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Money & Politics


Published August 14, 2002 at 4:00 a.m.

In little Vermont, the hits just keep on coming! This time the issue is desperately needed reform of the political money machine we call “democratic elections.”

And last week, in a stunning 2-1 decision, the 2nd Circuit Court of Appeals declared that Vermont is once again leading the nation.

Last year, U.S. District Court Judge William K. Sessions III upheld Act 64’s limit on individual campaign contributions. But Sessions ruled the state could not limit campaign spending or put an end to those big checks that come in at the last minute from the national political party headquarters in Washington, D.C.

Under current law in the land of the free, political campaign expenditures are viewed as an exercise of “free speech.” You can say what you want and spend as much as you want to say it.

But two of the three judges on the federal appeals panel in lower Manhattan said phooey!

“Vermont,” declared the appeals court, “has shown that, without expenditure limits, its elected officials have been forced to provide privileged access to contributors in exchange for campaign money. Vermont’s interest in ending this state of affairs is compelling: the basic democratic requirements of accessibility, and thus accountability, are imperiled when the time of public officials is dominated by those who pay for such access with campaign contributions.”

In the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1976 decision in Buckley v. Valeo, limits on candidate spending were rejected. Elections have been about money more than ideas. In light of that, the 2nd Circuit decision is a genuine blockbuster. Now, for the first time in 27 years, there’s hope that the wicked genie of the money race can be put back in the bottle.

The 2nd Circuit said, “The accessibility and accountability of public officials — and the public’s faith that Vermont’s government is accessible and accountable — are fundamental to any democratic system. The state’s expenditure limits, in conjunction with the contribution limits, are necessary to ensure that access is not available only to those who pay for it. Vermont’s expenditure limits, by removing the financial pressures and spiraling campaign costs that have conspired to privilege monied special interests, can uniquely ensure that government accessibility is not a commodity for sale.”

God bless America!

Tuesday, all the lawyers in the Vermont case were back in federal court in Burlington. The question hanging in the air was, when will the appeals panel’s ruling be put into effect?

So far in Election 2002, Vermont candidates have been operating under “Sessions Law,” which does not limit spending or party contributions. With Election Day less than three months away, might the judge change the rules in midstream?

After all, Republican gubernatorial candidate Jim Douglas has already spent more than the $300,000 cap. Changing the rules now would mean Mr. Douglas would have to spend the remaining days of the campaign locked in a cellar.

Not to worry. The judge is very familiar with political campaigns. In 1992, Bill Sessions, then a bright attorney with a future, was U.S. Sen. Patrick Leahy’s campaign manager. He done good. That November, Leahy easily defeated a guy named Jim Douglas by 11 percent. Small world, eh?

For those who follow this case closely, there wasn’t a snowball’s chance in hell of Judge Billy imposing the spending caps on the current campaign.

Instead, Sessions noted all the possible options for the plaintiffs. Among them is asking for the full 2nd Circuit to rehear the case or filing an appeal with the U.S. Supreme Court. After all, that’s exactly where the reformers want this baby to end up.

Even the lawyer representing the State of Vermont asked Judge Sessions not to dare monkey around with the current election by changing the rules in the middle of campaign season. Given what happened in the presidential election in Florida,” said Assistant Attorney General Richard Johnson, the state is concerned about “the impression” a rules switch would have on the public’s sense of fairness.

Good point.

Incidentally, Judge Sessions wasn’t above giving himself a little pat on the back. He noted with a touch of pride that, “The 2nd Circuit did adopt all of my findings regarding a compelling government interest.”

“The issue,” said the judge, “is framed perfectly for the U.S. Supreme Court to deal with.”

Bravo, Prince William III!

Mary Fanny Update — Sunday was Fletcher Allen Health Care’s (FAHC) annual employee picnic at Dorset Street Park in South Burlington. According to an e-mail sent out to employees on Monday by acting chief administrator Thad Krupka, “The Picnic was fantastic and everyone who attended I am sure will attest to it. The children had the best time and the unexpected arrival of Elvis was a special treat.”

Cool. We thought Elvis was dead.

In addition, the local daily offered up a front-page puff piece Sunday profiling Mr. Krupka, a former U.S. Army colonel. The colonel’s in charge now on Hospital Hill, replacing CEO Bill Boettcher, who was put on paid administrative leave.

In his e-mail, Col. Krupka debunks what he calls “The Rumor of the Week.”

“The rumor,” writes FAHC’s commanding officer, is that “Bill Boettcher received $1 million (to $3 million, depending on the rumor) for turning the organization around financially (or getting the project done on time and on budget).”

“Absolutely not true,” writes Krupka. “Keep the rumors coming, they give me a good laugh occasionally and help me keep my sense of humor.”

Meanwhile, the investigations by the U.S. Attorney, the Vermont Attorney General and the six-member committee set up by hospital trustees apparently are underway, and that’s no laughing matter. Asked to confirm a report that federal investigators have seized hospital computers, FAHC spokesman Maria McClellan would only say, “Documents have been secured.”

Meanwhile, there’s growing criticism of the appointment of David Coates to the trustees’ investigating committee. A distinguished backroom political player, Coates was on the controversial Vermont Economic Progress Council (VEPC) at the time it was granting tax credits to IDX.

