All posts by BP

Gov.Scott: Calling FairPoint for Department of Human Resources Commissioner

It is fair to say Governor Phil Scott often makes the point that state government should be managed like a business. So it’s hardly surprising Scott announced that FairPoint Communication executive Beth Fastiggi will be his Department of Human Resources Commissioner.  Fastiggi held a number of posts at FairPoint Communications in her 30-year career there.philsonaphone4

I wonder though — considering some of FairPont’s history in Vermont  Scott might have been tempted to make this announcement on a Friday — late in the day Friday.

FairPoint, which took over Verizon’s land line business in Vermont, has reached out and touched most Vermonters over the years and not in a good way. Here, and for that matter in all of New England, the company has a long history of poor quality service, bankruptcy, and troubled labor relations. At certain key moments it seems Vermont has been there with helping hand$.

In recent years a variety hefty fines for consistently poor quality of service were imposed by the State of Vermont Public Service on FairPoint. And then, the VPSB waived millions of dollars in accumulated poor service related penalties for the company. The agreement, part of a restructuring plan, allowed $7 million in assessed unpaid penalties to be redirected by FairPoint for statewide broadband build-out.

The relationship between FairPoint and its union employees has been marked by mistrust. For 131 days from October 2014 to February 2015 almost 2,000 FairPoint union employees were on strike over newly imposed rounds of wage and benefit cuts.

Shortly after the strike began, and despite ongoing issues surrounding quality of service, Vermont awarded FairPoint a lucrative contract to manage Vermont’s 911 emergency communications service. Who ever would have guessed that outages and problems would now be plaguing the emergency 911 system?

In the DHS appointment press release Governor Scott says: “Beth is a highly respected business leader who will be a great asset and public servant for the state.”

So let’s see then, FairPoint Comunications squeezed concessions out of union members, provided poor service, got concessions on state-imposed fines and landed a valuable state 911 contract while in bankruptcy  in the middle of a labor strike .

So how does that management skill set connect to the Department of Human Resources Phil? Not too results oriented, eh?

Schumer and the filibuster bomb

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1988 Columbia University yearbook entry for Supreme Court nominee Neil Gorsuch

The Senate will vote on Supreme Court Nominee Neil Gorsuch sometime in early April and last week Democratic Minority Leader Senator Chuck Schumer uttered the “f” word…filibuster.

Senator Schumer urged all Democrats to take a stand against Donald Trump’s nominee Judge Neil Gorsuch and vote ‘no’. He’s the Heritage Foundation’s certified 100% approved conservative nominee (age 49 yrs), up for a lifetime seat on the Supreme Court. He would be a fine successor to Scalia,” they say.

Sixty votes are required to bring the vote for Gorsuch out of committee and to the floor, which means Republicans will need eight Democratic votes to join their 52.  If Democrats can stay together it will prevent the vote from getting to the floor. Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has threatened  and has the Republican votes  to “go nuclear” and change Senate rules to eliminate the filibuster, thus working around Democrats filibuster block. That is quite a move for McConnell, who successfully stonewalled President Obama’s nominee, Merrick Garland. Democratic Minority Leader Schumer argues: “If the nominee can’t get 60 votes, you don’t change the rules, you change the candidate.”

The Hill.com’s partial list shows votes for 23 of the Democratic Senators (as of March 25th) and includes their brief explanations for their choices. Rhode Island Senator Sheldon Whitehouse explained his vote ‘no’ was because: he was not convinced that Gorsuch wouldn’t “pick up where Justice Scalia and his troop left off,” by issuing rulings — such as on campaign finance — that benefit Republicans. There are  for now at least no Democratic ‘Yes’ votes, 13 ‘No’ votes and 11 undecided votes on whether to confirm Gorsuch.yesnoundecidedSenator Sanders is listed as a ‘no’ vote for confirming. Bernie is an Independent (as we all know) but caucuses with Democrats so he is on the list. And as of Monday the 27th reports are that Senator Leahy will also vote ‘no’  to confirm: ” Philosophically, I’ve seen nothing that will bring me to vote for Gorsuch.” He did ad this: “I am not inclined to filibuster, even though I’m not inclined to vote for him.”

A handful of Democratic Senators from states that favored Trump last November are worried about their next election and are considered the weak link in Schumer’s vote strategy.

