Gov. Peter Shumlin chats with Vermont Press Bureau chief Neal P. Goswami about the health care package in play in the House, new unemployment numbers and gun legislation that cleared the Senate this week.
Gov. Peter Shumlin chats with Vermont Press Bureau chief Neal P. Goswami about the health care package in play in the House, new unemployment numbers and gun legislation that cleared the Senate this week.
MONTPELIER — Gov. Peter Shumlin said Thursday his Chief of Staff Liz Miller will step down from the post in May and return to work in the private sector.
Darren Springer, currently the deputy commissioner of the Department of Public Service, will replace her, Shumlin said.
At a news conference Thursday, Shumlin said he convinced Miller more than 4 years ago to first become commissioner of DPS, and later to become his chief of staff after winning his first term as governor in 2010.
Shumlin praised Miller for her work on behalf of his administration and Vermonters.
“I have been blessed with one of the brightest, most hard-working, dedicated people that I’ve ever worked with in my lifetime. Liz has now made the decision at the end of May to do what she threatened to do two and a half years ago, go back to the private sector,” Shumlin said. “We could not have had a person who served this state with more distinction, dedication and more elbow grease and more grace than Liz Miller.”
Springer, who became deputy commissioner of DPS in March 2013, will continue in that role until the end of May. He previously served as a senior policy advisor for energy and environment issues for Sen. Bernie Sanders, and later as Sanders’ chief counsel. Prior to that Springer worked as the energy and transportation program director for the National Governors Association Center for Best Practices.
Shumlin said Springer has been “the really creative collaborator and creator of new ways of promoting renewables, promoting cleaner, greener energy throughout Vermont.”
“I couldn’t be more delighted to have someone of Darren’s caliber take over from Liz at the end of this legislative session,” Shumlin said.
MONTPELIER — Lawmakers are considering a scaled-back health care bill that strips out a proposed payroll tax.
The House and Ways Committee is looking to fund a proposed health care bill with $20 million in revenue, a far cry from the $52 million in revenue proposed by the House Health Care Committee.
“I think it’s safe to say that the figure we come up with will be less than the figure the Health Care Committee came up with,” said Ways and Means Chairwoman Janet Ancel, D-Calais. “If that’s true, we’re going to ask the Health Care Committee to reorder its priorities to decide how best to spend it.”
Earlier this month, the House Health Care Committee approved a bill that included a 0.3-percent payroll tax, as well as a 2-cents-an-ounce tax on sugar-sweetened beverages, which, together, would generate $52 million in revenue.
The bill itself was borne out of a proposal from Gov. Peter Shumlin, who proposed implementing a 0.7-percent payroll tax to close the gap between how much Medicaid reimburses doctors for services and how much those doctors charge private insurers. Shumlin argues that boosting the amount paid by Medicaid will result in lower premiums for individuals with private insurance.
Shumlin’s proposal came after his decision in December to — either permanently or for the moment — shelve his single-payer health care plan.
“We’ve been looking at the bill that the House Health Care Committee voted out, both looking at the spending part and looking at how the revenue will be raised, and I think there is, just speaking for myself, there are initiatives in the bill that I would like to be able to accomplish,” Ancel said. “Certainly, the investment in the cost sharing, the increased reimbursement for primary care, are things that the heath care bill attempts to put in place. The challenge, always, is how do we raise revenue for it?”
Wednesday afternoon, House Health Care Committee members discussed proposals that would reduce the amount of money to address the so-called “Medicaid shift” that would close the reimbursement rate gap between Medicaid and private insurers.
Rep. George Till, D-Jericho, proposed amending the bill from House Health Care that would do away with the payroll tax altogether, and would impose a 0.75-cents-an-ounce tax on sugar-sweetened drinks. Till also proposed eliminating the exemption for candy from sales tax.
Rep. James Masland, D-Thetford Center, said that reducing the sugar-sweetened beverage tax to 0.5 cents an ounce could still raise $20 million.
Rep. Alison Clarkson, D-Woodstock, said the direction the committee will take on the bill is still very much up in the air.
“There are three questions before this committee: Do we want to spend money on health care? How much do we want to spend? And, if we want to spend money, how do we want to raise it?” said Clarkson, who later said she supported the $20 million figure.
Ancel said that, should her committee decide to reduce the amount of revenue as proposed, it would be up to the House Health Care Committee to decide how that money should be spent.
The House Ways and Means Committee is expected to take up the health care bill Thursday.
