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Past as Prologue 

Fair Game

Published January 7, 2009 at 9:33 a.m.

Fair Game is Seven Days’ weekly political column.

They’re baaaack . . . and on Thursday, Gov. Jim Douglas will deliver his fourth inaugural address.

What can we expect to hear? The gov’s team has always been good at alliterative slogans — “Agenda of Affordability” and “Jim = Jobs.” Maybe “Road to Recovery” or “Path to Prosperity” will fit the bill.

Still, people are looking for some substance, some direction — in a word, “leadership.”

In recent columns, I’ve noted that Republican Gov. Richard Snelling raised taxes (and ran budgets into the red) in each of the recessions he oversaw — 1983 and 1991.

In 1983, as part of a recession recovery package, Snelling proposed a state public works program for out-of-work Vermonters. He also raised the gas tax to repair roads and rejected some of Pres. Ronald Reagan’s tax cuts.

“It is imperative that we continue to meet the current needs of Vermonters in these difficult times and equally imperative that we continue to look to the needs of the future,” Snelling told lawmakers in 1983.

Snelling picked up on that theme in his 1991 inaugural: “The task of this session is not only to get our budget in order. Having to trim budgets is not a tragedy unless it is used as an excuse for turning away from responsibility.”

Lofty ideals. And he backed them up with action.

Douglas should heed Snelling’s words. That’s the advice of former Democratic House Speaker Ralph Wright, who, along with Snelling and former Senate President Pro Tem Doug Racine, brokered the historic ’91 deal.

“You got bills — you need enough money to pay them. Of course, [Douglas] probably looks at it like it’s his money or his next election,” Wright said from his home in Florida. “Snelling was different. He understood that the money owed was for those programs that the people felt were part of a ‘social contract’ — cut what you can, but don’t lay it on the backs of those least able to be without.”

Wright, Snelling and Racine made up the “coalition of grownups,” according to Bruce Post, a top aide to Snelling at the time. The trio set aside political rhetoric, spent political capital within their own parties and struck a deal none supported entirely but that they all agreed was best for the state.

Grownups in Montpelier? Could it happen again in our lifetime?

Post says a similar deal could be brokered this year, but Douglas would have to compromise on raising the income tax, and Democratic lawmakers may have to make some cuts they don’t like.

So far, Douglas has pooh-poohed calls to raise taxes — instead, he thinks state government should simply “tighten its belt.” Squeezed to death is more like it, given the size of the projected deficit.

What a contrast to Snelling: When he passed away, the former governor was working on a proposal dubbed “A National Level of Decency,” according to Post.

“He felt some states had limited wealth and taxing capacity, but because they had humane ideals, they taxed themselves beyond their capacity to provide basic, needed human services,” said Post, who has also worked for former Sen. Robert Stafford and former Rep. James Jeffords, among other top Republicans. “Other states, in his view, had more of a tax capacity, but chose to not make the effort to tax themselves at that capacity, thereby neglecting fundamental human needs.”

Snelling’s idea was to redistribute federal taxes so those states “overtaxing” themselves to meet fundamental needs could have some tax relief without diminishing services, Post said. Those states that did not want to provide such services would be taxed and the feds would deliver them.

“It was ‘revenue-sharing with a heart,’” said Post.

What a concept.


Taking One for Whose Team? — In an effort to pinch taxpayer pennies, all politically appointed, aka “exempt,” staffers in the governor’s executive branch will take a 5 percent pay cut, effective immediately.

Looks like their pain will be short-lived, though, according to state personnel officials. The cuts expire on June 30.

Must be the recession will be over by then, eh?

Most statewide elected officials earning more than $60,000 annually have taken up the governor’s call to trim their earnings — except one. Auditor Tom Salmon is donating 5 percent of his pay to two community action agencies — one in the Northeast Kingdom and one in southern Vermont.

Salmon, who is serving a tour of duty in Iraq, told “Fair Game” in an email that he told administration officials: “This is a gimmick, not a process to address a crisis. Larger substantive cuts and decisions will right the course of the unsustainable govt ship more than the pay cut idea which is immaterial, window dressing, and short term thinking.”

With distance comes perspective, I guess.

Salmon is asking legislative leaders to create a comprehensive process to evaluate state programs and — get this — involve the public! Crazy talk.

The guv is still trying to find 400 jobs to trim from the state payroll and has laid off about a dozen during recent budget cuts.

But that doesn’t mean state government isn’t hiring.

The Department of Labor has brought on eight temp workers to handle the exploding number of unemployed workers calling to sign up for benefits. Folks are often getting a busy signal or being put on hold, so they are dialing any number in the department looking for help. It’s been a big drain on staff.

Maybe the unemployed should just call the guv directly. He easily found jobs for three former campaign staffers. One is working as a “private secretary” at the Department of Building and General Services for $31,000 a year, and the other is working as an “executive assistant” at the Department of Finance and Management for $45,000 a year.

The latter is the department charged with coming up with creative ways to cut the state budget. Hmm.


