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Info Wars: Does the Legislature Demand Too Many Studies?


Published November 29, 2017 at 10:00 a.m.
Updated December 19, 2017 at 4:18 p.m.

Fair Game is Seven Days’ weekly political column.
Gov. Phil Scott - ALICIA FREESE
  • Alicia Freese
  • Gov. Phil Scott

A battle over information is brewing between Republican Gov. Phil Scott and the Democratic legislature. The administration is pushing back against what it sees as overly burdensome demands for reports and studies, while lawmakers argue that the information is crucial to decision making — and that Scott should have raised the issue during the lawmaking process instead of waiting until afterward to complain.

The dispute was sparked by three studies mandated this year by the legislature — and signed into law by the governor — that either won't be completed or are falling short of legislators' specs. According to an analysis produced by Seven Days digital editor Andrea Suozzo and reporter Alicia Freese, the 2017 legislature ordered 68 studies and reports; most have been finished or are in process, but three have become outliers.

The first concerns subsurface tile drainage systems used by some farmers. Those systems may exacerbate phosphorus runoff that's fouling Vermont waterways. After lengthy debates over how to regulate the practice, the legislature asked the Agency of Agriculture, Food & Markets to do some research and make recommendations. But, as Agriculture Secretary Anson Tebbetts claims, "We don't have enough science yet," so it's impossible for the agency to follow through.

Second, the legislature created a working group to devise a long-term way to pay for a federally mandated 20-year cleanup of Vermont waterways — but the panel stopped well short of the mark, merely suggesting a five-year funding plan that relies heavily on borrowing.

Finally, the Agency of Education was tasked with reviewing the state's system of determining per-pupil payments to local schools. Student head counts are weighted to give additional help to districts with high rates of poverty, addiction or other special needs. "The formula is incredibly important and should be revised regularly," says Sen. Phil Baruth (D/P-Chittenden), chair of the Senate Education Committee.

But, as Terri Hallenbeck reported for Seven Days, Education Secretary Rebecca Holcombe insists her agency lacks the resources to conduct such a study. Earlier this month, three lawmakers wrote Holcombe a letter threatening a lawsuit if the study weren't produced.

At his November 16 press conference, Scott was asked about Holcombe's refusal to deliver. He immediately pivoted to the broader issue of mandated studies and reports.

"We've submitted about 200 reports this year," he said. "We believe there could be as many as over 500 reports that will be due this biennium ... The fact is, many reports don't see the light of day. They are never read."

Those numbers are stunning but somewhat misleading. Most of the reports are annual mandates created by past legislatures and don't require much staff time.

But Scott is pressing the issue. "The administration is now undertaking a review of all active reports required," his spokesperson, Rebecca Kelley, wrote in an email. "We think this is the start of an important discussion about how many reports are required ... and where we might be able to eliminate or reprioritize some of these requirements."

Sounds reasonable, but many lawmakers believe Scott's true intention is to limit their access to information. "We're part time, trying to do oversight of a year-round executive branch," says Senate Majority Leader Becca Balint (D-Windham). "We don't have staff. The only way for us to get information is to require the executive branch to provide it."

Which is not to say that all studies are equally vital. Rep. Dylan Giambatista (D-Essex Junction), who served as aide to former House speaker Shap Smith, acknowledges that reports can sometimes fall through the cracks. But he believes the solution is not to cut the number of reports, but to ensure that each one is put to use. "When the legislature commissions a report, we should honor the work by giving it a full hearing in committee," he says. "I plan to introduce a rules change to that effect."

Lingering conflicts from the 2017 session muddy the waters. Many legislators saw a detached administration, failing to take part in the give-and-take of lawmaking — and then complaining about the final result.

"His people can testify before any committee and talk with the House speaker and [Senate president] pro tem anytime," says Rep. Dave Sharpe (D-Bristol), chair of the House Education Committee. And, ultimately, he says, "The governor could have vetoed any bill and sent a message saying he agreed with all of it except the study." That would have sparked a quick round of negotiations — as we saw with the two bills that Scott vetoed — resulting in compromise.

In the case of the education weighting study, Holcombe warned the House and Senate Education Committees that her agency was incapable of doing the research. "We asked the administration if they needed more resources," says Balint, a member of the Senate education panel. "They said they didn't want more money or staff."

Sharpe says the same exchange took place in his House committee: The administration was more concerned with keeping spending down than fulfilling the mandate of a bill signed into law by the governor himself.

Baruth sees a hidden agenda at work. "I think Phil Scott is a very happy face on something not too different from the Tea Party idea," he says. "Cut and cut, and when the system fails, it's proof that government doesn't work."

Baruth contends that the governor signed off on study after study during the legislative session and is now engaged in retroactive blame-shifting. "He's trying to make it seem like the problem is the legislature," the senator observes.

