RFK Jr. and Vermont moms make their cases on vaccines

MONTPELIER — A prominent member of the country’s most storied political family testified against the elimination of the state’s philosophical exemption for vaccines Tuesday, accusing the Centers for Disease Control of corruption as he made his case to lawmakers.

Robert F. Kennedy Jr., the son of the slain former U.S. senator, attorney general and presidential candidate, told members of the House Health Care Committee that he supports vaccination. But he said some vaccines that contain thimerosal, a mercury-containing compound in some vaccines, can cause harm in children.

The CDC, Kennedy said, which determines which vaccines children should receive, has not done a proper job of protecting them and has bowed to pressure from pharmaceutical companies. He said the trillion dollar industry spends twice as much on lobbying as any other industry.

“I’m pro-vaccine. I’ve had all six of my kids vaccinated,” Kennedy told the panel. “I think we ought to have state and federal policies that maximize vaccine coverage of the population but I think we have to begin the process by making sure the vaccines are safe, efficacious and that the regulatory agency which recommends vaccines … and monitors them has integrity and credibility and, unfortunately, that is not the case at the moment.”

Robert F. Kennedy Jr. at the Vermont State House on Tuesday, May 5, 2015.

Robert F. Kennedy Jr. at the Vermont State House on Tuesday, May 5, 2015.

Kennedy, who received a raucous standing ovation from some people after completing his testimony, has been an environmental activist for three decades and has worked on the vaccine issue for the past 10 years. He spent most of his 15 minutes before the committee denouncing the CDC’s oversight of vaccines.

“CDC is a troubled agency. There’s been four separate, scathing federal studies about CDC,” he said. “All of them together and separately paint a picture of an agency that has become a cesspool of corruption.”

Kennedy accused the agency of manipulating studies to show that vaccines are more effective than they are, and that they do not cause harm.

“You could design an epidemiological study that shows that cigarettes don’t cause cancer or sex didn’t cause pregnancy. You just get rid of all the pregnant people or you get rid of all the people who have cancer and then you present your study,” he said. “That’s what CDC has been doing with these nine epidemiological studies that they point to.”

He also faulted Congress for creating a “shield” for pharmaceutical companies in 1989 “that suddenly made vaccines very profitable,” causing an increase in the number of recommended vaccines by the CDC.

“When I was a kid the vaccines were not profitable. They were not profit centers for the company. They were almost a civic duty. But now vaccines can add revenue of a billion dollars a year for some of these companies and there is tremendous pressure to add these vaccines to the schedule,” he said. “Most of the people who sit on those committees are vaccine industry insiders. Many of them, if not most of them, have direct financial stakes in the outcome of their decision to add the vaccine to the schedule.”

Robert F. Kennedy Jr. speaks to reporters at the Vermont State House.

Robert F. Kennedy Jr. speaks to reporters at the Vermont State House.

“What’s very difficult is for the people of our country or the parents of Vermont to believe that those decisions are being made exclusively with the health of their children in mind,” Kennedy added.

Kennedy said the philosophical exemption in Vermont and other states is important because other protections and avenues of recourse no longer exist.

“The Congress has taken away jurisdiction in federal and state courts of any case against the vaccine industry so nobody can sue them. There’s no discovery, no depositions, there’s no class actions, there’s no documents,” he said. “All those things that protect us are gone. The only thing left that protects that child from that company, the only barrier standing, is the parent. And now we want tot make the parent away.”

Kennedy told reporters after his testimony that parents should vaccinate their children with mercury-free vaccines.

In Vermont, six vaccines are required for children to attend school, including ones for polio, Hepatitis B, measles and pertussis, according to Christine Finley, the Vermont Department of Health’s Immunization Program chief.

Currently, all 50 states allow medical exemptions. All but two states allow religious exemptions and 19 states have philosophical exemptions. Only Mississippi and West Virginia have neither religious nor philosophical exemptions.

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Vaccine debate heats up with a star witness

MONTPELIER — Action in the House on a bill that seeks to remove the state’s philosophical exemption for vaccines will be delayed until next week while a House Committee takes testimony on the issue.

