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Birds of a Feather 

Fair Game

Published October 29, 2008 at 5:41 a.m.

Fair Game is Seven Days’ weekly political column.

Are you better off than you were six years ago? Four years ago? Two years? Two months? Yesterday?

Those questions are at the heart of the presidential campaigns of Senators John McCain and Barack Obama. And the same is true of Vermont’s gubernatorial candidates.

Who’s to blame for your misfortune?

The other guy (or gal). Or President George W. Bush. Or former President Bill Clinton. Or socialists. Or capitalists.

In Vermont, it’s all on the incumbent, Republican Gov. Jim Douglas.

On Monday, Douglas defended the state’s economy under his leadership, schooling a small group of reporters on why his plans are better than those of Democratic House Speaker Gaye Symington and Independent Anthony Pollina.

Armed with red and blue Sharpies, Douglas spent 45 minutes comparing and contrasting his and his opponents’ economic proposals as if he was delivering a college lecture.

In the end, he naturally gave the best grade to his plan, which includes tax credits, tax breaks, permit reform and spurring housing growth by rehabbing vacant second- and third-floor spaces in downtown buildings and making it easier for developers to take over old manufacturing plants.

Douglas said Symington’s plans fall into two categories: “Already doing” and “Won’t work,” while Pollina’s plans fall under a single damning category: “More debt and taxes.”

This week marks the first time Douglas has unleashed a full frontal attack on Pollina. Up to now, it’s been “Anthony who?” But two recent polls show Pollina possibly besting Symington, though neither shows him beating Douglas. One Rasmussen poll saw the race this way: Douglas: 45 percent; Pollina: 25 percent: Symington: 20 percent. Factor in leaners and it was Douglas: 53; Symington: 39; and Pollina: 4.

A Macro poll released last week had this breakdown: Douglas: 43; Symington: 18; and Pollina: 15.

Douglas has rarely taken aim at Pollina from the campaign stump but is now mentioning him directly in press releases, TV ads and interviews with reporters.

On Tuesday, Douglas focused specifically on the failing Vermont Milk Company that Pollina abandoned to run for governor.

Could it be that Douglas’ internal polls reflect some concern about Pollina? Or is he just trying to help the Progressive-turned-Independent get some free name recognition to chew away at Symington’s base?

Douglas wouldn’t reveal the results of his polling, but he did make sure to remind reporters his opponents are “two birds of a feather in the sense they are proposing ideas that don’t make sense and would increase the burden of taxation and regulation on Vermonters.”

What kind of bird might that be? I asked. Douglas wouldn’t bite. “I hadn’t thought about that,” he said with a chuckle.

It is close to Thanksgiving. Maybe a turkey?


Blame Game — One question nibbles at the back of my mind: Who would want to be governor given the looming cuts to the state budget?

The governor-elect will face an immediate need to trim another 250 jobs from the state payroll.

No word on whether the next administration will be able to meet this target through attrition and eliminating vacant positions, as Douglas did in the first round of 250 cuts back in June. We’ll find out by November 18, when the next round is announced.

If Douglas and his administration make any tough choices, though, it’s likely they’ll turn around and blame lawmakers if anyone complains.

Last week, the Department of Aging and Independent Living gave notice to hundreds of participants in the Choices for Care program that they would receive one hour less in services per week. The letter blamed the cuts on the Legislature.

That infuriated some lawmakers since the reduction in services was part of $24 million in cuts they worked out with the administration.

“If you can’t take credit for the hard choices,” said Sen. Susan Bartlett (D-Lamoille), who chairs the Joint Fiscal Committee, “you shouldn’t be able to take credit for the good things.”

Bartlett and her House counterpart, Rep. Martha Heath (D-Westford), received apologies from top Douglas aides, who said the letter to Choices for Care participants had not been reviewed by upper management or the governor’s office.

Given that the Douglas administration spends at least $400,000 a year on communications specialists, you’d think they’d get something like this right.

“It makes people realize why these PR people are such a sticking point with some in the Legislature,” Bartlett said. “Someone isn’t doing their job if they let something like that get out.”

At lawmakers’ request, a new letter clarifying who is responsible for the cuts will be issued soon, said Jason Gibbs, Douglas’ spokesman. The retooled letter will cost taxpayers $798.

The DAIL letter is not the only example of Douglas laying blame for budget cuts at the feet of lawmakers.

One concerned Vermonter recently quizzed state officials about cuts to the Division of Historic Preservation. In an email response to her, state housing commissioner William Noyes said, “This reduction in force was necessitated by the legislated budget cut the Agency of Commerce and Community Development [ACCD] received in the last session. This imposed budget reduction forced ACCD to weigh many factors and review many options.”

ACCD Deputy Secretary Jim Saudade approved Noyes’ communiqué, according to agency officials.

Bartlett and Heath said they don’t recall lawmakers being told the $500,000 cut would mean lost jobs, but rather that the agency could absorb the budget reduction. And, they disagree that the cuts were “imposed” by the Legislature. The cuts came at the end of the session after it was learned revenues would drop.

