Category Archives: Governor

Milne launches TV ad

MONTPELIER — Republican gubernatorial candidate Scott Milne has launched his first television commercial as the primary approaches next week.

The ad, which will be running on WPTZ, Fox 44/ABC 22 and WCAX through the primary, features footage from Milne’s campaign kickoff event last month in Barre. Former Republican Gov. James Douglas is prominently featured, calling Milne the next governor of Vermont.

“Internally, I think sort of the campaign family, we’re stoked about it. I think it’s very, very good and I’m appreciative of all the support from Gov. Douglas,” Milne said Tuesday.

The commercial also shows footage of Milne’s mother, former GOP state Rep. Marion Milne, who passed away on Aug. 11.

Milne said his campaign is spending just over $20,000 on the commercial through next Tuesday.

 

Racine out at AHS

MONTPELIER – Agency of Human Services Secretary Doug Racine is being replaced, the Shumlin administration announced Tuesday, as challenges within the agency mount.

According to Shumlin administration officials, current Health Commissioner Harry Chen will replace Racine on an interim basis while a permanent replacement is sought.

“I appreciate Doug’s hard work over three and a half years to help Vermont’s most vulnerable,” Shumlin said in a release.

Doug Racine

Doug Racine

Shumlin touted the agency’s move to a data-driven, results-based planning strategy and a revamped mental health system under Racine’s tenure.

But the agency has faced significant challenges, too. Vermont Health Connect, the state’s online health insurance marketplace that is overseen by the agency’s Department of Vermont Health Access, has struggled and remains hobbled. And The Department for Children and Families has faced scathing criticism following the recent deaths of several children, allegedly at the hands of caregivers.

“This has been a tough job, but now is the right time to start with new leadership to take the Agency of Human Services forward,” Shumlin said. “I appreciate Dr. Chen’s willingness to get us started on that challenge.”

Harry Chen

Harry Chen

Chen is expected to remain as Interim Secretary of AHS through the end of the year. Deputy Commissioner of Health Tracy Dolan will head the Health Department in his absence.

A full story will appear in Wednesday’s editions of the Herald and Times Argus.

Deadline for AHS reorganization extended

MONTPELIER — Governor Peter Shumlin’s own Pathways from Poverty Council is asking him to allow for public participation before the Agency of Human Services issues its recommendations on how to address systems, policies and procedures within the agency.

As a result, Shumlin’s office says it is planning to extend an Aug. 1 deadline for AHS Secretary Doug Racine to submit a plan to the governor’s office to reorganize the agency. That deadline will now be Oct. 1.

Shumlin’s order for a reorganization plan, along with other more immediate changes he called for in May, came on the heels of the deaths of two children involved with the Department for Children and Families. Two-year-old Dezirae Sheldon of Poultney died in February and 15-month-old Peighton Geraw died in April. Both deaths were ruled homicides resulting from trauma.

Shumlin said a review and reorganization of DCF is needed because the current department was created from two others in 2004. He said he wants to ensure DCF is focused on its core mission: protecting children and strengthening families. Work not associated with those issues may be reassigned to other parts of state government, according to the governor.

Christopher Curtis

Christopher Curtis

Christopher Curtis, co-chairman of the Pathways from Poverty Council, created by Shumlin through an executive order in December, said council members are aware of ongoing action by a special legislative panel.

“I think the council members became increasingly aware that there’s clearly a public process that the Legislature has undertaken on the questions of child protection. It’s clearly been undertaken with urgency and great concern, as is appropriate,” he said.

But members also want to ensure that any changes made by the administration to DCF also includes input from stakeholders and the public.

“I think many of the stakeholders around the table at the poverty council starting thinking that if there are major policy chances being considered that may have a big ripple effect,” he said.

Council members “wanted to be a part of whatever changes the administration is making,” Curtis said, “rather than just respond to those.”

The council delivered a letter to Racine requesting more time and public input at its Thursday meeting. Shumlin agreed on Friday.

“The Poverty Council has done tremendous work in the past year, helping us formulate smarter, more responsive policies for Vermonters in need,” Shumlin said in a statement. “I am grateful for their work, and appreciate their suggestion that we take more time and receive more input prior to formulating further recommendations regarding the work of the Agency of Human Services and the Department of Children and Families.”

