As lawmakers strolled out through the front door last week to partake in the annual barbecue on the front steps of the Statehouse, they had to slide by a few Japanese tourists photographing the Ethan Allen statue. The scene said it all: The tourists have arrived -- lawmakers, go home!
Surely the General Assembly will wrap up the first half of the 2003-2004 session this week. The climactic endgame will be played out with great flourish in the daily papers and on the evening news. Wrap-up stories will feature the highs and lows, the winners and losers. Since yours truly is taking a little vacation next week, we'll have to get our licks in early.
On the change front, sparklers will be legal this Fourth of July for the first time and, starting in January, a Vermont fishing license will prevent you from getting pinched by New York game wardens on the west side of Lake Champlain. Whoopee!
In October the state sales tax will jump 20 percent, from five to six cents on the buying dollar. It's what Gov. Jim Douglas wanted, and the Democratic leadership in the Senate caved and gave it to him.
In return, the statewide property tax for public schools will drop an average of 20 percent starting in 2005.
They'll all call it property "tax relief" and declare "victory."
But proponents of allowing sick and dying Vermonters to legally smoke pot were defeated. The medical marijuana bill rolled through the Senate, but died in the House. Speaker Walt Freed kept it buried in committee.
That's a surprise, you say, because last year the Republican House rallied behind Progressive Rep. David Zuckerman's medical pot proposal. What's up?
It's worth noting that last year it was the Democratic Senate that had serious misgivings about legalizing grass for the sick. Those misgivings were clearly related to the fact that Howard Dean, Democratic governor and soon-to-be presidential candidate, strongly opposed it.
The conventional wisdom was that Dean would catch enough flak for legalizing same-sex marriage in the form of civil unions. He doesn't need another layer of flak for legalizing pot. (However, a poll released this week by the UNH Survey Center indicates 54 percent of New Hampshire voters support issuing marriage licenses to gay couples!)
All the Senate would agree to last year was a summer study. And the summer study came back with a green light.
But this year, the political dynamic has changed. Namely, there's a Republican governor on the Fifth Floor. And Jim Douglas toes the Bush administration line on drugs and just about everything else. In fact, the White House Drug Czar has launched a $200 million advertising campaign to stifle moves by the states to approve medical marijuana use.
So -- surprise, surprise -- this year the Democratic Senate overcame its qualms and overwhelmingly passed a medical marijuana bill 22-7. It would have been 23-7 had not Sen. Peter Welch (D-Windsor) been forced to preside that day due to Lt. Gov. Brian Dubie's absence.
In fact, five Republicans voted for legalizing the medical use of marijuana: Sens. John Bloomer (Rutland), Republican leader Rob Ide (Caledonia), Jim Greenwood (Essex/Orleans), Diane Snelling (Chittenden) and Phil Scott (Washington).
But -- surprise, surprise -- this year the Republican-controlled House, so happy to oppose Dean last year, suddenly grew hesitant. Couldn't have anything to do with the fact that the new Guv's a Republican, could it?
P.S. Gov. Jimbo has been a loyal supporter of everything Bush since he took office. Week after week he's defended George W. Bush's unilateral invasion of Iraq to rid Evil Dictator Saddam Hussein of his terrible weapons of mass destruction (WMDs).
As everyone knows, however, our victorious military hasn't found any WMDs in Iraq. The other day we asked Jimbo if Dubya had "lied."
Absolutely not, replied Douglas indignantly. "We can't find Saddam Hussein, either, but I believe he exists."
That goes for Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny, too, we presume.
Ah, yes -- George Orwell's 1984 at last! Better late than never, eh?
From the Farm -- One of the best moves by the legislature this year was to quickly sign on to the emergency loan program Sen. Sara Kittell (D-Franklin) proposed for cash-strapped dairy farmers who needed to plant their spring crops.
