Monthly Archives: April 2012

Bears for Brock

At a parade today in his home town of St. Albans, Republican candidate for governor Randy Brock will unveil his unofficial campaign mascot.

Brock calls it the “$21 million Bear,” and he’s hoping it adds a little more weight to what could end up being the heaviest political cross of 2012.

Gov. Peter Shumlin is suffering some short-term blowback for his endorsement of a plan by the state’s two largest electric utilities to compensate the CVPS ratepayers that bailed company out of a financial bind in 2001.   

Brock is hoping to give the issue some legs. Some bear legs.

“Clearly one thing on a lot of people’s minds today is the $21 million,” Brock said by phone Sunday. “And we’d like to keep it on the forefront.”

The mascot – we’re told it will carry a sign with the number ‘$21 million’ – is of course a dual reference not only to the merger flap, but also to the four bears from which the governor ran, naked, after attempting to remove from his yard the birdfeeders from which they’d been eating.

Brock’s bear will literally walk alongside him during the obligatory summer parade tour.

“It’s a walking, moving, waving, candy-dispensing dispensing bear,” he said. “And it’s a Republican bear.”

The bear’s political leanings will be made evident by the “Brock for Governor” shirt (he? she?) will be wearing during the parade. Brock declined to name the human underneath the outfit.

“If that person wants to be known I’m sure he or she will do so,” Brock said. “Suffice it to say, it’s a bear that’s going to have lot of fun in the parades, and hopefully the kids can have some fun too. At the same, we’re making a political point on an important public policy issue.”

An administration official on Sunday declined comment. Shumlin has been coy about his reelection plans, saying he’ll begin thinking about politics around Labor Day. That hasn’t stopped him from raising money, lots and lot of money, or from lobbying his gubernatorial counterparts to become chairman of the Democratic Governors Association next year.

For political junkies wondering where the Brock campaign has been, silly season has finally begun.

Scott off guard

Phil Scott has won a reputation over the years as being a pretty diplomatic guy. Tactful. Even-keeled. Gets along well with others.

His delicacy was on display last Thursday, when a gaggle of tourists wandered onto the Senate floor.

The chamber had recently emptied out after a long floor debate and Scott, still standing at the dais from which he presides over the body, was kind of enough to field a few questions from the curious crowd. Top of mind for the group: the alleged “dysfunction” in the Senate they’d read about recently.

The lieutenant governor thought a moment before reflecting on the lengthy, contentious flood debates that have characterized this year’s session.

“I think it’s an indication – pause – we have different – longer pause – it’s unique,” Scott finally said. “We have a lot of people here from all different walks of life. We have a trial attorney, we have a professor from UVM, we have a former ambassador from Croatia,” Scott said, referring to Sens. Joe Benning, Philip Baruth and Peter Galbraith.

The three senators belong to a loquacious class of freshmen legislators that has been cited by Senate President John Campbell as one of the reasons for the perceived chaos in the chamber.

At this point in the conversation, Scott got a well-timed assist from Steve Marshall, assistant Senate secretary.

“Some very strong minded-individuals,” Marshall said.

Scott: “And they want to be heard”

Marshall: “And they are.”

Scott: “And some don’t always understand the rules of the Senate, so when they get trampled on a bit, other people bring up points of order.”

The long and the short of it, Scott said, is that “the debate has been unlike any I’ve seen over last 10 years.”

The Rundown – The Merger

This week on the Rundown, Pete gives you the latest on the legislative hubbub around the CVPS/GMP merger.

The Rundown – CVPS/GMP Merger Debate from 802 Live on Vimeo.

Recent print stories from the VPB about the merger issue:

4/27/12 – Senate demands refunds before blockbuster merger deal

4/26/12 – Vermont House and Senate set to take up utility merger today

4/25/12 – Merger showdown: Anyone’s guess

4/24/12 – Sides make best case in merger

Senate approves “nuclear option” for merger

The Senate has just pushed the button on the nuclear option, approving in a voice vote an amendment that will prevent utilities from recouping in rates the $21 million they must repay to CVPS customers before any merger can go through.

