Category Archives: local/regional

Net neutrality race: Phil Scott follows Montana, New York and New Jersey’s lead

In a press release on Thursday Republican Governor Scott announced he issued an executive order requiring that state contractors comply with net neutrality standardsthus following the lead of Democratic governors in Montana and New York and New Jersey who first signed similar orders back in January.scottmoves1

Vtdigger.com: The governor’s order directs the Agency of Administration to amend its procedures to ensure that internet providers who contract with the state comply with net neutrality standards, according to a news release from the Scott administration

The governor’s executive order would prevent internet companies who contract with the state from blocking content, engaging in paid prioritization of internet services or acting to “throttle, impair or degrade lawful Internet traffic on the basis of Internet content, application, or service.”

Scott’s order came after a state senate committee passed legislation (S.289) aimed at the same goal: to stop FCC chairman Ajit Pai’s repeal of Obama-era rules that had prohibited broadband providers from blocking or slowing websites or charging for higher-quality content and service. Similar legislation is under consideration in the Vermont House.

Other challenges to the Trump-era FCC rule change out ahead of Scott’s Thursday order include one by Vermont AG T.J. Donovan. He earlier joined attorneys general in twenty-one states in a lawsuit against the FCC to keep net neutrality. And nationally our entire congressional delegation has opposed Chairman Pai’s rule change from the start.

Governor Scott did include an exclusionperhaps a regulatory loophole: “Waivers to these Procedures may be granted by the Secretary only upon receipt of a written justification from a State Agency and a finding by the Secretary [that] a waiver would serve a legitimate and significant interest of the State,” the order says.

In fairness, it must be noted that the Senate version of the bill as of our reading has a similar passage: The Secretary of Administration may waive the prohibition on paid prioritization and preferential treatment under subdivision (b)(1)(C) of this section if the Internet service provider demonstrates and the Secretary finds that the practice would serve a legitimate and significant public interest and would not harm the open nature of the Internet in Vermont.

But, it’s good that Governor Scott has finally decided to enter the already-underway race to save net neutrality, however late his start. Because, you know, the internet just won’t run right when blocked, slowed, and throttled.

Immigration Control & Enforcement gets massive license plate tracking data access

Immigration Control and Enforcement (aka ICE) has contracted with Vigilant Solutions, a private for-profit business that handles license plate reading and facial recognition data. License plate readers gather images of vehicles and identify the individual license plate number, and record the time and place the image was taken. This data having been harvested and stored by Vigilant Solutions outside public accountability gives ICE access to billions of license plate records and the ability for real-time location tracking.  dhslpr2

According to Verge.com: Vigilant Solutions has amassed a database of more than 2 billion license plate photos by ingesting data from partners like vehicle repossession agencies and other private groups. Vigilant also partners with local law enforcement agencies, often collecting even more data from camera-equipped police cars.

[They offer free access to their analytics services and no-charge data migration to eligible law enforcement agencies and so called “fusion centers”such as the one we have in Williston, Vermont.]

The result is a massive vehicle-tracking network generating as many as 100 million sightings per month, each tagged with a date, time, and GPS coordinates of the sighting.

Just another powerful surveillance tool in its expanding tool box but ICE, the Trump administration’s aggressive immigration enforcement arm must be thrilled at the acquisition.

Make no mistake: if you want to control people and enforce immigration law (regardless of constitutionality), or even raid an immigrant sanctuary city  this is just the tool to strike fear into targeted people and their allies. ICE agents would be able to query that database in two ways. A historical search would turn up every place a given license plate has been spotted in the last five years, a detailed record of the target’s movements. That data could be used to find a given subject’s residence or even identify associates if a given car is regularly spotted in a specific parking lot. verge.com [added emphasis]

The ACLU maintains LPR data can have some legitimate uses but worries about privacy implications as gathering and use of the data has become widespread. Jay Stanley, who studies license plate readers with the ACLU: “Are we as a society, out of our desire to find those people, willing to let our government create an infrastructure that will track all of us?”

And here in Vermont what happens to the data police collect from their license plate readers  the dozens supplied through various DHS and federal law enforcement grants?

The Vermont legislature imposed some restrictions of the length of time police can store data they collect. LPR data can be retained for 18 month with 90 day extensions allowed and available by request through Superior Court.

