Paid sick leave bill languishes in committee

MONTPELIER — With two weeks to go before the Legislature’s crossover deadline, a House bill that would mandate paid sick leave for employers remains on the back burner without any immediate plan to consider it.

Rep. Tristan Toleno, D-Brattleboro, introduced legislation that would require employers to allow workers to accrue paid sick time. It was touted by Toleno and advocates as a compromise compared to a Senate version that did not include some of the transition measures in the House bill.

Toleno’s bill establishes a standard of paid leave workers can earn, but includes a 500-hour waiting period for employees before the benefit kicks in. That amounts to about three months of full-time work. It also phases in the benefit at a slower rate than previous legislative efforts, allowing employees to earn up to three days of sick time in the first two years, increasing to five days after that.

The idea of mandating that businesses allow workers to accrue paid sick time has had trouble gaining traction with lawmakers in recent years. Many have been reluctant to foist a new burden on Vermont’s small businesses. Advocates were hopeful that Toleno’s bill would ease opposition from the business community.

Rep. Helen Head

Rep. Helen Head

But it continues to languish in the House General, Housing and Military Affairs Committee. It’s chairwoman, Rep. Helen Head, D-South Burlington, said it’s unclear if it will be taken up.

“There’s been no decision made about that,” she said.

In order for the bill to advance this year it will need to clear the House by the March 13 crossover deadline. With lawmakers on a week-long break next week for Town Meeting day, time is rapidly ticking away. And at the moment, there is no plan to take it up after the break.

“It’s not on our schedule for the week after break,” Head said. “I know that there are a lot of people that have interest in it in the building that are talking to me and various other committee members.”

Head said she will poll members of her committee before deciding what to do.

“I get input from each of the members both individually and sometimes as a group as well, and I also hear from members outside the committee as well,” she said. “I think that the stakeholders that are in favor of it appear to be broader and stronger than they have been in previous years.”

Toleno said he remains hopeful that the committee will consider the legislation. So far, he said legislative leaders and Head have made a “pragmatic choice” to focus on big picture issues like the budget.

“I think that people who’ve been here for a while are thinking that the particular challenges that are involved in trying to shift a structural deficit in the budget are forcing some pretty deep work and some deep rethinking and it’s just taking up the bandwidth,” he said. “We’re sort of in a phase now where that work is coming to a head and maybe there will be some space in the near term for people to really look out and see what else is on the landscape.”

Rep. Tristan Toleno

Rep. Tristan Toleno

Toleno said he and advocates who support the bill are still working to advance the bill.

“Whether it will move forward is out of may hands,” he said. “I am actively encouraging my party’s leadership and the committee’s leadership to find a path forward for the bill. I think there is strong interest in the building and outside the building for a conversation about what a pragmatic middle ground looks like.”

Still, Toleno said he acknowledges the challenges.

“Making crossover seems hard at this point considering they haven’t had the testimony, so I wouldn’t expect … that to suddenly materialize. I would welcome it if it did, but we’ll see what happens,” he said.

neal.goswami@timesargus.com

Capitol Beat 2-27-15 with Pro Tem John Campbell

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Senate President Pro Tem John Campbell sits down with Vermont Press Bureau Chief Neal P. Goswami to discuss the legislative session, the state budget and guns.

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Senate President Pro Tem John Campbell records Capitol Beat

List of $29 million in potential budget cuts revealed

MONTPELIER — A list of potential budget cuts totaling about $29 million was revealed Thursday by the Shumlin administration and key lawmakers that may be used to help close a budget gap in the 2016 fiscal year that has grown larger during this legislative session.

The list of cuts, characterized by Finance Commissioner Jim Reardon as a list of “brainstorming ideas,” includes far-fetched ideas such as reducing the 150-member House to 120 members. It also includes painful reductions to the state’s online health insurance marketplace and premium subsidies that many Vermonters rely on.

Rep. Mitzi Johnson

Rep. Mitzi Johnson

The list, revealed at a House Appropriations Committee meeting Thursday afternoon, prompted Chairwoman Rep. Mitzi Johnson, D-South Hero, to note that lawmakers and the administration would need to take a “good, hard look at a lot of our loyalties and core values.”

“I just want to acknowledge how incredibly difficult this is,” she said.

The list, which also includes the possibility of closing the Vermont Veterans Home in Bennington, was compiled by administration officials including Reardon and Secretary of Administration Justin Johnson, as well as Johnson, Senate Appropriations Committee Chairwoman Jane Kitchel, D-Caledonia, and analysts with the Joint Fiscal Office.

Rep. Mitzi Johnson, D-South Hero, left, listens as Secretary of Administration Justin Johnson, right, speaks at a committee hearing Thursday.

