Election Reform Up in Smoke
If you want to read a depressing column about how the U.S. Supreme Court just turned its back on freedom and democracy by shooting down Act 64, Vermont's historic 1997 campaign finance law, you will have to go elsewhere.
The high court's Monday rejection of Vermont's attempt to rein in campaign spending and all the crap it buys, from TV commercial time to lawn signs and automated, mass phone-calling, did not come as a surprise.
The winners, including the Vermont Republican State Committee and Vermont Right to Life, are justly proud of their efforts to prevent campaign spending limits. Money is free speech, they argued. Congratulations!
Meanwhile, the losers are licking their legal wounds and noting the Supreme Court's divided decision could have been much worse. They insist the reform effort will live on.
For now, money will do the most talking.
Speaking of reform, our item a couple weeks back on a new UCLA study indicating that smoking marijuana, unlike tobacco, does not cause lung and other cancers, got an interesting response. We noted the mainstream press ignored the remarkable study, even though it was conducted by a distinguished scientist who's on the "War on Drugs" payroll.
One reader who took note is a veteran Vermont law enforcement official -- Windsor County State's Attorney Bobby Sand. The prosecutor forwarded an op-ed he'd written a couple years back about a number of "myths and misconceptions about the criminal justice system."
Among Sand's myths were "Increased Punishment Increases Deterrence" and "The Criminal Justice System Prevents Crime."
But the reason he sent it along was the myth he cited related to pot: "The War on Marijuana Is Winnable and Worth Fighting."
The "myth," according to Sand, is that marijuana is a dangerous Schedule 1 drug that belongs right up there with heroin and cocaine.
"The reality," wrote Sand, "is that marijuana is not a criminal justice menace. Police do not respond to pot-induced domestic assaults -- alcohol-induced, yes, but not marijuana."
Prosecutor Sand, the son of a federal judge, would like to see cops and courts stop busting and prosecuting Vermont pot smokers and reallocating that time to "the eradication of the physical and sexual abuse of children." Marijuana, he argues, should be a public health issue, like tobacco use by minors.
"Until our elected officials are prepared to shed the hypocrisy," said Sand this week, "we are doomed to more dangerous communities, lost revenue, and misdirected police efforts."
The Vermont prosecutor referred us to Law Enforcement Against Prohibition at http://www.leap.cc. LEAP is composed of current and former cops and prosecutors who argue it's in America's best interest to end the current drug prohibition. The website features a fascinating 12-minute movie in which frontline law enforcement vets explain why the U.S. drug war will never, ever taste victory. It's worth a watch.
Thank you, Mr. State's Attorney, for sharing.
Calling 911? -- Very unusual scene Monday night at the Burlington City Council. Can't remember the last time we've seen city workers so ticked off at management, specifically certain members of the city council.
During the open forum section of the meeting, anyone can address the council for three minutes. Detective Ray Nails, president of the Burlington Police Officers Association, patiently waited his turn. He was nattily attired in a lavendar shirt and tie with an earring and looked very much like a detective on TV. He didn't wear a sport coat. The weapon in the holster hanging in his right armpit was visible to all. And "Tough As" Nails was not a happy camper.
The union prez was there to respond to recent action by the council reported under the Freeps headline, "City Salaries Contribute to Pension Deficit." At the last meeting, Councilor Joan Shannon (D-Ward 5) had complained rather forcefully that city workers had better pension benefits than the taxpayers who pay their salaries. Shannon sponsored a budget amendment making that distinction explicit. It passed on a 7-6 vote.
And, yes, Shannon is a Democrat. And, yes, Ward 5 is home turf for former Democratic Govs. Madeleine Kunin and Howard Dean. And, yes, it is rather unusual for a Democrat to publicly criticize benefits that unionized workers fought hard to attain.
Councilor Shannon, who did not respond to our request for an interview on Tuesday, is the only Democratic politician we know who designs bathing suits for tall ladies. Check out http://www.longswimwear.com.
