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Vermont Newsguy

by Jon Margolis

Does Vermont Really Need a Lt. Governor?

October 30, 2014
Three questions and answers about Vermont's lieutenant governor:

#1 - Who will it be

Incumbent Republican Phil Scott, Progressive/Democrat Dean Corren, or " theoretical possibility " Liberty Union's Marina Brown.

#2 - What does Vermont's lieutenant governor do

Not much. He or she becomes acting governor when the governor is out of state, presides over the Senate (voting only if the vote will be decisive), and serves on the Senate's Committee on Committees.

Oh, and imprudent though it is to say, waits around for the governor to die, resign in disgrace, or decide to leave public life and seek inner peace in a monastery or the wilderness.

#3 - Does Vermont need a lieutenant governor

Obviously not. Five states, including neighboring New Hampshire and nearby Maine, manage just fine without one. In both those states, the Senate President becomes governor should the office become vacant. In Oregon, West Virginia, and Wyoming, the Secretary of State takes over.
And in Tennessee and West Virginia the president (called 'speaker" in Tennessee) of the State Senate is the lieutenant governor.

In fact, if the state did abolish the office " unlikely a prospect though that may be " Vermonters would hardly notice. In an age of cell phones and the Internet, the governor can govern from afar. Any senator can preside over the chamber (in only about half the states does the lieutenant governor play that role), and there are various mechanism for finding that decisive vote or creating a Committee on Committees comprised solely of senators.

If Vermont got rid of its lieutenant governor, the state would save a little (very little) money, free up a spacious office on the first floor of the Statehouse, and have one less line on the ballot every two years.

Needless to say, this is not about to happen. And there are problems in systems that lack a lieutenant governor. New Jersey did not have one in 2004 when Gov. Jim McGreevey was forced to resign. As the Constitution then provided, Senate President Richard Codey (a Democrat like McGreevey) became acting governor.

But he also continued on as senate president, so he was "convening legislation in the morning and signing bills in the afternoon." said Julia Hirst, the Executive Director of the National Lieutenant Governors Association, creating constitutional complications. Two years later, New Jersey adopted a constitutional amendment creating a lieutenant governor.

In New Hampshire, though, the senate president has to leave the legislature on becoming acting governor. And Mane's constitution calls for holding a new election soon after the senate president fills a gubernatorial vacancy.

Another reason people would hardly notice the absence of a lieutenant governor is that Vermont's "lite gov." as the often is often called, is very weak.

No, that's not a condemnation of Phil Scott. It's a description of the office as designed by the Constitution. In some states, said Julia Hirst, either the constitution or statute grants the lieutenant governor "a dual duty, head of an agency, or a cabinet slot, or chair of a commission." Vermont's, she said, is one of the few states in which the lite gov has no role except"lite gov.

Not that lite govs in the other states are always considered necessary, either. In Rhode Island in 2010, a candidate who pledged to abolish the office got 40 percent of the vote. And the old vaudeville line that a lieutenant governor's job is to "get up, read the paper, see if the governor is dead, if not, go back to sleep," can get a laugh nationwide.

In this state, lieutenant governor is a part-time job. Lt. Gov. Howard Dean continued to practice medicine as Dr. Howard Dean. He was seeing a patient when one of his assistants told him that Gov. Richard Snelling had died, and Dean was now governor. That was in 1991. Dean hasn't seen a patient since.

Befitting a part-time job, the salary is $63,701. Higher than the typical worker's pay, but far below the governor's $150,067 or the $95,156 for the other constitutional offices. Even the state agency heads earn substantially more than the lieutenant governor.

Scott still helps run his company, Dubois Construction Company, often going to its Middlesex office early in the morning before starting his public duties, and returning in the evening. Sometimes, he said, he even mops the floor.

Corren said that if he's elected he"d still devote some of his time to Verdant Power Company, the New York based energy design firm he serves as chief technical officer, though he would have "no day-to-day responsibilities."

And then there's the staff. The lieutenant governor's office consist of the lieutenant governor and a staff of "(are you ready")"one (1). As an institution, Vermont's lieutenant governorship has limited clout. So limited that it seems plausible that the most outstanding "or at least the most visible " deed ever executed by a Vermont lieutenant governor was accomplished by Hollister Jackson during the great hurricane of 1927. He drowned.

Neither Scott nor Corren disagrees that the office one holds and both seek is constitutionally weak. Scott, in fact, jokes that he gets lots of mail from constituents "who don't know how much power we have."

