Monthly Archives: January 2013

Republicans break out badges in move to become health care police

House and Senate Republicans have accused Gov. Peter Shumlin of violating state law by failing to tell Vermonters how he plans to pay for single-payer health care.

Legislation signed into law by the Democratic governor in 2009 included a provision calling for the recommendation of a single-payer financing mechanism by Jan. 15 of this year. Administration officials say the mandate was rendered unnecessary by a shifting federal landscape that postponed for at least three years any hope of implementing the publicly financed system.

Senate Minority Leader Joe Benning, however, said Vermonters are looking answers, not excuses.

“Businesses need to have the information necessary to make important decisions for themselves and their employees,” Benning, a Caledonia County Republican, said during a Statehouse press conference Thursday morning. “We need to have a clear understanding of what the game plan is, and at present we don’t have that game plan.”

Jeb SpauldingAdministration Secretary Jeb Spaulding dismissed the GOP attack as a “stunt.” The administration last week unveiled a highly anticipated report on single-payer; Spaulding said the administration had explained to lawmakers in advance that it would not include any specific recommendations for financing. He said reasonable people agree that it makes no sense to design a financing system for a program that won’t begin until 2017.

“These are people who want to undermine the effort to move to a single-payer system and are looking for any opportunity they can get to confuse people and erode support,” Spaulding said. “Issuing a specific plan at this stage of the game would not in any way help Vermonters understand what a new system would look like or what the options are to pay for it.”

For a deeper look at Republicans’ grievances, and whether they have any merit, check out the full story in today’s edition of The Times Argus and Rutland Herald.

 

Opponents warn of unintended consequences

Lynn Caulfield of Dummerston said it’s a “sad day in Vermont” when lawmakers “are asking health care professionals to help human beings die, rather than extending compassionate care … to ease pain and suffering.”

A nurse herself, Caulfield said it won’t be pain that drives patients’ decisions, but a fear of being a burden to their families.

“None of the dying faces I have cared for have been in excruciating pain,” Caulfield said. “They have exited with grace and peace.”

Julia Roberts, a licensed mental health counselor, said she’s had to talk “individuals in their most hopeless” moments out of suicide. By legalizing suicide, Roberts said, lawmakers risk undermining the societal values that often prevent troubled teens from going through with it.

“You remove for some the one thing that would have prevented them from following through with suicidal thoughts,” she said. “Removing deterrents to suicide can only increase suicide.”

Peter Anderson, of Jericho, said the school shooting tragedy in Newtown, Conn., in December should prompt some soul-searching.

“What makes a young man in Connecticut kill … 20 defenseless children… As a nation, we’re wrestling with this question,” Anderson said. “I would suggest part of the answer is to be found in the messages our culture sends about violence, death and suicide, and whether or not human life is to be valued and protected.”

Anderson said lawmakers may be well-intentioned, but that unintended consequences “will be very subtle at fist, not so subtle down the road.”

“Attitudes about the weak, elderly and infirm will begin to change,” he said.

Supporters of bill make plea for “choice”

Dick Walters said that the legislation will improve end-of-life care in Vermont, not erode it. Since Oregon adopted its “death with dignity” law 15 years ago, according to Walters, it has seen improved training of doctors and better palliative care. He said Vermont will enjoy the same benefits.

Elizabeth Steel of Shelburne was short and to the point, saying the bill ensures “everybody’s individual right to choose.”

“I wish my father had this option,” Steel said.

Melinda Moulton said that if she were diagnosed with a terminal illness “and given a short time to live, and if this illness reduced my quality of life to the point where living was unbearable, I would choose to end my life.”

Were she forced into this choice today, Moulton said, she wouldn’t want her family present, lest they be vulnerable to criminal sanctions. The legislation, she said, would “give those that want it the right to end their life surrounded by those they love in a legal, honorable and spiritual way without retribution.”

Disability rights advocates oppose legislation

Mark Kaufman with the Vermont Center for Independent Living said his organization has “three very grave concerns” about the bill, all of which revolve around the legislation’s impact on people living with disabilities.

