April 23, 2020

by John McClaughry

Some readers of my commentaries  may recall that back in September of last year during “climate strike week” I discussed a documentary by left wing filmmaker Michael Moore, titled “Planet of the Humans”. I quoted Michael Donnelly, who has long been a part of Michael Moore’s entourage. Donnelley like Moore is a strong believer in the apocalyptic climate crisis.

I quoted Donnelley then as saying Planet of the Humans is  “the most dismaying Eco-documentary of the century.” He couldn’t understand “why we climate change activists are losing.” His conclusion after seeing early parts of the documentary, was that “we have been following corporation/foundation-financed Democratic Party-tied misleadership.”

He concluded “Renewable Energy is not our salvation. It is a myth that is very lucrative for some. Feel-good electric cars are actually powered by coal, natural gas… or dead salmon in the Northwest”. (That seems to be a reference to Big Hydro). 

 “None of these technologies existed nor could they exist, without fossil fuels. The grid cannot even operate without fossil fuel-derived steam-generated baseloads.” 

Then comes the dagger: “We have to hold the bad actors on ‘our’ side’s feet to the fire, as well, if we are to survive this one.” The film shows Bill McKibben Al Gore, Richard Branson, and Robert Kennedy Jr. speaking to environmentalists, and then clips of them speaking to industry about all the profits to be made.”

Now the film is available free online at  planetofthehumans.com.

John McClaughry is vice president of the Ethan Allen Institute.

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April 22, 2020

By Rob Roper

You can’t go on social media without seeing some post poking fun at our current situation along the lines of “How do you like this preview of the Green New Deal?” But these are funny because they are true, as demonstrated by the latest Op-Ed by Vermont’s David Blittersdorf of AllEarth Renewables.

Blittersdorf is gleeful about the destruction of our economy because of its impact on lowering our carbon footprint. “We may have failed in the past,” he writes, “but in the wake of our newfound global collective awareness of what is essential, we have a new opportunity right now to carry out the big changes necessary.” What’s not essential in Blittersdorf’s world (and of those who share his ideology) is you, your job, and your standard of living. And the big, necessary change he sees for the future is making sure those unessential things don’t come back.

What does he want instead? More of your tax dollars to subsidize his own business and protect his own multi-millionaire lifestyle. “It’s time to write new laws and invest in new infrastructure to support renewables, combat climate change, switch to electric heating, new transportation systems…. Let’s use this crisis to pivot to INCREASE in-state wind and solar installations.”

Vermont state revenues have been devastated by this economic shut down. Surveys show that nearly half of small businesses are not confident they will be able to reopen or re-hire employees when this is over. Unemployment services are overwhelmed. Schools have been rocked, and there’s a real worry Vermonters won’t be able to pay their property taxes to support them. Three state college campuses may close, resulting in tremendous economic disruption to large swaths of Vermont. Our hospitals, which aren’t making money doing elective surgeries or providing routine care, will need help getting back on their feet…

How out of touch does one have to be to think that as we try to climb out of this awful hole that raising taxes to pay for EV charging stations, solar panel subsidies for wealthy homeowners, inefficient wind towers on our ridgelines, and David Blittersdorf’s idiotic, $90 million, seven mile, train service between Montpelier and Barre will to be a priority — let alone the priority — for anyone?

Well, perhaps the politicians Blittersdorf funds will continue to promote his schemes – if (re)elected. Here’s a small taste of who that is from a 2016 story by Paul Heinz of Seven Days:

Blittersdorf, a wind and solar developer who cofounded NRG Systems and now runs AllEarth Renewables, is putting his money where his mouth is. Over the past two years, he has contributed more than $102,000 to Vermont candidates, political action committees, super PACs and parties, according to federal and state records. That makes him the most generous Vermont donor to state political races this election cycle, according to a Seven Days analysis….

In addition to the $4,000 he’s given to Scott’s rival, Democratic nominee Sue Minter, Blittersdorf has contributed $20,000 directly to the Vermont Democratic Party — and another $20,000 to the party through two businesses he controls, Aeolus Labs and Georgia Mountain Community Wind.

He’s helped out traditional political action committees, such as Vermont Conservation Voters PAC and Renewable Energy Vermont PAC, to the tune of $4,000 apiece. And he’s also dabbled in super PACs: Two weeks ago, he cut a $25,000 check to Vermont Conservation Voters Action Fund.

If you want to understand why Vermont is so screwed up and doesn’t seem to serve the needs of the people, this is a big part of the reason. The people who are buying the majority of or politicians don’t think you’re essential. In fact, they think the opposite – that you’re a problem that needs to be eliminated in order to create a “new normal.”

Rob Roper is president of the Ethan Allen Institute.