Rep. Mitzi Johnson, D-South Hero, left, listens as Secretary of Administration Justin Johnson, right, speaks at a committee hearing Thursday.

The legislative session kicked off early last month, when the projected budget gap in the 2016 fiscal year budget was $94 million. But a revenue downgrade just weeks later made it balloon to at least $112 million. It could grow even more if lawmakers do not sign off on Gov. Peter Shumlin’s proposed 0.7 payroll tax on Vermont businesses, which would funnel some of the revenue generated to cover the $16 million needed to pay for the expansion of Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act.

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

See the full list of potential budget cuts below:

Shumlin signs new law aimed at sex offenders

MONTPELIER – Gov. Peter Shumlin signed into law on Wednesday legislation that enhances reporting requirements for sex offenders when they are released from prison.

The new law, introduced by House Judiciary Committee Chairwoman Rep. Maxine Grad, D-Moretown, requires sex offenders to report to the Department of Public Safety Sex Offender Registry before they are released from prison. Offenders previously had up to three days after their release to report information about their intended residence. The Department of Corrections could not compel an offender to provide such information before release.

The law also requires sex offenders to report to the Sex Offender Registry within 24 hours of being released from probation, parole, furlough or a supervised community sentence.

Gov. Peter Shumlin signs H.16 in to law.

Gov. Peter Shumlin signs H.16 in to law.

“This is common sense legislation that will make our communities and state a safer place for everyone,” Shumlin said. “I want to thank Rep. Grad and Sen. [Dick] Sears [D-Bennington] as well as the House and Senate Judiciary Committees for their hard work on this legislation.”

Grad said the law will ease concerns for communities and victims when sex offenders are released.

“This law makes offenders accountable and provides communities with vital information about where an offender intends to live prior to his or her release,” Grad said. “This change from the three days given for notification is significant. Those can be three very long days for a victim and her community.”

The law took effect immediately and applies to offenders currently sentenced for qualifying crimes and those sentenced after enactment.

House committees compete for gas tax revenue

MONTPELIER — The House Transportation Committee is in a holding pattern as it tries to figure out how to deal with declining revenues in a gas tax based on the price of the fuel.

Members discussed various ways to deal with a $6.6 million gap facing the transportation fund Wednesday, including adjusting the Transportation Infrastructure Bond Fund, or TIB, to help bring in more revenue. Committee Chairman Rep. Patrick Brennan, R-Colchester, said the fund, launched in 2009, is bringing in less revenue as prices at the pump fall.

The fund is filled with a 2 percent assessment on the retail price of gasoline and a 3 cent per gallon assessment on diesel fuel. Brennan said those rates worked well when the fund was launched and gasoline was more than $3.80 per gallon. The average price of gasoline per gallon in Vermont is now $2.40.

Rep. Patrick Brennan

Rep. Patrick Brennan

“We’re not doing that well,” Brennan said. “The whole hole we’re facing right here, $6.6 million, is from the TIB.”

The $6.6 million projected shortfall was based on a gasoline price of $2.80 per gallon, however, so the gap is expected to grow.

“I would guess we’ll be up to ($8 million) by the time the next revenue forecast comes out,” Brennan said.

Adjusting the TIB would close the gap, but Brennan said the committee is essentially paralyzed until it is determined how a water quality bill out of the House Fish and Wildlife Committee will be funded. If it is partially funded by a 2 cent per gallon increase in the state’s regular gasoline tax, which typically only funds transportation costs, then the House Transportation Committee will likely scrap any plan to raise revenue through the TIB.

“They’ve got a big water quality bill that the governor has touted and now they’re implementing it and trying to find funding for it to the tune of $14 million,” he said. “They put the 2 cents in there.”

The 2 cent per gallon increase Fish and Wildlife may seek would raise $6.3 million. But that would effectively kill any political will to raise additional funds through the TIB, according to Brennan.

“I’m not raising two gas taxes in the same year,” he said. “There’s no appetite.”

In that case, the Transportation Committee will look to make cuts to transportation projects.

“If that flies, there’s no way we’re even going to talk about it in here,” Brennan told the committee. “These cuts will be real. It will be a fact of life at that point.”

Committee Vice Chairman Rep. David Potter, D-North Clarendon, said the committee will eventually need to address a long-term problem if gas prices remain low.

“The way I see it it’s a festering sore that doesn’t go away. We’re going to do this exercise into the future,” Potter said. “It’s not a popular thing but it’s the right thing to do to maintain our infrastructure.”

Rep. Herb Russell, D-Rutland, said the committee, if it seeks more revenue through the TIB, would be asking Vermonters to pay back a small amount of the savings they’ve seen at the pump.

