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Under the Radar: Themes From the Vermont Political Beat


Published December 27, 2017 at 10:00 a.m.
Updated December 27, 2017 at 10:03 a.m.

Fair Game is Seven Days’ weekly political column.
Gov. Phil Scott (left) and Jason Gibbs - FILE: JEB WALLACE-BRODEUR
  • File: Jeb Wallace-Brodeur
  • Gov. Phil Scott (left) and Jason Gibbs

There were issues that occupied a lot of space around the Statehouse in 2017. There were others that didn't get as much attention — themes and trends that flew under the radar but that may make news in the New Year. Here are some that I'm thinking about, along with updates on several ongoing stories, for the final Fair Game of 2017.

The Black Box

Gov. Phil Scott's cabinet has been good about doing its work in an open, accountable way, and, in my experience, its members have been responsive to the media. The opposite is true of the governor's inner circle. Key staffers are rarely visible or accessible, but their proximity to the governor gives them substantial influence.

We recently got a peek inside the black box, courtesy of the Burlington Free Press' April McCullum. She reported that references to climate change had been deleted from a report on reforming Act 250, the state's land-use law. She identified the deleter as Tayt Brooks, the governor's director of affordability and economic growth initiatives.

The administration downplayed the changes, but it's worth noting that the governor has repeatedly said that all of his actions would be viewed through the lens of affordability and growing the economy. That would seem to put Brooks, one of the most conservative members of the executive office, at the hub of policy making.

Are other reports and studies being vetted on the fifth floor? Is Brooks reviewing them all with an eye on the bottom line? Three guesses, and the first two don't count.

The Changes That Didn't Come

During the 2017 session there were persistent rumblings about Team Scott's limited outreach to the legislature. Compared to past administrations, lawmakers would say, Scott's people were curiously absent and hard to reach. This perceived lack of communication made it harder for Scott to sell ideas like his original budget plan, which called for an overhaul of the public school budgeting process.

In late February, Sen. Chris Pearson (P/D-Chittenden) noted that when Scott's predecessor, Peter Shumlin, was promoting a controversial plan, he would travel "around the state, pounding away at the legislature. With Gov. Scott, he just sort of plopped [his budget] on our desks and walked away."

Even the normally circumspect Sen. Dick Mazza (D-Grand Isle), one of Scott's closest allies, sent an unmistakable signal. "I hope after the session to sit down with the governor and have a discussion," he said in early May, "and voice the concerns that I've heard around the legislature."

Nothing much has happened since then. There have been no reassignments, no departures, no visible changes. Scott's executive staff will benefit from a year of experience, but, if anything, the challenges of 2018 will be greater, and the partisan divides broader.

The Ghost of the $26 Million Thing

The 2017 legislative session dragged well into June thanks to Scott's belated advocacy for statewide negotiation of teacher health care benefits, which he said could save "up to $26 million." The idea was a nonstarter with legislative Democrats, and the two sides batted it back and forth for weeks before reaching a compromise unsatisfactory to all. Instead of $26 million saved from the new negotiation scheme, it became $13 million in unspecified cuts to be made by local school boards.

The capper to all this controversy came in October, when Education Secretary Rebecca Holcombe reported that property tax rates were likely to go up next year by eight cents. She cited a shortfall in the state education fund "due in large part to the use of onetime money [this year] to reduce the tax rate."

Wait. Taxes are going up because of an effort to cut taxes?

And folks in Montpelier wonder why Vermonters are so cynical when it comes to promises of tax relief.

There's a dilemma at work here. Per-pupil education spending is high in Vermont, but the potential solutions are politically toxic. Democrats and Progressives don't want to hurt local schools or the teachers' union. Many Republicans represent rural areas of Vermont, which would be hit especially hard by any serious effort to rein in costs by consolidating small schools. Is it any wonder we're still trying to figure this one out?

Foot Drag-riculture

The biggest obstacle to Vermont's federally mandated, 20-year water-quality plan is finding the money. The second biggest may be the Agency of Agriculture, Food & Markets, which has been slow-footed, if not downright obstructionist.

In mid-November, when the administration's working group on waterways cleanup produced its action plan, it called for a slow rollout over the next six years. Natural Resources Secretary Julie Moore explained that the ag agency faced a massive new challenge of inspecting all Vermont farms — including formerly exempt small operations.

But the report didn't call for additional resources for the agency. "Somewhere along the way, we'll figure out how much the need is, in terms of dollars," Agriculture Secretary Anson Tebbetts told VTDigger.org. That seems a curiously passive approach.

