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vt.Buzz ~ a political blog

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



Tuesday Buzz: on moderates, marriage and a changed political landscape

The monkey wrench in the middle

Gov. Jim Douglas’ announcement last week that he will not seek re-election lit up the phone lines among political aspirants and the people who can help them.

Looking out over the possible new landscape one might wonder whether moderates have a seat at the table. Keep in mind that in recent years, moderates have owned the power to put somebody in the governor’s seat (think Howard Dean, Jim Douglas.

If Lt. Gov. Brian Dubie is the Republican candidate against any one of the Democrats who’ve voiced an interest wins their party’s primary, does that leave moderates nowhere to go?

"It is a concern, naturally," said Sen. Richard Mazza, D-Grand Isle/Chittenden, who is often the man in the middle in the Senate. "One of the things expressed to me by a lot of folks in the store and in the business community is they are looking for someone moderate."

Mazza said he worries that neither Dubie nor some of the Democrats considering a run are the answer.

Charlie Smith, a moderate Republican and former member of Douglas’ cabinet, was not so worried, arguing that Dubie fills the bill. "I view Brian as a moderate and I view myself as a moderate," Smith said.

Mazza, who serves with Dubie on the Senate’s Committee on Committees, disagrees. "Brian Dubie’s a conservative," he said.

Dubie, who is expected to announce soon whether he is running for governor and to whom other Republicans are deferring, has shown conservative stances on social issues, opposing abortion and same-sex marriage. Smith suggested those issues won’t be key in 2010.

"His focus would be on jobs and the economy," Smith said. "I have confidence in his instincts and his values."

John Bloomer Jr., a moderate former Republican state senator who is among those who said he is awaiting Dubie’s decision before making his own, agreed that those issues don’t necessarily close off moderate support for Dubie.

Sen. Phil Scott, R-Washington, whose moderate status earned him a committee chairmanship in the heavily Democratic Senate, put it this way: "He and I may not agree on some issues but he has respect for other opinions and he listens."

Mazza, meanwhile, is worried enough that he’s trying to recruit moderates into the game, including state Treasurer Jeb Spaulding, who has said he would not run.

"Jeb would be a great candidate," Mazza said. "I’m going to talk to him again."

State Auditor Tom Salmon, a Democrat, has made sought to characterize himself as a moderate alternative. Mazza suggested that Salmon has some work ahead of him before is accepted by Democratic brethren.

Three Democrats are already in the race: Sens. Doug Racine and Susan Bartlett and Secretary of State Deb Markowitz, whom Mazza said called seeking his support over the weekend. Senate President Pro Tempore Peter Shumlin has strongly suggested he might join them.

Among those, Mazza said he ranks Shumlin the most moderate, despite Shumlin’s near-warfare-level wrangling with Douglas.

"He understands the business community. He knows the landscape out there," said Mazza, who runs a general store in Colchester. "Can he get elected? That’s another issue."

No matter how you rank candidates, Mazza said Democrats need to get together in a room and sort things out before they grow ugly. He suggested that Dean and perhaps Rep. Peter Welch, D-Vt., could pull the candidates together and figure out the best possible course.

"This is real big turning point," he said.

— Terri Hallenbeck

The call to the bullpen

It’s a powerful thing when people call and suggest you should run for any office, let alone governor, as a number of Vermont politicians have discovered in recent days.

"It certainly is flattering," said Sen. Phil Scott, R-Washington, said he’s had calls suggesting he run for governor or lieutenant governor.

Scott said he is considering it, particularly running for lieutenant governor. On the governor front, he was candid: "I think there’s many more qualified people than myself."

As Scott thought about it, there was another, unique reason being governor might not be a good fit for him. Governors are driven around the state by a trooper and Scott said he likes driving too much to consider giving that up. Not to mention, Scott said, that officials at Thunder Road, where he drives a race car Thursday nights, would never let him sit in the passenger seat for their circuits around the track.

— Terri Hallenbeck

People won’t remember in November — 2010

The consensus among political party officials is that same-sex marriage — which becomes legal today — won’t be an issue in the 2010 election.

No big backlash as in 2000 when opponents of civil union ousted some lawmakers over their votes. "I don’t see it as an overarching issue," said Republican Party Chairman Rob Roper. Judy Bevans, Democratic Party chairwoman, agreed, as did Morgan Daybell, executive director of the Vermont Progressive Party.

"People have a year to get used to it and people wanted it," Bevans said of allowing same-sex marriage. "I think we have moved beyond being challenged on it. We have real problems to solve."

Daybell listed the issues he expects will the front-burner issues for voters — health care, the future of Vermont Yankee and the economy. "Same-sex marriage is going to be eclipsed by those issues."

Roper predicted same-sex marriage would become an issue only in a handful of legislative races if candidates received significant out-of-state money contributions.

— Nancy Remsen

In case you missed it

Free Press photographer Glenn Russell shot video of our interview with Gov. Jim Douglas the day he announced he would not seek re-election.

Nationally speaking: Gov. Jim Douglas’ announcement Thursday that he would not seek re-election set of a flurry of political buzz nationally among those who track states and who controls what some refer to as "the governor’s mansion," though Vermont has no mansion.

CQ Politics is among those that immediately changed its rating of the state to "Leans Democratic" from "Leans Republican." CQ Politics said Republican Lt. Gov. Brian Dubie has proven he can win, "But he also has clashed with Democratic state legislators over his conservative line on law-and-order and social issues — views that could provide ammunition for the opposition in the contest for the much higher-profile governor’s office in strongly Democratic-trending Vermont."

— Terri Hallenbeck

Roar of the crowd

"If Dubie runs, I don't think he will have as difficult a time as CQ politics imagines in this "heavily democratic" state," said politicaljunkie, responding to CQ Politics’ assessment. "If Vermont voters really perceived Dubie as that different from Douglas or some kind of extreme conservative, he would have undoubtedly faced many more defections."

