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Identity Politics 

Fair Game

Published April 21, 2010 at 11:05 a.m.

Fair Game is Seven Days’ weekly political column.

In 1993, Sen. Julius Canns (R-Caledonia) introduced a bill to recognize Vermont’s original inhabitants: the Abenaki people. Twelve years later, in 2005, Canns died on the eve of a hearing on the issue. He was 82.

Canns, whose ancestors were white, African American and Cherokee, was a tireless champion of the Green Mountain State’s native people.

Fellow Northeast Kingdom lawmaker Sen. Vincent Illuzzi (R-Essex/Orleans) said Abenaki recognition was one of Canns’ unfinished tasks — a dying wish, if you will, that he passed on to Illuzzi to fulfill.

This year Illuzzi ushered a bill through his own Senate Economic Development Committee, which subsequently passed the full Senate. At a minimum, state recognition would allow the Abenaki to sell their arts and crafts with the state’s seal of approval — both in and out of state. Without it, they cannot legally claim their wares as “Native American made.”

“This is not about land claims, or federal recognition — the Abenaki have already been denied that,” says Illuzzi. “All we’re trying to do is help Native Americans in Vermont be able to officially sell baskets and other arts and crafts. It’s that simple.” Recognition also helps tribes access housing and education resources, he added.

The Senate bill recognizes four documented Abenaki tribes — Missisquoi, Koasek, Nulhegan and ELNU — and sets up a process for additional bands and tribes to gain recognition through an expanded Vermont Commission on Native American Affairs. It also spells out six key criteria for Native Americans to be recognized by the state.

Rather than accept the Senate version, the House stripped out all references to specific tribes and will tweak the recognition criteria, and approval process, crafted by the Senate, keeping the VCNAA largely as is.

Both bills charge the VCNAA with reviewing tribal recognition requests and forwarding rcommendations to lawmakers.

As “Fair Game” readers may recall, the VCNAA has been plagued by age-old, inter- and intra-tribal rivalries that may have been exacerbated by insensitive gubernatorial appointments.

“It does not appear to be just or reasonable to recognize any tribes before there [are] criteria in statute for them to meet,” said Rep. Kesha Ram (D-Burlington), who has taken the lead on the House version of the bill. “This decision will not only level the playing field, but my firm belief is that it will demonstrate to the Indian Arts and Crafts Board and other federal entities that we are standing on solid ground with our recognition process.”

Illuzzi disagrees. “It appears as though she’s being influenced by tribes recognized in other states who want to keep their competitive advantage to keep the Abenaki from being recognized,” he said of Ram. The result of the House’s effort? It’s unlikely the Abenaki will see recognition this year, Illuzzi predicted.

Ram said she has spoken with Abenaki who don’t belong to any of the four tribes, as well as other Native Americans. She says they felt left out of the Senate process and wanted to see a “fair and transparent” alternative in place.

The tribes that are named in the Senate bill have a different view of the matter, of course.

“This has been such a long, terrible process,” said Luke Willard, chief of the Nulhegan tribe.

Three decades, in fact. Gov. Tom Salmon, a Democrat, first recognized the tribe by executive order in 1976, only to see that overturned by his successor Gov. Richard Snelling, a Republican, in 1977.

“I will say this,” said Willard, “with or without a bill, with or without scholars, with or without a commission, we know who we are.”


Is “Challenges for Change” the Trojan horse in a battle to eviscerate Vermont’s social programs? That possibility motivated House members to shore up the legislation last week. Lawmakers made it clear the Douglas administration may not cut benefits or limit eligibility for Vermonters who need health care or social services. Any substantial tweaks have to be vetted by key legislative committees.

The House even acquiesced to a one-day special summer session advocated by the House GOP caucus — a “Challenges” progress check of sorts. Republicans are still upset about the less-than-public nature of the process.

It’s not likely the Senate will go along with a special session in July — too many wannabe governors in the room. So the pressure is on the upper chamber to close the remaining budget gap — as much as $25 million total — in the next few weeks. There is talk about using a mix of rainy-day funds, one-time funds and other measures to make the budget balance.

Not if House Minority Leader Patti Komline (R-Dorset) has anything to say about it. “If one-time money is used, then the ‘Challenges’ have not been met,” Komline pointed out.