This fall, a legislative panel reviewing Act 250 asked Tebbetts to explain why farms are exempt from the law, since land-use regulation could help to reduce runoff. In mid-December, he returned to the panel without that explanation; he simply said the current system "works."

Agricultural runoff is the largest single contributor to excessive nutrient loads in Vermont waterways. Tebbetts is positioned right at the crossroads of any serious effort to address the problem. And he seems to be waving a bunch of stop signs.

Cannabis Conundrum:

Vermont appears to be on track for legalizing personal cultivation and use of marijuana. Scott, who vetoed such a bill this year, now says he would sign it if given another chance.

On the other hand...

The governor set up a commission whose job is to devise a full legalization structure, with state regulation and taxation. Members have identified costly new burdens in law enforcement, education, prevention and treatment should marijuana be legalized.

How to pay for all of that? With revenue from cannabis taxes.

Looks like a conundrum to me. We can't pay the reputed costs of legalization without new revenue, but we won't get any revenue if marijuana is legalized on a grow- and smoke-your-own basis. Squaring that circle will be an interesting challenge. Or maybe a pretext for another gubernatorial veto.

Sexual Harassment: Shake-Up or Touch-Up?

As the list of powerful men accused of sexual misconduct continues to grow, leaders in the Vermont legislature are taking a fresh look at the policies that apply to lawmakers. Current policies are designed to prevent or strictly limit disclosure, and are entirely under the purview of lawmakers themselves. As my colleague Alicia Freese reported in November, many women "said they would be uncomfortable making a complaint to a committee of their perpetrator's peers."

Maybe things will change, but there are grounds for skepticism. Even after then-senator Norm McAllister was arrested outside the Statehouse on sexual misconduct charges, many lawmakers were unconvinced of the need for change. The legislature has a similar mind-set on other conduct issues such as ethics, conflicts of interest and financial disclosure. The top priority is not transparency or accountability; it's prevention of embarrassment for members of the club.

Somewhere out there in a parallel universe, the legislature would toss all of its personal-conduct policies out the window and create new ones with a single principle foremost: serving the public interest.

Whither the GMCB?

The Green Mountain Care Board is in a state of transition. When it was created in 2011, its No. 1 duty was guiding Shumlin's health care reform efforts. Its other major responsibility was regulating hospital budgets, capital investments and health insurance rates.

Today, those regulatory functions are the core of the GMCB's job. And there are signs that Scott may have some different ideas about how the board should be doing that job — or even whether it should continue to exist.

Scott has appointed three people to the five-member board, and none is a health care provider. That's a stark contrast to past years, when the board always included at least two medical professionals.

At the start of the year, the governor said, "I'd like to see maybe a physician" on the board. He apparently had second thoughts. Last month, Scott spokesperson Rebecca Kelley compared having a medical professional on the board to appointing a utility executive to the Public Utility Commission.

That's a questionable comparison. Having a utility chief regulating that industry seems more comparable to having an insurance executive on the GMCB, not a doctor or nurse. But it's a clear sign of a philosophical shift. And, for what it's worth, WDEV radio personality Mike Smith recently wrote an opinion piece speculating on whether the board should be completely overhauled or even terminated.

Smith's writings reflect his own views. But because he is a former member of governor Jim Douglas' cabinet and a well-connected Republican, one has to wonder whether the sentiment isn't shared within the Scott administration.

I'm Just Wild About Bernie, and He's Just Wild About Me

Back on March 22, I wrote a column called "The Media Bern" about Sen. Bernie Sanders' (I-Vt.) avoidance of local media. With the exception of occasional brief interviews with local TV stations and rare appearances on Vermont Public Radio, Sanders reserves his media time for national outlets — the "corporate media" he so frequently bashes.

At the time, it had been a little less than two full years since Sanders granted an interview to Seven Days. Well, the streak is still intact and another nine months longer. At the Pomerleau Holiday Party on December 10, I interviewed Gov. Scott, Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), Burlington Mayor Miro Weinberger and the junior senator's wife, Jane O'Meara Sanders.

But not Bernie. Here's what happened.

The party began with a lot of socializing. Sanders was the center of attention, greeting constituents and posing for photos. In a moment when he was by himself, I approached him from behind and said, "Senator, can I ask a couple of questions?"

He turned around, nodding assent. "And you are?" he inquired.

"John Walters from Seven Days," I replied.

"OK, maybe, John, we'll talk. Not right now," he said, walking quickly away — and preserving his record of declining to speak with this newspaper for close to three years.

In this fast-paced world of ours, it's nice to know there are some things you can count on.

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