It’s a move that utility executives have warned could kill the $702 million merger deal between CVPS and GMP. And the Shumlin administration – which has warned legislators against meddling in regulatory affairs – just shipped a press release unloading on the body.

“This matter is now in the hands of the (Public Service) Board. The Senate’s action today interferes with an open PSB docket, undermines the credibility of the regulatory process, and is an extreme overreach of legislative jurisdiction,” Shumlin said in a written statement. Continue reading

Pollina looks to reclaim “lost nickels” from soda, beer giants

Amid all the merger action today, Senate lawmakers manage to tick some other bills off the backlog that’s been piling up over the last couple weeks.

Once it became clear that it would take hours for legislators to cobble together freshly worded merger amendments, Senate President John Campbell opted to move on to the capital bill. Then came the solid waste bill, legislation dealing with private activity bonds, and the prescription-drug monitoring bill. All won final approval bynoon.

The Senate notably shot down an amendment to the solid waste bill offered by Sen. Anthony Pollina. Pollina wanted to reclaim on Vermonters’ behalf the nickels that beverage companies get to hold onto when people don’t return their redeemable bottles or cans.

Right now, companies like Coca Cola or Anheuser Busch get to keep those nickels, and they add up fast. According to one estimate, unclaimed deposits exceed $2 million annually. The beverage lobby successfully fended off the effort – they say the money helps defray the considerable costs incurred by soda and beer companies in the transport of recyclables.

Pollina said lawmakers ought not worry about companies like Coke, which recorded $2 billion in profits in the last quarter and paid its CEO $24 million last year.

He chalked up the amendment’s 12-18 defeat on the Senate floor to the skilled lobbyists employed by beverage associations, which combined spent more than $150,000 on Statehouse lobbying services between July of 2011 and January of this year.

Check out the Times Argus and Rutland Herald this weekend for a full story on Pollina’s proposal, and why he says it failed.

The Senate has broken for lunch, but is scheduled to return at 1:30 to take up, again, issues related to the utility merger.

All merger, all the time in Montpelier today

The merger is the thing in Montpelier today, where the House and Senate are scheduled to render judgment on a key aspect of the pending consolidation of Green Mountain Power and Central Vermont Public Service.

At issue, of course, is the manner in which the utilities propose to compensate CVPS ratepayers for bailing the company out of a bad power deal in 2001. Specifically, some lawmakers are angered that the $21 million repayment will be recouped by the utilities in the form of higher rates.  

A mind-bending parade of amendments, amendments to amendments, resolutions and more amendments has come and gone over the past 24 hours. Even as lawmakers near a denouement to this weeks-long political conflagration, it’s unclear exactly what they’ll vote on today, or what the final count will be.

The options are legion, from unapologetic interference in an open regulatory docket, to a delicate wrap on the knuckles delivered in the form of a nonbinding resolution.

An early-morning Senate caucus – lawmakers were strolling the halls well before8 – underscored not only the resonance of the windfall issue but growing frustration over the lack of a legislative vehicle to address it.

Sen. Ann Cummings said she’s intent on passing something that reflects legislators’ strong aversion to the utilities’ payback plan.

“At some level, it offends my sense of fairness and justice … that utilities should be able to take from ratepayers to give back the money they borrowed from them,” Cummings said.

But she said she won’t cast a vote to force the Public Service Board to reject the utilities’ plan. Cummings said she’ll opt instead for a nonbinding resolution that will allow lawmakers to codify their outrage without actually imposing conditions to resolve it.

Sen. Randy Brock said he doesn’t want to interfere in an open docket either. But short of that kind of intervention, he said, the Legislature isn’t going to remedy the problem.

“I do not want to interfere in Public Service Board Dockets – it offends me to do that,” Brock said. “But when you look at our responsibilities as a Senate, it would offend me even more to allow (the $21 million to be recouped) and sit idly by wringing my hands.”

