Casino bill to benefit the elderly proposed

MONTPELIER — A Republican representative has once again introduced legislation to allow for a casino in Vermont, this time with state revenue benefiting senior citizens.

Rep. Ronald Hubert, R-Milton, has introduced a similar bill each session for the past six years. He said the proposals have varied slightly. With the state facing a significant budget gap in the 2016 fiscal year, Hubert said it could help generate revenue for the state.

“We’re in such desperate need for taxes, how about some voluntary taxes? It’s something that most states have done and the numbers show that we could bring in annually somewhere between $8 million to $15 million to state coffers,” Hubert said.

Rep. Ronald Hubert

Rep. Ronald Hubert

The bill, which has 17 cosponsors, mostly Republicans, would require the Vermont Lottery Commission to issue a license for the operation of one casino in Vermont. The license would be good for six years and require a $6 million license fee that could be paid in full or split over six years.

The Lottery Commission would have the authority to create rules governing the casino, investigate applicants to determine eligibility and supervise casino operations. The bill calls for a $100,000, nonrefundable application fee.

Hubert’s bill would also create a 10 percent tax on the gross receipts of the casino that would go the general fund.

He said there are between 75 and 100 organized bus trips from Vermont to casinos in surrounding states each year.

“A lot of Vermonters are interested in going to a casino, and there’s more to a casino,” Hubert said.

A casino would also generate additional tax revenue for the state through rooms and meals, alcohol and food sales and the state’s sales tax, Hubert said.

This year Hubert’s bill calls for the 10 percent tax on the casino receipts to be used to help elderly Vermonters. The money generated would be divided by the number of people 65 and older that receive income sensitivity on their property taxes. Those people would receive a payment from the state under the legislation.

Hubert said the money would help elderly Vermonters on fixed incomes that are not keeping pace with inflation.

“These are people that no longer have children in schools and are generally on fixed incomes,” he said.

Hubert said he hopes his new plan for the revenue will draw additional support. He said lawmakers could even opt to use the money to help drawdown federal matching funds for the state’s Medicaid program.

“I’m certainly hoping so. With the gov looking to put a $110 million payroll tax out there, I’d certainly be open to using it for the Medicaid drawdown,” he said.

Don’t expect to roll the dice any time soon, though.

Scott Coriell, Gov. Peter Shumlin’s spokesman, said Monday that Shumlin is unequivocally opposed to casino gaming in Vermont.

“The governor is not in favor of building casinos in the state, period. As long as he’s governor, he’ll do everything in his power to stop casino gaming in Vermont,” Coriell said.

House Speaker Shap Smith is also opposed to the idea of allowing a casino in Vermont.

“I think that the experience of casinos shows that there’s an over-saturation and that moving in that direction is a bad idea,” he said. “I’m not a big fan of casinos at all as a way to fund state government.”

Smith was blunt about the legislation’s prospects.

“I don’t think that it’s going anywhere,” he said.

neal.goswami@timesargus.com

Read the proposed legislation below:

Vermont to add enforcement to Lake Champlain cleanup tools

ST. ALBANS, Vt. (AP) — Vermont’s top officials say legal enforcement of water quality rules on the state’s farmers is going to be one of the tools that will be used to help clean up Lake Champlain.

The enforcement could include civil fines, a loss of tax breaks for agricultural lands and the ability to limit livestock.

Agriculture Secretary Chuck Ross, Attorney General Bill Sorrell and others outlined the steps Monday during a meeting in St. Albans.

State officials say they need to zero in on a relatively small number of sources of pollution flowing into rivers that feed into the lake.

While enforcement is a possibility, Ross and Sorrell both say penalties would be used as a last resort on farms that refuse to comply with water quality efforts.

Video: Welch presser on travel and tourism

Capitol Beat Podcast 1-26-15

Play

Vermont Press Bureau chief Neal Goswami and VPB reporter Josh O’Gorman talk about sugar, beagles, Vermont Health Connect and a dispute between two Penn State graduate students and the state Agency of Education.

 

Video: Vermont This Week on Vermont PBS

Bureau chief Neal Goswami joins moderator Stewart Ledbetter, Local 22/Local 44 reporter Steph Machado and Tim McQuiston from Vermont Business Magazine on this week’s Vermont This Week panel.

