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Dave Gram Political Columnist

Pension Reform Tested Vermont Leaders. Here Are Their Grades

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Fair Game is Seven Days’ weekly political column.
TIM NEWCOMB
  • Tim Newcomb

OK, class, it's time to hand out grades for our graduate-level seminar, Pension Reform 560.

Last Friday, House Speaker Jill Krowinski (D-Burlington) ducked and withdrew her proposal, made 10 days earlier, for closing the enormous gap of more than $3 billion between what's on hand in the state's pension funds and what's needed to cover pensions for retired state workers and teachers in coming years.

Instead, she announced plans to appoint a summer task force to study the issue and recommend reforms to lawmakers in January. Of course, pension fund problems compound with time; waiting another year to fix them only makes matters worse.

So let's call this the midterm report card, or perhaps the end-of-semester assessment in a tough, two-year course. And by tough, I mean two things should be acknowledged: 1. It will be difficult to come up with a solution that no one will like but everyone will deem tolerable. 2. It absolutely has to be done.

Here we go.

Krowinski: B. The first-term speaker gets credit for courage. She stepped into the spotlight with a workable, though not palatable — and, to some, not even morally correct — plan to fix the pension system. It called for state employees and teachers to chip in more money during their working years and wait until age 67 to collect less generous benefits in retirement. Krowinski loses points for apparent naïveté. While she made her proposal a House leadership project, she failed to do enough to bring in others, insisting it was just a conversation starter. When the inevitable pushback came from the Vermont State Employees' Association and Vermont-National Education Association teachers' union, the speaker was all alone.

Gov. Phil Scott: D-minus — and that's generous. The Republican governor has made the right noises about the need to fix Vermont's troubled pension funds, but so far he has not lifted a finger to address the problem. Scott keeps insisting he wants to see the "majority party," meaning the Democrats who control the legislature, lead the way. "The executive proposes, the legislature disposes," goes the adage, and Scott has yet to explain why this case should be different. Scott wants to wear the mantle of the responsible fiscal steward. The pension crisis is the biggest fiscal problem facing state government. It's time for Scott to step up and spend some of the political capital he has earned from his management of the pandemic. That stuff has a short shelf life, and he shouldn't let it spoil.

State Treasurer Beth Pearce: C-minus. Pearce raised the alarm in January about the growing unfunded liability in the retirement systems, but that was late in the game for the state official most responsible for ensuring that the funds are properly managed. Nor has she been as outspoken in her message as she might have been over the winter. Seven Days' Kevin McCallum reported last week that the benchmark S&P 500 U.S. stock index enjoyed an average annual return of 13.6 percent during the past decade. The Vermont funds earned an average of just 7.2 percent per year. Yes, public pensions are invested conservatively, but even among those funds, Vermont was a below-average performer.

Lt. Gov. Molly Gray: D. Gray skipped class and thought she could ace the exam anyway. She'd been quiet on the pension issue, other than saying vaguely that it should be fixed. Then, when Krowinski issued her plan and union activists were at the gates, Gray said the speaker's proposal "represents a broken commitment to our teachers and employees made at the time of hiring." Good progressive rhetoric and red meat for the Democratic base in organized labor, but, as Senate President Pro Tempore Becca Balint (D-Windham) told Fair Game, Gray's statement was not helpful.

Speaking of Balint, she gets a C-plus. She also didn't do much heavy lifting in addressing the pension crisis, but she gets credit for not running for the hills in the face of the heat that blasted Krowinski as soon as the speaker released her proposal. Balint spoke respectfully of the plan while also reserving the Senate's right to change it in big ways.

Vermont-NEA teachers' union: C. Another party that hasn't contributed much to class discussion, other than saying: Don't touch our pensions, just tax the rich.

Vermont State Employees' Association: F. Full disclosure: I'm a labor guy; I've belonged to five unions in my life, beginning with the American Federation of Musicians when I was a teenager and including more than 30 years as a member of what's now called the News Media Guild while working at the Associated Press. Thanks to the union's good work, I still get a modest, defined-benefit AP pension. My first instinct is to keep the teachers and state workers whole.

But the VSEA's threat of a vehicle rally in Krowinski's Burlington district on Saturday was a Tea Party-ish, bullying move, the politics of intimidation. Singling out the legislative leader who tried to do something about a tough problem and saying you were going to take it to her backyard? What we need after four years of Trumpism is more civility and fewer in-your-face confrontations, especially with someone who's trying to be reasonable and responsible. Going to a public official's home is clearly an escalation in tactics over past dustups between the executive branch or lawmakers and the VSEA. If someone wanted to argue that there was sexism behind the extra vehemence, that would be tough to disprove.

Overall, not a great performance, class. Summer school starts when the legislature lets out in May.

Imagining Reverse Racism

If your sole source of local news was the Vermont Daily website, edited and published by conservative blogger Guy Page, you could be forgiven for thinking that the main victims of racism in Vermont were white people.

