Category Archives: Courts & Judiciary

Exchange work to continue, despite SCOTUS ruling

MONTPELIER — A U.S. Supreme Court ruling handed down Thursday ensures that some Vermonters will continue to be eligible for federal subsidies through Obamacare if the state opts to abandon Vermont Health Connect later this year.

The court upheld a major challenge to the Affordable Care Act in a 6-3 ruling Thursday, ensuring that nearly 9 million people receiving federal subsidies under the law can continue to receive them regardless of where they live. The challenge to the law contended that the subsidies were only available to states that created their own exchanges, like Vermont.

VHCThe challenge could have had major consequences in Vermont had the court ruled the other way. The state’s exchange, Vermont Health Connect, continues to face technology challenges. Some major functions that were supposed to be part of the state’s online health insurance marketplace continue to struggle.

Democratic Gov. Peter Shumlin has said the state would look to transition to the federal exchange if those functions were not working properly this fall. Vermonters will continue to receive federal subsidies in that event because of the court’s ruling Thursday.

Shumlin issued a statement Thursday after the ruling was announced saying the administration is continuing to work on Vermont Health Connect to ensure it works properly for Vermonters.

“We are making progress to deliver the services Vermonters expect through Vermont Health Connect. We have insured nearly 20,000 Vermonters who previously did not have insurance, and now Vermont has the second lowest rate of uninsured in the nation,” he said.

The state completed an upgrade to the website earlier this month to incorporate the so-called change-of-circumstance function. When fully implemented, it will allow customers to make life change to their accounts online, including marriage, death, birth of a child or a change in jobs. Another function, automated policy renewals, should be up and running this fall.

Republican Lt. Gov. Phil Scott, who has said he is considering a run for governor, used the ruling Thursday to call for Vermont to abandon its own exchange. Scott has been a critic of Vermont Health Connect’s challenges.

Lt. Gov. Phil Scott

Lt. Gov. Phil Scott

“For 18 months, officials have dismissed repeated calls to explore alternatives to our dysfunctional exchange, saying to do so would put Vermonters at risk of losing their subsidies. Now, with today’s U.S. Supreme Court ruling that federal subsidies can be offered in both state and federal health care exchanges, that fear is eliminated, and it’s clear we must immediately explore alternatives to Vermont Health Connect,” Scott said.

Scott called for immediately looking into a regional partnership with nearby states, creating a state-federal hybrid system or simply shifting to the federal exchange.

“For far too long, Vermonters have been underserved and frustrated by this $200 million system. Now that the fear of losing subsidies is no longer a valid argument, we must find the best path to affordable, accessible health insurance for every Vermonter,” he said.

But Lawrence Miller, Shumlin’s chief of health care reform, said Thursday’s ruling does not change the administration’s thinking and officials will continue to work on VHC.

“I think we’ve been clear that going to the federal exchange would still have substantial costs and complications for Vermonters. We would still need to figure out a way to deliver Vermont premium assistance because that’s not a part of the federal exchange,” Miller said.

Vermont is just one of two states that offer state-level financial assistance for customers on the exchange.

Miller said the state would still need to improve VHC even if the state moved to the federal exchange because it administers the state’s Medicaid program, including eligibility and enrollment. And, Miler said, insurance carriers in Vermont would have to devise a new integration model with the federal system.

Lawrence Miller

Lawrence Miller

“It would add substantial cost and complication. That is why we will still remain focused on the work at Vermont Health Connect and getting the level of service to what Vermonters expect,” he said.

Miller said he is glad the uncertainty brought about by the challenge has been settled.

“I’m very pleased with the decision. I think it’s the right decision,” Miller said. “The surprise really was when they took it, in my mind, and that raised a significant amount of uncertainty. If two more justices had seen it the way [Justice Antonin] Scalia (who wrote the dissenting opinion) did a lot of Americans would be having a very bad day.”

neal.goswami@timesargus.com

T.J. Donovan to run for AG

MONTPELIER — Chittenden County State’s Attorney T.J. Donovan says he will run for attorney general regardless of whether longtime incumbent Bill Sorrell decides to seek re-election.

Donovan, 41, came close to knocking off Sorrell in a 2012 Democratic primary for the state’s top law enforcement position. Donovan lost to Sorrell, who was appointed to the position in 1997 by former Gov. Howard Dean and has won re-election each cycle since, by just 714 votes.

Donovan opted to sit out the 2014 race and instead concentrated on his work in Chittenden County. That work has garnered plenty of attention statewide and has served, in some cases, as pilot projects for the state.

Donovan was honored Friday evening at the Vermont Democratic Party’s annual awards dinner. He did not reveal his plans at the time, however. Instead, Donovan said Monday that he “finalized in my mind over the course of the weekend” that he would run for attorney general again.

Chittenden County State's Attorney T.J. Donovan. (Photo courtesy of VPR)

Chittenden County State’s Attorney T.J. Donovan. (Photo courtesy of VPR)

“It just makes sense for me to put it out there and end the speculation,” he said. “I received a lot of support on Friday night. I see no reason to be coy. I figured I would put it out there that I’m running.”