Dylan Giambatista, chief of staff for Democratic House Speaker Shap Smith, said the House Health Care Committee will take testimony on Tuesday and Wednesday, and possibly Thursday. Currently, the committee is scheduled to hear from state health officials, medical professionals and advocates on both sides of the vaccine issue.

One of those advocates will be Robert F. Kennedy Jr., the son of former presidential candidate, U.S. attorney general and New York. Sen. Bobby Kennedy. Kennedy, who has testified around the country against forced vaccination, is scheduled to meet with Gov. Peter Shumlin Tuesday before providing testimony to the Health Care Committee, according to Kevin Ellis, a Montpelier-based lobbyist working to retain the state’s philosophical exemption.

Robert F. Kennedy Jr.

Robert F. Kennedy Jr.

Kennedy’s views and comments about vaccinations have been somewhat controversial. Last month he compared vaccination to a holocaust. And he has linked vaccinations with autism. The Journal of the American Medical Society has stated there is “no harmful association” between the measles, mumps and rubella vaccine and autism.

Shumlin spokesman Scott Coriell said Monday that Shumlin was asked to meet with Kennedy Tuesday and was told the governor “would probably have time in the afternoon to meet for a few minutes.” That meeting will not be open to the public, according to Coriell, and will not impact Shumlin’s views.

“The only voices that matter to the governor on this debate and any other are those of Vermonters,” he wrote in an email.

Ellis said he does not expect Kennedy’s recent comment to detract from his testimony.

“He’s been right on everything that matters,” Ellis said. “I think he apologized. We all make mistakes in the passion of the moment. He’s an important voice in the debate and it’s a debate that we need to have.”

Advocates in favor of removing the state’s philosophical exemption are also slated to be at the State House Tuesday. A group of Vermont mothers and grandmothers are holding a news conference Tuesday afternoon.

Passionate debate over the issue of vaccine exemptions was reignited earlier this year when Sen. Kevin Mullin, R-Rutland, introduced a bill to remove the right of parents to decline vaccinations for their children for philosophical reasons. It would also prevent students who are not vaccinated from attending school. A medical exemption and a religious exemption would remain.

That bill did not move, but Mullin and others were able to attach legislative language to another bill dealing with a disease registry. The bill, which included removing the philosophical exemption, passed the Senate on an 18 to 11 vote.

Sen. Kevin Mullin

Sen. Kevin Mullin

The bill as amended by the Senate has since languished in the House for nearly two weeks. The House postponed action on it until May 6, but that will now be pushed back further, Giambatista said, to what is expected to be the final week of this legislative session.

“I don’t think it’s going to be this week. It would be next week at the earliest, so it’s going to be down to the wire on the clock,” he said. “We’re trying to do our due diligence and have our opportunity for discussion.”

The Senate passed a similar repeal of the philosophical exemption in 2012, only to see it squashed by the House. Smith, whose wife is a physician, supports repealing the exemption, but it remains unclear if there is enough support in the House to advance it.

“He shares that with both sides on the issue. He is very clear on this issue,” Giambatista said. “The conversation is going to be ongoing.”

The speaker has met with both proponents and opponents of removing the exemption. Both sides will have a chance to testify before the House Health Care Committee this week.

“In terms of support levels, I don’t know. It’s a difficult issue to call because both sides are well-organized,” Giambatista.

Shumlin has been a supporter of keeping the exemption in place, but has indicated a willingness in recent weeks to entertain the debate. Coriell said Monday that Shumlin wants to give the law he signed in 2012 time to work.

That law requires parents or guardians to sign a form from the Heath Department acknowledging they have “reviewed and understands evidence-based educational material provided by the department of health regarding immunizations, including information about the risks of adverse reactions to immunization.”

The law also allows students to remain in school without required vaccines for up to six months if they are in the process of receiving them.

