Category Archives: local/regional

A golf pro, a lobbyist and Governor Scott walk in to the legislature

Since becoming governor Phil Scott has twice had the chance make appointments to the state legislature. His choices to replace Republican legislators a lobbyist and a golf pro hardly fit the image most citizens may have of an average Vermonter.

Scott’s first legislative appointment to the state House of Representatives was Jim Harrison, a lobbyist and former president of the Vermont Retail and Grocers Association. And his most recent pick, for the state Senate is David Soucy, a golf pro who now manages the Green Mountain National golf course. FDTF

The course, located in and owned by the town of Killington, has struggled for years to cover as much as $5 million in debt originally incurred to build the facility. In 2011 with golf revenue down 13.5 percent in Vermont, town officials were critical of spending $25,000 per year to promote the course while facing a large municipal debt restructuring.

At the time Soucy appeared to dismiss worries over the debt and said reporting on it had been “sensationalized.”  He championed the golf facility, telling WCAX: “[…] as far as the debt is concerned, the pressure is on the town, not the course. It really comes down to the debt structure, not our operations; we make money on our operations. The debt structure is what needs to be taken care of,” he said. [added emphasis] So the Gov’s  newest pick for the legislature hardly your typical Republican town budget hawk worried.

David Soucy may actually be a good match with Scott’s earlier appointment to the legislature, Jim Harrison the former Vermont Retail and Grocers Association president. Under Harrison the VRGA opposed taxing sugared drinks, any paid family leave policy, and the Vermont Genetically Modified Organism labeling law. A lobbyist and a golf pro selected to represent average Vermonters in the state House and Senate that’s par for Republican Governor Scott giving business an even bigger voice in the legislature. Making Vermont Affordable for Whom?

 

Job preservation at work in Vermont

Country Home Products named one of Vermont’s best places to work in 2017 has announced it is laying off dozens of Vermont workers. There’s a major layoff announcement in Winooski. Country Home Products informed employees this week that dozens will soon be out of a job.[…]selffeeding layoff The Vermont-born maker of outdoor power tools gave 67 employees a letter or reached out by phone, telling workers they are out of a job and when their last day will be.

In 2009 the longtime Vermont business Country HomeProducts/DR Power raised $12 million from 24 foreign investors through the EB-5 investment-for-visas program. The $12 million was used to fund product development and market expansion. As a designated “troubled business,” the company escaped the normal EB-5 requirement to create 10 jobs and only had to preserve existing jobs.

Six years passed, and in 2015 Country Home Products, now with a market value of $2.1 billion, was sold to Generac Holdings Inc., a larger publicly traded business. Generac is headquartered in Waukesha, WI, the CEO is Aaron Jagdfeld, and the company employs 4,202 people. Jagdfeld’s overall compensation in 2016 was $3.9 million, while all executive compensation was up 6.51% the same year.

And so now the layoffs start. Country Home Products president Matt Bieber says the full-time, part-time and seasonal layoffs are in addition to the complete closure of their Winooski assembly plant. [Emphasis added.]

Kind of raises a few questions about what “job preservation” in Vermont actually means. And whose job and for how long was it supposed to be preserved?

I am sure we will be told there isn’t much the State can do other than speedily provide unemployment benefits and perhaps job counseling.  Although Governor Scott offers this: “Any job loss in the state of Vermont is concerning,” His suggestion that, “It reinforces that we have to watch every dollar. We have to make Vermont more affordable,” might ring kind of hollow to those now out a good job. No prescriptions available for this malady from the Gov., just take two ‘affordables’ and call me in the morning.

Cradle-to-College Public Education Can Revitalize Vermont

Vermont is looking for ways to grow economically without betraying its sustainability commitments. In order to succeed in competition for a skilled workforce with other states, we must provide unique living opportunities tailored to the needs of young families.

At the same time, we are learning that daycare services, vital to a youthful workforce, are drying up in Vermont. The poor pay for providers and lack of possibilities for professional development make fast-food service jobs look almost like an attractive alternative.