MONTPELIER — Emergency dispatch centers in Rutland and Derby will get a temporary reprieve from the chopping block in the state budget approved Monday by the House Appropriations Committee.
Gov. Peter Shumlin proposed in his recommended budget that two of the state’s four public safety answering points be closed and operations consolidated with the remaining two in Williston and Rockingham. The plan, according to the administration, saves $1.7 million annually and would eliminate about 15 of the state’s 71 full-time and 33 temporary emergency dispatchers.
Facing a $113 million gap in the 2016 fiscal year budget, the administration has insisted the consolidation is necessary to help reduce spending in the budget.
But the House Appropriations Committee sought a way to keep all four dispatch centers open, even temporarily, following strong push back from the Vermont State Employees Association and first responders from around the state. Chairwoman Mitzi Johnson, D-South Hero, said the the committee’s plan will keep the PSAPs in Rutland and Derby open until at least Sept. 15.
The House plan uses $425,000 from the state’s Universal Service Fund, which assesses a 2 percent fee on telecommunications services to supports Vermont’s Enhanced E-911 program. It was approved by the committee unanimously.
“Although it is not our preference to use that money for anything other than, specifically, 911 call taking, this was closely related enough,” Johnson said Tuesday. “It is strictly one-time, USF money that keeps the four PSAPs running as is until Sept. 15.”
Johnson said the committee heard from many people, particularly in the Rutland and Derby areas, who are concerned that emergency dispatch services will suffer under the administration’s consolidation plan. Johnson said her committee deferred to the Government Operations Committee on safety concerns, but heeded requests to allow those communities time to explore options to maintain local dispatch services.
“It gives time for local entities to try to come up with an alternative or a transition plan,” she said. “They asked for some time to come up with a local alternative, so that’s what we’re offering.”
The committee included legislative language in its budget plan calling for Public Safety Commissioner Keith Flynn to meet with first responders in the Rutland and Derby areas about how dispatch services could be funded.
“I think there were enough questions raised, and there were enough possible alternatives raised, the fact that there are potentially viable, home-grown alternatives out there, is reason enough to say, ‘Is there a different way to do things?’” Johnson said. “There are places all over government where we’re asking for a different way to do things.”
Shumlin spokesman Scott Coriell said the administration is reviewing the Appropriations Committee plan and would not be commenting on each component. Shumlin issued a statement Monday after the House approved its plan on a bipartisan, 11 to 0 vote.
“My budget team will take a close look at the specifics in the bill passed this afternoon, and will continue to work closely with the Legislature as the budget makes its way through the next steps in the House and on to the Senate later this session,” Shumlin said in the statement. “I remain committed to making sure this budget responsibly spends our limited resources to advance our economy and protect our most vulnerable.”
MONTPELIER — The Shumlin administration will scrap Vermont Health Connect and pursue joining a federally-run health insurance market later this year if technology upgrades needed for the state site are not working by October, Gov. Peter Shumlin announced Friday.
Shumlin, in an interview Friday, said his administration would legislative language to the House Health Care Committee Friday afternoon that will codify the administration’s contingency plan. Shumlin said he expects the state’s contractor, Optum, to complete the so-called change of circumstance function by the end of May, as well as the necessary technology for individuals to enroll in insurance plans through the website by early October.
Should Optum not deliver, the state will begin pursuing a move to a Federally-Supported State-Based Marketplace for the 2017 open enrollment period, Shumlin said. The federal government provides three exchange marketplace options, all of which use the healthcare.gov web platform and federal call center.
But the FSSBM option would allow states to maintain the most authority over health plans, officials said. A bipartisan group put forth a similar idea earlier this year.
A full story will appear in Saturday’s editions of the Barre-Montpelier Times Argus and Rutland Herald.
Gov. Peter Shumlin and Chief of Health Care Reform Lawrence Miller discuss the administration’s new self-imposed deadlines for Vermont Health Connect. Failure to deliver working technology will result in the state pursuing a transition to a federal health insurance exchange.
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.
“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.”
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.”
Read the legislation below:
Gov. Peter Shumlin chats with Vermont Press Bureau Neal P. Goswami about a House Health Care Committee bill, the state budget and gun legislation.
MONTPELIER — The Shumlin administration has asked state agencies and departments to identify up to 325 state jobs to be cut to obtain $10.8 million in labor savings.
