Can't turn on the news lately without hearing something about snowmobiles. Surprisingly, it has a lot more to do with politics than weather.
Seven Days has learned the Vermont Association of Snow Travelers is on a mission!
Recent reports have featured Rep. Bernie Sanders and State Sen. Peter Welch touting the benefits of VAST.
Ol' Bernardo did his part in Stowe, riding a snow machine for the cameras. He even wore a helmet.
And last week, VAST awarded Welch its "Legislator of the Year" award. I bet you didn't know they even had a "Legislator of the Year" award.
Well, two years ago an item was slipped into the state budget bill at the last minute, exempting snowmobile trails from Act 250 review. So well slipped in that Virginia Lyons, chair of the Senate Natural Resources and Energy Committee, knew nothing about it.
The magic words mean landowners do not have to meet Act 250 criteria to "rehabilitate" old, "discontinued" trails.
The snowmobile Act 250 exemption sunsets this year. Naturally, VAST wants to extend it -- indefinitely.
To do so they've hired a Statehouse business lobbyist for the first time. Morris & Associates also represents companies such as Pfizer Pharmaceutical and Vermont Yankee. Gerry Morris, a Statehouse veteran, is one savvy lobbyist.
Morris the Cat told Seven Days his firm is also doing media relations for the snowmobilers -- hence the two recent news reports with Sanders and Sen. Welch singing the praises of snowmobiles.
However, it's going to take more than that to win this battle.
As Sen. Lyons told Seven Days, "You can't exempt yourself from the environment."
Neither VAST Executive Director Bryant Watson nor VAST President Ann Shangraw were available for comment this week.
P.S. Besides the recent pro-snowmobiling stories, there have been a few not-so-pro-snowmobiling stories in the news. In the last 10 days, three fatal snowmobile accidents have been reported in our region. Two involved alcohol.
Circ Update -- You didn't read it in the local daily or see it on the local TV news, but there was a rather newsworthy development regarding the Chittenden County Circumferential Highway last week.
The Burlington City Council got religion at the last minute and reversed its stance on an earlier resolution supporting construction of the controversial highway, which was to be part of the proposed 2025 Chittenden County Metropolitan Transportation Plan.
Burlington Councilor Bill Keogh, the city's representative on the Metropolitan Planning Organization, dutifully cast the lone "no" vote on the MTP.
Everybody knows that building the Circ was a top campaign promise of Gov. Jim Douglas in 2002. Gov. Scissorhands even used his connections with George W. Bush to get the project on the federal fast track.
Unfortunately for Douglas, a judge ruled last May that the Guv was violating federal law in his determination to rush the project. The Douglas Team had relied on a 1986 Environmental Impact Statement that was obviously out of date.
Today, things are back on the drawing board. A new EIS won't be released for public comment until 2006.
Meanwhile, one reader was incredulous about a statement in last week's column. We reported that a full build-out of the Circ would only save cross-country travel time by a measly 11 seconds!
Needless to say, spending $200 million on a highway to save 11 seconds of drive time at rush hour sounds absolutely absurd.
Unfortunately, it's absolutely true.
A VTrans traffic study is the source. A partial build of Segments A and B would save just 7 seconds.
Even Judge William K. Sessions was stunned by the VTrans traffic study.
"The Defendants acknowledge that the quantitative improvement for the individual driver from the construction of Segments A-B is a slim seven seconds of time saved per vehicle during the evening rush hour," wrote Sessions in his decision.
"Whether achieving a savings of seven seconds in commuter time is a wise expenditure of resources is not a judgment that this Court is permitted to make."
A bit tongue-in-cheek, eh?
Nonetheless, all Chittenden County communities except for Burlap think it's a wise investment. Must be something in the suburban water, eh?
Dean's Last Hurrah? -- Former Gov. Howard Dean, the only former Democratic presidential wannabe still standing, is still speaking out and getting noticed. Dean appeared on ABC's "This Week" on Sunday to tout his credentials for becoming the next chairman of the Democratic Party. That vote is coming up on February 12.
Ho-Ho was in great form, despite looking a little grayer up top.
