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vt.Buzz ~ a political blog

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



Douglas delivers evidence

Gov. Jim Douglas reports that he delivered evidence to Vice President Joe Biden today of the completion of Vermont's first stimulus-funded project.

He said he gave Biden a copy of today's Burlington Free Press with stories and photos of the Richmond Bridge Street bridge, which is open and corrosion-free.

I'm telling you, it isn't real until it's in print.

- Terri Hallenbeck


Leahy to seek re-election

Lest any of you thought otherwise, Sen. Patrick Leahy announced today via YouTube that he will be running for re-election in 2010.

With Dems in power in Congress and a Dem in the White House, Leahy's looking at too much fun to call it quits at the age of 69.

In his video announcement for another six-year term, Leahy says he led the fight against the war in Iraq and stood up to the Bush administration and will join President Obama in restoring America's values. "I want to continue to use my experience and seniority to get things done for Vermont."

He's asking his supporters for money, though it is hard to imagine he will need fistfuls of it for his own campaign.

- Terri Hallenbeck

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Mr. Douglas goes to Washington

Here's the governor's schedule for the day from D.C. as he talks health care (and stimulus money with Biden):

8am - Breakfast with Rep.Welch
9am - Minority Leader Boehner/House GOP Conference
10:15 - Speaker Pelosi
12:30 - VP Biden
1 - Sec. Sebelius, Larry Summers, Valerie Jarrett, Nancy-Ann DeParle
2 - President Obama

He indicated yesterday he would be meeting with Welch, with whom he worked on creating Vermont's Catamount Health Plan and who is now on a committee crafting the federal health care legislation. But you'll note that he's not going anywhere near Sen. Bernie Sanders, who is on a committee crafting the health care bill in the Senate. Safe to say their ideas about who should run health care are oceans apart while his and Welch's ideas are a mere stream apart.

Anybody care to weigh in on how likely this attempt at health care reform is to succeed?

- Terri Hallenbeck



Bishop moves to chamber

Betsy Bishop, who late last year moved from the governor's office to head the Economic Development Department, is leaving state government to head the Vermont Chamber of Commerce.

Bishop is one of Gov. Jim Douglas' original core staffers, serving on the transition team when he was elected in 2002. For Bishop, this is a return to a former employer.

It's hard to keep a team together forever. Who does Douglas choose to replace her?

- Terri Hallenbeck

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Of baseball and balance

As you surely read in this morning’s paper, the Vermont Lake Monsters are at risk of extinction. It was disturbing news to ponder over breakfast.

I pose this question to you: What, if anything, should be done about it?

According to Major League Baseball, which seems to favor slick stadiums built at taxpayer expense that charge exorbitant amounts for seats and snacks, Centennial Field isn’t up to snuff.

It should come to the surprise of no one who has watched a game from Centennial’s concrete bleachers that this is not Yankee Stadium – either the new or the old one.

MLB said that it’s more than that _ Centennial’s falls short in some surprisingly simple ways – weak lighting, the wrong distance between bases and the wrong sized pitcher’s mound. Some of those things have apparently been fixed.

Will the little fixes ever be enough?

You could tell that Burlington’s single A franchise was in trouble when Albany and Staten Island and Brooklyn sashayed into the league with their sweet new parks a few years ago. How long could concrete Centennial compete?

So now here we are. Should Vermont let this thing slip away to the next town that’s willing to shell out bucks for better bleachers? Should the 1.65 million fans who’ve cheered for the team in the last 15 years move on to other pursuits? Just forget about bonding over double plays and hot dogs? Get used to not seeing Vermont in the standings?

Or is there some way to save the franchise without selling the soul?

(p.s. It has come to my attention that there is now a Save the Lake Monsters Facebook page).

- Terri Hallenbeck

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Sanders on Sotomayor

Senator Bernie Sanders had his 20-minute sit-down with Supreme Court nominee Judge Sonia Sotomayor on Thursday and came away from the meeting with what he said were "good positive feelings."