Seven Days was first to report Donovan’s decision to run.

Speculation had been running wild for Donovan, and other potential candidates for various statewide offices, since Democratic Gov. Peter Shumlin announced earlier this month that he would not seek a fourth term in 2016. Many political observers wondered if Donovan would opt to run for governor. Continue reading

State to move out-of-state inmates to Michigan

MONTPELIER, Vt. (AP) — The Vermont Department of Corrections says the state’s prison inmates being housed out of state are going to be moved to Michigan.

The department said Tuesday it had signed a contract with the GEO Group to house the inmates at the North Lake Correctional Facility in Baldwin, Michigan.

Currently Vermont is housing 319 inmates at facilities in Kentucky and Arizona. That contract expires June 20. The department will begin transferring the inmates to Michigan soon.

The new two-year, $30.4 million contract with GEO will save the state about $2,055 per inmate per year. The state says GEO will provide “comprehensive correctional management services,” including offender rehabilitation programs.

For years Vermont has sent a number of inmates to out-of-state facilities to alleviate overcrowding in the state’s prisons.

McAllister’s future unclear, but resignation expected soon

This story was updated at 5:55 p.m.

MONTPELIER — Lt. Gov. Phil Scott said Monday that embattled Sen. Norm McAllister, who faces multiple sex crime charges, intends to resign within 24 hours. The announcement came as Gov. Peter Shumlin and legislators leaders all called for him to step down Monday morning.

But in a bizarre twist, McAllister, R-Franklin, reached by phone at his home Monday afternoon, said he was not aware that anyone had reached out to Scott to promise his resignation. McAllister said he has made no determination about his future and planned to meet with his lawyer Tuesday. He declined to discuss the case any further, but said he has “had better days.”

“My lawyer has told me not to talk to anybody about any of this,” McAllister said. “I’ll be talking to my lawyer tomorrow.”

His lawyer, Brooks McArthur, did not return a message seeking comment.

Sen. Norm McAllister

Sen. Norm McAllister

Later in the day, Scott confirmed that Sen. Peg Flory, R-Rutland, served as the messenger. Scott said Flory was in touch with McAllister throughout the weekend and relayed the message of his pending resignation. Flory spoke again with McAllister Monday afternoon and he is still expected to resign, according to Scott.

“I stand by what I was told and I still believe that I will receive his letter tomorrow morning,” he said.

Scott said he decided to reveal McAllister’s intention to resign after Shumlin and others called for him to step down.

“To be clear, I wouldn’t have announced it this morning without having it physically in my hand — until I heard the governor demanded his resignation and I thought, ‘Well, actually, he’s said he’s going to resign,’ and I thought it was important that I get that information out,” Scott said. “Maybe I shouldn’t have gotten involved but I just felt I had that and I should let people know because it was (McAllister’s) idea.”

McAllister, a second-term senator who previously served five terms in the House, pleaded not guilty Friday to charges of sexual assault and prohibited acts. Detailed court documents allege that McAllister forced women to have sex with him in exchange for rent and used sex as a punishment, among other things.

Seven Days reported over the weekend that one victim, who worked for the 63-year-old McAllister on his farm as well as an assistant or intern in Montpelier, alleged that she was possibly as young as 15 when he first assaulted her.

The charges and explicit details about the allegations released Friday in police affidavits have shaken many inside the State House as they work toward adjournment this week.

Scott, a Republican, told reporters McAllister promised early Monday morning to resign within 24 hours.

“I received word earlier this morning that within 24 hours I’ll be receiving his letter of resignation,” Scott told the Vermont Press Bureau.

Word came through a representative of McAllister’s, later revealed to be Flory at 7:30 a.m. “I have not spoken directly to him,” Scott said.

If a letter of resignation is received, Scott said he will hand it over to Senate Secretary John Bloomer who will then notify the governor and Senate President Pro Tem John Campbell, D-Windsor. The governor will eventually need to appoint someone to fill the remainder of McAllister’s term.

Scott said Monday that McAllister’s resignation is needed.

“I read the affidavit. The allegations are very serious, very troubling, to say the least. I feel that Sen. McAllister is making the right decision at this time. I think the people of Franklin County deserve a legislator that can devote themselves to their needs and I don’t think he can do that at this time,” the lieutenant governor said.

Earlier Monday, Shumlin, a Democrat called on McAllister to resign now that he is going through the judicial process.

“Given, the incredibly troubling allegations made against Sen. McAllister over the past several days, the right thing for him to do would be for him to resign from the Senate,” Shumlin told the Vermont Press Bureau in an interview. “Sen. McAllister will go through the legal process like any other accused individual, but for the good of Vermont he should not do so as a sitting senator.”

Continue reading

Capitol Beat with the Governor 5-8-15

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Gov. Peter Shumlin discusses  end-of-session issues that remain unresolved, the possibility that lawmakers will vote to remove the state’s philosophical vaccine exemption and the arrest of Franklin County Sen. Norm McAllister on sex charges.