Campaign stimulus plan

Gov. Jim Douglas has done his part to stimulate the economy in Vermont with his announced retirement from political office. Think of all the staff, rented offices, phone lines and placards for the many politicians eying the opportunities from the changed political landscape in 2010.

OK, the pack will shrink so the stimulus may be short-lived. Still, some political hopefuls are hiring for what they hope is the long haul — from now to at least September, 2010.

Democrat Doug Racine, who was in the race for governor whether or not Douglas was the Republican candidate, has now hired his third campaign aide.
Amy Shollenberger, who comes to the campaign with a decade of grassroots organizing and political experience, becomes Racine’s field director. "I’m responsible for getting people engaged," the 38-year-old Montpelier resident said. She will recruit volunteers and supporters. "Basically I ask people to do stuff to help get Doug elected."

Shollenberger wrapped up her work as director of Rural Vermont earlier this summer, so this opportunity came along at the perfect time, she said.

Democrat Deb Markowitz, who got serious about her run for governor last winter, is interviewing to find a campaign manager. She is conducting a nationwide search.

A staffer she hired to get her campaign and fund raising launched has moved on to pursue other career options as expected. He was never a long-term hire, Markowitz said. She has another paid campaign aide.

Democrat Susan Bartlett, the last of the three to declare her intentions, said she’s still relying on volunteers.

— Nancy Remsen

VPIRG counterattacks on health reform

The Vermont Public Interest Research Group doesn’t want Vermonters to feel left out of the national health care battle — so it has launched a series of television advertisements in support of comprehensive reform. Radio ads may soon follow.

Paul Burns, VPIRG’s executive director, said though Vermont’s Congressional delegation strongly supports reform, "We want them to be champions of the very best bill we can get." In other words Burns wants Vermonters to tell Rep. Peter Welch and Senators Patrick Leahy and Bernie Sanders to hold tight to the public health insurance option rather than throw it overboard in a seemingly futile attempt to win Republican support for a health reform bill.

In his 30-second spot — one of three VPIRG is airing — Burns shoots a dart at Gov. Jim Douglas, too.

"Some angry mobs, insurance industry lobbyists and our own Gov. Jim Douglas are opposing the public plan option that will keep costs down and give Vermonters more choice," Burns states on air.

Burns said he objects to Douglas using his new political weight as chairman of the National Governors Association to promote a position that differs from that of a majority of Vermonters. Burns urges Vermonters to let Douglas know he’s not speaking for them.

— Nancy Remsen

Quote to note:

Gov. Jim Douglas, announcing he wouldn’t run for re-election in 2010.

"But as any farmer knows, after many years — working sun up to sun down, seven days a week — there comes a time to turn over the reins to fresh arms. For me, that time is approaching. After 36 years as a public servant, 28 of those in statewide office, what will be eight years as governor — and through 15 statewide elections — I will have held center stage long enough for any leader. I will not seek another term as governor of Vermont."

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Montpelier's statement on hate

Right above the notice that water and sewer bills are due, Montpelier city officials have posted on their Web site today a statement about the planned protests of the Westboro Baptist Church on Tuesday.

The statement, by city manager Bill Fraser, says in part:

The City of Montpelier condemns the Westboro Baptist Church’s message of hate. Surely our high school students, citizens and visitors deserve better than to be subjected to nasty messages denouncing gay people as well as, among many others, Jews, Catholics, fallen soldiers, President Obama and the United States of America.


It may be tempting to confront and challenge this group verbally, physically or in some form of silent counter protest. In the interest of public safety and order, however, the City government of Montpelier urges people to please ignore this group and simply stay away from the demonstrations.


For those who feel they must make some sort of counter statement or appearance we urgently request that you do so at the State House Lawn where there is much more room to keep parties separated and does not present the same traffic and safety hazards.

You can read the whole note at: http://www.montpelier-vt.org/notices.cfm#westboro

- Terri Hallenbeck

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The lure of that open gubernatorial seat

Thursday afternoon, House Speaker Shap Smith, D-Morristown, couldn't have been more clear.

When asked if he would consider a run for governor, he said, "I'm planning to run for re-election in the House."

He said he'd received calls from several people suggesting he consider becoming a gubernatorial candidate and apparently the idea started to grow on him. That and he had a chance to talk with his wife later in the day, he said.

Friday he joined those talking about the new opportunities in the "changed political landscape."

"I'm very interested in continuing to work for Vermont. I'm looking at a variety of ways I can do that." Running for governor is one of the ways he's pondering, he said, although he added, "My inclination is to run for re-election."

If you are keeping count of all the Democrats committed to or considering gubernatorial runs, here's our best list of the moment:
Deb Markowitz, current secretary of state
Doug Racine, state senator
Susan Bartlett, state senator,
Peter Shumlin, Senate president pro tempore
Shap Smith, House speaker
Tom Salmon, state auditor

-- Nancy Remsen

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The Democratic free-for-all

We came at you with live video, with tweets, with Web page updates today as Gov, Jim Douglas announced he would not seek re-election. Now, we turn to the blog.

Nationally, Democrats seem to think this is a golden opportunity to win control of a governor's seat. In the process, they sound like all that matters is the score-keeping - how many Republicans vs. how many Democrats, but never mind that.

Are they missing the possibility that this also leaves Democrats in a free-for-all with no common enemy? The candidates were all hepped up to tell you what was wrong with the way the state is being run. Mind you, that hasn't been a successful tactic for the last three elections, but now they have to compete with each other.

Will that prove to be even harder?

By the way, here's what Project Swing State says of the Vermont governor's race with today's news:

With this decision, Swing State Project is changing our rating of this race to "Tossup." Given the state's decidedly blue hue, "Lean Democratic" wouldn't be out of the question, but Dubie is no slouch and we are intensely aware of the capacity of the Progressives in Vermont to screw things up for Democrats. If it's clear that Anthony Pollina won't get in the race this time, we will feel more confident about Dems' chances.

