Monthly Archives: April 2011

A royal honeymoon in Vermont?

MONTPELIER – Even Vermont's ski areas are trying to capitalize on the hype surrounding the royal wedding set for tomorrow in England.  

The trade association for the state's ski areas has invited Prince William and Kate Middleton to honeymoon in the Green Mountain State after their wedding tomorrow.

The invitation was sent today to the Clarence House, the official residence of Their Royal Highnesses, the Prince of Wales, the Duchess of Cornwall, Prince William and Harry, according to the Vermont Ski Areas Association.

From the press release: "In recognition of a love that spans the Atlantic and a legacy as sweet as Maple, Vermont warmly opened its doors to the newlyweds with an official invitation to enjoy our resorts, be it a winter ski and spa trip or summer mountain trek and golf getaway. A charmed history, Lake Districtesque beauty and peaceful privacy await the newlyweds as their journey to the new wedded world begins."

Seems about as likely as a snowstorm in July (OK, less likely), but I guess it's the thought that counts.

Vt. GOP files formal complaint against Shumlin

Vermont Republicans filed a formal complaint  Wednesday with the Vermont Attorney General's office alleging that Gov.Peter Shumlin violated Vermont's campaign finance laws by soliciting donations from lobbyists during the legislative session.

 

The formal complaint comes on the heels of a letter Monday from the state Republican Party Chairwoman Pat McDonald sent to Shumlin and the media.

 

Shumlin's people referred questions to the Vermont Democratic Party, which acknowledged it may have sent e-mail solicitations to lobbyists.

 

The kind of complaints leveled by the GOP are common, according to Jim Condos, the Vermont Secretary of State.

 

Here's the formal complaint from the Vermont GOP that was filed today:

 

Dear Attorney General Sorrell:

Please regard this as a formal complaint of a violation of Vermont's lobbying law.  Governor Shumlin has solicited contributions from registered lobbyists during the legislative session in two recent letters, which we believe is against the law.  2 V.S.A. § 266.

This law is in place to prevent politicians from using the legislative session as a political fundraising tool and to prevent lobbyists from using contributions to influence public policy or to create the perception of undue influence. 

I understand that according to the Secretary of State "similar charges are leveled by lobbyists, media, and political parties on all sides almost every year.  In almost every circumstance, the charge was an inadvertent mistake, generally done by a staffer or volunteer who, when reviewing email and mail lists, missed removing a lobbyist."

If this is in fact a law that is easily misunderstood, where mistakes are made, or no one really cares to enforce it, perhaps it is time to take a look at how we improve the oversight of our campaign finance laws.  These laws help keep the public trust of elected officials.  It's important that we have an open and transparent system in place. 

I look forward to your report on this specific matter and any recommendations you may have on improving our system.

The letters, dated April 6th and April 18th are attached.

Sincerely,

 

 Pat McDonald

Cc:  Governor  Peter Shumlin

       Secretary of State Jim Condos

Shumlin speaks on Rachel Maddow Show

The same day the Vermont Senate backed a health care reform bill, Gov. Peter Shumlin spoke over the phone on MSNBC's The Rachel Maddow Show about the reform effort in the Green Mountain State.

During the 6-minute interview over the phone, Shumlin said many of the things Vermonters who have followed the debate have already heard: health care is a right, the system is too expensive and it's hurting businesses.

Maddow's first question was whether Vermont is headed for a single-payer system.

"Absolutely," said Shumlin, who campaigned on single-payer health care.  

There has been intense lobbying on the health care bill at the Statehouse, but Shumlin thinks a lack of major lobbying campaigns by the insurance and pharmaceutical industries is a reason health care reform in the U.S. will be led by small states like Vermont.

“They just don’t really notice us all that much,” Shumlin said.

For the record: Shumlin did not manage to squeeze in a reference to maple syrup.

Scott breaks his first tie

With Democrats wielding a 22-8 supermajority in the Vermont Senate, opportunities for tie-breaking votes should theoretically be few and far between. But last Friday, Lt. Gov. Phil Scott got his first chance to case a decisive vote when the Senate deadlocked over a proposal to extend property-tax exemptions for non-profit skating rinks.

The proposal, offered by Sen. Bobby Starr as an amendment to the miscellaneous tax bill, extends for one year the three-year exemption lawmakers had previously approved.

“These skating rinks provide for the physical education of Vermont students. Without them, Vermont’s schools would not have the facilities to support their hockey teams,” Scott said in a press release.

The constitutional duties of Scott’s post include presiding over the Senate, and casting tie-breaking votes when necessary.

He nearly had occasion to weigh in on a far more controversial matter last Thursday, when the Senate held its vote on a proposal to increase cigarette taxes by $1 per pack. That vote failed by the slimmest of margins, 14-16.