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Sen. Norm McAllister arrested on sex charges

MONTPELIER — Franklin County Sen. Norm McAllister was arrested Thursday evening on sex charges, according to the Vermont State Police.

McAllister, a 63-year-old Republican from Highgate, has served in the Vermont Legislature since 2003, including four terms in the House. State police spokesman Scott Waterman issued a release late Thursday saying VSP detectives assigned to the Northwest Unit for Special Investigations arrested had McAllister and charged him with sexual assault, prohibited acts and human trafficking.

The Vermont State Police released this mug shot of Sen. Norm McAllister, R-Franklin.

The Vermont State Police released this mug shot of Sen. Norm McAllister, R-Franklin.

The charges stem from an investigation into complaints made against McAllister, according to police.

McAllister is being held at the Northwest Regional Correctional Center in St. Albans for lack of$20,000 bail. He will be arraigned in Franklin County District Court on Friday morning at 11 a.m.

Police said affidavits outlining the case against McAllister would be made public Friday following the arraignment.

McAllister’s arrest was first reported by the Burlington Free Press.

Shumlin signs new gun law

MONTPELIER — Gov. Peter Shumlin privately signed new gun legislation Friday afternoon without any fanfare and announced the move in a statement.

The new law, which passed the Legislature as S.141, creates a new misdemeanor state-level crime for possession of firearms by people with certain criminal convictions. The law also requires the reporting of names to a federal database when people are found by a court to be in need of mental health treatment and a danger to themselves or others.

Shumlin had spent much of this legislative session resisting and new gun laws, saying Vermont’s current laws were sufficient. But a controversial element — expanded background laws for all gun sales — was stripped from an earlier version of the legislation. That was enough to secure his signature.

“Vermonters know that I feel that Vermont’s gun laws make sense for our state. We in Vermont have a culture of using guns to care for and manage our natural resources in a respectful way that has served us well,” the governor said in a statement. “The bill delivered to me today is a shadow of the legislation that I objected to at the beginning of the legislative session. It makes common sense changes, similar to the ones that I supported to prohibit guns on school grounds, and that is why I signed it.”

Gun rights groups that initially opposed the bill, including the Vermont Federation of Sportsmens Clubs, dropped their objections after the legislation was scaled back.

Just hours earlier on Friday, Shumlin told the Vermont Press Bureau in an interview that his office had not yet received the bill and he had not thought about whether there would be a public signing ceremony. He declared his intention to sign the bill in an interview with the Vermont Press Bureau a week ago.

Shumlin’s office received the bill around 11 a.m. along with three other pieces of legislation awaiting the governor’s signature, according to staff. The office then sought out Rep. Sam Young, D-Glover, to be present for the signing because of the passionate speech he delivered on the House floor in favor of the bill.

Senate President Pro Tem John Campbell, D-Windsor, an original sponsor of the legislation, nor any of the other original Senate sponsors, were present. Campbell said Friday he was disappointed in the way Shumlin treated the signing.

“I am very, very disappointed on behalf of myself and the other senators who worked very hard to pass that bill that he didn’t have the common decency to alert us that he was going to sign that bill, No. 1, and, No. 2, that he didn’t invite anyone from the Senate to be there,” Campbell said.

Shumlin says he will sign gun bill

MONTPELIER — Gov. Peter Shumlin said Friday he intends to sign a gun bill passed by both chambers after it is reviewed by his administration’s legal team.

Shumlin, a third-term Democrat, had remained noncommittal through Friday on whether he would sign the measure that cleared its final legislative hurdle on Thursday. The bill awaiting the governor’s signature makes it a crime at the state level for some convicts to possess a firearm. It also requires that the state report to a federal database the names of people found by a court to be mentally ill and a danger to themselves or others.

The Senate concurred Thursday with changes to S.141 made by the House that removed a waiting period of 18 months for those reported to the federal database to apply to have their names removed. The waiting period was a concern, according to Shumlin, who said Friday he was glad to see it removed.

After review Shumlin said he intends to sign the bill.

“I always like to read the bills and make sure that what I’ve been told is actually in there. But, if what I have been told is in that bill I will sign it,” Shumlin said in an interview Friday. “We always have our lawyers review them.”

The bill is a far cry from what was initially proposed. The original legislation, backed strongly by Gun Sense Vermont, included an expansion of federal background checks. Gun rights advocates turned out in force to a public hearing and the background check provision was scuttled.

But advocates of the legislation were able to keep the bill’s other components alive and guide it through the legislative process. In the end, one of the groups that opposed the bill most, the Vermont Federation of Sportsmens Clubs, the National Rifle Association’s state affiliate, dropped its objections.

Shumlin said the bill was scaled back enough for him to drop his own objections.