What better incentive could Vermont offer, in order to retain and attract desirable businesses and young careerists, than to provide a new tier of public education to serve that essential need?

With a declining primary school population, many communities have more brick-and-mortar capacity than they can currently fill, and statewide efforts are focussed on consolidation.

Why not redirect those assets to a program of certified public daycare/early childhood ed, and roll it into the administrations of local school boards that are already in the process of adapting to consolidations?

If we begin now to provide tuition-forgiveness incentives for qualified students to enroll in early childhood education programs at colleges and universities in the state; and provide a professional track for daycare providers to become certified early education providers under state rules, we could begin to rebuild that essential work-support infrastructure.

Under this plan, as qualified teachers, early childhood care/education providers should be allowed to negotiate their contracts with school boards just as their primary and secondary school colleagues do.

All indications are that investments made in early childhood care and education more than return their value in reduced costs to society from the many undesirable outcomes that are avoided over the years: drug addiction, domestic violence, persistent poverty, crime and incarceration, .

Even costs associated with mental illness and poor health habits can be greatly reduced by early childhood education interventions.

At the same time, being a pioneer state in providing cradle-to-college public education would set Vermont above others as a singularly desirable location for any up-and-coming business requiring a skilled workforce to locate it’s operations for the longterm.

Updated: Climate change and a couple of the GOP’s “muted barbs”

[Update:  Good! After it became evident there would be some nudging in the Vermont Legislature by State Sen. Chris Pearson (P/D-Chittenden) Governor Scott has agreed to join a group formed by  New York, California and Washington, calling itself  the U.S. Climate Alliance. This effort is meant to achieve the Paris agreement’s goals of reducing carbon emissions despite of President Trump’s exit from the international accord.]

Now that President Trump has decided the U.S.A. should join Syria and Nicaragua as the only other countries not supporting the Paris agreement setting goals to slow climate change, a significantly heavier burden now falls on state governments to address climate change. Believe it or not at Trump’s festive Rose Garden announcement “ceremony” a jazz band played ‘Summertime.’

justusthree

Should we worry here in Vermont? Well, less than year ago Governor Scott’s beliefs on climate change were vague enough that they reportedly might still be “evolving,” and his resistance to wind power is well known.

However, nice man that he is, he makes an occasional symbolic gesture in support of addressing climate change. This May, in response to fears that Trump might exit the Paris agreement, Scott and Massachusetts fellow Republican  Governor Charlie Baker sent a letter to Trump’s Secretary of Energy, Rick Perry. Their letter made no specific demands and only called for the federal government to “continue national leadership” in its efforts to address climate change by meeting goals in reducing greenhouse gases. No doubt the former governor from the oil state of Texas was deeply impressed by the effort, and  if he remembered  might have even passed it along to the President.

In practical terms Governor Scott announced yesterday that Attorney Anthony Roisman was his pick for leading the Public Service Board. The PSB sets public utility rates, oversees service quality, and decides on siting Vermont’s energy infrastructure including wind and solar power. Roisman shares Scott’s aversion to wind power. Seven Days reports he represented plaintiffs opposed to wind power here in Vermont. He has also litigated against nuclear power plant operators, and in the 1980’s he represented a group of families harmed by toxic industrial waste. Most recently he was instrumental in killing a proposed  60-megawatt solar array power project in Maryland.

Yesterday, after Trump’s announcement, Scientific American reported some reaction at the state level in the wake of Trump’s decision. Democratic Gov. Jay Inslee of Washington reiterated his support of a carbon tax in his state. And Gov. Jerry Brown (D) of California is headed to China next week to take part in high level meetings on climate change and clean energy. The California legislature recently voted to receive all its energy from renewable and zero-carbon sources by 2045.