Entergy lawyers order “hold” on state records

In a legal maneuver that bars state officials from deleting or tampering with any documents related to Vermont Yankee, lawyers for Entergy have placed a so-called “litigation hold” on the entire Vermont Legislature and much of state government.

In a confidential letter delivered to lawmakers Friday, Assistant Attorney General Kyle Landis-Marinello warns elected officials to leave untouched any Yankee-related documents. The requirements are “serious and sobering,” according to the letter. Lawmakers could face “harsh sanctions,” he says, if the orders are flouted.

The litigation hold applies to both paper and electronic documents, including correspondence, e-mails, Word or Excel files, photographs and video and audio recordings. Documents dating as far back as 2001 are subject to the order.

“E-mails may be the most difficult category of information to preserve, so you should identify relevant e-mails and prevent them from being lost or destroyed,” the letter says.

The hold also affects “anyone who has engaged in paid or unpaid contractual work or consultation for or on behalf of your office in any matter, docket, or communication involving Entergy Nuclear Vermont Yankee LLC or Entergy Nuclear Operations Inc.”

Also affected by the action are the Department of Public Service, the governor’s office, the Public Service Board, Agency of Natural Resources and office of the Attorney General.

$1 cigarette tax back on?

The political winds have shifted in the Senate, where a tax bill that appeared doomed to failure yesterday has found a sudden surge of support today.

The legislation includes a $1 per-pack tax increase on cigarettes – a provision Gov. Peter Shumlin says would hurt merchants along the Connecticut River Valley. Shumlin launched an impressive lobbying effort and, in one-on-one talks with various lawmakers, managed to engineer majority opposition in the Senate against its own finance committee’s tax bill.

After a series of closed-door sessions between Shumlin and senators Wednesday, they looked to have reached a deal. By lowering the proposed tax increase to 53 cents per pack, Senate President John Campbell would secure enough votes to get his tax bill a ‘yes’ vote on the floor.

Today however, it appears some Senate Democrats have had a change of heart. And according to Campbell, the Senate may well proceed with the $1 tax (for which he presumably now has the votes). Press coverage of the Democratic governor’s intervention in legislative affairs seems to have struck a nerve.

Scott not a supporter of Entergy lawsuit

Lt. Gov. Phil Scott is one of Vermont Yankee’s few allies in state government. The former Washington County senator – one of only four last year to vote in favor of allowing the nuclear power plant to seek re-licensure before the Public Service Board – doesn’t necessarily think the 650-megawatt reactor should operate past 2012. He does though believe Entergy ought to get a chance to argue its case before the PSB.

So it was somewhat surprising to hear the Republican’s response to news about Entergy’s new lawsuit against the state of Vermont. Scott said he’s disappointed by Entergy’s decision to challenge state jurisdiction over nuclear regulation. He doesn’t agree with the 2006 vote that forced Entergy to get legislative approval before it could seek re-licensure from the PSB – Scott voted against that bill.

“But these are the rules. This is the law that’s been passed,” Scott said Tuesday. “They are rules I don’t agree with, but we have to live with rules we don’t agree with.”

Scott said he’s concerned about the considerable legal fees Vermont will incur fighting the lawsuit. And if courts do give Entergy some latitude – in the form of an injunction that allows the plant to operate past its license expiration – Scott said Vermont “may be the only state in New England that doesn’t receive low-price power.”

 

Vermont Yankee files suit to stay open past 2012

Entergy Corporation, the parent company of the Vermont Yankee nuclear power plant, announced in a press release a few minutes ago that two of its subsidiaries have filed a complain in US District Court for Vermont seeking a judgement to prevent the cessation of operations in March of 2012.

Under the terms of the agreement when the plant was sold to Entergy in 2002, the state has the final say in whether or not Vermont Yankee can continue to operate beyond its 40-year license.

The Nuclear Regulatory Commission on March 21 of this year renewed that license, but the majority of the Vermont legislature and Gov. Shumlin have been opposed to allowing operation beyond 2012.

We have made every reasonable effort to accommodate the state of Vermont and its officials while allowing the continued operation of Vermont Yankee – an outcome that benefits all stakeholders, including Vermont consumers and the approximately 650 men and women who work at the plant,” said Richard Smith, president of Entergy Wholesale Commodities, in the press release. “Despite the fact that Vermont Yankee is important to the reliability of the New England electric transmission grid, emits virtually no greenhouse gases, and provides more than $100 million in annual economic benefits to the state of Vermont, it has been made clear that state officials are singularly focused on shutting down the plant.  That has left us with no other choice but to seek relief in the court system.”

Tax bill moves out of Senate committee

Nicotine addictions could get considerably more expensive in Vermont.

The Senate Committee on Finance this evening voted out its version of the miscellaneous tax bill, and it includes a hefty increase in the cigarette tax.