Agency of Administration Justin Johnson made the request in a memo sent to agency secretaries and department commissioners Wednesday. The memo was first reported Thursday by Seven Days.
The administration is seeking the labor savings to help balance the 2016 fiscal year budget, which has a hole of about $113 million because revenues are rising slower than the budget’s rate of growth. Officials have asked the Vermont State Employees Association to open the union’s existing labor contract to avoid job cuts, but the union has refused to do so.
The administration is looking to nix a 2.5 percent cost of living increase due to state employees during the 2016 fiscal year, and slow down so-called “step increases,” which average out to about a 1.7 percent additional pay increase for state employees annually.
Because the union is unwilling to renegotiate, job cuts will be needed, according to Johnson.
“It seems unlikely that the State’s labor contract will be reopened as part of the solution to balancing the budget. This situation leaves me with no alternative but to begin planning for a significant reduction in force across all sectors ofVermont state government to be effective July 2015, the start of the new fiscal year,” Johnson wrote in his memo.
The number of job cuts needed ranges from 150 to 325, depending on the positions. On average, the state’s general fund covers about 40 percent of the cost for each position. Each position, including salary and benefits, has an average cost of $83,000.
Johnson asked that positions be identified by March 16, and that vacant positions be considered first.
The Agency of Human Services, the largest state agency, has been asked to achieve the most savings — more than $4.5 million. The Agencies of Natural Resources, Public Safety and Administration must identify more than $1 million in saves each.
See the memo and the administration’s target reductions below:
MONTPELIER — The 2016 fiscal year state budget the House considers is likely to include $35 million in new revenue raised through changes in the tax code, according to House Speaker Shap Smith.
That amount is consistent with what Gov. Peter Shumlin recommended in his budget, which was presented to lawmakers in January, the Democratic speaker said in an interview Thursday. But the House plan will likely also look to cap itemized tax deductions to raise additional tax revenue from wealthier Vermonters, he said.
“The governor’s original budget relied on $35 million of new revenue and we are looking at that amount of revenue to balance the budget that the governor presented, as well as the additional … $18 million that was necessitated by the revenue downgrade. We’re continuing to rely on the need to raise $35 million in new revenue,” Smith said.
The 2016 fiscal year budget has a current hole of about $113 million. After raising $35 million revenue, lawmakers will need to make about $78 million in cuts.
The House, Smith said, will use the governor’s proposal to eliminate a current policy that allows taxpayers who itemize deductions to deduct their previous year’s state and local tax liability from their taxable income. But the House will look to go even further and cap all itemized deductions at two-and-a-half times the standard deduction. For a couple filing jointly that would be about $31,000.
Those two measures would raise $32.4 million, Sara Teachout, a fiscal analyst with the Joint Fiscal Office, told the House Ways and Means Committee Thursday. Revenue included in a fee bill makes up the additional general fund revenue needed to hit the $35 million target.
Smith said he did not want to commit to that plan before the committee fully considers it, but said he supports it.
“I think that given the reductions that we’re making in the budget and the fact that it largely impacts people at the lower end of the income ladder that it’s fair to ask those at the upper end of the income ladder to pitch in to solve the problem, and through capping the itemized deductions I think we could do that,” he said.
According to Teachout, Vermonters earning $75,000 or less would chip in an additional $3.91 million under the proposal. Vermonters earning $75,000 or more would contribute an additional $28.48 million in tax revenue.
According to data Teachout provided the Ways and Means Committee Thursday, about 84,000 of Vermont’s 310,389 tax filers would see a tax increase. But the increases would be minimal for low- and middle-income Vermonters. People earning $75,000 or less would see their tax bills rise by $144 or less, on average. The state’s 355 filers earning $1 million or more would see an average tax increase of $18,603.
Smith said limiting deductions will put Vermont more in line with tax policy in most states.
“They often times don’t allow the itemized deductions that we do. I think it moves us closer to what other states do,” he said.
Exactly where the House will look to make budget cuts is still evolving, Smith said. However, some of Shumlin’s recommendations are likely to be used, including cuts to the state’s assistance program known as Reach Up and to the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program and through the consolidation of emergency dispatch centers.
The House will also look to include $10.8 million in labor savings from the state’s work force, according to Smith.
“Under any circumstance in balancing this budget it’s going to require some labor savings,” he said.
The administration ratcheted up pressure on the Vermont State Employees Association this week in its effort to obtain the labor savings by requesting that agencies and departments identify up to 325 positions to be cut. The administration has asked the union to reopen its contract to negotiate the savings without job cuts, but the union has so far refused to do so.