Meaning, he acknowledged, how little power the office has. These letter-writers think he can handle their complaints because he has 'the Number two (license) plate."

Sometimes he can handle them, he said, but it's because of his personal relationships with agency officials, not the intrinsic power of his office.

To both candidates, though, the official weakness of the office is more of an opportunity than a shortcoming, an opportunity each would exploit in his own way.

The Constitution, Corren said, 'sets the basic minimal duties" of lieutenant governor, but "it doesn't set a maximum. So after you've discharged those minimal duties'the portfolio is really open.

The lieutenant governor, Corren said, "has potentially the freedom to do much, much more, and that's the kind of role that I would play, really stepping up the activity of that office"

Corren's stepped up activity would be as an advocate, most immediately in support of Gov. Peter Shumlin's universal health care plan, later moves to combat climate change and help create jobs.

How would he do that from an office that has little official power"

"The mechanism is hard work." he said.

Scott's approach to the job is less issue-oriented and more concerned with the procedural duties of the office, especially presiding over the Senate. As a former senator himself, Scott said, he finds that he can often help keep the body running smoothly.

"It goes along with the Senate environment at large." Scott said. "People tend to try to get consensus."

Because consensus-building comes naturally to him, he said, he's able to contribute to that process.

Vermont is one of only 18 states in which the lieutenant governor is not elected on a ticket with the governor. That means it is possible " and not that rare " that the two top officials will be from different parties, as they are now.

The downside here is that the voters could elect a governor with one set of policies but end up with one whose positions are quite different. That didn't happen when Dean replaced Snelling. Snelling was a moderate Republican and Dean (back then, if perhaps no longer) was a moderate Democrat. Were Scott to replace Shumlin, the difference would be a bit more pronounced. Though Scott is on the moderate side of the GOP spectrum, his policy positions are clearly to Shumlin's right.

Still, Shumlin has invited him to join cabinet meetings, and the two men, who served together in the Senate, often co-operate.

Whoever wins, Vermont will continue to have a lieutenant governor, for better and for worse. As Corren said, "The Constitution gives us one, and we"re not going to take it away. If you have a limb as part of your body, it behooves you to exercise it so it doesn't wither away.

Interview with Phil Scott. Republican for Lt. Governor

Interview with Dean Corren, Progressive/Democrat for Lt. Governor

Can Vermont's state colleges survive?

July 11, 2014

The Vermont State Colleges have a new chair of the Board of Trustees. Before the year is out, a new Chancellor will be occupying the Colleges (relatively) new Montpelier office, and with a little luck the system will have a new contract with its professors.

Now all they need is more students, more money, and a plan to ensure their survival.

And that's the easy part.

Because to devise that plan, the Colleges system (a single entity with five separate colleges and one plural name) first has to decide what it is, what it can be, and what it wants to be.

Or as the former (since July 1) chair Gary Moore put it, "we need to determine where the state colleges are going to go and what they"re going to do, and equally important, what things they can't do."

For all their troubles - falling enrollment, skimpy help from the State's treasury, uncertainty if not confusion about their mission - the State colleges will not die. They're too valuable, more valuable than most Vermonters probably realize, which is part of their problem. The State Colleges are where most Vermonters go to college. Right now, roughly 10,800 of them go to one of the three liberal arts colleges (at Castleton, Lyndon, and Johnson), Vermont Technical College, or the Community College of Vermont.

That's about two-and-a-half times more than the 4,200 or so Vermonters at the University of Vermont.

True, the majority of those State College students are at the system's fifth "campus," the Community College of Vermont, which has no single campus at all, but conducts classes at 12 locations around the state. Almost all CCV students are part-timers, as are all of their teachers (CCV is the only college in the country with no full-time faculty).

So as the term is commonly understood, these students are not "going to college." as are those who enroll at Castleton or Johnson State. They"re not living in a dormitory, hanging out at the college snack bar, playing (or rooting for) the school teams, or participating in other extracurricular activities.

They"re just taking a class or two.

But many of them end up transferring their CCV credits to one of the system's other schools, or to UVM, or elsewhere.

Those CCV classes cost $239 per credit, or $717 for a typical three-credit class. That's a lot cheaper than going to Johnson State, where a student taking a 15-credit load for the $9,600 in-state tuition is paying $640 a credit.

