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Legislative Update

The first half the Vermont Assembly’s legislative session is complete and legislators return this week from a Town Meeting recess to face a series of difficult decisions about the budget, education, Lake Champlain Cleanup, marijuana legalization, an ethics commission, and health care.

Hanging over all this is the specter of the Trump health care bill and what it means for the state budget, especially for the state’s Medicaid program.

Human Services Secretary Al Gobeille told reporters last week that the Trump health care bill being hurried through the House in Washington could mean a $200 million hit to Vermont’s Medicaid program. The Trump budget proposal could force Vermont to make difficult decisions throughout state government. At the Natural Resources, Transportation and Commerce agencies, much of the budget comes from Washington. Huge cuts in these programs by Trump and the Republican Congress would mean dire budget decisions for Vermont. Many of these decisions will be made in the next eight weeks. And they will be difficult.

The legislature, controlled by Democrats, has had to make tough choices before, but rarely in a political environment as charged as the current one nationally.

Governor Phil Scott has staked out a position in general opposition to Trump, most notably around refugees, immigration and law enforcement. Early on, he teamed up with new attorney General TJ Donovan and Democrats to resist federal proposals in these areas and to ensure that law enforcement and other authorities go to no extra lengths to find and deport people in Vermont.

Politically, this is wise for Scott. But he also means it. He is from Barre, VT, made famous as the granite capitol of the world by Italian, Spanish and French Canadian stone carvers. These are Scott’s neighbors today. As he moves ahead, he will curry political favor with moderate Democrats in Vermont, especially on issues where he is not threatened politically. His immigration position angered Vermont’s right-wing. But that is less than 30 percent of the vote. The governor always has his eye on the other 70 percent.

But that is where the agreement with Democrats ends thus far.

The governor’s proposal to freeze education spending, change school budget voting schedules and force teachers to pay more for health care, is dying at the hands of the Democratic House. Even though he is trying to use those savings to fund pre-K and higher education, the proposal was dead on arrival.

On health care, major domo Al Gobeille, once the chair of the all-powerful Green Mountain Care Board, is now running the sprawling Human Services Agency, which oversees welfare programs, corrections, health care, foster care and many more. He lacks the position to drive the health care agenda as he did at the Green Mountain Care Board, although he is the most respected health care force in the state. And with the governor lukewarm about health care reform from the Shumlin era, health care policy lacks a driving political force. That could change when the governor appoints a new chair of the GMCB. That appointment – and his appointment of a new chair of the all-important Public Service Board to regulate utilities and drive energy policy – will say much about the governor’s intentions in energy and health care.

The governor’s proposed executive orders to streamline government are moving easily through the legislature with the exception of his idea to merge the Agency of Commerce and Community Development with the Department of Labor. The governor says the proposal will better align the needs of employees and employers. State employees and their union smell a rat – an effort to give employers leverage over workers.

Another executive order to create an Agency of Digital Services will be approved, along with a proposal to combine the Department of Liquor Control and the Lottery Commission and a new Agency of Economic Opportunity.

The Agency of Digital Services would replace the existing Department of Information and Innovation and be run by a new Secretary of Digital Services who would report directly to the governor and have authority over IT personnel throughout state government. Currently, IT directors and staff throughout state agencies and departments report to their respective secretaries and commissioners. Under the new structure, IT personnel would report directly to the Secretary of Digital Services.

The DII is widely considered a failure, since it was created by the legislature at the behest of Gov. Jim Douglas. And the legislature has chafed or years over the spending of millions on IT projects it doesn’t understand.

The legislature has a 90-day window to act on the orders. The House or Senate can vote to block an order by resolution but if no action is taken the orders will go into effect in mid-April.

State Treasurer Beth Pearce has proposed paying for Lake Champlain cleanup via bonding, per-parcel fees on property sales and many other ideas.

The House Judiciary committee is working hard to pass a bill to legalize small amounts of home-grown marijuana. Proponents call it a “penalties’’ bill that finishes the job of decriminalizing marijuana possession. Opponents see it as the first step toward retail sales of pot on Main St., drugged driving and major health care impacts on young people.

But in the end, much of the policy work is noise next to the state budget. Democrats are smarting from the governor’s proposal, which level funded state government. Traditionally, the governor submits a balanced budget that the legislature changes. But in the end, the two sides come together for an agreement and a balanced budget.
This year, the governor threw a budget on the table and basically told the legislature to write its own document. That puts enormous pressure on the new speaker of the House Mitzi Johnson, Senate President Tim Ashe and the two chairs of the House and Senate Appropriations committees. It is those leaders who now have to make the tough spending decisions.