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April 21, 2020

By David Flemming

                The ranks of Vermont’s unemployed have swelled in recent weeks as workers have sought to file claims after seeing their jobs disappeared due to COVID-19. Just two weeks ago, nearly 10,000 new Vermonters filed for unemployment. This was nearly 20 times the number of new claims filed a month ago. However, that 10,000 number was actually lower than either of the two weeks prior, over 14,000 for the week ending on March 28 and about 16,500 for the week ending on April 4.

                For each of the past 4 recorded weeks, most of those who initially filed claims have been forced to stay on unemployment, though a few have been able to find other jobs. As a result, the total number of unemployed folks has risen each week.

                How high are our “unemployment compensation claims” as a portion of Vermont’s workforce, relative to other states? 12.1% of Vermont’s workforce is unemployed, which is 18th most in the country. This figure matches Mass., and is better than New York (15.9%), New Hampshire (13.5%), Rhode Island (17%). We are doing worse than Conn. (11.8%) and Maine (9.9%).

                On the bright side, our unemployment insurance trust fund is sitting pretty at #1 in the country. The Tax Foundation calculated that Vermont could afford to pay out unemployment for two and a half years!  This stands in stark contrast to our ranking on funding our pension plans. Vermont only 64% funded as of 2019, a number that is sure to decline after investment opportunities for high returns dry up in the aftermath of COVID-19.

                While monitoring the number of new cases and deaths from COVID-19 is important, so too is monitoring Vermont’s employment situation. Our government has an obligation to consider both lives and livelihoods as they consider when to reopen our great state.

David Flemming is a policy analyst at the Ethan Allen Institute.

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April 17, 2020

by John McClaughry

Remember last year when the cry went up to ban those awful plastic grocery bags, that were made from natural gas, a climate wrecking fossil fuel, and clogged up the recycling stream? The forces of climate virtue succeeded in enacting the ban. Groceries were required to ask customers to bring their own bags, or pay a dime for a paper bag, made from cutting down the forests that would otherwise absorb that frightful carbon dioxide pollution.

The Sanitary Choice!

The ban on plastic bag cause first appeared in that hotbed of progressive causes, San Francisco in 2007. But two weeks ago the city’s Department of Health issued new behavioral guidelines, to ban people from going to stores and coffee shops with “their own bags, mugs, or other reusable items from home.”

The Wall Street Journal reported that “The department was responding to fears that the reusable bags are more prone to carrying coronavirus than the disposable plastic bags that were standard before the 2007 ban”. In an editorial last month, the Journal noted “though it’s not clear that the virus is spread by contact with reusable bags, we do know such bags are handled more than disposable plastic bags—and that bacteria can fester in them unless they are washed after each use.”

“Banning the bags that were supposed to be the smart alternative to plastic is probably as close a progressive city ever gets to admitting it was wrong.”

John McClaughry is vice president of the Ethan Allen Institute.

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April 15, 2020

By Rob Roper

Energy News Network ran a story on April 9th about what’s happening with the Transportation Climate Initiative (TCI), the proposed interstate carbon tax on gasoline and diesel motor fuels. Sadly, despite all the damage that the COVID-19 economic shutdown has done, TCI is still moving along behind the scenes. Quoted multiple times in the ENN story is the Phil Scott Administration’s very own Peter Walke.

“Our ability to work through the details of what that deal looks like hasn’t been significantly impacted,” said Peter Walke, commissioner of the Vermont Department of Environmental Conservation. “Most of the teams working on it are working at home and haven’t been affected at this point by the virus.”

TCI would mean an annual $5-7 billion regional tax on motor fuels, Vermont’s share of which would be about $90 million. That number would likely increase as time goes by. Suffice to say that the last thing Vermont (or anyplace) will need as we try to recover from the economic body blow of this shutdown is a new tax on – literally – the fuel that makes our economy run.

Governor Scott has hinted that he doesn’t support TCI, but if that’s really the case it’s time for him to tell his staff to get with the program and pull the plug on this “boondoggle”, to use New Hampshire Governor Chris Sununu’s word, now.

TCI was a bad idea before the COVID-19 recession. Today it is absolutely unthinkable.

Rob Roper is president of the Ethan Allen Institute.

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April 14, 2020

by John McClaughry

Attorney General T. J. Donovan raised some eyebrows last week when he said that violation of Gov. Scott’s Executive Order could result in civil fines of $1000 a day, and even criminal penalties of $500 or six months in jail or both.

I made it a point to inquire of the AG just whence originated this power to enforce a governor’s executive order, never voted on by our legislators, with civil and criminal penalties.

His office cited two provisions of Title 20 Vermont Statutes, Chapter 1,sections 24 and 40.  This is the chapter that defines the governor’s emergency powers, which are extremely far reaching. And yes, those two sections give support to the AG’s statement about civil and criminal penalties. His staff pointed out that no such actions were contemplated, and the two provisions served only as a last resort in a case of a flagrant and defiant violation of an emergency order, that promised really harmful consequences to society.

