Disenfranchised: The Politics of “Bait and Switch”
Voters in Vermont are being
disenfranchised by the politics of "Bait and Switch". This is where politicians
campaign on a non-controversial issue; but introduce a more controversial
agenda once the legislative session starts. In doing so they often shift
priorities away from issues they campaigned on toward an agenda that does
not get brought up during the campaign. During an election voters make
a decision based upon the campaigns that candidates run on. It is their
way of having a voice in setting the agenda of their government. By switching
their focus away from the agenda campaigned on to one not introduced to
the voters, politicians are cheating the voters out of having a say in
determining the agenda to be addressed. Perhaps our political leaders think
that the citizens of Vermont are not paying attention, or do not care.
Below is a short summary of the politics of bait and switch being practiced
during several of our past legislative sessions.
2007 Legislative Session:
The first example to be cited is the 2007 legislative session. Here is
what Pete Behr had to say about it in a True North Commentary: "Is it
possible to give the Vermont Legislature a minus score? Not only has it
failed to respect campaign promises to address the cost of education and
high property taxes, but it has passed a number of bills which would be
downright laughable -- except that they add to what is already the highest
tax burden in the union, shouldered by the good citizens of our fair state."
As mentioned by Behr, the
central issue of the 2006 campaign was the cost of education and high property
taxes. The campaign was filled with promises on the part of those running
for office to address this issue. This was not done.
So what was the focus of
the 2007 legislative session? According to a True North Commentary by Ethan
Allen Institute founder and current Vice Presdent John McClaughry: "The
legislative centerpiece of the session, at least in the eyes of Senate
President Peter Shumlin, was the need to mobilize Vermonters in the great
battle against Anthropogenic Global Warming, that is, against the menace
of carbon dioxide." The supposed threat of global warming was used
as an excuse to go on a hunt for even more taxes to support a VPIRG endorsed
energy bill. This is a state that is already among the highest taxed states
in the country. Here is how McClaughry described it: "Shumlin's first
idea was to levy a tax on heating oil, natural gas, and propane. That sank
like a stone. Then he went after Entergy's Vermont Yankee nuclear power
So who was to be the beneficiaries
of this new revenue? According to McClaughry: "Also included in the
bill was another handout to VPIRG's favorite corporate welfare recipient,
the commercial wind energy industry. The bill gave wind towers a large
education property tax discount to go along with its Federal production
tax credit, accelerated depreciation, and sale of so-called green energy
Heaven forbid that we should
let such trivial matters as campaign pledges and Vermonters’ concerns with
high property taxes get in the way of allowing VPIRG to reward its "big
2008 Legislative Session:
2008 the legislature picked up where they left off in 2007. Here is an
excerpt from a Fox News article: "Democratic Speaker Gaye Symington
is coming back to the statehouse, renewing her efforts to pass a climate
change bill." Why is this? We had a Republican Governor messing things
up in 2007. From the Fox News article: "Last year it was Democrats'
number one priority, they spent weeks learning about the issue. But all
that work produced no new laws, because after attaching a funding source
that taxed Vermont Yankee, Gov. Jim Douglas, R-Vermont, vetoed the bill.
The tax was controversial even among Democrats, and despite their strong
numbers, they could not override the veto." So we have yet another
session, which starts out by totally ignoring what the 2008 legislative
candidates campaigned on in 2006. It appears that they think Vermonters
will not notice. Once again the priority is shifted to an agenda dictated
by VPIRG. Here is an excerpt from yet another McClaughry True North Commentary:
Senate has in waiting the new bill Sen. Shumlin promised last July, S.350.
Modestly titled the "energy independence and economic prosperity" act,
the bill incorporates the entire radical agenda put forth by VPIRG."
This bill was considered
a little too radical by some in Montpelier; but a watered down version
did end up passing. As McClaughry explains: "On March 19, 2008, Gov.
Douglas signed a bipartisan bill to have the Public Service Department
spend millions more of our tax dollars to explain to Vermonters that they
can save money by practicing energy conservation. With that, one might
have thought that the VPIRG-inspired global warming craze had spent its
force. Unfortunately one would have been wrong."
So after allowing VPIRG to
have a scaled down victory to crow about on their website, one would think
that the legislature would have shifted gears to focus on education spending
and property tax reform to fulfill 2006 campaign promises. Unfortunately,
that was not to be the case. Other special interest groups were already
lining up for their turn. As a Caledonia Record Editorial points out: "Near
the end of the first session of this Legislature, House Speaker Gaye Symington,
D-Jericho, and Senate President Pro Tem Peter Shumlin, D-Windham, appointed
an 11-member commission to hold public forums to determine where Vermonters
stand on gay marriage. The commission was named the Vermont Commission
on Family Recognition and Protection. That's a very deceptive name. If
anybody had the idea that the commission had anything to do with recognizing
families or protecting them, the name served its purpose of deceiving Vermonters.
