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Happy New Yorkers

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A steady stream of cars pulled into the nondescript gas station on Rt. 149 in Pawlet, Vermont, on Easter Sunday. Nine out of 10 had New York license plates.

That’s not surprising, since the New York state line was within sight, just 175 yards up the road. On the other side sits the community of Granville, New York, a town that’s seen better days.

The unusual thing about the cars arriving at Apollo Fuels was the fact that half of them didn’t even pull up to the gas pumps. Instead, the drivers parked off to the side, got out and walked up to the shabby little wood-and-glass kiosk to make a buy from the lone attendant inside. A few moments later, they returned to their vehicles clutching their purchases.

Folks, we’re not talking milk or coffee. No sandwiches or candy bars are sold here. No restroom, either. That’s because the only product for sale at the Apollo Fuels kiosk is tobacco, and the happy New Yorkers were buying up smokes by the carton.

Take Robert Miller of Glens Falls, New York, pictured here. Mr. Miller told Seven Days he and his wife stop by Apollo Fuels twice a week — to buy not gas but cartons of their favorite cigarettes. He said he’s been buying smokes there for years because they are “much, much cheaper” than cigarettes sold in his home state of New York. His cartons of USA cigs, he told us, cost up to $35 back home. But at Apollo Fuels on Sunday, Miller paid just $19.60 per carton. Such a deal!

On Sunday, Apollo Fuels was selling Marlboro cartons for $28.35. Less than a mile away in Granville, Marlboro cartons were offered at prices between $42 and $46 per carton. In fact, in our visit to a Granville Stewarts, a Cumberland Farms and a chain drug store, not once did we see anyone purchase cigarettes.

Noting the huge price difference, the clerk at Cumberland Farms even told us that she, like most local puffers, buys her butts just over the Vermont state line at Apollo.

Over at the volunteer fire department, we learn-ed that Apollo Fuels rose out of an empty field about 10 years ago. It’s become a local tradition for folks to make the short hop to Vermont to buy their smokes.

The reason for the huge price difference is, of course, the difference in state cigarette taxes between Vermont and New York.

In New York the tax is $1.11 per pack, and there’s currently a move in Albany to raise it to $1.50.

In Vermont, the cigarette tax is 44 cents per pack. In Montpelier, there’s a move underway to raise it 67 cents to match New York’s current rate. But one very powerful Vermont politician is expending a great deal of political capital blocking any cigarette tax hike in Vermont — House Speaker Walter Freed. A few weeks back, Freed used the mighty power of his gavel to prevent a cigarette tax hike from even being debated.

According to state records that track all underground fuel storage tanks in Vermont, Apollo Fuels in Pawlet is owned by Apollo Industries Inc. of Wallingford. And guess who the president of Apollo Industries is.

House Speaker Walter Freed.

And guess where Walter Freed grew up.

Granville, New York.

Small world, eh?

Previously, we’ve asked the Speaker in writing to disclose the businesses he owns that sell tobacco products. He has refused to respond. Now we know why.

It’s perfectly legal to sell cigarettes. But if Vermont raises its tax to match New York’s, Apollo Fuels of Pawlet — Freed’s tobacco shop that also sells gasoline — might not be in business much longer.

Interesting.

The Long Goodbye — Little did we expect that the final item in last week’s Track — a fond farewell to Vermont Public Television — would cause such a ruckus. But it has.

We said goodbye to the station we’ve appeared on for 20 years in response to being “uninvited” to appear on Good Friday’s “Vermont This Week.” It wasn’t a complete surprise, since we’d been alerted weeks earlier that the House Republican leadership was putting the heat on VPT to bounce us from the weekly Vermont reporters’ roundtable. We noted the recent $200,000 cut in VPT funding inserted into the capital bill.

VPT officials quickly denied the charge of political pressure, and our buddies, House Speaker Walter Freed (R-Dorset) and House Institutions Committee Chairman Bob Wood (R-Brandon), did, too.

Nonetheless, we stand by our story.

VPT President John King wrote a letter last Thursday responding to our column. That letter appears in the Weekly Mail section opposite.

VPT officials claim yours truly was not “banned” from the program due to political pressure, but rather because of our January 18 on-air use of a “Taliban” analogy to describe the ultra-conservative, religious-based faction of the Chittenden County Republican Party.

That’s the GOP faction led by Rev. David Stertzbach of Williston’s Trinity Baptist Church. The faction that bitterly opposed civil unions, demanded its repeal, and viciously smeared State Sen. Peter Brownell and Senate candidate Barbara Snelling in the GOP primary because they don’t consider homosexuality an “abomination.”

And when Sen. Snelling had to retire in January for health reasons, that was the faction opposing the candidacy of the senator’s daughter, Diane Snelling, as her replacement.

The VPT story was front-page news on Thursday and Friday’s Rutland Herald and Times Argus. On Saturday, The Burlington Free Press gave it a brief mention.

