Voters bemoaning the lack of budget-cutting details  from Republican Brian Dubie and Democrat Peter Shumlin will have to put up with the feel-good rhetoric until after November 2. Then, perhaps, we’ll know more about how the winner plans to close the state’s looming FY 2012 deficit, which could be as “little” as $112 million or as much as $150 million.
Thought we were going to get single-payer health care? Tax cuts? Not this year — maybe never, if the economy continues to struggle.
The dollar figure of next year’s budget shortfall is still a guessing game, largely because it’s unclear how much the Douglas administration has saved from the government-wide cost-cutting and streamlining effort known as “Challenges for Change.”
The state is millions short in meeting this “challenge.” As a result, for every dollar not saved in FY 2011, lawmakers will need to save two dollars in FY 2012 to remain on target. Why? Budget writers were banking on $38 million in FY 11 savings to become $72 million in FY 12.
Don’t ask. Just cinch those belts, people.
On October 1, Gov. Jim Douglas’ bean counters told department heads to cut their budgets by a whopping 6 percent. “Preference should be given to the elimination of entire program(s) and/or service(s) rather than across-the-board reductions that jeopardize the stability and sustainability of multiple programs and/or services,” read the instructions, which were issued by the Department of Finance & Management. Departments have until October 18 to submit their cost-cutting proposals.
Once November 3 rolls around, either Dubie or Shumlin will “own” the budget. One of them will be delivering it to lawmakers in January.
Both candidates have been vague about just how they would close the budget gap. That’s intentional. Specificity is an opportunity for the opposition to distort the details : Dubie claims Shumlin would release 800 child molesters from prison to reduce corrections spending, while Shumlin has said Dubie’s plan will mean 1400 fewer kids on Dr. Dynasaur.
Neither claim is true, but what do you expect from political ads? Facts?
“Fair Game” asked the pair to set aside the pie-in-the-sky campaign promises and offer more deets on how they plan to pare the budget. They agree in some areas and differ wildly in others.
“We need to start what we did under ‘Challenges’ and expand it: Look at outside contracts to see if some of this work we can do in house and save some money,” said Dubie. He would look to trim middle management in state government and encourage the state’s nonprofit providers of affordable housing and mental health services to do the same.
Dubie also believes some worthwhile programs — such as land conservation — may need to take a one-year hiatus to free up funds to close the deficit without cutting programs for the neediest Vermonters. Shumlin has said that would be foolhardy, as conservation and affordable housing development go hand in hand.
Both Dubie and Shumlin believe the state can and should double, or triple, the business it conducts electronically to save money. Dubie pegs the savings potential at $15 to $20 million. He also thinks it may be time for state workers to agree to pension changes that reduce the state’s obligation by $5 million a year.
Nothing will be easy, Dubie notes.
“We’re going to have to all hold hands together and look eyeball to eyeball and set these budget priorities,” said Dubie. “The bottom line is, we need to make people a priority and protect the most vulnerable.”
Shumlin wants to squeeze savings from the state’s private-sector vendor contracts — now worth $250 million — by imposing stricter performance measures. He would also look to trim middle management: deputy commissioners and other “high-paid bureaucrats.” That would include the “spokespeople” who have cropped up in various agencies. Unlike Dubie, Shumlin doesn’t believe Vermont’s private nonprofits can absorb any more cuts.
“Anyone who says we can do this without any pain isn’t telling the truth,” said Shumlin. “What we have to find is the balance between the pain that we can temporarily live with and the heartlessness that departs from Vermonters’ values of respect and dignity for our neighbors.”
The Trouble With Tritium
Vermont Yankee revealed last week that an on-site drinking-water well near the nuclear power plant in Vernon is enriched, er, contaminated with tritium . It’s the first time tritium has found its way into an underground aquifer.
In conjunction with the state Department of Health, Entergy released the new tritium findings to the public late Friday afternoon — just hours before the start of a three-day weekend.
State regulators downplayed the findings  — the very same regulators who laughed off the possibility that VY’s tritium could ever find its way into local drinking-water supplies.
With regulators like these, who needs enemies?
Sen. John McCain (R-AZ), the maverick-y former presidential candidate, will stump for Republican Len Britton next week in Vermont. Britton is trying to topple U.S Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-VT) in the fall election.