“The governor supports the law he signed two years ago and thinks we should give it a chance to work. If the Legislature wants to debate this issue further, he is open to that debate,” Coriell said.

neal.goswami@timesargus.com

From the Bernie Files: “These politicians are sold like soap…”

Bernard Sanders, c. 1981

Bernard Sanders, c. 1981

We’re looking through the Rutland Herald archives for news clips from Bernie Sanders’ past, and will post the more telling or interesting ones as we find them. One theme that stands out so far is that Bernie Sanders, 1970s Liberty Union Party leader, is not too far off Sen. Bernie Sanders, Independent. They say basically the same thing.
From an article by Rutland Herald reporter Barney Crosier, published on Nov. 7, 1976, which was based on an interview Sanders gave to a local Springfield radio station:

“…he said a major goal of the Liberty Union when it gets the governor’s chair will be to involve ordinary working people, those with low incomes, and the elderly, in the decisions of state government.
“”We’d be delighted to ask 50,000 people to come to Montpelier to say what they think about a system that robs people blind,” he offered.
He claimed the working person, at a job 40, 50 or 60 hours a week, doesn’t have time to go to Montpelier and can’t afford to have an attorney represent him there.
Sanders contended the people of the state are beginning to see through the election process, in which the Liberty Union candidate says a candidate can spend $100,000 and “buy” the election.
“These politicians are sold like soap,” he added. And it doesn’t matter how dumb they are.”
Sanders chided past administrations for their decision to spend time and money luring tourists to Vermont, saying it was a good way to get Vermont working people jobs at the minimum wage, making beds for tourists.
He also hit at the move of General Electric Co. from Ludlow to Rutland, saying the people of Rutland had to pay for water service to the new plant site, thuse subsidizing one of the nation’s rich corporations, of which the major stockholder is Chase Manhattan Bank.”

All this came after he claimed Vermont was a two-party state, as there was little to no difference between the Democrat and Republican parties, leaving the Liberty Union as the opposition.

Sanders makes his case on ‘This Week’

Sen. Bernie Sanders made his first appearance on a Sunday morning talk this past weekend as a declared presidential candidate. Vermont’s independent junior senator defended his brand of democratic socialism to ABC’s This Week host George Stephanopoulos. Watch his full appearance below.


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Sanders donors respond to campaign announcement

WASHINGTON (AP) — Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders says he has raised $1.5 million online in the first day since launching his Democratic presidential campaign.

The independent senator says he has received contributions from 35,000 donors, and more than 100,000 people have signed up on his website.

Sanders filed papers to run for president on Thursday, becoming the first major challenger to enter the race against Hillary Rodham Clinton. She opened her campaign earlier this month.

Clinton is heavily favored but Sanders has positioned himself as a liberal who intends to promote economic and environmental issues and oppose contentious trade legislation.

Sanders plans to make stops Saturday in New Hampshire, the home of the nation’s first presidential primary. It will be his 10th trip to New Hampshire in the past year.

Shumlin signs new gun law

MONTPELIER — Gov. Peter Shumlin privately signed new gun legislation Friday afternoon without any fanfare and announced the move in a statement.

The new law, which passed the Legislature as S.141, creates a new misdemeanor state-level crime for possession of firearms by people with certain criminal convictions. The law also requires the reporting of names to a federal database when people are found by a court to be in need of mental health treatment and a danger to themselves or others.

Shumlin had spent much of this legislative session resisting and new gun laws, saying Vermont’s current laws were sufficient. But a controversial element — expanded background laws for all gun sales — was stripped from an earlier version of the legislation. That was enough to secure his signature.

“Vermonters know that I feel that Vermont’s gun laws make sense for our state. We in Vermont have a culture of using guns to care for and manage our natural resources in a respectful way that has served us well,” the governor said in a statement. “The bill delivered to me today is a shadow of the legislation that I objected to at the beginning of the legislative session. It makes common sense changes, similar to the ones that I supported to prohibit guns on school grounds, and that is why I signed it.”

Gun rights groups that initially opposed the bill, including the Vermont Federation of Sportsmens Clubs, dropped their objections after the legislation was scaled back.

Just hours earlier on Friday, Shumlin told the Vermont Press Bureau in an interview that his office had not yet received the bill and he had not thought about whether there would be a public signing ceremony. He declared his intention to sign the bill in an interview with the Vermont Press Bureau a week ago.

