Vermonters First targets House representatives for backing taxes

Vermonters First, the state’s best-known conservative Super PAC, criticized a handful of House legislators last week in direct mailings to their constituents, accusing these Democrats of embarking on a “massive taxing spree.”

The mailings detail the lawmakers’ voting records, as backing a hike to the state’s gas and property taxes, and also voting for an overall tax package which included taxes on soda, meals, clothing and income.

A mailing to a constituent of Rep. Michelle Fay from Vermonters First.
A mailing received by a constituent of Rep. Michelle Fay from Vermonters First.

But it puts its own spin on these votes, urging readers in one case, with bold red letters, to: “Tell Michelle Fay she should not make Vermont less affordable!” On another page, next to an image of a shopping cart, a mailing reads: “State Representative Michelle Fay just voted to go on a massive taxing spree!”

Fay is a Democrat from St. Johnsbury.

Tayt Brooks, who founded and operates Vermonters First, told VTDigger in a statement that the mailings are part of its strategy to “bring balance to the debate over critical issues facing the state.”

Vermonters First achieves this goal, in part, Brooks wrote, by highlighting votes taken in the Legislature.

“The recent mailing mentioned state representatives who voted to increase the property tax (H.265), increase the gas tax (H.510), and increase the tax on clothing, meals and income (H.528),” said Brooks in the statement. “Hopefully voters will respond by engaging their elected officials in constructive conversations about the lack of affordability in the state of Vermont.”

Brooks said the mailing was “delivered throughout the state.” He didn’t elaborate on how many representatives were targeted, nor did he explain how he selected which legislators to target.

Fay criticizes the Vermonters First approach as a “one-size-fits-all approach” that doesn’t work and spreads “untruths.” The property tax rate in St. Johnsbury, she said, is actually lower than last year’s, partly because the school board exercised fiscal discipline, but also because of change from Montpelier related to base spending amounts.

On her personal website, Fay adopts stronger language. She calls the mailing “shock-and-awe propaganda” and “sensational.” She then takes pains to explain each of her votes in detail, setting them against a policy background.

“The budget picture in Vermont is bleak,” Fay told VTDigger. One-time money is disappearing, while vulnerable Vermonters are still in need of services. She says such taxes in this context “painful but necessary.”

Rep. Mike McCarthy, D-St. Albans, another legislator targeted by Vermonters First, has a more upbeat response. He said he “welcomes the dialogue” which the mailings have prompted among his constituents, and thinks that having his name out there actually helps his re-election next year.

“I think that the negative style turns people off to their message,” said McCarthy. “I don’t think it was very effective for them.”

People who’ve approached him about the mailing give him the sense that the community thinks this is politically “way over the top,” said McCarthy, who found out about the mailing from a friend a day after they were delivered.

He defends his votes as tough but necessary, adding that the tax package from House Ways and Means was a “compromise,” which left out many potential taxes, like a tax on sugar-sweetened beverages.

“These aren’t crazy tax increases,” said McCarthy of the taxes mentioned by Vermonters First. “There are no new taxes here. … We’re getting rid of some exemptions.”

The tax hikes were not “massive,” McCarthy maintains, questioning the PAC’s language, and also didn’t happen in a “spree.”

“Really deliberate choices were made. Some were not perfect. But there were compromises, hard fought and thought out,” he said. “The word ‘spree’ implies that they were capricious. That’s not the case.”

It’s unclear exactly how many people received the mailings. If Vermonters First targeted every doorstep in St. Johnsbury, that’d be about 3,000 addresses, said Fay. McCarthy estimates that it reached at least a few hundred in both St. Albans Town and St. Albans City.

McCarthy said Rep. Dave Potter, D-Clarendon, and Rep. Herb Russell, D-Rutland, both told him they were targeted with similar mailings last week. All three sit on the House Transportation Committee, which crafted the original gas tax hike proposal.

Vermonters First targeted at least seven Democratic representatives, including Reps. Linda Waite-Simpson, Tess Taylor (Assistant Majority Leader of the House) and John Malcolm, out of the 96 members of the House who passed the gas tax.

Both McCarthy and Fay suspect they were targeted because they’d just won their first terms to office, in seats perceived as vulnerable. “My district mate has been here for more than 20 years, and I think they see my seat, the junior seat, as one that would be easy to pick up in 2014,” said McCarthy, who noted he won his race by just 16 votes.

“I’m a new member, I’m a Democrat, in a traditionally Republican area,” said Fay. “I unseated an incumbent Republican.”

It’s also unclear how much Vermonters First spent on the mailings. Answers may not be forthcoming soon.

Since the group spent about $7,800 on television ads in late February, it’s had to register as a lobbyist with the Secretary of State.

While the next release of lobbyist disclosures will be out later this week, information about expenditures made after March 31, is not available until July 25, according to Secretary of State elections chief Will Senning.

