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The Octopus Defense: Lawmakers Still Seeking Clarity on Waterways Cleanup

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Fair Game is Seven Days’ weekly political column.
Secretary of Administration Susanne Young - JEB WALLACE-BRODEUR
  • Jeb Wallace-Brodeur
  • Secretary of Administration Susanne Young

It's been three weeks since Gov. Phil Scott wrote a letter listing a dozen-odd pieces of legislation he opposes, and his administration is still having a hard time explaining his objections to one of the most important: S.260, the waterways cleanup bill. The Senate-passed measure would clear a path toward long-term funding for the federally mandated task.

Scott's latest effort came last Friday afternoon, when his administration secretary, Susanne Young, appeared before the House Natural Resources, Fish and Wildlife Committee. Her 46 minutes of testimony featured lengthy run-on sentences, a dearth of declarative statements, repetition of favored words and phrases, and a near total lack of clarity. It was like an octopus squirting a cloud of ink and darting away.

When she finished, the administration's position was no more coherent than it was before. Scott opposes S.260 because it creates a new tax or fee, which it doesn't; he claims that the bill violates the separation of powers between legislative and executive branches but has yet to fully explain how; he agrees that Vermont has to identify a funding source for water cleanup but doesn't want to take any steps in that direction; he supports a version of S.260 that failed to attract a single vote on the Senate floor; and he puts great stock in an administration working group that refused to fulfill its legislative mandate.

And, just as a reminder, S.260 is a shell of its original self. As introduced, it would have created a new per-parcel fee and established an independent Clean Water Authority to oversee the cleanup. The bill was stripped down in an effort to make it more palatable to the governor.

So much for that.

Lest you think I exaggerate about Young's testimony, here's a sample transcribed from the official recording.

"Yes, the governor is committed to long-term funding for the clean water project," she replied. "I guess the question is, what is that going to look like? It's not a commitment to any particular idea that's been out to date. It's not necessarily a per-parcel fee, but maybe it is. What I'm saying is, yes, we're committed to working through the questions that we [unintelligible], and the Act 73 Working Group was the next step and then making recommendations to the legislature around those and having a conversation around what is the long-term funding source."

Note of explanation: In 2017 the legislature created the Clean Water Funding Working Group, which consisted of administration officials and gubernatorial appointees, and directed it to produce a specific proposal for a cleanup funding source. In the end, it decided not to do so.

Still, this group was repeatedly cited by Young as the one true foundation of "the next step." She resisted S.260's call for a new panel to do what the old panel failed to accomplish because it would be a waste of precious resources.

Young repeatedly extolled the virtues of conversation. "We need to have a conversation before we decide the final source of funding," she said. "And that is the conversation about matching existing sources of revenue with projected costs."

But while conversation is vital, studying is verboten.

"In my view we don't need to be studying a funding source anymore. It's been studied," she said. "We have the work of the Working Group that did that study and told us the pros and cons of particular approaches."

And refused to make any choices, as its enabling legislation required.

Young expressed support for a completely rewritten version of S.260 crafted by the Senate Agriculture Committee. But on the Senate floor, that version was rejected — and the original, produced by the Senate Natural Resources and Energy Committee, was approved unanimously. Still, Young urged House lawmakers to resurrect the Agriculture version, which was much looser in its requirements for a long-term funding source.

If the administration was so dead set against the Natural Resources version, it clearly failed to communicate its position to the Senate's Republican caucus.

In the governor's March 20 letter, he questioned S.260 on constitutional grounds — claiming it would violate the separation of powers. The legislature's own legal team has found no constitutional issues in the bill. Lawmakers have sought clarification on Scott's position, and the administration has failed to produce it.

So did Young clear things up? No.

"I'm not here acting in the capacity of attorney for the administration or for the governor," she said. "I can tell you that it is not unusual for lawyers to have a difference of opinion. That's why we have courts."

Young offered to have Scott's counsel, Jaye Pershing Johnson, meet with legislative attorney Michael O'Grady "to talk about their differences." But why should it be an informal discussion? Why not a public airing of the constitutional question, so it's all on the record for the benefit of every lawmaker?

Two points in conclusion. First, if the administration is going to publicly issue a letter that threatens a brace of vetoes, it should be fully prepared to explain itself before hitting "send." As it is, the letter looks more like a publicity stunt than a serious attempt to give guidance.

Second, if it really wants to find common ground with the legislature, it should be in full cooperative mode, working out problems instead of filling the air with rhetorical octopus ink.

