Monthly Archives: March 2011

Let them make maple syrup

Peter Shumlin this morning declared “War on Recidivism” in a well-attended press conference in his governor’s ceremonial office.

In short, Shumlin says the state is sending a lot of people to jail that don’t need to be there. At $47,000 a year to house a single prisoner, he says, the state just can’t afford it.

The governor was short on specifics this morning, but the details will get ironed out, he says, when all three branches of government fashion plans for things like job training, internships, substance-abuse treatment and other services intended to get low-level offenders on the right track.

He’s got some ideas already though. During a recent trip to a correctional facility in Windsor, Shumlin says, he ran into a guy doing time for multiple DUIs. The offender happened to have been on a construction crew that did work on one of Shumlin’s Putney properties.

“This guy I know is an extraordinarily capable person, when he’s sober,” Shumlin said.

Shumlin suggests the state find a way “to put this guy to work.” Perhaps he and other inmates could raise beef cattle in the unused fields nearby. And grow some vegetables, and give them to food shelves. Better yet, he says, get some taps and hose and set them loose on the fallow sugar bush.

“Let’s make maple syrup,” Shumlin says.

Shumlin has already devoted an additional $300,000 in his fiscal-year 2012 budget proposal to expand methadone treatment for opiate addicts.

His budget plan assumes $1.6 million in savings by cycling 60 misdemeanants out of prison beds next year. The Senate Judiciary Committee is now working on language that would allow the commissioner of corrections to bypass court-ordered prison sentences (you can read more about the plan in today’s versions of the Argus and Herald).

Details, details

Opponents of Vermont’s health care reform efforts have repeatedly railed against the lack of specifics in the health care legislation and the lack of answers on how a new system would be financed and what benefits it would actually offer.

Now even some Democratic supporters of reform are worried about the vagueness of the bill and how long the reform effort will drag out, because it could make it hard to definitively refute people’s fears about reform – whether they are founded or not.

During a caucus of Senate Democrats on Tuesday, Sen. Anthony Pollina, a Washington County Democrat, said he heard from one woman who said he shouldn’t support reform because it would increase her Medicaid payments.

“I said, ‘We don’t even know what we’re looking at yet,’” Pollina told his fellow lawmakers at the caucus.

Pollina said he also got an e-mail from someone in Baghdad, Iraq wondering how the Legislature was tampering with his military health benefits.

Sen. Philip Baruth, a Chittenden County Democrat, is the one who raised the concern about the lack of details in legislation. The vagueness – and the fact that reform is going to be a multi-year effort – means we’re “going to be defending against death panels for 18 to 24 months,” Baruth said.

Baruth didn’t have a solution to the problem, but at one point during the caucus, Senate President Pro Tem John Campbell gave some words of encouragement for lawmakers.

Campbell, who has vowed to pass health care legislation through the Senate this year, said there are people who want to cut the legs out from under health care reform no matter what the bill contains.

“I would say just hold tight,” said Campbell.

Representative decries fellow lawmaker’s ‘insidious remarks’

Strong rhetoric last week on the House floor by a Vermont representative angered a fellow lawmaker, who felt compelled to fire back with an impassioned speech of his own Tuesday.

During a debate last week on the Health Care bill, Rep. Tom Burditt, a Republican from West Rutland, railed against the “socialized medicine” he believes the state is pursuing.

Some lawmakers felt he was calling them socialists and communists.

Here’s the controversial portion of Burditt’s floor speech:

“I find it very sad in a country where men and women have died fighting to preserve our freedom, and have died fighting off socialism, communism and most recently Radical Muslim beliefs, that some are now considering socialized medicine as a solution to improving access to health care.”

The speech continued (and this may have been the portion that really ticked off some lawmakers):

“Lenin once said, ‘Medicine is the keystone in the arch of socialism.’ I believe those who are promoting ‘universal coverage’ via government-run and government-controlled medicine know this. What they hope is that the public won’t find out the truth.”

This was too much for Rep. Michel Consejo, a Democrat from Sheldon Springs. Consejo thought he would let the comments go, but over the weekend, he said, they kept bothering him.

As lawmakers finished up business on the House floor Tuesday, Consejo rose and fired back at Burditt, saying those type of comments have no place on the House floor.

Consejo, a native of France who speaks with a French accent, said the comments related to socialism, communism and radical Islam were “insidious remarks” that are one step away from racism and “only predates the day when I am going to be asked to go back to my own country.”

Consejo pointed to the Vermont crest high on the wall of House that reads “Freedom and Unity.”