Brooks wouldn’t respond to questions about how much Vermonters First had spent on the mailings.

Senning said legislators mentioned in these sorts of political communications don’t have to be notified or made aware of what’s been said. Both McCarthy and Fay first found about the mailings secondhand, though very shortly after they first appeared.

In contrast, Senning said, political candidates mentioned in a mass media mailing 30 days before an election must be notified that they’ve been named or targeted. There’s been some initial talk of tightening the state’s oversight of lobbying expenditures, from House Health Care Chair Mike Fisher, D-Lincoln, but no political action so far.

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  • Stan Hopson

    Absolutely enjoyable watching the predictable frenzy Vermonters First whips up with a mailer. Regular readers of Digger know the democrats have increased taxes to pay for NEW programs funding their pet causes.

    God forbid someone disagrees with the machine around here.

  • Bob Stannard

    So when was the last time Tate Brooks met with Randy Brock?

    Once Brooks was caught in that lie it’s been hard to take anything he says without a grain of salt.

  • Judy Ashkey

    None of us like tax increases but if you are paying any attention to the bigger budget picture you understand why these difficult decisions were made. I personally know Mike McCarthy and his decisions are made after looking at all the alternatives. These mailings were malicious and hateful. Not the kind of politics I want to support

    • Difficult decisions? Since the recession began, Montpelier has managed a cumulative 22% budget increase ($908.7 million in new spending). That doesn’t sound like they’re making many tough decisions. They don’t have a hard time sticking it to working Vermonters in the good times, and they don’t have a hard time sticking it to working Vermonters in the bad times. Shumlin deserves some credit for presenting a tough decision on spending priorities. Let’s see if he actually makes a tough decision, or reverts to the easy path — sticking it to hard working Vermonters.

  • Ann Raynolds

    If I were legislator, I’d be upset if I weren’t ‘targeted’. Actually, though I’ve been musing over putting together a list of the legislators — at least in my County — who are willing to undercut EITC, put a cap on Reach Up and not subsidize the Health Care Exchanges so that current VHAP and Catamount insured folks can afford to continue buying any health insurance in 2014. That surely will make an interesting list for liberal Democrats and progressives.

  • Stan Hopson

    “Hateful” Judy?


    That’s for the laugh.

  • sandra bettis

    dear vermonters first – thanks for making the dems look even better! by the way, which vermonters are you representing? the rich ones? oh, i see….

  • sandra bettis

    just put ‘return to sender’ on tne envelope and let them pay the return postage as well since they have money to throw away. (not on taxes tho – god forbid!)

  • Larry Townsend

    I believe the House Transportation Committee has some Republicans that voted in favor of this bill too. Are they being targeted? In full disclosure, I voted for this bill.

    • Kristin Sohlstrom

      Yes, these were bipartisan votes. Vermont First would have been further ahead to target those who voted AGAINST these tax hikes with praise in order to marginalize all individuals who continue to raise our taxes…but then lower taxation would have to be the ultimate goal and I’m not convinced that’s correct.

      • Actually, Kristen & Larry, while it’s true some Republicans did vote for the gas tax increase both in committee and on the floor, of the other two votes mentioned in the Vermonters First mailer, the misc. tax bill H.528 did not receive any Republican support, and the property tax increase H.265 received only one Republican vote. As reported in another venue, the mailer called out legislators who had voted the wrong way on all three bills.




        • Oops. Meant to type Property tax hike, H.265…

        • Jason Farrell

          Mr. Roper writes:

          “of the other two votes mentioned in the Vermonters First mailer, the misc. tax bill H.528 did not receive any Republican support”

          Except it did. From Mr. Roper’s link on H.528 Roll Call:

          Carolyn Branagan (R-Georgia) – YES

          Mr. Roper then also writes:

          “and the property tax increase H.265 received only one Republican vote.”

          Except it received TWO Republican votes. Again, from Mr. Roper’s link to the Roll Call of H.265:

          Carolyn Branagan (R-Georgia) – YES

          Martha Feltus (R-Lyndonville) – YES

          It may be that these are only minor factual errors, but you’d think a former chair of the Vermont GOP and the current President of the Ethan Allen Institute “think-tank” would come prepared with the facts when correcting others on a message board.

          • Well, you got me, Jason. I confess I forgot about Feltus and the second Branagan vote, and, yes, should have taken a more careful look. The main point I was trying to correct was that the Vermonters First mailer was concerned with votes on three bills, not just one. Still, you’re right. Should have been more careful.

            But, I’m glad you’re using EAI’s roll call reports to good effect (even on me!) That’s what they’re for.