Sanders had said when Sotomayor was first nominated by President Barack Obama that he wanted assurances that Sotomayor as a justice would be an advocate for preserving civil liberties in this post 9/11 world. Apparently, that's what he got from her.

"At this point, she impresses me as someone who is a strong advocate for constitutional rights and the rule of law," Sanders said. "I wanted to get her views on how you protect constitutional rights while you are fighting terrorism. That's a tough balance."

Sanders said he would wait to see how she did in hearings next month before the Senate Judiciary Committee before deciding whether he will vote for her to join the Supremes, but it's hard to see how he'd not give her nomination a thumbs up.

BTW, Sanders said Sotomayor had kind things to say about her visits to Vermont and to Burlington, sometimes as a friend of the late Judge Fred Parker, who sat on the 2nd Circuit Court of Appeals with her.

-- Sam Hemingway



Racine's campaign brings in a Kennedy

As I keep saying, the campaign season sure is starting early.

Here's the latest from Doug Racine, one of several Democratic candidates planning to run for governor.

Kathleen Kennedy Townsend will come to Burlington Saturday to support Racine's gubernatorial campaign. It's a fundraiser, but anyone can attend.

Here's the connection. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, eldest child of Robert F.Kennedy, was the Lieutenant Governor of Maryland from 1995 through 2003 -- the same period that Racine was Lieutenant Governor of Vermont. They developed a friendship "based on their shared commitment to civil rights, community service and social justice."

"Kathleen shares my commitment to families" Racine said. "She understands the connection between a strong economy and strong families. She knows that investing in strong communities creates opportunities for everyone."

The event will be from 6-8 p.m. Saturday at Drink in downtown Burlington. Organizers say the suggested donation is $25.

-- Nancy Remsen


Welch has a primary challenger -- already

This is not the summer before an election, but it seems the candidates are restless. Here's another person who has tossed a hat into a political ring -- in this case the Democratic primary race for the state's sole seat in Congress.

Dan Weintraub of Norwich said he plans to challenge the Democratic incumbent, Peter Welch.

Weintraub, whose career has included teaching at the college and secondary school level, believes Welch and the Democratic Congress and Obama administration have led the country down a doomed path.

Here's what he wrote in a letter to media.

"Congressman Welch appears to believe that a nation with a $14.2 Trillion GDP---over 70% of which is based upon consumption (not production) and of which 17%, or some $2.5 Trillion is consumer debt---that such a nation can spend and borrow and print its way out of recession and back to growth and prosperity. History will surely prove him, and those who have supported such efforts, dreadfully wrong."

He continues, "This is not, as many would argue, an ideological debate. It is simple math. I invite you to investigate for yourself just how our leadership---Democrat and Republican alike---have obscured the truth with regard to our so-called economic recovery."

Weintraub has a four-point platform at his campaign website.

His four platform stands are:

  • That he won't become a professional politician. He would serve one term and turn over his entire salary to local foodbanks -- even though he says he was recently laid off from an IT position at Dartmouth.
  • That he rejects the Obama economic rescue plan and would vote against any additional stimulus or bailout money.
  • That separation of church and state is critical and he would vote against any prohibitions on gay marriage or abortions.
  • That he opposes any expansion of war efforts.

You can read more of his thinking at his economic blog.

His blog and a bio can be found at Vermont Commons.

Looks like the 2010 election is going to be a busy one.

-- Nancy Remsen



Can Vermont get the feds to speed it up?

Vermont's Congressional delegation plus Gov. Jim Douglas want the federal government to speed up both the rule- and decision-making for federal economic stimulus funds for e-state investments.

What good will it do a northern state to have dollars provided for outdoor work in December? the quartet ask in a letter to Vice President Joe Biden.

Here's a link to the press release. The letter to Biden is available at this link.

Just how much power does this group of four have in DC? Can they spur the feds into action?

-- Nancy Remsen



The races are on

The House Democratic caucus has wasted no time in making the 2009 legislative session into 2010 campaign fodder.