- Terri Hallenbeck

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Sanders stays east

Sen. Bernie Sanders will postpone a trip to Alaska to attend Sen. Ted Kennedy's Saturday funeral.

From the Associated Press

ANCHORAGE, Alaska -- The funeral of U.S. Sen. Edward Kennedy has halted plans for a trip to Alaska by five other senators.

Alaska Sen. Mark Begich had planned to host four senators on a "climate change" tour Friday through Sunday.

Retreating glaciers, forests damaged by invasive species and drying wetlands were on the itinerary. They also planned to visit the North Slope to see the Prudhoe Bay oil field.

Sens. Barbara Boxer of California, Bernie Sanders of Vermont, Frank Lautenberg of New Jersey and Debbie Stabenow of Michigan had planned to attend.

Kennedy died Tuesday. His funeral is Saturday in Boston.

Begich says he hopes the trip can be rescheduled.

- Terri Hallenbeck


DMV's shadow

The state has announced that a bogus Web site is trying to lure in would-be Department of Motor Vehicles users. Aware users would know that you can't renew your license online.

Here's the release on the bogus site:

MONTPELIER – The Vermont Department of Motor Vehicles learned today of a bogus website asking motorists to register their vehicles and renew their driver’s license using a credit card. DMV is warning Vermonters not to use this website as it is not legitimate.

The bogus website operates under the guise of both Business.com and vtregistrationrenewals.com. If computer users use the search engine Google and type in Vermont registration renewals or a similar search phrase, the bogus website can be the first link that appears. The Vermont DMV is warning computer users not to visit these websites, and only visit the official Vermont Department of Motor Vehicles website to do their on-line transactions.

“These bogus websites look extremely authentic, inform the user they can save a trip to the DMV and then take the user through a series of screens that appear legitimate,” said Vermont DMV Commissioner Robert Ide. “These bogus websites eventually ask computer users for their credit card information. Please do not give it to them.”

The Department of Motor Vehicles has reported the bogus websites to the Vermont Attorney General’s office, and the State has contacted Google to have the bogus web links removed from its search engine.

The people at Business.com say it isn't them.

The real web site: http://www.dmv.state.vt.us/
- Terri Hallenbeck

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A Ted Kennedy memory

The news this morning, with the many clips of Ted Kennedy speeches, unearthed a long forgotten memory of meeting him.

I mean long forgotten, too, because it was probably in 1960 when then Sen. John F. Kennedy was running for President. My father, a reporter for the New York Times based in Detroit, spent some time on the campaign trail that year.

On one occasion -- I can't tell you where except I think it was Ohio -- I got to tag along or maybe my mother brought my brother and me to the event to pick up my father. I would have been 10.

What I remember is being in an elevator with JFK and Teddy. Ted Kennedy was the friendly one. He offered me a stick of gum.

Television brings so many public figures into our living rooms that a personal encounter isn't as memorable or meaningful as it once was. Back in that very political year -- during the Kennedy/Nixon battle for the White House -- I could boast on the playground that I'd shaken hands with both presidential candidates, thanks to my father. I brushed Nixon's hand through an airport chain-link fence some time after the up-close-and-personal moment with the Kennedys.

I'm sure I saw Ted Kennedy again in 1974 when I spent the fall in Washington D.C. wandering through the Capitol in search of stories during the final semester of my University of Missouri master's program in journalism. Strangely, the memory that stuck, however, is the one involving a piece of gum.

-- Nancy Remsen




Battle over the battlefield

Despite opposition from Vermont and lots of other places, a Virginia county board has approved a Walmart store near key Civil War battlefields.

Vermont historian Howard Coffin rallied the state Legislature to take a stand against it. Rep. Peter Welch, D-Vt., joined in.

Today, the Orange County Board of Supervisors voted 4-1 to grant a special permit after a hearing at which many residents spoke in favor of the store. From the Associated Press:

ORANGE, Va. (AP) Local officials early Tuesday approved a Walmart Supercenter near one of the nations most important Civil War battlefields, a proposal that had stirred opposition by preservationists and hundreds of historians.
The Orange County Board of Supervisors voted 4-1 to grant the special permit to the worlds biggest retailer after a majority of more than 100 speakers said they favored bringing the Walmart to Locust Grove, within a cannonballs shot from the Wilderness Battlefield.
Historians and Civil War buffs are fearful the Walmart store will draw traffic and more commerce to an area within the historic boundaries of the Wilderness, where generals Ulysses S. Grant and Robert E. Lee first met in battle 145 years ago and where 145,000 Union and Confederate soldiers fought and more than 29,000 were killed or injured. One-fourth of the Wilderness is protected.
But they could not sway supervisors, who said they didnt see the threat.

- Terri Hallenbeck

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Tuesday's Buzz

vt.Buzz's weekly print edition makes its second appearance in Tuesday's Free Press and here on the Web:

After 28 years in the state Legislature, Rich Westman started work this week in a building down the hill from the dome in another branch of government.

Now 50, Westman has been representing his hometown of Cambridge in the House since he was 23 years old, a young pup just out of Johnson State College (what else would a political science major do when he realizes he might not want to work on the family farm full-time?). He has been House minority leader, chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, chairman of the House Transportation Committee — the only Republican this past year to head a committee in the Democratic-controlled House.

This week, he becomes state tax commissioner. Why the change after all this time?

"It was really a good time for breaking off," Westman said. "It’s time for me to learn new things."

After five years of trying to call attention to funding problems in transportation, Westman finally managed this year to get a gas tax through. He was also in a transition, ending one contract and starting another, on his job at Vermont Student Assistance Corp.

This week’s job change is also a move back to the future for Westman. Growing up on the farm, he said, taxes, land value, how land was categorized by the state were always big topics around the milking parlor.

— Terri Hallenbeck

Who gets Westman’s seat?