“I am very happy that the bill is a shadow of the bill that I objected to in the beginning. [Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Dick] Sears and others took out the parts that I really objected to. I think, now, most reasonable people would agree that it makes some common sense changes, similar to the kind of changes that I voted for when we didn’t allow … folks to take guns to schools,” the governor said.

While Gun Sense Vermont has indicated they view the legislation as a first step, Shumlin said he is no hurry to revisit the debate on expanded background checks.

“I feel that Vermont’s gun laws serve us well. I’d probably feel differently if I was the mayor of Chicago or the mayor of New York where you have all kinds of challenges. But, we in Vermont have a culture of using guns to manager our natural resources. We have a culture of hunting and caring for our natural resources that has served us well. We have a traditional respect for guns,” Shumlin said. “It’s different in a small rural state where you have a culture like Vermonters where we take care of each other, look out for each other. So that’s just what I feel and you’re not going to change my feelings.”

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

neal.goswami@timesargus.com

Capitol Beat 4-6-15

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Vermont Press Bureau chief Neal P. Goswami and VPB reporter Josh O’Gorman talk health care, education, voter registration and the week ahead at the State House in this week’s episode.

Senate advances gun bill

MONTPELIER — The Vermont Senate on Wednesday gave preliminary approval to new gun restrictions by a 20 to 8 vote that will make it a state-level crime for some convicts to possess firearms and require that people determined by a court to be in need of mental health treatment be reported to a federal database.

Wednesday’s vote followed months of behind the scenes political machinations and some public spats as advocates and opponents of the new gun measures tried to gain the upper hand. Advocates, including Gun Sense Vermont, which strongly backed the bill, claimed success Wednesday.

“I think any time there is a vocal minority it can be a little tricky, but what’s so exciting is how vast, aggressive grassroots support has really changed the landscape. It’s meaningful because, finally, common sense gun legislation is getting passed,” Gun Sense Executive Director Ann Braden said.

But opponents, including the Vermont Federation of Sportsmen’s clubs and the National Rifle Association, also claimed victory because they were able to kill off earlier versions of proposed legislation that included expanded background checks.

“At the end of the day, from the bill that was originally proposed to this, the other side, I think that their agenda has been rejected. On that note we’re happy,” said NRA lobbyist Darin Goens. “If the question was asked on the original bill I think the vote would have been very different.”

Braden said her group will not be looking to restore the background check provision in the House.

“We’re focused just on this bill, not adding on,” she said.

The scaled-back bill passed Wednesday was the result of proposals from the Senate Judiciary Committee and the Health and Welfare Committee. Judiciary Committee Chairman Dick Sears, D-Bennington, told his colleagues on the Senate floor Wednesday that the bill looked to clarify a simple point — who should possess a firearm under Vermont state law.

Sears noted that that all of the other states have a similar state-level law that excludes some convicts from possessing firearms, as does the federal government.

“We are the outlier in this particular area. There are no other states at this point,” he said.

A agent with the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives and a federal prosecutor provided testimony to the Judiciary Committee that federal prosecutors “don’t have the time or the resources to prosecute these offenses in federal court,” Sears said.

Under the law, people convicted of so-called “listed crimes,” the most serious crimes in the state, will be restricted from possessing a firearm. The law makes some exceptions for lewd and lascivious behavior, as well as reckless endangerment and other motor vehicle-related crimes. The law also includes crimes involving the selling or trafficking of drugs that carry prison terms of at least 10 years.

The legislation will also require those found by a court to be “in need of treatment” for mental health reasons to be reported to the National Instant Criminal Background Check System. Sears said 38 states require such reporting.

Sears noted that the state of Virginia passed a law requiring such reporting following a mass shooting at Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University in 2007.

“I would hate for Vermont to wait for such a tragedy,” he said.

Much of the debate on the Senate floor Wednesday centered on how and when a person could have their right to possess a firearm restored after being reported to the database. The Senate approved an amendment that would allow a person to seek restoration of their right after 18 months, if they were found by a court to no longer be in need of treatment.

Sen. Joe Benning, R-Caledonia, sought passage of an amendment that would have eliminated a waiting period altogether, but it was defeated on a voice vote.

“This is a constitutionally delineated right,” Benning said. “My concern is that once you have had a constitutional right removed it should not be your problem to try and get it back.”

Sen. John Rodgers, D-Essex-Orleans, voiced opposition to the bill, fearing that it will be altered as it makes its way through the House. He asked why an existing state law that makes it a crime for people to possess a firearm while committing a crime is not enough.

“The key word is “while committing another crime,” Sears said, noting that state prosecutors, under the provisions of the bill, would be allowed to prosecute some convicts just for possessing the firearm.

“If you believe that convicted violent felons and drug traffickers …. ought not to have firearms, then I guess that’s how your vote would be. To me, this is a pretty simple policy choice that we’re faced with,” Sears said.

Rodgers also expressed a believe that many gun rights groups have expressed throughout the legislative process, that outside groups were influencing the legislation and encouraging lawmakers to act.

“This is largely driven from outside forces and I believe the Judiciary Committee had some evidence of that in testimony recently,” he said.

