Unemployment rate drops to pre-recession level

MONTPELIER — Vermont’s unemployment rate for February was the lowest in nearly eight years.

The state Department of Labor released its monthly jobs report Friday, showing the state had a seasonally adjusted unemployment rate of 3.9 percent for February, a decrease of 0.2 percent compared with the month before.

According to the report, February was the first time the state unemployment rate has fallen below 4 percent since May 2007.

“Vermont’s unemployment rate — at 3.9 percent — is back as low as those reported before the recession,” said Annie Noonan, commissioner of the state Department of Labor, who noted the report is a sign of “better economic conditions in certain parts of the state.”

Of the 17 labor markets around the state — statistics for which are not seasonally adjusted — every one of them saw a decline in unemployment, with some regions, such as Bennington, Rutland and Barre-Montpelier seeing a monthly drop of 0.6 percent.

The Burlington-South Burlington region had the lowest monthly unemployment rate at 3 percent, while Derby continued to have the highest unemployment rate at 7.7 percent.

Without seasonal adjustment, the state unemployment rate for February was 4.1 percent, a decline of 0.5 percent.

February’s numbers will be subject to revision in the coming months, but, according to the Department of Labor, final numbers for December 2014 show the state added approximately 3,400 jobs compared with December 2013.
Gov. Peter Shumlin welcomed the February job report.

“This is positive news for Vermont’s economy,” Shumlin said. “Combined with the revised jobs numbers released last month, which showed an increase of 3,400 jobs in 2014, Vermont’s economy continues its recovery and is moving in the right direction. We still have a lot of work to do to ensure Vermont’s economy works for every single Vermonter.”

George Malek is president of the Central Vermont Chamber of Commerce, where the Barre-Montpelier region saw its monthly unemployment rate fall from 5.1 percent in January to 4.5 percent in February.

“People who are putting their own money at risk are doing a lot of construction, and that is always a good sign,” Malek said. “Up until the last six to 12 months, things have been lagging, other than rebuilding things that had been damaged four years ago.”

“I am cautiously optimistic that those people who have put their money on the line have a good reason to do so. They tend to be much better judges of what’s out there,” Malek continued. “I take some heart in their willingness to step up to the plate.”

The Rutland region saw its monthly unemployment rate fall from 4.8 percent in January to 4.2 percent in February.

“On a local basis, there has seen some manufacturing hiring going on. General Electric continues to add jobs, so that certainly helps to improve those numbers,” said Tom Donahue, CEO and executive director of the Rutland Region Chamber of Commerce.

Donahue said the increase in manufacturing jobs has offset the loss of retail jobs following the closure of Aubuchon Hardware, Sears, and, in April, J.C. Penny.

Capitol Beat with the Governor 3-27-15

Play

Gov. Peter Shumlin chats with Vermont Press Bureau chief Neal P. Goswami about the health care package in play in the House, new unemployment numbers and gun legislation that cleared the Senate this week.

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Election-day voter registration moves forward

MONTPELIER — Lawmakers are taking a step that could increase voter participation.

By a vote of 20 to 7 Thursday afternoon, the Senate gave preliminary approval to a bill that would allow residents to register to vote on the day of an election. Currently, an individual who wishes to cast a vote on a Tuesday must have registered to vote by the previous Wednesday.

“Those of us in this building spend a lot of time thinking about elections, but most people don’t,” said Sen. Jeanette White, D-Windham. “People move or go into long-term care facilities in a town where they were not originally registered to vote and didn’t get engaged until the last moment. That doesn’t mean they’re uninformed.”

Under the terms of the bill, an individual could show up at a polling place the day of an election and present documentation of residency as required by federal law, such as photo identification or a utility bill. Either the town clerk or members of the municipality’s board of civil authority would review the documentation, and if approved, the individual would be a allowed to vote that day.

Currently, 13 states, and the District of Columbia, allow election-day voter registration.

“This is a voter-rights issue,” said Sec. Of State James Condos, following the vote. “This is for the benefit of the voter, for the benefit of the citizens to exercise their constitutional right to cast a ballot.”

According to Condos, places that have election-day voter registration have seen their rates of participation rise 10-12 percent since implementation.

Several senators expressed concern that election-day voter registration could lead to voter fraud, including Kevin Mullin, R-Rutland — who voted for the bill — and Dustin Degree, R-Franklin, who did not.

“There are lots of problems with elections with the system we have now,” Degree said. “I think the integrity of our elections is more important than increased participation.”

White disagreed that the bill could open up the door to more voter fraud.

“There is no more potential for voter fraud than there is under the current system we use now,” White said. “If someone wants to commit fraud now, all they have to do is say they registered when they renewed their driver’s license.”

Condos downplayed the idea that voter fraud is much of an issue at all.
“We have a hard enough time getting people to vote once, never mind voting twice” Condos said “Voter fraud is really nonexistent in this country. There have been many, many accusations, but they usually filter out and there will be a logical reason for what happened.”

