Hallenbeck


Live blog: Coverage of mayoral debate, inaugural



Freyne moments

I can't remember the date or all the specifics, but one of my strongest memories of Peter Freyne was one particular news conference in the governor's Statehouse office.

Freyne always asked the odd questions. Did the governor think the U.S. should pull out of Iraq?
What did the governor think of George W. Bush's work in the White House? What was the one thing the governor wanted to tell the people of Vermont?

Gov. Jim Douglas deflected many of the questions. But on this occasion, there was something about Freyne's questioning that particularly got under Douglas' skin. In frustration, he accused all of us at the table of carrying water for the Democrats. He was uncharacteristically flustered, angry, out of control.

Those who had covered former Gov. Howard Dean said it was reminiscent of his famous vein-popping moments.

Douglas' accusation only angered the rest of us, which only fueled the fire. It ended so badly that an hour or so later Douglas spokesman Jason Gibbs came through the Statehouse looking for us. The governor wanted to meet with us again and apologize. Which he did, uncharacteristically.

Freyne's questions _ frequently irreverent and off-point _ had a way of throwing the subject off kilter. Many a time you could see the smoke coming out of the ears of Douglas or House Speaker Gaye Symington. Many a time I had no idea how one might begin to answer the question being asked.

Once Freyne was gone, I think even Symington sort of missed Freyne's questions. "Madame speaker, if there were one thing you'd like to tell Vermonters ...."

"Well, Peter, there's not just one thing ..."

Well, Peter, if there's just one thing to say to you, I guess it would be, rest easy.

- Terri Hallenbeck


Thursday's political extravaganza

Without leaving the comfort of your chair, you can tune in to two political events tomorrow and take part in the debate about them:

- First, in Burlington, the mayoral debate: The Burlington Business Association hosts the first mayoral debate, moderated by The Burlington Free Press, at 8-9:45 a.m. Thursday at the Film House at The Main Street Landing Performing Arts Center.

Watch the debate at www.burlingtonfreepress.com, where the Free Press will live stream video and blog from the event. Readers will have the opportunity to ask questions, which may be used during the debate, as well as discuss the candidates’ responses. The candidates will be asked an introduction question, plus six issue questions. Each candidate will have one minute to respond. Then, the format of the debate will change to direct conversation, as Publisher Brad Robertson and Executive Editor Mike Townsend will ask follow-up questions and questions from Free Press readers. The candidates will then have two minutes each for their closing statements.

- Then, the governor’s inaugural address in the afternoon: Jim Douglas is sworn in for a fourth term as Vermont’s governor. The politics and pageantry get under way at 2 p.m. Thursday at the Statehouse. The events in Montpelier will be live streamed at www.burlingtonfreepress.com. Candace Page will provide online analysis and moderate the Free Press’ live blog.


A Freyne farewell

By now you've heard that former Seven Days columnist Peter Freyne passed away last night after a long illness at the age of 59.

I'll miss Peter, even though I was among the many who he sometimes skewered in his column over the years. I'll miss him because, while I took issue with some of his tactics, there was nothing phony about the guy. He was a passionate political junkie, which I admired, and it was always great theater watching him use the press conference format to ask a politician an uncomfortable question, just to see how the person would react.

In his later years, Peter's tone in his work and in his demeanor softened a bit. I remember standing with Peter on the camera platform at what's now the Hilton in downtown Burlington, watching the Democrats at their party celebration after the 2006 elections go wild as Sen.-elect Bernie Sanders entered the room. It was an remarkable, historic moment for the few of us in the media who have been here to watch all of Bernie's long climb up the political ladder, and Peter and I remarked about that amid the avalanche of cheers.

A month or two later, we talked about the differences we'd had as competing columnists over the years as we stood on the corner of Main and South Winooski one night. Peter reached out his hand, shook mine, and told me that he hoped I understood it was "nothing personal."

Safe travels, Peter.

Sam "the Sham" Hemingway



Disappearing Dean

Looks like another Obama administration post that former Vt. Gov. Howard Dean might have been a candidate for is going to someone else.

The Washington Post is reporting that Obama is going to name Sanjay Gupta, the CBS and CNN doctor/journalist to be his Surgeon General, a largely ceremonial post used to promote healthy life choices and advance an administration's health policies. To read the WaPo piece, click HERE.

Dean, a doctor who has chaired the Democratic National Committee the last four years and supposedly is on good terms with Obama, had recently made a big health care speech amid speculation he might get the nod. No dice, apparently.

