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Lawyers, Sums and Money 

Fair Game

Published February 16, 2011 at 11:42 a.m.

Fair Game is Seven Days’ weekly political column.

Gov. Peter Shumlin isn’t the only guy in Montpelier giving out pay raises. Now top legislative leaders are getting in on the action.

Last Friday a legislative committee approved a proposal to give sizable pay increases to a select group of legislative staffers who advise the state’s 180 lawmakers.

The reason for the proposed pay boosts, according to House Speaker Shap Smith and Senate President Pro Tem John Campbell, is that the legislative council’s top lawyer and director, Emily Bergquist, is leaving mid-session. To fill her shoes overseeing about 50 staffers, Bergquist devised a plan to divvy up her job among four handpicked staff, including three attorneys. Part of her salary — of more than $90,000 — would finance pay raises up to $10,000 for each of them.

The lawyers were among the “exempt” — or appointed — legislative council staffers who received pay raises ranging from 1 to 7 percent as of January 1. Similarly paid “exempts” took a 5 percent cut in 2009.

The deal came as a surprise to Sen. Vince Illuzzi (R-Essex-Orleans), who sits on the Senate Appropriations Committee and has oversight of the legislative budget. He said Friday was the first time he learned about the pay-raise plan. The meeting at which it was decided had no agenda and wasn’t recorded, Illuzzi added.

Smith and Campbell said the meeting was open to the public, even if the locale was hard to find — in the basement room of a state office building a block away from the Statehouse, accessible only by swipe card.

Illuzzi said he opposes the pay increases because they send the wrong message to other state workers.

“We’re telling the rest of state government that you have to do more with less,” said Illuzzi. “I’m not sure giving pay raises to a select few is fair to the rank-and-file employees of state government who don’t have access to power.”

Illuzzi doesn’t dispute that legislative staff work hard during the session. But “I would dare say there are state employees who are working just as hard 12 months out of the year, and they aren’t getting pay raises,” said Illuzzi.

Campbell defended the proposal, claiming some legislative council employees work into the wee hours to keep up with the demands of the session. Along with more work and increased responsibility should come more pay, he reasoned —especially if it doesn’t increase the legislature’s overall spending plan.

“How can this happen when other state employees are doing more work, when they may not be getting remunerated for extra time?” Campbell asked rhetorically. “The thing is, I don’t know if that isn’t happening. We don’t deal with other state employees; I don’t know what their duties are and what they are paid.”

I’m sure any of the 650 or so state employees who’ve been laid off in the past two years would be happy to fill Campbell in on the details. Better yet, he should ask those who are still on the payroll, doing more work for less pay.

One Plus One Equals $400,000

Gov. Peter Shumlin suggested I “check the math” in last week’s column. He didn’t like the way I added up the salaries of some of his appointees.

Well, guess what?

No correction required. Shumlin is spending about $400,000 more on his team than Gov. Jim Douglas did on his.

In a one-page memo, Secretary of Administration Jeb Spaulding claimed $140,000 of that $400,000 is salary increases. The rest is due to filling vacant posts and creating new ones to hire, as the gov put it, “the best people I could find to get the job done.” Despite the pay raises, Spaulding said several contenders withdrew their applications due to “uncompetitive compensation.”

“Many folks seem to think all the money went to pay raises, even though that is not what your column said,” noted Spaulding in an email to “Fair Game.”

At least 17 of Shumlin’s appointees are earning more than their predecessors, according to Spaulding’s memo, some of whom spent eight years working their way up the pay ladder. In two cases, the salary difference is about $30,000.

One of the jobs Shumlin created is chief of ConnectVermont, which is charged with expanding cell and broadband service throughout Vermont. Former Comcast exec Karen Marshall got that job, which pays $115,000.

Shumlin’s team reached out to union leaders last week, and again this week, to quell concerns that the Democrat is more interested in hiring high-paid executives than in replenishing the ranks of frontline employees, who are being asked to absorb another $12 million to help close the deficit.