“Perfect time to sell it. I don’t have any problem with it,” he said.

For now, however, the committee plans to wait and see if the water quality bill will seek funding through the gas tax.

“I think we’re in a wait and see mode,” said Rep. Timothy Corcoran II, D-Bennington, the committees ranking member. “We’ve got to see how it plays out.”

neal.goswami@timesargus.com

Capitol Beat: Press Bureau talks education with Jill Remick

Capitol Beat

Neal Goswami and Josh O’Gorman talk education with Jill Remick of the Agency Education. The legislature is considering several aspects of education reform, primarily changes to educational districts, and Remick, the agency’s  director of communications and legislative affairs, speaks about existing local consolidation efforts, potential changes to the law, and the goals of the Agency of Education.

 

Consideration of child protection law delayed a day

MONTPELIER — Legislation aimed at boosting the state’s child protection laws was pulled from the Senate floor Tuesday to allow senators more time to understand the bill.

Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Dick Sears, D-Bennington, requested the one-day delay in order answer persistent questions from constituents about the bill’s contents. It’s undergone several changes since the Legislature reconvened in early January.

A special legislative panel, the Committee on Child Protection, was formed last year after the deaths of 2-year-old Dezirae Sheldon, of Poultney, in February 2014, and 15-month-old Peighton Geraw, of Winooski, in April 2014. Both were ruled homicides, and murder charges have been filed against family members.

The panel spent the summer and fall holding hearings and ultimately drafted S.9, a comprehensive bill to address issues in Vermont that were identified after hearing from dozens of witnesses. The legislation has been changed throughout the course of the legislative session to address concerns with the original proposal.

Sen. Dick Sears

Sen. Dick Sears

But those changes have not been made clear to the public, or have been misconstrued, Sears, who serves as co-chairman of the special legislative panel, said at a caucus Tuesday. He said he pulled the bill Tuesday to address those questions at the caucus. The bill is now expected to be up for preliminary approval on Wednesday.

“Somehow, in this building, frequently, things are misconstrued,” he told fellow lawmakers.

At issue is the creation of a felony crime that carries a 10-year prison term. The “failure to protect” proposal would make it a felony if a parent or caregiver failed to protect a child. Sears said it would enhance a similar misdemeanor crime already on the books in Vermont.

The new law would apply to people if a person “knows or reasonably should have known” that a child was in danger of suffering death, serious bodily injury or sexual abuse. People could be held criminally liable if they fail to take action to prevent such danger or if their failure to act was a cause of harm to child.

The proposed felony law was included at the behest of Attorney General William Sorrell.

“A lot of testimony, particularly from the attorney general in the summer and fall, focused on Vermont’s lack of a law called failure to protect. Twenty-nine other states have failure to protect statutes,” Sears said. “As introduced, admittedly, the section of failure to protect a child was very broad. The new crime would only apply to a carefully limited range of conduct.”

Sears said Tuesday that his committee has “substantially narrowed the scope of the crime and added affirmative defenses.” The law is modeled after one in place in Hawaii, and the affirmative defenses against the law were added to help prevent abuse of the law.

The legislation originally included references to illness and pain in the section pertaining to the proposed felony. That language caused blowback from a range of people, included those who thought it might create criminal liability for parents who opt to skip vaccinations for their children under existing exemptions in Vermont law.

Sears said the legislation now provides for situations where a parent or caregiver “makes a reasonable decision not to provide medical care or treatment.”

“That’s an affirmative defense. Some want a specific statement against vaccinations in there that the failure to vaccinate would not result in a conviction,” he said.

Sears said the language included in the bill protects the rights of parents who do not want to vaccinate their children.

“Could a state’s attorney charge somebody? I suppose anything is possible, but pretty highly unlikely,” he said. “It’s certainly not the intent here to have somebody who fails to vaccinate their child and then gets measles to be charged with a felony.”

Sen. Claire Ayer, D-Addison, the chairwoman of the Senate Health and Welfare Committee and co-chairwoman of the Committee on Child Protection, said her committee recommended removing the references to illness and pain after receiving messages from constituents concerned that the bill would take away their rights.

Sen. Claire Ayer

Sen. Claire Ayer

“People saw the word illness and thought that they would be liable if they didn’t vaccinate their kids. We took out the word two or three weeks ago. They’re just late getting their emails out, I guess,” Ayer said. “We also took out the word pain because people want to be able to use corporal punishment on their children. So, we took that out as a standard.”

Sen. Ginny Lyons, D-Chittenden, vice chairwoman of the Senate Health and Welfare Committee, which also reviewed the bill, said the legislation represents a first step in improving the state’s child protection laws. Additional work will be needed, she said.