Some of the people availing themselves of the law in Oregon, Kaufman said, say they do so not out of pain but out of frustration over loss of control of their physical faculties. He said people with disabilities live without that kind of control for their entire lives, but live happy and fulfilling existences.

He said the group has concerns about inaccurate diagnoses. He said lawmakers later this week will hear from people who have been given “a terminal diagnosis multiple times in life.”

“If at one of those times they chose to die, is that okay then?” Kaufman asked.

He said the group also worries about whether financial considerations, and the accumulation of additional health care costs, will influence people’s decisions about whether to live or die.

Hearing on controversial end-of-life bill underway in Montpelier

The hearing didn’t begin until 5, but citizens here to testify for or against controversial end-of-life legislation were already filing into the House chamber around 4. By 4:30, the line of people waiting to sign up for a two-minute slot had backed up from the House doors all the way onto the floor of the Senate.

The heavy turnout – opponents look to outnumber supporters – is testament to the depth of passion the issue has generated, and the degree to which Vermonters have been moved to work for or against its passage.

Supporters of the bill can be identified by blue stickers on their shirt fronts that say “I support the Death with Dignity bill.” Opponents, meanwhile, have orange versions that read “I oppose doctor prescribed death.”

Turnout looks to number about 300, and witnesses will be taken in a pro-con, pro-con order.

As of now, supporters of the legislation have the momentum in Montpelier. Senate President John Campbell has promised a vote on the Senate floor, his own philosophical objections to the legislation notwithstanding. And Sen. Claire Ayer, chairwoman of the senate committee hosting tonight’s proceedings, says she believes it has the votes to pass.

People like Mary Beerworth, executive director of Vermont Right to Life, will be working to ensure it doesn’t.

Beerworth said a “coalition of the unlikely” that includes disability-rights groups, doctors, the Catholic Church and others will lobby lawmakers hard between now and the floor vote to undermine support for the bill.

The defeat of a ballot item in Massachusetts last November that would have allowed doctors to prescribe lethal doses of medication to terminally ill patients, Beerworth said this afternoon, is testament to the organizing power of the opposition and the resonance of their message.

“Everybody’s getting out their base,” she said.

Dick Walters, president of Patient Choices at End of Life Vermont, one of the founders of the :death with dignity” movement in Vermont, said he’s confident that support for the bill will hold up in the face of the coming attack. A recent poll commissioned by WCAX, Walters said, showed public approval for the bill above 70 percent.

“This is a settled issue in Vermont I think,” Walters said. “And I think that when legislators look to their constituents to find out what they think, they will find that the vast majority of people are in favor.”

The Senate Committee on Health and Welfare this week will take more testimony on the bill before voting it favorably out of committee on Friday. The bill will then head to the Senate Judiciary Committee, where Sen. Dick Sears, an opponent of the bill, will use his committee to expose what he says are flaws in the legislation.

Though the bill won’t get a favorable vote in judiciary, Sears has already agreed to allow it to go back to the Senate floor for a vote from the full body.

This evening, citizens will plead with them to make what they believe is the right decision. We’ll be bringing you some of their stories.

 

Sanders’ opposition notwithstanding, testimony on wind moratorium begins

Undaunted by the public recriminations issued by Sen. Bernard Sanders Monday, proponents of a moratorium on mountaintop wind began taking testimony Tuesday on a bill  that would halt new development for three years.

The bill suffered a tongue-lashing in Sanders’ Burlington office. It found a more hospitable host in the Senate Committee on Natural Resources today, where three of the committee’s five members – including chairman Bob Hartwell – have signed on as co-sponsors.

First up to testify on the record was Paul Burns, the same wind-energy advocate who had hours earlier suggested that supporting the moratorium was tantamount to rejecting the science behind climate change.

The senators didn’t appreciate his tone.

“Do you believe it’s possible to believe in the science of climate change and yet disagree with you on the construction of new wind farms on Vermont’s mountaintops?” Sen. Peter Galbraith asked the head of VPIRG.