Too soon to tell. Gov. Jim Douglas is awaiting three names from the Cambridge Republican town committee (with concurrence from Belvidere and Waterville Republicans, too?). He will conduct interviews and then decide, but his spokeswoman, Dennise Casey, noted that since the Legislature isn’t in session, there isn’t a lot of urgency.

Westman is backing Adam Howard of Jeffersonville, co-founder of the company that publishes Backcountry Magazine and whose family has known Westman’s for years.

Heather Sheppard of North Cambridge is working to drum up support to be one of the three nominees and promises, appointed or not by Douglas, she will run for the seat next fall.

No chairman yet

House Speaker Shap Smith has yet to pick a new chairman of the House Transportation Committee, not surprising since it is a politically tricky decision.

Smith is sure to take some criticism if he fails to fill the slot with another Republican. Representation in committee leadership is seen as a measure of whether a speaker is inclusive or partisan.

If Smith looks within the committee for a Republican, his choices are Rep. Janice Peaslee, R-Guildhall, or Rep. Patrick Brennan, R-Colchester. Brennan, one of Westman’s lunch buddies, would seem the more likely of the two based on his more moderate politics and his work on behalf of a gas tax.

Smith could find politically tricky waters choosing from the Democratic ranks. Does he give the job to the committee’s vice chairman — Rep. David Potter, D-Clarendon? If not, why not? Or maybe he’s considering someone who exhibited a lot of energy on transportation issues in the past — Rep. Sue Minter, D-Waterbury. She now serves on the House Appropriations Committee.

Smith offered these criteria for his next chairman: "Someone well versed in transportation issues who cares not only about transportation infrastructure but public transportation and bike and pedestrian issues. It is important to have someone who can work well with the group of people on the committee and someone who has a keen interest in money issues."

Smith could shake up a lot of committees as he fills this vacancy, but he said he isn’t inclined to do that. "My preference is to minimize the amount of moving people around, but that isn’t to say there might not be some shifts."¶

Smith said he hopes to have a new transportation chairman selected by Sept. 10 when the Joint Transportation Oversight Committee meets.

— Nancy Remsen

New conservative in town

The Ethan Allen Institute has a new president - Richard H. Bornemann. He moves to the helm of the conservative think tank that John McClaughry founded and headed since 1993. McClaughry stays on as vice president.

Bornemann, 53, arrives with a economic, energy, transportation and inside-the-Beltway background, serving most recently as strategist and lobbyist for Governmental Strategies Inc. in Washington, D.C.

Google his name and you find he gave donations to Republican lawmakers, but he says he now prefers to characterize his politics as pro-growth, pro-liberty conservative.

A search also shows he once paid a fine to the Federal Election Commission. I was accused of being an unregistered bundler, he said, referring to a term for people, usually lobbyists, who solicited and packaged campaign contributions. "For that I had to pay a civil penalty."

Why leave the nation's capital?

"After 24 years in D.C., you burn out," he said. "It was a lot of fun, but as the years went on, it got personal, it got nasty."

Bornemann expects to set up an office for the Ethan Allen Institute in Montpelier or Burlington - as part of an expansion of the institutes work under his leadership. McClaughry ran the institute from his house in Kirby. 

— Nancy Remsen

Civics lesson indeed

C-SPAN’s civics bus is coming to Vermont this week. Before it arrived, C-SPAN got a civics lesson of its own from Rep. Warren Kitzmiller, D-Montpelier.

In its announcement, C-SPAN said it would be stopping from 11 a.m.-1 p.m. today [tha: 8/25: ]at the Statehouse in Montpelier, which it helpfully said was at the corner of Gov. Clay Aiken Avenue and State Street.

Kitzmiller fired off an e-mail to C-SPAN. "What in the world were you thinking?" Kitzmiller said, pointing out that Clay Aiken was a runner-up on "some lame TV show" (that would be "American Idol") while the street is actually named after the late George Aiken.

"Our late governor (and U.S. senator) GEORGE Aiken stands as a legend in Vermont political life," Kitzmiller wrote.

He received a quick apology and correction from C-SPAN.

— Terri Hallenbeck

D.C. doings

The cost of living, technically speaking, is going down, even if it doesn’t feel that way. That means seniors likely won’t be seeing an increase in their Social Security checks.

Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., said he plans to introduce legislation to provide one-time payments to Social Security recipients. "I think a lot of seniors do not know what’s coming down the pike, and I believe that when they hear that, they’re going to be upset," Sanders said. "It is my view that seniors are going to need help this year, and it would not be acceptable for Congress to simply turn its back."

— Terri Hallenbeck

Health care on their minds

Howard Dean — you know, author of "Howard Dean’s Prescription for Real Healthcare Reform as well as holder of a few political offices, stops by Vermont Sunday. He gives a free speech at the Rutland Band Stand at 5 p.m.

Sen. Bernie Sanders reported big turnout — about 600 people — for the last of his three heatlh care forums in Peacham on Saturday.

— Nancy Remsen

In case you missed it

Chris Graff, former Vermont bureau chief of the Associated Press, weighed in on how much politicians dread a contested primary in this month’s Vermont Business Magazine.

He warns there are good historical reasons to avoid an in-party dust-up like the one Vermont Democrats are headed toward in the 2010 governor’s race. He ends, though, with more recent history — a primary battle didn’t hurt Barack Obama.

Graff does neglect to identify all the Democratic candidates in the race.

— Terri Hallenbeck

Roar of the crowd

"I must say, I’m at a loss as to why the Burlington Police Dept waited until now to investigate," Stinger44 wrote in a comment that reflected others’ thoughts on a story last week about the police investigation of Sen. Ed Flanagan’s behavior at the Burlington YMCA.

Quote of note

"It’s just a timing shift; it’s not an overall increase in the purchases that are made," said Mark Robyn, staff economist at the conservative Tax Foundation, on sales-tax holidays such at the one Vermont had Saturday. "They’re bad tax policy, essentially just a political gimmick."

Why no road signs?