The House’s tax bill already included a 27-cent per-pack increase on cigarettes. Under the Senate plan, the surcharge would rocket up by a full dollar. Lawmakers expect the tax to raise more than $9 million in new tobacco revenue – nearly $6 million more than the House plan. The Senate uses the extra money to reduce some of the health-care taxes on which Gov. Peter Shumlin had relied to help close next year’s budget gap. Under the Senate plan, hospitals will pay about $4 million less than they would have under the House version. A tax on health-insurance claims would be reduced by $2 million.

Shumlin hates the plan, largely because of the regressive nature of the cigarette tax. His aides also say the tobacco tax is unreliable – as smoking rates go down, they say, so too will the tax revenue it generates.

Shumlin lobbied the Senate hard to go with his proposed tax on dental clinics – which would have raised about $6 million. Senate President John Campbell rejected the governor’s push, saying he wanted to reduce as many health-care taxes as possible. Higher costs for providers, he said, will simply be passed on to consumers in the form of higher insurance premiums.

The Shumlin, House and Senate tax proposals all raise about the same amount of money, from $23.75 million (Shumlin) to $24.5 million (the Senate).

The Senate will use the extra money to buy back some of Shumlin’s proposed cuts to human services. Likely recipients of the budget-cut reprieve are services for homebound elders and substance-abuse programs in public schools.

Senate votes health care bill out of first committee

The Senate Health and Welfare committee voted the Shumlin administration's health care plan, H.202, out of committee by a 5-0 vote this morning; it has moved to the Senate Finance committee for consideration.

Union critical of latest version of collective bargaining bill

The American Federation of Teachers is unhappy with the latest version of a bill that would allow some child care providers to collectively bargain with the state.

The bill squeaked out of the House Committee on Human Services on Friday with a 6-5 vote.

The bill was scaled back significantly compared to when it was introduced. It now applies to about 1,500 home-based child care providers rather than about 7,000 providers and workers. Child care centers and the workers there are no longer included in the bill. The American Federation of Teachers, the union that has pushed hard for the bill, said excluding the centers is "extremely disappointing."

Here's a statement from Andrew Tripp, the executive director of AFT-Vermont.   

"It is extremely disappointing, and makes little sense, that child care centers were excluded; it leaves too many children, through their providers, without a voice. The voice that appeared to ring the loudest with the legislators was from the large corporate-like centers in Chittenden County, who used their limited resources to hire lobbyists to silence the voices of the smaller centers with fewer resources."

He continued:

 "We hope this silencing is merely temporary as we move through the next steps of the legislative process. Legislators must recognize the expertise of all early educators as a whole and include them in H.97. All providers will remain focused on getting to the table to lend their expertise to the shared efforts of improving the child care delivery system."
Rep. Ann Pugh, who chairs the committee, said yesterday that the other states that have allowed childcare workers to collectively bargain have excluded childcare centers and that's the method that has proven to increase the quality of early education.  
The bill would allow child care workers to bargain with the state to get higher subsidies, which are a crucial source of funding for the industry.

Rules committee gives green light to pot dispensaries bill

A Senate Rules Committee voted 5-0 to let a bill go to the Senate floor that would allow two marijuana dispensaries to set up shop in Vermont.

The committee took a vote Thursday morning that held up the legislation for a few hours, leaving lawmakers and lobbyists who are supportive of the bill working to make sure the legislation kept moving forward.

The initial vote that briefly stalled the bill came about because the bill did not meet a March deadline for coming out of the Senate's money committees.

Bills often do not meet the deadline, but the rules committee decided to take a closer look at the marijuana legislation, because it was a controversial issue that has the potential to delay the session, said Sen. Bill Doyle.

Even some lawmakers who voted to allow the bill to go to the floor don't support marijuana dispensaries.

Sen. Dick Mazza is one of them, but he said the full Senate should be allowed to weigh in.

"In all fairness, I think the Senate is entitled to vote on it one way or another," said Mazza.  

Senate President Pro Tem John Campbell and Sen. Kevin Mullin, both members of the rules committee, also said they do not support the bill.

 

 

 

 

Marijuana dispensaries on the ropes?

Three Senators on a rules committee blocked a marijuana dispensaries bill from going to the Senate floor on Thursday, bringing into question  — at least for now – the fate of legislation that some people thought would cruise through the Senate.

The five-member Senate Rules Committee voted 3-2 in favor of holding up the progress of the bill.

But it doesn't mean the pot bill is extinguished.

According to Senate President Pro Tem John Campbell, the committee is expected to meet again this afternoon at 4 p.m. to hear from Sen. Jeanette White, a sponsor of the bill and the chairwoman of the Senate Committee on Government Operations.

Campbell and other senators on the rules committee think the legislation has a good chance of passing through the committee this afternoon.