Shumlin said his administration will work with the council on receiving public input.

“I’ve asked Secretary Racine and his Agency team to coordinate with the Poverty Council to ensure we receive strong feedback in this process, and look forward to receiving their further recommendations by October 1st,” Shumlin said in his statement.

Curtis said additional input will help the administration reform the agency in a constructive way.

“We can’t possibly represent all the constituencies out there. Our hope is that this will invite more process … and allow people an opportunity to either write to the governor’s office or write to the secretary,” he said. “I think to open that process will give the administration the benefit of more solutions and informing their decisions.”

Milne admits past health, legal troubles

MONTPELIER — Republican gubernatorial candidate Scott Milne revealed in a statement to reporters Thursday that he was arrested three times in college and suffered a stroke in 2006.

The arrests, two for driving under the influence of alcohol and one for possession marijuana and cocaine, all resulted in convictions. Milne said in a telephone interview Thursday that the cases were “settled as expeditiously as possible without spending money on counsel.”

“I don’t think about them on a daily basis, but my presumption is they are part of the public record,” he said.

In 2006, Milne suffered an ischemic stroke caused by a blood clot in his brain. He said he has made a full recovery, suffers “very little residual effect,” and has been cleared by doctors to campaign and serve as governor.

“Basically, I have a little bit of numbness on one side of my buddy and that really is about it,” Milne said.

He gave credit for his recovery to his daughter who he said sought immediate medical attention when the stroke occurred.

Milne, who has yet to formally launch his campaign, said he wanted the information about his past to be out in the open. He said facts about his past “might be important and relevant” to supporters.

Scott Milne

Scott Milne

“I think we wanted to get it out. If we started to campaign earlier we would have sent it out a lot earlier,” he said. “It was a consideration when I was weighing whether or not to run.”

Milne, in the statement sent to reporters, said “Vermonters have a right to a governor who is upfront and transparent.” He promised transparency about his personal life as well as the “economic challenges and crisis of affordability we face as a state.”

Brock bows out

MONTPELIER — Republican Randy Brock, the Vermont GOP’s nominee for governor in 2012, announced in an email Sunday that he will not challenge Democratic Gov. Peter Shumlin again this year.

Brock, a former state auditor and state senator, had been publicly mulling a run. His decision comes after Stowe Rep. Heidi Scheuermann and former Wall Street executive Bruce Lisman already bowed out this year.

Scott Milne, president of Milne Travel, is the only other known Republican considering a run. Milne has said he wants a primary, however.

“I will not be a candidate for Governor of Vermont in 2014,” Brock wrote in his email. “This decision has not been easy to reach. I have arrived at it over several months after careful thought, much input and serious deliberation.”

Brock lost the 2012 race to Shumlin after winning only 38 percent of the vote after putting about $300,000 of his own money into the campaign. Brock said he was not prepared to pump his own cash into a race this year.

He said he is opting out of challenging Shumlin again this year despite persistent urging to do so from supporters.

Randy Brock

Randy Brock

“I am thankful to the many Vermonters who have called upon me to run. I have heard from people from all over our state offering words of encouragement,” he wrote. “This outpouring of support from so many has been extremely heartening and I will always be grateful for their unwavering loyalty.”

Brock, noting that his name will not appear on a ballot for the first time in 10 years, said he will miss being out on the campaign trail. But, sitting the election out “is the right decision for me and my family,” he said.

He pledged to remain “involved in helping to shape public policy.” The former auditor also said he plans “to continue to contribute to the debate through critical analysis and commentary.”

Another exchange deadline to be missed

MONTPELIER — Change of circumstance functionality expected to go live this weekend on Vermont Health Connect will not be deployed as testing continues, according to Department of Vermont Health Access Commissioner Mark Larson.

The state’s vendor, CGI, was supposed to have the change of circumstance function live on the health insurance exchange website by May 21 based on an amendment to the original contract. But the state reached an agreement on a revised work plan to extend the deadline to June 8. Now there is a new delay.

“We’re making very good progress on the development of the functionality and we’re close with automated change of circumstance functionality, but have made the decision that it’s not ready to go this weekend into the live environment,” Larson said Friday.