Tom Evslin, chief of the state’s Office of Economic Stimulus and Recovery, says Vermonters keep asking him why other states have signs identifying projects funded with federal stimulus money, but Vermont doesn’t. He answered in his blog.

"Those signs cost $1,500 each. You need at least two for each project. The exact form for the sign and the ARRA (American Recovery and Reinvestment Act) logo are spelled out in federal guidelines along with a "recommendation" that the signs be displayed," he wrote.

"Here in Vermont we decided that we’d rather spend the stimulus highway dollars on roads than signs. We have lots of projects but we don’t have signs. Once I explain almost everyone agrees with this decision."

Question of the Week

Should Vermont post signs declaring which road and bridge projects are funded by the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act like other states have done or are the signs a waste of money?



Campaign finance back in cross hairs

Jim Bopp, the lawyer who helped bring down Vermont's 1997 campaign finance law in the nation's highest court, is back. This time, he is targeting another portion of the law that covers political action committees.

On behalf of the Vermont Right to Life Committee, Bopp has filed suit against the state, saying that the Right to Life Committee should be able to argue against physician-assisted suicide without making the disclosures required by law. Those include listing who has donated to the cause.

The group wants to publish a newsletter that mentions 2010 Democratic gubernatorial candidate Doug Racine's support for physician-assisted suicide, he says in the suit. He argues that those who contribute shouldn't have to have their names listed.

As Vermont officials are well aware, Bopp has had some success in challenging the state's campaign finance laws before.

- Terri Hallenbeck

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Who has the power?

Members of the Joint Legislative Committee on Health Access Oversight wondered Wednesday how their colleagues on the Joint Fiscal Committee could decide to void the Legislature's decision about expanding eligibility to Catamount Health.

Tuesday, as part of the package of $28 million in budget changes to address problem of shrinking state revenues, the Joint Fiscal Committee agreed to cut the funding necessary to cover two changes in who qualifies for the state's Catamount Health program for the uninsured. The administration also recommended repealing the changes and the committee apparently went along with that suggestion -- for now. The immediate savings would be $81,000, but the future cost is estimated at more than $600,000 a year.

When the Legislature passed the Catamount changes, it directed the Douglas administration to apply by Sept. 1 to the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services for approval of an amendment to the state's Medicaid waiver that would allow federal dollars to help cover the expenses for this expansion.

Susan Besio, director of the Office of Vermont Health Access, said she is now caught between conflicting directives from legislators. Statute demands she file a letter with CMS, while the Joint Fiscal's vote suggests the application would be pointless.

The health oversight committee felt it had been left out of the loop and some members -- particularly Sen. Doug Racine, D-Chittenden, questioned what authority allowed the Joint Fiscal Committee to reverse a legislative policy decision.

This isn't the first time legislators who aren't on the Joint Fiscal Committee have chafed at the power that panel has -- most notably when budgets cuts are required after the Legislature adjourns.

Rep. Paul Poirier, I-Barre, proposed last winter that the Joint Fiscal Committee be stripped of its power to approve budget cuts. If changes are needed, Poirier said the governor should have to call the full Legislature back into session.

Lawmakers chose instead to rewrite some of the rules for off-season budget decisions, including a new requirement for a public hearing.

For now, however, the Joint Fiscal Committee still has "the power," but legislators on the health access oversight panel have asked for some legal advice about the limits of that power.

Interesting tussle.

-- Nancy Remsen

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Ignore or report on hate?

As you may have heard, the Westboro Baptist Church plans a series of protests in Vermont on Sept. 1.

The group, which sums up much of its point of view with the very title of its Web site (www.GodHatesFags.com), says it will make three stops in Montpelier and three in Burlington on that day, apparently to mark the first day that same-sex marriage will be legal in Vermont.

Here's the dilemma: What is the best response - do the media ignore the group or cover them so people know what it's all about?

It is truly a dilemma. As I mulled this today, an article came across my computer screen by Charles Davis, an assistant professor at the Missouri School of Journalism and executive director of the National Freedom of Information Coalition, prompted by the recent rage at health-care forums:

"Hate, shuffled off stage in the post-racial haze of the election of the
nation’s first black president, is back with a vengeance. Hate, if it ever truly
threatened to leave the political stage, is most definitely back, larger and
nastier than ever.

As a near-absolutist First Amendment advocate, my prescription for hate
speech is always more speech: Give the bigot a microphone as big as the hatred,
I say, and watch as the marketplace of ideas works its magic.

Perhaps that’s why I worry, as I watch an emboldened mob grow more
irresponsible with each passing day, that the mainstream media fails to give
hate the coverage it deserves today.

"My proposition is simple: Major news organizations need to cover hate the
way they once did — as a standalone beat."

I don't know that we're talking about hate as a full-time beat, but there's an argument for shining the spotlight, just as there are surely arguments for ignoring it.

- Terri Hallenbeck

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Vermont rates high on putting money to work

I did a story last week on how some of the stimulus money is being used in Vermont. You can read it HERE.

This week, Vermont earned some kudos from a report by ProPublica, which is monitoring use of the stimulus money. The state ranked third when it comes to getting going on road and bridge projects. New Mexico was first and Maine second. You can read it HERE.

Vermont Agency of Transportation spokesman John Zicconi attributes the state's eager-beaver status to the weather. “Unlike Texas, we can’t work through the winter,” he told ProPublica.

One of the many tricky things I found with following the stimulus money is any rankings among states can change by the minute because the money is coming in and the projects are going out to bid all the time.

- Terri Hallenbeck

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Douglas on budget, health care and sales tax

As the Legislature's Joint Fiscal Committee was launching into a public hearing today on $28 million in budget cuts at the Statehouse, Gov. Jim Douglas was holding a news conference next door.

He said it's possible, based on the economic forecast, that $28 million won't be the end of the cuts coming this year.

When it comes to the $28 million, which includes $7.4 million in payroll savings, he suggested that things might be different this time in negotiations with the union. "Times are different now," he said.