What to look for:

The governor and the legislature will make a budget deal. They usually do with the exception of when Governor Douglas vetoed and the legislature overrode that veto in 2009. After an agreement on the budget, all the other issues will be put on a fast-track to passage or death on the way to adjournment sometime in May.

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Hyperlocal is HOT!

Americans of all political stripes are disenchanted with government. This is especially true as it applies to the federal government — Congressional approval ratings averaged 17% in 2016 — and true in state government. As a result, a lot of energy is going to where it can make a difference in your day-to-day life: it’s going local.

“Hyperlocal” is a trendy buzzword these days. It refers to anything from small businesses to the food we eat. At Ellis Mills, in our work all over New England, we are seeing that municipal government is extremely active, local elections vibrant, and citizens are much more engaged. As businesses, entrepreneurs, innovators, and community leaders consider the next step in their professional evolution, it is increasingly important to understand and anticipate the local angles.

Towns and cities are increasingly challenged as they do their work of governing. Costs – healthcare, materials, staffing, education, infrastructure – are going up. With many of these costs part of collectively bargained contracts (teachers, municipal employees, etc.), there are not many discretionary items left to ponder. Add in cuts — real or threatened — in state or federal aid and one can see how balancing a budget gets tough. Increasing local taxes – property, sales, etc. – is EXTREMELY unpopular these days because residents are dealing with some of the same cost increases: modern day American life is expensive!

So what does this mean? There are a number of consequences for towns and those that interact with local government (businesses, real estate developers, candidates, etc.):

Citizens are hyper-aware (I do love that word) of what local government is up to. Technology allows them to get access to municipal agendas and minutes, live streams of town meetings and town financial documents. It also allows them to interact with local officials more easily…and more often. For better or worse, technology results in MORE citizen advocacy, not less.
More municipal budgets get voted down. Where budgets require public approval – a town election or a town meeting or both – local governments run the risk of having months of appropriation and finance related work rejected. School budgets, the most hyperlocal of local budgets due to their dependence on local property taxes (and, oh yeah, because they involve people’s children), are the most vulnerable.
Town elections are much more contentious. I don’t mean in a mean way (although that certainly happens) but in the energy and resources that are put into them by candidates and their citizen allies. If you drive around New England towns in any election season, you see the familiar signs for selectboard or town council. But look closer: signs for school committee are just as common these days, along with planning board, conservation commission and library trustee. The most volatile race in my metrowest Massachusetts town last year was for a spot on the Parks & Rec Commission…we’re talking full campaigning here!

For those in and around government, this means that the stakes are higher and the need to communicate and achieve buy-in are even more critical. A developer’s zone change could swing from a community benefit to the most evil thing ever contemplated with a few key strokes and an active Facebook page. Doomed is the business, association, non-profit or candidate that pooh-poohs the increasingly active local government scene.

In simplest terms, it is good to have someone looking in your blind spots, identifying problems real and perceived, and making sure that your point of view gets the attention and respect it deserves. At Ellis Mills, well, that’s what we do. So you can keep your attention on the big picture.

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Public Affairs Vocabulary Decoded Part I: Communications Strategy

Let’s take a few minutes to discuss some terms we use in the public affairs world: communications strategy, pitch development, government affairs, media relations.

What the heck do they mean in real life?

Well, before we answer that important question, let’s imagine a fictional company. We’ll make it on the smaller side, perhaps 25 employees. Let’s say they are in the clean energy sector (but it could be local food, health care, a software company, a law firm, a daycare center, or anything else).

Further, let’s imagine that the company just installed its 50th wind turbine/500th solar panel/1st geothermal heat pump. The team is high-fiving, excited by the milestone. Profits are going up, a new client includes a major research institution in the northeast, and customers are sending in their energy bills as thank you notes to the company. And a person on the staff says, “You know, this would make a really good story. We should tell the newspaper or something.”

And everyone agrees, enthusiastically. And then the CEO takes a phone call from the aforementioned new client. The sales rep heads to a meeting. The installation crew is off to a new work site. The CFO turns her attention to payroll.

And the person on staff who suggested calling the newspaper begins to wade through the day’s various tasks at a small business: responding to incoming messages, upgrading the IT system, requesting additional street parking from the town to accommodate the increased staff that has resulted from all this positive growth.

And — poof! — not an hour later, no one is thinking about the newspaper anymore.

Which is normal and acceptable in today’s economy.

But it is a huge missed opportunity.

Because the story is worth telling.

Now, let’s imagine if someone could help bring that story into the broader world. Someone who could distribute it to all the key operators and advocates and government regulators in the appropriate fields. Someone who could teach this small business how to publicize its successes in the most effective manner. Someone who could write press releases, web content, and advertising copy. Someone whose relationships and deep roots in Vermont, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, and the rest of New England could deliver this positive story directly to the ideal clients the company wants to find, but doesn’t know how to locate.

