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Voters 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 plant."

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 credits."

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 wind" benefactors. 

2008 Legislative Session: In 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: "The 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: If 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".
  • 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.
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."

2010 Legislative Session: The 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?

2017.
Why 2017, seven years out?

Because Obamacare says a state can’t adopt any health care plan not approved by the federal government until 2017."

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.

Using Non-Profits 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 agenda. 

"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 Herald

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 business agenda."

VPIRG and "Big Wind"

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 manager. 

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:

Citizens Awareness Network

Conservation Law Foundation

Credo Action

Democracy for America

Greenpeace

Nuclear Free Vermont

Safe and Green

Sierra Club of Vermont and New Hampshire

Toxics Action Center

True Majority

Vermont League of Conservation Voters

Vermont Natural Resources Council

Vermont Yankee Decommissioning Alliance"

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. 

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.

Average Citizens 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. 

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