Ah, spring: time for the crack of the bat, the smell of the compost, the end of another legislative session and - because we're in an even-numbered year - the official start of the Vermont campaign season.
This week, lawmakers will scurry off to vacations or head back to their jobs, and the governor will hit the ribbon-cutting road doing what he does best: getting out and talking to people.
But his potential challengers are doing some public outreach, too.
As we noted last week, plenty of Democrats hope House Speaker Gaye Symington will challenge Gov. Jim Douglas this fall. Symington appeared on WVMT's "Charlie & Ernie Show" Monday but would only say she's taking the next week or two to make up her mind about a run. Sources tell Seven Days Symington might announce her candidacy as early as next Monday.
Last Thursday, Republican Lt. Gov. Brian Dubie announced on the same popular morning radio show that he would seek reelection. You could almost hear Republicans around the state heave a collective sigh of relief.
Some Democrats aren't waiting for Symington, though, and have already begun to flock to Progressive Anthony Pollina's campaign. Pollina launched his statewide "Build a Better Vermont" tour Sunday in Stowe, where about 50 people showed up for brunch and a policy discussion. The attendees included the county chairman of the Republican Party and a GOP operative with a video camera who taped the event. For posterity, no doubt.
Pollina was on the airwaves this week, too, with a radio spot talking up his statewide tour. The ad opens with a familiar voice - that of Ben & Jerry's cofounder Ben Cohen. In the ad, Cohen says he's been a Democrat, a Progressive and an independent, and as all three he's endorsing Pollina.
Cohen's not losing sleep over the fact that Ben & Jerry's employed Chuck Lacy - Speaker Symington's husband - as its president and chief operating officer, from 1991 to 1995.
Small states are so much fun.
They're also easy to crisscross. Pollina has been trekking around Vermont over the past week, speaking to and making inroads with Democrats. After one such meeting in Lamoille County, about 18 signed up to join the fledgling "Democrats for Pollina" group, according to one supporter.
John Burgess, a Lamoille County Democrat who sits on town, county and state Democratic committees, is another Pollina backer. "It's no knock against Gaye," he said. "She's bright and able." But Burgess believes the Prog brings a different style of leadership to the table.
"For me, I think it's safe to say that support for Anthony is 100 percent based on the issues," Burgess added. "He made a significant impact on the Democrats in Lamoille County." Pollina has also just received the endorsement of two major unions: the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 2326, and Ironworkers Local 7.
Symington told Seven Days she is not concerned about Pollina's efforts to woo Democrats.
"My focus is on Jim Douglas, and I think the people of this state are ready for a change and a sense that someone is providing leadership," she said. "We are only going pothole by pothole - no one is looking at the whole road, or even down the road." Bump ahead?
Winners and Losers - There will be plenty of analysis in the coming months to identify the winners and losers of this legislative session. So allow me to add a few of my own "winner" picks to the heap.
Despite some grumbling about the Democrats giving Douglas the two-day sales-tax holiday he wanted - which will have a negligible impact on the economy - most everyone is glad the session ended without too much damage.
Rep. Mark Larson (D-Burlington) was tapped at the end of the session to review Douglas' so-called stimulus package and separate the wheat from the chaff. "I think the budget and the stimulus package highlighted the differences between the governor and the Democratic legislature," he opined, "and it was a distinction between the long-term solutions aimed at helping folks who are having a hard time paying their bills and short-term symbolic fixes."
The Democrats tossed aside pretty much all that Douglas offered and passed their own stimulus package. They kept the sales-tax holiday and replaced other key components, including investments in workforce training, low-interest loans for businesses who need them, and money for housing construction. The Dems also rejected another attempt to water down Act 250 to boost housing development, as well as an attempt to give income-tax breaks to businesses and pass them off as payroll-tax cuts to benefit employees.
Despite the overhaul of his proposal, the governor, according to Larson, sounded more congenial at the session's end. Oddly, Douglas was quiet on key news of the session's last day: Symington's announcement that she was not seeking reelection as Speaker.
The Democrats left Douglas with an easy way to undo their hard work: They didn't schedule a veto session. That decision could come back to haunt them later this year. In fact, Douglas is already working on an angle.
"They are going to go out and say we should be thankful they saved taxpayers nearly half a million dollars by leaving early," Douglas said at a GOP fundraiser last week. "It's like retailers who raise the price and then lower it to say they're having a big sale and saving you a lot of money. They will say that this has been a shorter session than in some years, but they have spent an awful lot of money on consultants and special meetings and don't have a whole lot to show for it," Douglas contended. "And we'll be talking a lot about that in the coming six months."
