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Dramatic Events

If the spirit of liberty should vanish in other parts of the Union and the support for our institutions languish, it could all be replenished from the generous store held by the people of this brave little state of Vermont." – Calvin Coolidge

It was a dark night in Wisconsin for the 99% of citizens in this country and for democracy.  The onslaught of Citizen United unlimited Corporate money in Wisconsin created an enormous funding gap: $30 million for the Republican Governor (mostly from out of state) vs $4 million for the Democrat (raised mostly in-state).  That kind of David and Goliath contest threatens the very foundations of our country.

We are fortunate, here in Vermont, that we have not yet seen that level of attack on our democratic process.  We are lucky that one of our political leaders has spent 40 years educating Vermonters about the disparity of wealth and power in politics.

Sen. Bernie Sanders has done as much as any one person could to inoculate Vermonters against the big money and negative advertising that can buy an election. Because he has talked about the concentration of wealth in the hands of 1% of the US population for 40 years, the Occupy Wall Street message was not news to Vermonters.

We understand that wealthy and powerful interests are not paying their fair share and that they are gambling with taxpayer money on Wall Street. We understand that if banks are too big to fail, they are free to pocket millions and then ask for a bail out when their financial risk-taking jeopardizes our whole economy.

We must not take democracy for granted.  In Michigan, the Governor is disbanding the elected mayors and city councils and appointing financial tsars to run whole towns and cities.  In the name of national security, Congress has given the president the authority to shoot US citizens on sight by designating them as terrorists without any court order or review process.

This idea of Corporate personhood has swept across our land and we, the real people, must meet this challenge to our future by getting involved in our democracy, by supporting candidates and parties that represent our interests, with shoe leather and with generous donations.  We must make consumer decisions that support our communities and our neighbors, the small businesses we value and withdraw our support as much as we can from the multinational conglomerates and their wealthy shareholders.  

Vermont is a small state, but we can keep the flame of liberty alive until the rest of the country is ready to rekindle theirs.

People have power to influence lawmakers

Grass-roots influence played an impressive role this legislative session. Whether it was vaccines, state IDs for undocumented workers or a fracking ban, Vermonters made their positions known and the Legislature responded.

If only there was a similar outcry around broader issues like job creation, increasing wages or tax equity. Too many in the Legislature need a push on these big issues. In fact, the session ended without any significant attention given to families who continue to struggle in our economy. We had no significant discussion acknowledging that median household wages have declined.

It wasn’t all bad news for working people though; we made important systematic changes which will help all Vermonters, especially those of us living paycheck-to-paycheck.

First up, we continued down the path to making Green Mountain Care a universal health care benefit. Vermont is on track to have the most efficient, cost-effective health care system in the country, and it will cover everyone. This year’s legislation made sure we comply with recent changes in federal law. As a result, in 2014, we will begin to see a separation between employment and health coverage. And tens of thousands of Vermont families will be eligible for federal tax credits towards their premiums, making coverage more affordable.

We did good things for mental health too. Irene forced a decision on the future of the state hospital in Waterbury. We’re replacing it with a new facility near the Berlin hospital. We’re also investing in community-centered care in Rutland and Brattleboro. This should create a broader approach to mental health treatment, recognizing that we need to go beyond just acute care to successfully address the mental health needs of our state.

Grass-roots activists in Vermont have long wanted increased action to address climate change, but what would that look like? To begin a vigorous discussion, Rep. Margaret Cheney, D-Norwich, and I started the “Climate Caucus.” Over the year about a third of the House joined us as we heard from experts in transportation, green taxes, Lake Champlain and more, to gather strategies for action. Next year the caucus will bring forward a legislative agenda to reduce the state’s carbon footprint.

And then there was the CVPS/GMP merger and the debate about repaying CVPS’ windfall profits. It seems the Shumlin administration would rather have the money owed ratepayers invested in weatherization instead of giving CVPS customers a credit on their bill. Incredibly, the weatherization investment can be recouped in future rate increases. Customers of the merged utility, all 200,000-plus of them, will foot the bill for this repayment.

Now, I am all for more money going to weatherization. It creates good paying jobs, saves Vermonters money on their heating bill and reduces our carbon pollution. That is why I proposed a tax increase on the wealthiest Vermonters to fund this important program. Unfortunately Gov. Shumlin didn’t want to “burden” the wealthiest 4,000 Vermonters for this investment. He’d rather charge 200,000 rank-and-file electric customers.

Our efforts to influence the terms of the utility merger, despite strong public support, fell short. But the Public Service Board will have the final say and they are surely aware of the controversy. I believe our coalition created enough noise that board members realize the public expects utilities to honor their promises. At a minimum, lets hope that loan repayments can’t be charged to the same customers who made the loan in the first place. By the summer we will see what the board decides.