Kittell, chairman of the Senate Agriculture Committee, gets kudos for being "the little engine that could" on this one. Her bill sailed through the Statehouse in record time. Gov. Douglas quickly jumped on the bandwagon and, just as quickly, took credit for it.
Two programs have been established under the Vermont Economic Development Authority (VEDA -- www.veda.org). One provides direct loans up to $100,000. The other defers farmers' current monthly payments on their debt load for nine months.
"It sure beats tax breaks for the rich," said Kittell, a proud Democrat from dairy-rich Fairfield.
Sen. Kittell told Seven Days that about 60 loans have been issued so far. The average loan has been $50,000. But there's a snag.
According to Sen. Dairy Queen, banks so far have been reluctant to sign on to the second program, the one that defers current loan payments.
True enough, said VEDA's Jo Bradley on Tuesday.
"We're in the process of working out a master agreement with the banks," she said. It's "too early to tell" if the lenders will refuse to play ball or not.
Barnett Beats on Bernie -- The new chairman of the Vermont GOP wasted no time last week in making Independent Congressman Bernie Sanders his first target. James Barnett blasted Bernie over the congressman's new one-hour, weekly talk show on WDEV. (Though, this Monday, Ol' Bernardo got bumped by the Red Sox-Yankee game.)
Barnett calls it Bernie's "self-promotional radio program." He tells Seven Days he's concerned that Vermont's only congressman is "playing hooky" instead of attending Monday meetings of the Subcommittee on National Security, Emerging Threats and International Relations. And he says Republicans should be getting "equal time," since Sanders is a political candidate.
As proof, Barnett points to Ol' Bernardo's latest FEC filing. He tells Seven Days it shows the Sanders Campaign is paying wages to daughter Carina Driscoll, as well as spending money on travel and meals.
"If he's not a candidate," says Battling Barnett, "then why is he paying off family members?"
"First [Barnett] started out whining and crying," replies Sanders' chief of staff Jeff Weaver. "Now he's throwing a full-grown temper tantrum."
Federal law is clear, says Weaver. Sanders does not become "a legally qualified candidate" again until he files his petition signatures with the secretary of state in September 2004.
"No matter how much Barnett kicks and screams, the law is the law," says Chief Weaver, a Franklin County boy with a brand new seven-week-old son. (Congratulations!)
Barnett says the GOP's lawyers are continuing to look into the matter. He describes the legal issue as "murky."
Meanwhile, Progressive Party superstar Anthony Pollina is filling the 1-2 p.m. time slot the rest of the week. And he's featuring a lively lineup of progressive guests, highlighting the issues dear to his heart.
Since Pollina's been a statewide candidate in the last two elections, we asked Barnett if the GOP was just as concerned about Pollina's apparent self-promotion, too.
"It's less obvious," replied Chairman Barnett, "but we're keeping an eye on it."
Asked if he's hoping Tony the Prog will make it three-in-a-row in 2004, Vermont's Karl Rove Jr. just chuckled.
P.S. The new Bernie show drew notice from none other than the King of Right-Wing Talk Radio -- Rush Limbaugh. Rush went after Sanders' press secretary Joel Barkin for telling the Washington Times, "All radio shows are very right-wing."
Said the Great Conservative Tongue, "No, Mr. Barkin, there are plenty of liberal talk-show hosts, but they don't create any buzz or pull any audience. I'm quaking in my boots!"
Thanks for noticing, Rush.
Circ Update -- The recently released "revised environmental assessment" for the proposed Circumferential Highway (revised in order to build the road as quickly as possible) is available to the curious on the Web site of Vermonters for Sensible Transportation -- www.stopthecirc.com.
Circ opponents like Friends of the Earth and the Conservation Law Foundation have until June 16 to offer a response.
The secret of the week is, there's a public hearing on the matter Thursday night at 6 p.m. at the Williston Town Hall.