Rep. Paul Poirier (I-Barre) predicted last week that the “Challenges” will be law by session’s end — no matter the protest.

“I respect raw political power,” said Poirier, who was one of the chief lieutenants under powerful House Speaker Ralph Wright. “But at times it isn’t pretty.”

History Lesson #91

Speaking of Ralph Wright, I received an email from the former Vermont House speaker about last week’s column.

He reminded me that the legislature was an equal partner in protecting the state’s most vulnerable during the 1991 recession, even though history often credits Republican Gov. Richard Snelling.

“My recollection is, the Democratic legislature had more than a little to do with that act of fairness back in 1991,” Wright wrote from his Florida home. “If someone had asked what was the first thing Gov. Snelling and I agreed upon it was: ‘This deficit will not be placed on the backs of the poor, the elderly, or the children.’ And then we raised taxes.” Graduated, he added parenthetically.

Snelling’s stance was risky, Wright noted, but he was “a man willing to risk his political future for doing what he thought was right.”

And what was “doing right,” according to Wright? In 1991, the top marginal tax rate was around 9.6 percent. The “Snelling plan” raised it to 13.5 percent in 1993 for people earning more than $250,000. There were also budget cuts and layoffs.

Fast forward to today. In 2008, the top marginal rate of 9.5 percent kicked in around $350,000.

Rather than raise taxes last year, legislators closed a capital gains tax exemption, recouping an estimated $35 million of wealth earned from stock investments. But they didn’t put that money into social services; they lowered income-tax rates across the board, making the whole effort revenue neutral.

That means folks earning more than $375,000 saw their top marginal rate drop to 9.4 percent in 2009. This year it’ll drop to 8.95 percent.

Let’s hope they spend it all in one place: here.

Political Capital

A top aide to Gov. Jim Douglas took issue with last week’s column — shocker, I know.

I asked readers if they could think of a high-ranking Vermont Republican who might be willing to spend some political capital by urging congressional colleagues to drop their filibuster against a key budget bill that would save Vermont $7 million by June, and even more in FY 11.

Secretary of Administration Neale Lunderville thinks Douglas is the only high-ranking Republican in Vermont. Fancy that.

Plus, Lunderville said Douglas has already done his part. In his role as chairman of the National Governors’ Association, the guv urged congressional leaders — Democrats and Republicans alike — to pass a key bill that would extend some stimulus funds to the state.

The February 5 letter was also signed by NGA vice chairman, Gov. Joe Manchin (D-WV).

So I stand corrected.

Note that correspondence on some other organization’s letterhead is what passes for political capital these days.

Yankee Ingenuity

Fellow Seven Days reporter Andy Bromage alerted me to a recent pro-Vermont Yankee “My Turn” op-ed in the Burlington Free Press authored by Greg Wilson.

It was a sharply written piece with several key talking points: The loss of jobs due to Vermont Yankee’s closure would fray Vermont’s safety net, decimate the economy, and drain state coffers.

“Our ambitious senator thinks he can use Vermont Yankee as a pawn in his quest to become governor,” Wilson wrote of President Pro Tem Peter Shumlin. “But with the jobs of 1300 people and their families on the line, it’s Russian roulette.”

And who is Greg Wilson, other than a resident of Halifax, Vt.? Could he be the same Gregory Wilson who sends out press releases for Vermont Yankee?

Nah, the Freeps would surely identify an Entergy PR dude, right? Or, at least Wilson would tell them, right?

No and no.

“I am a Vermonter and speaking as such,” Wilson told “Fair Game” in a missive from his email address.

The Freeps didn’t respond to a request to explain their “My Turn” vetting process. But they shouldn’t feel too bad. Wilson’s op-ed found its way into the Rutland Herald, Barre-Montpelier Times Argus, Deerfield Valley News and other papers as a letter to the editor.

I wonder where Wilson found the time to be so prolific between tritium-leak updates.

And how did he escape detection by the various newspapers that published him?

“If it’s an op-ed piece and I’m suspicious of its origins, I don’t use it or would check,” said David Moats, the Herald’s Pulitzer Prize-winning op-ed page editor. “There seems to be a variety of parties with veiled affiliations interested in Yankee.”

Veiled indeed.

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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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