On the basis of tuition alone, UVM is actually cheaper than Johnson (or Lyndon and Castleton, where the tuition is about the same; Vermont Tech's is about $2,000 more). But many more students at the State Colleges can live at home or in inexpensive off-campus apartments. The State Colleges are the cheaper alternative, meaning they are not only where most Vermonters go to college, they are especially where most students from lower-income families go to college.

But still apparently too expensive for many students and their families to afford. That's one reason there are empty spaces at Johnson, Lyndon, and Vermont Tech, and Tim Donovan, the soon-to-retire Chancellor of the system, insists that this is no accident. Vermont, Donovan said, has "chosen as a state, maybe inadvertently." to keep tuitions high.

Tim Donovan, outgoing Chancellor of the Vermont State College system, talks with Jon Margolis about the status of higher education in Vermont

When the system began operating in 1962, he said, half the cost of educating the students came from state funds. Now the state puts up only18 percent, the 49th lowest percentage in the country. So low is the state's contribution, Donovan said, that if the Legislature increased it by half, Vermont's ranking among the states would rise only to 47th.

Vermont's "public policy choice." he said, "makes public higher education more expensive (to the student) than it is in most other states."

No problem, then. Just get the Legislature to funnel several million more dollars into the College system (up from this Fiscal Year's $24.5 million), reduce tuition, and all the colleges will be full to capacity.

Not hardly.

To begin with, enrollments are not falling just because there aren't enough students with money. There are not as many potential students at all, with or without money. Non-Hispanic white Americans are not having many children these days. And who else lives in Vermont, New Hampshire, northern Massachusetts, or eastern Upstate New York, home to almost all Vermont State College students"

"Throughout the Northeast, we are halfway through a projected eight-year decline in the number of high school graduates." said Chancellor Donovan.

Besides, despite passage of a bill calling for a study about increasing the state's share of higher education spending, the legislature is not going to funnel several more millions to the Colleges, and officials know it.

"We have to be realistic, 'said Martha O"Connor, the new chair of the Colleges Trustees. "The state has so many people looking for money for so many situations. We can't expect the state to bail us out of this. We can hope that they work with us looking for a permanent solution."

But neither O"Connor nor anyone else knows what the solution would be. Nobody at the Colleges pays much attention to the occasional suggestion that one college- usually either Lyndon or Johnson State, which are only 52 miles apart - could be shut down completely.

Without even getting into the political near-impossibility of such a move (one reason F. Ray Keyser became the first Republican in more than a century to lose the governorship was his plan to close Lyndon State), it would wreak economic havoc; all four campuses are vital to their local economies. Nor is there much reason to suppose that if one of them was eliminated, its students would switch to the other one. Many of those students would probably leave college altogether.

Cost-cutting doesn't appear to be a very productive option, either, because the Colleges seem not to be over-spending. Even the heads of the unions - United Professionals for the faculty and the Vermont State Employees Association for non-professional staff - don't claim that the Colleges are guilty of building up a bloated administrative bureaucracy.

The unions have their complaints. Castleton Professor Linda Olsen, the head of the United Professionals unit, said the union wanted the Colleges to "be hiring full-time faculty instead of relying heavily on part-time faculty." and that faculty salaries are "far below the national averages."

But nobody at the Vermont State Colleges is pulling in the big bucks. According to an article in the Chronicle of Higher Education last year, Donovan was the lowest-paid head of a public college or university system in the country in 2010.

Like many another public higher education system, the State Colleges could also try to increase the number of out-of-state students, who pay roughly twice the tuition that Vermonters pay.

But this would seem contrary to the mission of providing a college education to Vermonters who cannot afford the more expensive schools. Donovan said that a greater percentage of young Vermonters finish high school than in almost any other state, but a smaller percentage go on to any college.

Roughly 7,000 young Vermonters graduate from high school every year, he said, but only 60 percent of them go to college at all, and half of them leave the state to do so. He called that an extraordinary waste of potential human capital.

There is room for more students at the State Colleges, and Martha O"Connor thinks better programs will attract more students.

That seems self-evident, but some worry that if "better" simply means, "more marketable." that approach poses a danger to the Colleges. Because "more marketable" in turn often means "more vocational" - classes designed to train students for particular professions at the cost of a traditional liberal arts education.