“Let it be known that without freedom and unity we can’t be Vermont,” Consejo said.

Consejo took particular umbrage with the fact that Burditt’s comments came on the House floor.

Consejo said he wasn’t trying to limit Burditt’s freedom to speak his mind.  

“He’s free,” said Consejo. “I’m just saying I won’t take it laying down.”

Other lawmakers hugged Consejo after the speech, shook his hand and patted him on the back.

Welch bill gives more dollars to maple

Rep. Peter Welch introduced a bill allowing the maple industry access $20 million in federal grants on Wednesday.

The bill creates a Maple Tapping Access Program that would apply for grants from the US Department of Agriculture. The program would distribute the grant money for research, marketing and to open more land to tapping.

The money coule also be used to fund incentives for private owners to open their land to tapping and to promote sustainability in the maple industry.

“My legislation makes investments in the industry to ensure it remains a strong part of our Vermont’s economy and identity for generations to come,” said Welch.

Welch has been active on the maple syrup front so far this year. In September, Welch got Log Cabin brand syrup to agree to remove the carmel color from their “All Natural Syrup.” This month, Welch wrote to supermarket chains asking them to shelf real Vermont maple syrup separately from other all natural syrups, including Log Cabin.

Health officials dismiss flawed study

Vermont’s Medicaid program wastes more money per-patient on brand-name pharmaceuticals than any state in the nation, according to a new report from the right-leaning American Enterprise Institute for Public Policy Research.

That would have been the lead on a story in tomorrow’s editions of The Times Argus and Rutland Herald. But it turns out there’s more than meets the eye to this AEI report, which is starting to generate headlines nationwide.

In addition to being a research fellow at AEI, the report’s author, Alex Brill, is a paid consultant for the generic-drug manufacturer TEVA Pharmaceuticals (a fact he failed to disclose during an interview earlier today). And some of the key variables he used to calculate Medicaid “waste” on higher-cost brand-name drugs, according to a top Vermont health official, are “grossly incorrect.”

Brill’s report, which tracked data for 20 commonly prescribed drugs, concluded that Vermont could have shaved $5 million from Medicaid costs in 2009 alone simply by choosing generic pharmaceuticals over their more expensive brand-name counterparts.

The additional costs, Brill said, amounted to an average of $31 per Medicaid enrollee, tops in the nation.

“States have the ability to do things differently,” Brill told the Press Bureau today. “And states that are spending more should be looking at other states to see what lessons they can learn.”

Susan Besio, head of the Vermont Department of Health Access, says it’s Brill who ought to be doing things differently. Brand-name drugs may carry higher retail costs than generics, Besio said. But federal rebates for branded pharmaceuticals, according to Besio, can make the net cost to states well below that of generics. In fact by choosing brand-name drugs in some instances, Besio said, the state spent $6.4 million less 2009 than what it would have paid had it gone with generics across the board.

Besio said her office monitors the price of generic drugs as soon as they come on the market. When the net cost of those generics dips below the brand-name option, she says, the office immediately shifts prescribing protocols.

“There is absolutely no ‘waste’ in spending on these brand drugs, and we monitor the list on a frequent and regular basis,” Besio said in an e-mail.

Whether federal rebates for brand-name drugs make for sound fiscal policy is perhaps fodder for a separate study.

Welch, Shumlin want federal dollars for rail project

Rep. Peter Welch and Gov. Peter Shumlin hosted an event to try to convince Deputy Administrator of the Federal Railroad Administration Karen Rae to choose Vermont to receive federal funding for a rail project.

Rae is part of a team charged with redistributing a $2.4 billion grant that was originally allocated for high-speed rail in Florida, but was rejected by the state's governor.

The proposed plan would create a freight and passenger rail line along the western corridor of Vermont. The rail would connect in Rutland to the Ethan Allen line and extend to Burlington, with a stop in Middlebury.

“It is time for us to decide if we are ready to invest in America,” said Rae. “We know that this is starting to move our country forward.”

Proponents of the rail said that rail would be good for commuters, college students and tourists while creating jobs and benefiting the environment, but two previous applications for a part of $8 billion in federal rail funding have been rejected.

Rae said that the network of neighboring states already working together on rail with Vermont was likely to help this application, because the rail administration is looking for projects that link regionally, rather than within states.

In order to convince Rae that Vermont would be worthy of the federal grant, Welch invited local business and community leaders from across the state, and the crowd gave Rae a standing ovation when she approached the podium.

