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Payback Time? 

Fair Game

Published May 23, 2012 at 10:25 a.m.

Fair Game is Seven Days’ weekly political column.

Gov. Peter Shumlin says he doesn’t need a raise. Secretary of State Jim Condos says he does. So does State Auditor Tom Salmon, who is putting three kids through college. State Treasurer Beth Pearce? Either she doesn’t need a salary bump or isn’t taking it. Ditto for Attorney General Bill Sorrell and Lt. Gov. Phil Scott.

The dawn of the 2012 campaign season finds Vermont’s top officeholders in a tricky predicament — one that involves their taxpayer-funded salaries.

Last week, Secretary of Administration Jeb Spaulding sent a memo to the state’s “exempt” employees — those not covered by a union contract — explaining how they’ll be affected by the restoration of salary cuts that date back to 2009.

Back in the Great Recession, the state’s unionized workforce sucked up a 3 percent pay cut to help balance the budget during tough times. Then-governor Jim Douglas asked Vermont’s top elected officials to voluntarily accept a 5 percent pay drop in solidarity with the union grunts. All of them eventually did.

Now that revenues are rebounding, state employees are getting their 3 percent back, plus a 2 percent cost of living increase. Just in time for summer vacation season!

Salary hikes for union employees are automatic. But the exempt employees whose salaries are set by state law — i.e., the statewide officials Vermonters elect every two years —  have a choice: Take the 5 percent pay restoration or decline it.

If they take it, politicians risk looking insensitive to recession-weary voters in an election year. Refuse it, and they might be declining money they actually need — and rightfully deserve — simply to make a point that could end up being lost on the voting public.

What to do?

If you’re Shumdog Millionaire, who reported a net worth of $10 million in 2010, you refuse the money, of course.

“The governor’s not going to take the salary restoration as provided by law,” Spaulding tells Fair Game. “It’s not the right time to increase the salary at the upper end. Too many Vermonters are still struggling, and it’s too early in the economic recovery.”

That means Shumlin will continue earning $136,700 a year rather than the $143,977 he’s authorized by law to collect.

Condos says he does plan on asking for his $95,000 salary to be restored. Why? “Because that’s what the state says I’m entitled to, and I think everybody should be compensated for their work.

“I’m not a wealthy person,” adds Condos, noting that his current $90,000 salary is not even close to the governor’s and is less than what most of the gov’s agency secretaries make. That would be $115,000, which will increase to $122,000 on July 1.

“I basically live check to check,” says Condos. “I’m an average Vermonter from that standpoint.”

Salmon is taking the extra money, too, “for the good of the office. It’s not really going to affect me.” Salmon announced last week he wouldn’t seek reelection to another term as auditor this year — in part because he needs a job that pays enough to put his kids through college. Salmon estimates that he could fetch a salary of “between $160,000 and $220,000, reasonably” in the private sector.

As auditor, Salmon earns $90,000 and will make $95,000 after the pay cut is restored. He said the job should pay between $118,000 and $125,000 to attract qualified professionals.

Pearce, who was appointed state treasurer by Shumlin and is seeking election in her own right this year, says she won’t take the pay increase.

“Right now, I think that it’s premature,” says Pearce, who also currently earns $90,000. “I would rather let that pass and accrue to the taxpayers.”

Asked if her decision was political, Pearce said, “This is policy decision. I am comfortable with my salary. My first interest is serving the taxpayers of Vermont.”

Sorrell spokesman Mike Pieciak says AG Sorrell won’t boost his $105,000 salary — at least not this year. “With so many Vermonters struggling in this economy, it was no time for him to abandon voluntary sacrifice,” Pieciak says.

Scott initially said he didn’t know whether he’d take the higher pay. The lite guv still draws income from his private construction business, so the public pay cut — from $63,701 to $60,515 — didn’t hit him terribly hard.

“If everyone else is going to continue to be reduced, I might just stay the same,” Scott said.

But after getting some questions answered, a Scott staffer says the lite guv will refuse the dough.

“Times are still tough. Irene recovery is not over yet,” says aide Nancy Driscoll. “He wouldn’t feel quite right about taking it.”

Pro-Life, Pro-Choice, Pro-Facts

Abortion is legal. So is protesting abortion. That’s why you frequently see people holding anti-abortion signs and praying with rosary beads outside Planned Parenthood clinics and other facilities that provide abortion services.

But the Burlington City Council wants to make it illegal to protest abortion within 35 feet of abortion clinics, and to fine violators $50 to $500 per offense.

The reason? Planned Parenthood says it’s seen an increase in protester activity since moving last November from Mansfield Avenue to its new downtown office on St. Paul Street. Patients have been “physically approached and verbally harassed,” said Planned Parenthood’s Jill Krowinski, creating “a serious public-safety issue.”

Lots of people agree with her. Monday night’s city council meeting was packed with people in pink shirts, holding pink signs that read, “Protect Me, Vote Yes.” A parade of pro-choice women — and a few men — told councilors that they believe in free speech, but not when it makes patients feel threatened and intimidated.

