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



OT in D.C., Ira Trombley, VY complexities

Good-enough reform on the move

Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., intends to head to Capitol Hill at 5 a.m. today to give himself plenty of time to navigate the still snow-slick streets of Washington, D.C., and arrive before 7 a.m. for another critical vote on the Senate’s health care reform bill.

Two votes — one to approve a package of amendments to the bill and a second to cut off debate on the amended measure — are scheduled for shortly after 7 a.m.

Senate leaders already demonstrated they had the political muscle to win passage of the bill by Christmas Eve when at 1:30 a.m. Monday they mustered all the Democratic senators plus two independents — including Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt. — for the first of three procedural votes requiring a three-fifths majority or 60votes.

Leahy and Sanders both said Monday in interviews that they will vote to pass the bill when it comes time to vote — likely at 7 p.m. Thursday.

“I can vote for it,” Leahy said. “It’s not the bill I would have written. I’m extraordinarily disappointed the public option isn’t in there.” Still he argued, “the pluses outweigh the minuses. If we don’t move forward, I don’t think we will see a revamping in myh lifetime.”

Sanders offered similar qualified support. “I am more than aware this bill is nowhere near as strong as it should be. For me, the bottom line is, if we fail now, how many more years will it take Congress to get back to it.” He added, “Is this better than nothing? My answer is that it is.”

Both senators spoke on the Senate floor Monday about the provisions in the package of amendments offered Saturday that they considered critical improvements.

For Sanders, the addition he argues could revolutionalize health care across the country is a $10 billion investment in community health centers and primary care personnel. The funding would expand these health centers, which offer an array of primary and preventive care services, to an additional 10,000 communities, Sanders said. The funding will also pay off school loans for primary care doctors, dentists, nurses and other front-line medical staff who agree to work in medically underserved regions of the country.

“In my view, these two programs are some of the best and most effective public health care programs in the United States of America. And they enjoy widespread — widespread tripartisan support,” he said, noting that Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., supported expansion of the community health centers during his presidential campaign.

“My strong hope is that when this bill is finally passed, we will adopt the House language which calls for $14 billion,” Sanders said.

Some critics of the heatlh reform bill have suggested Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid’s amendment gave waivering senators reasons to vote yes.

Sanders countered that the funding for community health centers and the National Health Service Corps wasn’t pork. Providing Americans greater access to primary care will keep people out of hospital emergency rooms and save money, Sanders argued. “This is a win-win situation.” He added, that while it may pay for two or three more community health center in Vermont, “in many ways it will be better for other states.”

Leahy also won inclusion of some provisions in Reid’s amendment package, most importantly a change in the formula for the distribution of Medicaid funding to Vermont for a six-year period beginning in 2014. This change is expectd to mean an extra $250 million in federal support for Vermont’s subsidized health care program.

“That wouldn’t have affected my vote, whether it was in or not,” Leahy said Monday. The original bill, he argued, penalized Vermont for expanding who was covered by government subsidized health care. Other states would get extra money to expand beginning in 2014, but Vermont wasn’t going to be eligible.

“We were being punished for the doing the right thing,” Leahy said. The change, he said, was a remedy, not an add-on.

Heidi Tringe, deputy chief of staff for Republican Gov. Jim Douglas, cheered the provision Leahy got inserted in the bill. “This is great news. We were very concerned.”

Tringe noted Vermont and Massachusetts were the only two states that weren’t going to receive extra Medicaid money. Now that “inequity” is remedied, Tringe said.

Len Britton, a Republican who plans to challenge Leahy in the 2010 election, criticized the Medicaid formula fix Leahy won, citing it as one of the “cynical sweetheart deals” Senate leadership used to “buy” votes of support for the bill.

“This is political sausage-making at its worst: lots of pork and by-products,” Britton said. “It may taste good going down, but it’s hard to digest later. Unfortunately, this is what we’ve come to expect from Senator Leahy and the professional career politicians in Washington.”

Leahy countered that Republicans sing a different tune when they have the votes. “When they are on the winning side, whatever they put in is good policy.”

— Nancy Remsen

Kill the bill ... or not

Howard Dean, former Vermont governor, presidential candidate and former chairman of the Democratic National Committee, got attention last week for suggesting the Senate version of the health reform bill had been watered down so much it should be killed rather than passed.

Sunday on “Meet the Press,” Dean was singing a different tune. Here’s what he said during a segment with moderator David Gregory.

Dean: “I would certainly not vote for this bill if this were the final product. But there are — the House bill is a — quite a good bill. This bill has improved over the last couple of weeks. I would let this thing go to conference committee and let’s see if we can fix it some more ... .”

Gregory pressed again later in the interview.

“All right. But, Governor, my, my question was without the public option, is your position say no to the bill?” Gregory asked.

Dean said, “My position is let’s see what they add to this bill and make it work. If they can make it work without a public option, I’m all ears. I don’t think that’s possible.”

So how do you think Dean would have voted on the procedural vote that took place in the wee hours of Monday morning had he been a senator? Would he have buckled to pressure from Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., to get something passed, even something with imperfections, or been hard-nosed about needing a government-sponsored insurance option?

— Nancy Remsen

Rep. Trombley dies at 57

Rep. Ira Trombley, the mustachioed Democrat from Grand Isle who always seemed to be in good cheer, died suddenly Sunday. He was 57.