Rodgers said the state has a long heritage and tradition of gun ownership and those that disagree with it “may want to seek another place that has a culture that they like.” He made a motion to delay the bill by having it committed to the Appropriations Committee but that effort failed on a voice vote.

The bill is up for a final vote in the Senate Thursday before heading to the House.

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

Roll call vote results:

Yes
Sen. Tim Ashe, D/P-Chittenden
Sen. Becca Balint, D-Windham
Sen. Philip Baruth, D-Chittenden
Sen. Joe Benning, R-Caledonia
Sen. Chris Bray, D-Addison
Sen. John Campbell, D-Windsor
Sen. Brian Campion, D-Bennington
Sen. Ann Cummings, D-Washington
Sen. Jane Kitchel, D-Caledonia
Sen. Ginny Lyons, D-Chittenden
Sen. Mark MacDonald, D-Orange
Sen. Dick McCormack, D-Windsor
Sen. Alice Nitka, D-Windsor
Sen. Anthony Pollina, D-Washington
Sen. Dick Sears, D-Bennington
Sen. Michael Sirotkin, D-Chittenden
Sen. Barbara Snelling, R-Chittenden
Sen. Rich Westman, R-Lamoille
Sen. Jeanette White, D-Windham
Sen. David Zuckerman, P/D-Chittenden

No
Sen. Brian Colamore, R-Rutland
Sen. Dustin Degree, R-Franklin
Sen. Peg Flory, R-Rutland
Sen. Dick Mazza, D-Grand Isle
Sen. Norm McAllister, R-Franklin
Sen. Kevin Mullin, R-Rutland
Sen. John Rodgers, D-Essex-Orleans
Sen. Bobby Starr, D-Essex-Orleans

NRA lobbyist says he represents Vermont interests

MONTPELIER — A National Rifle Association lobbyist is on hand at the State House for today’s Senate debate and vote on a gun bill, just days after gun rights advocates accused Gun Sense Vermont of being a front for a national group.

Gun Sense maintains that it is a Vermont-based, grassroots organization. The two-year-old group is seeking passage of a bill, S.141, that would make it a state-level crime for some convicts to possess firearms. It would also require the names of people found to be mentally ill by a court to be reported to a national database.

Earlier versions of legislation before the Senate included an expansion of background checks to private gun sales, but that has since been shelved.

On Monday, the Vermont Second Amendment Coalition blasted Gun Sense for being a front for former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s group Everytown For Gun Safety. A lobbyist from the Necrason Group, testifying on behalf of Gun Sense, told the Senate Judiciary Committee that Gun Sense needed “to get national expertise” before signing off on a proposed amendment.

NRA lobbyist Darin Goens, right, sits in  the State House cafeteria Wednesday with Evan Hughes of the Vermont Federation of Sportsmen's Clubs.

NRA lobbyist Darin Goens, right, sits in the State House cafeteria Wednesday with Evan Hughes of the Vermont Federation of Sportsmen’s Clubs.

On Wednesday, just hours before the Senate was due to debate the bill, NRA lobbyist Darin Goens denied being a national interest on the other side of the debate.

“We’re a grassroots organization. I represent Vermonters. I’m not sure they represent Vermont citizens. They’re a national group who has funded a lobbyist,” Goens said, while sitting and chatting with Evan Hughes of the Vermont Federation of Sportsmen’s Clubs.

Goes said he has worked with Hughes’ group in opposed S.141.

“We’ve worked hand-in-hand with the Federation of Sportsmens Clubs,” he said. “They’re our state association so we’ve worked with them for the last several years,” Goens said. “On this particular issue we’ve met with legislators jointly. We’ve discussed amendments. We’ve organized events to make sure that our membership turns up at the capitol to make sure they’re voice is heard.”

Data breach reported by the Vermont Department of Labor

MONTPELIER — The Vermont State Police have launched a criminal investigation into a former Vermont Department of Labor employee that “acquired” the names and social security numbers of at least 39 people from the department’s unemployment database.

The department said the former employee intentionally acquired the unauthorized information through her regular work duties. Although she had access to the information through her work, the department does not allow its employees to copy, transfer, disclose or retain that information for any purpose that is not related to the department’s business. No computer systems were breached, according to the department.

Officials did not identify the woman accused of acquiring the personal information.

In a press release, the department said the data was acquired on Feb. 24. Officials immediately asked the Vermont State Police to begin a criminal investigation. Police were granted a search warrant for the woman’s home and seized copies of documents and personal computer devices to aid the investigation.

The Labor Department said it also reported the breach to the Vermont Attorney General’s Office, the Department of Information and Innovation, the Department of Human Resources, the U.S, Department of Labor and the Internal Revenue Service.

The Labor Department said Friday that the criminal investigation is ongoing, but some information is known. The names and social security numbers of 39 people, and an additional 41 social security numbers not associated with names, were in the woman’s possession. The quarterly wage reports of seven people were also improperly accessed, but no Federal Employer Identification Numbers appear to have been involved.