Vermont, not surprisingly, seems kinda blue on this vote. So, maybe the Democratic Senate Campaign Committee could,  you know, offer those red-state Dems a little help come the next election if they agree to vote with their party?

Could Vermont’s EB-5 Regional Center wither away?

Of course it’s hard to match the impact of the original headlines from Stenger & Quiros’ Jay Peak EB-5 scandal — but two resulting events, largely unnoticed by comparison, will soon impact Vermont’s EB-5 Regional Center.

buriedEB5 3The first change was set underway when, to prevent future “Ponzi-style” EB-5 scandals, Vermont shifted financial oversight responsibility from the Agency of Commerce and Community Development (ACCD)  to the Department of Financial Regulation (DFR). The focus jumped from wooing overseas investors with almost full-time EB-5 boosterism to tightening up financial oversight.

Along with this shift came legislative adjustments allowing the DFR to control charges and enact new fees for those participants in the Vermont EB-5 Regional Center. Additionally the DFR was given authority to invoice EB-5 developers for its oversight and regulation. Moves were also made to rein in the ACCD’s taxpayer support for advertising, out-of-state  travel, and other promotional work through the Regional Center on behalf of EB-5 developers.

And recently Peak Resorts /Mt. Snow surprised top state officials  by announcing the formation of their own independent EB-5 center. The resort had to struggle with waiting on a payment for an ongoing project from their EB-5 investor funds held in escrow by the state as a guarantee.

By setting up their own EB-5 program, the out-of-state resort owners can happily gather-up their foreign funds through the investment-for-visa immigration program, independent of the Vermont-run EB-5 Regional Center with whom they formerly were partnered.

In fact, Mt. Snow Resorts probably has an inside track on this approach, should it become a trend for other EB-5 developers here in Vermont. In 2015 they hired the director of the Vermont EB-5 Regional Center — grabbing Brent Raymond directly out of the revolving door. As director, Raymond’s duties for the state included both promotional activities and monitoring EB-5 program compliance under state and federal financial regulations. Quite the catch.

So, the Jay Peak financial scandal has forced Vermont’s Regional Center EB-5 Program to change their regulatory responsibilities and funding — and perhaps most importantly, the state-run monopoly on EB-5 regulation and oversight is now threatened. It might even spell extinction rather than evolution for the Vermont ACCD’s Regional Center.

However, here and nationally, independent EB-5 foreign investment-for-visa programs are bound to stick around. Even in the midst of the new President’s immigration crackdowns, access to large chunks of quickly attainable legal foreign investment money is tough for any developer to deny themselves. You could even say it is almost impossible to resist — one New York finance broker said the EB-5 immigrant money racket was so good “[It] sounds like legalized crack cocaine.”

After all, even Donald Trump is tapping EB-5 funds for one or more of his gang’s projects. If it’s good for the President, it must be good for the country, right? … Right? … Amiright?

Expanding Medicaid equals more voter participation

A recent study of voter participation shows higher voter turnout in states that have expanded Medicaid under the American Affordable Care Act (ACA / Obamacare). For people with low income, Medicaid is the largest source of funding for medical and health-related services.Kaiser Health-14-2016

The study, Expanding Medicaid, expanding the electorate: the Affordable Care Act’s short-term impact on political participation, compared voter turnout data from 2014 and 2012 for 435 U.S. House races.  Controlling for local factors, its author found:  […] that increases in Medicaid enrollment as a result of Medicaid expansion were related to considerably higher voter turnout in 2014.

Past research has shown people that receive public assistance are less likely to vote, so these results are significant. According to study author Jake Haselswerdt, assistant professor of political science and public affairs at the University of Missouri: “Having access to health insurance could play a role in increasing voter participation as healthy people are much more likely to vote than unhealthy people, and insurance increases people’s financial stability, which also makes them more likely to vote.” Backlash to expanded enrollment, he notes, may also affect voter turnout.

[Updated Ed.]Although Donald Trump made campaign promises not to cut Medicaid benefits, [Trump has ] endorsed two changes to the bill affecting Medicaid, under the pending GOP plan. The actions taken by GOP legislators in Congress make plain how they feel about Medicaid. Republican-sponsored ACA repeal legislation (Trumpcare) now in Congressional committees would hand Medicaid back to the states, and cut program funds by $880 billion in the next 10 years —  effectively limiting expansion. The non-partisan Congressional Budget Office estimates that under the GOP bill 14 million fewer people would have Medicaid coverage in 2026.

