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Lines in the Sand 

As the so-called fiscal cliff nears, Sanders vows to oppose raising Medicare's eligibility age. Also, Bernie's chief of staff, Huck Gutman, returns to teaching English at the University of Vermont.

Vermont AARP executive director Greg Marchildon had a captive audience Monday morning on the ninth floor of Burlington’s Cathedral Square Senior Living. In front of him sat a roomful of blue-hairs surely eligible for AARP membership. Beside him stood Vermont’s lone U.S. congressman, Peter Welch (D-Vt.).

Instead of discussing the topic of the Welch-organized press conference — Medicare open enrollment — Marchildon launched into a preemptive strike against any changes Congress might make to Social Security or Medicare as it seeks to avoid the so-called fiscal cliff.

“We are concerned, AARP, about Congress having some kind of an 11th-hour, backroom budget deal here that will not do well for Medicare beneficiaries,” Marchildon warned to clucks of disapproval. “Specifically, we’re very concerned about any discussions raising the eligibility age for Medicare from 65, where it is right now … This is a bad idea whose time has not come.”

But it’s an idea budget negotiators in Washington are taking seriously.

While much of the wrangling between President
Barack Obama and House Speaker John Boehner has focused on the question of tax rates for the superrich, any kind of Boehner-approved “grand bargain” would surely come with cuts to entitlement programs like Medicare or Social Security.

And while Marchildon and the AARP believe both programs should be off the table, they have good reason to be concerned: During the 2011 debt-ceiling debate, Obama signaled support for raising the Medicare eligibility age to 67.

That’s unacceptable to at least one member of Vermont’s Congressional trio, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT), who says he’ll vote against any deal that would cut benefits to elderly or low-income Americans.

When CNN’s Wolf Blitzer asked last week whether he’d back the Medicare age hike, Ol’ Bernardo shook his head vigorously and said, “No.”

Asked why not, Sanders shot Blitzer a rather incredulous look, saying, “Why not? Because there are working people out there who have worked 30, 40, 50 years. They’re in construction. They’re waiters. They’re waitresses. These are people who have worked their entire lives. They are exhausted, and they should not be asked to continue working to 67 before they get their health care.”

Welch, too, says raising the Medicare eligibility age is “a bad idea.” But asked Monday whether he’d vote against a deal that included such a hike — or cut Medicare or Social Security benefits in other ways — the Norwich Democrat said he’s unwilling to take anything off the table, preferring to weigh the entirety of any grand bargain.

“What I’m doing is refraining from doing absolutes at this point,” Welch told reporters at the Cathedral Square event. “My preference is to maintain all the benefits, and I think we can do that if we are able to get the system reforms. But I’m not drawing lines in the sand at this point.”

If that sounds like a dodge, it is. But it’s also smart politics. Why lock into a position you may not be able to keep when the real negotiations are being conducted above your pay grade?

After all, Welch and Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) are sure to rally around whatever deal Obama cuts. (In a letter to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, Leahy rejected entitlement reforms that would hurt beneficiaries, but an aide declined to say whether he would vote against a deal that included such cuts.)

If the president manages to raise taxes on the wealthy without significant concessions on entitlements, then mission accomplished for Vermont’s Democratic duo. If not, Sanders may find himself the odd man out, voting against a deal he’ll surely call “outrageous.”

Meanwhile, if Welch and Leahy back unpopular entitlement reforms, they’ll have some ’splainin’ to do to the residents of Cathedral Square — and to the Vermont left.

Show Me the Monied

In response to the proliferation of super PACs in Vermont this past campaign season, Secretary of State Jim Condos late last week proposed a slew of changes to the state’s campaign-finance laws.

Condos’ suggestions, which he first unveiled on the liberal blog Green Mountain Daily, track closely with those offered by the Vermont Public Interest Research Group and other advocacy organizations.

Among them: requiring candidates, parties and PACs to file reports more frequently; penalizing those who fail to do so on time; and requiring super PACs to report contributions within 24 hours and to disclose the names of major donors on campaign materials.

The big kahuna? Condos wants an online campaign-finance database that’s easy to search and sort. You know, what Vermont would already have if we didn’t live in the campaign-finance stone age. That could cost “somewhere under half a million,” he says.

While lawmakers in the past have been cool to the idea of requiring themselves to disclose more (shocker!), Condos thinks the heat they felt from super PACs this year will motivate them.

“I think the legislators are more in tune because they’re now being impacted,” he says.

Senate President Pro Tem John Campbell indicated last week during a Democratic caucus meeting that he’d back campaign-finance reforms — though he didn’t talk specifics. His counterpart in the Vermont House, Speaker Shap Smith, says he broadly agrees with Condos’ proposals, though there are a number of details he’d like to examine.