 In 2016 VPR reported: Police collected 8.66 million snapshots of license plates across Vermont in the 18 months leading up to Dec. 31, 2015. Each entry includes the time and location where each license plate was spotted by an Automated License Plate Recognition (ALPR) system.vt-alpr-data-vpr-ealfinj-20160216_0

[…] Police keep a trove of the millions of license plate scans under tight control at the Vermont Intelligence Center in Waterbury.  Law enforcement officers aren’t allowed to access the state’s central database directly, but must request information using a form that is reviewed by VIC staff, who can search the data if they deem the query to be legitimate. There’s no information about how officers use the data they get through the database’s search results and no information about the number of cases – if any – the information was relevant to.

Trump’s enforcer at ICE, Director Tom Homan, last year offered this blunt advice to undocumented immigrants: “You should look over your shoulder, and you need to be worried.” At some point we all better start to worry and look over our own shoulders.  Rule # 1: believe what authoritarians say. Rule # 1a: buy stock in jackboot suppliers.

About CoreCivic: Gov. Phil Scott’s partner in the prison business

Governor Phil Scott’s administration is planning to create (hire a company to design and build)  a 925- bed state prison/treatment complex in Franklin County. The plan involves partnering with the for-profit prison corporation CoreCivic (formerly Corrections Corporation of America). According to Vtdigger.com: [Sec. Vermont Agency of Human Services]  Al Gobeille is proposing that the state contract out the design, construction and financing to a private entity, which then would lease the facilities to the state for 25 years. The state would make annual appropriations to pay for the use of the campus.[added emphasis]

For now, many specific details are a moving target but this feature of the proposed dealVermont would lease the facility from CoreCivicis pretty interesting in light of recent changes in CoreCivic’s business model.corecivicVTAHS1

Historically CoreCivic political donations and lobbying are directed overwhelmingly to Republican Party candidates at all levels of government. They even ponied up $250,000 to support Trump’s inauguration celebration last year.

And  under the Obama administration as contracts dwindled, for-profit prisons stocks fell. CoreCivic and another major for-profit prison corporation, GEO Group, were looking at hard times.

Then in 2013  CoreCivic (then CCA) and the GEO Group (that together own 80% of all US for-profit prison facilities) restructured themselves more profitably as real estate investment trusts (REIT). Now, thanks to the recent GOP tax code changes signed into law by Donald Trump, these two for-profit prison corporations will reap a windfall

The Guardian.com reports: Under the new GOP law, investments in so-called “real estate investment trusts” (REIT) will see a 25% reduction in tax, from 39.6% down to 29.6%. [added emphasis]

Before converting to a reit in 2013, Corecivic was subject to a 36% corporate tax rate. After the reorganization, it reported paying an effective tax rate in the first quarter of 2015 of just 3%.

Sooo much winning for prison corps!

And here’s how it works. Lauren-Brooke Eisen, an attorney at the Brennan Center for Justice, said: “The way they are able to get away with that, is that they’re not allowed to keep a lot of cash on hand, they have to give it back to investors though dividends. But it allows them to have an incredibly low tax rate.”

According to Eisen, prison companies have essentially argued that renting out cells to the government is the equivalent of charging a tenant rent, thus making such business primarily a real estate venture.

It is a debate whether or not a lease deal with CoreCivic is good for Vermont. But there’s little doubt it’s REAL GOOD for CoreCivic. In fact the profits might seem almost criminal.

Vermont Life Magazine & Governor Scott’s disaster marketing

WCAX reports the Scott administration will keep Vermont Life Magazine rather than continue recent efforts to sell the state-published regional lifestyle magazine. According to Vtdigger.com the state turned down nine bids from outside businesses for the magazine. Vermont Life, in publication since the late 1940’s, is now in debt and struggling with declining circulation numbers, as many periodicals are.

I have fond memories of Vermont Life from over fifty years ago the outhouse attached to woodshed at the back of the barn at my grandfather’s farmhouse was wallpapered with pictures he cut from the magazine. So in one sense, I am pleased with the news. But I wonder about the Scott administration’s overall marketing scheme.