The administration and the Vermont State Employees will meet for the first foray into those negotiations Wednesday, Administration Secretary Neale Lunderville said.

Douglas said state government will have to find new, creative ways of doing things. He pointed to a new program announced Tuesday that automates notifications to victims about the status of offenders. He could not, however, say whether that new program will allow the state to reduce staffing.

Douglas did not mourn the possible demise of the "public option" in federal health care reform, saying funding for one of the existing public health-care plans - Medicaid - is unsustainable. He said he fears states will eventually be left holding the money bag on a public plan.

Asked about the talk that Congress was planning to create "death panels" through its health-care reform measure, Douglas suggested that the argument was off-base - sort of. "That's an example of the kind of rhetoric that's distracting us from fundamental reform," he said.

But he did not come out and denounce the death-panel debate nor would he say he felt confident the proposed legislation didn't include death panels. He said that like most members of Congress he had not read every word of the legislation.

In other news, Douglas plans to take advantage of Saturday's sales tax holiday. He's buying a new kitchen stove, he said. Dorothy insisted.

- Terri Hallenbeck

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The Tuesday political piece

This week marks the debut of a weekly look at politics in the Free Press.

Here's the text of the first one:

The only thing that could put the brakes on $28 million in budget changes today would be some unexpected revelation.

The Legislature’s Joint Fiscal Committee will hold a hearing beginning at 1 p.m. at the Statehouse on the package — which the Douglas administration and legislative leaders put forward together two weeks ago. The hearing could be followed by a vote.

"I have heard nothing that makes me think it won’t happen," predicted Senate Appropriations
Chairwoman Susan Bartlett, D-Lamoille.

Still, Joint Fiscal Chairman Michael Obuchowski, D-Rockingham, promises attention to
those who testify. "If they tell us something we haven’t heard before and it is weighty enough, we may want to reflect on it and get some answers."

Lawmakers have to swallow hard to agree to some parts of the plan, such as:

Ö Transferring $1.8 million in adult education expenses to the Education Fund, which means the
expense will be paid from property taxes. The Vermont League of Cities and Towns has already
sounded the alarm about this "shift and shaft" philosophy.

Ö Endorsing $7.4 million in unspecified labor cuts, gambling that the Douglas administration and
the Vermont State Employees Association will negotiate furloughs or other pay and benefit cuts. The risk is the two sides will fail to find common ground, just as they failed last winter, and the $7.4 million has to be achieved with layoffs, about 200.

Ö Tapping $731,000 in unspent dollars in the Choices for Care program when there is a waiting
list of frail, elderly and disabled individuals with unmet home-care needs.

The Douglas administration is optimistic about securing lawmakers’ approval. "We are still on
track," said Dennise Casey, the governor’s spokeswoman.

Agreement may signal a new tone for relations between the Legislature’s Democratic leaders and the Republican Douglas administration. Relations had soured when Gov. Jim Douglas vetoed the Legislature’s budget and then lawmakers overrode his veto.
_ Nancy Remsen 

Labor out in the cold?

Why are lawmakers willing to go along with $7.4 million in unspecified labor cuts — a proposal
that surprised the state employees union?

"Everybody is going to be asked to give to solve the problem," Rep. Michael Obuchowski said, D-Rockingham. He heads the Joint Fiscal Committee and helped negotiate the $28 million package.

Workers represented by the Vermont State Employees Association — those who didn’t lose their
jobs — saw their pay increase this summer. Still plenty of workers are worried about more layoffs and have contacted members of the Joint Fiscal Committee.

The administration swears layoffs would be a last resort. "That point is a leap of faith we had to make in the negotiations," Obuchowski said.

"It’s putting trust in the administration and the VSEA to find a resolution that doesn’t involve
RIFs (reductions in force)," said House Appropriations Chairwoman Martha Heath, D-Westford.

"It is no secret that lots of other states are using furloughs and other alternatives to layoffs,"
noted Sen. Diane Snelling, R-Chittenden.

"All the same stuff that is going on in other states, we offered," said Jes Kraus, director of the VSEA.

"We offered a pay freeze. We threw furlough days on the table."

Still, Kraus said the union is open to new talks. He said he tried to include short-term changes in
the talks last week that launched negotiations on a new long-term contract.

Spokeswoman Dennise Casey said the Douglas administration is waiting until the Joint
Fiscal Committee agrees on the amount of labor adjustments.
— Nancy Remsen

Quote to note: "You really can’t have reform without a public option," former Gov. Howard Dean declared on the CBS Early Morning Show on Monday after officials in the Obama administration suggested Sunday that a public health insurance plan wasn’t a necessary component of health care reform.

Dean explained his uncompromising approach. "My guess is the Republicans aren’t going to vote for this bill no matter what, so there is no point in making a lot of concessions to people who aren’t going to vote for the bill."

Maybe this trait of speaking his mind is why President Obama didn’t pick Dean for a job in his administration. Obama knew it would be hard to keep Dean in the fold — especially if the issue was health care.

— Nancy Remsen

Nothing raucous here They came, they spoke, some disagreed, but no one created a ruckus at Sen. Bernie Sanders’ first two health care forums.

"The turnout was extraordinary," Sanders said Monday. "And the good news is people respected
other people’s point of view."

Sanders, who sees a single-payer system as the remedy for what ails the health care system,
noted most people at the forums indicated they didn’t want to do away with Medicare or the Veterans Administration — both government-run health care programs.

Sanders agrees with Howard Dean that a public option must be included in the pending health
care legislation — despite public nervousness. "I’ll fight for that," Sanders said.
— Nancy Remsen

Cyber campaigns These days, it is almost like a political campaign is not real until it has a Web site.

Sen. Susan Bartlett, Democratic candidate for governor, has launched hers — www.bartlettforgovernor.com. Fellow Democratic rivals Doug Racine (http://www.dougracine.com/) and Deb Markowitz (www.debfor
vermont.com) have had Web sites for a few months.

