Old Habits Die Hard
Courtesy of Stephen Mease
LOOK FOR ADDED COMMENTARY ON ELECTION RESULTS BELOW
The Vermont Senate’s vote against the relicensure of Vermont Yankee didn’t stop its parent company, Entergy, from exclaiming the fight is “far from over.”
Take the findings of an “independent” review that found its employees never intended to mislead regulators and legislators about the existence of underground pipes.
The investigation was conducted by the “independent, outside” law firm of Morgan, Lewis and Bockius.
Who are they?
In 1996, the firm conducted a similar review at Maine Yankee in response to a whistleblower claim that MY had falsified information to the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission, according to Ray Shadis of the New England Coalition. The report’s findings in the MY case were similar to the one at VY.
“What most folks don’t realize about MLB — consiglieri to the nuclear mafia — is that they are also outstanding among the architects of the so-called nuclear renaissance,” said Shadis.
To wit, this “independent” law firm is currently representing the New York-based Indian Point nuclear reactor in its relicensing proposal before the NRC. And, in 2008, the firm represented Entergy Nuclear Vermont Yankee in a lawsuit against the U.S. Department of Energy for failing to create a disposal solution for high-level radioactive waste. It also represented AmerGen, the company that tried to buy VY before Entergy.
Despite claims last month it would usher in “greater transparency,” Entergy may be doing just the opposite by refusing to share information from the internal probe with state regulators and a legislative oversight panel.
Instead, they turned the report over to Attorney General Bill Sorrell, who is conducting a criminal investigation into Entergy’s lies. Because the report is now part of the criminal probe, it cannot be released publicly.
Unlike underground pipes, some habits are hard to break.
The Nuclear Bandwagon
Thousands of people packed downtown Burlington last Saturday for the Mardi Gras parade. Among the floats was the one sponsored by the Vermont Public Interest Research Group, featuring a “retired” Vermont Yankee cooling tower. Pulling the load? A 38-year-old car meant to symbolize the aging nuclear reactor.
The float also featured none other than Senate President Pro Tem and gubernatorial wannabe Peter Shumlin, the Vermont politician who has hitched himself, politically, to the closure of Vermont Yankee. Some say the Senate vote two weeks ago was designed to showcase his leadership skills.
Shumlin literally jumped on the VPIRG float with his campaign signs, beads and moonpies in tow.
Trouble is, nonprofits such as VPIRG are supposed to stay neutral when it comes to political endorsements. Doing otherwise could jeopardize their tax-exempt status.
VPIRG Executive Director Paul Burns called the Mardi Gras faux pas a “significant breach of protocol that I deeply regret … I gather the people we had in back, who were helping out with tossing beads, did not understand the problem with having a candidate for office climb aboard,” said Burns. “I can assure you this certainly was not planned in any way.”
“In a spontaneous Mardi Gras moment, I hitched a ride when the Yankee float crossed Main and Church, and I helped my friends throw candy,” Shumlin wrote in an email to “Fair Game.” “No endorsements received, just spontaneous fun.”
When lawmakers return from this week’s break, their attention, and ours, will be focused on the $150 million deficit projected for FY 2011.
To date, the House and Senate have passed a bill, dubbed “Challenges for Change,” calling for $38 million in savings through yet-to-be created efficiencies in state government.
That leaves a mere $112 million gap to close. Of that, about half is expected to come from the Agency of Human Services. The governor has proposed a $53 million cut there in FY 2011. Total state and federal spending through AHS is roughly $1 billion annually. Less than half of that comes from the state.
Those cuts — in state funds — position the agency to lose an additional $51.6 million in federal money, said AHS Secretary Rob Hofmann.
“Nobody desires that we forgo these federal funds,” said Hofmann. “We just don’t have the general funds to spend.”
There’s more than $104.6 million at stake, too.
“Challenges for Change” will likely take another $17 million from AHS and, due to federal matching-fund formulas, the agency stands to lose another $14 million from Washington as a result.