Agency spokesman David Mace maintained that lawmakers were told the cuts would lead to layoffs. In fact, lawmakers included budget language to protect agency jobs associated with downtown development and growth centers.

“If legislators didn’t know that the cut would result in positions being eliminated, why did they have to include language specifically protecting some positions?” Mace noted. “The answer is, they were well aware, because we told them.”

That may be, but that’s not all that is bothering Bartlett and Heath. While laying off eight folks in ACCD, Douglas found $150,000 in the agency’s budget to hand out in the form of grants to software developers — companies that are hiring plenty of folks on their own.

The grants came from a pool of unused money carried over from last year’s budget, Mace said.

Amazing what you find laying around the office in an election year, isn’t it?


The Body Count — Few people noticed that about a third of the 150 jobs Douglas cut from state government this summer were funded by the feds.

According to a tally by “Fair Game,” 22 of those jobs were fully funded by the feds; another 15 were at least half-funded (50 to 95 percent); and another 22 were less than half-funded by Uncle Sam.

Another 35 state-funded positions were on the books — some since 2006 — but never filled.

Bartlett and Heath wonder how the state saves money in this scenario and what it means for the list of cuts they will see in November.

The federal-position cuts will eventually save money for the state. “There is still a taxpayer savings because we reduce future spending on post-retirement benefits,” said Linda McIntire, deputy secretary of administration.

Also, federal funds can be redirected, as they are not typically associated with a specific job, McIntire said.

Sen. Bartlett isn’t buying it. “It’s a small savings, at best. What it says to me is that this whole exercise is more about a body count than saving money. It’s just so he can say he cut 400 jobs.”

With revenues continuing to falter, my guess is 400 will be just a start.

Looks like a long, dark winter ahead.


The Politics of Newspapers — Every year, about this time, newspapers begin to trot out candidate endorsements.

Do newspapers endorse liberals more than conservatives, given the media’s so-called liberal bias?

According to an ongoing tally being kept by Editor & Publisher, the Obama-Biden ticket is trouncing the McCain-Palin ticket for daily newspaper endorsements, by 222 to 93 — including 43 papers that backed Pres. George W. Bush in 2004. The circulation of the Obama-backing papers stands at more than 20 million, compared with the 6 million subscribers of the papers that support McCain.

Obama’s margin, which includes most of the major papers, is in stark contrast to 2004, when Democrat John Kerry barely edged Bush in endorsements, 213 to 205, according to Editor & Publisher.

Going back to 1940, E&P found that GOP candidates earned more endorsements than did Democratic rivals.

A Democrat did not earn the most editorial votes until Lyndon Johnson edged out Barry Goldwater in 1964, and then not again until Clinton in 1992, notes E&P.

That’s how it has played out in Vermont. The state’s major dailies — The Burlington Free Press, Rutland Herald and Barre-Montpelier Times Argus — have all endorsed Douglas for reelection. They endorsed him in 2004 and 2006, too.

Symington has yet to pick up an endorsement. On Monday the Bennington Banner endorsed Pollina. Its sister paper, the Brattleboro Reformer, will announce its pick this weekend. They are weighing between Symington and Pollina. In 2006, they endorsed Douglas.

One local media observer says readers often take issue with newspapers voicing political stands.

“Anything in the media that is partisan is always greeted with suspicion,” said David Mindich, a journalism prof at St. Michael’s College.

But, he warns, readers shouldn’t conflate the partisan views of an editorial board with the paper’s straight news coverage.


Election Coverage — My deadline for next week’s column will arrive before polls close, so I’ll be live-blogging (and updating my Twitter feed) on Election Day.

I’ll also be part of Channel 17’s live election broadcast, which starts around 7:30 p.m. The coverage will offer live feeds from candidate and political party parties, and much more.

And this Friday, tune into “Vermont This Week,” where I’ll be part of a special pre-election panel. A half-hour of the discussion will feature questions from a studio audience and will be broadcast on Vermont Public Television’s website.

Finally, check out Blurt, the Seven Days staff blog, this week, too, as I’ll be following a few key races and candidates.


Revolving Door — There’s a new spokesman in the ranks of Vermont pols and, to no one’s surprise, he’s a former reporter.

U.S. Rep. Peter Welch hired former Brattleboro Reformer reporter Paul Heintz as his communications director. Heintz replaces long-time communicator Andrew Savage, who is taking on roles as Welch’s deputy chief of staff and legislative director.

Heintz, a 2006 graduate of Dartmouth College, covered statewide politics, the 2008 presidential primary and local news for the Reformer.

He starts Nov. 5 — if Welch is reelected, that is. The Hartland Democrat is running against a small field of opponents, including Progressive Thomas Hermann, Independent Jerry Trudell, Liberty Union candidate Jane Newton and, uh, Republican Peter Welch (he earned the GOP nod in the September primary). Republican Mark Shepard, who lost to Martha Rainville in the 2006 GOP primary for U.S. House, is mounting a write-in campaign.

Heintz recently paddled the 740-mile Northern Forest Canoe Trail through New York, Vermont, New Hampshire and Maine.

Sounds like he knows how to go with the flow.

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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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