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Unraveling Plan: More Questions Than Answers on Scott’s Big Idea


Published May 30, 2018 at 10:00 a.m.

Fair Game is Seven Days’ weekly political column.
Finance Commissioner Adam Greshin and Gov. Phil Scott - JOHN WALTERS
  • John Walters
  • Finance Commissioner Adam Greshin and Gov. Phil Scott

For Vermont lawmakers uneasy about Gov. Phil Scott's school funding plan, he offered a bit of tough love at a press conference last Thursday.

"Get comfortable," he said.

Problem is, there's a lot of "uncomfortable" about the plan.

The legislature returned to work May 23 for a special session ordered by the governor. Key committees began looking at the only unresolved issues: Scott's insistence on using onetime money to keep property tax rates level and on implementing a five-year plan to ratchet down school spending. 

In a series of committee hearings last week, administration officials delivered a barrage of talking points, evasions and just plain "I don't knows." They continued to disagree broadly with legislative fiscal experts on projected savings. Even many of Scott's fellow Republicans were less than impressed. 

"There are two big problems with the system, and the [property tax] increase is not even in my top 10," said Rep. Scott Beck (R-St. Johnsbury). His top two are cost containment and establishing a stronger link between school budget votes and tax rates. Beck said there was more to like about the House-passed tax bill than in the governor's own plan.

Lawmakers were frustrated. Rep. Cynthia Browning (D-Arlington), one of the most fiscally conservative House Democrats, stormed out of a Thursday hearing in complete exasperation.

The special session resumes this week with no clear path forward. "We've got time," Scott blithely stated. But in the absence of a deal, a government shutdown looms on July 1.

There's broad agreement among lawmakers, including those tax-lovin' Democrats, on the need to get a handle on school spending. They are happy to consider Scott's cost containment ideas.

Where they don't agree is on speeding up the process and borrowing against projected future savings. Especially since the longer Scott's plan is in the spotlight, the more threadbare it looks.

His core idea is an increase in student-to-staff ratios. But an inconvenient fact emerged at that Thursday hearing: There is virtually no link between ratios and per-pupil spending. "Weak correlation, not significant," said Tax Commissioner Kaj Samsom. Some high-spending districts have good ratios by Scott's measure, and some low-spending districts have very low ratios.

"If staff is 80 percent of school costs, how can there be a weak correlation between ratios and spending?" queried Rep. George Till (D-Jericho).

"I don't know," replied Finance Commissioner Adam Greshin.

"Shouldn't we figure it out?" noted Rep. Janet Ancel (D-Calais), chair of the House Ways and Means Committee.

Yeah, probably.

Beck slammed Scott's plan for not including a mechanism to recapture the savings. "Regardless of how much savings is achieved, none of it will matter if districts repurpose the money," Beck said. They could invest in buildings, supplies or computers. Or they could offer better pay and benefits for remaining staff.

There's also a hidden contrivance in the ratio plan. On average, 20 percent of all public school vacancies would remain unfilled — reducing staff gradually without the need for layoffs. But in fiscal year 2020, that number would balloon to 40 percent of all job openings. A more gradual attrition rate would follow.

Why such a massive front-loading?

In a Friday interview, Greshin tied it to the implementation of Act 46, the 2015 law that encourages district consolidation. "With any initiative, you often get a bigger bang in earlier years," Greshin said. "It was an assumption that more would happen earlier."

An assumption, he says.

Also, conveniently, front-loading the process greatly increases the savings projection over the five-year period.

"It does indeed," said Greshin.

This kind of stuff makes it harder to "get comfortable" with the governor's plan. But still, there Scott is, putting up a roadblock to any competing proposal that doesn't meet his standards.

Beck floated an intriguing possibility. Could the Democrats build a veto-proof majority by crafting a plan that draws tri-partisan support? "Now, House Republicans are solid behind the governor," Beck said. "But is there an offer that could soften that position?"

Perhaps, but it would require a leap of faith by the Dems. A compromise bill could attract more than 100 votes — the veto-proof threshold. If Scott did veto, there would be extremely heavy pressure on minority Republicans who supported the bill to change their position.

It'd be a high-stakes gamble. If the Dems pulled it off, Scott would be on the outside looking in. But if they failed to win the override, they'd look foolish and their bargaining position would be compromised.

It's a nice hypothetical, but it probably won't happen. On the other hand, it's anybody's guess what comes next.

Don't know about you, but I'm not feeling comfortable.

Deadline Notes

The filing deadline to run in the state's August primary elections is this Thursday. Many more hopefuls are expected to file by then, likely including a few surprises. We got one Tuesday, when Seven Days learned that Rep. Don Turner (R-Milton), leader of the House Republican caucus, is circulating petitions to run for lieutenant governor. Republicans have been looking for a candidate to challenge incumbent Progressive/Democrat David Zuckerman; they appear to have found their man.

Sen. Francis Brooks (D-Washington), meanwhile, is not seeking reelection, apparently bringing an end to a long and noteworthy career of public service. 

"Time is running out on me in terms of getting things done," said Brooks, who turned 75 last Thursday. "I thought the best thing to do is to call it a day." 

