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Political Half-Lives 

Fair Game

Published January 14, 2009 at 6:43 a.m.

Fair Game is Seven Days’ weekly political column.

Riddle me this: What do Gov. Jim Douglas, former Gov. Howard Dean and Vermont Yankee have in common?

Answer: All three are coming up radioactive on the political Geiger counter.

Vermont Yankee needs to work on its timing. Vermont’s sole nuclear power plant reported radioactive water leaks on two subsequent days, just as lawmakers were convening at the Statehouse. Those legislators could be deciding the fate of VY this session. It all comes down to: Is the plant “safe and reliable”? Two leaks in one week certainly didn’t help Entergy’s case.

Dean, the outgoing chairman of the Democratic National Committee, is radioactive on a different scale. Never a member of the D.C. insiders’ club — and clearly on the outs with President-elect Barack Obama’s chief of staff Rahm Emanuel — our former five-time gov wasn’t even invited to see his DNC successor crowned. President-elect Obama introduced Dems to Virginia Gov. Tim Kaine last week. He takes the reins of the DNC on January 21.

Obama’s folks said Dean was traveling. An insider told that Dean would have changed his plans. More on that later.

Finally, there’s Gov. Douglas, a conservative Republican whose market-good-government-bad worldview has collapsed under the weight of Wall Street greed and lax federal oversight.

Rather than change course, Douglas offered a tempered version of “Take Back Vermont,” the rallying cry of the Vermont Right circa 2000, in his 2009 inaugural. Douglas rekindled the TBV flames by focusing on education funding and permit “reform” and how all this social do-good work is hurting Vermont.

In his speech, and again on Friday in a meeting with reporters, Douglas said Vermont’s permitting process represents a “culture of no.” I didn’t know state regulators were part of the international terrorist group SPECTRE. Oh, wait, that’s Dr. No.

Several reporters pointed out that about 99 percent of all Act 250 permits are approved. Douglas was quick on his feet — yes, he agreed, but what about all those permits never filed because developers know it will take too long to get approval?

Let’s look at the numbers according to Douglas’ own Natural Resources Board. In 2007, developers filed 428 Act 250 applications in Vermont. Of those, only four were denied, for a 99.1 percent approval rating. That’s an improvement on 2006 numbers, when the “culture of no” denied seven out of 490 applications — an approval rate of only 98.6 percent.

If that doesn’t scream, “Get the hell out of Vermont,” what does?

The NRB also reports that two-thirds of Act 250 applications are issued in less than two months, 81 percent within four months.

In fact it takes, on average, 35 days just to process applications. Sounds like a staffing issue — maybe hire a few more folks? Oh, right, we’re cutting state jobs these days.

That’s not the only place Douglas wants to trim.

Douglas got a lot of mileage for his “bold” call to freeze local school budgets, lower “income sensitivity” definitions from $90,000 to $75,000 and scrap how we pay for education.

Of course, he offered no details on how we could replace the current system.

He does make it sound pretty bad: By FY 2010, spending from the education fund will have increased by nearly $283 million since fiscal 2006, an increase of 23 percent. Over the same period, statewide school enrollment is expected to drop by more than 4300 students, a 4.4 percent decrease.

Why the reverse trend? Costly union contracts and low-income residents who, because of the tax breaks they receive, aren’t adversely affected when they approve an escalating school budget. Or so the theory goes.

Interestingly, the good folks at Vermont’s Public Assets Institute debunked this claim — a year ago. Their report found that while the gap in per-pupil spending between property-poor and property-wealthy towns has narrowed substantially since Act 60 went into effect, property-wealthy towns still outspend their poorer cousins. Towns with wealthier residents also spend more.

No need to let facts get in the way of a good policy ploy, eh?

Personally, I think the gov aimed his “out of control” school spending speech to voters, not lawmakers.

Face it, we’re coming into school-budget-vote season — and who likes paying more in taxes? So, Douglas raises the alarm, lawmakers yawn, budgets get defeated, and the gov says, “See, I was right — there’s a crisis. Now, do something.”

This is typical Douglas: Propose ideas without building any legislative support; instead, rely on unsubstantiated “public support.”

Kudos to Terri Hallenbeck at The Burlington Free Press for a spot-on analysis of this classic Douglas tactic.

The only part Hallenbeck missed in her front-page Sunday analysis is that Douglas has used this approach to great effect and substantial political gain. Until now, Dems did the heavy lifting while Douglas criticized from afar.

This year, however, Dems aren’t going near either of the gov’s pet issues: Act 250 and education funding. They wouldn’t touch ’em with a 10-foot nuclear fuel rod.


Howard’s End — Dems in D.C. seem to have the same feelings about Dean as their counterparts in Vermont have for Douglas.

Dean’s D.C. job prospects are thinning, and time is running out for him to land a post in the Obama administration. He was passed over for both Secretary of Human Services and Surgeon General.

Why? It’s no secret he and Emanuel do not get along. It all started when Emanuel, who ran the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, wanted the DNC to spend its money on some key races — not spread it around to all 50 states. Dean refused. They yelled. Egos were bruised. And in D.C., payback is a bitch.