David Plezak, an Associate Professor of Political Science at Johnson State, who once taught at Lyndon State, said he worried that 'short-term thinking" based only on the need 'to put tushes in the seats" could end up giving short shrift to classes in the arts, the humanities, the social sciences, and even the pure (as opposed to applied) physical sciences.

Gary Moore, who will remain on the Board until February, said he hopes that doesn't happen. "I strongly feel we need to have well-rounded, well-educated students." he said.

O"Connor did not seem as concerned, but said this factor - like all the other questions facing the Colleges - had to be examined in context.

"We can't just look at this piecemeal." she said. "We can't just pick one thing and say, that's the problem. We have to look at the whole picture."

She's looking forward to doing that. "I"m not despairing over anything." she said.

Is Anyone Listening to Vermont Radio?

May 2, 2014
     What a high tech, wired (yet wireless) world. With its Hulus and YouTubes and streamings and Skypes and so many other ways to be informed and entertained.

    So what do most people do every day to find out what's going on and to listen to music"

    They turn on the radio.

    Yup, good old-fashioned, tune-the-dial AM and FM radio. In sheer numbers, nothing else touches its reach, neither in Vermont nor in the other 49 states.

    According to the Neilson company, which measures radio and television audiences, 242 million people over the age of 12 listen to the radio at least once a week.

    That's 91.7 percent of everybody, and in this case everybody really means everybody. There are a few demographic differences. More older men than women listen, more younger women than men. But the differences are small. Old or young, black or white, Hispanic or Anglo, rich or poor, roughly 90 percent of every subgroup listens to the radio.

    Vermont is just a bit of an outlier here. A spokesperson for Nielson said only (if "only" is the right word) 86.6 percent of Vermonters are regular radio listeners.

    Maybe that's because so much radio listening is done while driving to work " 7 AM is the peak listening hour all over the country " and while Vermonters drive to work, their commutes are shorter. Fewer traffic jams.

    Even if its audience is a few percentage points short of the national average, Vermont's radio business is 'strong." said Jim Condon, the Executive Director of the Vermont Association of Broadcasters (and also a Democratic member of the House of Representative from Colchester). "Listenership is up."

    So it is, but largely because there are more people listening. Ratings " the percentage of people who are listening " are down. They aren't down much, but there are signs that all those new technologies pose a challenge to radio in the future.

  Asked if her students listen to the radio, Traci Griffith, the Chair of the Communications Department at St. Michael's College, said, "Not tune-the-dial radio."

    Today's students, she said, "want to listen to what they want when they want to listen to it." So they are less likely to switch on the radio than stream music from a service such as Pandora, which claims it can algorithmically choose music to each person's taste. Just give Pandora one song you like and it will "find songs with interesting musical similarities to your choice." it says.

Radio is communal, not individualistic.
   Attracting a (slightly) smaller percentage of listeners than most of the rest of the country is not the only way the Vermont radio scene differs from the national norm. The Vermont station with the biggest audience does not play country music or shout outlandish political opinion. The station with the biggest audience, according to the Nielsen Audio National Regional Database (as of last September), is WVPS-FM, the Burlington area's public radio outlet, which has an AQH (average number of persons per quarter hour) of 10.5 percent and a weekly "Cume" (the number of different persons who listen for at least five minutes) of 90,600, well ahead of its runner-up.

    In some ways, Vermont Public Radio dominates the radio scene in the state. Robin Turnau, its president and CEO, said it is "one of the most listened to (public radio) systems, per capita, in the country and also very well supported."

    Nothing else has its statewide reach. The seven regular VPR stations and six VPR classical stations don't quite blanket the whole state. But they come far closer than any other system.

    And in more ways than one, Vermont is a public radio kind of state. One of those ways, Turnau acknowledged, is that Vermont is an old state.

    "Public radio's core demographic tends to be 45 plus." said Turnau. "That's who were trying to serve."

    Vermonters are also relatively well-educated, and well-educated people tend to want to know what is going on around them. Many tune (or stream) to VPR because it provides one kind of programming found almost nowhere else on Vermont radio: state and local news.

    VPR employs 11 part-time and full-time reporters working under an experienced news director. Vermont's other stations employ somewhere between none and very, very, few, not counting the college and university stations, which mostly cover news on their own campuses.

    Several small-town stations devote effort and air time to public affairs " interviewing office-holders, candidates, and community leaders, broadcasting some select board or school board meetings live. And most stations provide a brief national newscast from New York or Washington several times a day.