Republicans, Scientific American notes, “were far more muted in their barbs.” Scott’s Massachusetts letter-writing partner Gov. Baker said Trump’s action was “disappointing and counterproductive.” And what do we hear from the Green Mountain State?   A spokeswoman for Vermont Gov. Phil Scott (R), who recently penned a letter with Baker calling on Trump to stay in the Paris accord, did not respond to multiple requests for comment. Now, that’s about as “muted barb” as you can find.

To say the least, it seems “moderate” GOP governors like Baker and Scott are unlikely to join the likes of Washington Gov. Jay Inslee (D) or Gov. Jerry Brown (D) of California. But, hey, they write letters to Rick Perry.

Gov. Scott picks former ALEC chair for Green Mountain Care Board head

The Governor’s veto of the marijuana bill on Wednesday today may suck all the air out of Vermont newsrooms for the next day or so but he quietly made a couple appointments that will likely have as big an impact on the state.Scottkevinalec 2

Scott appointed state Senator Kevin Mullin (R-Rutland) to chair the Green Mountain Care Board and Maureen Usifer to the board. The legislature created  the independent GMCB in 2011. Its responsibilities include health insurance rates, hospital budgets, and major capital expenditures.

“Healthcare makes up approximately 20 percent of our economy, so it is critical to have strong, experienced leaders on this Board. Kevin is a proven leader with decades of business, management and public service experience, which he will bring to bear in this important leadership role. And, as an experienced chief financial officer and board director for respected companies, Maureen’s expertise in finance, management and oversight will be incredibly valuable to the Board and Vermonters,” said Scott in a press release [added emphasis]

So who is Senator Mullin, Scott’s choice to chair the Green Mountain Care Board? What kind of Republican is he? And what do we know about his view on the role of government in say, healthcare? Well, Mullin does have a long resume at the State House. He served as State Rep. from Rutland for four years, was appointed to the Senate in 2003, and won re-election to the seat ever since. He is currently chair of the Senate Committee on Economic Development, Housing and General Affairs and sits on the Senate Committee on Education.

Senator Mullin served two separate times as Vermont state chair of one of the Koch Brothers’ many organizations, The American Legislative Exchange Council. A national franchise, ALEC supports right-wing state legislators with model legislation favorable to its corporate members. According to sourcewatch.org: ALEC’s agenda extends into almost all areas of law. Its bills undermine environmental regulations and deny climate change; support school privatization; undercut health care reform; defund unions and limit their political influence; restrain legislatures’ abilities to raise revenue through taxes; mandate strict election laws that disenfranchise voters; increase incarceration to benefit the private prison industry, among many other issues.

Mullin did not support Trump in last year’s GOP presidential primary. He sort of sat on his hands preferring John Kasich but when rumors that speaker Paul Ryan might jump in the race Mullin said he’d support him. Paul Ryan never ran but he is now champion of the GOP’s despicable American Health Care Act, which the CBO says would leave 23 million Americans uninsured by 2026 if it replaces the ACA (Obamacare) in its current form.

Ryan favors making millions of Americans uninsured, and ALEC wants to undermine regulations. I wonder which part of Mullin’s two favorite leadership models Governor Scott wants him to bring to bear on the Green Mountain Care Board Speaker Ryan’s health care lies, the Koch Brothers’ anti-government corporate-fueled juggernaut or both.

Either way, stock up on Band-Aids, since that’s all the healthcare many of us will be able to afford under Mullin and TrumpDon’tCare.

 

GOP governors fit that image

As you can see from the actual Google news screen shot (not photo-shopped) it’s  easy to confuse one Republican governor’s image and policy for another.

phildouglas

Now, former Vermont Governor Jim Douglas never had to decide whether to sign marijuana legislation. But he did wield threats of a budget veto similar to what Governor Phil Scott is now doing attempting to bend the Democratic majority legislature to his agenda. Some key people now members of Scott’s staff were part of Douglas’ administration eight years ago

In June 2009, Republican Governor Jim Douglas carried out his threat and issued an historic  2,000-word veto message, becoming the first Vermont governor to veto the state budget. He had hoped to draw a line in the sand, but although the move made history it was quickly blown away when the solid Democratic House and Senate majorities overrode his veto.