Detective Nails told an attentive city council that he "hopes there will never be a repeat performance of the last city council meeting when employees were bashed. It's the employees who have come forward with concessions. It's the employees who have come forward with suggestions," said Nails.
The police union just signed a new four-year contract with the city. It was one of Mayor Peter Clavelle's final acts. Cops made concessions, and new Burlington cops will pay the biggest price.
In fact, Nails insisted, the pension deficit "has never been an employee problem. It's a funding problem!"
"Let's not try to blame city employees," Republican City Councilor Kurt Wright (R-Ward 4) told "Inside Track." "The previous administration," he charged, "made some very serious errors."
Everybody knows the new mayor, Progressive Bob Kiss, walked into a financial tight spot. Mayor Kiss won council approval for a bare-bones budget for the coming fiscal year that starts July 1, but even that required a property tax increase.
Wright charged that Mayor Moonie skillfully postponed action on the Queen City's fiscal problem.
"For the previous mayor to put off this issue at the time," said Wright, "meant he didn't have to ask voters for a tax increase. With a race for governor coming up," said Kurt the Republican, "he didn't want this on his radar screen."
Hey, Clavelle wasn't stupid.
As it happened, Mayor Moonie's run for governor in 2004 as the Democratic Party standard bearer deteriorated quickly. In the end, the man who filled Bernie Sanders' shoes as mayor crashed and burned as a statewide candidate, finishing up with an embarrassing 37.9 percent of the popular vote.
The Clavelle administration "underfunded their pension system and it's against the way it's supposed to be done. It's against the rules," said Police Union Secretary John Frederico. "If we did something against the rules, what do you think the scrutiny would be, and how high would it be?"
And nobody knows the rules better than the cops, right?
The current leadership of the People's Republic of Burlington, Vermont, is facing some serious culture shock on the management vs. labor front. Let's hope they don't forget it was the unionized city workers in police, fire, public works and at Burlington Electric who contributed mightily to all those "most livable city" awards Ol' Burlap picked up in the 1990s.
Congressional Priorities -- Forget the endless slaughter of innocents we touched off in Iraq. Forget the daily suicide bombers in search of American victims. Forget the devastation that global warming will wreak with rising sea levels. Forget the out-of-control Bush deficit. Forget the desecration of our troops' corpses!
For once, the U.S. Congress is tackling a critically important issue this week: the desecration of the American flag.
As we write this, C-SPAN is on in the background, broadcasting the U.S. Senate debate over a constitutional amendment that would ban flag burning.
Like many readers, yours truly was not aware that flag burning was a serious problem facing the United States. Rather, it's all about the November congressional elections and wrapping as many Republicans in the flag as possible. The good news is, the rubber-stamp GOP Congress, which has played a vital role in leading our country in the wrong direction, is worried about its survival.
So, just as in the Vietnam War days, when a dishonest White House had nowhere else to go, it's time to take action against those who, as Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) just said, "urinate and defecate on the flag."
Meanwhile, Americans recently learned the Bush administration has been checking -- secretly, without a warrant or regard for the U.S. Constitution -- the phone records of ordinary Americans as part of its un-winnable "War on Terror."
Big Brother's bigness, however, often hampers his efforts. As we know from the 9/11 reports, the government had plenty of evidence in advance, but was positively incompetent when it came to putting it all together.
On the bright side, the Senate flag debate provides a moment for Vermont to shine. Both Sen. Patrick Leahy, a Democrat, and Sen. Jim Jeffords, the Senate's only Independent, eloquently stated their opposition to the GOP campaign stunt.
"Americans are without health insurance, gas prices are out of control," said Jeezum Jim to his colleagues, "and we still have no strategy for the war in Iraq."
Jeffords called the GOP-backed flag debate "a solution in search of a problem."
A 30-year U.S. Navy veteran, Jeffords said it is "disrespectful" of the sacrifices of our military to desecrate the flag. However, he added, "Our commitment to free speech must be strong enough to protect the right of those who express unpopular ideas, or who choose such a distasteful means of expression. This concept is at the center of what we stand for as Americans."