The long guest list included Secretary of Transportation Brian Searles, Transportation Rail Director Joe Flynn, State Senators Peg Flory, Dick Mazza and Bob Hartwell, and State Representatives Herb Font-Russel, Charles Bohi, Diane Lanpher and Patrick Brennan. Local leaders included Tom Donohue, executive vice president of the Rutland Region Chamber of Commerce, Andy Mayer, president of the Addison County Chamber of Commerce and Tim Shea, president of the Lake Champlain Regional Chamber of Commerce. The director of the Rutland Economic Development Corp. Jamie Stewart, President of Westminster Cracker Larry Cirina and Plant Manager for OMYA Pierre Masuy were also in attendance.

State archivist ruminating on bottle bills of yesteryear

Greg Stanford, Vermont's State Archivist, has an interesting post on his "Spotlight on Records" blog about the antecedents of today's 'bottle bill', one of several efforts to encourage higher recycling rates in Vermont. He has prior posts on other issues relating to records and the state's history on a wide variety of subjects that are relevant today, including health care…

Clean Heat for Vermont?

A plan to get Vermont homes and pulbic buildings off of foreign heating oil and propane by 2031 was presented Thursday by The Vermont Public Interest Research Group. The plan replaces heating oil with a combination of wood, grass pellets, solar hot water, biodiesel, electricity and natural gas, heat sources which are available locally, according to VPIRG spokesman Clay Francis.

The wood heat including wood pellets and chips, would account for twenty four percent of VPIRG’s clean heat plan, will come from Vermont forests that cover seventy-eight percent of the state, said Francis who authored the VPIRG report. Francis said that he is confident that through smart logging and taking into consideration the new growth in the forests each year, Vermont will have enough wood to heat homes and preserve the forest.

“Vermont’s forests are such an important part of the state’s landscape so we would not support anything that would endanger our forests,” said Francis.

The VPIRG report estimates that retrofitting homes and buildings to make them more energy efficient could create 3,600 jobs in Vermont. Andy Boutin, owner of a wood pellet company said that there would be even more Vermont jobs in the creation of wood and grass pellets if more people begin to use them to fuel their homes.

According to the US Department of Energy, wood pellet stoves cost between $1,700 and $3,000. They also require frequent inspections and maintenance to ensure the stove is working safely. Wood pellets cost approximately $120–$200 a ton and on average households that use pellets as their main fuel source use two to three tons per year, according to the Department of Energy.

Rep. Anthony Klein, chairman of the House Committee on Natural Resources and Energy, said that the legislature should be creating a way to fund incentives for homeowners to switch to clean fuels and make their homes more energy efficient.

Jenna Pizzi

Happy Birthday, Mr. Governor

Before continuing with the day's orders, the Senate presented Gov. Peter Shumlin with a red, white and blue sheet cake in order to celebrate Shumlin's 55th birthday.

Govbday

 

Health-care bill moving through House

After a withering debate that stretched into the early morning hours Thursday, the House gave preliminary approval to the health-care reform bill.

A couple of Democrats – Rep. Cynthia Browning of Arlington and Rep. Timothy Corcoran of Bennington – broke ranks. But the 89-47 margin (14 lawmakers were absent) largely reflected the partisan divide over a bill that lays the groundwork for a publicly financed, universal system of care by sometime after 2014.

The debate often played out like a courtroom cross examination as Republicans peppered Rep. Mark Larson, chairman of the House Committee on Health Care, with scores of questions about the bill, namely: How much will it cost? And who’s going to pay?

“One of the things any human being is afraid of is change, without knowing what it means,” said Rep. Peter Fagan, a Rutland Republican. “Asking questions is very important.”

Larson’s inability to answer them, members of the minority caucus said, expose fundamental flaws in the health-care bill.

Larson though said Vermont knows enough about its current health-care system to know that drastic changes are needed. A rigorous analysis by a renown Harvard economist, Larson said, indicates Vermont could shave nearly $600 million annually from health-care costs under a single-payer system that delivers universal care.

He said he sympathizes with Republicans’ desire to have firmer projections on costs and financing. But he said the Legislature needs more time.

“We need specific information in order to develop an accurate financing plan,” Larson said. “We could speculate, but if we’re going to enact something into law, we need to do due diligence to make sure it’s right.”

House Republicans aren’t the only ones slinging arrows at H.202. In a widely distributed opinion piece, Lt. Gov. Phil Scott says the businesses with which he’s spoken have all voiced similar concerns.