Racine is Ready — Douglas hasn’t even been sworn in to his fourth term, and he’s already got a challenger: State Senator Doug Racine (D-Chittenden) will be a candidate for governor in 2010. He served as the state’s lieutenant governor from 1996 to 2002.

“I’m not going to dance around like most politicians do and play coy. I plan to be a candidate,” Racine told “Fair Game” Monday.

The news first surfaced on Green Mountain Daily in the form of an email from former Burlington State Rep. Mary Sullivan to Democratic county chairs. Sullivan later forwarded the email to Seven Days. She said she is part of a group working on Racine’s nascent campaign. Former Gov. Phil Hoff is the group’s honorary chair.

Racine knows others want to run, which is why he’s getting organized early and re-introducing himself to Democrats around the state. State Treasurer Jeb Spaulding has expressed an interest in being a candidate, and it’s no secret that Senate President Pro Tem Peter Shumlin (D-Windam), Secretary of State Deb Markowitz and Attorney General Bill Sorrell have all considered throwing hats in the ring.

A few Dems urged Racine to run in 2008. He lost to Douglas in 2002 by only 5800 votes. But Racine told “Fair Game” he didn’t feel a huge groundswell of support — though, in hindsight, he concedes he probably would have been benefited from the enthusiasm generated by President-elect Barack Obama.

Asked why he is announcing so early, Racine said, “I’ve got some things to talk about. I do not see a clear economic development strategy in this state, for starters. And, it’s about broadband, it’s childcare, and it’s a health-care system that works. Those are the things that make a community attractive and that’s not happening in our state right now.”

Vermont also deserves a governor who can match the kind of vision and excitement provided by Obama’s historic election as president.

“I know a lot of Vermonters are eager and excited to talk about where we’re going as a society and here we have a governor who is strangely silent about that topic,” said Racine.

“Government can do so much better, and Vermont deserves someone at the top who wants to do the job and solve problems and take the risks,” he adds.

Good line.

He’ll need plenty of those. As Racine knows well, Vermonters love incumbents, and Douglas is one formidable opponent.


Dean’s Demise —The queer community cringed when President-elect Barack Obama chose megachurch pastor Rick Warren to give the invocation at his historic inauguration. Warren has been openly disdainful of gay and lesbian “lifestyles.” Some “change,” eh?

But Obama isn’t the only Democrat on the outs with the LGBT crowd.

Former Gov. Howard Brush Dean, outgoing chairman of the Democratic National Committee, is embroiled in a legal battle after he failed to settle a discrimination suit filed by the DNC’s former gay outreach director Donald Hitchcock.

Hitchcock alleges the DNC fired him in 2006 because his partner criticized Dems for marginalizing gay issues. He also claims the DNC paid him less than heterosexual counterparts, and that DNC staff justified his ouster by spreading lies about his job performance.

DNC officials call Hitchcock’s claims baseless. But a D.C. Superior Court judge last July allowed the case to go to trial. Attempts to reach a six-figure, out-of-court settlement fell apart in September.

A pretrial hearing is set for January 15.

First politics, now law. Maybe Dean should go back to being a doc. Just a thought.

Kiss Kickoff — Burlington Mayor Bob Kiss makes it official Wednesday when he launches his reelection campaign. He’s reserved Burlington City Hall Auditorium for an hour at 5:30 p.m. Republican City Council President Kurt Wright kicked off his race against the same backdrop last month.

Kiss is announcing just in time for the first mayoral debate of the campaign hosted by the Burlington Business Association. Kiss, Wright and the other two announced candidates — Democrat Andy Montroll and Independent Dan Smith — will be participating.

Moderated by Burlington Free Press Publisher Brad Robertson and Executive Editor Mike Townsend, the early-morning event kicks off at 7:30 a.m. Thursday in the Film House at the Main Street Performing Arts Center and runs until 10 a.m.

In other Queen City political news, Councilor Jane Knodell (P-Ward 2) is not running for reelection. NEA organizer Emma Mulvaney-Stanak will take her place as a Prog on the ballot. The Ds don’t yet have a candidate in the race, but City Chair Jake Perkinson expects to have one by mid-month.


Rep Romance — U.S. Rep. Peter Welch and Vermont State Representative Margaret Cheney have made it official. The couple wed in a family-only ceremony at Cheney’s Norwich home on January 2. Welch’s sister Maureen, an Ursuline nun, officiated with Justice of the Peace Curtis Koren of Brookfield.

The two lovebirds have already collaborated on a piece of legislation —¬†one that gives Vermont vets a clear shot at coveted moose-hunting permits. The bill came to life after Welch met with Vermonters serving in Iraq. When he returned, his then-girlfriend put the bill in motion and it quickly became law. What a team!

Welch also learned late Monday that he’ll have a seat on the influential House Energy & Commerce Committee. Welch was pulled onto the committee by Rep. Henry Waxman after the Vermont rep helped Waxman unseat longtime chair John Dingell. The panel is expected to be at the center of legislative efforts over the next two years, with jurisdiction that spans energy, health care, telecommunications and the environment.

Not a bad start to the year for Vermont’s congressman.

What’s next?

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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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