Its true purpose was to hold hearings that could then be twisted into a
consensus legalizing gay marriage. The commission is composed of 11 members,
many of them gay themselves, and all but one of them avid proponents of
legalizing gay marriage. The one seeming independent is window dressing.
He was added after the fact when the public realized that the deck was
stacked with the first 10.
And, just as predicted,
the commission published its report last week, a report that is a stalking
horse for a major push to legalize gay marriage in the next biennium."
What did the Record predict
would be the result of the commission’s work? "If Symington and Shumlin
retain their titles after next January's reorganization of the Legislature,
we can expect one of, if not the, major issue of the next Legislature to
be the legalization of gay marriage."
2009 Legislative Session:
the Record’s prediction is to turn out to be accurate, one would think
that the 2008 campaign would have raised the issue to prepare the voters.
That was not the case. The 2008 campaign was focused on the economy and
the need to get our budget under control without raising even more taxes.
Here is Rob Roper’s take on the issue in another True North Commentary:
"House Speaker Shap Smith and Senate President Pro Tem Peter Shumlin
adjourned the legislature on May 9th because, at the beginning of the year,
this is what they said they would do. It was a good idea that, if competently
executed, could have saved Vermont taxpayers a half a million dollars.
What Smith and Shumlin did not say they would do at the beginning of the
year is bring up the issue of same sex marriage. They outlined their priorities,
and that issue was not one of them. The 2009 legislative session was supposed
to be focused like a laser beam on fixing the budget crisis, the economy
and jobs. In the end, it wasn't."
Polls conducted at the time
indicated that the majority of Vermont voters did not support this bait
and switch when it comes to what was campaign on. Roper notes how Smith
and Shumiln responded to the voters concern: "When Smith and Shumlin
did spring the same sex marriage issue on the legislature during Town meeting
week, they did so with the promise that they could "walk and chew gum at
the same time." The efforts to fix the fiscal crisis would not suffer.
In the end, they couldn't and it did."
How well did they keep this
promise? According to Roper, not too well: "What we witnessed in the
closing days of the session (after weeks of divisive battling, tens of
thousands of emails to legislators, and hundreds of thousands of dollars
in out of state money spent) was a hurried attempt to cobble together a
budget. This inept effort ultimately failed to address the major
financial problems we've all know about since last summer. What Smith and
Shumlin did was not adjourn on May 9th, but quit. Quit before the job they
promised would be done was finished.
What did they leave undone?
Here are some highlights...
Despite the fact that our
revenues are decreasing by 5.58%, the Democrats' budget actually increases
overall spending by 3.11
They failed to address the
fact their spending plan leaves a $67 million General Fund deficit in fiscal
2011 and a $141 million deficit in fiscal 2012.
They failed to address the
fact that Vermont faces unfunded liabilities in the state workers' and
teachers' pension funds of $29 million and $60 million - a number that
will grow to over $4 billion unless corrective action is taken.
They failed to address the
fact the unemployment insurance trust fund is facing a $160 million deficit
by the end of next year, and could go bankrupt.
A full 15% of this budget
is funded with one time federal stimulus money, leaving us with a
dangerous financial "cliff".
This is not a job well done.
It's not a job DONE. And this is why the Governor has had to call the legislature
back on June 2nd for a special session. When Republicans called on Democrats
to take a temporary 5%
pay cut to share in the sacrifice, Democrats refused, saying
that by adjourning in mid-May they had already given themselves a pay cut.
Well, now they're coming back to finish the job they left unfinished -
on our dime. In many more ways than one."
To cover these failures,
the Democrats raise over $26 million in new or increased taxes on Vermonters,
including $9.3 million in income taxes with over $5.5 million of those
new taxes coming from small businesses and farms.
2010 Legislative Session:
2010 legislative session, like the 2009 session was supposed to be about
the economy and the budget. There was, at least, a stab in that direction
with "Challenges for Change". Although it came up far short, at leas there
was a pretense of addressing the issue. Of course, in the era of Vermont’s
"Money Politics", no session would be complete without at least some concession
to an agenda driven by money funneled through Vermont’s non-profits. Already
mentioned above is the Vermont Senate vote to close Vermont Yankee by "VPIRG
and friends". There was also a vote on what John McClaughry labeled as
the "dumbest bill of the year". "S.88 is Sen. Racine’s bill to create
a government run single payer health care system for Vermont.
But we don’t have $2
billion dollars to make that thing work!"
Even if it could work there
is another small problem according to McClaughry: "Suppose the legislature
bought into this, and the new study produced yet another socialized medicine
scheme. When could that go into effect?
