The Brilliant Endgame
The Vermont Legislature wrapped up the first year of the biennium Saturday with a whimper and a bang.
The "whimper" was the sound of Democrats "scurrying," as one Republican said, out of the granite Statehouse as fast as they could to get home.
The "bang" was provided at a secretly pre-planned media event in which Republican Gov. Jim Douglas ripped the departing Democrats to shreds as he announced he will veto both the health-care-reform bill and the state budget bill!
As the curtain descended, the Guv appeared briefly in each chamber and gave the usual kind remarks, thanking lawmakers for their hard work and bidding them farewell.
Then, on cue, most GOP lawmakers marched to the Guv's office, where a powerful pre-planned pep rally unfolded.
Douglas almost sounded like he was on steroids as he read a blistering, three-page speech to reporters and the lone TV camera.
"The people of Vermont," said the Guv like an angry parent, "asked for a responsible, balanced budget, not a means to provide a benefit to a powerful special interest."
"The people of Vermont asked for meaningful health-care reform, not another expensive government program for higher taxes!"
Vermont's Republican then condemned the dirty Democrats for inserting four lines in the budget bill to require the state college faculty union and the college administration to accept binding arbitration if they cannot reach a settlement by the end of September.
"The Democrat leadership knew full well my firm disagreement with the special deal for this union," said the Guv, "but chose to create a standoff to appease their Big Labor friends."
Bet you didn't know the Vermont state college faculty had ties to "The Sopranos," eh? Bet you didn't realize how much our governor despises unions?
Of course, the mover and shaker behind adding the four controversial sentences happens to be Italian. But Sen. Vince Illuzzi also happens to belong to the same party as Jim Douglas -- the Republican Party!
When apprised of the Guv's post-session diatribe, Sen. Illuzzi told "Inside Track" he "wasn't aware of the governor's feverish opposition." Illuzzi said that Sen. Bill Doyle, the Senate's Republican leader, also supported the language regarding a state college settlement, but Douglas only blamed the Democrats.
"We both thought there was some merit in looking into whether the early retirement benefit was a promise that had been broken."
It is a miniscule item -- four little lines in a state budget bill that is more than 8000 lines long. The contract dispute affects 124 state college faculty members. Unless a new budget is passed and signed, Vermont state government will grind to a halt at midnight on June 30.
Illuzzi scoffed at Gov. Douglas' hyperbolic charge that Democrats had caved in to their friends in Big Labor.
"There's no such thing as Big Labor in Vermont," said the veteran Illuzzi, who also serves as the state's attorney in Essex County. Mob ties?
Obviously, Douglas was not going to let the facts mess up a testosterone-laden, prime-time speech. This was about a lot more than four little lines. This was about power.
Gov. Scissorhands' next target was the Democrats' health-care-reform bill. It would provide insurance coverage to the last group of uncovered Vermonters. The principle behind it is that every Vermonter has to pay the price of universal health-care coverage. Individual responsibility. We're all in this together.
But Gov. Douglas condemned the Democrats' effort even before it took shape. He committed early to the Policy of No.
Despite offering no credible alternative of his own, Douglas played almighty chief executive and drew a line in the sand. No way would Vermont pay for universal coverage by tapping the payroll tax.
In fact, in a masterful display of spin, our Republican governor painted himself as Protector of the Poor, fighting off the greedy Big Government Democrats who wanted to tax their tiny paychecks.
"Their political posturing is intolerable," said Gov. Jimbo. "And their bill, and its flawed public policy, is unacceptable. I will veto the health-care tax bill and protect the people of Vermont!"
You had to be there. Jim Douglas had eaten his Wheaties. It was top-shelf political theater and the man behind it, Neale Lunderville, was delighted to see it come off like clockwork.
Readers will remember Mr. Lunderville as one half of the infamous Nasty Boys. The other half is Jim Barnett. Four years ago we first introduced them as the two native-Vermont twentysomethings with the challenging task of getting a Republican elected governor in the wake of Howard Dean's Democratic Dynasty.