They have a new Web site: http://www.vthouse.org/. ("We're going to work hard to set things straigt so Vermonter's know the truth.")

Republicans are just as eager. The Vermont Republican Party's Web site is asking for cash to change the headlines. http://www.vtgop.org/victory2010.aspx. (Not quite sure what's up with their upside down apostrophe on their $20'10 logo).

- Terri Hallenbeck

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Leahy lapse

Senator Patrick Leahy may have gotten a bit carried away in his eagerness to get on with the near-certain appointment of Judge Sonia Sotomayor to the Supreme Court.

So says Seth Stern of Congressional Quarterly in a report on the CQ Politics Web site this morning.

Stern reports that Leahy was taken to task by Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala., the new ranking minority member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, for failing to let Sessions in on his decision to begin hearings on the Sotomayor nomination on July 13 before announcing the hearing schedule publicly.

“I apologize in not being more diligent in trying to reach you,” Leahy told Sessions during a meeting of the committee this week.

The story goes that Leahy had left a message with Sessions office alerting him to his decision on the hearing schedule but didn't wait to hear back from the Alabaman before disclosing his plans to reporters.

In the clubby, collegial world of the Senate, that was a big no-no and Sessions -- who didn't get the message until much later because he was at a funeral -- was peeved. And a peeved Republican can use Senate rules to throw up roadblocks to slow Sotomayor's ascension to the high court.

“It’s not the way to treat a ranking member,” Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, a former chairman of the Judiciary Committee said of Leahy's misstep. To read the CQ story in full, click HERE

Leahy apologized to Sessions in private and then in public, but it's unclear if the bruise in their relationship had been healed. Leahy did recently allow the Rs on the panel all the time they wanted to question an Obama appointee to an appellate judge post.

“Sen. Leahy can be very gracious when he puts his mind to it,” Sessions was quoted as saying.

-- Sam Hemingway



Unemployment blues

A story from ProPublica and NPR's Marketplace looks at state's unemployment funds from a national perspective.

Vermont's fund is headed for a negative balance early next year. Legislators put a Band-Aid on that wound this session and established a study committee to look for a long-term solution. Those looking to defend Vermont's status will indeed find that some states are worse.

As this report points out, most states have found it easy to ignore the issue during good times and that's going to cost us all.

"Fourteen states have already run out of funds to pay unemployment insurance claims and taken out a total of more than $8 billion in federal loans to cover the shortfalls. At least 18 more states are in danger of exhausting their unemployment insurance trust funds.

"States with empty unemployment insurance trust funds have pointed to the severe recession as the cause for their plight, but a closer examination of their trust funds shows underfunding and poor planning as the main culprit. Instead of building up reserves during good years, legislatures in these states yielded to political pressure for high benefits and low taxes. The result: dangerously low trust fund balances."

"Federal loans will ensure that states can keep mailing out benefit checks. But the loans pass costs along to federal taxpayers, including people who live in states where unemployment insurance is sufficiently funded. Nor will they solve the long-term unemployment insurance crisis. Taxpayers in states that have borrowed money will have to foot the bill for tens of millions of dollars in interest charges, which must be paid out of the state's general budget because rules prohibit using unemployment insurance funds.

"At the end of 2007, after years of increasing employment and before the current recession hit, 33 states had less than a year's worth of reserves in their trust funds, even though many experts recommend 18 months' worth. Four states had negative balances in the years before the recession started."

- Terri Hallenbeck

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Blame all the way around

Let’s take these state job cuts from the top.

In January, the governor announced the state would have to lay off 600 workers unless it could find long-term savings elsewhere.

Legislators said no way would they let that happen, though they conceded that some $13 million in labor savings was needed.

Various departments compiled lists of jobs that would be eliminated to meet their targeted figures. Though cuts are always hard and one can always argue that certain jobs are essential, some of these the cuts just didn't made sense. Some were entirely or heavily federally funded. Others were made with virtually no planning for what the state would do instead.