Host George Stephanopolous asked him how he would vote on the president's nomination of Condoleezza Rice to be secretary of state and Alberto Gonzalez to be our new attorney general. Both are longtime Bush hacks who've never let the facts get in the way.
Two Democrats on the Senate Judiciary Committee, Sens. John Kerry and Barbara Boxer, voted against Rice in committee. Based on Rice's record, it's outrageous that the "no" vote wasn't larger, but these are strange times we live in.
Dean told Handsome George that Kerry and Boxer did the right thing.
"I think Condi Rice is a capable person," said Ho-Ho, "but her chief attribute in the position is loyalty to the president. I think we need an independent thinker, somebody who will give advice to the president he doesn't want to hear."
Unfortunately, that's the kind of advice that's been missing at the White House for the last four years, which is why Americans young and old are being killed and wounded in a completely unnecessary war in Iraq.
As for Gonzalez, Dean said he hadn't made up his mind yet.
The attorney general-in-waiting, he said, "is a wonderful American story of somebody who started from nothing in another country and has a tremendous career, but the torture memos are deeply, deeply concerning."
Dean said his goal is to build a grassroots Democratic Party, one that can match the obviously better Republican Party campaign system in 2008, and be better than the GOP four years after that. (Ho-Ho will be 64 then. As The Beatles put it: "Will you still need me, will you still feed me, when I'm 64?")
Dean's emphasis on improving local and state Democratic parties has won him a devoted following in Florida, where the Dems put out a release touting Ho-Ho for party chair.
"Gov. Dean understands how valuable the individual states are in order to win a national race," said Florida chairman Scott Maddox. "He knows you have to have strong state parties and strong state elected leaders in order to deliver a strong ground game on Election Day."
On February 12, 436 members of the Democratic National Committee will make their choice. Right now, the battle looks to be between Howard Dean and "anybody but Dean," but that "anybody" hasn't been found yet.
Last Thursday evening at the Sheraton Hotel in South Burlington, about 250 Deaniacs gathered to celebrate an "Unauguration" to lift spirits on the day Dubya was sworn in to a second term.
Dean joked with his audience of fans about his chances to win his party's chairmanship.
"I don't know what's going to happen. Everybody says, 'You're looking great, you're way ahead,'" said Dean with a smile. "I've heard that song before!"
Yes, he has. Iowa, one year ago.
Ho-Ho then quoted a favorite line from a Crosby Stills & Nash tune of long ago: "The darkest hour is before the dawn."
"We've had our darkest hour," said Ho-Ho, "on January 20, 2001. It's all uphill from here, baby!"
Remember the Other Judy? -- Not Judy Dean, folks; we're talking about Judith Ramaley, former president of the University of Vermont (1997-2001).
Since departing Groovy UV, Ramaley has been assistant director for the Education and Human Resources Directorate at the National Science Foundation, and is currently a visiting senior scientist at the National Academy of Sciences in Washington, D.C.
However, it appears Judith misses campus life.
According to press accounts, Ramaley is a finalist for two college presidencies: the University of Wisconsin at River Falls and Ramapo College in New Jersey.
Best wishes, Judy!
League of His Own? -- One of the little items tucked away in Gov. Douglas' proposed 590-page state budget has lit a fire under the folks at the Vermont League of Cities and Towns.
It's a battle over Douglas' desire to tap more than $1 million in the $800 million Education Fund -- money raised from local property taxes -- to spend on other ventures besides our public schools.
VLCT Executive Director Steve Jeffrey pointed out that Douglas wants to grab $776,280 from the Education Fund and spend it on special education for Vermont inmates. Mr. Jeffrey also noted that Gov. Scissorhands' proposed budget would tap another $350,000 in Ed Fund dollars to pay for the state's Vision computer system.
For Vermont cities and towns, the property tax that fuels the Education Fund is "our only source" of revenue, said Jeffrey.
If the Douglas administration is successful, it will means less for local schools.