The House, too, faces a slew of options, none of which has emerged as a consensus favorite. An amendment authored in March by Rep. Cynthia Browning calls for the most drastic form of intervention and would, as a condition of the merger, force the utilities to issue checks totaling $21 million to CVPS ratepayers, and not recoup the money in rates.

Another amendment calls for the creation of some kind of board, whose sole purpose would be to represent ratepayers, small business and other groups too poor to lawyer up for PSB proceedings. Rep. Paul Ralston, the Middlebury Democrat who authored that language, says the new board would prevent similar situations in the future.

The House also has a nonbinding resolution, which pretty much asks Commissioner of Public Service Elizabeth Miller to conduct a study to see whether she did a good job negotiating the merger proposal (her department issued a memorandum endorsing the utilities’ plan last month).

Lawmakers pushing for more direct action call the resolution a joke.

Both bodies are on the floor right now, though it could be hours before final votes are cast.

Lisman spends big – $200,000 big – on Campaign for Vermont

In a lobbyist disclosure form filed with the secretary of state today, Bruce Lisman, founder of Campaign forVermont, revealed he spent more than $200,000 of his own money on the nascent organization between Jan. 1 and March 31.

It’s a significant amount of money byVermont standards, and Lisman sought to get out in front of the news with a press release fired off to news outlets moments ago.

“I am spending my own money because I am concerned about the economic damage current policies are having on lower and middle income Vermonters,” Lisman said in a written statement. “The futures of our state and our young people are at stake. I’ve worked hard and have done well. Spending my money onVermont’s future is more important than standing by passively.”

The Vermont native and UVM graduate made quite a name for himself on Wall Street, where he rose to head the global equities division at Bear Stearns, a position he held when the investment firm collapsed in 2008.

Most Vermonters by now have probably heard Lisman’s voice on their local radio station. He’s bought air time to run dozens of ads, some of which criticize the Shumlin administration’s stance on taxes, health care and energy.

Lisman swears his group is a policy outfit with no political motives. But his sustained focus on hot-button political issues has perked Democrats’ antenna.

The Vermont Democratic Party earlier this year asked Attorney General Bill Sorrell to launch an investigation into Campaign forVermont, alleging the group had run afoul of campaign-finance laws that prohibit 501(c)4 organizations, like his, to advocate for the election or defeat of a specific candidate.

The group’s tax status allows it to raise unlimited funds without disclosing the names of its donors, so long as it doesn’t cross the line into electioneering.

Sorrell summarily dismissed the complaint. But the incident served to expose the adversarial relationship between Democratic party officials and the political newcomer using his considerable resources to air conservative talking points.

Lisman has repeatedly denied any interest in running for political office this year, and he insists his organization is totally apolitical.

“Across the board, the future ofVermont’s prosperity is at risk.  From the pursuit of expensive energy, an impenetrable education financing system, an all-in-bet on a new health care coverage system and a state budget growing faster than our economy, Vermonter’s hopes for a more realistic and common sense approach for a prosperous economy are being highjacked,” he said.

With lines like that, he’ll have a tough time convincing people he isn’t out to defeat the Democratic incumbent.

The disclosure forms show that Lisman’s group spent $194,000 on advertising, $15,000 on compensation, and $3,000 on “other.”

The release indicated that Lisman “will continue to conduct outreach” in the future.

Randy Brock not sweating it

Asked what he makes of the announcement today from newly minted Republican gubernatorial Roy Newton, Randy Brock said it’s all good.

“It’s always healthy to have competition,” the Franklin County Senator said during a break from his duties in the Finance Committee, where lawmakers this morning are hammering out a closely watched energy bill. “It’ll help shine a light on the race, and from that standpoint I don’t think it’s harmful at all.”

Brock said his Republican challenger, Roy Newton, has been a familiar face over the years.

“I’ve met Roy on occasion here and there over the past 20 or 30 years,” Brock said.

Brock said he was at first a bit confused by the announcement.

“I always thought he was a Democrat,” Brock said.