Shumlin’s office received the bill around 11 a.m. along with three other pieces of legislation awaiting the governor’s signature, according to staff. The office then sought out Rep. Sam Young, D-Glover, to be present for the signing because of the passionate speech he delivered on the House floor in favor of the bill.

Senate President Pro Tem John Campbell, D-Windsor, an original sponsor of the legislation, nor any of the other original Senate sponsors, were present. Campbell said Friday he was disappointed in the way Shumlin treated the signing.

“I am very, very disappointed on behalf of myself and the other senators who worked very hard to pass that bill that he didn’t have the common decency to alert us that he was going to sign that bill, No. 1, and, No. 2, that he didn’t invite anyone from the Senate to be there,” Campbell said.

Shumlin defends late budget push

MONTPELIER — Gov. Peter Shumlin said Friday he is asking lawmakers to cut an additional $10 million from the budget because they have rejected his proposal to institute a payroll tax to help pay for Medicaid costs.

Shumlin summoned the chairs of Senate money committees Wednesday — one day before the Senate took up the annual budget bill — to tell them they needed to cut more and tax less. The move frustrated lawmakers who are grinding toward adjournment, which is to come in mid-May.

On Thursday, administration officials presented a list of $8 million in further cuts to the Senate Appropriations Committee and made clear the third-term Democrat did not favor their tax plans.

Gov. Peter Shumlin speaks at a recent State House news conference.

Gov. Peter Shumlin speaks at a recent State House news conference.

“I really feel strongly that the tax packages being contemplated in this building will hurt our economy and hurt Vermonters,” Shumlin said in an interview with the Vermont Press Bureau on Friday. “I believe that the current budget framework needs to cut more and tax less.”

At the heart of the matter, Shumlin said, is how lawmakers have chosen to fund Medicaid case loads, which expanded under the federal Affordable Care Act to the tune of $16 million. The governor’s budget proposal used a 0.7 percent payroll tax on Vermont businesses to raise $90 million to cover that cost as well as to boost payments to Medicaid providers.

Lawmakers have rejected that, however, and funded Medicaid case loads through various taxes. But Shumlin, while now acknowledging his plan is unlikely, wants lawmakers to cut deeper rather than raise taxes.

“That idea has been an uphill slog and it looks like it’s possible that it may not come to fruition,” he said. “Unless they suddenly … see the light, which doesn’t seem extraordinarily likely, but I’m still hopeful, we have a $16 million budget challenge that we didn’t have, that we had taken care of.”

Shumlin said his proposal created an ongoing, dedicated source for Medicaid. Lawmakers, meanwhile, have created a host of new taxes to balance the general fund, he said.

“They want to take away your home mortgage deduction because you bought a home, they want to take away your charitable deduction because you want to support charities in your community, they want to take away the catastrophic health care deduction,” he said. “They want to tax soda and everything else with sugar in it because they say that drinking that stuff isn’t healthy for you, which it probably isn’t, but they also want to tax water. Tax water? Really? I thought you just said you shouldn’t drink sugary things, now they’re saying we’re going to tax water.”

Lawmakers are not amused with the governor’s late push to adjust their work. House Majority Leader Sarah Copeland Hanzas, D-Bradford, noted that lawmakers used the same amount of new revenue to support the general fund as Shumlin did in his proposal, but their challenge was even greater since the state saw an additional $18 million revenue downgrade after his budget address.

“We closed the $113 million budget gap with the same $35 million that the governor closed his $94 million gap. The same amount, not the same kind of revenue. So, to have the governor suggest that we are spending too much and raising too much in taxes is really perplexing,” she said. “I don’t know where they’re doing their math, but $35 million is $35 million.”

Rep. Sarah Copeland Hanzas

Rep. Sarah Copeland Hanzas

Hanzas said the governor should have made his pitch earlier — before the House passed its budget and sent it to the Senate.

“Where were you on Jan. 20 because it’s three months later and we’ve been through the painful process of vetting all of our painful priorities,” she said. “We would have appreciated them in January, not so much now.”

House Appropriations Committee Chairwoman Rep. Mitzi Johnson, D-South Hero, echoed that sentiment.