When deployed, the upgrade will allow thousands of Vermonters to edit personal information online if mistakes were made during registration, or if they experienced a life-changing event such as marriage. A backlog of 10,000 requests has amassed since the site launched in October.

“It’s important to us to make sure that the functionality, when it’s ready to go, is ready to serve Vermonters well. So, we’re going to continue our work until we feel like it’s ready to serve Vermonters, and focus on the quality and thoroughness of our work at this point,” Larson said.

Rep. Michael Fisher

Rep. Michael Fisher

The delays are frustrating lawmakers, including House Health Committee Chairman Michael Fisher, D-Lincoln.

“I think this is a really serious problem and I think it’s really an unacceptable situation that we’re in right now. Ten thousand households, many of whom may have small inconsequential changes, a change of address or something, but many of these Vermonters are worried that they’re not going to be able to get the care that they need,” Fisher said.

Continued issues and delays with the exchange site could damage future health care reform efforts, he said.

“I just know that there’s a lot of worry out there and a lot of frustration and I have been hearing a lot of it,” Fisher said. “It really does impact people’s view of our ability to move forward on health care reform.”

Meanwhile, the state is negotiating with a new vendor to help the state deal with the backlog in change of circumstance requests. The backlog increased by about 2,000 requests in the last month or so.

The contract, details of which remain confidential as negotiations continue, was expected to be signed by the end of Friday, Larson said. It will provide additional workers to help users update their information.

“It will help in the ability to have the automated functionality be able to assist in the work of resolving the backlog of change of circumstance requests. It will make it faster, but it will not eliminate the work left to do in making sure that we respond to all of those Vermonters who have made requests,” he said.

State officials expect users will still want assistance in changing information once the functionality is deployed.

“We fully expect that there will be a lot of people who will continue to want assistance in that process and we’ll be able to be more efficient with that,” he said. “It’s still going to take a significant effort to respond to everybody.”

Larson said he would not provide a specific date when testing will be completed and the system can be upgraded. “I think we are hopeful that we will be able to deploy this functionality soon. Again, we really have made a significant amount of progress,” he said.

neal.goswami@timesargus.com

Lisman declines gov bid

MONTPELIER — Campaign for Vermont founder and former Wall Street executive Bruce Lisman announced Wednesday he will not launch a bid to unseat Gov. Peter Shumlin.

Lisman, the former chairman of the JP Morgan Chase Global Equity Division, said he was considering a campaign for governor at the urging of Vermonters. But in a statement issued Wednesday Lisman said he will instead focus on advocacy efforts.

“I love Vermont and believe that she faces serious challenges as seldom before in her history,” Lisman said in his statement. “At this time, however, I believe I can best contribute to improving Vermont’s future by publicly and vigorously advocating for a focused, core set of moderate, nonpartisan and common sense government reforms. Indeed, this coalition building effort is the best approach to policy change and consistent with my focus since 2011.”

Bruce Lisman

Bruce Lisman

Wednesday’s announcement follows on the heals of one made by Stowe Rep. Heidi Scheuermann, who just last week said she would not seek the GOP gubernatorial nomination and challenge Shumlin, a two-term Democrat.

Scott Milne, president of Milne Travel, and Randy Brock, a former state senator auditor and the GOP’s failed 2012 nominee, are the only other known Republicans considering a run.

Lisman was being viewed by Democrats as a serious challenger. The Vermont Democratic Party in recent months attacked Campaign for Vermont, a group that Lisman has pumped more than $1 million into, for being a conservative organization cloaked as a nonpartisan advocacy group.

Despite declining to run, Lisman’s announcement included an indictment of Shumlin’s tenure as governor, saying Vermonters are concerned about the state’s future. He said he plans to focus on the need for job growth and economic development, comprehensive ethics standards in government, transparency in health care reform and reducing property taxes.

“The vast majority of Vermonters, from all different parts of the state and all different backgrounds, want to see expanded job opportunities and economic growth which stem from a stronger business environment, a return to responsible budget management, ethics standards in government, enhanced transparency, particularly on health care, and a better and more effective education system,” Lisman said.

