While most of us are watching the mail for holiday cards this week, Vermont state employees are keeping an eye out for a different kind of missive: a ballot asking them to accept or deny a 3 percent pay cut as part of a new, two-year labor contract.
The roughly 8000 members of the Vermont State Employees Association  are being asked to accept the pay cuts, which would be followed by a wage freeze for two years. Their health care and fringe benefits remain intact under the deal, and in two years they would regain the 3 percent cut.
The contract does not preclude more layoffs, however.
The mail-in ballots should all be tallied by year’s end.
“Our people work in state government, and we know times are tough and people are willing to make a concession,” said Bob Hooper, VSEA’s president. “But we’re not willing to support an agenda.”
He means the offer is better than what Gov. Jim Douglas sought during contract talks: a permanent, 7 percent pay cut coupled with reductions in health care benefits.
Other unions in Vermont have been watching the talks closely, as it’s clear Douglas is trying to send a message to other public-sector workers.
“As families struggle to make ends meet, this agreement shows a common-sense approach that should be applied to salaries for public-sector employees and can serve as a blueprint for teachers, municipal workers and others who receive a paycheck from taxpayers,” said Neale Lunderville, Douglas’ secretary of administration, when announcing the proposal earlier this month.
Martha Allen, president of the Vermont chapter of the National Education Association , took issue with the governor’s tactics in an email this week to all 11,500 members of the state’s largest union.
“No one really likes this tentative agreement. We know the path the governor and his administration are following is fundamentally flawed,” wrote Allen. “It purposefully rides roughshod over the needs of the thousands of people who work as state employees.”
Other labor leaders are weighing in, too.
“While absolutely not what our state workers deserve, the proposed temporary 3 percent pay decrease is most certainly a result of the unprecedented financial predicament we are in,” said Matt Lash, the business manager for IBEW Local 300 . The 1200-member union represents public and private workers.
“In economic hard times, Vermonters need strong public services more than ever,” said Carmyn Stanko, president of UE Local 267 , which represents 350 service and maintenance workers at the University of Vermont. “Instead of recognizing that need and the contribution made by state employees, the governor has repeatedly attacked VSEA.”
Pass the Hat
Douglas often points out that nonunion state employees earning more than $60,000 had their salaries cut by 5 percent this year and have had no pay increases for the past two. All “exempts” forwent raises in July.
But some top Douglas aides have managed to make out all right, according to personnel records provided to “Fair Game” by the Vermont Department of Human Resources.
Take Neale Lunderville, who earned $65,000 in the largely ceremonial post of “Secretary of Civil and Military Affairs” when he first arrived on the fifth floor in 2003. After his 5 percent pay cut, he now earns a mere $115,606 as “administration secretary.”
The median income for a male Vermont worker is $40,000.
Another longtime aide is Dennise Casey, who started as a $27,000-a-year administrative assistant assigned to the Department of Public Safety.
Casey now serves in the dual roles of deputy chief of staff and spokeswoman. For this she earns $76,000, or more than double the median income earned by a female Vermont worker — $34,000.
That’s cheap when you consider her predecessors earned a combined $163,800 to do those two jobs. Former spokesman Jason Gibbs took home $69,000 a year; as deputy chief of staff, Betsy Bishop earned $93,000.
Gibbs, who started out making $45,000 as the guv’s spokesman, is now the commissioner of the Department of Forest, Parks and Recreation, earning $81,000 a year.
Bishop now runs the Vermont Chamber of Commerce, and Casey announced last week that she’s leaving the governor’s office to work for the Republican Governors Association .
Hope none of them had to take pay cuts in the process.
Several Democratic candidates for governor are stepping up their fundraising efforts — and not just in Vermont. Both Deb Markowitz and Matt Dunne have held fundraisers in Washington, D.C., this month, and Sen. Peter Shumlin has two planned for early next year.
Markowitz recently benefited from a D.C. fundraiser hosted by Luke Albee, former chief of staff for Sen. Patrick Leahy, and Miles Rapoport, the president of a “nonpartisan” public policy group called Demos.