“It’s frustrating that he’s had opportunities for the last three months to weigh in on the budget and we don’t have a balanced budget proposal from him. He’s choosing to sort of nit-pick at different things,” Johnson said.

Both Johnson and House Speaker Shap Smith said Friday that the House-passed budget does fully fund the Medicaid case loads, but does not do it the way Shumlin sought.

Shumlin dismissed criticism of his timing, saying previous governors have also pushed for priorities late in the process.

“I don’t know where they’ve been. I’ve served under [Former Gov. Howard] Dean, [former Gov. Jim] Douglas, and I cannot remember as a legislative leader right before we’ve passed the budget not having the governor sit down with us and explain their concerns about budget and taxes. That’s what governors do. So, I understand it’s a time of year where folks get emotional,” Shumlin said.

Late-season requests are part of the budget process, Shumlin said.

“Folks get frustrated this time of year, I understand that, and I’m sympathetic to it. I’ve been on both sides of it in the governor’s office and the legislative leadership end of it,” he said. “The only thing I want to point out is this is not unusual and we shouldn’t be fearing frustration we should be fearing raising taxes on Vermonters at a time when they’re having a difficult time paying their bills, and we should be fearing passing a budget that isn’t sustainable for the years going forward.”

“I believe that my judgement is correct. We should cut $10 million more from the budget and not raise taxes on Vermonters by that $10 million,” Shumlin added.

The Senate appeared ready Friday to reject most of the $8 million in cuts the governor proposed this week. A $1.3 million savings pharmacy costs looked likely, but bigger ticket items, including an additional $2.8 million in labor savings on top of the $10.8 million Shumlin previously requested, appeared to lack support.

neal.goswami@timesargus.com

Capitol Beat with the Governor 5-1-15

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Gov. Peter Shumlin chats with Vermont Press Bureau chief Neal Goswami about his budget disagreements with lawmakers.

Shumlin steps into Senate budget process

MONTPELIER — The Shumlin administration is pushing back against the Senate’s budget plan as the chamber prepares to take it up on the floor Thursday.

“Less spending and fewer taxes,” Gov. Peter Shumlin said Thursday morning.

Administration officials were preparing to meet with the Senate Appropriations Committee Thursday morning to discuss further cuts and ease back some of the tax increases included in the Senate’s budget and tax bills.

“There’s not a set number for anything,” Secretary of Administration Justin Johnson said. “This is not an uncommon conversation for the end of the legislative session.”

A House-passed budget bill closes a $113 million projected gap in the 2016 fiscal year budget. It uses $53 million in spending cuts, $35 million in new revenue and about $25 million in one-time funds to balance the budget.

The Senate version balances the budget in a similar way.

But Shumlin is not pleased with the direction lawmakers have chosen.

“He’s not loving all the revenue. We think that in order to keep taxes down — tax increases down — we have to have a budget that’s as efficient as possible,” Johnson said. “We know that our growth is forecast over the next few years to be around 3 (percent) and the expenditures have been around 5 (percent). We’d like to get them under 5. It’s not a problem you’re going to solve all at once but one that we can solve over time

Johnson said the administration’s late-stage interest in negotiating different terms in the budget and tax bills is not out of the ordinary.

“It’s just sort of putting some pressure back on to make sure we do the best we can,” he said.

House votes to maintain safeguards, fends off repeal of Act 39

MONTPELIER — The Vermont House on Wednesday voted to maintain safeguards in place under the state’s aid-in-dying law after defeating an effort to repeal it entirely.

On a 83 to 60 vote, the chamber defeated an amendment by independent Barre Rep. Paul Poirier to repeal Act 39, which was signed into law in 2013. The law allows terminally ill patients to receive a prescription for lethal medication.

Any patient seeking to take advantage of the law must live in Vermont and have a prognosis of less than six months to live. A doctor must also find that the patient has the capacity to make the decision to obtain the medication voluntarily.

Some provisions, however, are set to expire in July 2016 if the law is not amended. Among those are that a second doctor must concur on the prognosis, and a doctor must tell the patient in person and in writing about the nature of the diagnosis and effects of the lethal medication.