Fast forward to now. Like Douglas, Governor Scott has threatened a budget veto. He has targeted any budget the legislature sends him not including a requirement for teachers to pay 20% of their health care premiums. Since the Democratic majorities are not as large as in 2009, an override is not guaranteeddriving them into negotiations on Scott’s key demand. Where Douglas’ veto leverage failed, Scott may succeed getting part of his agenda implemented.

As talks on a negotiated deal began and details took form, the teachers’ union begged to differ: Martha Allen, the Vermont NEA president and a librarian at a school in Canaan, said the Scott administration’s “assault on collective bargaining is straight out of the Donald Trump and Scott Walker anti-union playbook.”

Over-stated? Well, the threats are real. It is worth recalling the $3 million in campaign support Phil Scott enjoyed getting from the Republican Governors Association. The union-busting Koch Brothers were the largest contributors to the RGA in 2016. according to opensecrets.org. And in the last election cycle as in the one beforethe Republican State Leadership Council (another Koch Brother project) helped the Vermont GOP by targeting a half-dozen Democratic legislators for defeat.

Sure Google algorithims mix up their images one GOP governor is pretty much just like another, eh? and with great gobs of funds from Koch Brothers organizations behind them all, is it any wonder the playbook and goals are similar? After all, Wisconsinonce progressive, “blue” and heavily unionized and the birthplace of public sector unionsis now in the bottom third of states for unionized workforce.

Given time and small steps and removing teachers’ health care from the collective bargaining process is exactly one of those “small” steps I am not so sure that Trump/Walker anti-worker laws could never happen here in blue Vermont.

Why does WCAX’s Celebrating Cinco de Mayo video start with U.S. Border Patrol?

I don’t have cable and rarely look at WCAX online. But I did check out Vermont’s news station after hearing that the Martin family, owners of WCAX TV, had agreed to be sold to Gray Television, a media conglomerate from Georgia, for $29 million. WCAXmayo2

For no special reason I clicked on a days-old video story Celebrating Cinco de Mayo in Vermont. It was a bit of a shock that a still shot showing what seems to be a U.S. Border Patrol immigration traffic stop of some kind precedes the actual story about a May 5th party in Essex Junction .

Cinco de Mayo commemorates a battle between the Mexican army and French forces in 1862. The May 5th date is significant in the U.S. as a celebration of Mexican-American culture. I guess since the recent waves of immigrant arrests an algorithmic profile (or some staffer?) at WCAX NEWS thought, ‘Nothing says Cinco de Mayo 2017 in Vermont more than a Border Patrol immigration stop.’

Well for better or worse WCAX will likely be in for changes and adjustment soon under the new ownership. And it’s clear the lucrative New England political media market is what Hilton Hatchet Howell, Jr., CEO and vice chairman of Gray Television, is after.

And make no mistake Hilton Hatchet Howell is in it for the political ad money. He commented on Gray Television’s recent purchases of WCAX, a Maine station and one in Florida: “Of particular note to me. This acquisition leads Gray to, for the first time in its corporate history, have three New England stations and all three of those New England stations have some of the highest political revenue in their markets and we are quite excited about that. It moves us into New Hampshire for the very first time in the Northern part of that state, and we add to our operations in Maine, which is a politically-sensitive state during the presidential election year.”

Upwards of $100 million was spent on political ads in broadcast and cable television in New England markets. It looks like Hilton Hatchet Howell, Jr., went shopping for and bought himself a cash cowaccess to the New Hampshire presidential primary ad revenue.

And speaking of politically sensitive, 3-H better adjust WCAX’s algorithmic profiling and/or staff cultural awareness training before Cinco de Mayo rolls around again.