St. Patrick told the Senate that the GOP leadership was "returning again and again to using constitutional amendments as election-year rallying cries to excite the passion of voters. That is wrong. The Constitution is too important to be used for partisan political purposes -- and so, in my view, is our American flag."
Good points, guys.
Tarrant Sells Home -- "Inside Track" has learned that Republican U.S. Senate hopeful Richard Tarrant has sold one of his two Florida homes.
According to Broward County, Florida, land records, Richie Rich sold his Lighthouse Point home on June 13 for $1.8 million. That hacienda, his smaller one, was assessed at $1,447,210. Richie and his second wife still have the new, $8.8 million mansion next to the ocean along the Hillsboro Mile, as we reported in January.
Tarrant also continues to own a Colchester, Vermont, residence assessed at $477,000.
The retired cofounder of IDX has declined to make public the true extent of his personal fortune. In his federal filing, Richie Rich checked the "over $50 million" box, the highest category available, and won't say anything beyond that.
According to reliable sources, recent tracking polls have Tarrant far behind the frontrunner, Independent Rep. Bernie Sanders. Ol' Bernardo is still registering support in the low 60s. Tarrant, meanwhile, remains in the high 20s, despite a continuous and expensive TV ad campaign that many Vermonters are, frankly, getting pretty sick of.
Vermont Milk Mess -- Sunday morning's "You Can Quote Me" on WCAX-TV was one of the best in quite some time. That's because, instead of politicians or state officials, Marselis Parsons and Anson Tebbetts questioned two veteran Vermont dairy farmers who are facing a financial crisis due to the wet weather and the lowest milk price in years -- around $12 a hundredweight. It was at $19 two years ago.
"This year," said Tom Magnant from Franklin County, "it's the first time in 40 years that I started haying before I planted my crops."
And a lot of that hay is going bad because it's just too wet.
Paul Doton from Orange County said Vermont dairy farmers need help, and not just more low-interest loans.
"I've tightened the belt so many loops," he said, "it's starting to squeeze too much."
The fact is, America's milk supply does not need Vermont's milk. Western dairy operations are larger and cheaper to operate.
Milkers Magnant and Doton said they're not expecting Congress to help them out. "Quota" and "compact" are dirty words in Washington, they said, where western states have the votes to prevail.
It's crunch time on the farm, folks. There's talk of establishing a special new Vermont milk brand and giving consumers a chance to back local farmers.
It may be the last best hope.
Media Notes -- The Associated Press last week announced its choice for a new boss at the AP's Montpelier bureau, and we've already wished him well.
John Curran, 48, will replace Chris Graff, a Montpelier fixture who was abruptly fired in March. Mr. Curran has been at AP's Atlantic City bureau for the past 12 years. That's a lot of Miss America coverage. Wonder if he's a gambler, too?
In fact, we contacted Curran by email welcoming him to Vermont. The fact is, he had nothing whatsoever to do with what most Vermonters believe was unjust, unfair and unexplainable treatment of Graff.
Unfortunately, Curran did not feel like a chat with "Inside Track" just yet. He responded by email, thanking us for our welcome note, and saying he looks forward to meeting up when he takes over the Montpeculiar bureau in August. With three months until the general election, Curran will face a steep learning curve. Good thing there are four seasoned Vermont veterans on duty: Ross Sneyd, Wilson Ring, Dave Gram and Lisa Rathke.
P.S. A reader sent us this clip from our March 29 "Inside Track" in which we looked into our crystal ball:
Everyone expects that, once this simmers down, AP will tap veteran Statehouse/political reporter Ross Sneyd as Graff's replacement. Mr. Sneyd is highly respected and his work reflects the same high standard Graff set. Which is why the "new" AP will probably fool the "experts," show Vermont who's boss, and bring in someone new from out of state.Interesting.