“That’s an interesting question,” Burns replied, suggesting it’s difficult to know which is worse – not believing in climate change and opposing wind because you think it’s unnecessary, or believing global warming is real and fighting against wind anyway.

Galbraith said it’s possible for one to appreciate fully the dangers of climate change, but to believe that the solutions to the global crisis don’t lie on the top of Vermont’s mountains.

Burns said that if climate-change believers want to shun the “most renewable” energy source available in Vermont, then it’s incumbent on them to identify an alternative.

“So far I have not seen any convincing evidence that opponents of wind have come up with a plan to provide for the state’s energy needs with an alternative to wind,” Burns said. “It’s conceivable somebody could come up with fusion technology, but I haven’t seen it yet senator.”

Galbraith told Burns to consider adopting a more civil tone as the debate progresses. A public conversation about wind is one worth having, Galbraith said. And people on his side ought not be demonized by people like Burns as global-warming deniers.

“I guess there are at least three flat-earthers here in this committee, in your view,” Galbraith said. “I wouldn’t characterize your position in an extreme way … And you owe to be respectful to people on the other side and not characterize them in such an extreme way.”

Supporters of the three-year ban, however, are beginning to seem less attached to the moratorium than they are to revising the regulatory process used to approve or deny wind projects. Included in the moratorium bill is a provision that would shift oversight of wind development from the Public Service Board to Act 250. Supporters of wind oppose that move – likely because the PSB’s ability to take into account “public good” gives a huge check in the ‘plus’ column to projects that general megawatts of electricity for use by public utilities.

“Leave the moratorium out of it for a second – let’s pretend the bill is an Act 250 bill,” Hartwell said. “What is wrong with putting (wind projects) in Act 250? We’re not talking about killing off wind. We’re talking about process.”

Supporters of the wind moratorium might have suffered a public attack from Sanders Monday. But the troops might be rallying elsewhere. The Lamoille County Democratic Party is drafting a resolution in support of the moratorium that could come up for a vote at the group’s next monthly meeting.

Citizens to make cases for “death with dignity,” against “physician assisted suicide”

All eyes in the Statehouse this evening will be on a witness chair the center of the House chamber.

That’s where citizens will have two minutes to make their cases for or against legislation that would permit doctors to hasten the deaths of terminally ill patients.

The two-hour public hearing begins at 5, and we’ll have real-time coverage of the event here at vermontpressbureau.com.

We’ll have some short vignettes featuring some of the more compelling testimony, as well as a look at who showed up, what side they represent, and how public input could impact prospects for the legislation.

You can listen to the hearing live online at Vermont Public Radio, or head over to vpt.org to watch Vermont Public Television’s live stream.

In speech in House chamber, McKibben to address Legislature on climate change

The famed climate change expert has been invited by Shap Smith to address the full Legisalture. According to the release:

Speaker of the House Shap Smith invites Environmental Activist Bill McKibben to speak to Legislature about Climate Change

Speaker of the House Shap Smith has invited renowned author, environmentalist, and activist Bill McKibben to the State House on January 30th to address climate change as it relates to Vermont and upcoming legislation.

Bill McKibben is known nationally to be an advocate for action in response to the changing environment.  He has written a dozen books about the environment and is a founder of the grassroots climate campaign 350.org.  The Boston Globe said in 2010 that he was “probably the country’s most important environmentalist.” He currently serves as a Schumann Distinguished Scholar at Middlebury College.

Speaker Smith has prioritized climate change as one of the most important challenges facing the state.  “The threat of global climate change and the implication that it is having and will have on Vermonters and Vermont businesses must be addressed,” said Speaker Smith, “Bill McKibben offers expertise and a robust understanding of the challenges we face as well as the steps that can move us forward in reducing and eliminating carbon-dependent energy use.  I am pleased to welcome him to the State House to address the issue with the legislature.”

Bill McKibben will speak to the legislature in the House Chamber at 1:00pm on Wednesday the 30th. 

