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What Have We Spawned?

Fair Game


Published May 19, 2010 at 9:15 a.m.

Fair Game is Seven Days’ weekly political column.

The dust is beginning to settle from the legislative biennium, and everyone has their list of “winners” and “losers.” Here’s mine.

The state’s gays, lesbians and Native Americans won big, given last year’s same-sex marriage vote and this year’s recognition bill. Another winner was Vermont Yankee.

Wait, Vermont Yankee? Didn’t the Senate vote to deny them a license extension?

OK, the state’s sole nuke plant had to manage a startling number of PR disasters over the past several years — the shoddily constructed cooling towers, the leaking tritium, the “discovery” of underground pipes VY officials said didn’t exist. But the bottom line is, Vermont Yankee has a few political half-lives left. Expect a return to the Statehouse next year in hopes of securing a 20-year license extension.

As for losers, they’re the poor, elderly, disabled and unemployed. Successive $150 million budget gaps have been closed without raising much in taxes. Add in lost federal funds and Vermonters are staring down a social safety net with widening holes and a lot less bounce.

In terms of individuals who successfully worked the Statehouse, winners include members of the House GOP caucus, Gov. Jim Douglas and, especially, House Speaker Shap Smith (D-Morristown).

House Republicans, led by Rep. Patti Komline (R-Dorset), criticized Gov. Douglas and Democratic leaders for the “Challenges for Change” effort. They said the sweeping legislation to make government more efficient was short on savings and developed in secret. The result? A more public debate on the bill’s merits. The GOP also claimed responsibility for dissuading the Dems from raising taxes in favor of budget cuts and economic investments.

Gov. Douglas worked the same magic; he’s no lame duck. In the end, Democratic leaders gave up on tax increases and granted Douglas plenty of leeway to “streamline” state government. As head of the National Governors Association, now he’ll get to boast that Vermont is finding its own unique path out of the recession. The road less traveled?

Smith delivered two veto overrides in his first year as speaker. In his second, he navigated a minefield of election-year gubernatorial politics to strike a budget accord with the administration. Two Senate leaders — President Pro Tem Peter Shumlin and Senate Appropriations Chairwoman Susan Bartlett — want the top job, while Douglas is doing everything in his power to help their Republican opponent, Lt. Governor Brian Dubie.

The session’s individual losers include the Democrats running for governor — particularly those in the Senate. Shumlin’s vote on Vermont Yankee failed to propel him to the front of the pack as he had hoped. Bartlett’s budget wrangling included cuts many Dem primary voters don’t like. Sen. Doug Racine (D-Chittenden) helped shepherd a mish-mash health care “reform” measure through the legislature, but the bill faces a likely gubernatorial veto.

The biggest loser? While Douglas came out looking good in the budget deal, ironically the compromise hurts his hopeful successor, Dubie.


A budget veto would have worked to Dubie’s advantage. He was at the governor’s side all session, dissing Democrats for things they ended up reversing positions on. Dubie was then left to deliver some tepid criticism of the budget deal on the session’s final day, calling it “a step in the right direction” that didn’t go far enough.

That’s not easy to put on a bumper sticker.

Leading Dems at least get to tout a bipartisan deal with the governor.

“Promises made, promises kept,” Shumlin said in a post-session press conference.

Now, that will fit on a bumper sticker.


The Moose That Roared?

Vermont’s Progressives have assembled a slate of candidates for all statewide offices, from governor on down to attorney general.

Leading the Progressive ticket is Martha Abbott, the party’s chairwoman and gubernatorial candidate. In the past two elections Abbott has run for auditor. Now Michael Bayer wants that job. Marjorie Power is going for lieutenant governor, Peter Cooper for secretary of state, and Charlotte Dennett for attorney general. Dennett also ran in 2008.

“In prior years, several candidates from outside the party have attempted to get on the ballot under the Progressive label … we have then launched write-in campaigns to protect our ballot. This year we decided to be preemptive,” said Progressive Party Executive Director Morgan Daybell.

I thought Progs opposed preemptive warfare?

What about perennial Progressive candidate Anthony Pollina? He tells “Fair Game” that a “run for state senate is very likely.” Pollina lives in Washington County and could be a strong contender for one of the county’s three senate seats.

