Seven Days: Fair Game
Gonna Eat Them Words
By Shay Totten [04.15.09]
Just days after the historic veto override that made same-sex marriages legal in Vermont, it was back to business as usual under Montpelier’s Golden Dome.
Legislative Democrats and Gov. Jim Douglas  continue to be far apart on how to shore up the state budget — Dems are looking at cuts, layoffs and tax increases, while Douglas is fine with cuts and layoffs.
Roughly 320 state workers will be handed pink slips this week after Douglas and the Vermont State Employees Association  declared an impasse Monday. The two sides spent a grueling 45 minutes Monday in a closed-door bargaining session. What’s next, a long lunch together?
The union’s proposal trims $14 million from the general fund, which is $3 million shy of the administration’s overall goal of $17 million. The union is willing to accept pay freezes, take on furloughs and give up tuition and meals reimbursements, among other things.
In return, the union wants Douglas to curb the use of private contractors and temp workers.
The administration says the union’s offer to freeze pay and cost-of-living increases for two years doesn’t go far enough — it wants all workers making $38,000 a year or more to take a 5 percent pay cut and to pay 30 percent of their health-care premiums, up from 25 percent.
The Senate Economic Development, General Affairs and Housing Committee, chaired by Sen. Vince Illuzzi(R-Essex/Orleans), grilled Neale Lunderville, Douglas’ secretary of administration, and Jes Kraus, VSEA’s executive director, to weigh the merits of each side’s proposal. While the legislature can’t intervene in a labor dispute, it does have the power to put jobs back in the budget.
Kraus told the committee that the union has already taken a big hit. Aside from the 320 workers getting the axe this week, 364 vacant positions have been eliminated, and 90 workers have already been laid off this year, he said.
“We represent 10 percent of the general-fund costs, but are being asked to shoulder 50 percent of the cuts to the general fund,” said Kraus. He also noted that some of the jobs on the chopping block are federally funded.
The committee asked Lunderville why the state would cut federally funded positions if the goal is to save statemoney.
Lunderville said the way in which a position is funded should not matter. “It’s not as if the money is sent back; that’s not the case,” the sec added. “The funds just get rolled back into the program.”
“Fair Game” has learned the state Department of Education  missed out on more than $450,000 in federal school nutrition money last year because it didn’t have enough staff in the Child and Adult Care Food Program. The program helps schools, community organizations and home- and center-based child-care providers supply free and reduced breakfast and lunch programs to students throughout the year.
“We did not apply for a $350,000 federal grant that would have made a big difference in our nutrition infrastructure because we are unable to staff it,” said Jill Remick, a DOE spokeswoman. The money would have been used to train local food-service workers to create more nutritious meals.
Remick adds, “Also, we did turn away a $100,000 grant for fresh fruits and vegetables because we did not have the time to manage it.”
Douglas now wants to do away with the administrator of the Child and Adult Care Food Program, reducing its staff to four people.
“Not having that position in the state will delay our ability to increase capacity and improve programs for students,” said Dorigen Keeney, director of public policy and research at the Vermont Campaign to End Childhood Hunger . “It will mean we’re closing programs rather than keeping them up and running.”
It may also jeopardize Vermont’s participation in a 10-state federal pilot project that provides suppers to kids in after-school programs, an opportunity secured by Sen. Bernie Sanders  (I-VT).
Keeney has doubts the state will be able to fully utilize these additional federal funds when the DOE can’t keep up with the demand for existing programs.
“The governor has maintained that we can do more with less and, in this case, that’s just not true,” said Keeney. “In the end, it’s Vermont children who are going to lose out.”
Free Lunch — As “Fair Game” pointed out  months ago, Douglas has a meals allowance that is positively mouth-watering. He gets $54 a day, five days a week, 52 weeks a year — or $14,040, which is just shy of the $15,662 a Vermont minimum-wage worker earns in a year.
Lawmakers also get a $54-a-day meals allowance, but only while the Leg is in session.
WCAX-TV  reporter Kristin Carlson asked the guy if he would be willing to give up his meals reimbursements like the VSEA, a move the union says will save the general fund $130,000. Douglas dodged the question at first, saying he wasn’t sure which meals were covered in his plan, and he didn’t want to negotiate a labor contract in the media.
When yours truly followed up and asked specifically if he would give up his meals reimbursement, the gov said, “No. I’ve taken a 5 percent pay cut and declined two cost-of-living pay increases.”
OK, so let’s do the math: Douglas has taken a $7500 pay cut on a $150,000 salary, while at the same time earning back $14,040 in meals reimbursements.
We should all be so lucky to get cuts like that, eh?
Taxes & Teabags — Today is T-Day, or D-Day, for taxpayers. All depends on whether you’re getting a refund.
Tea Party protesters in Montpelier and Rutland will join tens of thousands of others around the country to decry the tax-and-spend policies of our state and federal governments. Not sure where these folks were during the past eight years, but hey, better late than never, right?
