Column | Starving for Attention | Fair Game | Seven Days | Vermont's Independent Voice

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Starving for Attention 

Fair Game

Published August 18, 2010 at 11:51 a.m.

Fair Game is Seven Days’ weekly political column.

During the last legislative session, Democrats repeatedly promised they were not renegotiating the “social contract” with Vermonters, even as they largely went along with Republican Gov. Jim Douglas to cut taxes, trim spending and eliminate state jobs.

To prove it, they liberalized the state’s definition of poverty, meaning more Vermonters could qualify for economic help. They also OK’d a massive “modernization” effort to simplify the process of applying for benefits. Eventually, people will be able to sign up online and communicate with state workers over the phone rather than in person.

And more Vermonters are asking for help: In June 2008, 23,000 households and 51,000 individuals received 3SquaresVT, formerly known as “food stamps.” By June 2010 those numbers had exploded to 43,000 and 86,000, respectively. On average, food-stamp recipients receive $1 per meal. Comparatively, the governor gets $61 a day, five days a week, 52 weeks a year for three squares; lawmakers get $61 a day for meals during the session.

Meanwhile, fewer state workers are on hand to process applications, and a crucial computer upgrade hasn’t happened.

The result? Instead of receiving benefits within 30 days of filing an application, Vermonters now have to wait 60 to 80.

The state used to make very few processing errors. Because of its excellent record, the feds forked over $2.8 million, money the state used to fund its “modernization” plan.

Vermont has since toppled from among the top 10 error-free states to 44th. Its mistake rate is now higher than 7 percent, according to Department for Children and Families Commissioner Steve Dale. If that rate persists for two fiscal years, the state could be penalized.

Dale doesn’t think it will come to that, but he admits there is insufficient staff to meet demand.

An electronic application process that was supposed to be online this past winter, and then July, is now scheduled for October. In the meantime, staffers are expending valuable time and resources manually scanning new applications into a central database.

“We didn’t really understand the consequences of the delay until just recently,” said Dale. “There’s no question that the increase in demand, too, has been more than expected given the economic climate.”

Call-center inquiries have spiked, too, from people wondering about their tardy benefits claims.

That call center is understaffed and workers are feeling the pressure, according to an employee who asked to remain anonymous.

“When we started, we were told that 60 was the average [number of] calls that they expected each would do. Some of the agents are taking 100 to 120 per day,” the worker noted. “Some of us end up working overtime because the calls are backed up in the queue 30 minutes or more. The supervisors will then step in and take names and numbers, and we stay late to call them back.”

The call center is supposed to have 22 staffers, but budget cuts have left it with only 16. Two additional workers will soon be added, and another eight temporary workers are being trained to provide backup support during peak call times, Dale said.

“What is happening right now is unacceptable,” he said, “and we’re going to make it right. People are putting in an incredible effort to make sure [Vermonters] get their benefits. We have to turn this around.”

Food-stamp delays mean some individuals will have to make difficult choices.

“The ripple effect is not just that people are waiting three months for food-stamps benefits, but what they now spend on food leaves less money for rent or electricity, and soon for heating,” said Angela Smith-Dieng of the Vermont Campaign to End Childhood Hunger. “Unfortunately, I think it’s only going to get worse before it gets better.”

The Money Chase

With less than a week to go until primary day, the five Democratic candidates for governor are raising, and spending, lots of cash.

In the past 30 days, Sen. Peter Shumlin raised $95,000 in cash and loaned himself another $75,000. To date, he has loaned his campaign $225,000 — almost as much as rival Sen. Doug Racine has collected altogether. Forty percent of Shumlin’s campaign cash haul of $591,000 came from his own pocket. Good time to be a millionaire.

Shumlin spent $321,000 in the past month, and has $56,000 left in the bank.

In the past 30 days, Secretary of State Deb Markowitz raised $97,000, spent $240,000, and has just $33,000 cash on hand. She spent $160,000 on TV ads.

Former state senator and current Google exec Matt Dunne raised $67,000, spent $117,000 and has $82,000 in the bank.

Sen. Doug Racine raised $50,000, which is half of what he raised between July 2009 and July 2010. He has $45,000 cash on hand. Seems like his grassroots base is finally stepping up to the plate. Better late than never.

Sen. Susan Bartlett couldn’t provide “Fair Game” with campaign-finance figures before deadline.