In a memo, Spaulding said their one-page explainer is designed to “provide some clarity to the dialogue.”

What’s not clear?

Kill the Poor

Think Shumlin’s budget takes a toll on human services? Wait ’til you see what President Barack Obama and House Republicans have in store for the nation’s poor, disabled and elderly.

House Republicans want to cut by 70 percent the $700 million Community Service Block Grant program, which funds the core staffing services for the state’s community action programs (CAPs), including the Central Vermont Community Action and the Champlain Valley Office of Economic Opportunity Council. Since the federal fiscal year is almost over, no more money would flow to any of these agencies as of March 4.

The CAPs help people in crisis to access food stamps, housing, fuel assistance and more. In some cases, they run food shelves and provide direct services such as cash assistance in emergencies.

If the GOP fails to make these cuts in the current budget, President Obama is targeting the program for a 50 percent cut in next year’s. That could mean a reduction of between $500,000 and $700,000 at CVOEO, which would imperil half the agency’s 140 staffers, said Tim Searles, CVOEO’s community-relations director.

At CVCAC, the cuts could force 20 layoffs and the closure of its offices in Morrisville, Bradford and Randolph. People would have to travel to the central office in Barre to seek help with food stamps, fuel assistance and other support services.

As “Fair Game” noted last year, the CAPs are now administering the state’s general assistance program the safety net of safety nets. This was part of the state’s Challenges for Change program and the ongoing “modernization” effort at the Department for Children and Families.

That effort has struggled as a result of crushing demand on a depleted workforce. Wait times for food stamps and other state-funded help grew so long — up to three months — that Vermont Legal Aid threatened to take the state to court. The state finally agreed to hire more workers to reduce the backlog.

Whether it’s this year or next, cuts are coming.

Human Service Secretary Doug Racine said the Agency of Human Services is still trying to determine the impact the Obama-directed cuts will have on Vermonters. With AHS already facing $44 million in cuts under Shumlin’s budget, it’s unclear who will step in to help folks secure food and housing.

“A lot of us are feeling betrayed right now and trying to figure out why he’s cutting these services,” Searles said of Obama. “It couldn’t come at a worse time; these cuts are happening … when demand for services is skyrocketing. If we’re not there to help people, it’s not as if they’re just going to go away.”

The Tritium Toll

Maybe Vermont Yankee should revive the old Timex slogan: “It takes a licking and keeps on ticking.”

In the past five years, the nearly 40-year-old nuke plant on the banks of the Connecticut River has had its cooling water towers collapse — twice. Last year, two leaks allowed hundreds of thousands of gallons of tritiated water to enter the groundwater. Now, it appears a third, smaller tritium leak has been found in plant steam drain lines. Tritium has a half-life of more than 12 years.

Nonetheless, some Vermont businesses and key pols keep pushing for the plant to stay in operation.

Last week, Entergy CEO J. Wayne Leonard made it clear to nuclear naysayers that it’s full speed ahead to relicense Vermont Yankee, despite Gov. Peter Shumlin’s opposition to VY staying open past 2012. Leonard hopes to convince the legislature to hold a revote and allow the Vermont Public Service Board to review its relicensure plan; the feds haven’t weighed in yet.

Entergy is paying plenty to make its case to lawmakers. According to lobbyist disclosure data on file with the Secretary of State’s office, Entergy Vermont Yankee spent $733,000 on lobbyists during the last biennium.

How about spending some of that coin on the leaks?

Media Notes

At its annual meeting on Thursday, the Vermont Press Association will bestow its annual Matthew Lyon Award on State Archivist Gregory Sanford for his “lifetime commitment to the First Amendment and the public’s right to know the truth in Vermont.”

The well-deserved award is being given to Sanford in part because he has led the government-wide effort to bring clarity and consistency to maintaining public records.

The award is named after a Vermont congressman who was jailed in 1798 under the Alien and Sedition Act for sending a letter to the editor criticizing President John Adams. While he was serving his federal sentence in Vergennes, Vermonters reelected Lyon to the U.S. House.

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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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