The hospital’s concealment from state regulators of its recent purchase of a multi-million-dollar software system from IDX is one of the matters under investigation.

Some say having Mr. Coates play investigator means the hospital’s probe of itself will amount to little more than mousemeat.

Unfortunately, Mr. Coates could not be reached for comment this week.

Red Ink Conclave — The tourists were outnumbered at the Statehouse Monday, as legislators, lobbyists, advocates, reporters and political hangers-on packed into Room 11 to hear the Dean administration’s plan to soak up $39 million of red ink. And a very creative plan it was!

Dean administration secretary Kathy Hoyt — who’s actually sweeter than Sweet Sue Allen, the press secretary — told the Legislative Joint Fiscal Committee that the Dean Team could wipe away $24 million of the problem with accounting tricks, fund transfers and one-time fixes. But the remainder — $11.4 million — would come from the state government spending less between now and the end of the fiscal year on June 30, 2003.

As expected, the biggest spending cuts proposed by the venerable Lady Katherine of Norwich — almost $7 million — were in the state agency that deals with the least fortunate among us — the good ol’ safety net known as the Agency of Human Services.

A cost-of-living increase for folks on SSI would be canceled. The welfare department, now known as the Department of Prevention, Assistance, Transition and Health Access (PATH), would see 22 positions eliminated. Parent-assistance programs would be cut back or shut down entirely. Poor folks with back pain would no longer be eligible for chiropractic care. And toothless Vermonters would have to put off getting a new set of choppers.

The remaining $4 million in recommended cuts come out of the hides of a host of departments and entities. The Dean proposal applies a 1.76-percent cut almost across the board.

The Department of Buildings and General Services would close the interstate rest areas in Randolph and eliminate three positions to save $200,000.

The Education Department wouldn’t hire a Web master for its Internet site.

The Agency of Transportation would save a half-million bucks by cutting highway grants to towns.

The state police would cease snowmobile enforcement and the state auditor’s office would lose a position.

Vermont Public Television would save $10,000 of its $600,000 appropriation by continuing a hiring freeze, eliminating overtime and restricting out-of-state travel.

Even the UVM Morgan Horse Farm would feel the pinch — losing $88 out of its $5000 state grant.

But not everyone got the Dean knife. Hoyt told lawmakers that “priorities” were considered in developing the “Deficit Avoidance Plan.”

Sec. Hoyt said the governor does not want to take a penny away from higher education, court diversion, travel and tourism, economic development, the Vermont Symphony Orchestra, the Arts Council and the Commission on Women.

Two points need making.

First, Vermont state government is not alone in the world of red ink. Coast-to-coast, 45 states are in the red. It’s called a recession. Maine’s got a $100-million hole in its budget. In the Great Lake Country of Michigan, it’s a $1-billion problem. The boom times of the Clinton ’90s are but a distant echo.

The second thing to remember is that the Dean administration’s proposed fix is just that — a proposal. It’s not set in stone. The legislative branch gets the last word.

State Sen. Rob Ide (R-Caledonia), called Monday’s Room 11 extravaganza “Phase 1 of a multi-phase negotiating process. There’s obviously a lot of discomfort and unrest within the Joint Fiscal Committee on the administration’s plan,” said the Idester. “In many areas the answers seem to be more than half-baked, and we’ve got a lot of work to do to try to sort things through.”

Milk Money — It’s not the Northeast Dairy Compact, but it’s the next best thing: Checks from the new National Dairy Program will keep many borderline small farm operations in business.

Thanks to some clutch play from Vermont’s congressional delegation, dairy farmers across America — those with 140 cows or less — will be able to keep milking a little while longer.

Thank you, St. Patrick.

Thank you, Jeezum Jim.

Thank you, Ol’ Bernardo.

Most non-dairy farmers probably couldn’t care less. All consumers know is that fresh, wholesome milk is always available at the store and it’s pretty darn cheap. Locally, a gallon of milk retails for about $3. Ever wonder how much of that actually goes to the farmer?

Currently Class 1 milk brings the farmer $10.48 for 100 pounds, the so-called “floor price.” That works out to just 90 cents per gallon for the folks who raise, feed and milk the cows. Giant monopoly-oriented processors like the infamous Texas-based Suiza Foods Corp. take the lion’s share of the consumer dollar.

Interesting, eh?

And isn’t it also interesting to note that when the dairy compact expired last fall, farmers were getting $1.37 a gallon?

Since then, the floor price has dropped to what it was 40 years ago in the 1960s.

Under the new federal program, farmers will receive 45 percent of the difference between the monthly floor price and a fixed price of $16.94 per hundredweight — the equivalent of $1.46 per gallon. And this week farmers can start signing up for payments retroactive to last December.

The new system ain’t perfect — critics decry it as just another wasteful federal subsidy — but it’ll keep many a family on the farm. A fairer system would, as did the extinct Northeast Inter-state Dairy Compact, make the giant corporate processors pay the farmer. But Texas-based Suiza Foods has — like Texas-based Enron Energy used to have — way too many “friends” on Capitol Hill.