The response has been overwhelming. We’ve received more than 100 e-mails, phone calls, voice mails and letters from readers and viewers. Folks shared their viewpoints as well as the messages they’d sent to VPT. Here’s a sampling:

• From Worcester: “This is hard for me to do because I believe in (though much less so recently), public television and was thinking of writing you a check of 50 dollars. Now that the news is out about what might be going on with political pressure from the right-wing leadership in the Vermont House of Representatives, I can tell you, forget it. And unless you fire the person that made that awfully horrible decision to kick Peter off for using “Taliban,” then, c’mon, grow up.

“Why is it that we hear the conservatives having to constantly stifle other points of view or they will threaten to take away funding or whatever?

“What’s next, mass arrest? I’ve about had it. Do something about this!”

• From South Hero: “We were shocked and dismayed to learn of Peter Freyne’s removal from the “Vermont This Week” program, and his understanding of why the VPT action was taken.

“We must tell you that Freyne’s appearances represent some of the most refreshing and informative moments that VPT has to offer. We hope you will reconsider this action and restore him to the program.”

• From Calais: “If this reduction in VPT funding and Mr. Freyne’s removal are linked, as Mr. Freyne believes they are, that’s not unfortunate, that’s a political quid pro quo for which VPT should be ashamed.

“And if it’s not linked, and Mr. Freyne is incorrect, why is he being removed from VTW? Did you not think that making up a $200,000 funding shortfall would have been an easier task without having made this apparent putsch of Mr. Freyne?

“I’m not yet going [to make a pledge to not pledge] to VPT because of this bogus move, because I expect VPT to reconsider your action. Do you expect your members to continue to pledge and to watch VTW for Sam Hemingway without Freyne?”

• From Burlington: “Between this and the Speaker’s earlier no-cameras-in-the-House policy, I’m starting to think Freed has a free-speech impediment. Pretty crummy treatment for you. On the bright side, must be nice to know you’re valued at upwards of $200 grand!”

• From Rutland: “I am truly dismayed at today’s story by Tracy Schmaler of the Rutland Herald. In short, Vermont Public Television should remember its humble beginnings. It should also come to grips with the reality that without Peter Freyne appearing on “Vermont This Week,” the program is in grave danger of being declared boring!”

• From Burlington — “I was upset to read about your trouble with VPT. It’s quite a thing to be censured for an analogy.

“As someone who’s been through similar fights, I understand how irritating it can be when pressure for political correctness becomes an excuse for hypocrisy. We’ve had our differences, but that doesn’t change my support for your vigorous work and refreshing frankness over all these years.

“Well, at least you’re in good company — including the first victim of the Alien and Sedition Acts, Matthew Lyon, a Vermont Congressman, newspaper editor and critic of John Adams’ administration. As you may recall, he landed in a 12-by-16-foot cell in Vergennes, Vermont, for saying that the administration had a thirst for “selfish avarice,” and that the President ought to be sent to a madhouse. By that yardstick, you’re not doing too bad.”

• From Montpelier: “Whether your organization responded to pressure from The Duke of Dorset, who is now The Speaker of the House, or simply imposed internal censorship under the color of “standards”; the way Peter Freyne has been dealt with is disgusting. If my lifelong friend Jack Barry were aware of what VPT has become, he would be upset that his name is associated with it.

“From its infancy, we have supported your organization. The Mullahs who now run your operation have active opponents where they once had staunch friends.”

• From Cornwall: “And I thought that if the U.S. didn’t have free speech, at least VT did… and within the media, of course public television would be in the forefront. Must be not.

“It’s a sad day when anyone tries to still the voices of truth. I don’t always agree with your column or “Vermont This Week” comments, but more often than not you’re right, and even if not you have the right (some would claim obligation) to state your views.

“I shall miss your Friday night appearances.”

From Burlington: “I find it extraordinarily curious that it took John King three months to determine that a remark made in January by Peter Freyne was “not up to the standard” of Vermont Public Television. The timing has a peculiar odor about it. An odor reminiscent of political payback in the form of reduced state funding for VPT.”

The Latest — On Monday, VPT president John King released a new statement declaring in part:

“Vermont This Week draws panelists from a wide variety of media. All are subject to the different journalistic standards of their own employers.

“When they appear on VPT, however, they come under the umbrella of VPT’s own editorial standards. It is VPT’s journalistic right and responsibility to shape the tone and content of the program. Viewers trust us to make our own independent judgments.

“The incident made us realize we needed to develop clearer editorial guidelines for the guests on the program, and staff began working on them. We had planned to put those guidelines in place and meet with Peter about them before considering an invitation to him to return as a panelist.

“We should have made our concerns about the January remarks clear to Peter immediately after the program.

“Therefore, the March 22 invitation was an error on our part, since we had not yet had that conversation with Peter, and we withdrew that week’s invitation.

“Peter wrote in his newspaper column last week that he had been told he would not be invited back to the show. From our perspective, that is incorrect and he was not permanently barred from the show.

“VPT staff will work with the producer and host of the program, Chris Graff, to develop clearer guidelines for the program. When those are in place, we will meet with Peter Freyne to discuss the guidelines and whether we will be able to work together in future.

“I regret that we handled this situation very poorly. The steps we are taking to clarify our guidelines are intended to prevent a recurrence…”

Stay tuned, folks. Censorship by any other name smells just as bad.

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