Truth be told, Jessica Bernier, the organizer of the Montpelier Tea Party , was a supporter of Texas Congressman Ron Paul’s bid for president and is a member of the citizen group he inspired, the Campaign for Liberty .
“We need to have a government that is responsive to the people, and it doesn’t seem like that’s been happening, and this event is to protest the irresponsible deficit spending that’s been going on for a long time,” said the mother of three. The Wall Street firms that got us into this financial mess will also be a focus of some speakers, she notes.
The Montpelier rally is from noon to 2 p.m. on the Statehouse steps and includes a food drive to benefit the Central Vermont Salvation Army.
While some are protesting excessive taxation, others will gather at 10 a.m. at the Tax Department to call on the Douglas administration and lawmakers to tax them more!
Only in Vermont.
The Save our State coalition  has created an SOS-EZ form that lists the programs people could spare if they paid $2 more in taxes each month.
“The administration simply raises the bogeyman of ‘new taxes’ without saying how much, or what the alternative is, in terms of very real program cuts. It’s a scare tactic,” said Christopher Curtis, a Vermont Legal Aid attorney who is helping to organize the SOS event.
On Saturday, Curtis stood on the corner of State and Main streets in Montpelier and collected about 30 SOS-EZ forms in about 45 minutes.
He and others believe many Vermonters would be willing to pay a little bit more for a short period of time before cutting state workers, and services, from the budget.
Tax or Wage Reduction? — Taxes also came up in the Senate hearing mentioned earlier. After Illuzzi’s committee had finished interrogating Administration Secretary Lunderville about state job cuts, frosh Sen. Tim Ashe (D/P-Chittenden) raised a few questions of his own. The brief exchange put two conflicting political philosophies in sharp relief.
“The governor says we don’t have any additional taxing capacity, so how is it that he believes a state worker making $38,000 can afford a $1700 reduction in their paycheck, but someone making $250,000 can’t take an income tax increase of $2000?” Ashe asked Lunderville.
“I do not view pay cuts as tax increases. I don’t see it the same way,” replied Lunderville.
“But they have the same effect in terms of taking money out of people’s pockets,” continued Ashe. “They are roughly equivalent to me.”
“Senator, tax increases at any level such as the ones proposed by this legislature are disadvantageous to economic growth,” said Lunderville.
And layoffs, well, they just stimulate the economy.
Blue in the Face — Last Thursday, tucked away in a far corner of the Statehouse, members of the Senate Education Committee took a few of the highly influential, and well-paid, executives from Blue Cross Blue Shield of Vermont  to the proverbial woodshed.
Newly hired CEO Don George, veep of External Affairs Kevin Goddard, and in-house lobbyist Leigh Tofferiwere in the room. Only Goddard sat in the hot seat to explain away issues raised by “Fair Game”  several weeks ago about a $6.3 million retirement package doled out to former President & CEO William Milnes.
A resolution drafted by Sen. Harold Giard (D-Addison) urges Milnes to give back his “golden parachute” and suggests BCBS rethink what it pays top execs and board members. Giard said board members should get a per-meeting stipend of $300; $500 for the chairman.
As “Fair Game” noted, the board chair rakes in more than $44,000, while the lowest-paid board member earns a paltry $11,000. In 2008, the nine top execs earned a combined salary of $1.25 million and were awarded a total of $770,000 in bonuses.
Giard was upfront with Goddard: He thinks the Blue Cross execs in Vermont are out of touch with consumers saddled with ever-higher premiums.
“You guys do strike me as kind of the GM execs that live in a whole different world, totally dispatched from reality,” added Giard.
“Let me tell you that feels a little unfair,” interrupted Goddard, “but everybody is going to have their own opinion on this issue.”
To which Giard tersely replied: “Yes, sir, you better believe they do.”
Goddard explained away the costs of Milnes’ retirement package as a one-time payout for a man who rescued the company from bankruptcy.
Sen. Randy Brock (R-Franklin) told Goddard he would not be surprised by the size of Milnes’ retirement package or board compensation if BCBS were a private company.
“In terms of public perception, this gives you folks an extremely black eye,” Brock noted.
It’s an apt metaphor: ugly for now, but probably not disfiguring.
City Council Prez — Two weeks ago, Burlington City Council failed to pick a president after 14 rounds of deadlocked 7-7 votes . At last night’s meeting, the matter was decided by a simple voice vote.
Councilor Clarence Davis (P-Ward 3) withdrew his nomination, clearing the way for Councilor Bill Keogh(D-Ward 5) to win the post.
Going into the meeting, Keogh had the support of seven Democrats; Davis had the three Progs, two Republicans and two independents.
Davis withdrew to allow the council to move forward and hoped some of his colleagues didn’t view his stepping aside as “a victory.”
“We can’t go on as we have the last few years,” added Davis. “This next year will take a lot of collaboration and concessions from all sides.”
Upon taking the gavel, Keogh turned to Davis and said, “My challenge is to meet that expectation.”
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