The magazine will now be put to use as one part of the administration’s plan to market Vermont to out-of-state businesses and people. Speaking to WCAX, Governor Scott’s Commerce Secretary (and former Burlington top cop) Michael Schirling explained that Vermont Life now has a “bright future” as part of the plan to market the state around the country.  Another element of the plan – the administration wants people displaced by hurricanes last summer to move to Vermont. “There are folks from all over that – whether it’s in one of those areas affected or elsewhere – that are looking for opportunities,” mailboxVTlife1

When Vermonters were digging out from hurricane Irene-our own climate disaster that devastated large parts of the state, do you suppose many Vermonters would have packed up for the Lone Star state if a free  issue of Texas Highways popped up in the mailbox?

Perhaps inadvertently Scott may have previewed his out-of-state disaster marketing plan a couple weeks back. In remarks to reporters Scott spoke about his hope that climate change could prove an “economic boon” for Vermont. Said the Governor: “When we look across the U.S. and see that climate patterns have changed dramatically — we’re seeing wildfires in California — it makes Vermont look pretty good.”  He expressed his belief that the in Northeast “we’re in a pretty good position” and compared to other states “we could be the Mecca,”

And the notoriously penny-pinching Scott administration has asked for $3 million to be budgeted for the overall effort. But do state-run “move here” ad blitzes such as  Think ! Vermont even work? Could Gov. Scott or  Sec. Schirling or any of the Mad Men (or women) at Vermont’s  Agency of Commerce and Community Development cite any studies that show what kind of results to expect ? Commenting on an efforts by northern cities to entice millennials to move there, Joe Cortright, an economist and director of City Observatory (a think tank funded by the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation) noted: There’s little research tracking such marketing efforts, and it’s difficult to gauge the subtle influences of media on personal decisions like where to move. And it is a crowded field: mid-west states like Minnesota, Wisconsin, Illinois and back to Maine and New Hampshire are all working on variations of “move here” campaigns.

One sidebar to Gov. Scott’s marketing Vermont as “Mecca”: we’re not immune to climate damage. Remember hurricane (post-tropical storm, officially) Irene?  For the last three years all the lower 48 states and Alaska had above-average annual temperatures. And sure, it is cold now according to NOAA: Despite cold seasons in various regions throughout the year, above-average temperatures, often record-breaking, during other parts of the year more than offset any seasonal cool conditions.

Couldn’t $3 million of our tax dollars be spent more wisely on the people that already live here and not on this “move here” advertising scheme? So we ask again, Governor Scott: affordable for whom, the regular folks who live here, or the digital-native millennials with high-end incomes you hope to entice here?

 

Workers lose on overtime pay; Donald schedules himself more TV time

The Economic Policy Institute has tracked a recent overtime pay cut engineered by the Trump administration and calculated what the rule change is going to cost U.S. workers. Earlier this year the Department of Labor abandoned 2016 regulations that expanded 40-year-old overtime rules. The rules from the Obama DOL could have increased overtime pay for workers by billions. However, since the new regs were challenged in court in 2016 by a coalition of 21 states and business groups, President Trump recently dropped any federal effort to defend them. Failure to enact them, the EPI calculated, will cause the loss of $1.2 billion per year in lost overtime for workers.

In New England it looks like New Hampshire is a bigger loser of overtime than Vermont. EPI’s estimates show New Hampshire misses out on $6,078,793 per year without the updated overtime regulations compared to Vermont’s estimated loss of $3,032,958.

Here’s the state by state chart showing the numbers potentially lost for Vermonters.

lost OT

We haven’t even mentioned yet the lost tax revenue for states on those wages.

And meanwhile overtime is definitely not a problem at the White House. It turns out President Trump’s daily schedule has been adjusted to allow “Executive Time” so he can spend three hours in the morning watching TV and head to the oval office later. Between 8 a.m. and 11 a.m. Axios.com reports The Donald is having “Executive Time” in the Oval Office, but in reality: … [he] spends that time in his residence, watching TV, making phone calls and tweeting. […] Trump’s days in the Oval Office are relatively short – from around 11 a.m. to 6 p.m., then he’s back to the residence. During that time he usually has a meeting or two, but spends a good deal of time making phone calls and watching cable news in the dining room adjoining the Oval. Then he’s back to the residence for more phone calls and more TV.