Negotiations began between the administration and the union on contract concessions that would prevent layoffs.

Some of the union’s bargaining units wanted the concessions, but enough of those who were unaffected by the layoffs didn’t to defeat agreement.

Legislators inserted wording in the budget that would require their approval before layoffs could be made. They also built a budget that relied on the savings. They didn’t, however, make that action effective until July 1. Too late to save the jobs that must be eliminated before the fiscal year starts July 1. A Superior Court judge said so.

A lump of 80 or so workers went out the door Friday.

The wording of the Legislature’s budget language was also likely unconstitutional. The Attorney General’s Office said so.

Legislators passed a revised version of the wording, which went into law yesterday. The governor says it’s still unconstitutional. Legislature disagrees.

The administration’s labor lawyer sent the union a letter saying that the administration’s preference is to avoid additional layoffs through concessions. The union is wary.

It is as though the script writer to this story was determined to make sure things went wrong on every front and that blame would rest in every corner.

- Terri Hallenbeck

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Douglas and the Dems – is cooperation in their future?

Can Democratic legislative leaders and Gov. Jim Douglas make up and move on following last week’s veto override? Not many positive signs yet.

Douglas provided a window into his state of mind at noon Tuesday when he fielded questions on Vermont Public Radio. (Actually he was a bit late for the show as he was fishing – one of those gubernatorial appearances at a fishing derby).

Douglas repeated his now familiar complaint that the budget that lawmakers enacted over his veto set the state on a track that would be unsustainable.

He declared the just-ended session one of the “sloppiest” in his years watching Statehouse goings-on.

Further, he charged that legislative leaders walked away from the negotiating table – three times.

Not exactly the kind of comments that would bring people together.

Senate President Pro Tempore Peter Shumlin, D-Windham, and House Speaker Shap Smith, D-Morristown, held a press event later in the day where they repeated their mantra of cooperation. “The speaker and I want to work together with the governor to put together the 2011 budget,” Shumlin said. “We are committed to working together with the governor.”

Still, they answered the accusation about the sloppiness of the session. It was not, Shumlin said. And they rebutted governor’s assertion that they walked away from negotiations on a compromise budget. “Nobody ever walked away,” Shumlin said. “I don’t know what motivates the governor at this time to say something that is untrue.”

Smith said the talks with the governor’s staff – the governor didn’t attend most of the negotiations – were cordial. “I’m disappointed the governor would characterize them any other way.”

How exactly will they work with the governor?

Smith and Shumlin sent Douglas a letter Tuesday suggesting areas of common concern. In the area of proposed structural changes in government, the letter suggests, “We are very interested in regular meetings with you to ensure we move forward to achieve what savings that can be made.” In other areas, the letter notes legislative studies that will soon get underway that could provide valuable information to the budget process.

Douglas, for his part, has begun calling on legislators to provide him with a “plan” showing how they would close the financial gap that will occur in fiscal 2011 based on current spending and revenue trends. Given that during the session, lawmakers drummed on Douglas to give them his budget alternative in writing, expect Douglas to demand the same.

When asked about producing a plan for Douglas, Shumlin reminded that it is the executive’s duty to propose a budget and the Legislature’s responsibility to review (and rewrite) it.

Smith suggested the governor and his staff might want to try to win some support for budget proposals earlier rather than surprise lawmakers and the public in January.
Douglas has said airing ideas early sometimes gives opponents more time to organize.

So on this one-week anniversary of the budget veto, does anyone see signs that Douglas and Democratic legislative leaders can and will enter a new era of cooperation -- or are they steering into politically choppy waters?

-- Nancy Remsen



Is budget constitutional?

When Superior Court Judge Dennis Pearson issued his ruling Friday on the state job cuts, he said court procedure obligated him to avoid weighing into the constitutional issues if at all possible.

Thus, those remain unexplored.

At issue is whether the Legislature is over-stepping its authority by requiring the administration to receive approval of the Legislature's Joint Fiscal Committee it cuts more than 1 percent of the state workforce.