Meanwhile, the House Appropriations Committee held a public hearing Thursday on a list of potential cuts totaling $29 million. The list features a range of ideas, but most would not provide immediate savings for the 2016 fiscal year, Smith said. Many of those ideas could be used to address future budget gaps, including in 2017, which faces a shortfall of about $45 million.
Smith said the Appropriations Committee, led by Chairwoman Mitzi Johnson, D-South Hero, will use the list as needed.
“I really do have confidence that that committee will make the right recommendations that need to be done to balance the budget. I really rely heavily … on that committee to make the right decisions,” he said.
The final House plan must pass muster with both the administration and the Senate. Smith said there are ongoing conversations with both, but areas of disagreement will be addressed when the Senate considers the House version.
“I don’t think that we have identified, sort of, the areas of tension yet. I don’t think we’ll have a good sense of that until it gets over to the Senate,” he said.
Barre-Montpelier Times Argus Editor Steve Pappas discusses a proposed payroll tax with Gov. Peter Shumlin and Chief of Health Care Reform Lawrence Miller.
Barre-Montpelier Times Argus Editor Steve Pappas sits down with Vermont Press Bureau chief Neal P. Goswami to talk about town meeting, Gov. Peter Shumlin’s troubles selling his payroll tax plan, a renewed aid-in-dying debate and AHS Secretary Hal Cohen.
Gov. Peter Shumlin sits down with Vermont Press Bureau Chief Neal P. Goswami and discusses recent poll numbers on his job performance.
MONTPELIER — Gov. Peter Shumlin has seen a further erosion of support since the November election, with 47 percent disapproving of his job performance and just 41 percent approving.
The new polling data, compiled by Castleton Polling Institute for VTDigger, marks the first time that the third-term Democratic governor’s approval rating has gone underwater since taking office in 2011, meaning more Vermonters disapprove of him than approve. Shumlin won 46.4 percent of the vote in November, barely edging out his Republican challenged in the popular vote.
In April 2014 a CPI/VTDigger pole placed Shumlin’s approval rating at 49 percent.
The numbers are even worse for the governor when broken down further. The poll found that only 62 percent of Democrats approve of Shumlin’s performance, and just 37 percent of independents. The number of people identifying as independents is also on the rise, according to the poll data.
Only 16 percent of Republicans view Shumlin’s job performance favorably, while 77 percent view it unfavorably.
Women view Shumlin’s job performance more favorable than men, 44 percent to 36 percent.
The numbers present problems for Shumlin should he seek a fourth term in 2016. The growing number of independents means any candidate will need to win a sizable portion of the electorate that consider themselves independent. With Shumlin’s support among Democrats on the decline, he will need even more independents to help him secure another term.
The poll also queried Vermonters about the Legislature. At the moment, 41 percent view the Legislature favorably and 32 percent disapprove. A large number, 26 percent, had no opinion. Women view the Legislature more favorably than men, 45 percent to 37 percent.
A plurality of Vermonters, according to the poll, believe that Vermont is headed in the right direction. Forty-eight percent said the state is heading in the right direction, while 41 percent said it is not. Democrats, at 70 percent, are more likely to think the state is heading in the right direction. Just 21 percent of Republicans believe that, while 42 percent of independents said the state is heading in the right direction.
Poll results released by VTDigger on Monday showed a large majority of Vermonters support legislation that would require background checks for all gun sales. According to the results, 77 percent support such a law while 20 percent oppose it. Support among women and Democrats is high, at 86 percent and 93 percent, respectively. Even a majority of Republicans — 57 percent — support such a law.
However, legislation introduced in the Senate this year calling for such a law, S.31, has been sidelined by a lack of support among key lawmakers.
The poll was conducted by the Castleton Polling Institute’s phone center using live interviewers between Feb. 9 and 24. The polling sample of 700 people has a margin of error of 4 percent.
Shumlin, who is vacationing this week, was not available for comment. Susan Allen, a spokeswoman, said his office would not comment on the new poll.
“We are not going to comment on polling results. We are focused on balancing the budget and getting results for Vermonters,” she wrote in an email.
Vermont Press Bureau chief Neal P. Goswami joined the panel Friday on Vermont This Week. Watch for an update on potential budget cuts, an education reform bill, a showdown between Gov. Peter Shumlin and the latest on MIT economist Jonathan Gruber’s woes.