What you are imagining is called a “communications strategy.” (In the future posts, we’ll talk about how, exactly, each of these steps happens.)

With a good strategy, this small business is going to see a new surge in activity and interest.

Which is good for everyone.

In your business, do you have a good story to tell? And do you know how to tell it?

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When Your Patron is Crazy

Must be tough for Judge Gorsuch. You get the nomination for your dream job on the Supreme Court but you have to lie in bed with Trump to do it. You have to watch while Trump attacks your colleagues in the Judiciary and try to maintain some sort of professionalism. Everyone is banging on you from all sides. All you want is to get this confirmation over with so you can be a Supreme Court judge. But you were nominated by an unhinged narcissist who doesn’t read and knows nothing about the history of the court or the government he is supposed to lead. Like a lot of civil servants, Gorsuch must be heading home every night wondering whether he should stick it out.

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Livin’ the Life of the New Economy Dad

That’s me, idling in the Stop & Shop parking lot about to grab a cart, in Metrowest Massachusetts, ear buds in, iPhone mounted on my dashboard, eating half a sandwich and talking with a client about expanding our work for them in New England.

Is this the new economy?

Maybe, or perhaps just a guy who is still trying to figure out how to manage a public affairs firm and work out of his house (or car) while staying involved with a young and busy family.

I started my firm, ellis mills public affairs, in January 2014 with one partner, a laptop and a corner of the upstairs playroom of my house as the corporate headquarters. It was difficult to leave the consulting position I had been in for almost 13 years, but I was ready for a change and looking to take advantage of running my own shop and the flexibility it could offer.

“Flexibility” takes many forms. Is it nice that I can pick up my kids at 3:30 in the afternoon from school and hear about their day, start homework and get ready for any evening activities? Sure. But add in the client conference call scheduled for 3 pm that bleeds in to pick-up time and you have some glum little faces…and a different kind of stress. I have gotten very adept at using the mute button.

The more I talk to folks in public affairs and other businesses, however, I find that there are tons of people doing similar things. Some have much better infrastructure – is there such a thing as home phone system envy? – but all battle each day with the “flexibility” of “working from home” and being productive. According to studies, one in five Americans work from home at least one day a week. That means about 30 million people are dealing with various forms of what I deal with each day.

That explains all the people at the gym at 11 a.m. on a weekday.

The added pressure of the work-from-home gig being your own business adds another layer of challenge. I have voraciously read about how people manage their time. The stream of information and interaction we all must endure can be overwhelming…and I have to admit I haven’t figured it out yet.

More reading and experience is needed. In the meantime, feel free to give me a call. I am available most of the time…that’s me in the produce aisle right now, picking up baby carrots and checking in with my accountant.

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New Journalism

In the world of politics and media, we are falling over ourselves decrying the Internet’s destruction of newspapers (and most everything else). Nobody really knows how to save newspapers and nobody really knows the future of journalism. There are those who think newspapers – in their physical form – can be saved via paywalls, better, different journalism or Hope. Others say paper is done and it’s just a matter of time.

I fall for the most part into the second group.

But two major developments emerged this year that begin to show the way forward to a new and I think better journalism. While it may not be my Dad’s NY Times and Wall Street Journal while watching the evening network news (also dying), the emerging roadmap offers us media junkies something to cheer for.

First, eBay founder Peirre Omidar announces he is founding a journalism site with crusading reporter/activist Glen Greenwald. Initial reported investment? $250 million.

Second, Boston Red Sox owner John Henry writes a magnum opus in the Boston Globe, explaining his reason for buying the storied newspaper at a fire sale price from the New York Times. Henry says it’s about community – that any healthy community needs a good newspaper doing quality journalism every day.

Add to that the $250 million Amazon founder Jeff Bezos spent on the Washington Post (also a fire sale) and we have a trend.

Wealthy, innovative business people looking to be part of communities. And they are willing to put their money and reputations on the line. Their roadmap? Basically, invest lots of money in talent to do great journalism. Do that and the subscribers and ad revenue will follow. It is clear that Omidar, Henry and Bezos are not hung up on the whether the actual newsPAPER survives. They are about quality journalism.

Omidar, Henry and Bezos are not too different from the media titans of the past – Sulzburger, Chandler et al. Do they have warts? Sure. But these guys are mapping the future survival of great journalism. They are seeing it happen at Pro Publica on a national scale. And they are seeing it locally. Check out VtDigger.org for a great example. (My regular pitch for the great Anne Galloway and her courageous new journalism).

Watch these folks closely. They are forging the new journalism for the Internet. And it is exciting.

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