Randolph Exit 4 I-89 development land conserved

Sometimes with the right combination of co-operation, money, power, and influence things can be made to “click” to preserve open land here in Vermont.vermontlandsave1

An agreement has been made involving developer Mr. Jesse “Sam” Sammis and his wife Jean “Jinny” Sammis, the Castanea Foundation, and a Vermont goat farm that will result in the conservation of hundreds of acres almost two hundred acres of land which will remain open and farmed. Sammis’s now-abandoned  development proposal  along Exit 4 from I-89 in Randolph as planned would have included 274 residential units, 280,000 square feet of office space, 236,000 square feet of light manufacturing space, and a 180-bed hotel and conference center.

As reported in a press release last week from the Preservation Trust of Vermont:

The Montpelier-based [Castanea] foundation is acting as an intermediary to hold the land to allow time for the sale of a conservation easement with public funding, private fundraising, and the eventual sale of the conserved land to Ayers Brook Goat Dairy for agricultural purposes.

In addition, Sam and Jinny Sammis have agreed to sell the remaining 22 acres that they own at Exit 4 to the Preservation Trust of Vermont. Working in conjunction with Conservation Law Foundation, the Vermont Natural Resources Council and the citizen group Exit 4 Open Space, the Preservation Trust of Vermont will have the opportunity to purchase the remaining 22 acres. The groups will need to raise $1 million dollars – substantially below the assessed value for the property – over the next 60 days to complete the deal.

The original sprawling undertaking had the backing of the Shumlin administration. Part of the proposed project was an agreement with the state for developer  Sammis to build and run an officially sanctioned state welcome center. The center and a 30-year lease on state-owned land would have provided  exceptionally convenient access with the Interstate exit funneling traffic to the Sammis-owned industrial park, office space, conference center and hundreds of residential units. Former Governor Shumlin’s former Secretary of Administration, Jeb Spaulding, was particularly enthusiastic “When I first heard about this proposal I thought it sounded too good to be true.

The recent agreement to save hundreds of acres of land took an impressive alignment of active local opposition to the development, several heavy-hitting conservation groups, and of course lots and lots of money.

But despite all the smiles and good feeling now, developer Sammis’ said: “I’m happy about it from a conservation standpoint. As a developer and somebody who’s lived in Randolph for over 40 years and knows that there’s a tremendous demand for good jobs, I’m disappointed.”  Sammis’ remark (nudging pretty close to right up against some sour grapes) anticipates future development battles.

And those battles will involve Act 250 Vermont’s statewide development review process. Governor Phil Scott has pledged to “reform” Act 250. His  encounter with Act 250 as young businessman is part of his well-worn origin story. The review process is bound to be factor as that thousand-acre utopian city-state planned for nearby Upper Valley towns of Royalton, Sharon, Strafford and Tunbridge moves forward.

So there’s more to come. Think of all the open land through no fault of its own located near the interstatefound just “sitting” there, “undeveloped”barely even monetized! For Phil Scott, surely a heresy!

Budget-stressed, crowded PA corrections system to take VT’s inmates

The Scott administration has been scurrying around to find a place to relocate the approximately 260 inmates currently held in Michigan at GEO Group’s for-profit private prison. In late 2016 GEO Group unexpectedly canceled its extension option on a multi-year contract to house Vermont prisoners and  set a June deadline for their removal. Governor Scott didn’t pursue in-state alternatives he claims would cost more. It’s all about bottom-line GOP budgeting priorities: “The reality is it’s a lot less costly to have some out of state,” Scott said as a candidate.

cellDetails about a new deal Governor Scott is reportedly arranging with the Pennsylvania state prison system are scant to say the least. According to Vtdigger.com, Secretary of Human Services Al Gobeille will only say that the administration is “very close” to a deal with the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections. An official from the PA Dept of Corrections did confirm they may soon house the Vermont prisoners but nothing is finalized. Pennsylvania Corrections regularly charges $72.00 per day cost for out-of state prisoners. That’s about $10.00 more than soon to end $61.80 per day fee GEO Group now charges to Vermont .