The bill is expected to come before the Senate for final approval Friday.

Shumlin’s chief of staff to depart in May

MONTPELIER — Gov. Peter Shumlin said Thursday his Chief of Staff Liz Miller will step down from the post in May and return to work in the private sector.

Darren Springer, currently the deputy commissioner of the Department of Public Service, will replace her, Shumlin said.

At a news conference Thursday, Shumlin said he convinced Miller more than 4 years ago to first become commissioner of DPS, and later to become his chief of staff after winning his first term as governor in 2010.

Shumlin praised Miller for her work on behalf of his administration and Vermonters.

Shumlin Chief of Staff Liz Miller, center, listens as Gov. Peter Shumlin announces that Deputy DPS Commissioner Darren Springer, right, will replace her in May when she steps down from the post.

Shumlin Chief of Staff Liz Miller, center, listens as Gov. Peter Shumlin announces that Deputy DPS Commissioner Darren Springer, right, will replace her in May when she steps down from the post.

“I have been blessed with one of the brightest, most hard-working, dedicated people that I’ve ever worked with in my lifetime. Liz has now made the decision at the end of May to do what she threatened to do two and a half years ago, go back to the private sector,” Shumlin said. “We could not have had a person who served this state with more distinction, dedication and more elbow grease and more grace than Liz Miller.”

Springer, who became deputy commissioner of DPS in March 2013, will continue in that role until the end of May. He previously served as a senior policy advisor for energy and environment issues for Sen. Bernie Sanders, and later as Sanders’ chief counsel. Prior to that Springer worked as the energy and transportation program director for the National Governors Association Center for Best Practices.

Shumlin said Springer has been “the really creative collaborator and creator of new ways of promoting renewables, promoting cleaner, greener energy throughout Vermont.”

“I couldn’t be more delighted to have someone of Darren’s caliber take over from Liz at the end of this legislative session,” Shumlin said.

Proposed health care bill could see cut in funding

MONTPELIER — Lawmakers are considering a scaled-back health care bill that strips out a proposed payroll tax.

The House and Ways Committee is looking to fund a proposed health care bill with $20 million in revenue, a far cry from the $52 million in revenue proposed by the House Health Care Committee.

“I think it’s safe to say that the figure we come up with will be less than the figure the Health Care Committee came up with,” said Ways and Means Chairwoman Janet Ancel, D-Calais. “If that’s true, we’re going to ask the Health Care Committee to reorder its priorities to decide how best to spend it.”

Earlier this month, the House Health Care Committee approved a bill that included a 0.3-percent payroll tax, as well as a 2-cents-an-ounce tax on sugar-sweetened beverages, which, together, would generate $52 million in revenue.

The bill itself was borne out of a proposal from Gov. Peter Shumlin, who proposed implementing a 0.7-percent payroll tax to close the gap between how much Medicaid reimburses doctors for services and how much those doctors charge private insurers. Shumlin argues that boosting the amount paid by Medicaid will result in lower premiums for individuals with private insurance.

Shumlin’s proposal came after his decision in December to — either permanently or for the moment — shelve his single-payer health care plan.

“We’ve been looking at the bill that the House Health Care Committee voted out, both looking at the spending part and looking at how the revenue will be raised, and I think there is, just speaking for myself, there are initiatives in the bill that I would like to be able to accomplish,” Ancel said. “Certainly, the investment in the cost sharing, the increased reimbursement for primary care, are things that the heath care bill attempts to put in place. The challenge, always, is how do we raise revenue for it?”

Wednesday afternoon, House Health Care Committee members discussed proposals that would reduce the amount of money to address the so-called “Medicaid shift” that would close the reimbursement rate gap between Medicaid and private insurers.

Rep. George Till, D-Jericho, proposed amending the bill from House Health Care that would do away with the payroll tax altogether, and would impose a 0.75-cents-an-ounce tax on sugar-sweetened drinks. Till also proposed eliminating the exemption for candy from sales tax.

Rep. James Masland, D-Thetford Center, said that reducing the sugar-sweetened beverage tax to 0.5 cents an ounce could still raise $20 million.

Rep. Alison Clarkson, D-Woodstock, said the direction the committee will take on the bill is still very much up in the air.

“There are three questions before this committee: Do we want to spend money on health care? How much do we want to spend? And, if we want to spend money, how do we want to raise it?” said Clarkson, who later said she supported the $20 million figure.

Ancel said that, should her committee decide to reduce the amount of revenue as proposed, it would be up to the House Health Care Committee to decide how that money should be spent.

The House Ways and Means Committee is expected to take up the health care bill Thursday.

Senate advances gun bill

MONTPELIER — The Vermont Senate on Wednesday gave preliminary approval to new gun restrictions by a 20 to 8 vote that will make it a state-level crime for some convicts to possess firearms and require that people determined by a court to be in need of mental health treatment be reported to a federal database.