DeanWatch 2004 -- It was a quiet Memorial Day weekend on the presidential campaign trail. Former Gov. Howard Dean made the rounds in small-town northern New Hampshire. No word if he left flowers at the tomb of the Old Man of the Mountain, but his traveling companion and aide Kate O'Connor wrote the following travelogue on the Dean "Call to Action" Web site (http://deancalltoaction.blogspot.com):
"We've met some interesting people and visited some fun places," wrote Kate. "The highlight was a visit to Polly's Pancake Parlor in Sugar Hill, NH. We didn't stay long enough to eat, but based on the number of people who were there the pancakes must be terrific. We also stopped by the Dairy Bar in Berlin. This time we did get food. I'd highly recommend a stop there if you're ever in the area!"
Speaking of food, the Dean for America crew is settling into their new space on Farrell Street in South Burlington. Certainly the fast-growing campaign staff desperately needed more room. But many Deanocrat campaign workers are lamenting the loss of their former home in the heart of beautiful downtown Burlington. Just as the summer outdoor cafe season was beginning, too.
In fact, the other day we spotted Deputy Campaign Manager Bob Rogan, a gentleman who in 18 months might be working out of the White House West Wing, grabbing a bite to eat at the Shelburne Road Price Chopper.
Mr. Rogan bagged a comfortable and secure job in Rutland at CVPS, Vermont's largest electric utility, to go to work for the Dean Dream, er, Team. Bob was loading up at the Price Chopper salad bar, the closest food station to Dean HQ. At least he's eating healthy. In fact, Rogan told Seven Days, he's thinking about picking up a bicycle, too.
Speaking of bicycles, we hate to harp on the driving habits of our favorite presidential hopeful's quiet and unobtrusive better half, but our criticism will pale compared to that of the national press once she hits the main stage.
Judith Steinberg, M.D., who will be known coast-to-coast as Judy Dean when the bright lights start to blind her, has long been a regular pedaler on the lakefront bikepath that her hubbie fought to create two decades ago. She and tens of thousands of others.
A couple months back, yours truly revealed the real dirt on Judy: THE GOOD DOCTOR DOESN'T WEAR A BIKE HELMET. Oh, vanity of vanities!
And guess what? She still doesn't.
We passed Dr. Judy on the bikepath Saturday afternoon after the Burlington Marathon wrapped up. Great day for a ride -- not many people out due to the threat of rain. As the next First Lady approached, all we could do was wave our finger disapprovingly. Judy got the message.
She passed with a smirk that said, "Quit bugging me, Mr. Smartypants."
Look, we understand. When yours truly became a reborn bicyclist seven years ago, we too shunned the notion of messing up our handsome and virile image with the oversized headgear that makes bicyclists resemble space aliens. Besides, in the days of our youth nobody wore a bike helmet. (Nobody wore seatbelts, either, because seatbelts didn't exist. And everybody smoked cigarettes.)
But many intelligent and persistent people got on our case. Phone conversations with political sources near and far would begin with, "So, Peter, got a helmet yet?" It was annoying.
Eventually, yours truly got sick and tired of hearing about it. On went the stupid-looking lid. End of story. Almost.
Three weeks later, the wheels slid out from beneath us on a thin patch of Perkins Pier ice. The old noggin struck the ground with such force that we thought for a moment we'd spied St. Peter offering us a map to Purgatory or points south.
But it wasn't to be. In one split-second, the bike helmet more than paid for itself.
Looking funny sure beats brain-dead, eh?
So, Dr. Judy, what's it gonna take?
Like Eleanor Roosevelt, Jacqueline Kennedy, Rosalyn Carter, Nancy Reagan and Laura Bush have been, you are on the verge of becoming America's leading lady, a role model, whether you like it or not.
P.S. Though we haven't seen him on the bikepath lately, Ho-Ho has ridden the seven-mile strip he spawned many times, often without state police security. And every time we've spotted him, he wore a helmet.
Sure, Dr. Dean looked a little goofy. But he sure didn't look stupid. In fact, he looked positively presidential!