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Cut and Run 

Fair Game

Bernie Sanders
Fair Game is Seven Days’ weekly political column.

The legislature plans to adjourn by the end of April, so things are starting to heat up under the golden dome. For many lawmakers, it’s time to cut the budget and run … for reelection. Or for governor.

How will this session be remembered?

Lawmakers will be able to say they didn’t raise taxes and spent some money on “job creation.” They also can claim they “renegotiated” Vermont’s social contract with its neediest citizens. Between state and federal funding sources, the result is $150 million in cuts to the Agency of Human Services. The agency’s clients, however, never had a real place at the negotiating, er, renegotiating table.

Maybe you don’t get that unless you can deliver votes in November? When environmentalists and public education supporters began to squawk last Thursday about elements of Challenges for Change, they got invited to sit inside the speaker’s office for a private chat that seemed to ameliorate their concerns.

Groups like the Green Mountain Self-Advocates, a network run by people with developmental disabilities, are having an altogether different experience. While enviros met with the speaker, I met a couple of young GMSA staffers in the Card Room — an area in the busy hallway between the House chamber and the cafeteria. There, Max Barrows, the organization’s outreach director, and Nicole LeBlanc, an education and outreach specialist, voiced concerns that budget cuts would force them, and their peers, back into a world of segregation and separation.

“I don’t want to go back to the way it was before,” said LeBlanc, who fears being forced into tighter quarters, in group-home settings.

Barrows and LeBlanc, both of whom have various forms of autism, do their best to represent their cause. Maybe it’s just me, but I get the sense no one’s really listening.

As evidence, the Public Assets Institute released a report last week pointing out that in a critical time of need, Gov. Jim Douglas, House Speaker Shap Smith and legislative leaders are slashing, rather than strengthening, Vermont’s safety net.

Former AHS Secretary Con Hogan said lawmakers, and the governor, should put all of the proposed cuts on the table so people can see the complete picture — not just the separate “challenges.”

“It seems calculated in such a way to avoid anyone taking responsibility for the impacts,” said Hogan, who served Govs. Richard Snelling, a Republican, and Howard Dean, a Democrat.

The report contrasts Snelling’s response to a budget shortfall with that of today’s elected officials: In 1991, Snelling spent 40 percent more on human service programs during the recession, including those funded by state general funds. The recession response today — as evidenced by budgets from 2008, 2009, 2010 and 2011 — has been annual state spending cuts of between 4 and 6 percent for human service programs, coupled with a reliance on federal stimulus dollars to make up the difference.

When those federal dollars dry up, how will Vermont take care of its vulnerable?

“Only when we can compare the full effect of the cuts and weigh that against using rainy-day funds or raising taxes can we have an honest discussion of what course to follow,” said Jack Hoffman of PAI, one of the report’s authors.

People say Vermont is too generous with its benefits.

But the numbers don’t bear it out. Vermont spent more on human services in 2008 than in 1989 largely due to skyrocketing health care costs, not welfare handouts. The cost of health-care-related human services has increased an average of 11 percent per year since 1989, said Hoffman, while non-health-care-related services increased by only 5 percent annually — the same as the rest of state government during that time.

Also, consider the Reach-Up program, which provides general assistance to families. It hasn’t given a cost-of-living adjustment to recipients since 2004. Not sure that’s generous.

Finally, chew on this fact: Lawmakers receive a daily meals allowance of $61, while the average food-stamp recipient receives $100 a month, or about $1 per meal.

Food for thought.

Jobs Are Job #1

Top lawmakers agreed that Legislature 2010 would be the “jobs session” — not to be confused with the five-way Democratic primary.

An $8.6 million “jobs bill” that was supposed to end up on the governor’s desk by late January still hasn’t made it there. Because it’s the only bill with new money attached, it’s attracting the legislative equivalent of cluster flies.

Lawmakers tell “Fair Game” there’s an effort afoot to include in it a one-time, special $8 million tax credit to benefit one company: EHV Weidmann of St. Johnsbury. While the company is not named specifically in the bill, the credit qualifications are written in such a way that only a business in a federal Rural Economic Area Partnership zone with more than 200 employees would qualify. EHV Weidmann employs 260, and is located in the Northeast Kingdom.