Sounds like somebody is itching for a fight.

Public Financing: What Now?

An undistinguished passage in the annals of Vermont jurisprudence came to an end just before Thanksgiving, when Attorney General T.J. Donovan reached a settlement in the state's prosecution of Dean Corren for alleged violations of the state's campaign financing law.

Corren ran for lieutenant governor in 2014 on the Democratic and Progressive tickets. His campaign qualified for public financing, which meant he was barred from all other fundraising activities. But late in the campaign, the Vermont Democratic Party sent an email blast touting his candidacy and listing a series of his upcoming rallies.

Then-attorney general Bill Sorrell interpreted the email as improper campaign assistance and decided to throw the book at Corren, seeking fines and restitution totaling $72,000 for an email whose value has been estimated at $255. Donovan inherited this absurdity upon taking office in January and finally reached a settlement last week. The state dropped the case, and Corren agreed to pay $255.

So Corren's long legal nightmare is finally over. But what's next for the system that turned him into a junior-grade Jean Valjean?

"Secretary of State [Jim] Condos and I are working on a campaign finance task force," says Donovan. "We'll have recommendations within a couple of weeks, including public financing."

Donovan acknowledges the public financing system has fundamental problems. The law lays many traps for the unwary candidate. It sets tough restrictions on candidates' activities, and, in an age of rapidly escalating political spending, it offers too little money to run an effective campaign. Example: A gubernatorial candidate who eschews fundraising would receive $600,000 in public funds — but, in 2016, Scott spent more than $1.6 million and Democratic challenger Sue Minter topped the $2 million mark. It's hard to compete with a fraction of the resources.

"The famous George Aiken days are gone," says Donovan, referring to Vermont's legendary U.S. senator, who spent only $17.09 to run for reelection in 1968. "We need a conversation about the reality of campaigning in the 21st century."

That includes the seemingly unknowable. "How do you value an email?" posits Donovan. "How do you value a tweet? A retweet?"

It may be hard to quantify — but Donovan suggests it's definitely higher than zero. When then-representative Chris Pearson ran for state Senate in 2016, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) sent an email blast to his millions of backers, suggesting that they donate to Pearson and other like-minded candidates across the country. Within three days, Pearson had taken in more than $60,000 in campaign cash — far more than any of his competitors raised in the entire campaign cycle. Now, if Pearson had been a publicly financed candidate, he couldn't have collected donations. But Sanders' endorsement helped to elevate Pearson in a crowded Democratic primary. An email can clearly be of great value.

Donovan says he and Condos are likely to call for a less restrictive and more generous public financing system. Their recommendations will then be subjected to the tender mercies of the legislature, where they will almost certainly die a quick and ugly death.

After all, it's hard to imagine much appetite among Statehouse politicos for dramatically expanding the system and creating a dedicated revenue source at a time of fiscal restraint — all to increase the chances that they might face upstart challengers for their precious offices.

Media Note

A son of Vergennes who went west to pursue his dreams has returned to his hometown and is taking on a challenge that seems completely contrarian. At a time when newspapers are an endangered species, he's trying to resurrect a local paper that died more than three decades ago.

Matt Lazarus is the new owner of the Vergennes Citizen, which hasn't been published since the early 1980s — when his father, Doug, was its co-owner. The elder Lazarus is an artist, and he filled the Citizen's pages with hand-drawn illustrations in the style of 19th-century newspapers. "His vision never quite worked," Matt acknowledges. "By 1984, it was defunct. It died one month before I was born."

Matt was born halfway around the world, in South Korea. At the age of 1, he was adopted by two Vermonters and grew up in Vergennes — just your average everyday "Asian kid raised by two Jews in Vermont," he notes with pride.

He spent his early adulthood as a screenwriter in the Los Angeles area; he returned to Vermont after the 2016 election, sunk in a "malaise" both personal and political. At his father's home, he says, "I found these old newspapers, and thought, Why not?"

Besides, he adds, he's got "a good name for resurrections."

With the help of Doug's former business partner, Edward Williams, Matt tracked down the owner of the paper's name, made an offer and, just like that, became a publisher.

So far, the Citizen exists only online in beta form. Its three "stories" are entitled "We're Back," "Stock Photo Used to Produce Filler Content for Beta Site" and "First Attempt at Front Page Image Mocked by Publisher's Artist Father." Matt says he's "halfway done with the first print edition," which he hopes to publish by the end of December. He says it will be a "small city paper" — 8.5 inches by 5.5 inches — reflecting Vergennes' self-proclaimed status as America's smallest city.

Lazarus hopes to create a lively forum for all things Vergennes. "This place is the greatest city in Addison County," he claims. "I look forward to chronicling the coming Vergennessance."

The original print version of this article was headlined "Info Wars"