Monthly Archives: November 2007

Welch: Iraq funding battle to resume in ’08

U.S. Rep. Peter Welch was in Montpelier Thursday to talk about tax breaks for the middle class.

So what did I ask him about? Iraq, of course!

(To be fair, Welch raised the issue first when he spoke about congressional priorities of Republicans and Democrats).

Welch – who is under fire from anti-war activists in Vermont – pointed out that the U.S. House this month passed a bill that funds withdrawal from Iraq. But that effort was blocked by Republicans in the Senate with the threat of a filibuster, he said, where Democrats have a much slimmer majority.

"There is no funding for Iraq," Welch said. "It won’t be next year until we take it up again."

When asked about the Bush administration’s long-term agreement with the Iraqi government announced earlier this week, Welch said he is completely opposed to establishing U.S. bases in the country. He added that there is legislation that will be considered to stop that effort.

"One of the reasons people are so upset with the United States is because they think we’re in Iraq for the oil and to establish permanent bases," Welch said. "The president needs to stand by his promise not to establish bases there because this is inconsistent with what he has said."

-Dan Barlow

We’ll hold our own energy meetings, Windham County Dems say

The fact that the Vermont Department of Public Service’s series of meetings on the state’s energy future did not include Windham County, where Vermont Yankee nuclear power plant is located, ruffled some feathers in the southern part of the state.

So now the two powerful senators from Windham County – Senate President Pro Tem Peter Shumlin of Putney and Sen. Jeanette White of Brattleboro – have scheduled their own meeting on energy in Windham County on Dec. 5th.

They’ll be joined by members of several Senate committees at the meeting, scheduled for the Robert H. Gibson River Garden in Brattleboro from 6-8 p.m.

Here’s what Shumlin had to say about the meeting:

"We are asking Vermonters:  What do we – as a community – want our energy portfolio to look like in 20 years?  This hearing is not just about Vermont Yankee.  We are looking for input on how to build a strong, sustainable energy economy that’s right for Vermont."

-Dan Barlow

More gay marriage meetings

The Vermont Commission on Family Recognition and Protection announced Tuesday the next three December meetings across the state on gay marriage.

- Wednesday, Dec 5th.  The Activity Room, Brattleboro Middle School, 109
Sunny Acres St., Brattleboro.

- Monday, Dec 10th.  The Auditorium, Bellows Free Academy, St Albans

- Tuesday, Dec 18th.  Room 11, the Statehouse, Montpelier.

All meetings begin with a summary of what led up to civil unions in 2000 at 5 p.m. The actual hearings will begin at 6:30 p.m.

-Dan Barlow

Bad news for FairPoint Communications

A report commissioned by the Maine Public Utilities Commission – that state’s version of the Vermont Public Service Board – was released this week and it recommends turning down the company’s bid to purchase Verizon’s Internet and landline businesses.

Now, the Commission does not need to follow the report it commissioned. But it would seem they need to have a good reason for switching courses, especially after the report states that the $2.7 billion deal would put ratepayers and shareholders at a level of risk that outweighs the benefits of the deal.

And if the Maine Commission says no to the three-state deal, it’s dead.

This is one to watch.

-Dan Barlow

McClaughry weighs in on State Hospital future

Have a spare 30 minutes today?

John McClaughry’s Ethan Allen Institute released a 22-page report this morning detailing another road map for shaping the state’s mental health programs, including closing Waterbury’s Vermont State Hospital and not building anything else to replace it with.

The report – which includes some gripping, page-turning stories from patients allegedly ill-treated at the facility over its century of care – can be found at the Institutes’ Web site right here.

With the release of the Vermont Legislature’s report on the State Hospital earlier this month, the wheels of progress seem to be moving past the expensive options, including a proposed new facility at the hospital in Burlington, in favor of localized care. The Ethan Allen Institutes’s report could end up being icing on that cake.

-Dan Barlow

Symington heads to Washington, D.C.

House Speaker Gaye Symington is flying off to the nation’s capitol today to meet with the Democratic Senate Caucus to discuss a range of up-coming issues facing the states, including Vermont.

According to Alexandra MacLean, the assistant to the speaker, Symington will be joined by nine other legislative leaders from other states in getting a first-hand account of how federal issues bump in state issues.

Topics of discussion will include the 2008 federal budget and the future of sCHIP, the children’s health insurance program that President Bush vetoed an expansion of recently.

