When Democrats overrode the budget veto of Gov. Jim Douglas in June, they made Vermont history. Never before had lawmakers overturned a budget veto, and never before had they overturned two vetoes in one session.
More explicitly, never had Democrats — despite holding significant majorities in the House and Senate for the past six years — successfully held their ground against Gov. Douglas.
The tremors from that tectonic power shift are still being felt as lawmakers and the Douglas administration face an increasingly stark budget for 2010.
State economists recently downgraded their previous revenue projections because they are effectively starting the fiscal year with an unanticipated $28 million deficit.
The farther down the road you look, the worse it gets. There’s a projected $67 million deficit for FY 2011 and as much as a $140 million hole for FY 2012.
Gee, this is starting to add up to real money.
Republicans, including Douglas, claim the Democrats chose to play politics rather than do what’s best for Vermont.
“We knew we were facing a crisis over a year ago. These Democrats who now have unchecked control of our state House and Senate chose not to deal with it. They chose not to cooperate or to compromise,” wrote Vermont GOP Chairman Rob Roper in a recent letter to Republicans. “They chose not to make tough decisions. They chose to put the thrill of exercising raw political power above Vermonters’ need for good and honest government.”
In recent weeks, the governor and his staff have echoed similar sentiments. They want Democrats to make the first move when it comes to proposing new ideas to solve the state’s fiscal crisis.
“They will need concrete ideas — other than more tax increases — to fill this shortfall and the looming quarter-billion- dollar deficit over the next three years,” said Administration Secretary Neale Lunderville. “We hope to work with lawmakers on sound ideas to close the gap.”
In other words: It’s your budget; you fix it.
Besides, why govern in Vermont when you have the important job of presiding over 50 state CEOs as chairman of the National Governors Association?
House Speaker Shap Smith said the governor’s team may be smarting from the legislative session’s losses, but he hopes the two branches of government can work together.
“We understand that we had some difficulties before, and I believe we can move forward; I think that it’s still a possibility,” said Smith.
In 2006 and 2008, Smith noted, the legislature came back to the table after Douglas vetoed key health care and renewable energy legislation in 2005 and 2007, respectively.
“Some times you get to an impasse and then you have to be willing to come back to the table after that disagreement, and we’ve shown some willingness in the past,” said Smith.
That’s easy for Smith to say — Democrats are used to losing. Not so Gov. Douglas.
“I do believe they want us to be putting forward some ideas of our own,” added Smith. “And to some degree we can do that, but we are constrained by the fact that we don’t have as much access to information as they do and don’t have as much staff as they do.”
Smith and Senate President Pro Tem Peter Shumlin recently asked a legislative committee to find $30 million in savings through efficiencies.
Meanwhile, Douglas appears to be putting together a formidable budget team for the upcoming session.
He recently tapped Rich Westman, a native Vermonter from Cambridge and a 27-year veteran of the general assembly, to be his tax commissioner.
With the addition of Westman, the Douglas administration’s budget team now consists of Neale Lunderville, Finance Commissioner Jim Reardon and Deputy Administration Secretary Tom Pelham. Pelham served as a budget director under Gov. Howard Dean and, more recently, as Douglas’ tax commissioner.
By drafting such a heavy-hitting team, Douglas is signaling that he is doubling down on his bets, not cashing in his chips.
With the 2010 election on the line and the economy still in the crapper, it’s clear the guv doesn’t want a repeat of the 2009 session.
Can’t say I blame him.
But something is still gnawing at me: Why is Douglas venturing into the health- care arena when he’s opposed pretty much every publicly funded health-care plan to come down the pike?
Could it be that Douglas is experiencing a bit of Dean envy?
Think of it: He’s been following in Dean’s footsteps for nearly a decade now, and the two men have more similarities than differences.
Both served as chairman of the National Governors Association. Both have a propensity to enrage a Democratic-controlled legislature. They also both turned to some of the same Vermont financial deacons for political advice — namely, Burlington bond broker Harlan Sylvester.
So, is Douglas’ election as NGA chairman just one more sign the guv wants to run for national political office?
Given the number of top GOP officials who have disgraced themselves out of office, or resigned early for no apparent reason, milquetoast-y Douglas could be the last man standing.
“Let me disabuse you of the notion that I’ll be following in Howard Dean’s footsteps,” Douglas told radio host Mark Johnson recently. Johnson noted that Dean took a lot of flack from the Vermont GOP when he began to spend time in Washington, D.C. Douglas acknowledged that the extra work would be a strain on his staff. He didn’t mention the ones who are already moonlighting on his reelection campaign.
No matter how big, or little, a player Douglas becomes in the national debate on health-care reform, he won’t be able to shake the fact that Dean served more years as governor than anyone in Vermont history.
Dean was elected state CEO five times outright from 1992 to 2000, but he also served out the unexpired term of Gov. Richard Snelling, a Republican, when Snelling died in August 1991.
Douglas, on the other hand, was just elected to his fourth term and may face a tough reelection fight next year. To eclipse Dean, he would have to win in 2010, run again in 2012 and win, and serve at least through 2013.
