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2013: The Year in Politics

Fair Game


Published December 26, 2013 at 5:25 a.m.

Fair Game is Seven Days’ weekly political column.

For a nonelection year, 2013 offered plenty of news to keep your local political columnist employed.

We’ll go ahead and chalk that up as a victory.

To be sure, the biggest news in Vermont this year involved nuclear power plants, fighter jets and not-terribly-functional IT systems.

But there were plenty of other little stories that captivated us — for at least five seconds. Remember the state plane saga? Potted plant-gate? The gubernatorial six-pointer? Gucci beer?

Doubtful — and that’s probably for the best. If you walk away from 2013 with at least a faint memory of the following top-10 political stories of the year, you’re doing OK. Here they are in loose chronological order:

Gun Show

For a brief moment last December after the massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School, it appeared as if 2013 would be the year politicians in Vermont and Washington, D.C., would pass some sort of gun laws.

You mighta noticed: It wasn’t, and they didn’t.

In January, Senate Majority Leader Phil Baruth (D-Chittenden) introduced legislation to ban assault weapons and high-capacity ammunition, only to withdraw it five days later under withering criticism. Though Statehouse leaders promised hearings and legislation to address gun violence, the issue died a quick death in Montpelier.

Elsewhere, the debate raged on.

In D.C., Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) presided over the Senate Judiciary Committee’s votes to ban assault weapons, expand background checks and crack down on gun traffickers. Those bills didn’t make it past the Senate floor, but they did attract the support of Vermont’s relatively gun-friendly delegation: Leahy, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and Congressman Peter Welch (D-Vt.).

Back in Burlington, Mayor Miro Weinberger took up arms against arms, joining a national gun-control group and calling for an assault-weapons ban. The city council eventually settled on more modest measures: mandating safe storage, banning guns from bars and letting cops seize them from those suspected of committing domestic violence.

Those still require approval from Burlington voters and the state legislature.

Shumlin the Gipper

When he took the podium in January to deliver his inaugural and budget addresses, Shumlin fired a shot across the bow at the liberal legislators in the audience.

Employing Reagan-esque language, Shummy vowed to fight the welfare state. Specifically, he proposed capping payments to those eligible for Reach Up — Vermont’s version of the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program — and shifting $17 million from the Earned Income Tax Credit to childcare subsidies.

Lefties balked at the proposals. And pretty much everyone in the Statehouse laughed at another Shumlin plan to fund $17 million worth of energy priorities by taxing break-open tickets sold at service clubs, such as the local VFW.

While the legislature eviscerated Shumlin’s original proposals, the governor got the last laugh.

A months-long standoff with the House and Senate over whether to tax everything from income to soda to satellite TV ended when Shumlin prevailed and forestalled any new “broad-based” taxes.

Oh, except those hitting gasoline and property. No big deal.

When legislators attempted a last-minute tax reform that would have cut taxes for 72 percent of Vermonters and raised them for 5 percent, Shumlin objected. Calling it an “on-the-fly” scheme to raise taxes, he stared down House Speaker Shap Smith (D-Morristown) and Senate President John Campbell (D-Windsor) and killed the plan.

Breaking the Logjam

To placate an unhappy Senate Democratic caucus and hold on to his job as pro tem, Campbell promised in January to fast-track several pieces of socially liberal legislation that had been stuck in committee for years.

It worked. Campbell defeated his challengers and earned accolades for allowing the majority view of his caucus to prevail over powerful committee chiefs, such as the socially conservative Senate Judiciary Committee chairman, Dick Sears.

By the time the legislature adjourned in May, liberals scored three major victories. They decriminalized possession of small amounts of marijuana, granted driver’s licenses to noncitizens and permitted doctors to prescribe life-ending medication to terminally ill patients.

Shumlin, who supported all three proposals, happily signed them into law.

Dodging Trouble

Fresh off a solid finish to the legislative session, Shumlin found himself playing defense in May when an aggrieved neighbor claimed he’d been ripped off by the gov.

Faced with a looming tax sale the previous fall, a destitute ex-con named Jeremy Dodge had agreed to sell his 16-acre, East Montpelier homestead to Shumlin for $58,000. The property was assessed at $233,700 at the time, though a subsequent reassessment requested by Shumlin cut that figure to $140,000.

His eviction date on the horizon, Dodge told reporters he’d come to regret the deal he’d cut with the governor and without his own lawyer. While critics questioned whether Shumlin took advantage of man with an eighth-grade education, the governor said he was just trying to help a neighbor in “terrible straits.”

The controversy dogged Shumlin throughout the slow summer months, until he and Dodge struck a new deal to reverse the sale and return the property to Dodge.

Chairman’s Choice

Political prognosticators scratched their heads last December when Leahy turned down a chance to replace the late senator Daniel Inouye (D-Hawaii) as chairman of the seemingly all-powerful Senate Appropriations Committee. Instead, the newly minted senate president pro tem stayed put at the top of the Senate Judiciary Committee.