Environment, energy groups praise Shumlin budget, but say more money will be needed

A coalition of energy and environmental groups says it’s happy with Peter Shumlin’s plan to fund weatherization and renewable-energy subsidies. For now.

Shumlin Thursday outlined a budget proposal that included $12 million to weatherize Vermont homes and $5 million for the Clean Energy Development Fund. He said he wants to support the new investments by imposing a 10-percent tax on the sales of the “break open” lottery tickets – a sort of unregulated cousin of the scratch-off tickets found in local convenience stores.

“These investments are a critical step towards addressing the enormous opportunity we have to save Vermonters money, slash global warming pollution and create jobs by moving towards efficiency and renewable energy,” the groups said in a release.

But Shumlin’s budget address notably did not include any of the financing recommendations in a recently released report from the Thermal Efficiency Taskforce. The report, which said Vermont will need to raise $276 million over the next seven years to meet the goal of weatherizing 80,000 homes by 2020, called for an excise tax on heating oil and tax credits for people who fund their own home weatherization projects. Shumlin’s appropriation won’t come close to putting the state on pace to meet that goal. And the coalition gently, softly and politely seemed to indicate that the governor ought to consider a more robust funding source in the future.

“While ultimate success will require additional resources, this proposal sets clear direction that Vermont is committed to helping families and businesses save money and energy, and to tackling the issue of climate change,” the group said.

The coalition includes the Vermont Public Interest Research Group, Vermont Natural Resources Council, Conservation Law Foundation, Vermont Energy Investment Corporation (Efficiency Vermont) and Renewable Energy Vermont.

 

 

Shumlin administration proposes new gas tax, says it’s open to suggestions

Saying it’s still open to other options, the Shumlin administration this afternoon unveiled its plan to raise $36.5 million in new revenue for upkeep of roads and bridges.

It’s a little complicated, but the proposal calls for an increase in one gas tax, a decrease in another, and a $9 million bond that would be paid for by an existing revenue stream.

A new, 4-percent tax on the retail price of gasoline would raise about $43.5 million in new revenue. The administration then would cut the existing 19-cent per gallon gas tax down to 14.3 cents, which would cost the state about $15.5 million in revenue. The $28 million in net new revenue, when combined with the $9 million bond, would raise the money that Transportation Secretary Brian Searles says is needed to maximize federal matching funds.

If the state fails to raise the cash, Vermont stands to lose out on more than $40 million in federal money next year.

Searles presented the plan to the House Committee on Transportation shortly after the governor wrapped up his budget address. Rep. Patrick Brennan, a Colchester Republican who chairs the committee, said it’s too soon to say whether the plan will fly in the Legislature. He did however say that lawmakers are united in their resolve to raise whatever revenue is needed to avert the loss of federal matching funds.

One thing Brennan said he liked about the governor’s plan is that it’s indexed to keep pace with rising petroleum prices. While the existing per-gallon tax would get cut to 14.3 cents, it would also get an automatic annual increase tied to the consumer price index. And by basing the new tax on a percentage, as opposed to a flat per-gallon tax, it too will rise with inflation.

“I’d like to see us fix this thing once and for all,” said Brennan. “If I’m going to go on the chopping block for raising gas taxes, I’d like to do it right and not have to come back to it year after year.”

A committee that met over the summer to adders the issue of flagging gas tax revenues issued a report recently detailing more than 20 options to raise revenue. Brennan said many of them, however, like taxes on tire sales, or what amounts to a property tax on cars, are nonstarters.

He said there’s some interest in a tax on vehicle-miles traveled, but cautioned that that tax won’t even be a viable option for at least five years.

“And we’ve got an immediate revenue problem that needs to be solved now,” Brennan said.

In face of “big challenges,” Shumlin offers “bold action”

In the face of “big challenges” that he says will “require more tough choices and restraint,” Gov. Peter Shumlin on Thursday unveiled a $5.34 billion budget that “matches Montpelier’s appetite for spending with Vermonters’ ability to pay.”