Possible? Sure. Likely? Probably not.
Undaunted, Douglas is always ready to put his electoral, um, prowess on display.
“Over the course of his career, Governor Douglas has received more votes than any other person in Vermont history, a testament to his appeal to voters of all political persuasions,” boasts the governor’s bio on his official website.
Catch that? He said, “more votes than any other person in Vermont history.” Heh. Take that, Howard.
What’s a trailblazing presidential bid, chairmanship of the Democratic National Committee and being a champion of health-care reform in the face of such vote-sponging awesomeness?
Man With a Mission — Being a columnist in Vermont has its upsides. I get to poke, prod and otherwise take on various hypocrites, be they politicians, public figures, journalists or the occasional blogger.
It’s always great when those you poke get their hackles up. Better still is when they put their thoughts in writing. So I can quote them. And we can then all share in the joy.
For example, this email to “Fair Game” authored by Agency of Commerce “communicator” Dave Mace.
Earlier this year, he advised his bosses — Commerce Secretary Kevin Dorn and Tourism Commish Bruce Hyde — to stick to “well-honed” talking points rather than engage me in a true back-and-forth interview about the alleged “resignation” of Vermont Life publisher Tom Kelly.
Here’s what Mace warned his bosses in an email obtained by “Fair Game”: “Please bear in mind who this is during the interview. Less is more with Shay, since he’s only going to pick the quote that helps support his opiniion [sic] the most. Better to stick to a few well-honed talking points and keep going back to them than to range very far in a free-wheeling interview.”
Flattery will get you everywhere, Mr. Mace.
For those who don’t know, Mace used to be a reporter at the Vermont Press Bureau, the capital bureau of the Times Argus and Rutland Herald.
It’s clear that his bosses listen to his sage advice, because in an interview I posted to the Seven Days staff blog, Blurt, Dorn disabused me of the notion that Kelly was pushed out the door — again and again and again.
Guess you could call that “mission accomplished.”
A Year in the Life — Last summer around this time, we were thick in a gubernatorial race between two hopeless candidates from the left and Republican Gov. Jim Douglas.
The main question was: Who will come in second? Democrat Gaye Symington or Progressive-turned-Independent Anthony Pollina?
As it turns out, it was Pollina.
So, what are these folks doing a year later?
Symington was hired earlier this year to be the executive director of the High Meadows Fund. It supports the Vermont Community Foundation and awards grants to “improve the lives of Vermonters through a better environment.”
Meanwhile, Pollina is guiding the Vermont Milk Company through bankruptcy via Chapter 7 liquidation. Pollina stepped down as VMC’s vice president in early 2008 in order to run for governor.
What of their campaign managers?
Jill Krowinksi, Symington’s campaign manager and a former executive director of the Vermont Democratic Party, is now working as communications director of Planned Parenthood of Northern New England. That’s a post she’s held since February.
“I love it,” said Krowinski, who, despite the rain, says she’s enjoying this summer more than last. “It’s such a great organization.”
Her Republican counterpart, Dennise Casey, returned to the Douglas administration and has the dual role of deputy chief of staff and spokeswoman. She may have a third role, too. A recent campaign-finance report indicates she was reimbursed for some work for the Douglas reelection campaign.
Old habits die hard.
Can’t Keep a Good Republican Down — Experts had written off the presidential campaign of Republican Sen. John McCain when he won the Republican primary in New Hampshire in February 2008. The surprise victory reenergized his sagging campaign and, after that, he began to gain steadily on the front-runners.
A key part of McCain’s New Hampshire turnaround was former Vermont Republican Party chairman and executive director Jim Barnett.
After the N.H. victory, Barnett was elevated to chair McCain’s New England operation.
In Vermont, anyway, “Mad Dog” Barnett, as my predecessor Peter Freyne called him, had a way of getting under the skin of Democrats. That keen ability, coupled with Barnett’s sharp political skills, has now landed him a plum job: campaign manager for U.S. Senate candidate Rob Simmons.
Simmons, a former Connecticut congressman, is running against Democratic incumbent Sen. Chris Dodd.
A latest poll from Quinnipiac University shows Simmons leading Dodd by six percentage points, 45-39. The Simmons camp is also besting Dodd in fundraising.
“We’re feeling pretty good,” said Barnett. “We’ve raised more money than any other Senate challenger in Connecticut history and lead a 29-year incumbent in early polling.”
But no one knows better than Barnett: This far out, anything can happen.
Disarming Jody — This week, Burlington is hosting a Nobel Peace Prize winner. Al Gore? Nope. Vermonter Jody Williams.
The Brattleboro native will be in town for a private fundraising luncheon at Halvorson’s and a public rally on the steps of Burlington City Hall at noon to honor Nuclear Disarmament Day.
Williams won the Nobel in 1997 jointly with the International Campaign to Ban Landmines. She’s since teamed up with other “sister Nobel Peace Laureates” Shirin Ebadi, Wangari Maathai, Rigoberta Menchu Tum, Betty Williams and Mairead Maguire to create the Nobel Women’s Initiative. Should be interesting…
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