Not only did they pull it off in 2002, they repeated the feat in 2004 by an even wider margin. At the moment, no one's betting against them in 2006.
These days, Mad Dog Barnett is the chairman of the Vermont Republican Party. Ever the Pit Bull, Mr. Barnett is always in attack mode. His frequent emails dumping on Democrats are always entertaining.
Within an hour of Douglas' double-barreled-shotgun blast following Saturday's legislative adjournment, Barnett put out his own statement trashing the Dems.
"Most disappointing," wrote Chairman Mad Dog, "was that Democrats squandered the opportunity for meaningful healthcare reform by pursuing an extreme ideological agenda rather than a health-care plan all Vermonters could embrace."
Unlike Barnett, The Boy Wonder, a member of the governor's staff, stays out of the limelight. Mr. Lunderville, now twice a successful gubernatorial campaign manager, is the Karl Rove figure in the Douglas administration. It's not unusual to see Neale pull the Guv aside before a press conference for a last word to get him focused or relaxed.
Lunderville is quite personable and has a deep-seated love of politics. And the last four years indicate he's become quite a master of the game.
As the session closed, Democratic lawmakers went their separate ways. Getting home was their first priority. Democratic Party leaders had nothing planned. In fact, Democratic Party leaders were nowhere to be seen.
Lunderville's priority, however, was to make sure his boss got the last word. And Gov. Douglas did, with the surprise announcement of his vetoes in a roomful of cheering supporters.
Everyone knew the Guv would veto the health-care-reform bill. But the budget veto was a wee surprise. It was all about power.
Attaching the state college union language to the "must pass" budget bill set up what the Boy Wonder called "a little game of chicken."
No way was his boss going to back down.
P.S. One Democrat who witnessed the Guv's post-session GOP spectacle was Scudder Parker. A former state senator, Parker is a Statehouse lobbyist for Vermont Businesses for Social Responsibility. He's also said he's thinking about running against Douglas in 2006.
Parker told "Inside Track" he was "startled" by "the anger and righteousness" of Douglas' end-of-session bashing of Democrats.
Truth be told, it's nothing new. If Lunderville's done anything, it's transform Gentleman Jim Douglas from a wimp into a warrior.
The fact is, the Vermont Democratic Party continues to be a step or two behind the Douglas Team. And it shows.
As Lunderville The Boy Wonder put it, keeping a Republican on top in the state of Patrick Leahy, Bernie Sanders, Jim Jeffords and Howard Dean "takes a good team on the governor's side. And the governor has a great team."
Until Democrats find their version of the Nasty Boys, divided government is in Vermont to stay.
The Story of "O" -- One of the very last acts of the Vermont House Saturday was the adoption of the conference-committee report on the budget bill. House and Senate differences had been worked out in that committee.
House Democratic leader Carolyn Partridge made the motion for a roll-call vote on accepting the report of the committee. She then added an unusual twist, asking that the roll-call vote begin with the letter "O."
Along the back row of seats, where Republican stalwarts like Rep. Duncan Kilmartin, Rep. George Schiavone, Rep. Dick Marron and Rep. Joyce Errecart are clustered, jaws dropped and eyebrows raised.
Begin with the letter "O?" What have the Democrats got up their sleeves? The backbenchers squirmed in their seats imagining what sort of left-wing conspiracy was being foisted upon them.
Taking the lead, Schiavone, who replaced Ambassador Skip Vallee as Vermont's male member of the Republican National Committee, rose and asked the chair if he might interrogate Partridge. Can't trust those sneaky Democrats, right?
The Shelburne Republican asked why the Democratic leader had requested that the roll-call vote on the budget begin with the letter "O."
You ready for this?
It was all about a bipartisan kindness.
Partridge explained to a soon-to-be-embarrassed Schiavone and the entire Vermont House that the reason for starting with the letter "O" was to permit Rep. Patricia O'Donnell, the Republican rep from Vernon, to cast the first vote and then quickly depart the chamber, dash to the parking lot and drive the two hours home to attend a very special family gathering.