Whether by design or accident, the GOP’s efforts to slash Medicaid may not only hurt the health of lower income  U.S. citizens, but they also seem to fit in nicely with the Republicans’  long running campaigns to suppress voter participation — also known as “voter fraud prevention legislation.”

Well, that works: “American Health Care” that isn’t affordable, and laws to counteract non-existent “voter fraud.” Paging George Orwell …

Navy Seal convoy “punished” for flying under Trump banner

Since President Trump looked a little too happy strutting around the aircraft carrier USS Gerald R. Ford sporting an olive military jacket and cap the other day. Here’s a quick follow up on the Navy Seal convoy that affixed a Trump campaign banner to their Humvee antenna with zip ties  and drove it in a convoy for over one hundred miles. It was February, when the vehicle  traveling through Kentucky under the blue Trump flag was seen and when first reported, officials said they believed the vehicles were military surplus; they later admitted that was not the case, and that the vehicles belonged to the elite Seal Naval Special Warfare Group 2.

TrumpflagsealThe Navy has since investigated, and the report (which was obtained through a Freedom of Information Act or FOIA request) is now available. The commander of the 12 person convoy did not place the flag on the Humvee but was aware it was there and: “[The convoy commander] was also aware of the rules precluding Department of Defense (DoD) endorsement of political candidates during an election,” the documents stated. “However, he believed that flying the flag was not inappropriate since the election was over and since the candidate was now the Commander in Chief of the Armed Forces.”

However, shortly into their mission the Navy Seal commander began, they say, to regret his choice: About 30 minutes into the drive on I-65, the convoy commander noticed that the flag was getting a good deal of attention from civilian drivers, “some of which was negative attention.” [maybe negative by 48.5% or more]

“At this point, he felt like the correct course of action would have been to take the flag down,” the documents stated. “However, he was concerned that it would be unsafe for the convoy and its members to pull over while on the highway.”

The names of the 12 member Navy Seal group were not made public and although they were reportedly punished, what form that took was not disclosed. The Navy Department did say the personnel were subsequently required to participate in team-wide remedial training on safe convoy operations and partisan political activity.

So, with a Humvee flagged with a Trump election banner for over one hundred miles through Kentucky to Indiana, the commander of Naval Special Warfare Group 2 couldn’t find a place to pull his convoy off the highway!  Maybe the remedial training on safe convoy operations the  Seal Group was “sentenced” to take covers how to pull off the road and remove a prohibited banner. Or better yet, they could learn not to fly a partisan banner from Trump’s campaign on a Humvee to start with.

Gov. Sununu carries water for EPA’s Scott Pruitt

Vermont better keep an eye on this if only because we “share” the Connecticut River and for that matter a planet, with New Hampshire. It appears that state’s new Republican Governor Chris Sununu wants a little jump start on polluting his state waterways and may want to take a time out from his ongoing voter suppression campaign.waterdownhill

To those ends Sununu sent a letter inviting to New England Scott “big oil BFF” Pruitt, the new head of the US Environmental Protection Agency,  to explore loosening “burdensome” regulations governing storm water rules. His letter references a program that requires towns that collect and dispose of storm water to get a special permit. Such disposal can pass pollutants into water systems.  Do you suppose Sununu cc’d his invite on this one to his fellow New England Republican Governors, his  buddies Phil Scott and Charlie Baker?

Pruitt, the new head of the US EPA might enjoy a diversion after he came under fire last week for comments openly questioning accepted facts about climate change science. By the end of week the EPA’s telephone voice messaging system was overwhelmed with a massive number of calls.

Governor Sununu will always enjoy discussing tearing up a few clean water regulations and Pruitt will get a nice friendly regional platform to spew Trump’s anti-regulation initiatives.

But no worries: Sununu claims that, as if by magic “if these federal mandates disappeared tomorrow, New Hampshire would not cease to keep our waters clean.”  He may starkly figure ‘so what’ about a polluted NH or planet: after all, we ‘live free and die.’  Besides, it all runs downhill (out of New Hampshire) doesn’t it, Governor?

Darcie Johnston & Trump’s little shop of hires

ProPublica has compiled an online directory of 400 political hires Donald Trump has quietly made across the federal government. And as we know, Vermonter Darcie Johnston made the cut. The anti-Obama healthcare advocate and former Trump for President Campaign leader got herself a real job in the Federal Government. She’ll be working at Health and Human Services as a Special Assistant. The job is rated GS-14 which pays from $88,136.00 – $114,578.00 yearly.