HEADLINES: State Economists Project Major Stimulus From Oil Decline; Gasoline Price Disparities In Spotlight; Bipartisan Group Proposes New Health Exchange; Auditor Questions If Ski Resorts Pay Fair Share; Senate Leaders Introduce Gun Bill; Sugar-Sweetened Beverage Tax Is Back.

Teachers and school boards disagree on labor proposal

Organizations that represent teachers and school boards disagree on a proposal that would force them to negotiate.

During his budget address last week, Gov. Peter Shumlin called on lawmakers to pass legislation that would prohibit teachers from going on strike and school boards from imposing working conditions, and instead require both sides to enter into binding arbitration.

“We should pass legislation prohibiting both teacher strikes and board-imposed contracts, while requiring both sides to resolve differences through third-party decision-making when negotiation fails,” Shumlin said at the time.

For the Vermont-NEA and the Vermont School Boards Association, which represent teachers and school board members in the State House, the proposal, for the most part, is palatable.

“We understand that strikes are very disruptive to the communities where they occur. The vast majority of contracts are settled without strikes and imposition,” said Nicole Mace, general counsel for the Vermont School Boards Association, which supports the idea of prohibiting teacher strikes and contract imposition.

Teacher strikes in Vermont are few and far between, according to statistics from the Vermont-NEA, which cites 26 strikes in the more than 40 years that teachers have been permitted to collectively bargain, including seven in the past 10 years.

During the past 10 years, school boards have imposed contracts on their teachers 10 times, most recently in the Addison-Rutland Supervisory Union in 2012.

“Since the late ‘90s, the Vermont-NEA has been willing to forgo the right to strike if, and only if, school boards forgo the right to impose working conditions and both parties enter into binding arbitration,” said Darren Allen, communications director for the Vermont-NEA.

That last bit about binding arbitration is what’s standing in the way of total agreement on both sides. While it supports the proposition of prohibiting strikes and contract imposition, the Vermont School Boards Association has adopted a resolution opposing the requirement that both sides enter into binding arbitration.

“Binding-interest arbitration tends to maintain the status quo,” Mace said. “It will perpetuate current contracts, many of which were negotiated 30 years ago, and in many cases those contract frameworks continue to exist.”

Allen asserts that it is the school boards, not the teachers, that are standing in the way of changing the way both sides negotiate.

“The biggest concession here is that a labor group is willing to forgo their most powerful tool. It is school boards that are standing in the way and preserving the status quo,” Allen said.

Currently, Vermont is one of 12 states that allow teachers to strike. If lawmakers were to adopt Shumlin’s proposal, Vermont would join five other states — Connecticut, Delaware, Iowa, Maryland and Nevada — that prohibit strikes and require binding arbitration.

Agency of Education Secretary Rebecca Holcombe said she is in favor of legislation that would prohibit teacher strikes.

“Ultimately, I think schools are essential services. It’s not only the way we educate our students, but parents rely on them to keep to keep their children safe, and for the neediest of our children, it’s the place where they get most of their nutritious meals,” Holcombe said. “Just like we expect our road crews to show up when it’s snowing, we need our teachers to show up in the classroom.”

josh.ogorman@rutlandherald.com

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Shumlin pardons three women

MONTPELIER — Gov. Peter Shumlin issued pardons to three women Friday, saying the women have atoned for their mistakes.

According to the governor’s office, Aimee Sheehan, of Williston, Amber Thibault, of Charlotte, and Lori Morse, of Bennington, have been pardoned for various convictions.

Sheehan pleaded guilty to violating a restraining order involving her grandmother in 2001 when she was 18 years old. She currently works as a nurse but has been limited in her career because of the conviction. Sheehan’s grandmother supported the pardon application, according to the governor’s office.

Thibault pleaded guilty to a domestic assault on her mother in 2002, which took place “during a period of transition in Amber’s life following the death her father.” Thibault has pursued a career as a nurse but has been held back as a result of her conviction, the governor’s office said. Thibault and her mother have repaired their relationship and her mother supported her pardon.