Opposing the “patient safety zone” were a priest from Underhill and a half-dozen middle-aged women wearing lapel pins that read, “Life is Precious.” Over and over, pro-lifers said they never intimidated anyone — and challenged anyone to produce evidence to the contrary.

Amazingly, no one testified about being harassed or bullied by the protesters. Krowinski said the cops have been called twice, but testified that she wasn’t aware whether anyone was found to have broken a law. Under questioning from City Councilor Paul Decelles (R-Ward 7), Council President Joan Shannon (D-Ward 5) said she hadn’t invited the police chief to the hearing to provide that information.

If she had, she would have learned that the two incidents with protesters were sort of nonevents. According to the cops, that is.

Fair Game requested police reports from all incidents in which officers responded to protesters at Planned Parenthood’s new location. There were two — both in March — during a 40-day pray-in organized by the group 40 Days for Life. On March 13, Planned Parenthood called police to report four protesters “standing still in front of the entrance in violation of city ordinance.”

In his report, the officer on duty concluded, “No violation. On greenbelt, sidewalk and doorway clear.”

On March 27, police responded to a complaint of “protesters bothering people in front of Planned Parenthood.” Upon arrival, the officer found two protesters standing outside the clinic, holding signs. The officer asked Planned Parenthood staff if the protesters had blocked people from going in and out of the building. The answer was no. The officer explained that there’s no law against “loitering,” and that if the protesters weren’t acting disorderly or impeding traffic, they weren’t breaking any laws.

“I spoke with the two protesters, who were very polite, and asked them if they had been on the sidewalk earlier in the day while protesting,” the officer wrote. “They responded that briefly one of them stepped on the sidewalk.”

Are Planned Parenthood supporters making up stories of intimidation? Hard to believe. But they haven’t provided much in the way of convincing evidence, either. Not that it mattered much to city councilors. Decelles was the lone councilor to vote against sending the no-protest zone proposal to the ordinance committee because, he said, there weren’t enough facts on the table.

“What I’ve heard tonight is a lot of emotion on both sides,” Decelles told fellow councilors Monday. “I was looking for clarity from the police department on what tools they have to deal with this. Before passing this, I wanted clarity. All 14 of us should want clarity.”

Papers, Please!

Remember how Gov. Shumlin made Vermont one of the most immigrant-friendly states in America by making “look the other way” the state’s official policy on immigration enforcement?

Well, apparently the Obama administration didn’t get the memo.

Last week, the Shumlin administration learned that the feds plan to activate a controversial program called Secure Communities in Vermont on Tuesday, May 22. The fingerprint-sharing program links up local police agencies with a federal immigration database to look for deportable criminal aliens.

The feds have been rolling out S-Comm state by state with the goal of making it nationwide by 2013. Several states opted out of the program, only to find out it was mandatory.

Vermont is home to hundreds of migrant farmworkers who milk dairy cows and do lots of other hard work that Americans turn down. Many of the farmworkers are here illegally and live in fear of being rounded up and deported to their impoverished home countries.

Under pressure from farmworkers and their advocates, Shumlin established a new policy last year that directs state police to refrain from asking suspected illegal immigrants for papers unless they are suspected of committing a crime. The state legislature followed suit with a bill that could result in Vermont issuing driver’s licenses to immigrants, making it easier for them to get around, open bank accounts, etc.

The goal of S-Comm is to catch and deport dangerous immigrants who would roam free if not for the government’s state-of-the-art, fingerprint-matching technology. But the program has come under fire for sweeping up large numbers of minor offenders and separating foreign-born families.

Last November, Congressman Peter Welch (D-VT) signed onto a letter calling on President Barack Obama to “immediately stop” the enforcement program, writing that it “sows mistrust of the police and other uniformed personnel, thereby making our communities less safe.”

Maybe the president thought it was junk mail.

Will S-Comm make Vermont the next Arizona? No, but it will shift prosecutorial discretion from local police agencies to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement authorities, who are notorious for issuing “ICE holds” — written demands that require states to hold suspected illegals — for minor violations. As Brendan O’Neill of the Burlington group Migrant Justice says, “ICE holds can be issued for people who were selling tortillas without a business license.”

Vermont Public Safety Commissioner Keith Flynn tells Fair Game that state police will maintain their policy of not asking crime victims and witnesses about their immigration status. But once someone is fingerprinted, it’s out of Vermont’s hands.

Fingerprints from local police agencies are currently checked against an FBI crime database. With S-Comm, those fingerprints will also be run through an ICE database, Flynn says, and anyone that ICE finds questionable could be whisked away to an undisclosed jail.

It happened to an 18-year-old Brazilian woman in Boston, who faced deportation after police stopped her for a traffic violation. And to a 28-year-old mother from El Salvador living in suburban Maryland. She was arrested and threatened with deportation — and separation from her 2-year-old daughter, a U.S. citizen — after calling police for protection from an abusive partner.

Feel safer now?

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About The Author

Andy Bromage

Andy Bromage

Andy Bromage was a Seven Days staff writer from 2009-2012, and the news editor from 2012-2013.


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