Page fashions himself as an investigative journalist and give-me-liberty-or-give-me-death-style advocate for the First Amendment and constitutional principles of equality. It's just that an awful lot of his zeal is reserved for cases in which people of color pick on poor, oppressed whites.

Last week, an important story about race in Vermont appeared in the news. Seven Days' Derek Brouwer reported that Shanda Williams, a Black woman and former clerk at the Washington County Courthouse in Barre, had reached a $60,000 settlement with the State of Vermont.

Williams filed an employment discrimination lawsuit in 2019, saying she was subjected to a hostile work environment as the only Black employee in the clerk's office. Tammy Tyda, Williams' supervisor at that time, would "constantly bully and scream" at her, court filings alleged, while white coworkers purposefully undermined Williams' work by refusing to help her and, in one instance, hiding a file she needed. Tyda is still working for the judicial system.

This story involved a hostile work environment in a Vermont state agency — the one that is supposed to deliver justice. It involved allegations of actual harm to an individual. It involved an outlay of $60,000 in taxpayer money to redress the alleged bad behavior of someone who is still in Vermont state government.

But I couldn't find coverage of this story on Page's Vermont Daily website. He was busy writing his own story on what he described to Fair Game as "apparent racism." Two days before she was hired as a senior editor at VTDigger.org, Auditi Guha, a woman of color, had tweeted something that Page considered racist, apparently because it vaguely skewered — gasp! — white people.

The MassLive website had published one of the dozens of insipid and thinly verified "best of" lists that marketing firms send to newsrooms every day. This one was about "the top 25 places to live in Massachusetts." Guha, a Providence, R.I.-based journalist, tweeted a link to the MassLive piece with this comment: "Ugh another whitewashed Boston piece. This is what happens when white people make news according to their income and limited interests. These are all extremely wealthy communities that maybe 5% can afford to live or buy in. They are also largely boring and full of white people and entitlement. Perspective, dear."

I don't have the space to tell you why Guha's tweet was a ham-fisted way of expressing at least one good thought, so I'll focus on the good thought: Guha, whose bio says she worked at some Massachusetts papers after starting her career in India, is correct when she says the communities included on the MassLive list are largely white and wealthy. She's right to criticize MassLive's story selection. One of the key reasons newsroom diversity is so important is that you want a broader collective imagination than what was evident in MassLive's choice of a story. As Guha says, "Perspective, dear."

But what got Page so upset, he told Fair Game, was his interpretation that the tweet described white people as boring. "What do we do with boring people? We ignore them. Boring people have nothing interesting to say," Page said. "There's a policy consequence of saying that white people are boring. They don't get listened to."

OK, have a look at the VTDigger website on just about any given day and tell me the vast majority of stories aren't about and mostly quoting white people. Adding one editor of color who called rich, mostly white Massachusetts communities boring isn't likely to change that ratio soon.

The Vermont Daily story is of a piece with the national right-wing freak-out over Gov. Scott's announcement last week that the state would allow all Vermonters of color 16 and older to get vaccinated now against COVID-19. The baying immediately began on Fox News, on the National Review and in the conservative Twittersphere: It's racism! Sue the governor! White people are being discriminated against — AGAIN!

The governor, of course, is merely following the science, as he has described his strategy since the start of the pandemic. Google "Do people of color suffer worse from COVID?" and you'll come up with articles from the Mayo Clinic, Johns Hopkins University, the Kaiser Family Foundation and other health experts saying the answer is yes.

Fox News didn't panic about reverse ageism when old people were put first in line to be vaccinated. The science showed that old people were much more vulnerable to developing serious, life-threatening cases. But when it came time to prioritize people of color because they were more vulnerable, the outrage machine kicked into gear.

Meanwhile, here at home, at the same time Guha's hiring was announced, VTDigger also said it was bringing on two others: Maggie Cassidy from the Valley News and Natalie Williams from the Bangor Daily News in Maine.

Fair Game reached out to Guha via Facebook Messenger but had received no reply by deadline. VTDigger's founder and editor, Anne Galloway, said Guha would be joining the staff later this month.

"We're thrilled to welcome Auditi to VTDigger and are sorry that Mr. Page doesn't see the value of hiring top-notch journalists with diverse lived experiences," Galloway said in an email.

We were talking about this upcoming column among Seven Days staff, and a colleague asked an excellent question. Anne Wallace Allen, whose mother is from India, texted: "I wonder if Guy Page has researched all the Digger editors, or just the brown-skinned one?"

So I relayed the question to Page in an email: "Did you see anything noteworthy in the Twitter feeds of Natalie Williams and Maggie Cassidy?"

He replied: "I don't know who these women are. So no comment." 

During our interview, Page spoke extensively about his desire for equal treatment of people of all races. Somehow that didn't extend to how he checked up on the new editors at VTDigger.

The original print version of this article was headlined "Learning Curve"