Why 2017, seven years
Because Obamacare says
a state can’t adopt any health care plan not approved by the federal government
This is obviously not a serious
bill, but a bone thrown to groups like VPIRG and the Vermont Workers Center,
who lobbied heavily for it.
to Gain Political Advantage
This begs the question of
what is driving our political agenda if it is not the interests of the
voters. This question was explored by a Hudson Institute Conference that
was held in 2005 called "When
Non-Profits Attack: Nonprofit Organizations as Political Advocates".
The theme of the conference was that the use of non-profit organizations
is increasingly advancing political interests. Since then, using non-profits
as a funnel for money to advance a political agenda is starting to be more
widely seen as a serious problem.
According to a recent Wall
Street Journal article: "The Senate's chief tax writer has called for
a federal investigation into advocacy groups that have become increasingly
popular vehicles for outside donations.
These groups, known as
501(c) 4s after the section of the tax code that defines them, can raise
unlimited donations from individuals, corporations and labor unions to
spend on political advertisements."
The problem has become more
pronounced after changes in the campaign finance laws according the Wall
Street Journal article: "After a 2002 campaign-finance law that banned
companies and labor unions from making unlimited donations directly to
political parties, more outside political entities began running their
own independent campaigns for political candidates."
Given Vermont’s own restrictive
campaign finance laws, one would expect such problems to be evident here.
It appears that such an assumption is not off the mark. Recent revelations
on the part of some media outlets have pulled the curtain back ever so
slightly on the influence of non-profits in Vermont on setting our political
"The press had done a
good job shedding some light on the $8000 donation to Peter Shumlin by
big time donor David Bilttersdorf, Shumlin’s appointment of Bilttersdorf
to the Clean Energy Development Board, and Bilttersdorf’s company ultimately
receiving $4.3 million tax credits from that very board." - True North
Radio Host Rob Roper
"Companies founded by,
and linked to, Burlington renewable energy developer David Blittersdorf
received $4.3 million in tax credits for solar projects across Vermont.
The total pool of available tax credits was about $7 million." - Rutland
This is just the beginning
as Roper points out: "This $8000 is not the only "investment" David
Blittersdorf has made, and the $4.3 million in tax credits has not been
his only pay day. Since 2003, David
Blittersdorf and his wife Jan
have given nearly $100,000 in direct donations to the Vermont Democratic
Party, including $20,000 this 2009-2010 election cycle. In addition, Blittersdorf
made in April, 2010, a stunning $35,200 donation to Vermont Senate 2010."
Direct political contributions
are only a minor means by which people like Mr. Blittersdorf seeks to gain
political advantage. As Roper has noted: "And, perhaps not so coincidentally,
it’s the same Peter Sumlin who is leading the charge to shut down David
Blittersdorf’s number one business competitor, Vermont Yankee, with the
help of another organization of which David Blittersdorf just happens to
be a board member – VPIRG.
We don’t know how much
money Bilttersdorf has donated to VPIRG as that organization is under no
legal obligation to disclose the names or amounts of individuals who donate.
However, VPIRG’s half a dozen lobbyists in the State House, grassroots
activities, and ad campaigns have been tightly linked to the Blittersdorf’s
VPIRG and "Big
David Blittersdorf is the
CEO of Earth Turbines and founder of NRG Systems, but he is not the only
person with interest in wind companies who has ties to VPIRG. Matt Rubin
and David Rapaport, are the principals in East Haven Windfarm, the company
that wants to put four demonstration wind towers on East Mountain and,
ultimately, erect 50 windmills on the ridge lines of Essex County.
These two are on the VPIRG Board of Directors.
In addition to constantly
lobbying for shutting down "big wind’s" number one competitor Vermont Yankee,
VPIRG can be counted on to push for numerous initiatives that benefit wind
companies. In a section of VPIRG’s website section labeled "Victories"
they trumpet the pushing for all kinds of bills that either subsidize "alternative
energy" (such as wind), but regulate forms of energy that wind companies
are unable to compete with freely in an open market.
In VPIRG the wind companies
are getting an effective advocate for their interest. They are a registered
501(c)(4) organization. Its 2007 IRS Form 990 showed revenue of $382,006
and expenses of $384,320. It took had $511,917 in revenue in 2008.
VPIRG compensated its executive director. The VPIRG website lists nine
staff members: an executive director, an associate director, a clean energy
advocate, a health care advocate, an environmental health advocate, a health
care advocate, a field associate, a membership coordinator, and an office
VPIRG shares this staff with
its 501(c)(3) arm the Vermont Public Interest Research Group Education
Fund, whose 990 reports reveal an average of between $500,000 to $600,000
per year in addition to what the 501(c)(4) branch earns. Of course the
public sees them as simply pursuing the public good, rather than advancing
the political agenda of wind companies.