Wednesday’s vote followed months of behind the scenes political machinations and some public spats as advocates and opponents of the new gun measures tried to gain the upper hand. Advocates, including Gun Sense Vermont, which strongly backed the bill, claimed success Wednesday.

“I think any time there is a vocal minority it can be a little tricky, but what’s so exciting is how vast, aggressive grassroots support has really changed the landscape. It’s meaningful because, finally, common sense gun legislation is getting passed,” Gun Sense Executive Director Ann Braden said.

But opponents, including the Vermont Federation of Sportsmen’s clubs and the National Rifle Association, also claimed victory because they were able to kill off earlier versions of proposed legislation that included expanded background checks.

“At the end of the day, from the bill that was originally proposed to this, the other side, I think that their agenda has been rejected. On that note we’re happy,” said NRA lobbyist Darin Goens. “If the question was asked on the original bill I think the vote would have been very different.”

Braden said her group will not be looking to restore the background check provision in the House.

“We’re focused just on this bill, not adding on,” she said.

The scaled-back bill passed Wednesday was the result of proposals from the Senate Judiciary Committee and the Health and Welfare Committee. Judiciary Committee Chairman Dick Sears, D-Bennington, told his colleagues on the Senate floor Wednesday that the bill looked to clarify a simple point — who should possess a firearm under Vermont state law.

Sears noted that that all of the other states have a similar state-level law that excludes some convicts from possessing firearms, as does the federal government.

“We are the outlier in this particular area. There are no other states at this point,” he said.

A agent with the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives and a federal prosecutor provided testimony to the Judiciary Committee that federal prosecutors “don’t have the time or the resources to prosecute these offenses in federal court,” Sears said.

Under the law, people convicted of so-called “listed crimes,” the most serious crimes in the state, will be restricted from possessing a firearm. The law makes some exceptions for lewd and lascivious behavior, as well as reckless endangerment and other motor vehicle-related crimes. The law also includes crimes involving the selling or trafficking of drugs that carry prison terms of at least 10 years.

The legislation will also require those found by a court to be “in need of treatment” for mental health reasons to be reported to the National Instant Criminal Background Check System. Sears said 38 states require such reporting.

Sears noted that the state of Virginia passed a law requiring such reporting following a mass shooting at Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University in 2007.

“I would hate for Vermont to wait for such a tragedy,” he said.

Much of the debate on the Senate floor Wednesday centered on how and when a person could have their right to possess a firearm restored after being reported to the database. The Senate approved an amendment that would allow a person to seek restoration of their right after 18 months, if they were found by a court to no longer be in need of treatment.

Sen. Joe Benning, R-Caledonia, sought passage of an amendment that would have eliminated a waiting period altogether, but it was defeated on a voice vote.

“This is a constitutionally delineated right,” Benning said. “My concern is that once you have had a constitutional right removed it should not be your problem to try and get it back.”

Sen. John Rodgers, D-Essex-Orleans, voiced opposition to the bill, fearing that it will be altered as it makes its way through the House. He asked why an existing state law that makes it a crime for people to possess a firearm while committing a crime is not enough.

“The key word is “while committing another crime,” Sears said, noting that state prosecutors, under the provisions of the bill, would be allowed to prosecute some convicts just for possessing the firearm.

“If you believe that convicted violent felons and drug traffickers …. ought not to have firearms, then I guess that’s how your vote would be. To me, this is a pretty simple policy choice that we’re faced with,” Sears said.

Rodgers also expressed a believe that many gun rights groups have expressed throughout the legislative process, that outside groups were influencing the legislation and encouraging lawmakers to act.

“This is largely driven from outside forces and I believe the Judiciary Committee had some evidence of that in testimony recently,” he said.

Rodgers said the state has a long heritage and tradition of gun ownership and those that disagree with it “may want to seek another place that has a culture that they like.” He made a motion to delay the bill by having it committed to the Appropriations Committee but that effort failed on a voice vote.

The bill is up for a final vote in the Senate Thursday before heading to the House.

A full story will appear in Thursday’s editions of the Barre-Montpelier Times Argus and the Rutland Herald.

Roll call vote results:

Yes
Sen. Tim Ashe, D/P-Chittenden
Sen. Becca Balint, D-Windham
Sen. Philip Baruth, D-Chittenden
Sen. Joe Benning, R-Caledonia
Sen. Chris Bray, D-Addison
Sen. John Campbell, D-Windsor
Sen. Brian Campion, D-Bennington
Sen. Ann Cummings, D-Washington
Sen. Jane Kitchel, D-Caledonia
Sen. Ginny Lyons, D-Chittenden
Sen. Mark MacDonald, D-Orange
Sen. Dick McCormack, D-Windsor
Sen. Alice Nitka, D-Windsor
Sen. Anthony Pollina, D-Washington
Sen. Dick Sears, D-Bennington
Sen. Michael Sirotkin, D-Chittenden
Sen. Barbara Snelling, R-Chittenden
Sen. Rich Westman, R-Lamoille
Sen. Jeanette White, D-Windham
Sen. David Zuckerman, P/D-Chittenden

No
Sen. Brian Colamore, R-Rutland
Sen. Dustin Degree, R-Franklin
Sen. Peg Flory, R-Rutland
Sen. Dick Mazza, D-Grand Isle
Sen. Norm McAllister, R-Franklin
Sen. Kevin Mullin, R-Rutland
Sen. John Rodgers, D-Essex-Orleans
Sen. Bobby Starr, D-Essex-Orleans

NRA lobbyist says he represents Vermont interests

MONTPELIER — A National Rifle Association lobbyist is on hand at the State House for today’s Senate debate and vote on a gun bill, just days after gun rights advocates accused Gun Sense Vermont of being a front for a national group.