The civil penalty section was added in 1994, apparently relating to hazardous material spills, but it could be used for other threatening events. Incidentally, martial law is forbidden by the Vermont constitution.

Just the same, I was startled to come across a web page inviting people to report violations of the Governor’s executive order to the Vermont State Police. That was reminiscent of the East German Stasi police state, and a bit much for me.

John McClaughry is vice-president of the Ethan Allen Institute.

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April 10, 2020

By Rob Roper

State legislators are beginning to face the reality that declining revenues will necessitate spending cuts and planning for these cuts will have to start sooner rather than later. This reality is more complicated for public education because of the weird sate/local hybrid system we have in which multiple local communities set budgets, but the state is responsible for raising the revenue to cover those budgets. This can often be a painful process; now it might be impossible.

But, this reality is apparently lost on the Vermont Teachers’ Union, whose executive director testified to the Senate Finance Committee on Thursday that he expects tax increases for funding increased budgets when we come through the healthcare aspects of the COVID-19 crisis.

Jeff Fannon, executive director of the VT NEA told legislators, “Everything has to be involved. I do think that revenue enhancements are very likely to be part of the mix and need to be.” Asked to clarify what he meant by that, Fannon replied, “Quite honestly, I think tax increases.” (around 1:40:00 on the video)

Jay Nichols, who heads the VT Principals Association, testified sounded a similar note, “I cannot think of a worse time in my career to consider cutting school budgets or otherwise reducing spending on behalf of the children of Vermont.”

This followed testimony by the Joint Fiscal Office outlining the devastating loss of revenue Vermont is facing in the wake the economic shut down and the expectation that many Vermonters, having lost their jobs and/or considerable income, will not be able to pay their property taxes as it is.

Jeff Francis of the Superintendents Association took a more realistic stance. “Given what we know about education funding and education finance I would be naïve and not utilizing what I have in my own experience to believe that some of the ideas that come forward would not address the expense side of the equation. I think they have to. And for that reason I have been compelling nearly everyone that I have spoken with and appealing that this is really a ‘we are all in this together’ type approach.”

Cutting education spending is complicated in Vermont as budgets are determined locally, and most have already been approved by the voters. For 2021, the budgets passed mean a $73 million increase in spending over 2020 – money that likely won’t be there.

However, Mark Perrault, Senior Fiscal Analyst at JFO, noted that there is still an opportunity for local districts to get spending under some measure of control. “Budgets are closed, but contract negotiations are not. All but three districts have an opportunity right now and adjust their spending [through contract negotiations] regardless of what their budget is. They don’t have to spend their budget. If they can make savings, those can be realized in 2021.”

It’s an interesting point: just because a district authorizes spending of $XX, it doesn’t have to spend $XX. It can spend less. This is what’s going to have to happen, and Perrault has been rightly beating the drum for this approach.

It won’t be easy, though. There are 115 different school districts and 251 individual municipalities that are the taxing entities for those district, which makes it difficult to coordinate a budgeting strategy, particularly in a short time. Citizens can help in this situation by contacting their local school board members and letting them know that you are aware of the contact option and expect them to use this – the only – opportunity to ensure the bill for K-12 education doesn’t outpace Vermonters’ ability to pay it.

The Union will strongly disagree.

By Rob Roper, president of the Ethan Allen Institute.

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April 10, 2020

By David Flemming

Most of us who have spent time online have seen at least some variation of the “Flatten the Curve” graphic. The idea is simple: individuals and governments must take steps to spread the coronavirus at a slower rate, or our healthcare system’s capacity will be overwhelmed by infected patients. The vast majority of Vermonters and Americans began taking precautions weeks ago, such as frequent hand washing and social distancing. But the cases of Covid-19 kept popping up, and Vermont’s government scaled up its response.

Governor Scott issued a stay at home order on March 24, saying “I fully recognize the emotional, financial and economic impact of these decisions, but based on the best science we have available, these measures are necessary.” Such a statement implies a relatively easy choice: we can choose saving jobs or saving lives. If we want to ‘save lives,’ than we will of course choose saving lives. But is the choice of life over employment really that simple?

A University of California professor found that each employee who gets laid off loses 1.5 years of their lifespan. And a university of Munich study found that women who become unemployed are at greater risk of domestic violence. Since March 16, 2020, the National Domestic Violence Hotline has received 2000+ calls in which COVID-19 was cited as a condition of abuse. High school students who miss 3 or more days a month are 7 times more likely to drop out before graduating and, as a result, live 9 years less than their peers, according to a Robert Wood Johnson Foundation report.