    But putting a lively school board or select board meeting on the air is not the same as hiring a reporter to cover it.

    One station " WDEV in Waterbury (on both the AM and FM dials) " probably devotes more time state and local public affairs than VPR. Mark Johnson's call-in interview program has become indispensible to the state's public conversation. The station regularly breaks into regular programming for local bulletins, and even most of its opinion-spouters (Bernie Sanders on the left, the Ethan Allen Institute on the right) are local.

    While there is plenty of country music played on Vermont radio stations " the second biggest audience belongs to WOKO-FM with a 7.0 AQH and 62,100 "cume" " compared to the rest of the country there is relatively little outlandish political opinion. A listener can find Rush Limbaugh on the radio in Vermont, but not easily and not everywhere. His web site lists just two Vermont outlets: WVMT-AM in Burlington, the 17th most-listened to station with a 1.7 AQH; and WSNO-AM in Barre, with a smaller audience.

    Radio in Vermont is also more likely to be"well, radio in and from Vermont as opposed to syndicated programming piped out of a studio in a far-off high-rise and beamed everywhere at once.

    There are commercial radio chains in the state. But at even the biggest of them " Radio Broadcasting Services of South Burlington, which owns seven stations " most of the broadcasting originates in the state. The stations in Burlington, Middlebury, Addison and St. Albans play "oldies" songs, and "when the DJ is talking and the music is playing it's all the same." said company vice president Ed Flanagan. But that DJ is in a Vermont studio.

    In Condon's view, Vermont radio is successful largely to the extent that it is local.

    "People want to communicate." he said. They want a station that will tell them if a local road is closed and to which they can report a lost cat.

    But Traci Griffith points out that even in Vermont, truly local radio may be becoming "a thing of the past."

    The numbers seem to bear her out. The Vermont Association of Broadcasters web site lists 88 Vermont radio stations. Subtract VPR's 13, nine college stations and eight religious stations. That leaves 58 commercial stations. Fifty are owned by corporations, 12 by out-of-state corporations.
    Corporate, to be sure, is a synonym for neither undesirable nor mediocre. But it often engenders standardization, and Vermont radio is increasingly less idiosyncratic, barely distinguishable from all the stations all over the country that use format and formula to attract audiences and hold down expenses.

Public radio and talk radio make news.
Music is what makes money, so music dominates commercial radio, with each station choosing a format: country; adult contemporary (sometimes called "middle of the road"); Oldies (songs from the 1950s and 1960s, Condon said); Classic Hits (1970s and 10980s) and more. As in the rest of the country, far as Vermont may be from Nashville (geographically and otherwise), country music is the most listened-to format. Its AQH share is 25.4 percent, followed by 18 percent for News/Talk and 10.9 for adult contemporary.

    In Vermont, most of the songs are selected by disk jockeys in Vermont (or Plattsburgh, NY or Lebanon, NH). But the tone, the patter, and the music in Burlington is all but indistinguishable from what one would hear in Birmingham, Bowling Green, or Bozeman. Like suburban subdivisions and shopping malls, radio has become less quirky, more homogenized, even in Vermont.

    Here and there, on some stations " or at least on some programs on some stations " quirkiness survives. It actually thrives at WDEV, where the format is to have no format. The station broadcasts Red Sox games and classical music, arts calendars and NASCAR races, jazz and news commentary, and a Saturday morning show called "music to go to the dump by."

    Good radio shouldn't take itself too seriously.

    "It's a patchwork." said station President Ken Squier. "We keep being local and relevant."

    Squier said he is not concerned about those young people streaming via Pandora rather than turning on the radio.

    "All young people have always seen their music as a form of independence, a way of staking our claim. We don't do music for children."

    Maybe those "children" will grow up to listen to stations like WDEV. Or maybe someone will figure out how radio stations can charge fees for streaming the music listeners want to hear when they want to hear it, or how to hook up those streaming services with advertising. Radio has been declared dead before. Television was supposed to kill it, but it adapted and thrived.

    It might adapt to the Internet, too. Either way, there's still plenty to listen to in Vermont, plenty of the standard formula stuff, or " if you keep touching that dial " a little bit of the old quirkiness.

  "That doesn't work here." said Condon. "They"re no longer in Vermont."
   Not that consolidation and syndication have bypassed the state entirely. Some years ago, the media giant Clear Channel bought some Vermont stations, which broadcast music "delivered from their headquarters in Dallas." remembered Condon.


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