In all, 2012 reminds us of the public’s ability to influence the citizen legislature. Hopefully 2013 will see an even greater push now that grassroots groups have fresh victories in hand.

This entry appeared as an OpEd in the May 17 edition of the Burlington Free Press.

Cascading Economic and Political Turmoil and Our Tasks

I’ve been trying to wrap my mind around some of the important economic and political developments cascading across Europe, and how they might affect us.

Late last week, the financial markets were rocked with the announcement that the biggest, and heretofore assumed most stable US bank, J.P. Morgan, lost $2 billion  - the outcome of speculation in high-risk financial securities. In other words, the kind of investing that set off the previous global financial crisis in 2007.

Yet JPMorgan Chase Chief Executive Jamie Dimon speaking just two weeks ago at a conference, where he was lauded as "executive of the year" and introduced as a "CEO Statesman,", argued that the government should focus on resolving its own fiscal issues instead of reengineering a financial system that is healing itself. Dimon claimed:

"The consumer is in my opinion 80% repaired, business 100% repaired," "We have the widest, deepest and most transparent capital markets in the world."

Wow, how’s that for Hubris!

I urge you to listen to William Black’s interview on Democracy Now!

Now we may be witnessing once again the unraveling of the capitalist global financial system.

Europeans stocks are tumbling and investors around the world are keeping a close eye on Greece as the Euro crisis enters a new phase. Thanks to the worldwide economic meltdown and trickle-down austerity response - the Greek economy has been in recession for the last five years.

On the heels of elections that ousted the pro-austerity government in Greece – there will be a new round of elections on June 17th.   The Left will likely pick up even more seats in Parliament - making an anti-austerity coalition government a real possibility just before Greece runs out of money. When Greece goes broke - if the likely new left government refuses as expected to sign on to the austerity and bailout plans - then Greece will default and likely be forced out of the Eurozone.

We see huge withdrawals from Spanish and Italian banks, as depositors try to move their money to Germany.

Those of you that follow such stuff may have noticed the speculators’ “flight to safety” in both Europe and the U.S. This is not caused by a “little thing” like  JP Morgan Chase losing $2 billion. They’re estimated to have an exposure of $79 trillion (that’s t from trillion) on a market capitalization of only $140 billion! Talk about being highly leveraged.

What happened with J.P. Morgan last week—and is still yet to happen further with J.P. as well as with other US banks—shows how deeply the US banking system is integrated with the European. J.P’s losses are Euro-centered, speculation driven, and Credit Default Swaps and other derivatives based. That means what’s been happening in Europe and its banking system is not isolated from the U.S. banks. Today’s emerging European bank crisis—the second globally since the first in 2007-09 centered in the U.S.—will have a significant impact on the U.S.

Some recent headlines read:
Get Ready for the Spanish Bailout
Spain Is the New Greece
Growth Chill About to Hit the US

Keep in mind there are $trillions of dollars of Credit Default Swaps (bets), and other toys the geniuses on Wall Street created, piled on the worlds’ economies and ready to tumble like the proverbial stacked cards.

There’s no way the U.S. economy, despite all the false hype about another recovery now occurring in the U.S., can avoid a further downturn as well.

What’s already been the impact on our jobs, retirement security, on the state budget and services, on our families? One indicator: in 2010, 93 percent of all new income created in the previous year went to the top one percent, while the bottom 99 percent of us had the privilege of enjoying the remaining seven percent.  In other words, the rich are getting much richer while almost everyone else is falling behind.

The real solutions to the parallel failures of economic policies in both the U.S. and in Europe today require basic restructuring of the banking systems in both economies. This will only be possible if we change what’s currently politically possible. We are beginning to see that change:

People across Europe have been shaking things up on the job, in the streets, and at the ballot box.

* Last week, hundreds of thousands of British public sector workers staged a 24-hour strike against their government's attacks on pensions.

* in Spain, hundreds of thousands marched against government plans for more austerity despite record 24% unemployment.

* Polish union members protesting against plans to raise the retirement age chained together barriers meant to keep them out of Parliament on Friday. `We will decide when they will leave,' a Solidarity trade union leader said. `At least for once we will decide something instead of them.' The union members took their action after lawmakers voted to raise the retirement age.

The Greek and French elections show that the people want real income growth and jobs -- and they are clear that austerity is undermining both.

In Germany - Chancellor Merkel saw her Conservative Party get crushed in state. Merkel has been leading the charge for austerity around Europe - but now finds herself vulnerable as support for her Party plunged to 26%.

The voters of Europe have spoken, and surprise: they are not too keen on fiscal austerity.  What are we waiting for–a translator? Everywhere you look - the supporters of trickle-down austerity are getting hammered by voters. However, the anti-tax bogeyman isn't going away soon with Governor Shumlin having the bully pulpit. Let's help Vermonters and other Americans get the message.

