Signs of spring in the Vermont Statehouse are as reassuring as they are predictable. As the legislature's self-imposed adjournment deadline looms — for the moment, at least, it's set for May 10 — the Vermontus Legislatorus begins to exhibit certain recognizable behavior patterns.
Sen. Dick Sears, the irascible Democrat from Bennington, emerges from hibernation in the Senate Judiciary Committee to growl about the House to anyone who will listen. Growing ever more cantankerous, the bear-like man threatens to shut the whole place down if "the other body, in its infinite wisdom" doesn't do precisely what he wants.
As floor debates stretch into the night, House Speaker Shap Smith (D-Morristown) takes to tossing around the football that otherwise sits untouched in his Statehouse office. House and Senate leaders alike pretend they'll jettison all but a handful of must-pass bills in order to adjourn on time. And as the frequency and duration of Sen. Peter Galbraith's (D-Windham) floor speeches grow, his colleagues' tolerance shrinks in inverse proportion. (On Friday, the Senate briefly lost its quorum during one such diatribe, as legislators departed the floor in silent protest.)
Migration patterns also shift.
Smith, Senate President Pro Tem John Campbell (D-Windsor) and members of Gov. Peter Shumlin's staff engage in shuttle diplomacy, holding closed-door meeting after closed-door meeting to settle their remaining differences. Legislators who threaten to impede the governor's agenda are summoned to his ceremonial office to receive a ceremonial carrot or stick. And lobbyists take up residence in the chairs and benches just off the House floor, ready to spring into action if their best-laid plans go awry.
This year, the last legislative stretch is as hectic as ever, with major work remaining on several key bills, including those setting the budget and raising taxes — not to mention the sleeper issue of the session: a controversial plan to consolidate the state's school districts. But the tenor of the biennium's final moments seems strangely subdued. There is disagreement, to be sure, but far less discord than in years past.
That's good news for Shumlin, who has navigated the session with remarkable aplomb. Last year, the gov goaded the liberal legislature with unpopular reforms to the state's social safety net and then engaged in — and won — a game of chicken over tax reforms they supported and he opposed. This year, after devoting his State of the State to opiate abuse, he presented a modest legislative agenda and eschewed confrontation.
Do you remember Shumlin's budget address? Neither do I.
That's not to say the governor and the legislature haven't gotten anything done. While it's been characterized in some quarters as a "caretaker session" — conspicuously free from controversy as an election season looms — lawmakers are, in fact, on track to achieve a plethora of liberal priorities: universal pre-kindergarten, GMO labeling, court diversion for addicts, toxic chemical regulation, childcare worker unionization, expanded net metering and shore-land protection. Oh, and raising the minimum wage.
Of course, anything could happen to those and other initiatives in the session's waning hours. Last week, your humble political columnist boldly predicted that a proposed ban on handheld cellphone use while driving was "beyond hope." Shortly thereafter, it was resurrected and attached to a "must-pass" Department of Motor Vehicles bill. Now it appears all but certain to pass.
"I haven't lost yet, but I will," Sears, one of the bill's few opponents, growled Monday afternoon. Whether Shumlin, the ban's other chief opponent, continues battling it or graciously accepts defeat remains to be seen. (We'll be sure to correct our correction in next week's column, if need be.)
Either way, consider it a win for Shumlin if his biggest beef with the legislature comes down to cellphones. It could've been a lot worse, given lawmakers' ill will at the start of the session over last fall's flawed rollout of Vermont Health Connect. And next year it will be worse.
Underneath all the peace, love and marijuana-legalization-revenue studies is a growing sense of unease among legislators over the fate of Shumlin's signature priority: single-payer health care. Some doubt his resolve, others doubt his sanity and one's even taking him to court over his refusal to disclose how he'll finance it.
But like it or not, their boats are very much tied to Shumlin's.
Next year — or the year after, if his timeline keeps slipping — the governor will have to come to the legislature and ask it to sign off on as much as $2 billion in taxes. Regardless of how well Democrats do in this fall's elections — and they're likely to lose at least a few seats — that debate will be messy. Very messy.
So, Vermontus Legislatorus, enjoy the comity while it lasts. Next year, there will be a lot more to growl about.
Is Campaign for Vermont founder Bruce Lisman "seriously" considering running for governor?
That's what Vermont Public Radio's Peter Hirschfeld reported last Friday, confirming for the first time what many have long suspected but what Lisman has assiduously denied.
Except Lisman doesn't seem to see it that way. Reached Monday, the retired Bear Stearns exec claimed he told Hirschfeld nothing new — and that he's no more "serious" now than he ever has been.
"I said, 'People have been asking from the beginning [about a gubernatorial bid]. I take seriously what people ask me and tell me,'" Lisman clarified. "The word 'seriously' got moved around."
Huh. So is he seriously considering challenging Shumlin or isn't he?
"I'd say over the last several months as people have come to me, I have given it plenty of consideration," he said. "Nothing's changed."