Dems on Guns

Gov. Scott has scheduled a public signing for the afternoon of Wednesday, April 11, for three gun-related bills: S.221 would allow judges to order the removal of weapons from those deemed to pose an imminent risk to themselves or others. H.422 would let police immediately (and temporarily) take away weapons from those arrested or cited for domestic violence. And S.55 includes four distinct measures: universal background checks for gun purchases, raising the minimum age for buying a gun to 21, a ban on bump stocks and a limit on ammunition magazines.

The gun issue is likely to play heavily in the 2018 gubernatorial campaign. This week, Sen. John Rodgers (D-Essex/Orleans), a staunch gun-rights advocate, floated the notion of running for governor, mostly likely as a Democrat — though he has not ruled out a bid as a Republican or an independent. So where do the three current Democratic candidates stand?

At her Sunday campaign launch in Morrisville, Christine Hallquist made it clear she favors the three bills and wants to do more. "I also support an assault weapons ban," she said. "I don't think there's any rhyme or reason why we should have assault weapons." She explained that they're "not very accurate" for hunting or target shooting, and added, "Just because we're regulating opiates doesn't mean we're comin' for your Tylenol."

Thirteen-year-old Ethan Sonneborn, the only candidate who regularly takes part in active-shooter drills, emailed a statement expressing a more open-ended outlook. He endorsed the three bills before Scott but called for a ban on "weapons of war with the sole purpose of killing" and for "much stronger and more decisive action to address our gun problem."

Then I texted James Ehlers' campaign manager, Theo Fetter, asking for his man's position on guns. Fetter's first reply described Ehlers as "uniquely qualified ... to craft a truly Vermont response" because of his experience as a Navy officer, hunting and fishing guide, and middle school teacher. Fetter said Ehlers could "bring much-needed balance and leadership to this issue." 

Hmm. No hint of an actual position.

Upon further inquiry, Fetter offered that, "We're still talking through things ourselves and with various stakeholders. Our deliberative process may not match your column's deadline consideration, but we'll certainly give you all we can as soon as possible." 

Really? Guns are the issue of the year so far. Ehlers has been campaigning for months. And he's "still talking through things"?

Several hours later, I was offered an interview — not with the candidate, but with his communications director, Sarah Anders. She laid out a fairly comprehensive position on guns. "He supports all of the bills" before the governor, she said.

When asked if Ehlers would favor additional legislation, she said, "We're not looking at going further right now. He wants to see how this set of bills works out. It's a good first step."

So what happened between Fetter's vagueness and Anders' clarity? It's a puzzlement. But taking Anders at face value, Ehlers' position is virtually identical to Republican Scott's: approving of current legislation and, at least for now, not wanting to go beyond what's already been done.

Native Son

The gun issue is potentially fraught for the governor, separating him from his party's gun-rights supporters, but it can challenge Democrats as well. (See Rodgers, John.)

Brattleboro's city Democratic Party chair, attorney James Valente, also opposed new gun legislation. He raised eyebrows with social media comments that drew distinctions between native Vermonters and those who moved here. The former support gun rights and traditional Vermont culture, in his view, while the latter want to change Vermont to their own tastes.

During the legislature's deliberations, Valente tweeted lists of nonnative Vermonters who voted for gun legislation and lifelong residents who voted against. After the Senate's final vote approving S.55, Valente tweeted "Is that correct? Not a single 'yes' vote on S.55 was a Vermonter? And still it passes by four votes ... Incredible."

So you're not a "Vermonter" unless you were born here? That's harsh.

When reached by phone, Valente was chastened but unbowed. "There's a great conflict within me," he said. "I do believe that growing up here exposes you to rural Vermont culture. That experience causes you to have a respect and appreciation for multi-generation Vermonters."

Reaction from fellow Dems was negative.

"I don't think it's appropriate for the city party chair to talk about the birthplaces of people," said Rep. Valerie Stuart (D-Brattleboro), a Tennessee native. "I'm a transplant, but I'm dedicated to Vermont and Vermont values."

"As assistant [House] majority leader, I'm definitely disappointed and frustrated having a town chair tweeting against us," said Rep. Tristan Toleno (D-Brattleboro), who was born in Ithaca, N.Y., and grew up in Marlboro. "As Windham County [Democratic Party] chair, I'm disappointed having it come from one of our town chairs ...When we have a meeting, I'm sure we'll talk about it."

Does Valente think his divisive tweets will create a problem for him as city chair?

"Maybe," he said. "I know I'm out of step with the party on this issue. I would hope not, but I can see how some Democrats, especially those who came from out of state, would disagree."

And there it is again. The separation of Vermonters into two camps: natives, and outsiders who just don't understand. He should realize that those who have chosen to make Vermont their home are legitimate participants in its culture and politics.

Ethan Allen, for example. Born and raised in Connecticut.


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