Boozin' and Cruisin': Should Vermont Lower Its Legal Limit? | Fair Game | Seven Days | Vermont's Independent Voice

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Bernie Sanders

Boozin' and Cruisin': Should Vermont Lower Its Legal Limit?

Sanders says he's ramping up his leadership PAC, Progressive Voters of America, with the goal of promoting like-minded candidates throughout the country.


Published July 24, 2013 at 11:59 a.m.
Updated November 7, 2017 at 12:36 p.m.

Fair Game is Seven Days’ weekly political column.

In a totally bizarre coincidence, Burlington Deputy Police Chief Andi Higbee and Newport Mayor Paul Monette were both involved in separate alcohol-related driving incidents early Sunday morning, according to the Vermont State Police.

Higbee was popped for a DUI on his way back from an Enosburg concert, though his lawyer claims he blew a .077 the first time the staties measured his blood-alcohol content. A second breathalyzer reading found him over the state’s .08 legal driving limit.

Monette, meanwhile, rolled over and wrecked his Toyota Prius on I-91 in Barton. The cops say alcohol and speed contributed to the one-car crash, which is still under investigation.

Lest you think all Vermont officialdom has gone to rot, at least one sober-minded lawmaker is driving ahead with a proposal to lower the legal limit from .08 to .05.

“People should not be behind the wheel when they’re impaired, whether it’s by alcohol, marijuana or other drugs,” says Rep. Bill Lippert (D-Hinesburg), who chairs the House Judiciary Committee.

Lippert says he’d been considering introducing such legislation for years and finally greenlighted it in May after the National Transportation Safety Board issued a nonbinding recommendation for states to lower the limit to .05. The board said at the time that when drivers cross that threshold, most “experience a decline in both cognitive and visual functions which significantly increases the risk of a serious crash.”

According to National Highway Traffic Safety Administration data, 23 of Vermont’s 55 vehicular fatalities in 2011 involved alcohol-impaired drivers. Of those, five involved drivers who blew between .01 and .07 — under the legal limit.

So will Lippert’s bill speed through Montpelier when the legislature reconvenes in January? The chairman says he’s received plenty of positive feedback since WCAX’s Kyle Midura first reported on the bill last month.

But a number of high-ranking pols seem disinclined to lower the limit.

“I’m not convinced, and I’d really need to be convinced that this would solve our problem,” says Senate Judiciary Committee chairman Dick Sears (D-Bennington), who says he’d rather focus on chronic re-offenders. “I just think it would end up making more people criminal.”

The Vermont Department of Health has yet to take a position on the proposal, according to deputy commissioner Barbara Cimaglio, and Gov. Peter Shumlin is cool to the idea. In a statement, Shumlin spokeswoman Sue Allen said the gov would “welcome hearing more” about Lippert’s plan, but it “would not be a priority for the governor.”

Even Lippert’s own boss, House Speaker Shap Smith, says he “would want to know that it was really going to make a difference before we moved in that direction.”

And just wait for the state’s alcohol and restaurant industries to get involved.

“I’m really sick and tired of the new prohibitionists and what they’re trying to do to vilify alcohol in this country,” says Vermont Brewers Association executive director Kurt Staudter. “This is a value-added sector in Vermont, and we’re vilifying it.”

But Lippert says he’s not trying to be a narc — or to keep Vermonters from their favorite pastime: drinking.

“I’m not asking people not to drink,” he says. “I’m simply asking people not to be on the highway when they’re impaired.”

Bittersweet Motel

Is Gov. Shumlin, who took on the “welfare state” during the last legislative session, at it again?

In January, you might recall, the gov sought to slash the Earned Income Tax Credit and place new caps on welfare benefits, pissing off liberals left and right. Okay, mostly left.

So when the Department for Children and Families issued new emergency rules last month that would dramatically reduce the number of homeless Vermonters eligible to stay in motels when shelters fill up, you could be forgiven for assuming Shummy was sticking it to the poor once more.

The proposed policy assigned points to vulnerable Vermonters. For instance, those 65 and older would get one point, those in the third trimester of pregnancy would get two and those with a child under age 6 would get three points. To be eligible for a motel voucher, you’d need to collect 6.

The reaction from advocates for the homeless was swift and fierce. Vermont Affordable Housing Coalition coordinator Erhard Mahnke fired off a quick missive to legislative leaders saying he and his colleagues were “universally stunned and outraged” at what they saw as “an impending disaster.”

To strip away temporary shelter from those who failed to reach six points before new anti-homelessness programs are in place, Committee on Temporary Shelter director Rita Markley said at the time, is like “pulling away the life raft before people know how to swim.”

So what was Shummy thinking?

Well, he was doing what the legislature told him to do!

From 2008 through 2012, state spending on motel stays more than quadrupled, from less than half a million dollars to more than $2.2 million. The next year, it nearly doubled again to $4.1 million.

Irate that many were abusing the program, House appropriators sought to slash funding to just $1 million — half of what Shumlin requested in his budget. The final appropriations bill directed the state to spend $1.5 million on the program, but it also mandated that the administration continue protecting specific groups of people.

To Richard Giddings, the DCF deputy commissioner charged with implementing the new spending restrictions, the legislature’s orders were a tad contradictory.

“I think what they gave us was guidance about who we should serve,” he says. “The challenge, of course, is that with that guidance they also put limitations on how much money we could spend to do that.”