“This bill does not accomplish everything and I think that as you hear from constituents and as you begin to understand what is in the bill and what it does do, that it is not a comprehensive response to everything that does need to be done,” Lyons said.

The final version of the Senate bill also stripped out language that could have led to felony charges for exposing a child to the possession, manufacturing, sale or cultivation of drugs. New language was added calling for a 30-year prison sentence and up to a $1.5 million fine if a child is present where methamphetamine is being made.

Included in the legislation is language that would shift the emphasis in child protection cases away from reunification of a child with a family to one that focuses instead on the best interests of the child. The Department of Children and Families came under fire after the deaths of Sheldon and Geraw for over-emphasizing reunification.

Sears said he expects the legislation to receive widespread support in the Senate before it heads to the House for that chamber’s consideration.

neal.goswami@timesargus.com

Major changes to Vets Home on table to help balance budget

MONTPELIER — Major changes to the Vermont Veterans Home are once again being considered as the state looks to address a large budget gap in the 2016 fiscal year state budget.

Shumlin administration officials say privatizing the state-run facility in Bennington, or even possibly closing it, are on the table with many other ideas to trim state spending. But those ideas are only concepts at the moment and not serious proposals.

The 2016 fiscal year budget gap has ballooned from $94 million in early January to at least $112 million following a revenue downgrade late last month. The Veterans Home relies on several million dollars from the state’s general fund to operate.

The Vermont Veterans Home in Bennington.

The Vermont Veterans Home in Bennington.

Shumlin administration officials and legislative leaders both acknowledge that making changes to the Veterans Home has not advanced to a point where budget writers have explored what kind of savings could be achieved by privatizing or closing the home. However, those ideas that were once ruled out last year by former Secretary of Administration Jeb Spaulding are back.

Current Secretary of Administration Justin Johnson said this week that the administration and lawmakers are considering a range of ideas.

“In a sense, everything is on the table,” Johnson said. “The first thing for me is, does it get you any closer to the goal? I’m actually not sure that it does.”

Justin Johnson

Justin Johnson

“I’d say it’s no more or less on the table than any other idea that I don’t know if it gets you what you need,” he added.

Johnson cautioned that making any major changes to the way the Veterans Home is run remains a remote possibility.

“I don’t know enough to rule anything in or out. We still have this challenge of meeting the budget,” he said. “I would want to see the numbers. I would want to see the impact. I haven’t looked at any of those things. It’s not an idea that I’ve spent any time on.”

Gov. Peter Shumlin, in an interview with the Vermont Press Bureau, also did not rule out the possibility of major changes to the home.

“I would say that our record shows that we don’t want to close the Veterans Home. We’ve been supportive of the Veterans Home. We want to keep the Veterans Home going. They deserve us. I do think that everything in state government has to be more efficient in order to balance this budget,” the governor said.

Shumlin said his administration has included funding for the home in the budgets that he has presented to lawmakers. But the state will need to find ways to reduce the impact of the home on the general fund.

“I have a record. My record as governor has been that despite the fact that the Veterans Home continues to need more and more money from the general fund, millions of dollars every year, we have supported the Veterans Home throughout my administration. We have done that throughout my administration and we have not supported privatization. We have done that because our veterans deserve that kind of treatment from us,” he said. “Having said that, we have also supported any plan … to try to figure out ways to ensure that we’re not constantly always losing money on the Veterans Home because the state can’t afford to do this forever.”

Sen. Dick Sears, D-Bennington, said he will oppose any effort to privatize or close the Veterans Home. He said the jobs it provides are important to the region.

Sen. Dick Sears

Sen. Dick Sears

“My job, amongst other things, is to represent Bennington County and Wilmington and one of those ways is keeping excellent state employee jobs in Bennington County,” Sears said. “I’ll do everything I can to prevent the privatization of the Veterans Home.”

Plasan North America, a Bennington-based defense contractor, announced last week that it will close its Vermont facility and move it to Michigan. Sears said the area cannot absorb the loss of jobs at the Veterans Home, too.

“Given what happened … with the announcement of Plasan, I think putting on top of that losing those good jobs would be a critical damage to Bennington’s economy and to the economy of the region,” he said.

Johnson said the administration is exploring options to bring veterans from Massachusetts, were there is a waiting list for space at state-run homes, to Vermont. Massachusetts has resisted in the past, however.

The administration is not yet exploring how much money could be saved by privatizing or closing the home. It is not yet clear if they will be among the ideas that are further explored to determine savings, according to Johnson.