Trombley had been out of the Statehouse much of last session with an infected foot, but Rep. Mitzi Johnson, D-South Hero, said he appeared healthy of late, had lost weight and was looking forward to the upcoming legislative session.

As the Vermont Freedom to Marry Task Force pointed out, Trombley went to the Statehouse in a wheelchair to cast his vote for same-sex marriage this year. He also followed meetings of the Health Care Committee, on which he most recently served, via telephone.

Johnson said Trombley likely died of natural causes — a family member returned home from Christmas shopping and found him unresponsive. “It’s an awful shock because he had been doing so well,” said Johnson, who was elected to the Legislature along with Trombley in 2002.

Trombley was known for his involvement in all kinds of Grand Isle community groups, Johnson said. “He had sort of mastered the art of being in two places at once,” she said. “He really loved this job.”

His connections with people went beyond physically attending events, though. “He was Dr. Postcard,” Johnson said, sending notes to people in and out of his district to thank them for writing letters to the editor of newspapers or congratulate them on a new job.

Trombley is survived by his wife, two sons, a daughter and grandchildren. A service will likely be held after the new year, Johnson said.

Gov. Jim Douglas will appoint someone to fill Trombley’s House seat.

— Terri Hallenbeck

VY’s many subplots

Last Thursday, a day before Entergy Corp. was due to reveal how much it is offering to charge Vermont utilities for Vermont Yankee power, Vermont Public Interest Research Group announced it would be joined by a handful of business leaders for a news conference Monday to react to the offer.

How did they know what their reaction would be before the deal was out? They didn’t need to know what the price was to know how they felt about it.

Ben Cohen, co-founder of Ben & Jerry’s, conceded Monday there was no price VY would offer that he’d be happy with. “Even if the price was competitive, the reality is that there are alternatives that can produce the power more safely at just as reasonable a rate with more Vermont jobs,” he said.

Let’s just be clear, then. This group was using the price offer as the reason for holding a news conference, but the price offer was irrelevant to how they feel about the plant.

Likewise, the price offer has not changed how John O’Kane feels about Vermont Yankee’s future. O’Kane, government affairs director for IBM Corp. in Essex Junction, disagrees with Cohen that alternatives to VY are just as good. He wants the Legislature to vote, giving the state Public Service Board permission to decide whether to grant the plant another 20 years of life.

Even though Entergy’s 6.1-cents/kilowatt hour price offer is one that Vermont’s largest utilities have rejected, O’Kane argues that it sets enough of a baseline that the Legislature should turn the decision over to the board. “The Legislature is not a good instrument for handling highly technical negotiations with a company,” he said.

OK, so are we any farther along in the tale of Vermont Yankee’s future than we were before Friday’s price offer? Hard to say. This story has more complex subplots than a Tom Clancy novel and figuring out which one holds the final clue is not easy.

Entergy, in outlining the offer Friday, argued that the 2012 starting price of 6.1 cents, though it is above market rates today, is below projected market rates. With thanks to Dave Lamont at the state Public Service Department, here’s how Entergy’s offer compares to a market price forecast done for the state last year.

2012: Entergy 6.1 cents/forecast 7.4 cents
2013: Entergy 6.3/forecast 7.6
2014: Entergy 6.4/forecast 7.8
2015: Entergy 6.6/forecast 8.1
2016: Entergy 6.8/forecast 8.4
2017: Entergy 7.0/ forecast 8.8

Central Vermont Public Service Board Chief Executive Office Robert Young said Friday that that forecast of market rates is one among several and that others show lower prices. Because, of course, nothing is simple when it comes to this topic.

— Terri Hallenbeck

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I think Bernie is now saying the things Rich Tarrant said when he ran against Bernie - how ironic.
Not sure where Mr. Lamont is getting his information, but the indicators that I'm seeing are showing we will have a glut of cheap power well past 2012.

It would be interesting to go back and see what was forecasted for 2009. I'm sure it was more than the 3-cents the market is showing today.

And lest we forget that whatever their price is, you have to add back in the cost to the taxpayers for insurance, loan guarantees and long-term storage. Those hidden costs are huge for nuclear power; non-existent for alternative sources.
Let me clarify on the VY prices. The price projections are a year old. Dave Lamont said the 2012 price projection, if updated, would be 6.9 cents today but that the outlying years would remain as they were in this projection.
- TH
Let me further clarify that the price offer released Friday was from Enexus, the company Entergy wants to make for VY and five other plants.
- TH
VPIRG is calling the 6.1 cent power offer from Vermont Yankee "absurd". No, VPIRG, absurd is complaining about a 6.1 cent power offer subject to Public Service Board approval after doing cartwheels when the Legislature bought your argument last year and MANDATED non-negotiable 30 cent power. Electricity is electricity, most Vermonters don't care where it comes from, but VPIRG only likes one kind: non-nuclear.
The so-called business leaders who have decided they're publicly opposed to the relicensing of VY "no matter what" are real jerks. What a model to set for future business leaders: make up your mind and ignore any evidence that contradicts your decision. And of course these "business leaders" include people who would profit from the closure of VY, such as Blittersdorf. And, frankly, some of these "business leaders" are not real business leaders. Ben Cohen? Ice cream guru who sold out to a multinational megacorp? The guy with multiple homes and Hollywood friends and "personal assistants" who do all his errands and housekeeping for him so he can galavant and be a liberal quasi-celebrity? Gimme a f'in break. The guys a hypocritical fraud.
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