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Burying the Past 

Fair Game

Published June 3, 2009 at 9:26 a.m.

Fair Game is Seven Days’ weekly political column.

Seismic. Almost two months to the day since their first veto override, Vermont lawmakers voted to override a second gubernatorial veto — the first time in state history that two vetoes have been overturned in one legislative session.

To top it off, Tuesday’s vote marked only the eighth veto override in state history.

The first veto of this session came after the guv tried to block passage of same-sex marriage. This second veto came after he shot down a sweeping $4.5 billion budget that directs how local, state and federal dollars will be spent.

There will be plenty of time to talk and analyze the fiscal and policy implications of these measures. But first, let’s just pause and recognize we’re in a new political era — one where Democrats are showing unusual muscle in the legislature against Republican Gov. Jim Douglas.

On the Democratic side, two people are doing most of the flexing: House Speaker Shap Smith and Majority Leader Floyd Nease.

This dynamic duo has wielded the power of a “super majority” Democratic caucus where past speakers failed. Under previous Speaker Gaye Symington, when Democrats also had a super majority, Douglas — a skilled politician himself — was always able to negotiate them into submission.

What’s the difference? They make Douglas bargain on their terms, not his. “I know when he’s negotiating with the governor, I don’t have to worry,” Nease said of Smith. “We trust each other, and we watch out for each other.”

Tuesday’s vote delivered another political body blow to Gov. Douglas, putting him one step closer to lame-duck status — although the guv hasn’t quacked a word about whether this term will be his last.

Makes you wonder who’s “outside the mainstream” — a characterization Douglas regularly levels at the legislature.

Don’t cry for him yet, though. No one is better at blaming the other guy for our collective problems, and you can be sure that Douglas will find a way to fault Democrats for every hiccup and bump in the road to recovery. At the same time, watch the guv claim credit for anything that is going well.

Tuesday’s veto was Douglas’ 17th since he took office in 2003. Only Gov. Howard Dean had more — 21.

None of Dean’s vetoes, it should be noted, were overridden.

Got Civil Rights? — As we anticipate the celebratory months of the Quadricentennial, not everyone in Vermont is cheering about Samuel de Champlain’s “discovery” of the region and its subsequent settling by Europeans.

Especially the Abenaki: It wasn’t until two years ago that a law passed the Vermont legislature granting indigenous people “minority” status. Seriously. Before that, they were apparently less than a minority.

That same law was intended to allow Vermont’s native tribes to sell traditional arts and crafts. But becoming a “minority group” isn’t good enough for the feds, says Assistant Attorney General Mike McShane. First Vermont has to grant official recognition to individual tribes.

Attempts by tribal members and two chairmen of the Vermont Commission on Native American Affairs to tweak the Vermont law have fallen on deaf ears.

“It’s a little frustrating for us when the gay-rights movement was able to get its legislation passed in one session, and we have been trying to get our rights for generations,” said Donald Stevens, who recently resigned as the VCNAA’s chairman. He was the second chairman within six months to resign — Mark Mitchell stepped down last fall.

“All we want to do is get the recognition needed so we can let our arts-and-crafters sell our wares,” said Stevens. “We’re not in this for the land claims, or to build casinos.”

True, it was a white guy — Auditor Tom Salmon — who floated the idea of a casino boat on Lake Champlain or at Killington.

Stevens says some members of the VCNAA appear hostile to the Abenaki Nation of Missisquoi St.Francis/Sokoki Band. He and others, including Chief April St. Francis, have complained to the governor and his staff.

The result? After the Abenaki publicly circulated a letter asking the guv to let three specific members go, Douglas went ahead and reappointed the trio last fall.

So many centuries, so little change.

The Trottin’ Tourist — As readers of our staff blog Blurt know, writer Fran Stoddard has been reporting from France during a trip to the country in honor of Samuel de Champlain.

Part of the journey included a stop in Honfleur, where a park is being dedicated in honor of de Champlain, in conjunction with the 2009 Lake Champlain Quadricentennial.

Some Vermont pols made cameos on the trip: U.S. Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-VT) met with the group on his way back from visiting troops in Afghanistan.

Lt. Governor Brian Dubie flew across the Atlantic for the Honfleur dedication on his own dime — perhaps using some frequent-flyer miles accumulated from his day job as an airline pilot?

Not so for Vermont Tourism Commissioner Bruce Hyde — Vermont taxpayers will foot the bill for his French adventure, to the tune of $1300.