Finally, Morse pleaded guilty to a number of non-violent felonies and misdemeanors related to substance abuse and addiction during her 30s in the late 1990s. The convictions included passing bad checks, possession of cocaine and forgery, the governor’s office said. Since her convictions, Morse completed substance abuse treatment, including the Tapestry Program in Brattleboro. She also received a bachelor’s degree from Union Institute in Brattleboro and has written a memoir about overcoming abuse and substance abuse.

Shumlin said Friday he decided to pardon all three women because of the progress they have made since their convictions.

“I was proud to pardon three women today who have all worked very hard to overcome obstacles in their lives and mistakes made in their pasts,” Shumlin said. “All three have shown a commitment to helping others and to making a better life for themselves and their family. Past mistakes do not define a person’s future, and I hope these three will serve as an inspiration for others looking to turn their lives around.”

Those seeking pardons must file an application. The Department of Corrections reviews the applications and conducts an investigation before they are forwarded to the governor.

Shumlin seeks disaster declaration

MONTPELIER – Gov. Peter Shumlin made a formal request Friday for federal disaster relief to help 10 of Vermont’s 14 counties pay for repairs to the power grid and other public infrastructure damaged in a winter storm last month.

The administration said Addison, Chittenden, Essex, Franklin, Lamoille, Orange, Orleans, Rutland, Washington and Windsor counties have damages that meet federal standards to qualify for a Public Assistance disaster declaration.

The disaster declaration, if granted, would allow communities and public utilities in impacted counties to receive a 75 percent reimbursement for storm response and recovery. Those costs include debris removal and repairs to the power grid, public roads, bridges and other infrastructure damaged during the storm.

A preliminary assessment by the Federal Emergency Management Agency that started on December 17 has identified nearly $4 million in damages in Vermont during the storm between December 9 and 12. The state is required to show $1 million in damages to qualify for a disaster declaration. Continue reading

Browning files public records request bill

MONTPELIER — A lawmaker who sued Gov. Peter Shumlin for documents related to his now-shelved single payer health care proposal has introduced legislation that would require the documents to be revealed in the future in similar situations.

Rep. Cynthia Browning, D-Arlington, plans to introduce a bill to require greater access to public records under certain conditions and require judicial rulings on appeals of denials of access within a certain period of time. Browning said the legislation is needed based on her own legal case against the governor.

Browning, though she lost her case in superior court, maintains the administration inappropriately used executive privilege to prevent the release of information prior to his announcement on Dec. 17 that he was no longer pursuing a universal, publicly financed health care system because of its cost.

Rep. Cynthia Browning

Rep. Cynthia Browning

“My understanding is that executive privilege is intended to serve the public by ensuring that government officials can have thorough and confidential discussions of policy alternatives. It is not intended to protect those officials from inconvenience or embarrassment. If a person
claims to believe in the principles of transparency and accountability they must uphold them when it is hard as well as when it is easy,” Browning said in a release Friday. “I think that in this case executive privilege was used to conceal the politically difficult facts related to how much the single payer plan might cost and how much taxes might have to increase to
finance it. Ironically, this concealment did not serve the Governor well politically with either supporters or skeptics of the plan.”

Browning’s bill contains several provisions, including:

— If reports or documents have been shared by executive branch staff with people who are not part of that branch or working for it outside of the presence of the governor, executive privilege would be waived.

— If an official or public agency is required by law to produce a report on a date certain and it is not produced it and the law is not amended to extend the date, any records related to that report cannot be covered by executive privilege.

— If a public records request is denied by the government a Vermonter can appeal that denial to Superior Court. The current statute requires that such an appeal receive a judicial ruling “expeditiously,” and that such dockets should be handled before other cases, but the word
“expeditious” is not given a time definition. The bill would define “expeditious” as 45 calendar days after the last brief filed by the complainant.

Browning said the Shumlin administration shared documents and reports with some legislators, including House Speaker Shap Smith when the governor was not present and still claimed executive privilege. She argues that executive privilege should not be extended to a separate branch of government.

Shumlin, according to Act 48, was originally supposed to release a financing plan for his health care plan in January 2013 but did not. Browning said the Legislature did nothing to enforce that deadline and the administration was allowed to withhold information. Browning filed a public records request to the administration in March 2014 seeking documents and reports. The Legislature did not act to extend the governor’s deadline in law until May 2014, she said.