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The list assembled by ProPublica is a complete accounting of names that would normally just have dribbled out to the press. It shows the appointees to Trump’s so-called beachhead team. These are Donald loyalists named to federal jobs that need no senate confirmation: Trump’s true believers or just berserkers ready on day one, they said, to to begin laying the groundwork for the president-elect’s agenda.

Several of Donald’s more noteworthy best and brightest are spotlighted. Here are three likely worth keeping an eye on: A Trump campaign aide who argues that Democrats committed “ethnic cleansing” in a plot to “liquidate” the white working class found a home as Special Assistant to the Secretary, Department of Labor.

At the Department of the Treasury a former reality show contestant whose study of societal collapse inspired him to invent a bow-and-arrow-cum-survivalist multi-tool will test his mettle as a special assistant.  And finally, hailing from New Hampshire a Trump supporter who has only recently graduated from high school.

Maybe Darcie  and this kid will carpool back home to New England on holidays.

Nuke security report: “opportunities exist for program improvement”


Vermont Yankee is in the decommissioning process; its owner Entergy has plans to sell the out-of-operation plant to an industrial demolition company, NorthStar Group Services Inc. However, VY may not be ready to cool down as an issue yet: Vermont’s attorney general is asking to intervene in the state Public Service Board’s review of the sale of the closed Vermont Yankee power plant, saying significant environmental and financial issues are at stake.

It seems Vermont AG Donovan wants to keep a sharp eye on good old Vermont Yankee. Considering Entergy’s past, spotty record on safety (or lack of it) – underground leaks, fire and a spectacular cooling tower collapse – and security (or lack of it, as in sub-contracted Wackenhut Security guards sleeping on the job) this is probably a good idea.

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Almost a year ago Entergy significantly scaled back its emergency notification and management protocols. And security concerns may also be an issue to watch as spent  nuclear fuel will remain onsite for some time to come. This February the NRC signed off on Entergy’s security changes for the now out-of-operation plant. Specifics regarding the changes are not public,as a precaution, but it is likely they involve lowering certain requirements.

One thing the NRC and certainly Entergy didn’t mention in public was that it was  auditing security rules for nuclear plants going through decommissioning. The NRC Office of Inspector General’s report, now available, recommends: [the NRC] clarify which fitness-for-duty elements licensees must implement to meet the requirements of the insider mitigation program; and to establish requirements for a fatigue management program. [PDF here]

Threats from “insiders” are defined by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) as individuals with authorized access to nuclear facilities or nuclear material who could attempt unauthorized removal or sabotage, or who could aid an external adversary to do so. 

In language laughably similar to the NRC’s well worn classic: “there was no apparent danger to the public” line, the OIG report notes that although security is now adequate, “opportunities exist for program improvement.”

It appears Vermont AG T.J. Donovan is correct in operating on the assumption that Entergy is still Entergy and the NRC is still the NRC: ineffectual and always willing to protect the bottom line over the health and safety of host communities. Kind of ironic that while the US Border Patrol has been unleashed on innocent Canadian shoppers hoping to visit Vermont, someone should be doing a better, sharper, more aggressive job guarding spent nuclear fuel just a few hundred miles south.

Your Friday Trumping

It has been another in a line of dizzyingly chaotic news weeks since Trump became president. It started off well enough for Trump. As President, Donald managed to read a teleprompter speech to the US Congress in a suitable tone — “Nationalism in an indoor voice.” And following through on campaign promises he made, his new EPA head started slashing away at the agency, proposing to cut their budget by 24%.

Rounding off the week, Commander-in-chief Donald started boosting his plans for a U.S.  arms build-up with a speech given to sailors aboard the soon-to-be commissioned aircraft carrier USS Gerald R. Ford.

Not sure if any political pundits noted it, but I’m probably not the only one impressed by the remarkable restraint Trump showed  not pinning any shiny gold medals to the military styled jacket and cap he happily donned after they were given to him by sailors aboard the aircraft carrier.

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However by weeks’ end, the growing problem over questions of Russian attempts to influence his administration hit close to home. Attorney General Jeff Sessions was shamed into recusing himself from any investigation into Russian meddling in the presidential election. Reports then surfaced of a previously undisclosed meeting Trump advisor and son-in-law Jared Kushner had in December at Trump Towers in New York  with the Russian ambassador to “establish a line of communication.”