The math amounts to roughly $130 million in social service spending cuts — in one year. As other grant-funded programs wind down, state money won’t be available to keep them going.
Economist Tom Kavet predicts $50 million in cuts would translate to 1000 jobs lost per year over the next two fiscal years, mostly at businesses and nonprofits that provide services funded by state and federal grants, and commercial establishments those workers patronize.
Kavet used the same economic modeling software that pro-business groups use to determine the positive effects of state tax incentives.
Cuts both ways, I guess.
As a result of staff reductions at the Department of Education, nearly 125 program sites ready to serve kids supper went unused last year. They were waiting for state approval, according to officials with the Vermont Campaign to End Childhood Hunger. The campaign estimates Vermont has missed out on $1.3 million in federal funds for child nutrition through a pilot program secured by U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT).
DOE officials have reassigned staff in an attempt to clear up the backlog this year and feed thousands of kids.
The proof, as they say, is in the pudding.
Order in the Court
The jury is still out on a House bill to restructure Vermont’s court system.
When they return to the Statehouse, lawmakers will take up a sweeping proposal that would potentially close two county courts — Grand Isle and Essex — merge many county court functions into the state system, strip away the powers of Vermont’s assistant, or “lay,” judges, and make county clerks answer to state administrators.
The result? A “unified” court system that has more centralized budget and staffing management. Currently county courts — which include superior and probate functions — are largely autonomous from their district court counterparts.
The proposal has upset many of the 14 county clerks, 28 elected assistant judges and probate judges in the targeted districts, as well as their powerful state senators: specifically, Sen. Vince Illuzzi (R-Essex/Orleans) and Sen. Dick Mazza (D-Chittenden/Grand Isle).
There have been plenty of attempts to create a more cohesive judicial system under the control of the Vermont Supreme Court, but Chief Justice Paul Reiber and Associate Justice Denise Johnson tell “Fair Game” the current initiative, which they support, is different because of the budget crisis.
If approved, the judicial restructuring effort would save state and county taxpayers roughly $2.4 million, Reiber said.
Opponents of the plan see it as part of a long-standing power grab to dismantle county government.
“It’s no coincidence that the state, which is teetering on the edge of financial disaster, is at their most vulnerable. There could not have been a better opportunity for the Supreme Court to slip their plan through with as little public scrutiny as possible,” said Chittenden County Clerk Diane Lavallee.
While he understands the concerns of probate judges, assistant judges and clerks, Reiber noted that victims of crime are being harmed by the court’s inability to hear district and family court cases expeditiously.
“This is not merely an academic exercise,” said Reiber. “The people’s fundamental right to equal justice under the law is at great risk right now.”
The Vermont Democratic Party stepped into the fray this week, urging the Legislature to reject any measures that severely cut back on county court hours and staffing.
“A ‘unified’ and centralized court system is not in the best interests of Vermonters and flies in the face of our tradition of local control,” read a resolution adopted by the party’s executive committee. “The result will be unemployment and further economic decline for these small, rural communities.”
Johnson said there’s more at risk than jobs.
“Fundamentally, what’s at stake is the stability of the entire court system, and it’s already in a fragile state right now,” Johnson said.
Town Meeting Day Roundup
Polls close after deadline, so read my online addendum to “Fair Game” for a post-Town Meeting Day 2010 analysis of Burlington city council races, instant-runoff voting and Vermont Yankee votes. You’ll find it at www.sevendaysvt.com.
* * *
Burlington City Council meetings are likely to get a lot livelier in the coming months if Tuesday's election results are any indication.
The repeal of instant-runoff voting, the return of Republican Kurt Wright, an emboldened Democratic majority and a shrinking Progressive bloc all combined Tuesday to deliver a simple message: People are unhappy with City Hall and Mayor Bob Kiss.
While the repeal of IRV passed by a modest 52-48 margin, it was defeated resoundingly in the New North End Wards 4 and 7, and barely survived in Ward 6. Support was strong in the other four wards, but turnout there was much lower.