Gun Sense maintains that it is a Vermont-based, grassroots organization. The two-year-old group is seeking passage of a bill, S.141, that would make it a state-level crime for some convicts to possess firearms. It would also require the names of people found to be mentally ill by a court to be reported to a national database.

Earlier versions of legislation before the Senate included an expansion of background checks to private gun sales, but that has since been shelved.

On Monday, the Vermont Second Amendment Coalition blasted Gun Sense for being a front for former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s group Everytown For Gun Safety. A lobbyist from the Necrason Group, testifying on behalf of Gun Sense, told the Senate Judiciary Committee that Gun Sense needed “to get national expertise” before signing off on a proposed amendment.

NRA lobbyist Darin Goens, right, sits in  the State House cafeteria Wednesday with Evan Hughes of the Vermont Federation of Sportsmen's Clubs.

NRA lobbyist Darin Goens, right, sits in the State House cafeteria Wednesday with Evan Hughes of the Vermont Federation of Sportsmen’s Clubs.

On Wednesday, just hours before the Senate was due to debate the bill, NRA lobbyist Darin Goens denied being a national interest on the other side of the debate.

“We’re a grassroots organization. I represent Vermonters. I’m not sure they represent Vermont citizens. They’re a national group who has funded a lobbyist,” Goens said, while sitting and chatting with Evan Hughes of the Vermont Federation of Sportsmen’s Clubs.

Goes said he has worked with Hughes’ group in opposed S.141.

“We’ve worked hand-in-hand with the Federation of Sportsmens Clubs,” he said. “They’re our state association so we’ve worked with them for the last several years,” Goens said. “On this particular issue we’ve met with legislators jointly. We’ve discussed amendments. We’ve organized events to make sure that our membership turns up at the capitol to make sure they’re voice is heard.”

Speaker’s group pitches economic development ideas

MONTPELIER — An ad hoc economic development group created by House Speaker Shap Smith earlier this year presented an economic development plan to lawmakers Tuesday, some of which could be acted upon this year, according to Smith.

The Economic Development Proposal Review Group, comprised of people from across the political spectrum, was created by Smith to help review ideas submitted by the public. Smith called on the public to submit economic development proposals early in the legislative session. The group reviewed about 90 proposals and crafted a report for lawmakers based on those ideas.

Paul Ralston

Paul Ralston

Vermont Coffee founder and former Democratic lawmaker Paul Ralston served as the group’s leader, facilitating meetings over a three week period. He told the House Commerce and Economic Development Committee Tuesday that economic development in the state will require changing the conversation.

“It’s time for our government to stop talking about huge programs that cost a lot of money that don’t work. It’s time for our government to stop talking how old we’re getting in Vermont and how young people don’t want to live here in Vermont. It’s time to change that story and the story can be changed by taking action,” he said.

Ralston said several ideas could be acted on this session, including passing legislation to clarify that the state’s sales tax does not apply to remotely accessed software, commonly referred to as the cloud tax. In addition, lawmakers this year could:

— Enact an employee relocation income tax credit
— Restore a research and development tax credit
— Repeal or “substantially” reform the licensed lender law
— Develop a process to simplify and strengthen the Vermont Economic Growth Incentive program to work for more employers

Other ideas in the report the group believes could be passed this biennium include examining benefit cliffs in the state’s social assistance programs and reforming the Earned Income Tax Credit to “mitigate financial penalties from work.” The group also suggested mapping all workforce development programs across state government and creating a single budget for them.

The group also wants to increase access to capital by creating a regulatory framework that encourages crowd funding. The state could also offer loan guarantees to support private sector funding for “essential business infrastructure” like telecom projects.

The group recommended permit reforms that “constructively reduce cost and time.” Some reforms could also speed up construction of workforce housing through downtown construction tax credits and faster permitting for housing projects.

Long-term ideas the Legislature should consider include revisiting recommendations made by a Blue Ribbon Tax Commission in 2010. The group suggested a carbon-based tax that is revenue neutral by using it to replace the corporate income tax, creating a seed capital fund, targeting tax incentives for young entrepreneurs, creating a “Vermont embassy” in area cities like Montreal, New York and Boston and enhancing the state’s public transportation system.

