Tobacco stance puts Sorrell on list of bad AGs

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William Sorrell is among the worst attorneys general in the United States, according to a report from the Competitive Enterprise Institute.

Sorrell has received a fair amount of scrutiny of late, following a deep-dig story from Paul Heintz of Seven Days which uncovered a number of emails that indicate the possibility of campaign finance violations. Heintz’s investigation of Sorrell followed an investigation by Sorrell into the campaign of Dean Corren, a progressive who ran for lieutenant governor in 2014.

Following Heintz’s story, Sorrell — who is tasked with investigating campaign finance violations — declined to investigate himself, saying he knew he hadn’t done anything wrong. This apparent conflict of interest led Gov. Peter Shumlin to appoint an independent investigator to look into Sorrell’s campaign finance practices, and has led Sen. Anthony Pollina to call for the creation of an ethics commission.

None of this, however, is grounds for the inclusion of Sorrell on the Competitive Enterprise Institute’s list of worst attorneys general in the nation.

The organization describes itself as a “nonprofit public policy organization dedicated to advancing the principles of limited government, free enterprise, and individual liberty” that makes an “uncompromising case for economic freedom because we believe it is essential for entrepreneurship, innovation, and prosperity to flourish.”

The organization takes Sorrell to task for what it calls “pioneering the imposition of retroactive Medicaid liability on tobacco companies,” referring to Sorrell’s work to allow tobacco companies to be sued, not just by Medicaid patients, but by the state itself.

The group goes on to make some nonspecific allegations, including “repeated flouting of state election laws” and “backing clearly illegal speech restrictions.” But judging from the organization’s mission statement, holding the tobacco industry accountable is the one that really set them off.

Level funding

The Shumlin administration issued a memo last week calling on agency and department heads to prepare for level funding in the upcoming 2017 budget.

Lawmakers had their hands full this past legislative session digging out from a $112 million budget shortfall — using $25 million in one-time funds that will likely not be available this time around — and the state is looking at a $50 million shortfall for the next budget, driven by the state’s Medicaid program.

If you ask the Shumlin administration, however, level-funding the budget is necessary due to employee costs.

While he cites debt service, in his memo to agency and department heads, Administration Secretary Justin Johnson said increased employee compensation and pension costs “will consume a significant portion of revenue growth in FY 2017.”

This could be a precursor to another battle between the administration and state employees. During the past legislative session, the Shumlin administration demanded state employees make contract concessions or face layoffs.

Steve Howard, executive director of the Vermont State Employees Association, says the problem isn’t employee compensation, but increased demand for government services. For example, he notes a 33 percent increase in children in the custody of the Department for Children and Families.

But a level-funded budget plan will ask employees to do more with less. If you want to know how well that approach works, ask anyone in the newspaper business.

— Capitol Beat is written by the Vermont Press Bureau

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