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Round Two: A Wild Week in Vermont Politics

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  • The Vermont Constitution

Welcome, ladies and gentlemen, to one of the strangest weeks in Vermont's recent political history.

Behold: On Thursday morning, a newly sworn-in legislature will settle a gubernatorial election whose outcome has been (at least somewhat) up in the air since November. That's because neither Democratic incumbent Peter Shumlin nor Republican challenger Scott Milne managed to win 50 percent of the vote — Vermont's constitutional threshold for victory — and neither would concede.

When 180 legislators make the final call on Thursday, believe it or not, they'll do so by secret ballot.

Immediately thereafter, the newly elected governor — be it Shumlin or Milne — will pop across State Street for a traditional luncheon with Vermont's former governors. Of course, Shummy's invited either way: In the unlikely event the Democrat-dominated legislature kicks him to the curb, he can hang out with his fellow formers.

Then, once the governor-elect polishes off his overcooked chicken, he'll head over to the Statehouse to be sworn in at 1:30 p.m. and deliver his inaugural address. And then, you know, start governing.

While both candidates claim they're not twisting arms to secure victory, Shumlin went out of his way Monday to illustrate the calamity he believes would befall Vermont if Milne prevails. The governor-for-now noted that when he was first elected, it took him more than two months to staff his administration, start writing a budget and prepare to lead the state — steps Milne has not publicly taken.

"You know, government would literally be paralyzed while this candidate tried to suddenly pull it all together in a really short period of time," Shumlin said during a press conference at his Montpelier office. "To be expected to do that in a number of hours really is not a realistic expectation for good government."

Paralyzed? Damn. Them's fightin' words.

For his part, Milne has purchased Facebook ads and produced web videos encouraging voters to call their legislators and urge them to support his candidacy. Meanwhile, a shadowy new organization called Vermonters for Honest Government has spent at least $30,000 on TV ads supporting Milne's cause. The group's frontman, William Round of Newport, won't say who's footing the bill — even though the ads slam Shummy for a lack of "transparency."

Good grief!

If the spectacle of a second gubernatorial campaign secretly decided by a bunch of legislators is too much for you, you're not alone. This year's never-ending-November has prompted several lawmakers to dust off long-debated constitutional amendments that would ensure that the person who received the most votes would actually become governor.

For the record, that was Shumlin, who won 2,434 more than Milne. You know, if that kind of thing matters to you.

"We live in a democracy, and in a democracy the citizens' votes should really make a difference," says Sen. Anthony Pollina (P/D-Washington). "I'm not a constitutional historian or scholar, but it doesn't make sense to me to have the legislature electing the governor."

Pollina is drafting a constitutional amendment that would call for a runoff election if no candidate won more than 40 percent of the vote. Another proposal, which veteran Sen. Bill Doyle (R-Washington) has repeatedly introduced over the years, would throw the election to the legislature only when no candidate received 40 percent. Instant-runoff voting could be another option.

Shumlin endorsed Doyle's idea this week, arguing that Milne's decision to keep fighting has set a "really dangerous precedent."

Sen. Jeanette White (D-Windham), who chairs the Senate Government Operations Committee, says she plans to cosponsor Pollina's measure because she wants to "have a conversation" in her committee about throwing out the old system.

"I don't know if it's the right thing to do anymore," she says.

But White acknowledges that, especially in Vermont, constitutional amendments are "pretty darn difficult" to enact. Proposals must pass the Senate by a two-thirds majority and the House by a simple majority in two successive biennia and then survive a public referendum.

Eleven times in Vermont's history, amendments similar to Pollina's and Doyle's have failed to go the distance.

And support for such measures is not universal. White's counterpart in the House, Rep. Donna Sweaney (D-Windsor), says she's leery of making such a significant change based upon one unusual election.

"The system that we have right now has worked in the past at some level," she says.

We'll see on Thursday whether it works this time around.

Stay Tuned

For years, Shumlin talked smack about the federal Affordable Care Act, saying it didn't go far enough in expanding access to health insurance or containing rising health care costs. Only a universal, publicly financed, single-payer health care system would do the trick, he argued.

That was before he pulled the flip-flop of his political career last month and dropped his signature policy initiative — giving up the fight for single-payer before it truly began.

Now, it seems, Shummy's tune has changed on the ACA, better known as Obamacare. At Monday's press conference, the gov said he was "delighted" that the federal law's expanded Medicaid coverage and health care subsidies have cut the number of uninsured Vermonters almost in half over the past two years — from 42,760 to 23,231.

Shumlin seemed ready to unfurl the "mission accomplished" banner over the aircraft carrier.

Now, he said, the state should transform the way it pays for health care and focus on reducing its costs. To that end, Shumlin promised to outline in this week's inaugural address and next week's budget address — assuming he's reelected — a plan to reduce the Medicaid cost shift by increasing the amount that providers are reimbursed for their services.

As for the details?

"Stay tuned," Shumlin said at least six times during the hour-long presser.