Ralston said the group’s recommendations “disproportionately landed on tax credits” because members were concerned that lawmakers would not be willing to appropriate funds in a tough budget year.

Smith made a rare appearance before a legislative committee Tuesday to tout the report and encourage lawmakers to act.

House Speaker Shap Smith speaks to the House Commerce and Economic Development Committee Tuesday.

House Speaker Shap Smith speaks to the House Commerce and Economic Development Committee Tuesday.

“Not surprisingly, a number of them cost money and involve tax credits and direct investments. But there are a number of them that don’t cost money and I think we could move forward with them this year,” Smith told the Commerce and Economic Development Committee.

The speaker cited the employee relocation tax credit as a way to attract younger workers to the state for jobs that employers have had difficulty filling.

“I’ve never been a huge fan of tax credits, but I think the employee relocation tax credit that they’ve identified is a very intriguing idea and could be a tool that could be used by businesses,” he said.

Smith said he believes Vermont is an attractive place for business, but the recommendations in the group’s report could improve the business climate.

“I think that we can make it an even better place,” he said. “I’m hopeful that there will be some ideas here that you can work with and will be put into law by the end of the year.”

neal.goswami@timesargus.com

Read the group’s report below:

Read the economic development ideas submitted by the public to House Speaker Shap Smith below:

Dispatch centers get temporary reprieve

MONTPELIER — Emergency dispatch centers in Rutland and Derby will get a temporary reprieve from the chopping block in the state budget approved Monday by the House Appropriations Committee.

Gov. Peter Shumlin proposed in his recommended budget that two of the state’s four public safety answering points be closed and operations consolidated with the remaining two in Williston and Rockingham. The plan, according to the administration, saves $1.7 million annually and would eliminate about 15 of the state’s 71 full-time and 33 temporary emergency dispatchers.

Facing a $113 million gap in the 2016 fiscal year budget, the administration has insisted the consolidation is necessary to help reduce spending in the budget.

But the House Appropriations Committee sought a way to keep all four dispatch centers open, even temporarily, following strong push back from the Vermont State Employees Association and first responders from around the state. Chairwoman Mitzi Johnson, D-South Hero, said the the committee’s plan will keep the PSAPs in Rutland and Derby open until at least Sept. 15.

Rep. Mitzi Johnson

Rep. Mitzi Johnson

The House plan uses $425,000 from the state’s Universal Service Fund, which assesses a 2 percent fee on telecommunications services to supports Vermont’s Enhanced E-911 program. It was approved by the committee unanimously.

“Although it is not our preference to use that money for anything other than, specifically, 911 call taking, this was closely related enough,” Johnson said Tuesday. “It is strictly one-time, USF money that keeps the four PSAPs running as is until Sept. 15.”

Johnson said the committee heard from many people, particularly in the Rutland and Derby areas, who are concerned that emergency dispatch services will suffer under the administration’s consolidation plan. Johnson said her committee deferred to the Government Operations Committee on safety concerns, but heeded requests to allow those communities time to explore options to maintain local dispatch services.

“It gives time for local entities to try to come up with an alternative or a transition plan,” she said. “They asked for some time to come up with a local alternative, so that’s what we’re offering.”

The committee included legislative language in its budget plan calling for Public Safety Commissioner Keith Flynn to meet with first responders in the Rutland and Derby areas about how dispatch services could be funded.

“I think there were enough questions raised, and there were enough possible alternatives raised, the fact that there are potentially viable, home-grown alternatives out there, is reason enough to say, ‘Is there a different way to do things?’” Johnson said. “There are places all over government where we’re asking for a different way to do things.”

Shumlin spokesman Scott Coriell said the administration is reviewing the Appropriations Committee plan and would not be commenting on each component. Shumlin issued a statement Monday after the House approved its plan on a bipartisan, 11 to 0 vote.

“My budget team will take a close look at the specifics in the bill passed this afternoon, and will continue to work closely with the Legislature as the budget makes its way through the next steps in the House and on to the Senate later this session,” Shumlin said in the statement. “I remain committed to making sure this budget responsibly spends our limited resources to advance our economy and protect our most vulnerable.”

neal.goswami@timesargus.com

State takes another step away from standardized testing

MONTPELIER — Vermont will not use its newly implemented standardized testing system to evaluate the state’s K-12 schools.

Earlier this week, the State Board of Education voted to not use the results from the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium — or SBAC — as the basis for its annual report on school performance to the federal government.

The SBAC, a computerized test that students — many for the first time — began taking Tuesday, replaces the New England Common Assessment Program, or NECAP, which for years provided the annual data on school performance required under the federal “No Child Behind” act, often referred to derisively by educators and administrators as “No Child Left Untested.”

In the spring of 2014, nearly 30 schools took the SBAC test as part of a pilot program. Aside from this handful of students, most will be seeing the new test for the first time this spring.

In theory, the SBAC test will do a better job of measuring the Common Core State Standards adopted by the state in 2010. But, nearly five years later, some school districts have yet to adopt curriculum that reflect the new education standards.