Pushing an Ideological
Agenda With Out of State Money
Besides carrying water for
wind companies, VPIRG is among the many Vermont non-profit corporations
pushing an ideological agenda with large amounts of money flowing into
their coffers from out of State foundations. A look at VPIRG’s website
shows that most of the "victories" they trumpet an increase in taxation,
regulation and spending. There is a legitimate debate to be had about whether
the public good is better served by such an approach. Such a debate should
take place on a level playing field among Vermont’s citizens. The influx
of large amounts from out of State money into our political debate is tilting
the playing field in such a way as to drown out the voices and interests
of average Vermonters.
Among VPIRG’s largest Foundation
donor is the JOHN MERCK FUND of Boston
Massachusetts. Their donations to VPIRG’s 501(c)(3) arm has totaled several
hundred thousand dollars wit the largest donation being $115,000. The NATHAN
CUMMINGS FOUNDATION and the BELDON FUND of New York New York, as well
as the EDUCATIONAL FOUNDATION OF AMERICA
in Westport Connecticut each gave $50,000 as their largest single donation.
These are just a very small sample of the group’s grants received from
foundations. A search 990 tax forms reveals that the overwhelming majority
of their foundation grant money comes from out of State.
Their impact on the political
agenda is multiplied when they partner with other non-profits. In pushing
for a single payer health care system in Vermont, they teamed up with the
"Vermont Workers Center". Like VPIRG, this group get a lot of funds
from out of State foundations, the largest being FIDELITY
INVESTMENTS CHARITABLE GIFT FUND from Cincinnati Ohio. The Vermont
Workers Center is a local arm of a large national group called "Jobs With
Justice", which adds to their clout.
The biggest example of multiplying
their clout "with a little help for their friends" is the Vermont Senate
vote to shut down Vermont Yankee. Here is a section of a news item under
the "Victories" part of their website:
"This monumental effort
would not have been successful without the dedication and support from
key coalition partners. Our sincerest thanks go out to:
At least half of these groups
are from out of State with groups like Greenpeace having a VERY substantial
budget that few Vermont groups can match. The case of the Conservation
Law Foundation is one of particular interest because they often partner
with VPIRG on energy and environmental concerns. The CLF is located in
Boston Massachusetts. They have roughly $16,000,000 in total assets and
a revenue stream of about $5,000,000 per year and a staff of 57 employees.
Conservation Law Foundation
Democracy for America
Nuclear Free Vermont
Safe and Green
Sierra Club of Vermont
and New Hampshire
Toxics Action Center
Vermont League of Conservation
Vermont Natural Resources
Vermont Yankee Decommissioning
The shelving of a focus on
Vermont’s budget in favor of pushing for gay marriage for a good part of
the 2009 legislative session followed the same pattern as the VPIRG driven
shift in focus from high property taxes to global warming in the 2007 legislative
session. Once again we have a case of an agenda being pushed through non-profits
with plenty of out of state money at the expense of the interest of Vermont’s
citizens and contrary to the promises of Vermont’s political class.
According to a Times Argus
article, the opponents of gay marriage were outspent by it proponents by
a ration of roughly 23 to 1: "Supporters of Vermont's new gay marriage
law spent more than $228,000 lobbying for it in the three months before
the historic April 7 votes to pass it over Gov. Jim Douglas' veto.??
Lobbyist disclosure forms
filed at the secretary of state's office on Monday show that the Vermont
Freedom to Marry Task force spent more than $168,000 on advertising and
lobbying on the issue from January through March.
An affiliated group, the
Vermont Freedom to Marry Action Committee, spent an additional $60,000.
An opposition group, Take It To The People, which advocated a nonbinding
statewide referendum on the question, spent more than $10,000 on its efforts
from January through March."
As with numerous ideological
issues of interest to Vermonters, one side is far better funded than the
other and has ample access to money from out of State foundations. The
Freedom to Marry Task Force is no exception. The money they spent on the
gay marriage campaign doubled their entire revenue stream from the year
before, but even before that, they had plenty of grant support from out
of state foundations. According to their 990 tax forms, their biggest source
of support from foundations comes from the GILL
FOUNDATION of Denver Colorado, with the Tides Foundation in San Francisco
being another major donor.
Score a Victory
There is one example of Vermont’s
citizens raising up to have their voices heard inspite of such well funded
interests. Earlier this year there was a vote in Burlington on Instant
Runoff Voting that showed it was possible for average Vermont citizens
to emerge victorious over the politics of bait and switch. The effort to
repeal IRV was spearheaded by a coalition of average citizens who saw it
as an incumbent protection racket whose main effect was to disenfranchise
voters. They were opposed by a coalition of interest groups including VPIRG
and emerged victorious.