TrumpTVThe White House is calling it “Executive Time” but “Fox and Fury Time” might be more accurate given that his often rage-filled morning tweets tend to coincide with Fox News broadcasts. Often, Politico.com reports presidential tweets begin popping up minutes after a Fox report airs.

So welcome to America 2018 where President Trumpa self-described “very stable genius”can happily spend three or more hours (in his pajamas?) every morning in front of his wide screens stroking his ego. But his Department of Labor won’t support or defend restructured overtime rules for workers. Just like that “tax cut” bill he signed: all the pie for the billionaires, none but crumbs for the workers.

Too Little, Too Late?

Will 2018 be the session in which the Vermont senate finally takes meaningful action toward addressing sexual harassment?  We’ll see.

‘“There’s a different weight to it this year in light of all that’s been going on around us,” (Senator Tim) Ashe said of the new policies, referring to national stories of sexual harassment.’

It’s too little too late to help one young girl who, reluctantly and under oath, provided compelling testimony of her alleged sexual exploitation by then-senator Norm McAllister. The victim had the misfortune of stepping forward just a couple of years before our porcine president and the “Me too!” movement catapulted the dirty secret of sexual assault by powerful men to national attention.

We’re talking about a slip of a girl, just a teenager at the time she served as Mr. McAllister’s unofficial intern at the statehouse, who came from a low-income rural background, asking for a state senator to be held accountable for abusing her.

She relied on law enforcement and the states attorney who persuaded her to testify, to provide the credibility for her complaint that her own social inferiority denied her. Had she hailed from the hill section of St. Albans with gold-plated parentage, I rather doubt her case would have been dropped by the state’s attorney after she fibbed, out of shame and the growing realization that her behavior, not McAllister’s was on trial, about a kiss with a lad who was not her boyfriend.

She left that courtroom completely broken, and we haven’t heard from her since.

The next female who dared complain about the sexual mistreatment she received from McAllister once again sat alone in the courtroom as her own past relationships and financial hardships were used as a cudgel to reduce her credibility before the jury who accepted the argument that a decent family man and senator like McAllister simply wouldn’t do the things of which she accused him. If he had, it must have been consensual; as if any woman can actually “consent” to sexual exploitation by a man who wields the power to deprive her of heat and a place to live.

A third accuser conveniently died before the alleged assaults were brought to trial.

After it was all over but the weeping, McAllister faced conviction on only one count of procurement for the purpose of prostitution, and as far as I know has yet to be sentenced.

I have serious doubts that the procedures now in place for dealing with sexual harassment in the senate would have prevented that teenager’s secret exploitation in Montpelier; or any of the other brutalities Mr. McAllister actually discussed in recorded conversations with the other two complainants.

I suppose it’s pointless to wonder if the outcome of Mr. McAllister’s brush with justice might have been different had it taken place now; but I would urge the legislature to consider well that persons of low status usually suffer the greatest indignities, and a sexual harassment policy that is ineffective at protecting the very young and the timid
won’t be worth the paper its printed on.

Polling trends 2017: Healthcare up and Trump still down

CNN has a list of seven polling trends showing what they consider significant and worth review as 2017 lurches to an end. Two caught my eye: the first because it’s always good to be reminded of Trump’s low poll numbers, and the second may be useful to keep in mind as the healthcare drama plays out here in Vermont.

Trump’s job approval hit record-breaking lows in 2017. Like a bad hair piece and the allegations of Russian involvement in his campaign, historically low approval ratings have stuck to Donald since he took office last January.down with trump

Trump’s quarterly approval numbers are some of the lowest since Gallup began tracking them for presidents — falling in the 11th percentile of out of 288 presidential quarters tracked by Gallup over the last half century. That ranking probably is not a surprise to anyone securely attached to reality, yet Trump continues to insist (i.e., to lie) that his approval numbers are similar to what Obama’s had been at year one in his presidency.

The other CNN trend that caught my attention regards the ACA’s, aka Obamacare’s, rise in popularity even as Trump and the GOP waged all out war against it. Obamacare hasn’t had a net negative favorability rating at all this year, according to polling from the Kaiser Family Foundation, a stark change from its stretch of negative ratings early in 2016 and most of the prior five years. ACA popularity

The most recent numbers show […] a 50% favorable and 46% unfavorable rating, though the positive gap has climbed as high as 13 points in August.