Visitors to Bartlett’s site will learn things about her they likely did not know (husband Bill was
her college sweetheart, and they used to sell vegetables and bread at the Morrisville Farmers Market). They will not, however, gain any hint about who is in Bartlett’s camp, something her competitors were eager to point out on their sites. Though there is a link to join
Bartlett’s "2010 Club," there’s no indication of whether anyone has joined.

Bartlett said she did it her way on purpose. She wanted to keep it simple.

Speaking of candidate Web sites, Philip Baruth, a Chittenden County state Senate candidate,
launched his last week, http://baruth2010.com. Baruth, of course, has another site at http://
vermontdailybriefing.com, where he blogs. He links the two by referring from one to the other. The blog tackles mostly national issues, but with a tone that can be quite different from what a candidates might choose. Last week in the blog, for example, he called former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum a name that is not printable here.
— Terri Hallenbeck

Question of the week: Does health-care reform have to include a public insurance option? Why or why not?



Leahy taken to task

A video (which you can see HERE) that questions how much progress society has made toward gender equality in politics and in breaking down stereotypes includes footage of none other than Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt.

Leahy is not portrayed in a flattering manner. He is giving Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., a hard time about whether there is enough time for her testimony at a Senate hearing. He is sandwiched between numerous other examples of sexism.

Is it fair for the producers of the video - a group called The New Agenda - to assume he wouldn't have given a man the same hard time?

Do they have a point about society's post-Mayberry progress or lack thereof?

- Terri Hallenbeck

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The Tuesday buzz

In tomorrow’s paper we launch a weekly look at politics. It’s a bit of a hybrid between what we’ve done here on vt.Buzz and what we do in print every day. It gives you a chance to wake up every Tuesday salivating for the buzz.

You will learn a little more about what’s going in Vermont politics — how inclined legislators are to go along with the administration’s $28 million in budget cuts, why’d they agree to $7.4 million labor costs, what’s up with the gubernatorial candidates, that sort of thing.

Each week, we plan to pose a political question to test your political debating skills. We’ll take responses online here at vt.Buzz. This week’s question: Does health-care reform have to include a public insurance option? Why or why not?

— Terri Hallenbeck 




Sanders is going to have a crowd Saturday

With "invitations" flying all of the Internet, it seems certain that Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-VT, will have a crowd at his health care forums on Saturday in Rutland and Arlington.

His only competition is likely to be sunshine -- a rare commodity this summer that might lure a few people to a lake or a mountain instead of church halls.

The Vermont Tea Party movement has called on its supporters to show up early, speak up, ask good questions and keep it civil.

The Vermont Progressive Party blog urges followers to show up, too. Traven Leyshom writes, "You are needed at Bernie's meeting to show support for a meaningful discussion of health care reform. We can show that large numbers of people support what Bernie is trying to do."

The Vermont Democratic Party just sent out an email urging people to go to the health care forums, too. Chairwoman Judy Bevans' call is sure to rankle Republicans. She writes, "As I'm sure you've heard, the National Republican party and their operatives are invading health care town hall meetings that Democratic members of Congress have set up across the country ... These fake grassroots, or AstroTurf activists have been popping up all over the country and sadly it look like they might show up here in Vermont."

It's going to be one hot discussion, don't ya think?

Will anyone be there seeking answers or will they are be looking to score political points?

-- Nancy Remsen

Labels: Sen. Bernie Sanders, health care, Vermont Tea Party, Vermont Democratic Party, Vermont Progressive Party, AstroTurf.



Vermont Progs lay it on the line

Vermont Progressives laid out criteria they're looking for in a gubernatorial candidate today:

- Supports single-payer health care (i.e. a publicly funded and operated insurance plan available to all).
- Supports labor position on such issues as pension and unemployment funding. i.e. not asking workers or the unemployed to pay more or receive less.
- Opposes continued operation of Vermont Yankee nuclear power plant after its license expires in 2012.

Do any of the current Democratic candidate meet the mark? Find out in Wednesday's Free Press.

- Terri Hallenbeck

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Growth in Vt. state workforce charted

An interesting chart amid the pile of paperwork handed out at Monday's meeting of the Joint Legislative Government Accountability Committee.

The number of state employees in the executive branch grew by 19. 5 percent from 1999 to 2008, with a brief plateau in 2004-05. The number, of course, dropped in 2009, with vacant jobs eliminated and layoffs.

In 1999, there were 7,015 employees. In 2008, the number had reached 8,383. The chart notes that as of July 31, that number was down to 7,962.

This is interesting because Gov. Jim Douglas has spoken out the last couple years against the unsustainable size of government, blaming a big piece of the heft on his predecessor, but it has certainly grown since he took office in 2003. Of course, it should also be noted this requires the Legislature's consent. New programs=new jobs. The jump from 7,866 employees to 8,069 in 2004 can largely be attributed to the opening of a new prison in Springfield.

During the 10-year time span of the chart, the proportion of employees with "exempt" status also grew steadily. Those are employees were aren't unionized and Douglas is not a big fan of the union. The Legislature's Joint Fiscal Office notes this wasn't all Douglas' doing, who is not a big fan of the union. Between 2003 and 2008, legislation converted 21 classified positions to exempt positions.

But between 1999 and 2008, the number of classified employees grew by 19.2 percent while the number of exempt employees grew by 23.5 percent.

Something to noodle on.

- Terri Hallenbeck

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Bartlett meets the Progs

On the shores of Lake Memphramagog this weekend, the Progressive Party state committee will hear from gubernatorial candidate Susan Bartlett.

The committee heard earlier in the year from Doug Racine.

Racine and Bartlett, both Democrats, would love to avoid the sticky wicket that 2008 Democratic candidate Gaye Symington found herself in - fending off an Progressive candidate while trying to take on Republican incumbent Jim Douglas. Symington finished third, fractions behind Prog Anthony Pollina.

Neither of the Dems has specifically asked for the committee's endorsement yet this year, but they did ask to speak to the party faithful, party Executive Director Morgan Daybell said. Democrat Deb Markowitz has not sought face time with the committee, he said. Neither, he said, has Douglas.