The Vermont State Police are continuing to examine the items seized in the search, including data on the woman’s home computer and from her internet provider, but have not yet identified any transfer of data to other people or entities. As a result, the Vermont Department of Labor said Friday it believes the risk of identity theft is minimal.

All people affected by the data breach will receive a written notice from the department alerting them that their personal information was improperly accessed. The letters, which will be sent out no later than March 28, encourage individuals affected by the unauthorized access to call the Department of Labor if they have questions, check for information posted on the department’s website and to conduct credit monitoring as recommended by the Vermont Attorney General’s Office.

House budget plan becoming more clear

MONTPELIER — The House’s path to closing the state’s $113 million budget gap is becoming more clear after a new framework was revealed Friday by House Appropriations Committee Chairwoman Mitzi Johnson.

Johnson, D-South Hero, in her first year leading Appropriations, unveiled her own budget proposal the committee will use to finalize its 2016 fiscal year spending plan. It incorporates many of Gov. Peter Shumlin’s ideas to close the original $94 million hole the state faced in January, and incorporates new ideas for the additional $18.6 million needed after a revenue downgrade in late January.

Rep. Mitzi Johnson

Rep. Mitzi Johnson

Some of Johnson’s ideas are taken from a list of potential cuts totaling $29 million that lawmakers crafted with the Shumlin administration. House Speaker Shap Smith, D-Morrisville, said Monday that list of potential cuts “is appropriate to use” to close the gap.

Among the cuts used by Johnson in her budget proposal are:

— $5 million reduction for Vermont Health Connect, including subsidies
— Eliminating a $6 million state contribution to the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program
— Closing the Southeast State Correctional Facility in Windsor, for a $820,000 savings in both the 2016 and 2017 fiscal years
— A $1 million reduction in funding for the Vermont Veterans Home
— A $1 million reduction in funding for the Department of Information and Innovation
— A $560,000 reduction in funding for Vermont PBS split over the next two years

In total, Johnson’s proposal makes about $57 million in general fund cuts. It would incorporate $10.8 million labor savings the administration is seeking from state employees and also consolidate four emergency dispatch centers down to two.

Johnson’s proposal would utilize more than $20 million one-time or short-term funding sources. About $5 million in reserve funds would be tapped to help close the gap. It also would shift $4.8 million in spending for the Vermont Housing and Conservation Board to the capital bill to be raised through bonds. Another $1.7 million would be generated by leasing prison beds to the U.S. Marshal Service.

Whatever proposal the Appropriations Committee settles on will be paired with a revenue package fine-tuned by the House Ways and Means Committee. Smith, D-Morrisville, said the House will likely move forward with a revenue package of $35 million.

It will include, Smith said, a Shumlin proposal to eliminate the ability to deduct the previous year’s state and local taxes for taxpayers who itemize deductions. That will generate an additional $15 million tax revenue.

House Speaker Shap Smith

House Speaker Shap Smith

The House will look to also cap the amount of all itemized deductions at 2.5 times the standard deduction, according to Smith. That will raise about $18 million in additional revenue. Another $2 million in a separate fee bill will generate the remaining revenue to help balance the general fund.

Smith said he supports the framework of Johnson’s proposal which will help the committee finalize its plan this week, including the use of reserve funds.

“I do think that the framework that she’s put forward, it works. I think we both have been trying to figure out ways to bring down the amount of one-time money that is used, recognizing that next year could be difficult as well. At this point in time, I think she’s done about as good of a job as she can limiting the use one-time money,” he said. “I think it is appropriate to use (reserve funds) given the challenge that we face as long as we’re thinking strategically how we might replace it … in outgoing years.”

Smith and other House leaders are still planning to finalize a budget plan this week, but additional time will be taken if needed, he said.

“My view is that if something comes up I’d rather get it right than get it done fast. I think that we’re on target right now for the completion of the budget by the end of the week with consideration of the full House next week,” Smith said.

neal.goswami@timesargus.com

Read Johnson’s budget outline below:

Gun bill advances in Senate

MONTPELIER — The Senate Judiciary Committee advanced a bill ahead of the Legislature’s Friday evening deadline for non-money bills on a 5-0 vote, ensuring the full Senate will consider a scaled back-gun bill this year.

The legislation, supported unanimously in the committee Friday, seeks to ban some convicted criminals from possessing weapons and will require people found by a court to be a danger to themselves or others to be reported to the federal National Instant Criminal Background Check System. It would take effect on Oct. 1.

The legislation is a scaled back version of another bill, S.31, that Judiciary Committee Chairman Dick Sears, D-Bennington, declared “dead,” because it included an expansion of background checks for private gun sales, something that was vehemently opposed by gun rights activists.

Sears, who wrote the original draft of the revised bill that looks to keep guns out of the hands of some convicts, said he supports the idea because Vermont is the only state in the nation without such a statute. The federal government also has a similar law, but federal prosecutors often do not prosecute because of limited resources, advocates argued.