Kiss said the rejection of IRV was not unanimous across the city, and he believes it's an issue that could come before voters again in the future.
"Only 22 percent of voters voted in the election, and I think there are people who would like to see IRV remain in place," said Kiss. "I think this is an issue we should keep talking about."
The mayor said he would favor increasing the threshold to be elected mayor from 40 percent of the vote to 50 percent plus one person.
Newly reelected Burlington City Councilor Ed Adrian (D-Ward 1) -- never one to mince words -- set the tone Tuesday night during a live interview on Channel 17 with this: Mayor Kiss needs to step down from office.
"I think the voters clearly sent a message for him to resign," said Adrian. "It's time for him to show some leadership and step aside."
Kiss called Adrian's comments "patently ridiculous."
"I don't think Ed is a constructive force on the council and he brings a tension to the process," said Kiss. "During the four years I've been mayor, the city has made improvements in terms of finance, infrastructure and arts and celebration. I think the city is performing in a much better stance than when I took office."
Plenty of councilors, however, disagree with that perspective.
Adrian's call for Kiss to resign was not echoed by any other councilor, including Wright, who will return to the council after handily defeating Ward 4 Democrat Russ Ellis.
In fact, Wright said it's time for the council and the mayor to stop engaging in tit-for-tat political exchanges.
"I think there has been a war of words between the mayor and the city council, and it has to stop," said Wright. "Certainly it's a rebuke, but … I think it's not helpful for anyone to come out tonight and call for the mayor to resign."
Wright said he hopes to bridge the gap between the mayor and the council when he returns to the council, and help that body provide some leadership -- not just on Burlington Telecom but on other issues facing the city, including economic development and the redevelopment of the Moran Plant.
City Council President Bill Keogh (D-Ward 5), who also won reelection Tuesday night, would not say whether he agreed with Adrian.
However, Keogh said, if he were the mayor, he would react to Tuesday's votes like this: "I would say, 'Hey, I'm in trouble. I've got to start listening to the public.'"
At bare minimum, Keogh said, the mayor "needs to start working with the council, and he has to start being more open with the council and the public.
"Will he resign?," added Keogh. "No. Should he resign? That's something only the mayor can decide."
The voting results presented the council with a challenge as well: It needs to provide the leadership voters desire.
"It's not generally the legislative branch that provides leadership, but the executive branch, but the mayor has failed in providing that leadership," said Keogh.
Independent City Councilor Karen Paul (Ward 6) echoed Keogh's sentiments. "It's our time to step up and provide leadership where it really counts," she said.
Kiss doesn't share the assessment that his office hasn't provided leadership on key issues facing the city.
"We face a challenge with Burlington Telecom, there's no question, but there has been leadership from my administration across the board, and we work with the council as issues arise and merit," said Kiss.
When the new city council is seated in April, it will break largely along the same lines politically. It will have seven Democrats, three Republicans, two Progressives and two independents. The current council has seven Democrats, two Republicans, two Progressives, and two independents. The Progressives had held one additional seat until December, when a councilor resigned because she moved out of her ward.
For a more detailed breakdown of Burlington results, check out Blurt! (http://7d.blogs.com/blurt/2010/03/councilor-calls-for-mayor-bob-kiss-to-...)
In other Town Meeting Day news, 15 towns joined the growing chorus of citizens hoping to shut down Vermont Yankee in 2012. Last year, 36 towns approved similar resolutions.
Voters in Woodstock, Thetford, Bristol, Fayston, Brookfield, Montgomery, Moretown, Waitsfield, Danville, Cabot, Huntington, Sharon, Jamaica, Peacham and Winooski voted to shut down VY in 2012 and replace it with renewable sources of energy.
In addition, Moretown added this clause to its resolution: "Entergy shall fund the training of Yankee's existing workers to build and maintain green energy production systems in Vermont to replace Yankee's power."
One town, Rockingham, defeated the measure, and Cambridge took no action on it.
Got a news tip? Email Shay at email@example.com
Click here to follow Shay on Twitter.