  • Cheryl Pariseau

    Why is this a bad thing? It is stating facts and encouraging constituents to contact their Representative. This state is becoming increasingly more expensive to live in and taxes are being raised year after year. In the last 10 years the state budget has increased from 2.8 billion to the proposed 5.3 billion for this next fiscal year while our population has only increased by about 10,000 people in that period of time. These types of increases are not sustainable. Regardless of what you think of Vermont First they are starting a dialogue with the public on how your tax dollars are being raised and spent. This is always a good thing.

    • Doug Hoffer

      The Census Bureau reports that state & local expenditures in Vermont increased by 79% from 2000 to 2010 (latest data available for all 50 states). I chose state & local because Vermont’s budget includes K-12 education which is a local expenditure in other states.

      Vermont was 26th nationally and exactly at the median (50% higher and 50% lower). And Vermont was lower than New Hampshire (83%).

      It’s always helpful to have context.

      • Cheryl Pariseau

        Mr. Hoffer while you may be correct (I was unable to locate that information)about Vermont being in the middle for state budget increases over the past 10 year, Vermont was listed 44th in population growth (2.8%)during that period of time too.
        Nevertheless, you point out that New Hampshire had a budget increase of 83% during this period. However, NH also has a population twice the size of Vermont. They also had a population growth of 6.3% during that period, which is 2 1/2 time the growth of Vermont’s populations.

        Like you said “It’s always helpful to have context.”

        • John Greenberg

          And we want more people here because …?

  • Stan Hopson

    Cheryl, you may not of received the memo. Expressing your first amendment rights, especially when it doesn’t jive with the super majority democrats and their coddling Vermont media, is frowned upon.

    Please quiet down, it’s not becoming of you to state the obvious.

  • Mark Milazzo

    I normally don’t like PACs, but given the one-sided discussion/ decision making process that is going on in Montpelier, I appreciate the efforts of Vermonters First. I have not seen anything coming from VF that I perceive as negative and hope their efforts will bring some balance to Vermont politics. Thanks Vermonters First!

  • Maureen Beach

    Allowing the government to tax one common, everyday item, is an invitation to start looking for more things to regulate and tax. Now is not the time to be imposing more taxes on hard-working Vermont families.

  • I agree with Rep. McCarthy – the mailing provided an excellent opening for conversations with constituents. The people I’ve spoken with are appreciative of learning the context for my votes, which are much more complicated and important to turn into simplistic bullet-points. In fact, one constituent left me a message after we spoke and he’d had a chance to review my vote explanations on my website, and he proclaimed that if I kept it up he’d find himself voting for more Democrats. Thanks Vermonter’s First!

  • David Dempsey

    Michelle Fay is a good example of the kind of person Vermont doesn’t need in the legislature, bipartisan and close minded. On the other end of the spectrum, Mike Mccarthy is the kind of politician Vermont needs, willing to listen to criticism without having a hissy fit.

  • Paula LaForce

    It’s unfortunate that as a lifetime resident of VT; I’m considering if it’s worth staying in VT. We are getting taxed and surcharged to the point where it is becoming increasingly difficult financally to stay. Most individuals that are employed here in VT are not getting raises to account for the cost of living. Additional tax on our fuel for our vehicles to get to work and to heat our homes is going to drive people out of the state. I am sure there is another way. Just think how these taxes will trickle down to our everyday living. Is our state govenment trying to drive the middle class to the poor house?! Sure seems that way. I do not believe in relying on our government to support us. We can support our neighbors on our own, without the state to tell me how to do so.

  • Steven Farnham

    How much could we cut taxes if Vermonters First sent all their PAC money into the state treasury, rather than spending it on propaganda campaigns to bully Vermonters and their legislators?

    • Paula Schramm

      Yes, I was thinking that if Lenore Broughton, (who was practically the sole funder of Vermonters First last year in its debut appearance), was so concerned for Vermonters facing a gas tax hike, she could have spent her money to match the Federal highways money, and we all would not have needed the tax increase. Oh well, way too ALTRUISTIC for her , I guess.
      Instead this expensive mailing selectively targeted just some Reps, as if they were the ones driving us out of the state with their personal “massive taxing spree”. This is what made it hateful in my view – it’s half the story and stated with such sensationalism that it’s an obvious attempt to turn voters specifically against some first-term members of the Legislature. Just two out of our 11 Representatives in Franklin County got hit with these, while a majority of our Reps voted for these bills, including Republicans, and one Republican voted for all 3 – as already pointed out in these comments.
      I don’t respect this as a way to raise these issues & foster debate….if the mailings had talked about “Democrats” in general, or “all those who voted for XYZ “, or what policies would be better, then I could take it just fine. Though I have no love for SuperPACS, and think Vermont politics would be better off without any of them !

  • sandra bettis

    i’m not sure how people think we will pay for new roads and bridges w/o a gas tax. we are getting further and further behind on them. and, people do not conserve when the price is low.