The proposal represents a 3.69 percent increase over current year spending and, according to Shumlin, closes a $67 million general fund shortfall without raising broad-based taxes.

That doesn’t mean the second-term Democrat isn’t looking for revenue increases. He funds a $17 million initiative to fund thermal efficiency programs and renewable energy subsidies by imposing a 10-percent tax on “tear off” tickets – a largely unregulated lotto industry most commonly found inside private organizations like the Elks Club and American Legion.

Shumlin also wants to raise an additional $30 million to $35 million in new revenue for the state’s ailing transportation fund. Without the new money, Shumlin says, the state risks losing out on as much as $40 million in federal transportation revenue.

Shumlin, however, hasn;t said how he aims to raise that money. Administration Secretary Jeb Spaulding says Shumlin wants to work with the Legislature to come up with a mutually agreeable plan.

Spaulding said a gas tax “isn’t off the table.”

Shumlin today reiterated his call to fund $17 million in new childcare subsidies by reducing by two-thirds a state earned income tax credit that currently eases the tax burden on working class Vermonters.   The plan, which would hit about 45,000 tax filers, has drawn scathing criticism from Democratic lawmakers.

Shumlin however said “we have to ask ourselves: Is a once a year check from the state … the best help we can offer to lower-incomer Vermonters who are struggling to stay in the workforce? … Our answer is: no.”

Shumlin today also introduced a welfare reform proposal will limit the amount of time unemployed Vermonters can stay on a program known as “Reach Up.” Unemployed Vermonters will be able to spend no moire than five years on welfare – and no more than three years consecutively. The proposal will save about $5 million annually, though Spaulding said the decision was motivated more by policy considerations than financial ones.

“Benefits for Vermonters who are able to work must be temporary, not timeless,” Shumlin said. It is long past time for Vermont to reform our welfare system from one that discourages work to one that makes prosperity achievable for all Vermont families, including those living in poverty.”

Shumlin budget address coming at 2 p.m. this afternoon

All eyes will be on Gov. Peter Shumlin this afternoon as he unveils his fiscal year 2014 budget proposal.

The presentation comes a day after economists downgraded revenue projections for the coming year by $20 million, deepening what had already been a $70 million shortfall in the general fund.

While the second-term Democrat has remained tight-lipped in advance of his speech, he’s indicated that the proposal will include additional revenues for an ailing transportation fund.

Shumlin this afternoon will also reveal his plan for the 17,000 Vermonters enrolled in either Catamount or VHAP who face a considerable increase in health care costs beginning in 2014, when they’ll be required to purchase their insurance from the new “health benefits exchange.”

Advocates are bracing for bad news on that front, as Shumlin has said the state cannot afford to hold harmless everyone facing increased out-of-pocket exposure. The administration has projected that it would cost $18 million to hold harmless the 17,000 or so residents facing higher costs. Shumlin has said the state will dedicate some financial resources to offset the impact on those people, but that it can’t pay the full freight.

Also on tap today: the presentation of a financing plan for a single-payer health care system Shumlin says will be in place by 2017. Act 48, the single-payer law passed in 2009, says the Shumlin administration “shall” by Jan. 15 of this year “recommend the amounts and necessary mechanisms to finance (single-payer) and any systems improvements needed to achieve a public-private universal health care system.”

The administration missed the deadline by a week, and anyone looking for “recommendations” for single-payer financing options today will likely be disappointed. The administration says that given the unlikelihood of securing necessary federal waivers until 2017 – something they didn’t know in 2009 – it’s premature to submit recommendations.

Still, Vermonters should get their most detailed look yet at how the state might one day pay for universal care.

Stay tuned to vermontpressbureau.com for updates throughout the afternoon.

In quest to prevent overdose deaths, Legislature considers criminal immunity for users

More than 70 Vermonters died last year in “drug-related” fatalities. Now lawmakers are wondering whether fear of prosecution might have cost some of them their lives.