The Education Fund was established back in 1997 by Act 60. That was the beginning of our statewide property tax and the beginning of equality between rich towns and poor towns, at least in the public schools. Remember the outrage expressed back then by some of our state's wealthy residents? The so-called "gold town" folks in Stowe and Manchester who went ballistic.
Hey, progress is never easy. In fact, it took a Vermont Supreme Court decision to get the gang at the Statehouse to do the right thing.
Mr. Jeffrey assured Seven Days that the VLCT will be lobbying hard to prevent Gov. Douglas from robbing town piggybanks. Steve said he'll remind legislators about the "blood oath" they swore back in 1997: that Education Fund dollars would be used solely to pay for public schools.
"Douglas," explained Mr. Jeffrey, "is shifting $1 million to increase local property taxes. It's a nice one if you can get away with it. You can't fault the guy for trying," he said with a chuckle.
Our Liberal House -- It's a regular biennial event at the Statehouse -- the introduction, debate and vote on a resolution supporting Roe v. Wade. That's the landmark U.S. Supreme Court decision legalizing abortion.
Four years ago, the House Resolution passed on an 85-51 vote.
Two years ago it passed 92-46.
And last week, the Roe v. Wade resolution won approval on a 97-37 vote.
Prog Update -- The Vermont Progressive Party appears to be on a bit of a roll. They've gone from four to six seats in the Vermont House. Since Burlington Rep. David Zuckerman was appointed chairman of the House Agriculture Committee, editorial pages from the Burlington Free Press to the Caledonia-Record in St. Johnsbury have had nothing but nice things to say about Chairman Ponytail.
So far, anyway.
And last week the Prog Party's new executive director took over the reins in Montpeculiar.
Karin Eade of Grande Isle replaces Chris Pearson, who departed for Washington and a new career.
Ms. Eade owns a perennial garden business and has a "flock" of domestic animals. In the 1990s she served as executive director of Outright Vermont.
With Eade's efforts, the Proggies hope to reach double-digits at the Statehouse in 2006.
Boettcher Deal -- Well, you've had a week to chew on it. What do you think?
Is a maximum two-year jail sentence and the forfeiture of his $733,000 golden parachute a fair punishment for Bill Boettcher, the former boss at Burlington's scandal-plagued hospital on the hill?
Boettcher admitted in U.S. District Court that he took part in a "conspiracy" in which he deceived state regulators about the true cost of Fletcher Allen Health Care's Renaissance Project. Bill pitched it at $173 million. The current estimate is $367 million.
By way of comparison, we note the sentence handed down a few years ago to Billy Greer, the infamous local marijuana and hashish smuggler. Billy the Kid got more than 25 years in the slammer. Pretty hefty price to pay for lifting the spirits of so many happy tokers, eh?
And can anyone argue that putting Greer away has reduced the availability of marijuana in Vermont?
Acting U.S. Attorney David Kirby prosecuted Billy the Kid a few years back. He was also in the courtroom when Renaissance Bill pled guilty last week. Yours truly couldn't help but raise a comparison.
"This is a major penalty that he faces -- substantial incarceration for up to two years," said Kirby. "We do not consider it a slap on the wrist."
Vermont Attorney General Bill Sorrell backed up Kirby. What else could he do?
"As I sat in the courtroom and watched Mr. Boettcher plead guilty to a serious federal felony, one that involves a violation of the public trust, I thought, 'My, how the mighty have fallen!'"
Boettcher, said Sorrell, "went from CEO of the biggest hospital in Vermont, from living on a yacht in Seattle, to standing right now as a convicted felon. Handed in his passport. Can't leave the territorial waters of the United States, paying Fletcher Allen $733,000 and he stands potentially to spend the next two New Years in prison.
"Bad day at the office!" quipped our attorney general.
Not surprisingly, neither Kirby nor Sorrell mentioned our Greer comparison. Too bad, eh? Sorrell even went to high school at Rice with Greer.
P.S. The real eye-opener was Boettcher's adamant refusal to admit he conspired to deceive Mary Fanny's trustees. Yes, he fooled state regulators, but no, he didn't fool trustees.
That could not have helped several former trustees sleep easier.
You know who you are.