With the benefit of hindsight, the chairman’s choice makes all the sense in the world.

In a post-earmark world of austerity, sequestration and shutdowns, Approps ain’t what it used to be. In 2013, Judiciary was where the action was.

After a protracted fight, Leahy succeeded in reauthorizing the Violence Against Women Act. And he presided over major committee battles over gun laws and immigration reform — two of President Obama’s top priorities. Even Leahy’s long-ignored surveillance reforms took center stage following ex-NSA contractor Edward Snowden’s infamous leaks.

Laboring for Votes

Two major national labor unions teamed up in Vermont last winter to fight for collective bargaining rights for independent home-care workers who contract with the state.

When they won that battle, the Service Employees International Union and the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees faced off against one another to represent the new, 7000-member union.

Throughout the summer, the SEIU tried to convince home-care workers it had more national experience representing their interests. AFSCME, which already represented more than 2000 municipal workers in Vermont, portrayed itself as the local choice.

At the end of July, the SEIU unexpectedly dropped out of the race, calling theirs an uphill battle. Two months later, AFSCME formally won the right to represent the largest collective bargaining unit in the state.

Nuclear Disarmament

On August 14, Entergy Corp. prevailed over the State of Vermont in its long-running bid to continue operating Vermont Yankee nuclear power plant. A federal appellate court agreed with Entergy that state legislators had overstepped their bounds in February 2010 when they cited nuclear safety as a reason to withhold an operating license from the plant.

But just two weeks after the ruling, Entergy announced it would close down Yankee anyway, at the end of 2014.

“The plant was no longer financially viable,” Entergy chairman Leo Denault told Bloomberg, citing low natural-gas prices and high operational costs.

The decision was a huge victory for Vermont’s antinuclear activists and a crushing blow to the plant’s 630 workers — not to mention the town of Vernon.

Plenty of questions remain, including: when Entergy will complete decommissioning the plant, how the company will pay for it and what will become of the spent fuel rods stored on-site. High-level meetings between Entergy officials, the Shumlin administration and Attorney General Bill Sorrell were ongoing when Seven Days went to press.

Vermont Health Disconnect

Like most states, Vermont struggled to launch its federally mandated health insurance exchange on October 1. But unlike other states, Vermont required those working for businesses with fewer than 50 employees to use it.

When many consumers and business owners found themselves unable to navigate Vermont Health Connect, Shumlin pledged to quickly fix the online marketplace. But with problems still plaguing the site in early November, Shumlin moved to allow business owners to bypass the exchange or delay enrolling until the end of March. By December, the system still couldn’t bill small-business employees who successfully enrolled through the site, so Shumlin delayed their coverage, too.

As VHC’s problems came to light throughout the fall, Shumlin kept changing his mind about how serious they were and when he first knew about them. First he claimed that the payment-processing malfunction was a “nothing-burger.” Then he apologized profusely for his administration’s missteps and insisted he didn’t know anything was wrong until after Labor Day. Then he claimed he had been warning the public about it since July.

Republican Woes

Shumlin’s saving grace this year came in the form of a broke, tone-deaf and feuding Vermont Republican Party.

Throughout 2013, Lt. Gov. Phil Scott openly battled with Vermont GOP chairman Jack Lindley over control of the party. Scott accused Lindley of alienating independents by echoing the rhetoric of the national party, while Lindley said the lite gov was attempting a power grab.

In September, as Scott courted candidates to run against Lindley, the party chairman suffered a serious but unspecified medical event that hospitalized him for more than a month. That didn’t stop former U.S. Senate candidate John MacGovern, nor Scott ally David Sunderland, from challenging Lindley for his job.

Just days before November 9 party elections, Lindley dropped out and endorsed MacGovern. But by a 48-30 vote, Sunderland won, handing control over the party to Scott.

A month later, the lite gov pulled off a highly successful fundraiser featuring New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie — a hopeful sign for the pitiable party. But will any top-tier Republicans step up next November to challenge the state’s top Democratic incumbents?

So far, it ain’t lookin’ good.

Fighter Fight

The debate over whether to base a squadron of F-35 fighter jets in Vermont reached fever pitch this year.

A well-organized and press-savvy opposition kept the pressure on local and state officials alike. But business leaders, statewide pols and members of the Vermont National Guard fought back.

In the end, it’s unclear how much all the local sound and fury mattered. Hundreds of miles away, Air Force planners decided to send 18 of the planes to Burlington International Airport, starting in 2020. Leahy, Shumlin, Weinberger and Adj. Gen. Steve Cray announced the news at a raucous, Guard-only event December 3 in a Vermont Air National Guard hangar.

Despite the decision, F-35 opponents say they’ll fight on — and plan to sue the Air Force. So you might see this one on next year’s top-10 list, too.

Until then, have yourself a Gucci beer.