If the Dems choose a gubernatorial candidate the Progs can stomach, Abbott would probably take her name off the November ballot, Daybell predicted.

Three of the five Democratic contenders have met with the Progs: Sens. Susan Bartlett, Doug Racine and former Sen. Matt Dunne. Sen. Shumlin has set up and canceled two meetings due to scheduling conflicts. Secretary of State Deb Markowitz has yet to request a meeting, and is the candidate most likely to face a Prog challenge, sources say.


But Wait, There’s More!

Last week’s list of Statehouse retirees needs an update. Also throwing in the towel are Rep. Scott Orr (D-Charlotte); Rep. Steve Adams (R-Hartland); Rep. Joe Baker (R-West Rutland); and Rep. Patty O’Donnell (R-Vernon).

Mike Yantachka, the former chair of the Chittenden County Democrats, is dropping his bid for state senate to run for Orr’s seat.

Despite the grueling biennium, and the projected $120 million deficit for FY 2010, House Speaker Smith doesn’t think there will be many more retirements.

“It’s encouraging. People are willing to do the difficult work,” he said. “I think that’s a good sign for our democracy.”


Speaker’s Silence

Now that the legislative session is over, Democratic candidates for governor are seeking endorsements, especially from top lawmakers.

Sen. Doug Racine leads the pack with 29 House and Senate Dems.

“In every likelihood I’ll be working with one of them next year when they are governor, so I would rather just stay out of it,” Speaker Smith said.

Smart guy.

“It’s not as if I haven’t been asked, though,” he added.


Return to Sender

Did an aide to Auditor Tom Salmon violate state rules when she sent out an email welcoming a potential political challenger?

State Human Resources Commissioner Caroline Earle said state personnel rules banning such use do pertain to all employees, but her office hasn’t been asked to enforce these rules in the offices run by independently elected statewide officeholders.

“Most constitutional officers, in practice, follow the personnel policies established for executive branch employees. To my knowledge, our office has not had experience in having to resolve whether an independently elected official is compelled to follow those rules or whether any misuse is best dealt with by the voters in the democratic process,” said Earle.

Several media reports claimed Salmon apologized to his staff for sending out the political missive via state email, promising to not do it again.


Salmon Spawn

Call it the email that launched a thousand “fuck offs.” Those two words became the default greeting to me from politicians, journalists, friends and family, thanks to Auditor Tom Salmon’s profane remark reported in last week’s “Fair Game.”

The exchange made headlines on WPTZ NewsChannel5 as well as several Vermont papers and news blogs.

Even the governor chimed in, telling WDEV radio host Mark Johnson, “We might all think those things about the media from time to time, but we don’t express it.”

Dan Barlow of the Vermont Press Bureau, which serves the Rutland Herald and Barre-Montpelier Times Argus, penned my favorite piece.

Barlow delved into Salmon’s fishy claim that his missive was an overt message to a “Gang of Four” cabal: myself, bloggers Philip Baruth and John Odum, and Darren Allen, a former journalist who is now the Vermont-NEA spokesman. This “axis of evil” is in cahoots to oust Salmon from office, Barlow noted.

Profanity I can take, but comparing me to bloggers? Ouch, auditor, you really know how to hurt a guy.

That was last week. On Tuesday, I received a personal note from Salmon apologizing for his remarks and actions.

Apology accepted.


Media Notes

WNMR 107.1 FM is for sale, and the new boss could be announced as early as this week, says station owner Jeff Loper. The FM talk station launched last fall and resurrected the popular morning talk duo of Steve Cormier and Tom Brennan, aka “Corm and the Coach.” Loper pulled the plug on the duo earlier this year after they had worked for months without pay.

Loper said he’s talking with a couple of local groups who would bring the station back on-air and likely boost its power.

“My ideal is to find someone who will keep Corm and the Coach on the air,” said Loper. “It wasn’t their fault that they had to go off the air, and they shouldn’t be punished for it.”

Speaking of working for free, Anne Galloway has been operating VTDigger.org on a shoestring since she launched the online news site a year ago. But Digger got a big financial boost this week — a two-year, $25,000 national grant from J-Lab: The Institute for Interactive Journalism. Galloway provided some of the most in-depth coverage of the legislative session, and plans to invest the money in reportage and a Facebook-esque, interactive website.

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