In fact, in his lone prior political campaign, way back in 1972, Newton did run as a Dem. In a House race. Against a Republican named Jim Douglas.

Newton lost. Douglas went on to have a mildly succesful run in politics.   




Randy Brock to face Republican primary challenger

The Republican gubernatorial field gets more crowded today whenRutland resident and newspaper publisher Roy Newton announces his candidacy.

At an 11 a.m. event at Castleton State College, Newton, 68, will announce his bid to unseat Democratic incumbent Gov. Peter Shumlin. He’ll face Sen. Randy Brock, a Franklin County Republican, in an August primary. Brock announced his candidacy last December.

“I am running because for a long time, I’ve felt thatVermont is headed in the wrong direction on many issues,” Newton said in a phone interview Monday evening.

A native of Middlebury,Newtonhas never held elected office before, though he ran as a Democrat for the Vermont House in 1972. He lost to Republican James Douglas. That James Douglas.

Newton said he’s since converted to the GOP.  

“I have been back and forth for a number of years, but for the last 20 years have voted basically Republican,” he said.

Newton publishes two newspapers, the Lakeside News and theRutland Sun.

Senate Finance supports cloud tax moratorium

The Senate Finance Committee voted 6-1 to back a three-year moratorium on taxation of cloud computing services and create a study committee to examine the issue and help decide whether to make the moratorium permanent.

The cloud computing amendment the committee backed will go into the miscellaneous tax bill the committee hopes to vote out today.

The plan for a moratorium clashes with a bill the House Ways and Means Committee approved earlier this year that did not include a moratorium.

The amendment was offered by Sen. Rich Westman, a Lamoille County Republican.

The Shumlin administration backs a moratorium, but its own tax department believes state law means cloud computing is subject to the sales tax.

The amendment would also allow taxes to be refunded going back to Dec. 31, 2006 for some companies that paid the sales tax on cloud computing.

Senate committee adds childcare union measure to fee bill

In our latest installment of follow the childcare union bill, the Senate Finance Committee voted 5-2 today to add language to the fee bill that would allow childcare workers to form a union and collectively bargain with the state for higher subsidies.

The committee’s vote, sparked by an amendment from Sen. Dick McCormack, is the latest effort to move the controversial bill to the Senate floor amid strong opposition from leadership in the Senate.

Is the fee bill the answer? We’ll have to wait and see.

Merger compromise fails to quell merger controversy

Until a few minutes ago, the lone merger-related amendment in the House was an explosive bit of language requiring utilities to send checks totaling $21 million to CVPS ratepayers.

A few moments ago, we got a sneak peak at amendment No. 2 – a less aggressive measure wherein legislators ask the Department of Public Service Board to “examine whether in the current merger docket it has proceeded in a manner consistent with its obligations…”

Not surprisingly, the language isn’t terribly popular among supporters of amendment No. 1, who call it a milquetoast half-measure that will do little to right this perceived wrong.

Both amendments – and possibly a third – will get up-or-down votes in the House Committee on Commerce and Economic Development later this afternoon. No. 1 will fail. No. 2, it appears, will succeed.

The underlying bill, we’re told, will arrive on the House floor Thursday, when both amendments will get a vote on the House floor (it’ll be interesting to see how many lawmakers take a walk on that one).

Conventional Statehouse wisdom says the amendment No. 1 – the one forcing utilities pay back directly the $21 mill – will fail. Rep. Paul Poirier, however, says not to believe the doubters.

“I absolutely think it will pass,” Poirier said. “I really do.”

Amendment No. 2 is a nonbinding resolution that makes mention of the $21 million controversy without rendering judgment on the utilities’ proposal to satisfy the “windfall obligation.”

The resolution reads, in part:

“Whereas, as details about the proposed merger and the MOU have become known by the general public, the people of our state have expressed a range of concerns about matters directly and indirectly affecting them and

Whereas, among those concerns is a strong sense that GMP should not recover in future rates the windfall proceeds now due CVPS ratepayers, as currently proposed in the MOU, and

Whereas, there is disagreement among the general public as to the best mechanism for returning the $21 million in windfall proceeds to CVPS ratepayers and …

Whereas, many residential ratepayers have expressed the view that their interests have not been thoroughly considered and have not been memorialized in the MOU…”

As Poirier said earlier today, “things are coming to a head.”

