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Those Damn Distractions 

Fair Game

Bernie Sanders

Published April 1, 2009 at 10:50 a.m.

Fair Game is Seven Days’ weekly political column.

Can House leaders scare up more than 100 votes in order to override Gov. Jim Douglas’ promised veto of the same-sex marriage bill?

That’s the question of the week, and one that will surely test the leadership of freshman House Speaker Shap Smith (D-Morrisville).

Senate President Pro Tem Peter Shumlin (D-Windham) is already a hero for delivering 26 out of 30 votes in the Senate.

Douglas knows just how to make Democrats scramble and squirm, and they respond in kind. With one brief statement — a threat, actually — the guv put the onus on Smith and his Democrats to cobble together a supermajority to ensure this controversial bill passes. He’s already on record calling the issue “a distraction.”

“I’m sure that legislative leaders would not have advanced this bill if they did not have the votes to override a veto,” Douglas told reporters.

Some House leaders now privately wonder if Douglas will take the same approach on the other six Democratic “distractions,” er, priorities, including: economic development and job creation; a $125 million bond to fix roads and bridges; boosting renewable-energy production; ensuring Vermont Yankee’s owners fund the plant’s decommissioning; shoring up the state’s unemployment fund without burdening employers; and fixing campaign-finance laws and allowing same-day voter registration.

The decommissioning bill garnered 93 votes in the House, seven shy of overriding a veto. Douglas hasn’t said whether he’ll veto the bill, but he did just that with a similar proposal last year. Ditto for legislative efforts to “fix” Vermont’s campaign-finance laws.

The guv has already expressed displeasure with the mid-year budget adjustment bill, and the Democrats and Douglas are far apart on many key items in the 2010 spending plan.

What’s clear is that there are plenty of “distractions” under the Dome this year — but everyone’s guilty of playing politics with an issue or two. What’s not clear is who will emerge as a true leader.

Keeping Score — Douglas’ political armor is showing some cracks as a result of his efforts to score short-term political points with his conservative base.

His impending same-sex marriage veto has upset some of his key Democratic supporters. That could hurt him if the Dems put up a strong candidate in the next gubernatorial election. Then again, November 2010 is a long, long way off.

Among those who disagree with the guv on marriage is Frank Cioffi, head of the Greater Burlington Industrial Corporation. Cioffi supported Obama and Douglas in 2008. He even hosted the guv’s campaign kickoff at his St. Albans home.

GBIC isn’t taking a position on marriage equality, said Cioffi. “However, I personally support equal civil rights for all Vermonters, and therefore respectfully disagree with the governor’s position on the issue.”

The same goes for execs at the Lake Champlain Regional Chamber of Commerce, headed up by Douglas’ former cabinet official Tom Torti.

Public Polled? — The Vermont Senate voted against a statewide referendum on same-sex marriage. But that hasn’t stopped the Vermont GOP from conducting its own version.

Rob Roper said his party has polled 9924 people in 16 legislative districts encompassing 43 towns, offering three options: Save the same-sex marriage debate for later, do it now, or don’t do it at all. The results were pretty much the same, even in conservative districts like Rutland City. According to the GOP poll, 34 percent recommend waiting, 34 percent said no way, and 32 percent said pass it now.

That puts Rutland Democrat Rep. Peg Andrews in a tough position.

Ditto Republicans who are supporting the measure. House Minority Leader Patti Komline (R-Dorset) has already taken some heat, as has Sen. Kevin Mullin (R-Rutland).

Democrats who oppose the bill could also face primary challenges next year — it’s that important an issue for some leaders.

Another poll suggests the majority of Vermonters favor same-sex marriage. Republican Sen. Bill Doyle’s Town Meeting Day survey of 13,000 Vermonters found 55 percent support same-sex marriage while 38 percent are opposed. While it’s hardly scientific, Doyle’s survey takes the pulse of the entire state and provides feedback to lawmakers who distribute, collect and, in many instances, tally the ballots.

Then there’s Facebook. A group opposing Douglas’ veto had more than 13,000 members in five days; a group formed to stop gay marriage in Vermont had, um, 55.

So, what exactly is the distraction here? The few people standing in the way of the legislation, or the thousands supporting it?

Backers of the bill hope the vocal and visible support by thousands of Vermonters will sway the guv.

“I don’t think we could have predicted that we would have come out of the Senate with a 26-4 vote, and I think that proves that we shouldn’t write people off,” said Beth Robinson of the Vermont Freedom to Marry Task Force, “and I don’t want to write this governor off.”

She may be the only one.

The House takes up the measure Thursday and Friday. Follow me on Twitter for a complete play-by-play.

Where They Stand — Everybody knows where Vermont’s governor stands on same-sex marriage. But what about the state’s other elected officials? They’ve been strangely quiet on the subject of matrimonial rights. So we asked them to weigh in.

Sen. Patrick Leahy (D): “His practice has always been not to tell the Vermont Legislature what it should or should not do,” said David Carle, Leahy’s spokesman. Leahy supported the Defense of Marriage Act in 1996, and is silent on whether he’d repeal it, a move Pres. Barack Obama supports. Obama does not support same-sex marriage.