The committee voted unanimously Friday to merge the Sears-crafted language with the mental health reporting component, which came as a proposal from the Senate Health and Welfare Committee. That committee’s chairwoman, Claire Ayer, D-Addison, urged the Judiciary Committee to include it in its provision earlier this week. It was also part of S.31.

Those found by a court to be a danger to themselves will, if the bill is signed in to law, be reported to the federal database beginning Oct. 1. Anyone reported to the database could be removed from the database after three years if a court rules they are no longer a danger.

The committee labored over which crimes to include in the ban Friday morning before voting on the measure. Most major crimes in Vermont are included, but the committee agreed Friday to remove lewd and lascivious conduct, several motor vehicle crimes and all misdemeanors except domestic violence.

The committee’s action Friday was hailed by Gun Sense President Ann Braden, who helped launch the effort for new gun laws in January. She called the vote “an historic victory.”

“This is a gun violence prevention bill that’s going forward despite the opposition of the gun lobby. It shows that second amendment rights [and] respect for the 16th amendment in the Vermont Constitution goes hand-in-hand with gun violence prevention,” Braden said.

Although Sears declared Friday that S.31 — and expanded background checks for private gun sales — is dead for this year and next year, Braden said her group will continue to push for it.

Sen. Dick Sears

Sen. Dick Sears

“I think these are really important measures that are definitely going to keep guns out of the wrong hands. In terms of background checks, we still want that to happen. We knew that this was going to take a long time,” she said.

Evan Hughs, legislative liaison for the Vermont Federation of Sportsmen’s Clubs, said his group will also continue its effort to ensure that gun rights are not infringed upon.

“It’s one more step in an evolving process of legislation. As the federation we’re concerned about the interests of the hunting and shooting community in the state of Vermont,” he said following Friday’s vote. “At this point we still have things that concern us but we’re willing to participate in getting the bill right.”

The meticulous attention the committee paid to the bill Friday illustrates the delicate process — and political challenges — involved in passing gun legislation. Sears said he felt “extreme pressure from all sides.”

“When I announced that I wasn’t supporting the background portion of the bill that pissed off most of the more liberal members of my caucus as well as the leadership of my caucus as well as many of my constituents back home,” he said.

Senate President Pro Tem John Campbell, D-Windsor, an original sponsor of S.31, pushed Sears hard to advance a bill. He spent considerable time in the Judiciary Committee, often seated near Sears, monitoring its progress.

“I think his behavior has been fascinating,” Sears said.

His attention was bothersome to Sears, and prompted the veteran lawmaker, who is known to express his displeasure at times, to offer Campbell total control earlier this week.

“There was one point where I asked him if he really wanted to chair the committee,” Sears said.

Campbell, a deputy state’s attorney in Windsor County and a former police officer, said he was pleased with Friday’s vote, but noted it is only “one small battle won.” The extra attention, he said, was a result of its importance.

“When you see the effect that heroin and other drugs have had on our families here in Vermont, I was willing to do anything I needed to do to try to come up with an answer,” he said. “In addition to being the pro tem I am also one of the senators. This is a bill that I actually sponsored, and as such, it was one where I felt I had not only a duty but an obligation to shepherd it in any way I could.”

The Senate Judiciary Committee, and Senate President Pro Tem John Campbell, D-Windsor, listen to testimony on a gun bill.

The Senate Judiciary Committee, and Senate President Pro Tem John Campbell, D-Windsor, listen to testimony on a gun bill.

Campbell said he was aware of Gov. Peter Shumlin’s discussions with members of the committee and was trying to counter that force.

“The governor made it very clear how he feels about this bill. He doesn’t support it,” Campbell said. “The governor is very powerful and the administration is very powerful. As such, I guess I had to step up my involvement.”

Shumlin, who strongly opposes any new gun laws, was pushing his message. Sears said he had conversations with Shumlin, including a call Thursday night from the governor to inquire about the bill’s status.

“He asked me what I was expecting to have happen,” Sears said. “He never said, ‘Don’t do it,’ but he’s been pretty clear publicly.”

The governor has adopted a wait-and-see stance. He acknowledged in an interview Friday that he has been speaking with committee members “over the last weeks,” but will not declare if he intends to veto the legislation if it clears both chambers and reaches his desk.

“If a bill comes to my desk, I will look at it when it gets to me. These bills have a long way to go. My feelings I’ve made clear. We’ll see what happens,” he said. “Let’s give them the latitude to do what they think is right and the governor will do what I think is right.”

Sears said the bill, as crafted, is narrow and could end up with the governor’s support.

“If we can get it through without adding something on in either the Senate or the House, I suspect he’s going to be comfortable with the idea that there’s certainly people that probably shouldn’t possess firearms,” Sears said. “It’s up to him. He’ll do what he wants.”

Shumlin, however, is far from offering his support.

“These are tough bills. (Sears is) trying to come out with one that he thinks is sensible, but we may well agree to disagree,” Shumlin said.