Says Giddings’ boss, DCF commissioner David Yacavone, “When you go from $4 million to $1.5 million, what do you expect?”

Further complicating the situation was that after a rocky legislative session, Shumlin and the low-income advocates who had railed against his EITC and Reach Up proposals were trying hard to mend fences. According to both sides, Shumlin sat down with five of his most vocal critics from that community two weeks ago to figure out how to avoid similar feuds in the future.

Subsequently, DCF put the new homeless motel rules on hold and pledged to work with low-income advocates to come up with a better system. On Tuesday, DCF presented a new plan, which guarantees motel access to homeless Vermonters who are elderly, disabled, pregnant or have children under 6.

“Needless to say, it’s a huge improvement,” Vermont Legal Aid attorney Christopher Curtis said Tuesday. “They get big credit for putting the brakes on this and taking the time to listen to advocates who work with these Vermonters.”

So is everybody happy with Shummy’s spirit of compromise? Not exactly.

Sen. Tim Ashe (D/P-Chittenden), who has crusaded against the motel program for years, says he’s pleased the administration has refined its draft rules. But he says he’s worried the gov will spend more money on a failed program than the legislature directed him to — leaving less money for longer-term solutions to fight homelessness.

“The program has become dysfunctional, and it needs to be changed,” says Ashe, who argues that out-of-staters routinely come to Vermont to take advantage of it. “There is no question in my mind there are systemic problems — not anecdotal problems — that need to be addressed. And in that regard, the doom and gloom projected by some is distracting us from actually making a smart decision.”

So there you have it, doom-and-gloomers. This time it’s lefties like Ashe and his legislative cronies who are dishing out the tough medicine. And this time Shummy seems to be standing with his newfound friends in the low-income advocacy community.

Talk about a role reversal!

DeMinting Da Money for Da Progs

Is Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) angling to become the leftist version of Jim DeMint?

Before resigning from the Senate in January to take the helm of the Heritage Foundation, the right-wing South Carolinian built his Senate Conservatives Fund into a force to be reckoned with. Unlike your typical “leadership” political action committee — a second campaign account many lawmakers create to raise money for friends and allies — DeMint’s group routinely doled out cash to defeat fellow incumbent Republicans.

To drag the Senate to the right and establish himself as a leader of the conservative movement, DeMint was perfectly willing to rock the Republican boat — and spurn the incumbent protection racket.

Now Sanders is ready to do the same.

Earlier this month, the Vermont independent announced to supporters via email that he’s ramping up his own leadership PAC, called Progressive Voters of America. The goal, he wrote, is to “create a strong grass-roots movement in all 50 states, and work hard to elect progressive candidates at the local, state and national level.”

Established in 2008, PVA has never raised more than $125,000 per two-year election cycle. And it’s mostly contributed to Sanders’ Democratic colleagues — even centrist Dems like Pennsylvania’s Bob Casey and Montana’s Jon Tester.

But those days, it seems, are over.

Phil Fiermonte, a longtime Sanders aide who serves as PVA’s treasurer, says the PAC expects to raise $100,000 this quarter alone. And while the group will continue to support Sanders’ congressional colleagues, he says, it also plans to get involved in state and local races.

Most significantly? According to Fiermonte, “it is also possible that PVA could support primary challenges to incumbent members.”

Now that would get D.C. Dems to pay attention to their independent caucus-mate.

What Campaign?

From the moment Jake Perkinson stepped down as chairman of the Vermont Democratic Party last March, the rumor in Montpelier was that he’d been tapped to run Shumlin’s reelection campaign.

Perkinson denied it. Shumlin’s people denied it. But the rumor persisted — mainly, it seems, because it makes perfect sense.

After all, Shummy’s two top political aides, Alex MacLean and Bill Lofy, moved on to other gigs last winter after the gov waltzed through his first reelection campaign. And none of the top political brass on the 5th floor of the Pavilion Office Building — chief of staff Liz Miller, legislative liaison Louis Porter and Allen, his spokeswoman and deputy COS — has much in the way of campaign experience.

But Perkinson does. The Burlington attorney and political consultant has spent years on the campaign circuit.

Sure enough, at a meeting of the Democrats’ state committee Saturday in Montpelier, Perkinson was named Shumlin’s representative to the party’s executive committee. That’s a post typically reserved for statewide Dems’ campaign managers, such as Carolyn Dwyer and Jon Copans, who respectively run Sen. Patrick Leahy’s and Congressman Peter Welch’s reelection bids. Shumlin was previously represented on the committee by MacLean, who ran his 2010 and 2012 campaigns.

So does that mean Perkinson’s officially signed on to Shumlin 2014?

“No, I think at this point it means exactly what it is: that I’m the liaison between the Democratic Party and the governor,” Perkinson says, adding, “I don’t even think there is a campaign yet.”

Ah, yes! That old ruse. Though he’d been raising money for months, Shummy waited ’til last June to formally launch his reelection campaign and until September for the campaign kick-off.

Expect more of the same stalling as long as Shumlin’s most formidable potential challenger, Republican Lt. Gov. Phil Scott, keeps insisting the chances of his running next year “are pretty minimal,” as he told VPR last week.

But if Shumlin does run for a third term, will Perkinson manage his campaign?

“What campaign?” asks Allen. “There is no campaign.”

Disclosure: Tim Ashe is the domestic partner of Seven Days publisher and coeditor Paula Routly.