The meeting is at 1o a.m. Saturday at the Community College of Vermont in Newport.

- Terri Hallenbeck

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$28 million in Vt. state budget cuts

Today in Montpelier, the Douglas administration released a list of $28 million in budget cuts to the Legislature's Joint Fiscal Committee. The cuts are based on how much the economists expected revenues coming into the state to shrink.

The cuts come in bits and pieces all over state government. They include $6.8 million left over from last year and $7 million in labor savings that means we'll have another dance between the union and the administration over contract concessions and if not those, then layoffs. A $565,000 cut to the Legislature would mean a shorter 2010 session.

The Joint Fiscal Committee did not vote on the plan, but has 21 days to do so.

You can read more about it in Thursday's Free Press.

- Terri Hallenbeck

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The Flanagan debate

As you read in today's Free Press, Sen. Ed Flanagan is no longer sure if he's running for lieutenant governor. He says he realized it was too early and he'll make a decision after the next legislative session, which ends in May.

Flanagan, of course, has reasons to reconsider. He has been accused of inappropriate behavior in the men's fitness center of the Burlington YMCA. He denies the allegations, though he says that as a result of the brain injury he suffered in a near-fatal 2005 car accident he has found his "discretionary capabilities" are off-kilter.

I spoke to many of his Senate colleagues yesterday to see whether they thought he could continue as a senator or as a lt. gov. candidate _ several of them in person at a legislative conference in Burlington and others on the phone. No question, the topic was the buzz among members, but speaking publicly about it was not so easy. Every one of them winced when I mentioned the topic. Understandably so. The thing is complicated, sensitive, and who wants to have their name attached to it in print?

Give credit then to those who were willing to speak and help put an important question into perspective. Not all were. Sen. Tim Ashe, D/P-Burlington, asked if he could think about it and call me back. I'm still waiting. Lt. Gov. Brian Dubie, who presides over the Senate, wanted to check first with legal counsel to see what the presiding officer's role might be. Not a bad thing to know, but does that preclude making any comment?

- Terri Hallenbeck

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D.C. doings

A little update on the day's events in Washington, when they weren't busy not deciding what to do about clunker cars:

- Today the Senate voted to boost money for food stamps and three in $350 million to the o lift milk price supports — the amount the government pays for surplus milk products — by an estimated $1.50 per hundredweight. That came from an amendment by Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., and barely passed 60-37. Sixty votes were required because the amendment broke budget rules.
According to the AP: Sanders said dairy farmers, especially smaller ones, are struggling badly as milk prices have plummeted by more than 40 percent below last year, well below most farmers' production costs.
"Family-based dairy agriculture is on the verge of collapse," Sanders said.
"This is not a regional issue. This is a national issue."

- Also today in the Senate, debate began on the confirmation of Judge Sonia Sotomayor. Sen. Patrick Leahy gave the opening remarks:
"Judge Sotomayor’s journey to this nomination is truly an American story ...
(and) a reminder to all of the continuing vitality of the American dream,” he
said. “She’s a restrained, experienced and thoughtful judge who has shown
no bias in her rulings.”
He'll probably be celebrating her confirmation later this week.

- Terri Hallenbeck

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'Our democracy is at risk'

The crowd at the Council of State Governments Eastern Regional Conference in Burlington heard a speech today on a topic near and dear to me: The future of state news reporting. If speaker Pete Hamill had the answer I wanted to hear it.

So did he have the answer? Sort of. He offered a hint of hope.

Hamill, who started his career at the New York Post and has written nine novels, set the stage by reminding the crowd that the media is essential to democracy, to teaching people about their community. "The need to explain is always there," he said.

Hamill warned the group of the peril society faces. On a subway in New York City recently, he recounted, a few people were reading papers but the majority either "thumbers" working their BlackBerries or people just staring into space. The Internet that those thumbers were accessing poses a daunting challenge to media, who haven't yet figured out how to make a living off it.

Hamill said he thinks one possible solution is charging for content online. The Wall Street Journal does it. I read recently that the Daily Gazette in Schenectady is going back to that. It should be clear soon whether that will help, he said. "We'll know better in maybe 11 minutes the way things are going. Certainly by the end of the year."

Will it be enough? Hamill hopes so, and perhaps he persuaded a roomful of lawmakers to hope so.

"We need it because the essence of our democracy is at risk," he said.

- Terri Hallenbeck

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Verge of recovery?

Economist David Hale, a Vermont native and St. Johnsbury Academy graduate, delivered the news to legislators and others from around the region this morning at the Council of State Governments Eastern Regional Conference.

The recession's not over. Job losses will continue. But he said, "We are on the verge of economic recovery."

You and I might not feel it right away. Economists will be the first to sense it, he said.

Hale warned, though, that predictions are precarious. Recovery depends on consumers' willingness to shell out money. If they don't, a "double dip" or "W"-shaped downturn is a possibility. "Right now there's no precise way to predict," Hale said. "Odds probably do favor a consumer upturn."

In other words, just went Americans learned not to spend more than they have, the economy depends on them not keeping too much.

The stimulus package and moves to lower interest rates are helping to keep us out of Depression territory, he said. State governments have used some of that money to create 12,000 jobs this year, he said, and the money will have more impact next year.

Some states, he noted, have looked at drastic measures to raise money. Arizona raised the notion of selling the Statehouse. Gov. Jim Douglas, on a panel with Hale after his speech, pretty much said he didn't see that happening here.

Hale, who will stop and visit his mother in St. J. while he's here, made another prediction that he says is also imprecise. He may someday come back to Vermont and get involved in politics.

- Terri Hallenbeck

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Back in action

Thanks for your patience while we were away on holiday.

Today, we're back and at the Council of State Governments Eastern Regional conference at the Hilton in Burlington.

Economist David Hale is about to speak.

- Terri Hallenbeck

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