Last Friday, Dunne was fêted at a D.C. fundraiser with Rep. Patrick Murphy (D-VA), the first Iraq war veteran elected to Congress. During his first month in office, Murphy introduced the Iraq War De-Escalation Act of 2007 with then-Senator Barack Obama. Murphy is also a member of the so-called Blue Dog Coalition of fiscal conservative Democrats.
Also heading up the fundraising welcome wagon was Narric Rome, who was Sen. Shumlin’s campaign manager during his failed lieutenant governor bid in 2002.
On the GOP side, Lt. Gov. Brian Dubie held a Washington fundraiser last week with Gov. Haley Barbour (R-MS). Barbour chairs the Republican Governors Association.
Neither Doug Racine nor Susan Bartlett plans to hold a fundraiser in the nation’s capital. “I’m sticking to Vermont money,” Bartlett said. “I believe this race is going to be decided by Vermonters, not by big out-of-state special interest groups.”
Speaking of special interest groups, Markowitz picked up an endorsement Monday from EMILY’s List , which stands for Early Money Is Like Yeast, a 100,000-member group dedicated to electing pro-choice women.
Markowitz has worked with EMILY’s List in the past, but it took some effort to get the organization to weigh in this early.
The endorsement means more money for Markowitz, who will be included in a variety of fundraising efforts managed by the group. It also means she and her staff can lean on the group for advice and support.
“Deb is doing everything right, and all the indications are that the voters in Vermont are excited about her,” said Jonathan Parker, political director of EMILY’s List. “We thought it was time to get in officially.”
More than 100 people gathered  in front of Burlington City Hall last Saturday to protest President Barack Obama’s planned troop “surge” in Afghanistan.
“Just as Obama is calling for a surge in Afghanistan, we need a surge in the antiwar movement to bring our troops home,” said Jonathan Leavitt, one of the protest organizers. He also urged the congressional delegation to vote against bills that fund the surge.
Though Obama has promised to finance the wars through the regular budget process — as opposed to so-called supplemental bills — it’s likely one will be needed early next year to get the job done.
Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-VT), Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) and Rep. Peter Welch (D-VT) have all criticized Obama’s decision to escalate the war. But would they block its funding?
“We do not tend to speculate about votes on not-yet-introduced legislation,” said Will Wiquist, Sanders’ spokesman.
“He will make a decision on that after reviewing the bill,” David Carle said for Leahy.
“If a vote were held tomorrow,” said Paul Heintz in Welch’s office, “he would not support supplemental spending for the troop increase.”
With an 8-6 vote, the Burlington City Council approved a measure late Monday night to issue a “request for proposals” to more than a dozen financing firms in hopes of refinancing as much as $50 million of Burlington Telecom’s existing debt.
The councilors withdrew a measure backed by Mayor Bob Kiss to begin refi talks with Piper Jaffray .
The approved resolution requires CAO Jonathan Leopold to issue an RFP on December 15, with responses due back January 20. The hope is to have a refinancing deal completed by February 15. That’s when another $370,000 debt payment to CitiCapital comes due, and BT may not be able to make it, given current cash flow.
In other BT news, longtime political foes John Franco, a Progressive, and Sandy Baird, a Democrat, formed “Friends of Burlington Telecom” along with Jan Schultz, one of BT’s early proponents.
“The city council has a right to challenge the administration, and they should, but at the same time they should not do it at the cost of killing BT,” said Baird.
Easier said than done.
Finally, an update on the lawsuit brought by two former Republican city councilors noted in last week’s “Fair Game” : The pair claims that Leopold’s decision to use $17 million in taxpayer funds to buttress BT — in violation of BT’s certificate of public good — “constitutes deceit and renders Leopold personally liable for the unpaid funds.”
How about a lump of coal instead?
In last week’s “Fair Game,” we reported that Auditor Tom Salmon pushed the ethics envelope when he used a state-owned camcorder to tape a political fundraiser. The full speech is on Blurt .
In response to concerns about using the camcorder, Salmon told the Burlington Free Press he will reimburse the state $28 for taping the 13-minute speech. New revenue stream?
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