“What I expect to happen, after we have more conversations with the Legislature around options and concepts and ideas, is that the next step would be to start running numbers. I don’t want to just start running numbers on everything that anyone dreams up because we’ll have people have work on all this stuff that perhaps goes nowhere,” he said. “If we’re able to narrow down where we’re going to go then we can do some number crunching.”

neal.goswami@timesargus.com

Capitol Beat with the Governor 2-20-15

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Gov. Peter Shumlin and Vermont Press Bureau chief Neal P. Goswami discuss his effort to obtain an “all-payer waiver,” efforts to find savings in labor cuts and the Vermont Veterans Home.

Nixing raises and mileage reimbursements considered to trim labor costs

MONTPELIER — The Shumlin administration is considering a range of options to present to the Vermont State Employees Association as part of its effort to secure $10 million in labor savings, including eliminating scheduled pay raises.

With a gap of at least $112 million in the 2016 fiscal year budget, the Shumlin administration — and legislative leaders — insist that at least $10 million in labor costs must be trimmed as part of the effort to balance the budget. Administration officials say they hope to obtain the savings without having to take money away from workers that is already in their paychecks.

But, doing so would require the union to agree to renegotiated its existing labor contract.

Eliminating the 2.5 percent cost of living increase that is scheduled for the 2016 fiscal year would achieve about half of the $10 million the administration is seeking. That option is preferable to the administration because it would not require workers to give up pay they are already receiving.

Additional measures would still be needed, though.

The administration is also considering reducing the mileage reimbursement for state workers by more than 50 percent, down to 23.5 cents per mile. That would provide about $1 million in savings for the general fund, according to the administration. It would only impact those employees that use their personal vehicles rather than the state’s fleet.

Restructuring so-called “step increases” could also help reduce labor costs. State workers are grouped into various pay grades, with each grade containing 15 steps. The first five step increases occur every year. The next several step increases occur every two years, and the last group of step increases occur every three years. They average out to a 1.7 percent salary increase annually.

If the step increases are adjusted the state could achieve significant savings that would be ongoing in future years, according to the administration. Details of how the steps would be adjusted are not yet known.

Implementing five furlough days for state employees, which is also being considered, could achieve a 2.5 percent reduction in total salaries paid out by the state. That idea is less desirable, however, because it would be cutting pay that workers are already receiving.

Secretary of Administration Justin Johnson said last week that if the union does not work with the administration to achieve the $10 million in labor savings it is seeking more than 400 state workers could be laid off.

Vermont State Employees Association Executive Director Steve Howard and Johnson said Thursday they are working to set a meeting to begin discussions. The union is not interested in any discussion about opening the existing labor contract, however, according to Howard.

Steve Howard

Steve Howard

“We’re happy to hear what they have to say. We’re willing to hear what they have to say. We have some ideas on how they can raise revenue from the folks who have had all the income growth,” he said.

Howard said union officials will announce next week several ideas about where revenue could be raised.

“I think our position remains that before you take money out of the paychecks of state employees who are regular working class Vermonters who are struggling to pay their bills, the administration needs to work on raising revenue from Vermonters who have had all the income growth in the last decade,” he said. “For some reason they are putting all their energy into how we can take money out of the pockets of people who are serving the public and protecting with all their strength the wealthiest people in the state.”

Gov. Peter Shumlin, speaking at an unrelated news conference Thursday, again ruled out tax increases as a way to forego the labor savings it is seeking. House Speaker Shap Smith and Senate President Pro Tem John Campbell have also said the labor savings must be a part of the effort to close the budget gap.

Shumlin said the state must lower the growth rate in state spending, which has been about 5 percent, to the growth in revenue, which has been about 3 percent.

Gov. Peter Shumlin speaks to reporters during a  recent news conference.

Gov. Peter Shumlin speaks to reporters during a recent news conference.

“I would caution us from thinking that we can turn to Vermonters when they’re struggling to pay their bills, when they’re frustrated that their incomes aren’t going up despite the recovery. I would caution us from believing that we can tax our way out of this problem,” Shumlin said. “Revenue will not solve our problems. We’ve got to make the tough choices … of actually matching our appetite for spending with the money that’s coming through the door.”

Howard said the union will continue to resist efforts to seek the cuts from state workers.

“The administration has set up a false choice. They have said, ‘Look, state employees, you can cut off your left hand or you can cut off your right hand. That’s not the right way. That’s not the right choice,” Howard said.

neal.goswami@timesargus.com

Marijuana bill revealed but not expected to move this year

MONTPELIER — Legislation to legalize marijuana in Vermont was unveiled at the State House Tuesday, but a key lawmaker said it will not be taken up this year.