Vermont Democrats name new executive director

Vermont Dems have plucked their newest executive from across the Connecticut River, bringing on a Bedford, N.H., resident and former Obama organizer to run the party infrastructure.
Julia Barnes will replace Jesse Bragg, who will be departing at the end of the month on amicable terms due to personal reasons.
Since earning her degree in political science at George Washington University in 2005, she’s held a string of political jobs in the Granite State. Barnes served as a regional field director for Joe Biden during the 2008 presidential primary, and in 2009 took a job with Organizing for America, where she oversaw New Hampshire organizing efforts for Obama, according to a party press release.
“We are incredibly excited about Julia. She has a deep background in grassroots organizing that will be essential in accomplishing our goals this election year.” VDP Chairman Jake Perkinson said in a written statement. “The State Committee and VDP staff are looking forward to continuing the successes the Party has seen in the last few years with Julia at the helm.”

Campbell: May 4 new target adjournment date

Lawmakers have been shooting to get out of Montpelier on April 27, but that has become increasingly unlikely with the Senate still dealing with several major bills.

Senate President Pro Tem John Campbell told lawmakers on the Senate floor this afternoon what everyone in the Statehouse playing the parlor game known as When Will They Adjourn? already had concluded: April 27 ain’t happnin’.

May 4 is the new target date, said Campbell.


Sears attacks Baruth for blog comments

As the Senate lurches toward adjournment, tensions among senators are rising.

Sen. Dick Sears rose to speak on the Senate floor Friday morning and – without naming names – chastised Sen. Philip Baruth for comments Sears found on the Green Mountain Daily blog that attacked a bill Sears’ judiciary committee has worked on this year.

The bill tries to combat prescription drug abuse. The Senate Judiciary Committee has backed an amendment that would allow police to get information from the Vermont Prescription Monitoring System without getting a warrant, drawing fire from privacy advocates — and Baruth.

The judiciary committee’s amendment also includes a marijuana decriminalization provision, something Baruth and Sen. Joe Benning have been pushing this year.

Baruth posted his comments after a blog post on Green Mountain Daily critical of the prescription drug bill. The last sentence is the best one. Here’s what he wrote on the blog.

“Just so everyone’s clear: Joe Benning and I were promised that our MJ decriminalization language would go on another bill — Senator Sears has now made the decision to put a very similar amendment on this one. But Joe and I are very, very much against this bill, and we won’t let our decrim language be used as bait — not successfully, anyway. So we plan to vote against this one, convince others to vote against it, and try our best to attach decrim to another bill entirely. Will that work? Who knows. But at least we won’t burn in the everlasting fires for encouraging this particular privacy-invading mess.”

Sears was positively peeved at the comments – which he read on the floor — and said it was an attack on him and the other four members of his committee.

Sears said the level of discussion and collegiality in the Senate this year has “sunk to new lows, in my opinion.”

(For an interesting take on the climate in the Senate this year, read Andy Bromage’s Fair Game this week).

Sears was speaking on a “point of personal privilege,” and when he was done, Sen. Mark MacDonald argued that when lawmakers speak on points of personal privilege they should keep it personal and avoid the political.

Then Sen. Joe Benning rose to tell Sears he had nothing to do with Baruth’s comments found in the blog, saying “I did not author or condone” the “words I just heard.”

Baruth sat quietly in his seat.

Once off the Senate floor, Baruth said he was sorry if Sears felt slighted, but added that it doesn’t change his position on warrant-less access to the Vermont Prescription Monitoring System.

“I was writing on a blog about something I consider to be a bad bill, so I used very strong language on a bad bill,” said Baruth.

In conclusion, the Senate’s day began with a bang, not a whimper.