The transfiguration of Louis Porter, a ball-less inaugural, and more from Shumlin

Went to the Governor’s weekly news conference today. Overflow crowd in the fifth floor meeting room. (But, just like in elementary school, an empty seat right next to the Governor.) The news in brief, followed by the details: Louis Porter becomes the latest addition to the Shumlin cabinet; Shumlin’s inaugural ball will instead be an “inaugural open house” with proceeds helping those affected by Tropical Storm Irene; a cool reception for a new lawsuit against Vermont Yankee; the backstory behind that Hewlett-Packard refund; and a continued opposition to any broad-based tax increases.

Porter Pots Top Post: Louis Porter will replace Alex MacLean as Shumlin’s Secretary of Civil and Military Affairs, a deceptively colorless title for a powerful job. Porter will serve as the liaison between the executive and Legislative branches. Or, as Shumlin put it, “he’ll be overseeing the administration’s agenda in the Statehouse, and ensuring that the Legislature does everything that we want, and should do.”

After Porter’s introduction, one of the assembled scribes stage-whispered “Poor bastard,” which got a nice laugh.

Porter is now Lake Champlain Lakekeeper for the Conservation Law Foundation; before that, he covered the Statehouse for the Vermont Press Bureau. After the presser, Porter entered his first scrum as an Administration factotum (his $72,000 salary may top the combined incomes of all those ink-stained wretches), and acknowledged that he had been very critical of Shumlin for allowing widespread dredging after Tropical Storm Irene. But overall, he said, “the administration and this governor are moving this state in a direction that is good… and to be a part of that is really exciting.” He’ll start his new job in late December.

Paying to see the Governor not dance: Shumlin announced that he wouldn’t have an Inaugural Ball to celebrate the beginning of his second term; instead, there will be an Inaugural Open House on January 10. “Every Vermonter is invited to join us in the Statehouse,” he said, “and we’re going to donate all the proceeds of the Open House to the Vermont Disaster Relief Fund.”  

Shumlin is hoping to give another boost to the VDRF, which has raised more than two-thirds of its financial goal of $10 million. “Over half of that amount has been raised in the last three months alone,” he said; most of that late money has been in large contributions from businesses, foundations, and wealthy individuals, plus proceeds from the continuing sales of the “I Am Vermont Strong” license plates.

Making a guest appearance at the old stomping grounds was longtime AP Bureau Chief turned National Life spokesflack Chris Graff, who serves as head of the VDRF. “Two years ago, people paid a lot of money to see the Governor dance. We think they’ll pay a lot more to not see him dance,” Graff said. He also pitched the license plates as a fine holiday gift.

“What we need to do right now is to keep the focus on Irene survivors,” he continued. One of those survivors, Ann Marie Bolton, was on hand; her mobile home was destroyed by Irene, and funds from VDRF helped her make a down payment on a new house and do necessary repairs. She just moved into the house less than a month ago.

The new lawsuit against VY: This week, the New England Coalition filed a lawsuit seeking the closure of the Vermont Yankee nuclear plant. Shumlin reiterated his support for closing VY but didn’t endorse the NEC action. Outgoing Public Service Commissioner Liz Miller said “we’re reviewing carefully” NEC’s filing:

It’s a complicated matter. My understanding is that the specific type of action the New England Coalition has filed hasn’t been used in the state in a number of decades. We’ve had our focus very much on the Public Service Board proceeding, because the federal district court was very clear last year that the Publc Service Board retains jurisdiction to decide whether to continue the operation of VY past the CPG that expired last March.

That set of hearings is coming up starting in February. …We continue to have our focus there, and from my point of view, that’s a good place to have our focus. …But meanwhile, we will look at what the NEC has filed and determine whether the Department will weigh in.

In short, Miller expressed uncertainty over the NEC strategy, and confidence in the administration’s course — pursuing closure of Vermont Yankee through the PSB.

Taxes and spending: Shumlin urged local school districts to hold the line on spending increases. This came after news that, if local districts don’t do so, the statewide property tax will rise by 5%. Regarding the state budget, he estimated that next year’s is about $60 to 70 million out of balance, and again vowed to hold the line on taxes. He said “one of the priorities of this legislative session is to balance the budget without raising broad-based taxes at all, and I would suggest that if some items in your budget go up, you find ways to cut in other areas.”

(He defined “broad-based taxes” as “sales, income, rooms and meals.” Coming off of a two-night stay at the Beverly Wilshire and its Michelin-starred eateries, I can see how he’d think of “rooms and meals” as a broad-based tax.)

This led to another story in the news this week: new requirements for stormwater treatment that will mean up to $100 million in new costs to local communities. “A lotta loot,” he noted, “and Vermont doesn’t have it. I care deeply about clean water in Vermont, and we’re losing that battle right now.” As the new chair of the Democratic Governors Association, he plans to make a strong case for more federal funding for water-treatment improvements, because local communities can’t do it alone.

“The entire [legislative] session will be about jobs and raising income for those who have jobs,” he said. “There are a number of ways we’re going to get there. The first is by balancing the budget without raising broad-based taxes. And I met with legislative leaders this morning and made very clear that I’m going to be as firm on that this year as I have been the past two years.” He believes that Vermont’s taxes are “too high, and we will stifle job growth if we increase broad-based taxes.”

Shummy’s buddies at HP: In something of a tangent, Shumlin talked about the events leading up to Hewlett-Packard’s $8.37 million refund to the state for a failed effort at modernizing computer systems at the Department of Motor Vehicles.

I developed close relationships with the folks who run HP, and in that friendship I made clear my concern about the DMV contract. And I twice used those friendships to fly to California and meet with HP and explain to them why we deserved a refund. And it is through those relationships that we succeeded in getting that refund.

He recounted a series of meetings with HP “friends” starting one year ago, that led to the refund agreement.

When asked if there was a pattern of failed software and hardware upgrades, he said yes, but added that it’s common in both the public and private sectors to have problems with computer systems: “My business and many others often make investments in technology, some of which bear great fruit and some of which fail miserably. …Both public and private sectors struggle with IT investments that don’t pan out.”

He also said that he’d known the HP refund was coming since his most recent meeting with the company — back in July. He said it took this long to work out all the details. But I think it’s a sign of how confident he was about his re-election campaign that he didn’t try to announce the deal before November 6.  

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