Chittenden County Sen. David Zuckerman, a Progressive and Democrat, has drafted a bill that would allow Vermont residents 21 and older to possess up to one ounce of marijuana, two mature plants, seven immature plants and any additional marijuana produced by the plants. Growing would only be allowed indoors.

Under the legislation, nonresidents could possess one-quarter of an ounce of marijuana. Criminal penalties would remain in place for anyone possessing more than the amount allowed under. Penalties would also remain in place for anyone possessing marijuana that is under the age of 21.

Edible marijuana products would be allowed, but those products would not be allowed to appeal to people under the age of 21. It would also prohibit edible marijuana products from mimicking similar products that do not contain marijuana.

Sen. David Zuckerman

Sen. David Zuckerman

The bill has been anticipated for some time following a RAND study released last month that showed the state could reap significant revenue if it legalizes marijuana.

A delegation, including Public Safety Commissioner Keith Flynn, recently traveled to Colorado to learn about that state’s legalization efforts. Upon returning, however, Flynn noted that officials in Colorado believed the state moved too quickly to legalize. They were forced by a ballot initiative. In Vermont, some hope to legalize the drug through legislation.

Any significant progress this year was ruled out Tuesday by Sen. Dick Sears, the Bennington County Democrat who chairs the Senate Judiciary Committee. The bill would need to make its way through his committee, but Sears said Tuesday that he will not take it up this year.

Sen. Dick Sears

Sen. Dick Sears

Zuckerman’s bill would create the Board of Marijuana Control within the Department of Public Safety to adopt rules governing the cultivation and sale of pot. It would also be responsible for administering a registration program for places that sell the drug. Zuckerman has proposed that the board consist of five members appointed by the governor, and that a director be hired to oversee operations.

The board would also create the regulatory structure for cultivation, production, testing and sale of marijuana.

Only nonprofit dispensaries or benefit corporations would be allowed to register with the board as a cultivator, product manufacturer, testing laboratory retailer or lounge, under the legislation. Registration of such groups would begin no later than Sept. 15, 2016.

The legalization of marijuana, under the legislation, would provide revenue to the state through a series of excise taxes and fees. Zuckerman proposed a $2,000 application fee for marijuana establishments and an annual registration fee ranging from $1,000 to $50,000. Those fees would be used to implement, administer and enforce the new law.

An excise tax of $40 per ounce would be charged for marijuana flowers. A $15 per ounce excise tax would be levied on any other marijuana, and $25 for each immature marijuana plant sold by a cultivator.

The bill earmarks 40 percent of the revenue raised through the excise taxes for public education about the risks of alcohol, tobacco and marijuana consumption, and for criminal justice programs and substance abuse treatment. Also funded by the taxes would be law enforcement and academic and medical research on marijuana.

The remaining revenue would go to the state’s general fund.

The bill includes several other provisions, including:

— Maintain criminal penalties for driving under the influence of marijuana
— Smoking marijuana in public would remain prohibited
— Smoking marijuana within 1,000 feet of a public or private school or regulated child care facility would be prohibited
— Allows municipalities to prohibit or regulate marijuana establishments
— Allows landlords and innkeepers to prohibit cultivation on their property

Gov. Peter Shumlin has said he favors legalization, but believes Vermont must learn more from the efforts in Colorado and Washington before acting. His office reiterated that sentiment Tuesday after Zuckerman’s bill was revealed.

“The governor’s bias is towards legalization but he wants to learn from the experiences of Washington state and Colorado. This is ultimately a conversation that the Legislature and Vermonters will have to have, and the governor is pleased that the conversation is underway,” spokesman Scott Coriell said.

Read the proposed legislation below:

VSEA pushes back on cuts, Shumlin unfazed

MONTPELIER — Members of the Vermont State Employees Association took to the State House Tuesday to make a direct pitch to lawmakers and the governor to abandon proposed cuts and embrace new revenue instead as they work to balance the state budget.

More than 100 state workers gathered for the union’s State House Day, hoping to ward off budget cuts proposed by Gov. Peter Shumlin to various services, including emergency dispatching and educating inmates.

The governor has proposed consolidating dispatch centers in Rutland and Derby with existing ones in Rockingham and Williston. The move, the Shumlin administration argues, will save the state $1.7 million and not impact public safety. The union counters that it will cost dozens of jobs and have a major impact on public safety.

Shumlin, a Democrat, met with some state workers for a casual conversation in the State House cafeteria. They used the opportunity to share their concerns with the governor about his proposed cuts.

“There’s an obvious public safety issue if you’re expecting less people to do more work,” said Melissa Sharkis a dispatcher at the Rutland facility that could close.

Dispatchers in Williston and Rockingham will not have the knowledge of local neighborhoods or rural locations, Sharkis said.