Also set to expire is a requirement that the patient must make two oral requests for the lethal drug at least 15 days apart followed by a written request with two witnesses attesting that it was made voluntarily.

Those protections built into the law are scheduled to expire because two former senators had made that a condition of their support for the law.

The House voted by voice Wednesday, after defeating Poirier’s amendment, to repeal the sunset and maintain the safeguards. The Senate approved the measure last month after fending off similar efforts to repeal the underlying law.

Poirier said Wednesday his objection to the law is philosophical.

“I don’t believe that the state of Vermont, as a government, has the right to take away the life of another human being,” he said on the floor in support of his amendment. “State sponsored end of life measures could lead us to a very, very slippery slope. Where does it end?”

Poirier said the state’s palliative care options have improved. He said all 14 hospitals in the state, as well as the Vermont Veterans Home and most nursing homes, have approved policies disallowing the aid-in-dying option for patients in their care.

“We live in a society where we respect life. We respect life even for those who are suffering,” Poirier said.

Rep. Anne Donahue, R-Northfield, was more forceful in her attacks on what she labeled an “incredibly badly written law.”

She said most of the protections originally considered by the Legislature in 2013 were whittled away to secure the support of enough lawmakers to pass it. Among the things tossed aside, she said, were most data gathering and reporting requirements.

“How, today, can we say it’s working as intended?” Donahue said. “We don’t have the information.”

Rep. Sandy Haas, P-Rochester, said the House Human Services Committee amended the Senate version of the bill to require more data gathering and reporting. Under the changes, which the House approved Wednesday, the Department of Health will be able to identify which patients fill prescriptions under the law. And beginning in 2018, it will have to generate a biennial statistical report of information collected.

“We believe that this will increase public confidence that the law is being properly followed,” Haas said.

Donahue further charged that doctors were being shamed into participating in the voluntary program and patients are being bullied into requesting the medication. She also said the law lacks an informed consent provision.

“It is a myth that doctors and other providers do not have to participate in any way if they don’t want to and it is a myth that patients are not being pressured to consider using a prescription,” she said.

Haas, meanwhile, said state law already requires informed consent for all health care decisions so it was not necessary to include it in Act 39. And no complaints have been filed with the attorney general’s office or the Department of Health, she said.

The legislation is up for final approval in the House on Thursday. Additional amendments are expected.

neal.goswami@timesargus.com

Sanders sounds alarm on GOP budget

MONTPELIER — Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders warned governors in all 50 states Monday of pending cuts headed their way if a GOP spending plan being negotiated this week by House and Senate conferees is approved.

In separate letters to each state, the independent Sanders, ranking member on the Senate Budget Committee, characterized the potential cuts as ‘devastating.” He said they would impact working families, the elderly, the sick, the poor and children.

“It is an embarrassingly disastrous document,” Sanders said of the budget proposal in a telephone interview Monday.

According to Sanders, who is mulling a run for president to promote progressive ideals, Vermont could face dire consequences under the House and Senate budget resolutions that outline federal spending for the next decade. House and Senate conferees were working Monday to reconcile differences between the two chambers and are expected to reach agreement early this week.

Sen. Bernie Sanders

Sen. Bernie Sanders

Among the potential impacts in Vermont that Sanders outlined in his letter to Democratic Gov. Peter Shumlin are:

— 32,000 people could lose health coverage
— 5,000 jobs could be lost as a result of cuts to education, transportation and other programs
— Cuts to Pell grants could lead to higher tuition for 12,000 college students
— Investments for roads and bridges could be reduced by as much as $261 million

The cuts to programs and services that serve the poor “will be devastating for the middle class and working families of our country,” Sanders wrote in his letter.

“At a time of massive income and wealth inequality the Republican budget will make the very rich even richer, while causing increased pain and suffering for the middle class and the most vulnerable people in our state as a result of draconian cuts to important programs,” Sanders wrote.

Similar letters were sent to the other 49 governors outlining potential cuts in their states.

“I will do my best to see that (the budget plan) is defeated and I hope that some of these governors that we have written to will weigh in on this discussion,” Sanders said.