And finally The Onion reports the Russians are far ahead of their timeline to carefully undermine the legitimacy of the American political system

MOSCOW—working frantically to readjust the schedule they had outlined back in June 2015, Russian officials admitted to reporters Thursday that they have been left scrambling after seeing their plan to delegitimize Western democracy move much faster than they had intended.

Minister of Foreign Affairs Sergey Lavrov said: “[…] we never thought so much public trust in the White House would erode in a matter of a few weeks. We’re pleased, of course, but keeping up is going to be a real challenge.” Lavrov went on to say he was deeply concerned that Trump’s impeachment would occur well before the president could cause the amount of damage to America that the Kremlin had originally intended. [Ed. note: not real news, for humorous use only, not to be taken internally]

All this leaves one to wonder as President Trump charges off to Florida today if Donald will grow tired of “winning” all the time? Perhaps he will stop-over at Mar-A- Lago, his shining gold-plated palace in Florida, get in a couple rounds of golf and all the world will be right again — at least in his own mind.

“Papers, please”: Trump, Sessions, and the CBP unleashed

 

What happens when you unleash the guard dogs? Well my first guess is more and more of this kind of thing:

U.S. Customs and Border Protection confirmed Thursday that their agents requested to see the identification of domestic flight passengers landing at a New York airport Wednesday night as they searched for an immigrant who had received a deportation order to leave the United States.

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According to the agency, two CBP agents asked passengers who had been on Delta Flight 1583 from San Francisco to show their identification while deplaning after landing at John F. Kennedy Airport at about 8 p.m. Wednesday. The search was conducted at the request of Immigration and Customs Enforcement, CBP said in a statement, but the person they were seeking was not on the flight.

A CBP spokesperson said that the individual, who they did not publicly identify, had legal immigration documents but received a deportation order after multiple criminal convictions for domestic assault, driving while impaired, and violating a protective order.[added emphasis]

So what’s the big deal?  Well, remember this was a domestic flight not under the purview or jurisdiction of Customs and Border Protection. And this: It is unclear what would have happened had officials found undocumented immigrants getting off the airplane and whether they would have faced deportation if identified. It is also unclear what would have happened to any passenger who refused to produce his or her identification for the agents.

“Is this a mere request to see identification?” said Jordan Wells, a staff attorney with the New York Civil Liberties Union “Would they have been detained but for them showing ID? Because then it’s no longer a consensual encounter and the Constitution enters the equation.”

The Department of Homeland Security and the Border Patrol each denied this event was part of any new policy or crackdown, but with Trump’s Exec Orders on immigration, supported by Attorney General Sessions coming fast and furious, it is tempting to take these denials as obligatory coverups: please pass the grains of salt (or do we toss the salt over our shoulders so as not to have to swallow the bland coating atop constitutional poison?).

On Friday a  CBP spokesperson insisted to Rolling Stone Magazine that the check was “consensual assistance from passengers aboard the flight” and that “CBP did not compel anyone to show ID.” However a passenger on the Delta flight tweeted: “We were told we couldn’t disembark without showing our ‘documents.'”

With these recent changes to immigration policy – aka “crack-down” – underway, it is worth remembering that the CBP union, called The National Border Patrol Council, was an early and enthusiastic supporter of candidate Donald Trump, the strongman.

In their first ever presidential endorsement the 16,500 member union said: “We need a person in the White House who doesn’t fear the media, who doesn’t embrace political correctness, who doesn’t need the money, who is familiar with success, who won’t bow to foreign dictators, who is pro-military and values law enforcement, and who is angry for America and NOT subservient to the interests of other nations. Donald Trump is such a man,”[added emphasis]. This is likely the mindset that led unleashed guards in the Border Patrol at the Vermont border  to turn back a Canadian citizen planning to shop in the US because she’s Muslim and had Muslim prayers on her cell phone (see also here and here).

But we got to this point slowly in baby steps. Go read this 2014 GMD diary by NanuqFC about our de facto National ID cards. Most Vermonters already have them. Once known as a Vermont State driving license, they are “Real ID” DHS compliant and come with a gold star. But you know everyone isn’t compliant, and we are free, after all, to get a non-compliant license – and it has a scary red banner reading: NOT FOR FEDERAL IDENTIFICATION.

Remember: “Your papers, please.”  That isn’t normal here at all. No.