“I think one of the problems we have in our campaign-finance system here in Vermont now is, we don’t have even close to real-time disclosure, and I think that we could do better in the ability to search our disclosures,” Smith says.

The sticking point might be cash. While Smith says a new database “should be a priority,” the state’s already tight budget could pose a challenge.

 “I need to understand what the hole in the budget is before I start promising to make payments for things,” Smith says.

 One reform that hasn’t received much attention? Mandatory personal-finance disclosure for statewide candidates. As VTDigger.org’s Anne Galloway reported in October, Vermont is one of just three states with no such laws on the books.

On that, Smith says he’s not so sure.

“My knee-jerk reaction is ‘of course.’ But I do want to balance it with the notion that it might discourage people from running,” he says. “Do you also have financial disclosures for each representative? We have a hard time getting people to run now.”

Though personal-finance disclosure didn’t make Condos’ initial list, he says he has no problem with it.

“I’m not a wealthy guy,” Condos says. “Frankly, it doesn’t faze me in the least.”

Poetry in Motion

When Sanders begins his second six-year term in the U.S. Senate this January, he’ll be doing so without close friend and chief of staff Huck Gutman.

The University of Vermont poetry professor, who took a leave of absence to run Sanders’ Senate office, says he plans to return to teaching next fall. In the meantime, he plans to write. Gutman’s last day on the job is January 2.

“I have thought about returning to teaching, about how much I like working with students, every week of the time I have been here in Washington,” Gutman says. “It is possible, as most people know, to fit more than one thing into a life.”

This is Gutman’s second tour of duty with the socialist senator. He took leave from UVM for a year to work for Sanders when he was first elected to the House in 1990, and then again in 2006 to serve as a senior policy adviser focusing on education. In January 2009, Sen. Sanders named him chief of staff.

Gutman earned a reputation as one of Capitol Hill’s most unconventional aides. As the Washington Post reported in a fantastic 2010 profile, Gutman became known for “lobbing poems into the email inboxes of every chief of staff in the Senate” and for beginning committee meetings with a poetry reading. Gutman told the paper it was his way of connecting with people — particularly those with whom he disagreed politically.

And, indeed, in responding to Seven Days’ request for comment on his departure, Gutman quoted a little Wallace Stevens: “He had to choose. But it was not a choice / Between excluding things. It was not a choice / Between, but of. He chose to include the things / That in each other are included, the whole, / The complicate, the amassing harmony.”

No word yet on who will replace Gutman. Or if he’s even replaceable.

Job Mob

Gutman is not the only Vermont pol making moves. Here’s a roundup of other recent job changes — or additions — among the Vermont politerati:

Gov. Peter Shumlin was formally — and unanimously — elected to lead the Democratic Governors Association Tuesday night during the group’s annual meeting in Los Angeles.

Former Progressive and Democratic candidate for lieutenant governor Cassandra Gekas was hired last week by the Department of Vermont Health Access to serve as its health access policy and planning chief. She’ll be tasked with helping the state develop the federally mandated health insurance exchange.

Another unsuccessful statewide candidate, Sen. Vince Illuzzi (R-Essex/Orleans), is in negotiations with the Vermont State Employees Association to serve as lobbyist and counsel on a part-time, contractual basis. That would be on top of Illuzzi’s part-time elected job as Essex County state’s attorney.

Sen. John Campbell hired Rebecca Ramos as his chief of staff last month. If you didn’t know the president pro tem had a chief of staff, that’s because he didn’t — until now. Ramos says Campbell elevated the “assistant” position’s title — and its salary — because of her experience and training as an attorney. At $67,500, Ramos is making roughly $20,000 more than her predecessor, she says. Before leaving Vermont to live in South Carolina for eight years, Ramos worked for Welch in the pro tem’s office and for former governor Howard Dean.

The conservative Ethan Allen Institute this week hired radio host and former Vermont Republican Party chairman Rob Roper as its president.

Lastly, Jason Gibbs, who made his name as spokesman for former governor Jim Douglas, left Ski Vermont late last month to start a new communications firm. As the Burlington Free Press first reported, one of Gibbs’ initial clients is the fiscally conservative advocacy group Campaign for Vermont. Asked if he had any plans to run again for public office, the 2010 Republican secretary of state nominee said no, “except reelection to our local school board.” He added, “It’s no secret that I am drawn to, and enjoy, public service and would like to return to state government — but not for a considerable period.”

Disclosure: Paul Heintz worked as Peter Welch’s communications director from November 2008 to March 2011.

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Paul Heintz

Paul Heintz

Bio:
Paul Heintz is Seven Days' political editor. He writes the weekly column, "Fair Game."

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