“The bill makes no mention of how much this new system will cost, and I’m not comfortable agreeing to ‘buy’ something without knowing the price,” Scott said. “… With the health care bill as proposed, I feel as though we’re ordering a new car without knowing whether it’s a Yugo or a Rolls Royce, whether we can actually afford it, or whether we’ll even get what we need.”

In an open letter to legislators, Bea Grause, executive director of the Vermont Association of Hospitals and Health Systems, says her organizations, which represent all but one of the state’s hospitals, hasn’t taken an official position on the bill.

But administrators and doctors, she said, need answers to key questions before they can support the measure.

“For example, our members are concerned about the lack of essential detail on how Vermont’s new system will be financed and how providers will be paid,” Grause wrote.

The bill states that payments to medical professionals “must enable health care professionals to provide, on a solvent basis, effective and efficient health services that are in the public interest.”

Grause said hospitals support that concept.

“But given the State’s continued inability to adequately fund Medicaid,” she wrote, “we are very concerned with how fair and sustainable funding will be raised for a statewide health care system.”

The system envisioned in H.202, Larson said, can't be worse than what Vermont has now. Health-care costs have doubled over the past decade and will exceed $5 billion this year – nearly 20 percent of the state’s gross domestic product. Despite the massive infusion of resources into that industry, Larson said, 48,000 Vermonters lack insurance, and another 160,000, according to state data, are under-insured.

“We know the price tag of our current system,” Larson said. “And if we offered the system we have now, we would vote it down instantly.”

The bill is expected to win final approval on the House floor later this afternoon, after which lawmaker will take up the next big item – the budget.

Inside the tax bill

The House’s version of the miscellaneous tax bill – up for a final vote later today – has seen some significant revisions recently. And while the $24 million in new revenues it contains have stolen the spotlight, other interesting provisions have been either added to or scrapped from the legislation.

Lawmakers appeared poised yesterday to reward the fiscal restraint of the 17 supervisory unions who met their Challenges for Change spending targets. The provision would have reduced by one penny the statewide property-tax rates for residents in 61 towns that approved 2-percent decreases in local school spending in March.

The token of gratitude, as some lawmakers called it, generated cheers from the representatives of benefiting municipalities. But the provision would have cost the education fund about $1 million in foregone revenue, and other legislators soon chimed in with concerns.

Some towns, opponents of the rate reduction said, achieved the spending cuts at their local elementary schools. But because the supervisory unions of which they are a part failed to meet the goal overall, they would unfairly be denied the tax relief.

The House Committee on Ways and Means took note, and offered an amendment to yank from the bill a provision it had approved in a committee vote just three days prior.

“This action remains the only incentive that would have recognized our school district for meeting the Legislature’s voluntary request for meeting Challenges for Change goal,” House Minority Leader Don Turner said.

The bill also sets in statute the statewide property tax rate, which will see the first increase since the passage of Act 68 in 2003. Last year’s rate of 86 cents per $100 of assessed property value will rise to 87 cents this year.

Absent from the tax bill is a major overhaul in the state’s income-tax code. The ways and means committee had, until last week, planned to institute a provision that would have lowered income-tax rates by about a third by broadening the base of income on which those rates apply.

The shift from “taxable income” to “adjusted gross income,” proponents said, would eliminate a menu of deductions – like home mortgage loans, charitable contributions and interest payments on school loans – and increase the tax base from $10 billion to $15 billion overnight. The proposal also condensed five income brackets into three.

Vermont is one of only nine states that bases income-tax rates on taxable income. Though the proposal would raise the same amount of revenue, Democratic lawmakers said it would make the state’s income-tax rates more competitive with neighboring states. Vermont has a top rate of about 9 percent. Massachusetts’ is 5 percent.

Committee members though pulled the provision from the bill. The proposal could still make it to the floor this year in a piece of standalone legislation. Lawmakers say they need to work out kinks in the new code before moving ahead.

House Speaker Shap Smith and Ways-and-Means Chairwoman Janet Ancel have suggested the tax-code overhaul bill, if it materializes, could be used as a vehicle for a proposed surcharge on the incomes of the wealthy.

The surcharge, sought by Progressives and some Democrats in a floor amendment Tuesday, failed to win support. Smith though said he might reconsider his opposition if the federal government approves a budget that results in additional cuts to Vermont programs.

Self-employed Vermonters will see some relief in the tax bill. Currently they’re unable to deduct health-insurance costs from their income-tax forms. Lawmakers say it creates an unfair disadvantage, since the health benefits of employed residents are decoupled from their taxable income.