The supplemental bill that the Legislature passed last week lays out some pretty specific details on what that plan can look like:

(d) In the event that the $13,400,000 expenditure reductions are not
achieved as described in subsection (c) of this section, the secretary of
administration shall develop an alternate savings plan for submission to the
legislative joint fiscal committee on or before July 10, 2009. If the secretary’s
alternate savings plan results in reductions in force greater than one percent of
the entire state workforce, meaning all full-time, permanent, classified and
exempt state employees, as measured cumulatively from June 2, 2009, the
alternate savings plan shall not become effective unless approved or deemed
approved by the joint fiscal committee under subsection (g) of this section.
The secretary’s alternate savings plan may include alternatives to position
reductions and shall not be limited to positions already submitted to the
legislature in list development.

There more to it, which you can read HERE (search for the word joint to get there).

Play judge for a bit and you decide. Is the Legislature interfering with the executive branch's powers? To some extent, legislators tell them executive branch what to do all the time. Is this micro-managing or guiding?

- Terri Hallenbeck

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Players in court

When the union went to court Friday seeking (and failing) to stop the Douglas administration from laying off some 80 workers today, they sat across the courtroom not from state lawyers but a private attorney.

Michael Marks of the Montpelier law firm Tarrant, Marks & Gillies represented Gov. Jim Douglas, Administration Secretary Neale Lunderville and acting Human Resources Commissioner Linda McIntire.

Lunderville said the administration decided it would be best to have its own counsel because the Attorney General's Office had advised both the administration and the Legislature on the legislation in question.

Marks' firm is on retainer with the state for labor relations work, Lunderville said.

Douglas and Lunderville weren't in court. McIntire represented the team at the defense table. She's filling in for Human Resources Commissioner David Herlihy, who has been activated for military deployment to Afghanistan.

One can argue which assignment is more desirable.

- Terri Hallenbeck

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Session lands in court

It was surreal this morning - though fitting - to realize that the 2009 legislative session was ending in court.

In a Burlington courtroom a short time ago, a judge denied the state employees union request to stop layoffs that are happening today because of wording in legislation passed this week that requires legislative oversight of job cuts.

So this strange session wound up in court. Some of the players from the Statehouse instead in a courthouse.

Finance Commissioner Jim Reardon was there on the stand describing how the cuts were necessary and stopping them would only make things worse.

Deputy Administration Secretary Linda McIntire was there at the defense table. The governor's legal counsel, Susanne Young, was sitting in audience.

Vermont State Employees Association Director Jes Kraus was at the plaintiff's table, all part of his strange first year at the helm of the union.

The judge, by the way, decided that the law was indeed not in effect until July 1, so no stopping the layoffs now. Kraus said the union will decide by Monday whether to appeal to the Supreme Court.

That the 2009 session would lurch on into the Supreme Court would not surprise me.

- Terri Hallenbeck

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Will lawmakers come back in 09?

Last night was supposed to be the real end of the 2009 Vermont legislative session -- or at least that's what I thought until the House clerk read the adjournment resolution.

On May 9, the House and Senate said goodbye until January -- which forced Gov. Jim Douglas to call them back for this week's special session when he vetoed the one bill necessary to operate state government.

Last night, by contrast, legislative leaders gave themselves the option to return next Thursday (June 11) if Douglas vetoes the companion bills they had just passed.

These two bills "fix" things in the budget bill as well as some other legislation passed during the session. Some of the fixes are housekeeping that could have been done next winter -- the tradition time for technical corrections. Others changes are policy accommodations responding to criticisms of the budget -- many voiced by the governor.

Democratic leaders said they intentionally showed they and their allies had the political muscle to win an override vote on their bare naked budget, warts and all. Then they showed they were willing to muster those same political forces and more to make fixes that answered some of their chief opponent's concerns.

Douglas has already characterized the veto override as the super-majority in the Legislature bullying through a tax-and-spend budget rather than staying at the negotiating table to find a compromise.