Campbell, despite warnings from some opponents of the bill that his efforts would cause him political harm, said he decided to push away.

“The price that I will end up paying for this is one that won’t be known for a couple years. I’ve had people tell me, quite frankly, that my political career is over for pushing this bill. As I’ve said before, that’s fine, I’m ready to deal with that.”

neal.goswami@timesargus.com

Read the legislation below:

Senate fends off effort to repeal aid-in-dying law

MONTPELIER — The Senate gave preliminary approval Wednesday to legislation that prevents safeguards in the state’s aid-in-dying law from expiring after fending off a spirited attempt to repeal the 2013 law that allows terminal patients to obtain lethal medication to end their lives.

Under the current law, patients who want to obtain lethal medication must be a Vermont resident and have a terminal diagnosis with a prognosis, according to two doctors, of less than six months to live. A doctor must also find that the patient has the capacity to make the decision to obtain the medication voluntarily. And, the patient must make two oral requests at least 15 days apart followed by a written request with two witnesses attesting that the request was made voluntarily.

But those steps, based on a landmark Oregon law, are set to expire in July 2016 if the law is not amended. That’s because two former senators who did not seek re-election last year — Peter Galbraith of Windham County and Bob Hartwell of Bennington County — insisted those safeguards sunset in exchange for supporting the law.

Sen. Claire Ayer

Sen. Claire Ayer

Senate Health and Welfare Committee Chairwoman Claire Ayer, D-Addison, is spearheading the effort to amend the law to ensure those provisions remain. Legislation to do that hit the Senate floor Wednesday and was approved on a voice vote.

“It was our opinion, based on testimony, that safeguards need to be in place,” she said.

Ayer said Attorney General William Sorrell informed her committee that there have been no investigations of abuse or coercion, which the safeguards aim to prevent, because of the law. And the Department of Health reported that the law is working as intended, she said.

Ayer also said family members of patients who have utilized the law — six patients have initiated the process and at least three have taken the lethal medication — support retaining the safeguards.

The safeguards do not expire until next year, but Ayer said she wants the Senate to act now.

“We don’t want to risk it getting caught up … in the end of the biennium swirl next year,” she said.

Voting in favor of keeping the safeguards is not a vote in favor of the law, but “a vote to protect the interests of your constituents.”

Sen. Kevin Mullin, R-Rutland, made a motion to postpone action on the bill until January 2016 to allow lawmakers more time to consider the law’s impact. That motion was rejected on a voice vote.

“This is a painful issue,” Senate Majority Leader Philip Baruth, D-Chittenden, said. “The pain is not eased in any way by delaying what we’ve set out to do.”

The debate Wednesday was much shorter than the debate in 2013 when the underlying law passed by a thin margin. But there was still passionate debate.

Sen. Norm McAllister, R-Franklin, who sponsored an amendment Wednesday to repeal the 2013 law, said his wife died a year-and-a-half ago of a painful disease that “eats you alive.” But his wife relied on available palliative care, McAllister said.

“There were days that were very bad, but we worked through those,” he said. “I had to deal with that.”

His amendment failed by a 12 to 18 roll call vote.

McAllister said government should not be involved in how and when people die.

“Seeing what the palliative care is in this state and the comfort they give you and the support they give the families, I don’t think this bill is necessary and I think it sends a real bad message that we’re letting government involved in decisions that need to be personal,” he said.

McAllister also said many doctors in his district are opposed to the law.

Ayer conceded that some doctors are opposed to the law, but they are not forced to write prescriptions if they are opposed, she said.

“A lot of health care providers have a problem with it, that’s why it’s completely voluntary,” Ayer said.

Sen. Dick McCormack, D-Windsor, said the 2013 law created a right for Vermonters and repealing the law would be “an extreme act and it ought to be done with the utmost caution.”

“The amendment to repeal the bill undoes an existing right. That is a weighty and unusual step for the Legislature,” he said. “It’s done, but it’s done in extreme circumstances.”

Rutland County Republican Sen. Peg Flory said the state should not be sending a message to residents that it is OK to end your own life.

Sen. Peg Flory

Sen. Peg Flory

“I think it’s bad policy when the state tells people that it should be a viable alternative, that some lives you ought to consider ending,” she said.

Flory sponsored another amendment that would prevent doctors who prescribe medications to patients for symptom relief of terminal illness that are then used by a patient to end their lives from facing any criminal or civil liability or professional disciplinary action. It also sought to repeal the aid-in-dying law. It failed on a 10 to 20 roll call vote.

Lynne Cleveland Vitzthum, who represents the Vermont Center for Independent Living, has played a leading role in the effort to repeal the law. Vitzthum, who has a son with disabilities, said Wednesday following the votes that she expects future challenges to the law.

“It’s certainly not settled for the future. As I’ve said before, this issue is never going to go away,” she said.

The legislation is up for final approval in the Senate Thursday before heading to the House.

neal.goswami@timesargus.com