The ‘Arab Spring,’ the movement of the ‘indignant ones’ in Spain, the numerous strikes and demonstrations in Greece, the worldwide ‘Occupy’ movement which started in the US, as well as the campaign for a Peoples Budget in Vermont are all a source of encouragement. It is high time to strengthen the organizing and protests! Together, through strong grass-roots activity in Vermont and around the country, we can change the direction of our state and this country. Please don’t ever forget that, even in these difficult times.

Tax The Wealthy; Not The Ratepayers

Ten years ago, the Vermont Public Service Board approved a bailout of CVPS by its ratepayers.  It was in the best interests of the ratepayers to have their publicly regulated monopoly survive.  In the bailout agreement, the PSB permitted 135,000 Vermont households to be “taxed” to the tune of $17 million with a requirement that the ratepayers would be paid back BEFORE any sale of the company took place.  At the time, no one wanted to buy it.

Now on its feet again, and an attractive financial investment, two Canadian companies are interested in buying CVPS.  The VT Public Service Department has proposed that Gaz Metro be allowed to buy CVPS without paying back the rate payers. The proposed terms would allow the $17 million (now $21 million with inflation) to be put into weatherization and energy efficiency programs for the benefit of all Gaz Metro customers.

This is simply not fair.  Although I am a big fan of weatherization programs and renewable energy projects, having proposed those programs in legislation myself, this is the wrong way to go about it. The PSB’s job is to protect the ratepayers who are in a monopoly market.  They can not turn to any other entity for electric service.  This should not be a partisan issue.  It is simply about fairness and living up to our commitments.

Energy efficiency and weatherization programs should be funded by a tax on those who are not paying their fair share, not by the ratepayers who were promised that they would be repaid.

The governor is worried that 3 or 4 millionaires might move out of state if we were to raise their taxes.  He should be more worried that 135,000 families, potentially containing 200,000 – 250,000 Vermont voters might move to another option at the ballot box.

We Need to Invest in the Right Future

This Mother’s Day, I am thinking about mothers and families all over our country. The past few years have not been easy. In Vermont, families continue to struggle to make ends meet here. In Washington, DC Congress is trying to put together a budget for next year. I’m watching this process closely because our state counts on funding from the federal government to implement crucial programs. The budget process will affect each and every one of my constituents.

The budget passed by House Republicans will slash programs used disproportionately by women and families. In addition to the Medicare and Medicaid cuts you may have heard about, it cuts funding for programs like food stamps, childcare, Head Start, job training, Pell Grants, and housing and energy assistance. Meanwhile their budget allows defense spending to continue to increase.

Each year, Congress appropriates more than half of discretionary spending to the Department of Defense. Even without deficit reduction pressure, this overspending takes dollars away from needed domestic priorities that strengthen our economy and ensure that America can compete in the world marketplace.
 
In the past decade we have spent billions on war. Afghanistan is now the longest war in our nation’s history, and we spent nine years in Iraq. Whether measured merely in direct financial cost, or in the broader and more profound cost of lives lost and damaged, we cannot afford to be a nation perpetually at war.

Some supporters of the Pentagon and their contractors tout money to the Pentagon as a jobs program. Sensible national security jobs make sense, and no member of Congress can ignore the effect of policy decisions on jobs. Nonetheless, economists have shown that federal investments in non-military sectors--like education, healthcare and clean energy--create more jobs than military spending. It makes sense to invest federal dollars in sectors that will create productive jobs that will help our economy grow for years to come.

We can make sensible reductions to Pentagon spending and invest in programs that will help build a vibrant economy for generations to come. This Mother’s Day, let’s honor hard-working women around the nation by calling on Congress to pass a budget that supports women and families and puts us back on the path to a sustainable economic recovery.

This also appeared in the May 5 edition of the Brattleboro Reformer.

Fair Share? Not So Much

When you form a union not everyone has to join. But when a contract is agreed to everyone is covered regardless of whether or not they join the union. And, whether they pay union dues.

Plus, if a non union member has a grievance the union has their back. Which is why unions like the idea of requiring some kind of fee from even the non-union members they have to work for. This fee is called an "agency fee" or the "fair share fee" as it's called these days in the legislature.

When the senate passed an education bill Sen. Tim Ashe (D/P - Chittenden) attached the fair share language that had been discussed on and off all year.

We are about to debate this bill on the floor. Our only option is to agree otherwise the underlying bill will die. There simply isn't time to change it and send it back to the senate. Trick is, House Democrats don't have the votes to pass the fair share provision. That's right, over a third of the House democrats are a knee-jerk no vote on a basic labor principle of fairness.

I believe they'll get the votes after some arm twisting but it's a sorry state of affairs if we can't pass a basic labor principle like a fair share provision for municipal and school employees. Sad.

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