Democrats intend to answer with evidence of their willingness to compromise: H. 442. It contains several changes Douglas wanted -- such as sales tax holidays, restored funding for Next Generation scholarships and telecommunications, and exceptions to newly enacted reduction of the 40-percent capital gains exemption for farmers, those selling timber and, for a brief period, those over age 70.

Democrats can't afford to lose their proof of compromise to a veto, but Douglas probably can't afford to veto stuff he like or risk the political fallout of another veto session.

So it's likely the Legislature is gone for good this time.

-- Nancy Remsen



Bartlett: I'm definitely running

Sen. Susan Bartlett, chairwoman of the Senate Appropriations Committee, said on Vermont Public Radio's "Vermont Edition" today that she is definitely running for governor.

I'm not sure that she had previously said it so explicitly that she's definitely in. She said she will be announcing in July.

Bartlett had previously said she wouldn't make a decision until after she was done grappling with the state budget. She finished grappling, more or less, with the budget mere mintues before the show aired.

I guess we can be sure now that the budget will be a campaign issue.

- Terri Hallenbeck


N.H. allows same-sex marriage

From the Associated Press:
CONCORD, N.H. — New Hampshire’s governor has signed legislation making the state the sixth to allow gay marriage.
Gov. John Lynch was surrounded by cheering supporters of the move as he signed the three bills about an hour after the key vote on the legislation in the House.
The law will take effect in January, exactly two years after the state legalized civil unions. New Hampshire joins Massachusetts, Connecticut, Maine, Vermont and Iowa in recognizing same-sex marriages, though opponents hope to overturn Maine’s law with a public vote.

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Long day's journey into night

The House has voted on the "companion" to the budget bill, but has yet to act on the "technical corrections" bill that fixes mistakes in various bills.

Among the must-have fixes: a typo that should have read $2,500 but instead read $1,250.

The pace is so painful that senators _ sitting by the side waiting for their House counterparts' changes _ are making motel reservations in anticipation that they won't want to be driving home at 11 p.m.

- Terri Hallenbeck

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How's override travel in streets of Vermont?

There are so many bleeding ways to get one's message out these days. I tweeted about the special session. We posted updates on our Web site. I sent out smoke signals and telegrams, set sail to a message in a bottle and used mental telepathy.

But I have not blogged about it.

So here goes:

The vote was a razor thin 100-50. Legislative leaders were pretty sure they had the votes but one never really knows. Rep. Tim Corcoran made it interesting by being away from his desk when the House clerk made his first trip through the alphabet. Lawmakers get a second chance through the roster and when his name was called again, Corcoran delivered the final vote.

The Senate vote was quicker, less dramatic. 23-5.

And so the Legislature delivered their second override of the governor this year.

The next question is how this rides with the public. Is Douglas diminished in their eyes or is the Legislature buried by the burden of carrying this budget on their backs?

- Terri Hallenbeck

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Live: Statehouse coverage



Gov vetoes budget

Gov. Jim Douglas has vetoed the budget bill. Talks between his staff and legislative leaders fell apart this afternoon. Should make Tuesday an interesting day.

- Terri Hallenbeck

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Roy no longer exploring

Republican Chris Roy of Williston announced this morning that his candidacy for secretary of state is no longer exploratory, but is for real.

He also announced he has the endorsement of his former neighbor, Martha Rainville, who will serve as an honorary chair of his campaign. Rainville, former Vermont adjutant general and unsuccessful candidate for U.S. House, won't presumably be able to vote for Roy, however, as last we heard she was down D.C. way.

The Barre native and lawyer has a new campaign Web site: www.roy4sos.com.

He is among those who are presuming that Democrat Deb Markowitz won't be running for re-election. She is exploring a campaign for governor in 2010.

Charles Merriman, a Middlesex lawyer, is running for the office as a Democrat.

- Terri Hallenbeck

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Drama under the Dome

Do supporters of the Legislature's budget have the votes to override? Will they need them? You can read about it in today's Free Press.

- Terri Hallenbeck

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