Governor Shumlin made quite a bit of news at his February 14 news conference. There was his actual policy announcement: a new effort to allow high-school students to take college courses (and earn up to a full year’s worth of credits), and open up new opportunities for workplace experience through internships and apprenticeships.
Then there were all the questions about the more controversial elements of his budget plan: slashing the state’s share of the Earned Income Tax Credit; imposing a lifetime cap on Reach Up benefits; his newfound insistence that his reform ideas for education, tax, and welfare are all part of one big indissoluble package; and his depiction of tax hikes and benefit reductions as “compassionate” while opponents of his vision are the “cruel” ones. Quite a few verbal missteps and overstatements, frankly.
Lots of big issues swirling around the Governor’s office and the Legislature’s consideration of his budget. Major questions about the veracity of Shumlin’s assertions, and whether his plan is big enough or sufficiently funded to achieve his goals without screwing the working poor.
So, what did the Vermont political media choose to focus on?
The goddamned airplane.
The state’s 50-year-old airplane — and the Transportation Department’s proposal to replace it — was brought up at the news conference. And Shumlin, bless his li’l ol’ pea-pickin’ heart, rolled out one of his “Vermont boy” anecdotes. And, as was the case with his naked bird-feeder rescue and his disavowal of “Gucci beer,” this one backfired on him.
He told us that he’d flown the ancient Cessna a few times; and once, in midair, the door flew open. Our Fearless Leader, of course, didn’t panic — he simply pulled the door shut. Hahaha.
What he didn’t realize is that his cutesy anecdote opened the door to the question, “How often has he flown in the plane, and why?”
The first answer came three days later, when Paul “The Huntsman” Heintz wasted some space on the Seven Days politics blog “Off Message” by revealing — horrors! — Shumlin used the plane five times. FIVE TIMES! And on one occasion, he took the plane to a campaign fundraiser and failed to reimburse the state. The cost: $65.80.
Quite possibly the tiniest “scandal” in history.
And, naturally, it became the story du jour in the political media. The second lemming over the cliff was the Freeploid’s Terri Hallenbeck, who wrote a lengthy piece on February 18 whose title referred to “Shumlin’s high-flying,” which seems a bit over-the-top for FIVE PLANE TRIPS compared to God knows how many times the Governor has traversed the state by car. And again, only one short hop of one of those trips was campaign-related. And cost $65.80.
WGOP — er, WCAX — has been all over the state-plane brouhaha, filing at least five stories in the past two weeks — about the AOT’s budget request for a new plane, the shocking revelation of the unreimbursed $65.80, the subsequent reimbursement, and the removal of the plane from the budget.
By now, the story has gained enough momentum that every other news outlet gets that instinctive urge to follow the herd right over the cliff.
This morning, my tastefully slim Times Argus brought me yet another exploration of this pointless kerfuffle. I sincerely hope Peter “Marathon Man” Hirschfeld was ordered by his editors to pursue the story; I’d like to think better of his own journalistic instincts.
Hirschfeld’s story gave VTGOP chair Angry Jack Lindley a chance to blow off some steam:
“Vermonters need to be concerned when they see the governor begin to use his office to access state resources and use them for his personal benefit,” Lindley added in a phone interview. “It’s a scary mentality to see taking hold.”
Oh yeah, Jack. One day it’s a short ride in an old airplane. Next day, FASCISM.
At least Hirschfeld included the only real bit of actual news in this entire waste of our precious journalistic resources: whether the state actually needs a new plane and, more to the point, whether it needs an expensive one. A point also addressed by GMD diarist BP, and by VTDigger’s Anne Galloway.
How expensive? $117,600 per year on a ten-year lease-to-own deal — a total of $1.2 million.
Now, the state has given reasonable justification for having an airplane. But does it need a million-dollar plane? A plane with a flying range of 1500 miles? Seems excessive for a state that’s about 200 miles from top to bottom.
But still, the primary focus of all this coverage was that one unreimbursed campaign trip worth $65.80. We got story after story about that, at a time when the Legislature is up to its neck in big important issues. Every f’n day, there are multiple stories worth telling at the Statehouse. Many of them go untold. There are huge questions about Gov. Shumlin’s budget, and for the most part, nobody is trying to answer them.
But those are complicated, and a gubernatorial plane ride is easy.
Bit of advice. Next time you’re looking for some direction — in the Arctic tundra or under the Golden Dome — don’t follow the lemmings.