Come August 25, I expect every Dem in the race will be broke. The so-called “unity” rally scheduled for that day will also be a massive fundraiser. The winner is going to need every dollar he or she can get.

Republican Lt. Gov. Brian Dubie continues to enjoy the benefits of having no primary opponent. He raised $92,500 in the past 30 days, which puts his total campaign contributions at more than $1 million. In the past month he spent only $92,000 and has a tidy $460,000 in the bank.

Savin’ up.

The Paper Chase

Editorial boards around the state are weighing in on the five-way Democratic primary.

The Burlington Free Press is backing Sen. Peter Shumlin, which could help the southern Vermont pol in vote-rich Chittenden County. Or not. The daily has rarely backed a winner in Burlington’s mayoral elections. Along the same lines, its praise of Shumlin’s “integrity” generated plenty of chuckles among his rivals.

In the Addison Independent, publisher-owner Angelo Lynn endorsed Matt Dunne. His brother, Emerson Lynn, publisher of the St. Albans Messenger, backed Deb Markowitz.

The Stowe Reporter also backed Dunne, a blow to Sen. Susan Bartlett. The paper’s publisher, Biddle Duke, donated $200 to Bartlett’s campaign and the paper is located in her county.

Other papers are sitting this race out. The Rutland Herald and Barre-Montpelier Times Argus will not endorse in the primary, nor is the Brattleboro Reformer expected to. The Bennington Banner may endorse in the gov’s race. No word from the Valley News.

In an email, David Moats, the Herald’s Pulitzer Prize-winning editorial-page editor, explained: “In the past, the Herald generally did not endorse in primaries, and the thinking was that it is the job of each party, and we are independent of the parties. In more recent years, we have endorsed in some primaries when we thought there was a compelling reason.”

The Gibson Glue

Secretary of the Vermont Senate David Gibson died Monday after a brief battle with cancer, which was discovered three weeks ago while he was attending a national legislative conference.

Gibson, who served in the Senate from 1977 to 1983, representing Windham County, was from a storied Vermont political family: His brother, Robert Gibson, preceded him as secretary of the Senate; his brother, Ernest Gibson III, was a state supreme-court justice; his father, Ernest Gibson Jr., was a U.S. senator, governor and U.S. district-court judge. His grandfather was a U.S. senator.

For most folks, David Gibson was less a political figure than the go-to person if you had a question about Senate protocol and parliamentary procedures.

Gibson was quiet and had a dry sense of humor, but was a stickler for Senate decorum. Yet he guided the august body into the modern age, allowing laptops in the visitors’ gallery.

“He really cared about the Senate and its traditions,” said freshman Sen. Tim Ashe (D/P-Chittenden). “He was like the glue between the old and the new.”

Sonny’s Shadow

Rep. Albert “Sonny” Audette died over the weekend. He’ll be remembered for many things, including his 30 years as public-works chief in South Burlington and decade under the Golden Dome.

I’ll remember Audette for his emotional floor speech during last year’s same-sex marriage debate. Weak from diabetes and barely able to stand, he explained before a packed House chamber and thousands of people listening to the live radio broadcast that he couldn’t vote in favor of the bill because of his religious beliefs.

Audette apologized to his colleagues and onlookers for this vote, sensing he was on the wrong side of history.

The Plot Thickens

A federal grand jury is investigating Malcolm “Mac” Parker’s multimillion-dollar film fundraising scheme, “Fair Game” has learned. A hearing is scheduled for 9 a.m. Thursday at the federal courthouse in Burlington.

Parker’s attorney, Wanda Otero, said she knew nothing of the hearing, and would not say whether Parker had provided information to federal authorities about the fundraising efforts for Birth of Innocence. As of mid-February 2007, about 800 people had supplied Parker with $12.8 million. Of that, roughly $4 million went to Parker’s “silent partner” and spiritual adviser. Parker stopped raising money in late 2009, which means the total figures could be higher.

On Tuesday morning, the Federal Bureau of Investigation visited Horace Williams, the film’s original editor, and asked him to testify before the grand jury, Williams told “Fair Game.” Parker dismissed Williams from the film project in May for “personal reasons,” a move that concerned some investors.

The federal probe comes on the heels of a state judge’s order that will put Parker on trial in November. He faces a number of charges, including securities fraud.

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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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