Schiavone meekly sat back down as laughter broke out in the chamber. The clerk of the House called the roll. O'Donnell was first. And Patty "O," a member of the Appropriations Committee, voted "Yes."
The budget conference report was adopted on a vote of 95-36.
We hope Rep. O'Donnell made it on time, despite Rep. Schiavone's delaying tactic.
Media Notes -- Ch. 3 News anchorman Marselis Parsons was all alone anchoring the station's "Six O'Clock News" Monday. No sign yet of his recently announced new co-anchor, Kristin Kelly. Hope all is well, eh?
Back on May 9, WGOP, er, sorry, WCAX-TV sent out a press release announcing Ms. Kelly, a former Ch. 3 reporter who'd left for NECN, was the choice to replace Sera Congi. As everyone knows, Bridget Barry Caswell was tapped as the "temporary" female fill-in, but the mother of four didn't fit WCAX management's desire for a female news face, which, unlike Parson's, appears both at 6 and 11.
"I am very pleased," said Marsillyiss in last month's Ch. 3 press release, "to announce that Kristin Kelly will rejoin us late this month or in early June to co-anchor the 6 p.m. and the 11 p.m. news broadcasts."
So where is she?
Yours truly emailed Mr. Parsons on Monday inquiring about Kristin's arrival. The reply we received was "Soon. Stay tuned."
As if we weren't already tuned to WGOP, eh?
Still, we were struck by the brevity and lack of clarity in the answer received from Ch. 3's news director. So we rang him up Tuesday morning.
Unfortunately, Marselis was no more informative.
"I'm not going to talk about it," said Mr. Paranoia, er, Parsons. "Why would I tell you before I tell my audience?"
Just because it's free publicity for your station and news operation is certainly no reason to be cooperative. Of course, if one doesn't want press inquiries about when the new female news anchor is starting, one might abstain from issuing press releases that announce her hiring.
It's surprising to see how "press" people, who make their living inquiring into the affairs of others, often handle basic inquiries about their own public affairs.
Marsillyiss might be surprised how many of his viewers read this column, and vice-versa.
Anyway, another source at WCAX-TV tells us the last word at the station was that the Redhead will begin appearing on screen next to Mr. Pleasant on June 13. Apparently it really isn't the closely guarded "state secret" Marsillyiss pretends it is.
And it certainly will be interesting to see how well they "click," assuming they do. Since writing about Sera Congi's departure, we've heard from a surprising number of readers who thought she and Marselis never did.
Boettcher Break -- Great column on Bill Boettcher going to prison by Sam Hemingway in Tuesday's Burlington Free Press. Only problem is, it isn't true.
The convicted former CEO of Fletcher Allen Health Care did not report to the federal prison in Nellis, Nevada, on Tuesday, as Sam wrote. That's because an order issued by U.S. District Court Judge Bill Sessions Monday afternoon postponed Boettcher's internment until June 28. The court granted the convicted hospital CEO "a voluntary surrender date extension."
As we reported, Big Bill's attorney Jerry O'Neill filed last-minute motions seeking to have his distinguished client placed in a facility that offered a drug-and-alcohol program for inmates. As we noted, completion of such a program would knock three months off Boettcher's two-year jail term.
Boettcher originally sought and won placement at the federal prison in Nellis. It wasn't so he could sneak out at night and hit the crap tables on the Las Vegas strip.
Rather, Boettcher was hoping to get in the facility's drug-and-alcohol treatment program. But after his sentencing, Boettcher and O'Neill learned Nellis was slated for closure and Big Bill wouldn't get there in time for the start of the last class.
"The extended time," said Mr. O'Neill, "will allow the court to make a recommendation if it chooses to do so."
Plus, Big Bill can keep drinking another three weeks!
P.S. The Burlington Free Press removed Mr. Hemingway's Boettcher column from their website sometime Tuesday afternoon. Don't recall that ever happening before. Hard copies will be collectors' items.