Symington is scheduled to return to the state Wednesday evening.

-Dan Barlow

The future of the Vermont State Hospital

The long-awaited Legislative report on the future of the troubled Vermont State Hospital in Waterbury was released Tuesday morning and a copy of the 12-page document can be found over here at the Vermont Legislature’s Web site.

Here’s the short summary: The consultants recommend closing the State Hospital and replacing it with a smaller, inpatient rehab center in or around Waterbury. Meanwhile, acute services will be decentralized from Waterbury to community hospitals across the state.

Expect this to be a big issue in the 2008 legislative session as the Douglas administration and lawmakers try to find common ground. The report doesn’t give any price tags for the plan – that wasn’t part of their charge from the Legislature – so this debate could really change once some numbers get tossed around next year.

-Dan Barlow

Postcards for Douglas

The delivery of thousands of anti-FairPoint postcards to Gov. James Douglas has been switched from today to 10:30 a.m. Wednesday, according to members of the unions opposing the proposed sale of Verizon.

But if you do walk over to Montpelier’s Statehouse today there is a fascinating art display of hand-painted American flags – one for each member of the U.S. military killed in Iraq – on the building’s front lawn. Please take a few minutes to think about the loss and walk among the rows and rows of tiny flags.

-Dan Barlow

Two years or four years?

There is some really interesting results contained in the Snelling Center for Government’s poll, released Tuesday, concerning boosting the terms of elected officials from two years to four years.

Now, many people outside of Montpelier’s political bubble see this question – which would require amending the Vermont Constitution – as rather dull.

But for the elected officials serving in these positions, it matters lots. And they have lots of opinions on it too, so much that it seems the state Democratic and Republican parties aren’t taken official positions yet.

But what do average Vermonters think?

Well, the Snelling Center did a poll of 400 Vermonters and broke the results down by political persuasion. Now, once sub-groups are broken out in a poll of this size, the margin of error increases and one could make the argument that some of the results are irrelevant (Vermonters who identified themselves as Progressives in the poll only totaled 12 for example).

About 64 percent of Republicans support boosting the governor’s term to four years, compared with 53 percent of Democrats, 70 percent of independents and 54 percent who labeled themselves as "other." But the results switch for Progressives as 58 percent said they opposed the idea.

The numbers are similar, although they seem to drop a bit, when it comes to the State Senate. About 54 percent of Republicans supported boosting state senators’ terms to four years. As for Democrats, 58 percent liked the idea, compared with 51 percent of independents and 52 percent of "others." Progressives again opposed this option, this time by 75 percent.

Similar numbers for the Vermont House too. About 61 percent of Republicans liked it, as did 54 percent of Democrats, 52 percent of independents and 50 percent of others. Progressives again did not like four year terms for state representatives, to the tune of 75 percent.

Now, again keep in mind the total number of Vermonters who responded to this poll. Of the 400 polled, Macro International, the company conducting the polling, received 358 responses. Republicans totaled 74 of the people who answered and there were 90 Democrats.

But the big numbers here were the independents and others. A whopping 141 Vermonters called themselves independents and another 41 said they were "other" – putting more than half the people who responded to the poll outside the membership of the state’s three top parties.

Interesting to think about.

-Dan Barlow

Telecomm unions send Douglas letters

Unions opposed to FairPoint’s bid to buy up Verizon’s Internet services and landlines in Vermont, New Hampshire and Maine will be delivering thousands of postcards from state residents opposed to the deal to Gov. James Douglas on Monday.

The unions promise a wheelbarrel full of postcards delivered to Douglas’ office, followed by a 1 p.m. press conference on the steps of the Statehouse. Should be fun.

-Dan Barlow

Mukasey confirmed by Senate Judiciary

Attorney General nominee Michael Mukasey was confirmed by the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee in an 11-9 vote.

Two Democrats broke from their ranks and joined the Republicans on the committee in confirming Mukasey, just enough votes to ensure that he passes. As expected, Sen. Patrick Leahy, the Vermonter who chairs the committee, voted against the confirmation.

Here’s Leahy’s statement from this morning.

I spoke in Vermont last Friday about my decision to vote against the President’s nomination.  I wish to emphasize a few important points this morning.