Browning said Vermonters should be able to obtain materials when a report is overdue, even when the Legislature does not try to enforce the law.

The 45-day timeline for judicial rulings is needed to speed up the process of records request, Browning said. She filed her case on Sept. 4, 2014, but the judge did not issue a ruling until Dec. 10 — a span of 14 weeks. Browning said the length “does not meet a common sense definition of expeditious.”

Read the proposed legislation below:

Capitol Beat with the Governor 1-23-15

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Gov. Peter Shumlin and Vermont Press Bureau chief Neal Goswami discuss a recent revenue downgrade, the president’s support for paid sick leave, gun legislation introduced in the Senate and legislators’ efforts to scuttle Vermont Health Connect.

 

FullSizeRender

New law proposed to aid investigations of gasoline price fixing

MONTPELIER — Lawmakers will consider a bill to collect data to see if drivers are facing price fixing at the gas pump.

Rep. Christopher Pearson, P-Burlington, will introduce a bill that would require gas distributors to disclose how much fuel they deliver to a filling station.
The effort comes as his region continues to see some of the highest gas prices in the state, and provides some of the highest profit margins of any region in the United States.

“This is not an outlier phenomenon,” Pearson said. “When you start digging into it, you see something is going on.”

Pearson’s remarks came Thursday evening during a joint session of the House Transportation and Commerce Committees.

According to Pearson, his bill would provide the Attorney General’s Office with data that could be used to investigate accusations of price collusion. The bill also includes a whistle-blower provision that would allow a person who reports price fixing to have a share of any fines and financial penalties collected.

Assistant Attorney General Ryan Kriger noted there is a big difference between price fixing — which is illegal — and “price following,” which is legal and is common in many industries.

“What’s happening in Burlington alone might not be enough to go forward with a charge of conspiracy,” Kriger said. “Looking at a competitor’s sign is legal, but talking with them about prices is not.”

The hearing comes on the heels of a massive drop in the price of gasoline in Vermont and across the country. According to Gas Buddy, a website that tracks gas prices, during the past six months, the average price for a gallon of gas in Vermont has fallen from $3.70 to $2.41.

Vermont is host to a wide gulf in gas prices, which range from $2.10 a gallon in Bellows Falls to $2.79 in Bridgewater Corners. Looking around the state, geographical trends emerge.

When looking at the 15 locations with the cheapest gas, 12 are in towns along the Vermont-New Hampshire border. When looking at the top-15 most-expensive locations, eight are located in Chittenden County, three are in Washington County — in Moretown, Waitsfield and Warren — and one location, in Killington, is in Rutland County.

Pearson said the recent drop in gas prices have distracted people from the fact they are still paying too much. Vermont’s average price is 37 cents higher than the national average, and is the highest in New England.

Only four states — Alaska, California, Hawaii and New York — have average prices per gallon that are higher than Vermont.

“Gas prices across the country have come way down around the country, but the fall in Vermont has been relative. Don’t be fooled by the low prices at the pump right now,” Pearson said.

Ben Brockwell is the director of data and pricing for Oil Price Information Service. According to Brockwell, at 66 percent, “the Burlington market has been among the most profitable in the nation.”

Jim Harrison, president of the Vermont Retailers and Grocers Association, noted that, per capita, Vermont convenience stores see a volume of customers that is much lower than the national average.

“Our stores have less volume, on average, to spread out their fixed costs,” Harrison said. “Property taxes don’t change because you’re selling fewer gallons per customer.”

Harrison noted existing laws on the books that allow for the prosecution of price fixing and protect whistle-blowers, and opposed the notion of offering whistle-blowers financial rewards.

Some lawmakers suggested that the wide range in gas prices in the state is a result of several factors. Rep. Timothy Corcoran, D-Bennington, suggested higher prices in and around Burlington might be a function of real estate prices in the area.

Rep. Loren Shaw, R-Derby, suggested filling station owners in the Burlington area pay higher taxes than those in other parts of the state. He also expressed his skepticism of a bill that would add more business regulations.

