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vt.Buzz ~ a political blog

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



VtBuzz: On money, rain, primaries and the electoral college

There could be gasps

Gov. Jim Douglas unveils his budget Tuesday in a 2 p.m. address to the House and Senate. (Want to see and hear it? Go here and look for a link)

He has already warned lawmakers and the public that “nips and tucks” may have worked before, but won’t be enough to address the $150 million gap between projected revenues and projected spending.

“We are going to have to make some fundamental choices about what the priorities of government are,” Douglas said. “We simply can’t afford to do as much as we have.”

About $70 million of the reductions Douglas will employ to close the funding gap are already known.

He has accepted the recommendation of his staff and a small contingent of legislators, assisted by Public Strategies Group, that $38 million in savings can be found by restructuring the way government provides some services. Precisely how those savings will be achieved in still a work in progress.

The Douglas administration and state workers have agreed in a new two-year contract that reduces employees’ pay by three percent beginning in July. That saves $5.5 million next year.

Douglas has endorsed the recommendations of a retirement commission. It proposes changes to state worker and teacher pensions that could save as much as $29 million.

Even if those changes seem harsh, note they only add up to half the savings needed to address the revenue shortfall. Secretary of Administration Neale Lunderville made clear Monday, “There is no way to close a $150 million gap without making reductions that will have an impact on Vermonters.”

Two big targets in Tuesday’s speech will be education and human services. Lunderville noted that human services have been largely spared from harsh cuts and actually benefited from $149 million increase in the current budget year. The dollars came from state and federal sources.

Douglas warned in his State of the State Address against a reflexive response to necessary cuts.

“The solutions to close the gap will invariably draw objection and complaint,” he said. “Although we will consider constructive alternatives, this is not the time nor the place for the reflexive defense of the status quo.”

--Nancy Remsen

Tap the Rainy Funds

Jack Hoffman of Public Assets Institute says one constructive alternative would be to tap some of the state’s reserve funds. Here’s an excerpt of his latest position paper which you can read in full here .

“Today, the Legislature could spare Vermonters additional painful budget cuts and give the state economy a boost if it stopped hoarding this money and used these reserve funds as intended.

“Vermont has four separate reserve funds. The largest of these, the General Fund Stabilization Reserve, contains $60 million, the statutory maximum.

“Legislative leaders and the Douglas administration have resisted using the reserves. They argue that they don’t know how long the recession will last, and once the funds have been spent, they’re gone.

“It is true the rainy day funds can be spent only once. But their purpose is to prevent harmful cuts to important services—or to provide those services without the need for additional taxes. If the reserves are used first and the following year sees another budget gap, people can decide then how much revenue to raise or what services to cut. What the Legislature and the governor have done is to make cuts first and hold onto the reserves—evidently hoping they will never have to be used. While that may provide comfort to Montpelier, it’s no help to Vermonters.”

--Nancy Remsen

Let’s get together, yeah, yeah yeah

The House Ways and Means Committee voted 11-0 Friday on a bill that would produce $1.6 million in savings through long and short-term changes in the state’s current use program.

It represented the Legislature’s first vote on a budget cut and it won support from the full political spectrum -- Democrats, Republicans, a Progressive and an independent.

Under current use, the state taxes farm and forestland based on how they are used rather than their development value. The result is much lower property taxes. The changes the committee endorsed include a moratorium on adding new properties to the program for a year – which generates the biggest savings -- $1.1 million. Some tax changes will generate future savings.

The Legislature committed last spring to cutting the current use program by $1.6 million and Ways and Means Chairman Michael Obuchowski, D-Rockingham, credited his committee with swallowing hard and finding ways to achieve the target. “I don’t think there is one member who is happy with it.”

The bill goes next to House Appropriations.

--Nancy Remsen

Primary on the move?

The House Government Operations Committee will decide Wednesday morning whether to recommend moving the primary election to the last Tuesday in August. Under current law, it’s held the second Tuesday in September.

It’s not clear if the committee members can find a compromise that could win broad support or whether the bill will divide the panel along party lines – Democrats for the change and Republican opposed.

Gov. Jim Douglas has steadfastly opposed changing the primary date, suggesting it’s a political maneuver to give the Democratic gubernatorial candidate more time to recover from what is expected to be a grueling primary. Right now there are five Democrats seeking to be their party’s gubernatorial nominee and a single Republican candidate who wouldn’t have any primary election distraction.