“The more time we have to spend looking up locations if we don’t know the area, that’s longer that it takes to get people help,” she said.

Gov. Peter Shumlin met with state workers at the State House Tuesday and heard their concerns with his proposed budget cuts.

Gov. Peter Shumlin met with state workers at the State House Tuesday and heard their concerns with his proposed budget cuts.

Thomas Lague, another dispatcher, said reducing dispatch jobs will have a negative impact on communities.

“We know there’s a budget and we know that we need to trim corners, but if we want to grow the economy, cutting the service sector doesn’t appear to be the best route to do it,” he said.

Meanwhile, Bill Storz, who works in the Community High School program, told Shumlin that cutting the program, which provides education to inmates, is a mistake. It’s facing a proposed 50 percent cut in funding.

“I want to make first clear that the budget cut is based on declining need, or perceived declining need. We feel that there really is no declining need,” he said.

But Shumlin did not seem to be moved by what he heard. Just a few moments later he told reporters that the cuts are necessary to help balance the state budget, which faces a budget gap of at least $112 million in the 2016 fiscal year.

“It’s my responsibility as governor to balance the budget in a responsible way. We came up with over $15 million of ongoing efficiencies just in the way state government can deliver services to be more efficient and meet the challenges that we’re facing of over a $100 million budget gap,” he said.

Shumlin said people “can always make an argument for not making change.” But, he said taxpayers are expecting that he and lawmakers will find a way reasonable way to find savings.

“Taxpayers expect me to make the choices that are necessary to responsibly balance this budget, and that’s exactly what we’re doing” he said.

Shumlin said his public safety team has reviewed the plans to consolidate dispatch centers. It can be done without harming public safety efforts around the state, he said.

“We firmly believe that we can make that system more efficient with technology that’s advanced since the system we created a long time ago, and deliver better services,” Shumlin said.

Shumlin said his administration wants to continue to provide education opportunities to inmates, but the program is not currently providing that service in an efficient way.

“We’re not saying let’s not educate young people in prisons, what we’re saying is we’ve got 49 teachers that graduated 41 students this year. I don’t think there’s a Vermonter who would say, ‘Wow, that’s an efficient way to deliver education — 49 teachers, 41 graduates,” Shumlin said. “All we’re saying is let’s find the areas where government isn’t being efficient and not always turn to taxpayers.”

Shumlin has told lawmakers and others that if they don’t like his proposals they must present their own that provide equal savings. So far, those ideas have not been forthcoming, according to Shumlin.

“We’re always interested in any alternative plans. What is not OK is to say, ‘Just go out and raise taxes on Vermonters,’ and that’s what I’m hearing in the background here. What they’re saying is, ‘Listen, don’t change anything. Don’t make government more efficient, just ask taxpayers to pay more.’ As governor, I’m not going to do that,” Shumlin said.

Later in the day VSEA members met in the House Chamber to discuss the impact the cuts will have. Leslie Matthews, an environmental scientist with the Agency of Natural Resources said Shumlin is “extracting millions of dollars” from state workers.

“We’re here to say, no more cuts, raise some revenue,” she said.

The cuts to state services are on top of $10 million in labor savings that Shumlin hopes to achieve be renegotiating the labor contract with state workers. Workers are slated to receive a 2.5 percent cost of living increase and a resumption of “step increases” that would provide an average salary bump of 1.7 percent to workers.

The budget gap should be addressed by seeking additional revenue, Matthews said, not by asking state workers to forego pay raises that are in the labor contract or cutting funding for the departments and agencies they work for.

“That crisis does not constitute an emergency on our part, or obligate us to open up our contract that we bargained in good faith,” she said.

She asked lawmakers to “raise revenue from the people who can afford it.”

“We need to grow it from those people who have seen their income grow dramatically in recent years,” Matthews said. “We call on our legislators to reject the governor’s proposed cuts and instead raise revenue.”

Shumlin maintains that he and legislative leaders are committed to achieving the $10 million in labor savings.

“The best way to do that would be if the union would come to the table and work cooperatively with us to find those savings. We have to do it. There’s no choice. If you talk to legislative leadership, if you talk to me as governor, they’ll tell you, we cannot solve this budget challenge without getting some savings from our workforce. It’s just not possible,” he said.

The Shumlin administration has asked union officials to sit down and discuss the best way to achieve the savings. If the union does agree to make some concessions, more than 400 state workers could be laid off, administration officials said last week.

“There’s many ways to do this and that’s why it’s so important they come to the table. We can do this the hard way, which won’t be the best for them and the best for taxpayers, or we can do this by doing what we do in Vermont,” Shumlin said.