“The free enterprise system is what built this country and built this state,” Shaw said. “If there’s price fixing going on, that’s a different story.”

josh.ogorman@rutlandherald.com

Gun bill introduced in the Vermont Senate

MONTPELIER — Legislation to expand background checks for all gun purchases in Vermont was introduced in the Senate Thursday and sets the stage for vigorous debate.

Democratic Sens. John Campbell, D-Windsor, Claire Ayer, D-Addison and Philip Baruth, D-Chittenden, all members of Senate Democratic leadership, have sponsored the bill.

Current law requires background checks when purchasing a gun from a federally licensed dealer. But background checks are not required when purchasing firearms at a gun show or online. The bill introduced Thursday would expand background checks for those purchases.

The bill is strongly backed by Gun Sense, a gun control advocacy group. It is vigorously opposed by several pro-gun groups, including Gun Owners of Vermont.

Democratic Gov. Peter Shumlin said Thursday he remains opposed to new gun regulations in Vermont, preferring instead, for the federal government to enforce laws on the books. He said anyone breaking federal law to purchase a gun is also likely to break a state law.

“Vermont is currently well-served by the laws we have on the books. I want to keep what we have in place. Obviously, the Legislature is going to debate all kinds of issues. This will be one of them. We always welcome a robust debate. My feeling is the gun laws that we have in Vermont are the ones that we should keep,” he said. “Federal law precludes them from buying guns. I would hope that we would enforce the law.”

The governor refused to say Thursday if he would veto the legislation if it clears the House and Senate and reaches his desk.

“I never issue veto threats unless I am going to veto a bill. Let’s let the process work and have the debate,” he said.

Read the proposed legislation below:

House members pitch new exchange proposal

MONTPELIER — A bipartisan group of House members are pushing a new proposal to move the state away from Vermont Health Connect, but the consequences remain unclear if the state were to adopt the proposal.

On Thursday, Reps. Patti Komline, R-Dorset, Heidi Scheuermann, R-Stowe, Jim Condon D-Colchester, and Adam Greshin, I-Warren, called for the state to transition from Vermont Health Connect to a Supported State-Based Marketplace Exchange. Oregon and Nevada have adopted the hybrid state-federal model after their state-based exchanges faced significant problems.

Vermont’s exchange, which also experienced significant tech challenges and is still not fully functional, allows some individuals to sign up for insurance plans through the website. But other individuals and all small businesses are enrolling through a paper process. And users cannot currently make changes to their information online in an automated way.

Rep. Patti Komline

Rep. Patti Komline

Komline said by adopting the model used by other states the state could shed its IT woes while maintaining control of the plans offered, and without losing the ability to provide federal and state subsidies to help make insurance more affordable to Vermont residents.

“We can control the plans that we’re offering, but when it comes to handling the IT, we can call on healthcare.gov to do that,” she said. “The transition costs for Oregon was $7 million. They were able to use the grant money from the feds. It took them six months to make that transition and so far it’s gone very smoothly for them.”

“It’s a viable alternative. We’re not just playing political games with it, but it’s something that we can really do,” Komline added.

Condon said his goal is to provide Vermonters with a fully functioning insurance marketplace.

“Vermonters deserve a functioning insurance portal. They don’t have that yet, but citizens deserve the ability to be able to go online and get their business done and take care of this. It’s just not happening as well as it should be,” he said. “My own personal opinion is that we should have gone the fed way to begin with. I think it would have saved a lot of hassles.”

The federal government is not charging Oregon and Nevada, at least for 2015, for the use of the federal site. But, it could begin charging them 3.5 percent of the cost of premiums as it does for other states that fully use the federal exchange. With Vermont’s $200 million in premium spending, that would mean a $7 million tax for Vermonters in total.

Previous opposition to moving to the federal exchange included the likely scenario that Vermont would not longer be able to provide state-level subsidies, among other reasons. Massachusetts is the only other state to do so, and it is not clear if CMS would allow that to continue.

“A key point is that we keep our subsidies with this,” Komline told reporters Thursday. “The officials in Oregon and New Mexico and in Nevada are all saying that they’re covered. That they’re subsidies are fully covered.