That's why he's the governor, folks.
Intervale Compost: A winner. Legislation passed in the session's last days allows the compost project to stay open another two years without having to get an Act 250 permit. One other operation, Vermont Compost in Montpelier, will also get a pass while some bright minds figure out how best to regulate these operations.
Vermont drivers: More winners. Gov. Douglas finally relented to the Democrats, after years of opposition, to raising money for bridge and road repairs through state-issued bonds. It's only taken since his state-treasurer days to change his mind on this one. Hey, filling potholes works as well as cutting ribbons when you're looking for votes.
Vermont Yankee: Another winner. For the second year in a row, tough legislation that would squeeze some cash out of Entergy, owner of the Vermont Yankee nuclear power plant, will die with a stroke of the veto pen from Gov. Douglas. Nothing like having friends in high places, and it hardly costs Entergy a dime. The Louisiana-based corporation plunked down a mere $1000 for the last gubernatorial ball. A pittance.
One astute reader did take me to task after last week's column. I dismissed Entergy's claims that living up to its financial obligations to Vermont would sink the company. The reader told me, "I mean, c'mon, Shay, poor ol' Entergy only made $39.61 per second in the first quarter. If Vermont can't give a break to a company that made $2376.54 per minute in the first quarter, who can it give a break to?"
Entergy is always looking for a break, too. When the sale of Vermont Yankee was approved in 2002, Entergy did not want to share any excess from the decommissioning fund (assuming there would be any) with Vermont ratepayers. They wanted all excess profits from the fund, saying they would be taking all the risk.
The Vermont Public Service Board ruled otherwise, saying Entergy had to share any excess with both in-state and out-of-state owners, since ratepayers had been tapped to fill the fund prior to the sale. Entergy nearly walked away from the deal, but the out-of-state owners - a consortium of New England-based utilities that holds 45 percent of shares - agreed to grant Entergy the right to their excess money in the decommissioning fund. Vermont utilities can still lay claim to any leftover largesse down the road.
But, thanks to Gov. Douglas' veto threat, it's not likely Vermont utilities are going to see a payoff anytime soon.
Consumers and retailers: Another set of winners in this session. Since we'll have to find ways to pony up money for the decommissioning fund gap, I guess we'll need that sales-tax holiday after all. The trick is how to turn an estimated $2 million in savings into $400 million.
While we win out on this one, not everyone wins equally.
Both the conservative Tax Foundation and the more liberal Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy find sales-tax holidays to be a gimmick. Largely, these "holidays" lure consumers into buying items they would not have otherwise bought. This means they have less to spend on items they might really need later on.
Of course, it helps if you actually have the extra money to buy something in the first place. Minor detail.
How is Vermont going to make up for the lost $2 million expected from the sales-tax break? Douglas took it from the state's petroleum cleanup fund, which gas-station owners can access to help get rid of old underground storage tanks.
Plenty of folks were downright perplexed that the Democrats came out swinging against the gimmick, and then supported it anyway.
The truth is, Douglas would have made sure the session ground to a halt if Democrats had opposed it. Given the measure's relative insignificance, they opted to keep it in - perhaps to avoid being called "out of touch" with Vermonters' economic pain.
Perfect Pitch - As one season wound down, another wound up on a Burlington ballfield, where dozens of 5- to 12-year-olds, flanked by coaches, parents and onlookers, gathered for opening day of the Center City Little League. On hand to toss the ceremonial first pitch was U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders, who helped get the league going 25 years ago when he was mayor. Sanders tossed a hard fastball over the plate for a strike, only to see it dropped by current Mayor Bob Kiss, who was playing catcher. You can read whatever you want into that one.
Mr. Welch in Washington - As if recent front-page treatment in Seven Days wasn't enough, freshman Rep. Peter Welch got a nice two-page spread in last week's National Journal under the headline: "Savvy Minus the Seniority." The Washington insider mag profiled Welch as an up-and-comer in the House, and one at ease in the chamber. Chairman Henry Waxman (D-CA) said of Welch, "He's very smart, and he takes the initiative . . . he has a very bright future."
All's Fair - Thanks to readers who sent encouraging words after the first official "Fair Game." It's a bit nerve-wracking to follow in the footsteps of a popular icon, but your feedback sure helps. Even the not-so-encouraging words. Cheers.