“Test scores can be a trigger for detailed evaluation to learn what schools are doing very effectively or to help identify strategies schools can use to get better,” said Stephan Morse, chairman of the State Board of Education. “However, there are real limitations of what can be concluded about learning based on test scores, particularly in the first years of new tests and standards. Students this spring will be tested as if they had Common Core-aligned curricula for their entire educational career.”

The move continues a shift on the part of the State Board of Education to place less emphasis on standardized testing. In August, the board issued a letter calling on Congress and the Obama administration to reduce the testing mandates under “No Child left Behind.”

Because Vermont does not use standardized tests as a method to evaluate teachers, the federal government applies a strict standard to the state’s schools, in which a single student who receives a score of not proficient results in the entire school being identified as failing.

“The biggest thing is credibility,” said board member William Mathis of the board’s recent decision. “It (the SBAC test) is supposed to be used to determine if you’re college or career ready. The problem is, ‘college and career ready’ if you’re going to MIT is very different than if you’re going to your local college.”

Mathis also noted that, unlike the previous test, the SBAC is administered on a computer or personal electronic device, a challenge to districts with few computers and to students who have not had training in computer use.

“What are we testing, computer literacy or math and English?” Mathis asked.
Rebecca Holcombe, secretary of the Agency of Education, said she supported the Board’s decision. Holcombe said the state would seek permission from the federal government to offer other forms of data — such as high school graduation rates — for an annual measurement of how the state’s schools are doing.

“If we’re really raising the bar, we need to give schools time,’ said Holcombe, noting that the new test places greater emphasis on critical thinking and problem-solving skills than the old test.

“We should never forget that this test is not a full measure of what we want from our education system,” Holcombe said.

Holcombe said the state will still release test results to the public.

Data breach reported by the Vermont Department of Labor

MONTPELIER — The Vermont State Police have launched a criminal investigation into a former Vermont Department of Labor employee that “acquired” the names and social security numbers of at least 39 people from the department’s unemployment database.

The department said the former employee intentionally acquired the unauthorized information through her regular work duties. Although she had access to the information through her work, the department does not allow its employees to copy, transfer, disclose or retain that information for any purpose that is not related to the department’s business. No computer systems were breached, according to the department.

Officials did not identify the woman accused of acquiring the personal information.

In a press release, the department said the data was acquired on Feb. 24. Officials immediately asked the Vermont State Police to begin a criminal investigation. Police were granted a search warrant for the woman’s home and seized copies of documents and personal computer devices to aid the investigation.

The Labor Department said it also reported the breach to the Vermont Attorney General’s Office, the Department of Information and Innovation, the Department of Human Resources, the U.S, Department of Labor and the Internal Revenue Service.

The Labor Department said Friday that the criminal investigation is ongoing, but some information is known. The names and social security numbers of 39 people, and an additional 41 social security numbers not associated with names, were in the woman’s possession. The quarterly wage reports of seven people were also improperly accessed, but no Federal Employer Identification Numbers appear to have been involved.

The Vermont State Police are continuing to examine the items seized in the search, including data on the woman’s home computer and from her internet provider, but have not yet identified any transfer of data to other people or entities. As a result, the Vermont Department of Labor said Friday it believes the risk of identity theft is minimal.

All people affected by the data breach will receive a written notice from the department alerting them that their personal information was improperly accessed. The letters, which will be sent out no later than March 28, encourage individuals affected by the unauthorized access to call the Department of Labor if they have questions, check for information posted on the department’s website and to conduct credit monitoring as recommended by the Vermont Attorney General’s Office.

Shumlin says fed exchange possible if latest deadlines missed

MONTPELIER — The Shumlin administration will scrap Vermont Health Connect and pursue joining a federally-run health insurance market later this year if technology upgrades needed for the state site are not working by October, Gov. Peter Shumlin announced Friday.

Shumlin, in an interview Friday, said his administration would legislative language to the House Health Care Committee Friday afternoon that will codify the administration’s contingency plan. Shumlin said he expects the state’s contractor, Optum, to complete the so-called change of circumstance function by the end of May, as well as the necessary technology for individuals to enroll in insurance plans through the website by early October.

Should Optum not deliver, the state will begin pursuing a move to a Federally-Supported State-Based Marketplace for the 2017 open enrollment period, Shumlin said. The federal government provides three exchange marketplace options, all of which use the healthcare.gov web platform and federal call center.

But the FSSBM option would allow states to maintain the most authority over health plans, officials said. A bipartisan group put forth a similar idea earlier this year.

Listen to Gov. Peter Shumlin discuss the plan here.

A full story will appear in Saturday’s editions of the Barre-Montpelier Times Argus and Rutland Herald.