But the Centers for Medicaid and Medicare, which oversees state and federal exchanges, has never before considered whether a state could continue to provide state-level subsidies through the hybrid model.

The state expects to spend about $8 million this year on operating the portion of Vermont Health Connect that deals with exchange plans. That cost would be gone under the proposal released Thursday, according to Komline.

But their plan does not address Medicaid, which also flows through the state exchange. Komline said the state’s Medicaid program would continue to be run by the state. Lawrence Miller, Gov. Peter Shumlin’s chief of health care reform, said Vermont Health Connect would continue to be needed and built out in order for the state to effectively manage the Medicaid program.

There would still be a savings to the state, Komline insisted.

And Scheuermann said state officials would work with the federal government to answer questions that remain unknown.

“These are the questions that we do want answered and we want to work with. But this is relatively new,” Scheuermann said. “We want to work with the feds to do that, both with regard to Medicaid and with regard to the state subsidies.”

Lawrence Miller

Lawrence Miller

Miller acknowledged Thursday that Vermont Health Connect’s “current operations are unacceptable.” But he said many of the functions needed for the state’s Medicaid program are also needed for the part of the exchange the proposal revealed Thursday would jettison to the federal site.

“It’s a viable alternative to the qualified health plan component. The concern, of course, is that Vermont Health Connect is also the Medicaid eligibility and enrollment engine,” Miller said. “It’s a question of how to accomplish multiple goals most effectively. It certainly address the qualified health plan issue, but the exchange is primarily, by volume and users, Medicaid eligibility and enrollment.”

Miller said the administration has already engaged with CMS in discussions of several options and will continue to explore the best path forward for the state.

“We’ve discussed everything with CMS. Nobody’s particular happy with where we are,” he said.

The legislation proposed Thursday calls for the administration to have a transition plan ready by March 31. Miller said the administration will be prepared to offer a formal response if the bill advances.

“We’re not waiting for the Legislature to make a decision about this. If this is passed we would have begun our groundwork well before,” he said.

The so-called change of circumstance function that is still not part of the exchange, which would allow automated changes to be made by users, is on track to be completed in April, according to Miller. He said the state will continue to ask its contractor, Optum, to complete that work. Other recent deadlines have been met by the company, he said.

“I would support continuing to complete the change of circumstance functionality because we need that for the Medicaid … eligibility, anyway. It’s not something we can just stop doing. We don’t have another way of doing Medicaid enrollment or redetermination. That is the path,” Miller said.

neal.goswami@timesargus.com

Read the proposed legislation below:

Family of Vermont hazing, suicide victim backs hazing bill

MONTPELIER, Vt. (AP) — The family of a 17-year old Milton football player who killed himself after being a victim of hazing and sexual assault on the team is pushing for tougher reporting requirements for school officials.

Jordan Preavy’s parents and stepmother traveled to Montpelier on Thursday, more than two years after his death, to watch as the bill was introduced by Rep. Ron Hubert, R-Milton.

Preavy was one of the victims in a hazing scandal that authorities said involved victims being sexually assaulted with a broomstick. The Associated Press generally doesn’t identify sexual assault victims, but Preavy’s parents have spoken about him openly.

His family says school officials weren’t quick enough to report the abuse to law enforcement officials. The bill introduced Thursday would make such notification more automatic.

Congressional members ask for FairPoint assessment

CONCORD, N.H. (AP) — Members of Congress from Vermont and New Hampshire have called on the Federal Communications Commission to assess the ability of FairPoint Communications to operate emergency communications networks in both states following outages last year.

There was a six-hour outage of Vermont’s 911 system in November and a four-hour outage of Portsmouth, New Hampshire 911 services in December.

With about 1,800 FairPoint workers on strike in Maine, New Hampshire and Vermont since October, the lawmakers said in their letter Wednesday that FairPoint’s networks and equipment have failed with increasing frequency and customer complaints have soared.

A FairPoint spokeswoman says the utility is making progress daily to reduce load trouble caused by the strike and “incredibly bad” weather over the past three months.

Vermont Sens. Bernie Sanders and Patrick Leahy and Rep. Peter Welch; and New Hampshire Sen. Jeanne Shaheen and Rep. Annie Kuster sent the letter.