The GOP spending plan looks to “terminate” the Affordable Care Act, commonly known as Obamacare, and cut $40 billion from Medicaid over the next 10 years, according to Sanders. Doing so, he said, would mean a loss of health coverage for millions.

“They’re just going to throw another 27 million people off of health insurance with no plan to address that. None,” the senator said. “That will be a disaster for states who will have to figure out what to do. There is no question that people will die as a result of that.”

The plan that the GOP is finalizing drops a previous proposal to institute a voucher system for Medicare that would provide the elderly with subsidies to purchase private insurance.

Sanders also decried a nearly 100 billion cut to Pell grants for college students, cuts to nutrition programs and the elimination of the estate tax, which he said would provide about $270 billion in relief to the richest 0.2 percent of Americans over the next 10 years.

“It is a budget that is so bad that I think it’s hard for people to believe it’s true, but it is,” Sanders said.

Shumlin released a statement Monday expressing confidence that the state’s congressional delegation will advocate for a budget that serves Vermont well.

“As Senator Sanders outlines, the effects of federal budget decisions on Vermont are real and will have an impact on the services Vermonters rely on,” the governor said. “As we await the final budget from Washington, we do so knowing that we have fighting for us on the Budget Committee one of America’s greatest champions for the middle class in Bernie Sanders. Combined with Senator Patrick Leahy and Congressman Peter Welch, Vermont is well represented in Washington by the best Congressional Delegation in America.”

The budget resolution provides a broad spending plan but does not actually appropriate funds. Its passage would pave the way for spending bills that do appropriate funds to advance.

Sanders said he will look to prevent such spending bills from passing.

“I will certainly do everything I can to urge the president to veto any piece of legislation that comes out that has this framework in it,” he said. “Whether the president vetoes it or not, that’s another story. I certainly hope he will.”

According to Sanders, the impacts he identified are based on an evaluation of House and Senate versions of the budget resolutions by the Office of Management and Budget, the Economic Policy Institute and the Institution of Taxation and Economic Policy. Some data was generated based on projections from the Census Bureau and the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services.

neal.goswami@timesargus.com

Read Sanders’ letter to Gov. Peter Shumlin below:

Lawmakers look to retirement bonuses to save the state money

MONTPELIER — The Shumlin administration has proposed a retirement incentive package for state employees that could save the state $2.5 million, providing most of the retirees are not replaced.

Monday morning, the Senate Appropriations Committee reviewed a proposal that would offer financial bonus to as many as 300 employees who are already eligible to retire, with the goal of leaving 75 percent of those positions vacant after the employees retire.

The offer would be open to employees who are at least 62 years old and have put in at least 5 years of service; employees with at least 30 years of service; and employees whose age and years of service totals 87 or more.

The proposal would pay employees who have worked at least 5 years and less than 15 years a bonus of $750 for every year worked. Employees who have 15 or more years would receive $1,000 for every year worked.

Bonuses would be capped at $15,000 per employee and would be paid out either in one lump sum or in two payments, with no additional money for employees who choose to take two payments.

Currently, there are 915 state employees who are eligible for the incentives. The proposal would cap the maximum number of people who could take advantage of the incentives at 300. If more than 300 workers want to take the retirement bonus, the state will hold a lottery.

Committee Chairwoman Jane Kitchel, D-Caledonia, asked why the offer isn’t being made to employees who have been with the state the longest. Sec. of Administration Justin Johnson said the state needs to be very careful not to give the appearance of engaging in any behavior that could be construed as age discrimination.

Sen. Richard McCormack, D-Windsor, questioned the message some people might take from a proposal that ultimately looks to reduce the state’s work force by as many as 225 employees.

“Are we assuming their work was not being done efficiently?” McCormack asked. ““Either we’re saying these people weren’t pulling their weight in the first place, or their work was not essential.”

The retirement proposal is part of a plan by administration to save $10.8 million in state employee costs, one possible step to close the state’s $113 million budget gap. Shumlin has proposed reopening the state employee contract for renegotiation, a move opposed by the employees’ union.

