With the legislative session coming to an always-tumultuous end, and less than five months before the Democratic primary for governor, I’m constantly asked: How’s the primary shaping up?
So, dear readers, let’s suspend the reality of $250 million budget cuts, $38 million in chump-change challenges, health care reform, nuclear power plants and permit reform, and head to the never-never land of campaign politics.
After watching a few of the recent debates  and talking to attendees afterward, here’s a political columnist’s take on the Democratic primary: It looks like the top two contenders will be Sen. Doug Racine and Secretary of State Deb Markowitz.
In some ways this isn’t a surprise — they were the first two candidates out of the block. Both announced their intentions last January; Racine threw in his hat before Douglas started his fourth term.
When Senate President Pro Tem Peter Shumlin jumped into the race later, I thought the contest would come down to him and Racine — the primary that’s been on hold since 2002. Back then, Shumlin decided to run for lieutenant governor while Racine ran for governor.
The result? They both lost. Shumlin to Lt. Gov. Brian Dubie and Racine to Gov. Jim Douglas.
Back to the present: At this point I think Racine has the edge over Markowitz simply because he’s from populous Chittenden County and his message resonates best  with the party’s liberal base.
Yet, while their hearts appear to be with Racine, their heads worry he can’t close the deal and win in November. They worry that he won’t fight back hard enough against GOP attacks, which sank his campaign in 2002.
Markowitz continues to rake in the cash  and tops all Democrats in early polling versus Dubie. While voters’ heads are with Markowitz, she doesn’t yet have their hearts. She is scoring some points by positioning herself as an antidote to the “business-as-usual” politics of Montpelier, even though she’s a statewide pol with an office in … Montpelier.
The “wild card” is former State Sen. Matt Dunne, who is quickly edging out Shumlin for the third-place slot. Like a short-track speed skater hoping for a crash in the pack, Dunne is positioning himself for a fast finish. He knows enough about the issues because he’s held elected office, but, like Markowitz, benefits from being out of the statehouse scrum where Bartlett, Racine and Shumlin have to vote.
Shumlin, too, could still pull out a win, but he will have to sharpen his stump speech — which is already wearing thin on debate attendees — and counter his untrustworthy image. In two consecutive polls, he had the highest negatives of all candidates in the field.
Shumlin was hoping the Vermont Yankee  vote — coupled with last year’s veto overrides on same-sex marriage and the budget — would amount to a Triple Crown, but the gilt is fading as anxiety heightens about looming budget cuts in a down economy.
At debates, Sen. Susan Bartlett is the crowd favorite. Why? Her honesty and lack of political polish. She talks in sentences, not soundbites. And, she’s an avowed moderate in the race, likening herself to Gov. Howard Dean. As gov, Dean fought as strenuously with the liberals in his party as he did with conservatives.
I get the sense, however, that Democrats want a candidate who evokes the presidential-candidate Dean, representing the “Democratic wing of the Democratic Party” — but without the screaming. And failing.
Still, the governor’s race is Dubie’s to lose . Despite their jokes about his absence at the candidate forums, none of the Dems has struck a mortal blow, and Dubie benefits no matter when the primary is held.
Nothing like having the field to yourself.
Sit & Spin
This week Entergy shelved its plans to spin off its nuclear power plants to a subsidiary, solving one of the key problems many Vermont lawmakers had with the plant.
Others include: lying to lawmakers and regulators about VY’s underground and buried pipes; the massive tritium leak; the absence of a power contract with Vermont utilities; and cleaning up the plant after it closes, aka “decommissioning.”
Entergy has been working on the issues , one by one. Next on the checklist are power contracts and decommissioning costs.
A House bill shepherded by Rep. Tony Klein (D-East Montpelier), chairman of the House Natural Resources Committee, would require Entergy to pay — up front — the costs associated with returning the nuclear site to a “green field,” as required by its original agreement with Vermont when the plant was purchased.
That is estimated to cost $50 million more than what the feds require for decommissioning, which could top $1 billion. The plant’s decommissioning fund is currently valued at around $430 million. Uh, that’s not enough.