Yes and no. It's true that Lisman has been consistently cagey about his electoral ambitions since he emerged on the scene in 2011 and began carpet-bombing the state with political money. He has typically answered the gubernatorial question with a nondenial denial, such as, "I don't have any plans."
But when we asked him last August whether he was ruling out a bid, Lisman said, "I don't give it any thought. I don't take it seriously."
That's seriously different from what he's saying these days.
Semantics aside, here's another clue Hirschfeld unearthed: After donating $10,000 to the Vermont Republican Party to attend a fundraiser last December featuring New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, Lisman contributed another $25,000 in January to the Republican Governors Association, which Christie chairs.
That's a lot of Republi-cash for a guy who's worked hard to brand himself as Mr. Nonpartisan. Despite having donated more to Republican entities than many Vermonters earn in a year, Lisman still maintains he's "not a dedicated party person."
"I was a Democrat for a long time. Now I would view myself as a moderate independent who has the right to choose candidates from either party," he said. "I happened to have liked Hillary Clinton when she was running in the [2008 Democratic presidential] primary."
So why the $25K to the RGA?
"I liked what [Christie] said and how he said it. He offered up an approach, which I find personally attractive, which is engaging with the electorate. And of moderation," Lisman explained. "I told [Christie that] and he responded by asking, 'Well, would you do something?' And I said yes."
Which brings us to Lisman's greatest asset and liability: money. Having already invested more than a million dollars in Campaign for Vermont — much of it on Lisman-branded advertising — the ex-banker could surely finance his own campaign.
But self-funders often struggle in Vermont, and Lisman's Wall Street wealth would surely be used against him. Particularly if he keeps defining "doing something" as cutting a $25,000 check — or forgetting about $16,000 in contributions he made to the Vermont GOP in 2010 and 2011.
"I don't remember them," he told Hirschfeld in February when asked about those donations. "I think somebody probably asked me for help and I gave it to them."
If you're waiting with bated breath for Lisman's big reveal, you may have to wait a little longer. While Rep. Heidi Scheuermann (R-Stowe) and 2010 nominee Randy Brock — both potential Republican candidates — have said they'll disclose their plans this week, Lisman says, "I have no time frame."
Which sounds seriously wishy-washy to us.
Considerably less cagey about his electoral ambitions is Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), who's doing just about everything he can to draw attention to his potential presidential candidacy.
The latest evidence? He's headed to Iowa in a week and a half to keynote the Clinton County Democratic Hall of Fame dinner.
Having already traveled to New Hampshire and North Carolina in the past month, Sanders' trip to the Hawkeye State will make him three for four in early presidential primary and caucus states. All he needs to round out the collection is a quick visit to Nevada, where we hear one can have quite a weekend.
Sanders has also traveled to South Carolina and Minnesota this year and is headed to Massachusetts this weekend for a pair of speeches, according to campaign consigliere Phil Fiermonte.
So will Sanders find any purchase in Iowa?
Before he even gets there, volunteers are holding an "Iowa Draft Bernie Sanders for President" organizing meeting this Thursday at the Iowa City Public Library, according to the Quad City Times.
"People say he can't win (because) he's a Jewish socialist from Vermont," former Johnson County Democratic Party chairman Jeff Cox told the paper. "But if an African-American from Chicago whose middle name is Hussein can carry three states from the former Confederacy, anybody can win."
VPR president Robin Turnau is more than willing to admit the obvious: "We hear from our listeners all the time that they're not crazy about our membership drives."
That's why this year VPR hoped to reduce the amount of time spent hawking lead-free mugs on-air — from 39 days to 24. To replace that revenue, it invested $50,000 more in its direct-mail program and planned to court more major donors.
But two weeks ago, management informed staff that the station was $255,000 — or 10 percent — behind membership revenue projections halfway through its October to September fiscal year.
Last year, VPR reported $8.3 million in revenue.
To make up for the shortfall, the station opted to bring back the June pledge drive, with a goal of raising $300,000 in 12 days, according to a memo penned by vice president for development and marketing Brendan Kinney.
What went wrong?
"The plan to aggressively move away from membership-drive revenue was too much, too quickly," Kinney wrote. "We had unrealistic expectations on direct-mail efforts; they have not produced the revenues we anticipated."
Also contributing, Turnau says, was the retirement of a veteran fundraiser, which contributed to a 13 percent shortfall in major giving.
But according to Turnau, the bad news isn't news at all.
"The shift from pledge drive over to other forms of revenue and development was just a little too aggressive. That's what we're trying to correct right now," she says. "I don't consider it much of a news story. It's basically an organization that is halfway through our year, making some tweaks to what we do for fundraising."
Tell me that when I turn on the radio at 6 a.m. and hear Mitch Wertlieb begging for my money!
Turnau says the shortfall won't affect programming or slow down VPR's scheduled $10 million capital campaign and facilities expansion. In fact, she argues, the news out of VPR is mostly good.
"Taking a step back from this little blip, our membership is still the highest it's ever been right now," she says, citing increases in sustaining memberships and underwriting. "So we're a very healthy organization."
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