If not, the bill could be in danger of failing this year.

"If we have a similar vote at 4 o'clock today the bill may be in trouble," said Campbell.

Senators Dick Mazza, Bill Doyle and Kevin Mullin voted against allowing the bill to immediately go to the Senate floor.

The reason they were faced with the decision is that the marijuana bill failed to pass out of committees soon enough. It's common for bills to not meet the "crossover" deadline, and the Senate Rules Committee allowed other legisalation that did not meet crossover to go to the floor Thursday.

The marijuna dispensaries legislation would allow Vermont to have two nonprofit dispensaries where people with medical marijuana cards would buy the drug.

Dollars for Dems

Election Day 2012 is still 19 months away. But the Vermont Democratic House Campaign is starting to money up for the next cycle.  

On Thursday, House Speaker Shap Smith headlines a fundraiser for the political-action committee at The Chef’s Table on Main Street. For $1,000, donors get to enjoy “an evening of discussion” with Smith and the rest of the Democratic caucus’ leadership team.

The $1,000 package is limited to 15 people and includes a 60-minute reception before dinner. Those unable to afford the four-figure cocktail hour can attend the dinner portion of the event only for $500.

“It’s a chance for our supporters to express their support and it’s open to whoever wants to pay the suggested donation,” said Nick Charyk, head of the Vermont Democratic House Campaign.

Thursday’s soiree is an annual event, and will be attended by at least a few Statehouse lobbyists.  

Charyk said his group is “working on a series of house parties across the state” after legislators adjourn.

“Those are much lower-dollar events,” he said.

The group is independent of the Vermont Democratic Party and raises money to support Democrats in House races across the state.

“I’m planning on starting to spend resources at the end of the session with informational mailings on issues legislators have been working on, particularly on exactly what the health-care bill does,” Charyk said. “Also we’ll hold some workshops at the end of the session to help candidates with constituent outreach.”

Anti-single-payer group takes message to masses

Opponents of the Legislature’s health-care bill hit the airwaves today with a radio ad that urges lawmakers to “slow down” their reform efforts.

The 60-second spot, paid for by the newly formed group Vermonters for Health Care Freedom, features both the high production value and cautionary tone of the negative campaign ads heard during last summer’s gubernatorial race.

“Ever heard the saying measure twice and cut once? You don’t make a rash decision until you have all the facts. But that’s what the Vermont Legislature wants to do.”

The female narrator – an ominous music track playing in the background – goes on to say the health-care bill could “destroy the private insurance market” and “destroy jobs.”

According to Vermonters for Health Care Freedom founder Darcie Johnston, the spot was produced by On Message, Inc., a Washington, D.C.-based marketing firm.

“The intent is to educate Vermonters and get them involved, get them to contact their legislators,” Johnston says.

Johnston’s nonprofit has a 501c4 designation, which allows it to collect financial contributions while keeping the identity of the donors secret. Johnston says the group has raised about $15,000 so far. Though she won’t identify the group’s patrons, she says all the money has come from inside Vermont’s borders.

Anya Rader Wallack, special assistant to the governor on health care, says Vermonters ought to know who’s funding the effort.

“The frontline issue is who are these people? Is this evidence of out of state interests coming in here to influence what’s going on? Is it evidence of people who are making money off the current system and want to maintain the status quo,” Rader Wallack says. “We should know something about who’s trying to influence this process.”

As to the heart of the ad’s claims – that the health-care reform bill will compel doctors, businesses and jobs to flee the state – Rader Wallack says the charges are based on a “combination of misunderstanding, misrepresentation and distrust.”

Many of the concerns she’s heard from businesses, Rader Wallack says, center around new ground rules for insurance benefits in the health-care exchange being set up by the reform bill. In fact most of those new ground rules, she says, are enacted not by the state bill but by the federal Affordable Care Act signed into law last.

“Rules change for all employers under the federal law, whether they’re inside the exchange or outside the exchange,” she says.

The radio spot also hits on unanswered questions about the cost and financing of the single-payer system envisioned in the reform bill.

Rader Wallack says those questions will be answered as the reform effort moves through a multi-year process.

“We are going to in a responsible and timely manner provide answers to all the questions that have been raised,” Rader Wallack says. “Before the Legislature has to actually adopt a single-payer plan, they will understand the costs, the likely savings, the source of financing, the impact on businesses large and small, and the impact on the provider market.”

Given the skyrocketing cost of health-insurance premiums, Rader Wallack says, Vermont can’t afford to “slow down” reform efforts.

“We say, ‘are you kidding? Slow down?’” Rader Wallack says. “We’ve got to start working on this right away.”

Johnston says the radio ad will run on several stations and reach a statewide audience. Johnston doesn’t have an exact membership figure for Vermonters for Health Care Freedom but says the group “is growing every day.”