The administration has warned that failing to reopen the contract could result in hundreds of layoffs, but on Monday, Johnson said that is not what the administration wants.

“It’s important that we don’t do across-the-board cookie-cutter cuts,” Johnson said.

Steve Howard, executive director of the Vermont State Employees Association, said the proposal — which could reduce the number of employee layoffs to fewer than 50 — has the support of his organization..

“We brought the issue of voluntary retirement incentives to the table for negotiation with the Shumlin administration,” Howard said. “While were not thrilled that we might see 300 fewer positions, we like the idea that this might result in fewer (layoffs).”

State Treasurer Beth Pearce warned that savings from offering retirement bonuses will only be found with a commitment to leave unfilled the positions vacated by the retiring employees.

In 2009, the state offered retirement bonuses to employees under a system that Johnson said “mirrors” the current proposal. A total of 243 people took advantage of the incentives.

However, that proposal was coupled with the plan to leave one-third — or 81 — of the positions unfilled. Instead, during the next four years, the state added 543 positions, according to Pearce.

Sen. Diane Snelling, R-Chittenden, referred to the 2009 round of retirements as “disruptive.”

“Will we ever get to the point when we have the right number of employees in the right places?” Snelling asked.

Capitol Beat 4-27-15

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Vermont Press Bureau chief Neal Goswami and VPB reporter Josh O’Gorman talk about the developments last week in the State House, including education, health care, vaccines and gun legislation.

Capitol Beat with the Governor 4-24-15

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Gov. Peter Shumlin and Vermont Press Bureau chief Neal Goswami discuss competing health care plans, the governor’s intention to sign gun legislation and the merits of lowering the state’s sales tax by expanding it to services.

Shumlin says he will sign gun bill

MONTPELIER — Gov. Peter Shumlin said Friday he intends to sign a gun bill passed by both chambers after it is reviewed by his administration’s legal team.

Shumlin, a third-term Democrat, had remained noncommittal through Friday on whether he would sign the measure that cleared its final legislative hurdle on Thursday. The bill awaiting the governor’s signature makes it a crime at the state level for some convicts to possess a firearm. It also requires that the state report to a federal database the names of people found by a court to be mentally ill and a danger to themselves or others.

The Senate concurred Thursday with changes to S.141 made by the House that removed a waiting period of 18 months for those reported to the federal database to apply to have their names removed. The waiting period was a concern, according to Shumlin, who said Friday he was glad to see it removed.

After review Shumlin said he intends to sign the bill.

“I always like to read the bills and make sure that what I’ve been told is actually in there. But, if what I have been told is in that bill I will sign it,” Shumlin said in an interview Friday. “We always have our lawyers review them.”

The bill is a far cry from what was initially proposed. The original legislation, backed strongly by Gun Sense Vermont, included an expansion of federal background checks. Gun rights advocates turned out in force to a public hearing and the background check provision was scuttled.

But advocates of the legislation were able to keep the bill’s other components alive and guide it through the legislative process. In the end, one of the groups that opposed the bill most, the Vermont Federation of Sportsmens Clubs, the National Rifle Association’s state affiliate, dropped its objections.

Shumlin said the bill was scaled back enough for him to drop his own objections.

“I am very happy that the bill is a shadow of the bill that I objected to in the beginning. [Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Dick] Sears and others took out the parts that I really objected to. I think, now, most reasonable people would agree that it makes some common sense changes, similar to the kind of changes that I voted for when we didn’t allow … folks to take guns to schools,” the governor said.

While Gun Sense Vermont has indicated they view the legislation as a first step, Shumlin said he is no hurry to revisit the debate on expanded background checks.

“I feel that Vermont’s gun laws serve us well. I’d probably feel differently if I was the mayor of Chicago or the mayor of New York where you have all kinds of challenges. But, we in Vermont have a culture of using guns to manager our natural resources. We have a culture of hunting and caring for our natural resources that has served us well. We have a traditional respect for guns,” Shumlin said. “It’s different in a small rural state where you have a culture like Vermonters where we take care of each other, look out for each other. So that’s just what I feel and you’re not going to change my feelings.”

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

neal.goswami@timesargus.com