So far, neither Shumlin nor his aides have provided any specific proposal to reduce labor costs. Those details should be be worked out with the union, they said.

neal.goswami@timesargus.com

New poll touts support for removing philosophical exemption

MONTPELIER — A new poll commissioned by a pro-vaccine group shows that 68 percent of Vermonters do not believe parents should be able to opt out of vaccinating their children through the philosophical exemption in state law.

The poll, commissioned by Every Child By Two, a national nonprofit group that advocates for vaccinations, also found that 73 percent of Vermonters support efforts to change the law. The poll of 880 Vermonters was conducted by Gravis Marketing on Feb. 9 and 10. It has a 3 percent margin of error.

Every Child By Two Executive Director Amy Pisani said the results of the poll “are a clear indication that Vermont needs to take swift action to ensure that all of its kids are protected from dangerous and preventable diseases.”

“When nearly three-fourths of the residents in a state believe there should not be a philosophical exemption for vaccines, it’s time to change the law,” she said.image015

The poll could spur action on legislation introduced by Republican Sen. Kevin Mullin of Rutland, which seeks to remove the philosophical exemption. The state also allows for medical and religious exemptions, but the philosophical exemption accounts for most of the exemptions in Vermont.

Mullin proposed similar legislation in 2012. It cleared the Senate but the House, faced with strong opposition from a coalition of people advocating for parents’ rights, did not advance the measure.

Data from the Vermont Department of Health has shown that the percentage of unvaccinated children has risen in recent years.

image018Gov. Peter Shumlin has said he believes all Vermont children should be vaccinated, but he does not favor changing the state’s exemption law to eliminate the philosophical exemption. The poll found that 70 percent of Vermonters do not favor the governor’s position.

The Vermont Coalition for Vaccine Choice and other anti-vaccine groups are again expected to wage a strong campaign against Mullin’s legislation. But this year, the Vermont NEA, the state’s largest union that represents teachers across the state, has decided to come out in favor of the bill.

Read the poll questions and data below:

Labor costs, guns and organs: Capitol Beat, Feb. 16, 2015

Play

Vermont Press Bureau chief Neal Goswami and VPB reporter Josh O’Gorman chat about the showdown between the Shumlin administration and the Vermont State Employee’s Association over labor costs, the state of gun legislation in the State House and a bill that would make organ donation the default option in Vermont. Also, Barre-Montpelier Times Argus Editor Steve Pappas talks about a few stories he’s worked on in the past couple of weeks, including a profile of Rep. Janet Ancel and Sen. Tim Ashe, the lawmakers that chair the taxing committees in the State House. He also updates on a potential second bid for governor by Republican Scott Milne. Lots going on in this episode — have a listen.

Check out recent episodes of City Room with Steve Pappas, which are discussed in today’s podcast episode:

Scott Milne episode

Paul Costello and Ted Brady episode

Big health care change is still in the air

MONTPELIER — The quest for a single-payer health care system was sidelined, at least for now, by Gov. Peter Shumlin, late last year. But another effort to dramatically transform the state’s health care system remains very much alive.

Shumlin, a third-term Democrat, shelved his own long-sought proposal for a publicly financed health care system in December, saying it was too expensive at this time. But he is continuing to push for a parallel goal to change the way health care services are paid for in Vermont.

His administration is seeking an all-payer waiver from the federal government that will eliminate the current fee-for-service payment model that pays providers for each procedure.

In Vermont, like all states except for Maryland, government health programs like Medicaid and Medicare pay vastly different amounts than private insurance does for medical procedures. Shumlin hopes to obtain a waiver from the federal government that will allow the state to set the same rates for all insurance plans within individual health systems.

It’s a monumental undertaking that is at the opening stages.

“We’re at the beginning,” said Lawrence Miller, chief of health care reform. “We’ve had conversations with CMS (the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services). We’re really just beginning the formal process.”

Miller said the current health system rewards providers for performing more procedures. But the procedures are not always in line with the best health outcomes for patients.

“They’ve got to have a certain amount of service to get a certain amount of fee. Otherwise they can’t keep the lights on,” Miller said.

“So much of health care, the way we deliver it, is a fixed cost,” he said. “You’ve got a building. You’ve got people in so many hours a week. The fact that you’ve got 35 versus 40 patients in a week doesn’t really change your costs. It has a major impact on your revenue.”

If Vermont obtains the waiver from the CMS, all insurance plans will pay the same amount and providers will be have an incentive to work collectively to have the best health outcome that is not paid for based on the number of tests and procedures performed, Miller said.

“They’ve got a real combined interest to drive to best outcomes for people and avoidance of acute care, because then, overall, it does save money,” he said.

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