Whatever details eventually emerge about the Pennsylvania prison inmate housing deal, a quick look at news reports about the state system of is hardly reassuring for anyone concerned. For a period of years that state’s department of corrections has been undergoing major budget and staff cuts. The state is still suffering severe budget problems; this year, reductions under consideration in the Pennsylvania house, if enacted, would put about 1,500 state employees out of work, with prisons in line for the deepest job cuts. The administration produced an internal budget office analysis that indicated nearly 650 layoffs would occur at the Department of Corrections.

Should those new layoffs and cuts come to pass, it will be on top of existing chronic problems including prisons operating well over capacity, with overcrowding exacerbated by previous years of budget cuts and staff reductions. To save costs two PA state prisons are slated to be closed in 2017. Officially they will be “mothballed,” dislocating and consolidating almost 2,500 inmates into other Pennsylvania prisons. The closings mean the Pennsylvania system will be operating at what is called “emergency” capacity levels. Corrections Secretary John Wetzel said, “It’s not ideal,” and by way of defending the action, he explains Pennsylvania is far from the worst state when it comes to overcrowding. There is speculation by PA officials desperate for any revenue that the newly “mothballed” prison facilities might be profitably put to use as suitable housing for low-risk federal immigration detainees from Trump’s aggressive immigration actions.

With the PA system under major budget stresses engagement by prison social workers, medical, or counseling staff are apt to be minimal to the extent they are provided for out-of-state prisoners. However, for families of Vermont inmate families who want to visit the travel distance may be an improvement of a kind. From Burlington to GEO’s North Lake Correction Facility is over 800 miles and to Pittsburgh, in the western corner of Pennsylvania is under 600 miles.

The snapshot of Pennsylvania’s prisons that emerges from these recent news reports is one of a system struggling under severe budget constraints and perhaps understaffed. The June deadline to move Vermont’s 260 inmates from Michigan is approaching fast: it is time for some details about what kind of “bargain” deal budget-conscious Governor Scott may think he’s arranged with Pennsylvania.

 

 

Vermont DMV & ICE, are they having fun or what?

It turns out the Vermont DMV is still cooperating with Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). When Vermont DMV head Robert Ide and Col. Jake Elovirta, the department’s director of enforcement and safety, testified to legislators this week, Ide admitted:  [his] department has not completely implemented the terms of a Human Rights Commission settlement they had agreed to.

Commissioner Ide and Col. Jake Elovirta
Commissioner Ide and Col. Jake Elovirta

According to requirements of the mid-2016 court agreement the DMV was supposed to stop passing along information about foreign nationals to Immigration and Customs Enforcement. However VTdigger.com and Seven Days found: records show that communications between DMV and ICE employees continued [the practice] through the end of 2016.

But I guess it’s hard for some at the DMV to break off their warm relationship with ICE. “It [the settlement with Human Rights Commission] was an ambitious list of tasks,” Commissioner Ide said. “I’m not saying that we are all done yet, but we certainly are on a course that charts us to that end point.”

Implementation of the 2016 DMV agreement may continue to be a challenge in the age of Trump. Since the immigration crack down, there are reports of a “gung-ho enthusiasm” among immigration enforcement officials. Energized hardliners who have now been given what seems to be free reign say their jobs are becoming “fun.” And alarmingly, one federal official said: Those who take less of a hard line on unauthorized immigrants feel silenced. DMVfunzone

When addressing improper communications between DMV personnel and ICE that violate the agreement, Commissioner Ide told the State House hearing that some things just aren’t “fun”: “It’s not fun to have to explain this type of behavior,” Ide said. “But behavior is what it is, and sometimes you have to.”

I kind of doubt anyone at the hearing asked: “Commissioner Ide, tell us, is it fun to do your job?”  So, he must have felt the need to publicly declare his job isn’t even fun anymore.

Fun or not, while bringing the agency into compliance as promised, Ide might consider remarks made by Abdel Rababah. He is the man, on whose behalf the Human Rights Commission filed the case against the DMV. Rababah said. “If we can’t trust the system, how can we as people function in the community?”