John Goodrich, EHV Weidmann’s vice president, told “Fair Game” the credit would make the company more likely to invest an additional $80 million in its operations — money that could go to any one of Weidmann’s 30 other plants around the world. The investment would retain, not add, jobs.

“Without this investment, we will wither over time, likely with no sudden, press-grabbing headline,” Goodrich predicted.

The provision is being ushered through the legislature by Sen. Jane Kitchel (D-Caledonia). “While most of the time we focus on job growth,” she said, “there needs to be attention given to job preservation.”

Now there’s a concept lawmakers can understand.

Political Capital

It came as a bit of shock last week when I read that the federal health care reform package will cost Vermont money.

It didn’t jibe with the announcements from our Congressional trinity — Sen. Patrick Leahy (D), Sen. Bernie Sanders (I) and Rep. Peter Welch (D) — who promised its passage would bring at least $150 million to Vermont between 2014 to 2019.

Turns out a provision that expands Medicaid-funded prescription-drug programs in the states will short Vermont by $7 million before the end of June, and even more next year. Why? The feds are expanding the drug program by diverting rebates, part of the Federal Medical Assistance Percentages program, to Medicaid instead of reimbursing state coffers.

“This loss will be more than filled if Republicans in Congress stop blocking the second jobs package that contains an ARRA extension of FMAP increases to states,” said Leahy spokesman David Carle. “This would mean double-digit millions more in health dollars to Vermont.”

So, wait, you mean Vermont could not lose, but gain, if Congressional Republicans would help extend unemployment benefits and other services to folks suffering from the Great Recession?

Know a high-ranking Vermont Republican willing to spend some of his political capital to get the bill passed?

Me neither.

Goodbye Kiss

Should Burlington amend its charter to allow for the impeachment or recall of the mayor? It’s a trick question.

In a post-Burlington Telecom world, anything that channels the frustration of the electorate is a political winner.

City councilors agreed Monday night to send two resolutions to the council’s Charter Change Committee for consideration. One would allow the city council to impeach the mayor; the other would allow voters to recall the city’s chief executive through a new election. Voters could be asked to approve one or both as early as November.

For cover, the council made sure any member in its own ranks could also be removed by either of the two proposed charter changes.

The impeachment resolution passed by an 11-3 margin, with only Councilors Ed Adrian (D-Ward 1), David Berezniak (D-Ward 2), and Sharon Bushor (I-Ward 1) voting against it.

“It’s best to leave the decision to the people who put us here in the first place,” said Adrian. He called on Mayor bob kiss to resign after Burlington voters sent several Progressives, a Democratic ally and instant-runoff voting packing in the Town Meeting elections.

That resolution passed by a slimmer, 9-5 margin with Councilors Berezniak, Bushor, Marrisa Caldwell (P-Ward 3), Bram Kranichfeld (D-Ward 2), and Emma Mulvaney-Stanak (P-Ward 3) voting against it.

Mayor Kiss didn’t like the recall provision, either. Gee, wonder why?

“Recalling a public official before the end of a term of office is a political device, while impeachment is a legal option,” said Kiss. “A recall provision would create a climate where an elected official is always looking over their shoulders.”

Could something be enacted and used against Kiss?

“These resolutions are not targeted at the current mayor,” cautioned Councilor Kurt Wright (R-Ward 4). “This is about looking forward.”

Looking forward, all right … to the mayoral election of 2012.

Radio Static

After a four-month stint, the “Corm & the Coach” radio show has gone silent. But for how long?

“The bottom line is that there were just not enough sales,” said Jeff Loper, the owner of Convergence Media, the parent company of 107.1 FM WNMR. He hopes to sell the station to owners who would bring “Corm & the Coach” back to the airwaves.

It was a popular morning show when it aired on Champ 101.3 FM, but, without a sales force, Loper was unable to find enough ad revenue.

It also meant hosts Steve Cormier and Tom Brennan hadn’t been paid since November. For Cormier, going without a paycheck for four months was more than he could afford.

“There was just no way we could do it for free anymore,” said Cormier. “I think we’ll be back, as there is interest from other stations. We’re going to see what Jeff can do, but if nothing materializes by the end of the month, we are going to look at our options.”

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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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