Capitol Beat with the Governor 3-20-15

Play

Gov. Peter Shumlin and Chief of Health Care Reform Lawrence Miller discuss the administration’s new self-imposed deadlines for Vermont Health Connect. Failure to deliver working technology will result in the state pursuing a transition to a federal health insurance exchange.

unnamed

Toxins debate reignited in Senate

MONTPELIER — A host of industry representatives are pushing back against language inserted into a Senate health care bill late last week that would alter a 1-year-old law that looks to regulate toxic products in commercial products.

The Senate Health and Welfare Committee heard testimony from several people Wednesday looking to scrap the language added to S.139 on Friday. It would make changes to Act 188, which was signed into law last year by Gov. Peter Shumlin following an arduous back-and-forth process that was finalized in the waning hours of the previous biennium.

The law created a reporting mechanism for manufacturers that use certain chemicals in children’s products. Beginning in July of next year manufacturers that use chemicals designated by the state as “chemicals of high concern to children” must disclose information about those chemicals to the Department of Health.

It also created the Chemicals of High Concern to Children Working Group that would make recommendations to the commissioner of health about regulating designated chemicals.

But an amendment to S.139 approved by the committee Friday would make significant changes to the law. It would allow the commissioner of health to add chemicals to the list through rule making based on “credible, scientific evidence,” removing language in the law that calls for “the weight of” such evidence to be considered.

Opponents of the change say it could allow a single study to form the basis for regulating a chemical.

It would also change the authority of the working group. Instead of allowing the commissioner of health to adopt rules regulating the sale or distribution of children’s products containing such chemicals “upon the recommendation” of the working group, the commissioner could act “after consultation” with the group. It diminishes the oversight and purpose of the group, which includes members with varying viewpoints.

The amendment would loosen the standard for allowing the commissioner of health to act by changing the threshold from “children will be exposed” to “there is potential for exposure.”

And it also removes language calling for “a probability” that exposure or frequency of exposure to such chemicals could cause or contribute to adverse health impacts before the commission of health could act.

Several industry representatives, including William Driscoll, vice president of Associated Industries of Vermont, testified Wednesday against the changes.

“We are very concerned about the proposed amendments to that statute, even as it is being implemented,” Driscoll said. “We feel that however well-intentioned, the amendments … are unwarranted and actually undermine the statute.”

Allison Crowley DeMag, a lobbyist representing the American Chemistry Council, said the language undermines the process undertaken last year to craft Act 188. The law that was eventually enacted represented a deal, she said, and the amendment seeking to change it would “undue what was a very collaborative effort last session.”

Allison Crowley DeMag

Allison Crowley DeMag

“At the end of the day, everyone in this room, as far as I know, we all gave some, we all won some, but we all came to a deal. Part of that deal was implementing this working group that represented all different types of interests,” she said.

Crowley DeMag urged the committee and others supporting changes to the law to allow the law to be enacted as passed last year.

“The working group hasn’t even been appointed yet and here we are undoing what I thought was a very collaborative effort last session. I’m just really disappointed in the process,” she said. “If the chemical industry had come out and done something like this I know people would be very, very concerned about it. I think that we should just go forward with what we did last session, whether we liked it or not, and just move ahead with the process as it was outlined last session.”

Representatives of IBM and the Personal Care Products Council also testified against the amendment, while representatives from Seventh Generation and Vermont Conservation Voters testified in favor of the changes.

Sen. Ginny Lyons, D-Chittenden, vice chairwoman of the committee, said she is looking to make changes because of potential legislation in Washington that might undercut the state’s ability to regulate chemicals. Changes under consideration to the federal Toxic Substances Control Act could prevent the state from strengthening its law in the future, she said.

“We heard that the Congress is acting on TSCA to make changes which would hold states exactly where they are with respect to chemical regulation, or preempt us altogether, which I hope wouldn’t happen,” she said.

Lyons also said she is looking to enact language the Senate passed last year that was removed by the House before it became law. Because the session was ending, the two chambers did not go to a conference committee and the Senate had to settle for the House version, she said.

“We wanted to approve the language that was passed in the bill last year to ensure that our department of health can do its work,” she said. “This opens a conversation that we were unable to have last year because the bill went right up to the end.”

Driscoll said the there is no need for the state to rush because the changes being considered to the federal law would preempt state actions taken after Jan. 1 of this year. And the federal legislation is not focused on the “procedural matters” addressed in the committee’s new language, he said.

“Arguments that these amendments must be rushed into enactment to avoid federal preemption are without factual basis,” he said.

Others see the issue differently, including VPIRG. Executive Director Paul Burns said there was never a deal in place to pass the law.

Paul Burns

Paul Burns

“Right up until the end the industry lobbyists were opposing it and were opposing the Senate for suspending the rules to take it up. This notion that there was a deal, and certainly a deal that included an understanding that nobody would ever come back to try to change the law, that just doesn’t exist. That’s just a fantasy,” Burns said.

He said the “modest changes” added to S.139 are intended “to make a law that is designed to protect kids from toxic chemicals a little more effective.”

If changes are made to the federal law the state would be prevented from taking any action against chemicals that the federal Environmental Protection Agency considers regulating for a seven year period, Burns said.