Dean steps down from the DNC in exactly two weeks, and is said to be lined up to make some speeches overseas about the Obama campaign, its use of the Internet and the power of grassroots politics.

Hard to believe Obama isn't going to find a spot for him somewhere, but time is starting to run short for any kind of plum assignment.

-- Sam Hemingway


Welch and Waxman

Looks like the bond between our Rep. Peter Welch, D-Vt., and Rep. Henry Waxman, D-Calif., has grown even stronger.

Waxman, you'll recall, was chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, the panel Welch served on during the last session.

Now we hear that Welch will be joining the House Energy and Commerce Committee for the coming session, two months after he helped round up the votes that wrested chairmanship of that committee from longtime Rep. John Dingell, D-Mich., and gave it to Waxman.

The committee is one of the top five panels in the House and is bound to be in the middle of debates on climate change and other big Obama agenda items.

Don't know if this means Welch is off House Oversight, but we hear it does mean Welch will no longer be on House Rules.

-- Sam Hemingway



2010 governor's race is on

Doug Racine wants in to the 2010 governor's race. Jeb Spaulding's thinking about it. So, too, are other high-profile Vermont Democrats.

Should they duke it out in a primary and do their masterminding beforehand?

Can one of them beat the others to all the key backers as Peter Welch did in 2006 in the run for Congress? Or are too many of them the key backers in question?

Regardless of how early or which one, can any of them beat Jim Douglas?

- Terri Hallenbeck


Live from Montpelier

We've unpacked our stuff and moved into our Montpelier office, ready for the 2009 session.

There are minor indications around town that the onslaught is about to hit, but not many. There are, for example, plenty of parking spaces available, which will not be true later in the week.

Those of you who have noticed that we have yet to change the blogging system are right. The online people tell me they could have something for us next week perhaps.

In the meantime, they're working up something to carry the governor's inaugural address live Thursday online, with live blogging. They are planning to do the same with the Burlington mayoral debate Thursday morning.

Thursday is day the governor addresses the Legislature, which returns Wednesday for members to be sworn in and elect their leaders. Rep. Shap Smith, D-Morristown, appears to have the speaker of the House race to himself, as Rep. Steve Adams, R-Hartland, has withdrawn his candidacy.

Because Dems have a large majority, Smith was a virtual shoo-in anyway.

- Terri Hallenbeck



A new federal-state marriage

Here's a surprise for you:

U.S. Rep. Peter Welch and and state Rep. Margaret Cheney got married Friday. The event transpired at Cheney's house in Norwich.

Justice of the Peace Curtis Koren of Brookfield and Sister Maureen Welch, an Ursuline nun and Peter Welch's sister, officiated.

Cheney said they decided on Christmas Day to have the wedding while family members were around and not many people knew it was coming.

She also acknowledged they won't have much time to celebrate. Congress and the state Legislature both convene next week.

"Peter's joke is that for our honeymoon I'm going to D.C. and Margaret's going to Montpelier," she said.

So where will the couple live when they're together in Vermont? That's up in the air, she said. She had a kid in high school still, so she'll be staying in Norwich, plus her legislative district does not include Welch's house in Hartland. Plus, he spends a lot of time in Washington and she in Montpelier.

"It's not your typical domestic situation," she said.

Cheney, 56, is a native of nearby Hanover, N.H., a Harvard grad who has lived all over the world and a former journalist. She has a daughter and two sons, according to her legislative bio. She'll be starting her second term in the Legislature next week. She served on the House Natural Resources and Energy Committee.

Welch, 61, a lawyer who was just elected to his second term in Congress, is a widower, with four stepchildren and one adopted son.

Congrats to the newlyweds.

- Terri Hallenbeck



Name that program

Once they were called food stamps. Now they will be called “3Squares VT.

In announcing Jan. 1 expansion of food stamp eligibility, Gov. Jim Douglas also today announced the new name.

“3Squares VT is more than just a renamed Food Stamp Program. It is an expanded supplemental nutrition assistance program that can help more hard-working Vermonters than ever put three square meals on their table. Calling the program by a more accurate name can help mitigate some of the embarrassment or stigma some applicants might associate with the program," Douglas said.

Does the name change really do anything? Is it easier to say you are applying for 3SquaresVT than applying for food stamps? Or does it pose of the risk of confusing people with so many program names?

- Terri Hallenbeck

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