Not included in his spit-shined list of health care priorities was any mention of a plan to cover those 23,000 Vermonters who remain uninsured.

Asked about the omission, Shumlin said, "I am open to any ideas that would help us move to the universal health care system that you know I deeply believe in."

Open to any ideas? Hardly the words of a governor planning to lead the charge.

So what, exactly, is he going to propose to achieve universal coverage?

"We're still developing those recommendations," he said, noting that he had only recently abandoned his last grand plan.

"You spent four years working on that plan that didn't go forward," Seven Days noted. "Do you have an ETA for when your next recommendation of how to deal with those uninsured people will reach the legislature?"

"We will be working on that in this biennium," he said.

Sounds familiar.

Now that Shumlin has moved on from single-payer, much of the apparatus built up to assure its passage appears to be disintegrating.

Last year, the Montpelier lobbying firm KSE Partners founded the nonprofit advocacy group Vermont Cure with $100,000 in funding from the American Federation of Teachers. The group's mission was to support candidates who backed single-payer and lobby for its passage in the Statehouse.

Just days before the governor announced his intention to abandon his plan, the organization hired former Shumlin administration and campaign staffer Ryan McLaren to serve as its executive director. Now Vermont Cure plans to disband in six weeks, says board chair Bram Kleppner, and McLaren will lose the job he just started.

"Our sense is that the organization doesn't really have a reason to exist anymore," Kleppner says. "If the governor says we can't figure out how to do this and we're giving up, the odds of implementing something without his leadership is so steep that it's not worth our time and money to do something that's probably a lost fight."

Of course, Shumlin certainly isn't the only player in state government.

In the absence of gubernatorial leadership, House Speaker Shap Smith (D-Morristown) or Senate President Pro Tem John Campbell (D-Windsor) could adopt universal coverage as a top priority this session. But both men held their noses at the notion of passing Shumlin's single-payer financing plan before they even saw it — and both have identified other issues, such as education finance reform and Lake Champlain cleanup, as higher priorities.

Whether they or any other legislators fill the vacuum left by Shumlin's abdication of the universal health care throne remains to be seen.

What is certain is that Shumlin will continue to at least talk about health care. He pledged Monday to focus his inaugural and budget addresses on the two issues he said "anyone who listened to voters in this election" heard the most about: the rising cost of health care and the rising cost of education.

Given that he's yet to advance a plan to counter either, can we expect something real — or just a bunch of rhetoric?

"You've got to come to the speeches," he said. "But the answer is: I sure hope it will be more than rhetorical."

Guess we'll have to stay tuned.

Media Notes

The Burlington Free Press reported Tuesday that its next publisher will be Al Getler, who helmed a Massachusetts newspaper group during a period of cost-cutting and layoffs at its Eagle-Tribune and sister papers. According to Getler's website, he is also a prolific public speaker — and a ventriloquist.

Getler replaces Jim Fogler, who left the Free Press in September. At the time, the paper was undergoing a newsroom reorganization that resulted in several departures, retirements and layoffs.

The Freeps isn't the only local daily shedding staff.

In recent months, the Mitchell-family-owned Rutland Herald and Barre-Montpelier Times Argus have lost several key employees, according to multiple people familiar with the situation.

Bruce Edwards, who spent nearly 27 years at the Herald, most notably its business reporter, left in September. Kevin O'Connor, a 31-year veteran and Vermont Sunday Magazine mainstay, left the paper in December. The Times Argus, meanwhile, recently lost sports reporter Anna Grearson and Montpelier reporter Amy Nixon. The latter started a new gig this week covering education for VTDigger.org.

Perhaps most troubling for the company's bottom line, advertising director and sales manager Peter Colomb, who spent nearly 25 years at the Herald, left last week to work for Rutland's Catamount Radio. The T-A hasn't had an advertising director in years.

In a note to readers in December, Herald editor Rob Mitchell, whose father, John Mitchell, serves as publisher of the two papers, announced that the Herald was doing away with its Southern Vermont section and consolidating its content into the Local & State section.

Sources say the move portends further reductions in its delivery to and coverage of Bennington, Windham and Windsor counties.

It's unclear whether O'Connor, who covered Windham County, was laid off as part of a southern Vermont pullback or left voluntarily. He confirmed his departure but declined to comment further. The Herald's other southern reporters — Springfield's Susan Smallheer and Bennington's Patrick McArdle — remain on the job.

The Mitchells are also considering enlisting VTDigger to provide Statehouse coverage for the Herald and T-A, sources say. It's unclear whether such a move would spell the end of the Vermont Press Bureau, which has served as the papers' Statehouse outpost since Rob Mitchell's grandfather, Bob Mitchell, joined it in 1935. The bureau currently includes Neal Goswami and Josh O'Gorman.

Ironically, VTDigger was founded by veteran journalist Anne Galloway after she was laid off by the T-A in 2009. Galloway says her former bosses have not approached her about a collaboration.

The Mitchells, CEO Catherine Nelson and Times Argus editor Steve Pappas did not return calls seeking comment.

The original print version of this article was headlined "Round Two"

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