The measure is expected to cost the state about $700,000 in foregone revenue in fiscal year 2013.

Wood-products manufacturers will see a two-year extension of a tax credit, a move expected to save that industry about $400,000 in tax liabilities in fiscal year 2013.

The tax bill would repeal a provision in the tax code that reduces property-transfer tax rates on land that is part of the Current Use program. The change would generate $170,000 next year, which would be allocated to the tax department to digitize land records.

The bill also spares some organizations from a law that imposed sales taxes on admission tickets sold by nonprofits. The new threshold is designed to insulate smaller organizations from the tax and would cost the state about $75,000 in foregone revenue next year.

Japanese students visit Statehouse

A group of students from Tottori Prefecture, Japan visited the Statehouse Wednesday. The students were a part of an exchange group called Green Across the Pacific, which partners students from Japan and China with Vermont high school students to learn about global environmental issues.

The students from Tottori arrived in Burlington on March 19th, about a week after an earthquake and tsunami devastated Japan. Tottori is located on the western region of Honshu, the main island of Japan and approximately 380 miles from Fukushima, where the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant was crippled after the earthquake caused problems with cooling systems in the reactors.

While the students are visiting Vermont they will learn about natural history, environmental initiatives and conservation from professors and representatives from the Agency of Natural Resources. The students will also work on projects relating to environmental issues of their choice, some of these projects relating to alternative fuel.

The students from Vermont and Tottori came to the Statehouse to learn about the impact that politics have on environmental policy in Vermont.

The students from Vermont had planned to visit Japan in April, but according to the founder of the program, Peter Lynch, said that the trip will unlikely happen because of travel restrictions for student groups traveling to Japan.

Shumlin backs Volz for Public Service Board

Gov. Peter Shumlin on Tuesday said he wants Jim Volz, the chairman of the Public Service Board, to be reappointed to his post.

Volz has been chairman since 2005 of the Public Service Board, which regulates the state's electric, gas and telecommunications companies.

Shumlin praised Volz as the right man for a job that will deal with major issues in the coming years, including the potential closure of the Vermont Yankee nuclear plant and the expansion of internet and cell phone service throughout the state.

“What I know is he is extremely competent, fair, he listens, he knows the issues… better than almost anyone, and he cares deeply about Vermont,” said Shumlin. “So I don’t think I can do any better than that.”

The Judicial Nominating Board, which includes lawmakers and gubernatorial appointees, is required to solicit and screen applications for the Public Service Board position, and the governor then appoints a chair from the list of candidates. Shumlin asked the board to begin that process. 

Volz was thankful for the chance to keep his job, which pays $122,800 annually.

“I’d like to thank the governor for his faith in me and for giving me the opportunity and honor to serve the people of the state of Vermont for the next 6 years,” Volz said.

 

 

And off we go

House Speaker Shap Smith banged the opening gavel on Tuesday’s floor session with a plea for “patience.” Legislators this week will debate the tax bill (today), health-care reform legislation (Wednesday) and budget (Thursday) before sending the bills off to the Senate.

Things will no doubt get contentious.

“Patience is a virtue, a virtue that will most likely be tested this week,” Smith said. “We are a big family, and big families often have squabbles, so we’ll get to test that this week also.”

Smith though tried to bring some perspective.

“We are lucky to have each other and we are lucky to represent the state of Vermont and I hope that we can keep in our hearts and minds a certain level of peace and patience.”

 

Vermont GOP gets new Executive Director

Pat McDonald, recently elected the chair of the Vermont Republican Party, has named Tayt R. Brooks the executive director.

From the press release:

 

"I'm excited to have Tayt join our team," said McDonald.  "His experience in working with people around the state and in working with members of the General Assembly makes Tayt a good fit to advance my plan to grow our party."

 

Brooks joins the Vermont Republican Party after serving as Vermont Commissioner of Economic, Housing and Community Development in the Douglas Administration.

 

He served as Executive Director for the Vermont Republican Party during the summer and fall of 2008. Prior to that, he spent five years as the Government Affairs Director for the Home Builders' & Remodelers' Association of Northern Vermont and has over four years of experience sourcing candidates as a personnel recruiter. Brooks also served as a selectman for the Town of St. Albans.

 

Brooks, 36, was born and raised in St. Albans and after graduating from Bellows Free Academy in 1993, he enrolled at St. Lawrence University in Canton, NY, where he earned a B.A. in history with a Canadian studies minor.