 Keep that popularity increase in mind as we grapple with the healthcare issue in Vermont. VPR reports that Senate president pro tem Tim Ashe (D/P), Green Mountain Care Board chairman Kevin Mullin and Governor Scott’s Secretary of the Agency of Human Services (AHS) Al Gobeille fear the elimination of the national mandate will cause premiums to spike,making them unaffordable. As GMCB chairman Kevin Mullin explained to VPR: That’s because he says anyone who drops their coverage will still receive medical treatment if they get sick, and the cost of this care can be shifted over to private insurance policies. As a result of this worry state leaders are looking at a possible state mandate to carry health insurance and possibly a penalty fee .

At the federal level it worked like this– If you could afford health insurance but choose not to buy it, you would pay a fee called the individual shared responsibility payment (the fee  sometimes called the “penalty,” “fine,” or “individual mandate”). You pay the fee when you file your federal tax return for the year you don’t have coverage.

What happens in 2018 when Governor Scott’s so called “affordability agenda” of low fees and taxes runs head-first into healthcare cost increases driven by his own party’s national and local anti-Obamacare fanatics? It’s anyone’s guess whether Phil will want to summon the political will to support maintaining affordable healthcare for Vermonters – including a state healthcare mandate – or will he sit back and watch the costs spike.

When the stethoscope meets the so-called affordability agenda, will Scott show heretofore missing leadership skills? Let’s not hold our breath while we wait.

Down the memory hole: Phil Scott’s Act 250 overhaul team strikes “climate change” from policy paper

Climate ChangeScottbalance

Vermont’s governor not only shares a name and party with Florida’s GOP governor but he apparently shares Governor Rick Scott’s documented problem using the term climate change. While using a maneuver right out of Florida’s playbook here in Vermont, Phil Scott’s administration has been caught eliminating the term climate change from proposed changes to Act 250 the state’s environmental development law.

The scoop from the Burlington Free Press: At issue is a report by Scott administration officials that was submitted in October to legislators who are reviewing the nearly 50-year-old land-use law. As part of their review, legislators are looking specifically at whether development should be judged through the lens of climate change during the Act 250 permit process.

Tayt Brooks  remember him? founder of right-wing conservative super pac Vermonters First, who now works as Director of Affordability and Economic Growth Initiatives for Phil Scott took credit (or blame) for the editing climate change. Tayt Brooks, […] said the Scott administration remains receptive to possible provisions in Act 250 that would address climate change.

“We didn’t view it as a substantial change,” Brooks said of the edits.

He pointed out that the final draft of the administration’s report suggests that lawmakers’ review “should include consideration of climate change in Vermont.”

Yeah, right: consider it but for god’s sake don’t write it or say it out loud!

Governor Scott (ours) after a little trouble with the issue during his campaign  in 2016 he was evolving  has made some encouraging noises about climate change since taking office. He was even tagged recently by governing.com as a glowing example of : “[…] today’s moderate governors.” Phil may have trouble with that moderate label if he continues to try to have try to have it both ways on climate change especially if he lets Tayt Brooks edit his policy proposals.

So, Tayt, when and where did you have your memory hole installed?

Stop bellyaching about Vermont’s aging population.

Once again, a Vermont Governor is lamenting the aging of our state population, extrapolating nothing but gloom in our economic forecast.

Yes, we have a surplus of Vermonters over the age of 65; yes, we have declining numbers of youth refreshing our labor force; and yes, we are experiencing slow growth due to labor shortages.

That’s the cup-half-empty picture.

But applying a cup-half-full perspective to the same facts could present a picture of opportunity.

We’ve imagined our state becoming a hub of small scale manufacturing, captive insurance markets, tech industry, specialty foods, recreation and tourist activity. With some success, we have focussed on and incentivized each of these sectors in turn, attempting to fertilize the seeds of state potential.

In each case, we looked to our state’s unique qualities as strengths to be marketed to a larger world, yet we have never thought of an aging population as anything other than an inconvenience bordering on a burden; something to be apologized away or camouflaged by any youngsters we can bring to the front of the queue.