To the victor go the spoils, the saying goes. Emanuel is chief of staff. Dean is unemployed.

There’s also the fact that Emanuel has close ties to the Democratic Leadership Council, a centrist group that opposed Dean’s bids for president and DNC chair. They want him out of town.

One D.C. insider told “Fair Game” that treatment of Dean has been “shameful even by Washington standards.”

Some Dems are less worried that Howard won’t get a job than that Obama and Kaine won’t follow up on his 50-state strategy. Many claim Dean’s national effort was the building block for major Dem victories in 2006 and 2008, including Obama’s.

Democracy for America, which Dean founded after his presidential bid tanked, is urging Kaine and Obama to recommit to Dean’s 50-state strategy.

DFA’s ED Arshad Hasan said Obama and Kaine need to say flatly that they will provide money and resources to the state and local chapters of the party — not simply pay lip service to the idea of competing everywhere.

“Howard Dean revolutionized the Democratic Party — he made the Democratic Party more democratic,” said Hasan.

If nothing else, maybe Dean can find work in Vermont. State Democrats need a new executive director.

Interim ED Kristina Althoff withdrew her name from contention, though she is staying on the job until January 30, when the party hopes to name a replacement.

Dubie: A Fine “Fellow” — Just as lawmakers are rolling up their sleeves to get to work, Lt. Gov. Brian Dubie is taking a few days off to accept an exclusive fellowship in the Aspen Institute-Rodel Fellowships in Public Leadership program.

The group convenes January 15 and will meet three weekends during the next two years. Fellows are also entitled to a weeklong trip in the Middle East or Asia.

Established in 2005, the program sets out “to explore the underlying values and principles of western democracy, the relationship between individuals and their community, and the responsibilities of public leadership.” Heady stuff.

The 24-member Class of 2008 is evenly divided between Dems and Republicans. Dubie is the second Vermont pol to take part — Secretary of State Deb Markowitz landed a spot in the Class of 2006.

“I’ll get to study the classics and the essence of democracy with other elected officials from around the country. I think that sounds like a real worthy investment,” Dubie told “Fair Game.”

Best part of the investment? Taxpayers don’t pay a dime.


A Little Trim — I finally got a nibble on an issue I raised in “Fair Game” a while back: Gov. Douglas’ $54-a-day, taxpayer-funded meal plan.

Burlington’s House of Lemay, members of the League of Drag Queen Voters, posted on their blog a great idea for Douglas: Join NutriSystem.

For $12 a day the gov can get three meals a day of “man food,” including pizza, burgers and lasagna. “Amber LeMay” calculates the move could save the state more than 10 grand. For league members, she notes, “that’s a lot of lip liner.”


Vermont Life Gets No Credit — In a move expected to save money and snip the state payroll, the Douglas administration may outsource the Vermont Life catalogue.

The Douglas team shut down the catalogue’s credit-card-processing system last week as part of a planned software upgrade, said administration spokesman David Mace.

The state is weighing whether to sell the catalogue goods — Vermont Life merch and Vermont-made booty — through a private firm, either in- or out-of-state.

The catalogue raked in about $530,000 in FY 2009 and turns a profit of $140,000. Order processors include one full-time employee, and up to five temp workers during the busy season.

What’s next, Vermont Life correspondents from India?


King of the Queen City — One thing was clear from the first Burlington mayoral debate: Republican Kurt Wright is worried about Independent Dan Smith.

Wright claims to be the candidate who works across party lines, and in this case it meant taking as many political shots at Smith as he did at incumbent Progressive Bob Kiss. He barely acknowledged Democrat Andy Montroll.

Smith would make a great director of the city’s Community & Economic Development Office — in a Wright administration, the city council prez clarified. He also said that Smith, while bright, isn’t ready to be mayor. Gotta come up through the ranks, kiddo.

Wright should be careful with this approach. Instant runoff voting allows voters to rank their candidates, and dissing both Kiss and Smith could earn him fewer second-place nods. Smith, being a newcomer to city politics, seems to understand this dynamic.

Most Progs won’t be able to find it in their hearts to pick a Republican as “number two.”

In other Queen City political news, State Sen. Tim Ashe (P/D-Chittenden) will not seek a third term as a Progressive councilor from Ward 3. He’s the second veteran Prog to retire. Longtime Ward 2 councilor Jane Knodell is also stepping down. School board member Marissa Caldwell, whose term is up in March, has agreed to run in Ashe’s stead. Just in time, too. Ward 3 Democrat David Cain is already going door to door.


Watching History — Next week will be historic, folks: the end of a national nightmare and the inauguration of the country’s first African-American president.

As political dignitaries, Vermont’s congressional delegation and the gov automatically get tix to see Obama’s swearing in. They’ll all be in attendance.

No ticket? At Nectar’s, Democracy for America and Vermont Daily Briefing blogger Philip Baruth are hosting an “inauguration watch” starting at 10 a.m. You can watch the swearing-in on one of seven different screens. Who ever imagined “change” would smell like french fries smothered in gravy?

Got a news tip? Email Shay at [email protected]

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About The Author

Shay Totten

Shay Totten

Shay Totten wrote "Fair Game," a weekly political column, from April 2008-December 2011.


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