And perhaps most disturbingly, is the increase in suicide due to unemployment. WCAX recently reported an uptick in suicides in Vermont during the stay at home order. During the 2009 Recession, the US suicide rate jumped when unemployment hit 10%, resulting in 4,750 more deaths. We already lose almost 100 Vermonters to suicide each year. What happens if Vermont’s unemployment quadruples?

Trying to construct a neat little graph with all of these components would be impossible. We will never know how many more Vermonters have years knocked off their lives, never know how many cases of domestic abuse occurred, how many more high schoolers dropped out a year or two later due to the stay at home order, and how many suicides could have been avoided were it not for the order. There is a tradeoff here, one that does not mean we should only count the lives lost to COVID-19. This implies that that reopening Vermont’s economy before the number of lives lost from COVID-19 reaches “0” may actually save lives, on net. Job loss means lives lost.

David Flemming is a policy analyst at the Ethan Allen Institute.

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by John McClaughry

Vermont’s most recent disaster occurred in September 2011, when Tropical Storm Irene roared up the west side of the state. Fourteen hundred residences were damaged and their residents displaced; 34 state highway and 90 town bridges were washed out or closed; 531 state highway miles and 175 town roads were impassable.

Gov. Peter Shumlin, in what many would conclude was the best performance of his six years in that office, moved decisively to restore and rebuild.  State officials at damage scenes told contractors, the National Guard, and town governments to “git ‘er done” without spending their time consulting regulators. 

As the recovery progressed, Shumlin  said “when you bring in the National Guard, and you don’t have to hire flaggers, and you don’t have to keep roads open while you’re rebuilding, and you can take the gravel and the rock from the brooks and rivers that it got washed into, you drastically reduce the cost of rebuilding.”

The 2012 legislature, urged on by alarmed enviro groups, responded by directing ANR to make up more rules to restrict what could be done to deal with the next natural disaster. 

The present coronavirus emergency is far more pervasive than Irene, far more demanding of the health care system, and far more destructive of the state’s economy.  Fortunately, the legislature was in session when it arrived. To its credit, it rushed through a law that diminished a considerable number of regulatory requirements put into the laws over the years, often to protect one or another interest group. 

The law relaxes occupational licensing for health care providers, and rules governing hospitals, nursing homes, child care, public assistance, and foster care. It extends drivers’ license expirations and tax filing deadlines. It relaxes the onerous Certificate of Need (CON) procedure and provider budget review requirements for facilities needed to cope with emergencies. It suspends the health care provider tax, a too-slick idea from 1992 that was first adopted to extract more Medicaid funds from Washington, and after a decade became just a scheme for financing Medicaid through hidden taxes on health insurers, customers, and patients.

Perhaps most significantly, the new law knocked down barriers to out of state physicians practicing in Vermont. It authorizes temporary licenses and expanded scope of practice rules for Physician’s Assistants and Nurse Practitioners. It allows doctors to examine and assist patients via telemedicine and emails. 

At least eleven other states are considering repealing CON laws altogether (14 of 49 repealed them previously.) Probably all of them are increasing telemedicine, which the Federal government has already done for Medicare. Many are allowing out of state physicians to practice, and Arizona is considering letting pharmacists test and treat lower-level conditions, above and beyond providing flu shots.

An important question is whether these salutary provisions will continue after the Vermont act’s termination date, which is six months after the Coronavirus emergency is revoked. Let’s hope so.

One exceptional consequence of this emergency is the efflorescence of voluntary service and mutual aid among caring Vermonters. Gov. Scott has launched a website (vermont.gov/volunteer) for people to volunteer to support the state’s response to the emergency. The website directs those with medical and healthcare skills to the Medical Reserve Corp, and enrolls those with other needed skills like child care, home care, grocery work, and drivers to a quick registration process to sign up to help. Many thousands of Vermonters are self-organizing to help friends and neighbors across the state.

We are all immensely grateful for the courageous service of our medical personnel. Let me add a tribute to the men and women who keep America running. That includes grocery and pharmacy workers, fire, police and public works departments, postal and delivery workers, the news media (especially community newspapers), and the vital electricity and fuel industries. 

I’m especially grateful for an indispensable but often overlooked group: truck drivers. James Williams, a tank platoon commander in Iraq, is now operations manager of a large trucking company. He writes in the Wall Street Journal:  “These truckers and workers are away from family for long periods. They work grueling hours and risk exposure to Covid-19. But they’re willing to put their health at risk so that millions of people can have a semblance of normalcy in their lives. Thanks to these sacrifices, grocery and pharmacy shelves will be stocked even amid a pandemic. That consistency and reliability will give confidence to American consumers as the economy starts to rebound. As I learned in Iraq, the supply chain and the truckers who hold it together are vital to the health of a nation.”  Here’s a big 10-4 to that.

John McClaughry is vice president of the Ethan Allen Institute (www.ethanallen.org).

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