McCain will attend a 1:30 p.m. public rally in honor of Vermont’s military — active and veteran — on Tuesday at Atlantic Aviation. Later that day, McCain will headline a private fundraiser for Britton.
Though Britton has gained national attention  for his clever TV ads, he hasn’t been able to translate that admiration into campaign cash.
“That has changed,” said Bradford Boyles, a Britton spokesman. “The GOP is finally taking its notice.” In recent weeks, the state GOP has spent $25,000 on TV ads to bolster Britton’s chances.
Leahy and Britton will debate each other twice between now and November 2. Two other debates include all seven candidates. Leahy has balked at Britton’s request for more one-on-one matchups.
“As a champion of free speech, Sen. Leahy believes all candidates have the right to be heard by the voters,” said Leahy’s campaign manager, Carolyn Dwyer. “Mr. Britton seems to think he’s the only one who deserves to be heard.”
A recent Huffington Post article  questions whether Sen. Patrick Leahy allowed a bill to slip through his judiciary committee, and later the U.S. Senate, with little or no scrutiny.
Pres. Barack Obama vetoed the bill, dubbed the Interstate Recognition of Notarizations Act, because housing advocates hated it. The act would have allowed banks to use interstate and electronic notarization, rather than local notary publics, to foreclose on homeowners. A national scandal has erupted in recent months about banks’ use of false notarizations in foreclosure proceedings.
In previous years, similar legislation passed by the House ended up dying in Leahy’s committee.
What was different this time? HuffPo reports that Leahy took up the bill after a national group representing notary publics brought it to his attention. The group recently published a book about Pres. Calvin Coolidge and invited Leahy to speak at its release party. He did.
An unnamed Leahy spokeswoman told Huffington Post the senator supports the president’s veto. “Now that concerns have been raised, Congress should reexamine whether this bill might have an unintended impact on foreclosures in the future,” she said.
Is it too much to ask senators to read bills before they pass them — especially in an election year?
The day “Fair Game” hit the streets last week , Burlington attorney John Franco sued Department of Public Safety Commissioner Thomas Tremblay in federal court. Franco is trying to force the state to release the roadside video of Auditor Tom Salmon’s drunk-driving arrest.
Franco contends the Douglas administration is playing political favorites when it comes to releasing embarrassing state police dash-cam videos. Tremblay released to WCAX a video of Democrat Peter Shumlin’s I-91 recent traffic stop, but refuses to give out the video of Republican Salmon’s stop. Tremblay claims the reason is simple: Shumlin’s was a civil violation; Salmon’s was criminal.
Franco contends the Salmon video is an “initial arrest” record and therefore public. He’s also a longtime Progressive who donated $250 to Democrat Doug Hoffer, who is challenging Salmon this fall.
Franco denied that his tape pursuit is political.
U.S. District Court Judge Christina Reiss will hear arguments on Franco’s case this Friday in federal court in Burlington.
In a debate last week, both major-party candidates for secretary of state said that a roadside DUI tape should probably be a public record.
Auditor Salmon weighed in, too, in a subsequent debate the same night.
Out of respect for his children, wife and family, Salmon said he would not voluntarily ask that the video be released. “I dealt with the issue in a straightforward manner at the time,” he said.
Reporter Dan Barlow, one of three scribes at the Vermont Press Bureau, is leaving journalism for “greener” pastures .
The bureau provides legislative reportage for the Rutland Herald and the Barre-Montpelier Times Argus.
Starting October 25, he’ll be the public-policy manager for Vermont Businesses for Social Responsibility. Barlow replaces Andrea Cohen, who left the post to become the group’s executive director after Will Patten retired.
Barlow’s departure comes just one week after the Herald and Times Argus put much of their online content behind a pay wall.
After one week, the number of paying customers is in the “low hundreds” and new subscribers are being added every day, notes Rob Mitchell, who is in charge of the e-transition. The number of people who signed up for a free trial or registered their print subscription for online access cracked 5000 on Saturday and continues to climb.
“That is well beyond our admittedly conservative projections,” said Mitchell.
Print lives! The Vermont Press Bureau is looking for Barlow’s replacement.