Nothing is more fundamental to our constitutional democracy than our basic notion that no one is above the law.  This Administration has undercut that precept time after time. They are now trying to do it again, with an issue as fundamental as whether the United States of America will join the ranks of those governments that approve of torture.  This President and Vice President should not be allowed to violate our obligations under the Convention Against Torture and the Geneva Conventions or disregard U.S. statutes such as our Detainee Treatment Act and War Crimes Act.  They should not be allowed to overturn more than 200 years of our Nation’s human rights and moral leadership around the world.

The Administration has compounded its lawlessness by cloaking its policies and miscalculations under a veil of secrecy, leaving Congress, the courts, and the American people in the dark about what they are doing.  The President says that we do not torture, but had his lawyers redefine torture down in secret memos, in fundamental conflict with American values and law. 

I agree with the Generals, the Admirals, and our JAG officers that waterboarding is torture and is illegal.  If an American were waterboarded anywhere in the world, would we have to know the “circumstances” and purported justifications for it before condemning it?  Of course not. 

Some have sought to find comfort in Judge Mukasey’s personal assurance that he would enforce a future, new law against waterboarding if this Congress were to pass one.  Unsaid, of course, is the fact that any such prohibition would have to be enacted over the veto of this President. 

But the real damage of this argument is not its futility.  The real harm is that it presupposes that we do not already have laws and treaty obligations against waterboarding.  In fact, we do.  No Senator should abet this Administration’s legalistic obfuscations by those such as Alberto Gonzales, John Yoo, and David Addington by agreeing that the laws on the books do not already make waterboarding illegal.  We have been prosecuting water torture for more than 100 years. 

When a top legal adviser at our State Department cannot say that the waterboarding of an American is illegal, and our State Department cannot forcefully rule it out as a “technique” that might be okay for other countries’ foreign intelligence services to use against U.S. citizens, we see how far wrong this Administration has headed.  When asked at a recent public debate whether he could imagine any circumstance in which waterboarding could be justified on an American national by a foreign intelligence service, John Bellinger of the State Department said, “one would have to apply the facts to the law” and when pressed he said that he was not willing to “include it or exclude it” and that he did not want to “get involved in abstract discussions.”  That is so wrong that it is chilling. 

When it comes to our core values – the things that make our country great and that define America’s place in the world – it does not depend on the circumstances.  America, the great and good Nation that has been a beacon to the world on human rights, does not torture and should stand against torture.

That is not what America stands for.  Indeed, the better example is set by the Army Field Manual, which instructs our forces to consider how we would react if what a soldier was about to do to someone was done to an American soldier.   

In their recent letter to the nominee, Senators Warner, McCain, and Graham recognize, as I do and as I hope all Senators do, that:  “Waterboarding, under any circumstances, represents a clear violation of U.S. law.” 

Finally, when the Administration and others say that we cannot say whether America waterboards people because it would tip off our enemies, they have it precisely wrong.  That is about as effective as Saddam Hussein hinting that he had weapons of mass destruction when he did not in order to impress his enemies.  In refusing to say that we do not waterboard prisoners, we give license to others.  When the United States cannot state clearly that waterboarding is torture and illegal and will not be tolerated, what does that mean for other governments, and what comfort does that provide the world’s most repressive regimes? 

I wish that I could support Judge Mukasey’s nomination.  I like Michael Mukasey.  But this is an Administration that has been acting outside the law and an Administration that has now created a “confirmation contortion.”  When many of us voted to confirm General Petreas, the Administration turned around and, for political advantage, tried to claim that when we voted to confirm the nominee, we also voted for the President’s war policies.  Just as I do not support this President’s Iraq policy, I do not support his torture policy or his views of unaccountability or unlimited Executive power. 

No one is more eager to restore strong leadership and independence to the Department of Justice than I.  What we need most right now is an Attorney General who believes and understands that there must be limitations on Executive power.  America needs to be certain of the bedrock principles in our laws and our values that no President and no American can be authorized to violate.  Accordingly, I vote no on the President’s nomination.

-Dan Barlow

Water or mud?

All eyes today are on the House Ways & Means Committee, which again is pondering replacing portions of the statewide property tax with an income tax to fund education.

Rep. Michael Obuchowski, D-Rockingham, the chairman of the committee, said this morning that the committee needs to see if it is "churning out water or mud" as it tackles the thorny issue. Several members of the committee seem to think that a vote to go forward – aka, continue working – on the proposed tax shift is in the cards.

-Dan Barlow