“It puts it on list, so seven years later they may decide to regulate or they made decide not to. In all that time we would be prevented from taking any action,” he said.

By acting now, the state may be allowed to continue to regulate chemicals at the state level, depending on what Congress passes, according to Burns.

“That could be grandfathered in … if we could make it happen soon enough,” he said.

There are differences of opinion within the committee’s 5-member ranks. Sen. Dick McCormack, D-Windsor, said he believes the committee’s amendment is “superior to the language that’s in the law.”

However, McCormack also said he believes “a deal is a deal,” and making changes now could hinder future efforts to craft collaborative policy in the future.

“If a deal was made I’m reluctant to just say, ‘Well, it was a bad deal so now we’re going to make a new deal,’” he said. “I’ve got to roll this one around in my mind for a little while.”

Lyons challenged his position.

“So we’d never change a law again? I’m going to push you on that one,” she said.

Lyons said the Senate’s position last year was abandoned because of the time crunch.

“The deal, as it left the Senate, was all consumer products were being regulated. That was a deal I felt very firm about,” she said. “Some of the changes that were made in the House, I think, have been identified here as being problematic.”

First-term Sen. Brian Collamore, R-Rutland, indicated he supports keeping the existing law as is.

“I do think that you had disparate parties brought together. There was concession on both sides, an agreement was reached and Act 188 was passed,” he said. “You haven’t allowed the process to work yet.”

Meanwhile, Sen. Anthony Pollina, P-Washington, indicated his willingness to amend the law. Committee Chairwoman Claire Ayer, D-Addison, was absent Wednesday due to a family emergency.

The committee is expected to make a final decision on whether to seek changes to Act 188 this week.

neal.goswami@timesargus.com

First responders oppose proposal to close dispatch centers

MONTPELIER — A proposal to consolidate the state’s emergency dispatch centers as a way to save money is meeting opposition from the emergency responders themselves.

Tuesday night, more than 100 people filled the House Chamber for a joint hearing of the House and Senate committees on government operations to take testimony on a proposal to close dispatch centers in Rutland and Derby and consolidate their services in Rockingham and Williston.

The proposal, borne out Gov. Peter Shumlin’s State of the State Address in January, would reduce the number of state dispatch centers from four to two, a move projected to save $1.7 million as the state looks to close a $112 budget gap.

The proposal would eliminate approximately 15 of the state’s 71 full-time and 33 temporary emergency dispatchers.

The four dispatch centers handle approximately 75 percent of emergency calls in the state, including 215,000 calls in 2014.

During that time period, the Rutland dispatch center took 38,000 emergency calls, and 65,000 calls total.

The House chamber was filled with both legislators in ties and jackets, and police, firefighters and EMTs in uniform. Prior to the start of the hearing, Rep. Job Tate, R-Mendon, handed out candy Life Savers to the “life savers.”

Crystal Golden, a dispatcher in Rutland, presented a petition with 3,000 signatures from people in opposition to the proposed consolidation, as well as resolutions in opposition to the proposal from a number of towns, including Brandon, Castleton, Chittenden, Killington, Pawlet, Pittsford and Wallingford.

“Please do not put Vermonters’ lives in jeopardy with this ill-conceived proposal,” Golden said.

Donald Chioffi, clerk of the Rutland Town Select Board, where the Rutland dispatch center is located, noted that between the closing of stores at the Diamond Run Mall and the catastrophic fire that closed Rutland Plywood, the town has lost hundreds of jobs during the past year.

“Eliminating those 40 jobs amounts to kicking a community while it’s down,” Chioffi said of the possibility of closing the Rutland dispatch center.

Chioffi, and many others, argued that the loss of a local dispatch center will result in the loss of institutional memory and local knowledge that allows a dispatcher to provide emergency responders with the information needed to best respond to a crisis.

“Lives that otherwise would have been saved will be lost, and property that could have been saved will perish,” said Chioffi, whose thoughts were echoed by Killington Fire Chief Gary Roth.

Roth also heads Killington Search and Rescue, which is frequently called in to find Killington Resort guests who have traveled out of bounds and become lost.

He said the consolidation of the state’s dispatch centers — formally referred to as public safety answering points, or PSAPS — will impact his organizations’ rescue efforts.

“The consolidation of PSAPs will affect my town,” Roth said.
“Their ability to track down people in the back country, getting us to small back roads for fires and emergency for fires and emergency, would be lost.”

Supporters of the consolidation plan, such as Department of Public Safety Commissioner Keith Flynn, have argued that ever-improving technology will allow two dispatch centers to handle the same volume of emergency calls as four dispatch centers.

Lt. Rodney Pulsifer with the Brandon Police Department cautioned against relying on technology so much.

“Technology does fail,” said Pulsifer, himself a former emergency dispatcher. “I know how tense and stressful being a dispatcher will be. It doesn’t make sense, that with the amount of stress that is involved, that you would eliminate positions and put more stress on those people.”