Brooks served in the House for a quarter century, starting in 1983. He was the first person of color to lead a Vermont legislative caucus, serving as House majority leader from 1987 to 1993. He resigned from the House in 2007 to become Statehouse sergeant at arms, but his tenure ended on a sour note in 2015 when his bid for reappointment was soundly rejected amid concerns about Statehouse security. 

Brooks ran for Senate the following year, narrowly defeating Republican incumbent Bill Doyle. But as a senator, he seems to be a marginal character with little influence. He rarely speaks in debates or committee hearings.

Perhaps he overstayed his welcome, but that doesn't diminish his contributions to the state and its people.

Meanwhile, a sixth Democrat has joined the race for Washington County's three Senate seats: Andrew Brewer, former owner of Onion River Sports in Montpelier.

"I've long seen a need for more lawmakers who understand the impact of government on business," he said, describing himself as a "progressive business owner" who understands the value of a happy workforce.

Brewer joins incumbents Anthony Pollina (P/D-Washington) and Ann Cummings (D-Washington) on the August primary ballot, along with Democratic challengers Ashley Hill, Andrew Perchlik and Theo Kennedy. Two Republicans have filed so far: Barre Town residents Ken Alger and Dwayne Tucker.

And a big name in Vermont labor circles is running for the House. Martha Allen of Canaan, president of the Vermont-National Education Association, a teachers' union, is a Democratic candidate in a Northeast Kingdom district that's been reliably Republican in recent years. The incumbent is Rep. Paul Lefebvre (R-Newark), who is running for reelection.

Fred's Shoes

John O'Brien is a Tunbridge filmmaker best known for Man With a Plan, a 1996 film starring his friend and neighbor Fred Tuttle, a retired dairy farmer playing a fictional "Fred Tuttle" who ran for Congress and won. Two years later, Tuttle staged a real-life campaign for U.S. Senate, managed by O'Brien. In the Republican primary, Tuttle upset deep-pocketed GOP hopeful Jack McMullen — and immediately endorsed Democratic incumbent Patrick Leahy.

Now, O'Brien is entering politics himself. He's a Democratic candidate for the Orange County House seat held by Rep. David Ainsworth (R-Royalton). "I've always been interested in public service," O'Brien said. He serves on his town's selectboard and his father, Robert, was a state senator who ran for governor in 1976.

Will someone shadow O'Brien for a real documentary about a faux-documentarian making a real run for office? That'd be fun.

Media Notes

The long decline of the Burlington Free Press continues. The latest numbers show a roughly 15 percent drop in daily and Sunday circulation — in a single year. 

Print circulation numbers for the first quarter of 2018, according to the Alliance for Audited Media, were 12,900 daily papers and 16,523 Sunday editions. That's down from 15,177 dailies and 19,266 Sundays in the first quarter of last year.

That's bad, but the longer-term trend is worse. In 2013, the Free Press was circulating nearly 23,000 dailies and more than 30,000 Sunday papers. And in 2008, circulation totaled a now-inconceivable 42,000 dailies and 48,000 Sundays. 

Well, at least they're saving trees. 

Free Press executive editor Michael Kilian declined an interview, instead providing brief responses by email. "It is no secret digital readership is ascendant," he wrote. "Our industry is in the midst of a long and substantial transformation." 

Yes, and newspapers are still trying to figure out how to actually make money in the digital space. In the never-ending flood of online information, you have to give readers unique, compelling content — and waves of cost-cutting at the Free Press have made its product less and less attractive. 

Kilian recently announced a shift away from opinion and toward explication. "The world is awash in opinion," Kilian said in a note to readers, explaining that the Free Press would run fewer editorials, opinion pieces and letters to the editor. And it would, with rare exceptions, refrain from candidate endorsements. Instead, he wrote, the paper would focus on "explanatory journalism" that would deliver insight and context.

Which makes one wonder about the future of Aki Soga, longtime editorial writer. But Kilian insisted that Soga is "a key figure" in the new endeavor. 

Since Kilian's announcement, Soga has penned a series of "analysis" pieces that are neither fish nor fowl, journalistically speaking. They contain no fresh reporting and shy away from definitive viewpoints. There's some useful information but little depth. 

For example, following Sanders' announcement last week that he will seek reelection to the U.S. Senate, Soga produced a depth-free column that recounted Sanders' popularity and ended with an unanswered question about his presidential aspirations. A bit of context, and no insight to speak of. 

If this is the Free Press' commitment to "explanatory journalism," then it seems less like a way to serve readers and more like space filler.

Finally, there are more departures at VTDigger.org. Environmental reporter Mike Polhamus has filed his last story for the online news outlet; he's being replaced by current Digger intern Elizabeth Gribkoff, according to the site's founder and editor, Anne Galloway. And Chittenden County reporter Cory Dawson is off to graduate school.  

Polhamus' wife lives in Montréal, and he'd been seeking immigration papers to join her there. Well, the papers came through, and he's heading north of the border. All the best to him and his wife, and congratulations to Gribkoff on landing a regular gig.

The original print version of this article was headlined "Unraveling Plan"