Sen. Bernie Sanders (I): “Senator Sanders has long believed marriage is a matter of state, not federal, law. Personally, he believes in marriage equality,” said Michael Briggs, Sanders’ spokesman.

Rep. Peter Welch (D): “While the question of whether Vermont should legalize gay marriage is a state issue, Congressman Welch does personally support legalizing gay marriage,” said Paul Heintz, Welch’s spokesman.

Lt. Gov. Brian Dubie (R): “All people, straight or gay, should be treated with dignity and respect. I agree with President Obama that marriage is a union between one man and one woman,” said Dubie.

Treasurer Jeb Spaulding (D): “I supported and preferred permitting same-sex marriage when the civil-union compromise was forged. Still feel the same way.”

Secretary of State Deb Markowitz (D): “Standing up for the rights of all Vermonters to join in marriage is the right thing to do.”

Auditor of Accounts Tom Salmon (D): “I have no opinion on gay marriage as the state auditor. But personally, I do support its passage.”

Attorney General Bill Sorrell (D): Did not respond.

At the Democrat’s big fundraiser Saturday night at the Hilton — the David Curtis Awards — several of the speakers came out in support of same-sex marriage.

“I hope you’ll take the governor’s advice: Vote your conscience, not your district,” said former Gov. Howard Dean. “Stand up for humanity — put human rights above politics.”

At UVM, Douglas’ veto was a topic of comedian Jon Stewart’s routine. He bluntly asked the crowd, “Why is your governor such a shithead?”

That was the “disparaging remark” the Burlington Free Press noted in its write-up of Stewart’s show. Can’t print that in a “family” newspaper.

Furloughs, Anyone? — Earlier this year Gannett — the corporate parent of the Freeps — issued company-wide, one-week furloughs to stem the tide of red ink.

It helped, but not enough. Gannett recently announced another round of one-week furloughs during the second quarter. That means each staffer at the Burlington Free Press must take five days of unpaid leave before June 30.

This furlough, however, contains a hitch: Employees earning $90,000 or more must take two weeks off. Finding out who makes that kinda dough should make for some interesting water-cooler talk, eh?

Health Care Blues — We’ve heard from plenty of doctors and pissed-off BCBS subscribers since “Fair Game” reported the salary and retirement package received by Blue Cross Blue Shield of Vermont President & CEO William Milnes Jr.

Milnes walked away with $7.25 million — $6.3 million of which was a lump-sum retirement payout for his leadership at BCBS and its for-profit affiliate Vermont Health Plan. To clarify, this was the gross amount before taxes. Last week we left the impression that Milnes was walking away with $6.3 million free and clear. Not so.

Milnes isn’t the only health-care CEO in Vermont being generously rewarded for his or her efforts. Below is a list of other top execs at Vermont’s hospitals and health-care systems and what they “earned” in 2007 in salaries and benefits, according to data collected from IRS 990 forms:

• MVP Health Care: $1.25 million ($975,000 in salary)

• Fletcher Allen Health Care: $1.12 million ($982,000 in salary)

• Rutland Regional Medical Center: $447,000

• Porter Medical Center: $417,000

• Northwestern Medical Center: $314,000

• Gifford Medical Center: $287,000

• Northeastern Vermont Regional Hospital: $264,000

• North Country Hospital: $264,000

• Central Vermont Hospital: $238,000

• Springfield Hospital: $178,000

• Copley Hospital: $172,000

• Otis Health Care: $132,000

Where’s the outrage? Louis Porter at the Vermont Press Bureau finally weighed in on Milnes’ golden parachute in a report last week for the Barre-Montpelier Times Argus, while the Rutland Herald took the company to task in an editorial. On Friday the state’s largest TV station, WCAX, covered the story.

Regulators and some lawmakers are beginning to look into whether they can take any action, but don’t hold your breath. As the go-to insurer for most Vermonters, BCBS gets to call the shots.

Presidential Election — It’s official: Democrat Bill Keogh (Ward 5) and Progressive Clarence Davis (Ward 3) both want to be president of the Burlington City Council.

As noted in last week’s “Fair Game,” Keogh and fellow Democrat Ed Adrian were mulling a run. Adrian has since decided not to throw his hat in the ring.

Dems have the largest voting bloc on the council with seven members, followed by Progressives with three. Republicans and independents each hold two slots.

Dems narrowly missed obtaining an outright majority, but Republican Vince Dober bested Democrat Eli Lesser-Goldsmith in last week’s Ward 7 runoff.

One Happy Family — Word is Gov. Douglas’ longtime support of Vermont Yankee will pay off this week. VY’s parent company Entergy will air ads backing the guv’s decision to veto same-sex marriage and is urging him to also veto the recent bill forcing the company to fork over extra money into the decommissioning fund.

How are the two vetoes connected? When reached for a comment, an Entergy spokesman said, “We want to stand with Gov. Jim Douglas in his defense of the traditional, nuclear family.”

Happy April 1!

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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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