If Entergy can assure Vermont  it will cover the cost of decommissioning, and extra cleanup costs, it’s down to just one objection: a power deal. There have been no talks with utilities since last year, but a tritium leak, a regulatory probe and legislative vote tend to distract.
Now, Entergy can come back to the legislature and say, “OK, the tritium leak has been stopped, and we’re going to clean it up. Yes, we misled you. We’re sorry — we’ll never do it again. The spin-off deal you didn’t like? Gone. So, Legislature — how about another vote?”
And the legislature will say ... what?
This week lawmakers will hunker down and determine what they want to keep, amend or reject in Gov. Jim Douglas’ Challenge for Change proposal.
“I don’t think anyone expected to like everything the administration came up with,” said House Speaker Shap Smith. “Our job is now to ask if these efficiencies justify the erosion of appropriate oversight, from the sale of state property to environmental permitting.”
Masked by the debate is the fact that the administration failed to meet its $38 million savings target by at least $8 million. That means the legislature needs to find another $8 million to balance the budget, on top of any “savings” it rejects from the Douglas plan.
Add to the growing deficit the federal money lost because the Vermont State Hospital didn’t get its certification — the state will receive $8 million less in FY10, $16 million in FY11.
Why didn’t the Douglas team meet its $38 million goal?
Simple, according to Tom Evslin, the state’s chief technology officer and “Challenges” point man. It focused on items that need legislative approval first, since lawmakers will be gone in a month.
“We have other constructive levers and restructuring actions to figure out to make budgets which account for the whole $38 million; I expect that to be hard but constructive; it will happen,” said Evslin. “Critical now is to get the legislation we need to make the whole thing work. Otherwise we do have to do cutting, which is not constructive.”
The other “actions” will likely be detailed to the joint legislative government accountability committee, not the full legislature.
State employees fear future layoffs are in the offing. In the past two years, nearly 700 jobs  have been eliminated due to a mix of layoffs, retirement and eliminating vacant positions.
“I can’t see how implementing the challenges would not result in layoffs,” said Jes Kraus, executive director of the Vermont State Employees Association. He thinks lawmakers should see the full details of the plan before voting on it. What a concept.
“Any more job cuts would result in the complete inability of some departments of state government to function effectively,” adds Kraus. “But perhaps that’s been the plan all along: Break it until it can’t be fixed and then privatize.”
State of Denial
Burlington Mayor Bob Kiss’ “State of the City”  address came across as more of a state of denial than a report card for the Queen City.
There’s lots of fine work going on every day that isn’t impugned by the problems associated with Burlington Telecom and Chief Administrative Officer Jonathan Leopold.
Kiss listed them all. He devoted 10 pages of a 13-page speech to accomplishments — from more “business” at the library to the Moran Plant redevelopment . Roughly a page was devoted to the city’s challenges, and the rest to congratulating councilors, criticizing military spending, and expressing his hope that Burlington will one day celebrate its 1000th birthday, like its sister city Yaroslavl.
Ah, yes, Mother Russia.
About BT, Kiss said, “I want to make it clear to the people of Burlington that all along my only goal was, and is, to protect their interests.”
That’s hard to believe given he knew about BT’s debt and its violations  months before the 2009 election and decided to keep quiet about it.
Despite BT’s debt and related regulatory investigations , Kiss implored, “Our track record shows that this administration takes fiscal responsibility seriously.”
Some might disagree, including the new members of the city’s Board of Finance. Kiss and Leopold have automatic seats on the panel, as does City Council President Bill Keogh (D-Ward 5). After a spirited series of votes, Councilor Karen Paul (I-Ward 6) bested Councilors Sharon Bushor (I-Ward 1) and Nancy Kaplan (D-Ward 4) for one of the remaining two seats, while Councilor Kurt Wright (R-Ward 4) easily won a seat over Bushor.
During his 20-minute speech, the mayor urged councilors to put city interests before politics. “We must make decisions based on the merit of the plans and proposals that we consider,” said Kiss, “not on personal or party politics.”
Easier said than done .
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