You’d think the commish would be sticking closer to home, as belt tightening has forced his department — and much of state government — to scale back out-of-state travel. But, mon Dieu, this is the Quad we’re talking about. No expense is too great.

What else does $1300 buy in today’s state government? At $54 a day, 24 days of meals for the guv.

You Call That Pro-Life? — More than 10 years ago, when the last abortion provider was murdered, Vermont was at the center of the national media storm.

That’s when upstate New York doctor Barnett Slepian was shot in his home by James C. Kopp, a man with ties to Vermont. He resided for a time in the St. Albans area, and was driving a car with Vermont plates at the time of the shooting.

Kopp hid out in the woods behind Slepian’s house and fired at him through his window. He fled after the shooting and wasn’t arrested until 2001. After being convicted in 2003, he was sentenced to life in prison. That sentence was recently upheld by the second Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals.

He claimed he never had intended to kill Slepian, only wound him.

“The truth is not that I regret shooting Dr. Slepian, I regret that he died. I aimed at his shoulder, the bullet took a crazy ricochet, and that’s what killed him,” Kopp told reporters after he was arrested. “One of my goals was to keep Dr. Slepian alive, and I failed at that goal.”

Live from BTV! — Vermont’s own “Late Night Saturday,” hosted by Tim Kavanagh, got a nice mention in the June issue of Better Homes & Gardens.

LNS was plugged as one of a few shows where you can hear the infamous words, “live before a studio audience!” And, you don’t need to wait in line in LA or NYC, but good ol’ BTV, the mag noted.

“It all makes for a small-town version of a big-time TV talk show, complete with Kavanagh picking a viewer to be his on-stage sidekick for a night,” noted BH&G.

The show tapes every other week inside Alumni Auditorium at Champlain College. LNS just aired its 100th episode on May 16, capping its third season on the air.

“We had no idea that it was happening, so it was a nice surprise when folks started contacting us and saying they saw the piece,” noted Kavanagh, a fellow North Country Union High School grad.

The show’s fourth season will launch in September, with early tapings in August.

Stay tuned.

PEG Plug — National telecom giant Comcast is continuing its assault on Vermont’s public, educational and government (PEG) television stations. By law, Comcast is obligated to fund such community broadcasting endeavors — through a portion of its profits — as payment for distributing their paid programming on the public airwaves.

Comcast recently polled Vermonters around the state to find out if folks even know PEG programming exists. If they do, pollers asked respondents if they know how it’s funded and whether they use it.

The issue first surfaced earlier this year when Comcast asked state regulators to absolve the company from giving money to the Regional Education Technology Network (RETN) to provide educational programming in Chittenden County. The two sides later inked a deal to keep RETN funded while they worked out their differences over how money was accounted for and spent.

Comcast wants to have greater say in how local groups spend their money, and that troubles the TV nonprofits.

“We do know that, despite netting $2.5 billion in profit in 2008 and significantly increasing its own capital spending over the past few years, Comcast is attempting to significantly reduce or eliminate funding for capital equipment in contract renewal negotiations around the state with access management organizations like RETN,” noted Scott Campitelli, RETN’s executive director and program manager.

Campitelli was puzzled by Comcast’s poll, especially because the company didn’t first consult RETN or other PEG providers.

Comcast spokeswoman Laura Brubaker said Comcast “routinely surveys our customers on a variety of topics, from products and services, to customer service, to public access programming, to ensure that we are meeting our customers’ needs and providing them with the best customer experience possible.”

Ironically, RETN last week won the Alliance for Community Media’s national award for Overall Excellence in Educational Access. Meanwhile, Comcast lost out to AIG as the “worst” company in the U.S. in a reader vote conducted by Consumer Reports magazine. Comcast was a maid of honor for the second year in a row.

Don’t worry, Comcast; there’s always next year.

Round & Round — After hearing from dozens of opponents and supporters of disc golf at Leddy Park, the Burlington City Council decided to do, well, not much.

The council balked at a resolution that would have banned disc golf at Leddy Park. Instead, in an 8-5 vote, the council directed the Parks & Recreation Commission to look at other sites for a disc golf course in the Queen City — including other options at Leddy.

Why did they balk at a strongly worded action when hundreds are opposed to disc golf at Leddy? Some councilors said citizen commissions charged with investigating controversial topics should be allowed to see that work through to completion.

The nerve of some people.

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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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