Legislation introduced in the House this afternoon would extend limited criminal immunity to anyone who seeks medical attention for a drug user experiencing an overdose. Convinced that the threat of prosecution has deterred life-saving calls to 911, Chittenden County State’s Attorney TJ Donovan said minimizing deaths associated with opiate use needs to become a public health imperative.

“In no way do I view  this bill as condoning drug use or condoning people sharing drugs,” Donovan told the House Judiciary Committee this morning. “I view this bill as an effort o save people’s lives. It’s very simple.”

While the concept might be simple, executing it in statute will not be. The Department of State’s Attorneys and Sheriffs has already voiced concerns about the scope of crimes for which offenders would win immunity.

The legislation guarantees immunity for people possessing or dispensing illicit narcotics, so long as evidence of those crimes is the result of the offender’s effort to secure emergency medical treatment for someone at risk of an overdose.

The bill also creates what’s known as an “affirmative defense” for more severe crimes, including dispensing a narcotic with death resulting. An affirmative defense doesn’t shield an offender from prosecution for the death of someone to whom he or she gave drugs. However if the defendant can prove in trial that he was caught only because he was attempting to secure medical care for the dying victim, then the case would be tossed.

Check out tomorrow’s editions of The Times Argus and Rutland Herald for more on the legislation, and where it’s headed next.

Lawmakers look to protect online privacy of job applicants

Sen. Dick Sears, D-Bennington

Sen. Dick Sears, D-Bennington

That mortifying Facebook photo you were tagged in last week? May not be such a deal-breaker after all.

Vermont lawmakers want to shield the social media profiles of job applicants from the prying eyes of their would-be employers.

For the second year in a row, Sen. Dick Sears is pushing a legislation that would make it illegal for employers to request from job seekers their passwords to Facebook, Twitter and other social network accounts.

Sears said he’s unaware of any instances of Vermiont employers demanding access to applicants’ online profiles as a condition of employment. He said reports of the trend nationally, however, merit some proactive steps in the Green Mountains.

“It’s sort of like saying, when you come in for your interview, bring your diary with you, and we’re goig to read your diary,” Sears said Tuesday. “Something was amiss here.”

Vermont isn’t the first jurisdiction to tackle the issue of undue invasions of online privacy by human-resources personnel hunting for skeletons in online closets. Continue reading

Baruth withdraws proposed assault weapons ban, but gun-control debate lives on

Jeb Wallace-Brodeur / Staff  Photo                           Tim Griswold of Rutland wraps himself in a flag during a rally in support of gun rights at the Statehouse in Montpelier on Saturday afternoon.

Jeb Wallace-Brodeur / Staff Photo
Tim Griswold of Rutland wraps himself in a flag during a rally in support of gun rights at the Statehouse in Montpelier on Saturday afternoon.

Reported first by Green Mountain Daily’s Ed Garcia and confirmed first by Paul Heintz at Seven Days, Sen. Philip Baruth says he’ll withdraw a proposed ban on assault weapons.

Baruth’s proposal fueled a groundswell of opposition that erupted Saturday in Montpelier, when about 250 Vermonters rallied on the steps of the Statehouse in support of the Second Amendment. In a statement provided to Heintz, Baruth said “it is painfully clear to me now that little support exists in the Vermont Statehouse for this sort of bill.”

“It’s equally clear that focusing the debate on the banning of a certain class of weapons may already be overshadowing measures with greater consensus, like tightening background checks, stopping the exchange of guns for drugs, and closing gun show loopholes,” Baruth said.

Elected last month to serve as majority leader of the 23-member Senate Democratic caucus, Baruth also said “I owe it to my caucus to remove an issue that seems increasingly likely to complicate our shared agenda this biennium.”

Baruth’s decision to withdraw S32, however, won’t table the gun-control issue in Montpelier this year. Over in the House, Reps. Linda Waite-Simpson, an Essex Junction Democrat, and Adam Greshin, a Warren Independent, are dotting the i’s and crossing the t’s on a piece of legislation that will, most controversially, seek to ban ammunition clips containing more than 10 rounds.

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