We are missing out on the resource that an older population can represent. If the state incentivizes a state-of-the-art eldercare and senior housing industry, with walkable communities, targeted recreational opportunities and social networking innovations; Vermont could become a trend-setter, attracting the best skilled youth workforce in the healthcare sphere from all over the country.

Those newcomers could become cornerstones of a new generation, expanding our tax base, filling classrooms and playgrounds with future Vermonters.

Embracing the natural aging of our population and viewing it as an opportunity for innovation is the smart way to tackle the future; and we could sure use some “smarts” right about now.

As one of the discounted multitude,  I still have to buy food and clothing, keep a roof over my head, attend to my medical and dental needs, and consume a modicum of entertainment.  I may even spend more money in some instances, than do younger consumers, in order  to create a safe environment in my home, protect my health, coddle grandchildren, beautify my garden, travel and learn.

We’re here; we’re not dying off anytime soon; and we have needs that are often unmet within our communities.  It’s time to give this new market a second look.

Teflon legacy stubbornly sticks to Bennington

As we wait for it to dawn on Texas lawmakers that some of the toxic misery that is being visited upon them is due to lax regulation in a business-first state, Vermont is confronting its own history of safety “compromises.”

In an eye-opening series of feature stories, “Teflon Town,” Vermont Digger and the Bennington Banner explore a tale of regulatory failure that belies Vermont’s clean green reputation

Details of this “business friendly” environmental compromise are damning:

For decades, Vermont officials asked ChemFab to test smokestack emissions to determine whether the company was emitting toxic chemicals in the manufacture of Teflon-coated fabrics. One of those chemicals was PFOA, used to bond the Teflon, or polytetrafluoroethylene, to fiberglass fabric. Those tests were never performed. Instead of requiring ChemFab to meet environmental rules, state officials took a conciliatory approach and repeatedly allowed the company to violate emissions standards without penalty.

According to Digger, even though the state learned of the hazards from PFOA as early as 1997, no attempt was made to test the emissions from the ChemFab facility in Bennington for this substance until 2016. This, because the premier producer of Teflon-coated fabrics was considered too important to the Vermont economy to inconvenience with regulatory overbsight that the company claimed (falsely) to avoid in other locations.

•Residents filed hundreds of complaints about a “dirty plastic” odor from the North Bennington plant over a 24-year period.

•The company was supposed to catalog every chemical in the smokestack emissions. Results from testing in 1985, which established the baseline monitoring standards for a 15-year period, were badly executed. The tests were “not representative of stack emissions,” according to Mike Kawahata, the scientist with Environment One Corporation, the contractor for ChemFab that conducted the tests. State Rep. Marie Condon told DEC officials that it appeared ChemFab might be “intentionally withholding damaging information about its toxic emissions.” The state allowed the flawed results to stand.

•In internal memos, the commissioner of the Department of Health and field inspectors for the Vermont Department of Environmental Conservation asked senior officials at the Agency of Natural Resources to test for fluorocarbons, including PFOA. The tests were never conducted.

•Regulators recorded dozens of emissions violations from 1984 to 2002, but only one enforcement action was taken during that period.

•ChemFab managers misrepresented pollution control standards in other states and pushed Vermont regulators to relax air quality standards based on false claims. For example, the company said New Hampshire allowed competitors and other ChemFab facilities to operate without any pollution control devices on some smokestacks. In response to pressure from ChemFab, Vermont authorities gave the company tax breaks and waived air quality rules.

There’s plenty of blame to go around for everyone in this instance of environmental protection failure, extending through the administrations of both Democratic and Republican governors.

It’s the same old story we read over and over again: Vermont “has to be more business friendly.” Inevitably, that is the thinly veiled argument for letting big offenders off the hook on regulations while holding small businesses fully accountable.

…And as far as successfully retaining the “valuable” employer was concerned(?)…once again, it’s a familiar story:

Despite numerous concessions from Vermont officials at every level of government, in 2002, ChemFab closed its Bennington factory and moved its headquarters to Merrimack, New Hampshire.

ChemFab cut and ran, but it’s toxic legacy continues to haunt the groundwater in Bennington county sickening residents and undermining property values.

Is that really “business friendly?”