The Senate already passed the bill to make the change. Stay tuned to see whether this bill becomes the first political power play of the session.

--Nancy Remsen

Jawing about jobs

Democratic leaders in the House and Senate have invited about a dozen business leaders to come to the Statehouse Thursday morning for a forum on jobs. It runs 9:30 a.m. to noon in the House Chamber.

The business leaders will be asked to comment on what works well in Vermont when they want to grow and add jobs and what could be improved. The latter answers could become the basis for a bill on job creation.

Meanwhile Lt. Gov.Brian Dubie (Republican candidate for governor) is also talking jobs in a tour he’s making. So far, he gathered string in Rutland.

Businesses are, no doubt, happy that politicians of all stripes want to talk to them. Their obvious question will be what will come from all these conversations?

--Nancy Remsen

Big picture issue

There’s an effort underway to try to change the way this country elects presidents.

On one side is National Popular Vote, an organization that promotes a change that would “guarantee the Presidency to the candidate who receives the most popular votes in all 50 states (and the District of Columbia).” Former Rep. Chris Pearson, P-Burlington, is involved with this initiative. Check it out here.

On the other side is Save Our States, which wants the country to stick with the Electoral College system.

Trent England, director of Save Our States, will come to Montpelier Wednesday to urge lawmakers here to reject a bill that has already passed the Senate and is awaiting action in the House Government Operations Committee. Check it out here.

The Legislature and Gov. Jim Douglas have already fought a round on this issue.

In 2008, the legislature passed the bill “relating to the agreement among the states to elect the president by national popular vote.” The Senate supported it 22-6 and the House voted 77-35.

Douglas vetoed the bill. He wrote at the time that the will “would fundamentally alter the presidential election method prescribed in the U.S. Constitution by having Vermont join an interstate compact requiring our Electoral College votes be awarded to the candidate who wins the most support nationally, rather than the candidate who wins the most votes in Vermont. I am not willing to cede Vermont’s voice in the election.”

House. Rep. Donna Sweaney, D-Windsor, said she would schedule consideration of proposal in her committee later this winter – so the contest is on again.

--Nancy Remsen

Getting ready for March

Burlington Democrats will gather at ward caucuses this week beginning tonight. The meetings are where local party members “help shape our party and support our candidates,” wrote David Cain, chairman of the city committee, in a notice at the local committee’s Web site.

Here’s the schedule:
• Tuesday: Wards 5 & 6 at 7 p.m. at Champlain Elementary School Learning Center.
• Thursday: Wards 1, 2, and 3 at 6 p.m. at the Integrated Arts Academy at Wheeler School Cafeteria; also Ward 4 at 6:30 p.m. at 54 Muirfield Road.
• Friday: Ward 7 at 7 p.m. at Miller Center Children's Room.

Any other parties in the city caucusing? It wasn’t apparent from the calendars for either the Republican or Progressive parties.

--Nancy Remsen

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A survey of 800 Vermont voters conducted April 26, 2008 showed 75%–25% overall support for a national popular vote for President.

By party, support is 86%–14% among Democratic voters; 61%–39% among Republicans, and 74%–26% for Others.

By age, support is almost the same across all age groups. Specifically, support is 78%–22% among 18–29 year olds; 74%–26% among 30–45 year olds; 74%–26% among 46–65 year olds; and 74%–24% among 65-and-older.

By gender, support is 82%–18% among women and 67%–33% among men.

By race, support is 76%–24% among whites, 60%–40% among African-Americans (representing 3% of respondents), 57%–43% among Hispanics (representing 1% of respondents), and 67%–33% among Others.

see www.NationalPopularVote.com
Burlington Republicans' caucus tomorrow, 1/20, starting at 6PM, @ Miller Ctr, Gosse Ct.

Info from the Burlington GOP vice chair.
Douglas is right. It's long past time for the interest-group based, politically-inspired, business-as-usual tinkering that goes on every year in VT to come up with a budget: a little more here, a little less there, blah, blah, blah.

Government needs to be totally and completely restructured.

Government does not exist for the purpose of keeping people employed in the public sector.

Don't think there's tons of fat and waste in VT government? Wake up.
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