The plans Lisman laid out in his announcement could set him up for a future run.

“I will focus on showcasing the public’s growing frustration about these issues and the need to implement tangible solutions for true change, change that Vermonters are demanding” he said. “Vermonters have made it clear they are not satisfied with the direction of the state and I will make it my mission to influence citizen-led forward progress.”

House passes minimum wage bill, on way to gov’s desk

MONTPELIER — The Senate version of a minimum wage bill was passed by the House Friday night and will become law after it emerged as the only feasible option for boosting the incomes of the state’s lowest-paid workers.

Republicans agreed to suspend House rules Friday evening, allowing the bill to be taken up a day ahead of schedule. The plan — approved by the Senate on Monday — was passed by the House on a 132-3 vote and is now on its way to the governor’s desk after a bumpy few days.

The legislation will raise the minimum hourly rate to $10.50 in 2018. In the interim, the minimum wage will go from its current $8.73 per hour to $9.15 on Jan. 1. The wage would then go to $9.60, $10 and $10.50, respectively, over the next three years. Annual cost-of-living increases based on the consumer price index will occur each year thereafter.

The Senate version was reluctantly adopted by some Democrats and Progressives after all other options to raise the wage sooner were exhausted.

“We know we can do better. The House voted for what we thought was a better bill, but after a long process, this is the bill that we have. But, it accomplishes what we need to do,” Rep. Tom Stevens, D-Waterbury, said on the House floor Friday night, acknowledging the disappointment with the bill by some members.

Continue reading

Scenes from the race to end the session

Technicality stalls minimum wage debate

MONTPELIER — A misprint in the House calendar discovered late Thursday night doomed consideration of a minimum wage bill until Saturday, just as Democratic leaders ramped up efforts to corral an unruly caucus.

House Minority Leader Don Turner, R-Milton, made a point of order around 10:30 p.m., hours after debate had begun. But House Speaker Shap Smith said minority Republicans were correct, and ruled that action must be postponed and placed back on the calendar, making Saturday the next day the bill will see action.

Democratic leaders were looking to pass a scaled back minimum wage bill from the more ambitious plan they previously passed. The new plan, hashed out following a day-long back-and-forth between the House, Senate and governor’s office, is much closer to one favored by Gov. Peter Shumlin. Continue reading

GMO labeling bill signed into law

Jeb Wallace-Brodeur / Staff Photo  A large crowd of legislators and supporters cheers after Gov. Peter Shumlin signed a bill into law on Thursday outside the State House that requires the labelling of GMO ingredients in food. It is the first law of its kind in the nation to pass without so-called trigger clauses.

Jeb Wallace-Brodeur / Staff Photo
A large crowd of legislators and supporters cheers after Gov. Peter Shumlin signed a bill into law on Thursday outside the State House that requires the labelling of GMO ingredients in food. It is the first law of its kind in the nation to pass without so-called trigger clauses.

By JOSH O’GORMAN
MONTPELIER – Before a cheering crowd of hundreds, Gov. Peter Shumlin signed a first-in-the-nation food labeling bill into law, even as food producers continue to voice their opposition.
The front lawn of the Statehouse was filled with families and consumer advocates as Shumlin signed a law that will require the packaging of some foods to indicate if they contain genetically modified organisms, or GMOs.
“We will sign the first bill in America, joining 60 other countries, where Vermonters will have the right to know what’s in their food,” said Shumlin, who compared the law to Vermont begin the first state to abolish slavery and allow civil unions. Continue reading

Small biz direct enrollment to last through 2015 open enrollment

MONTPELIER — The Shumlin administration told lawmakers Tuesday that small businesses will have the option to continue directly enrolling in health care insurance plans during the next open enrollment period slated for this fall.

Director of Health Care Reform Robin Lunge delivered the update to the Senate Finance Committee early Tuesday afternoon. Mark Larson, commissioner of the Department of Vermont Health Access, delivered the same message later to the House Health Care Committee.

“The good news that I have is that the feds have approved the ability for us to continue with direct enrollment moving forward through the 2015 open enrollment period for 2016 plans and our intention is to allow this as an additional option,” Lunge said.

Direct enrollment with the state’s two insurance carriers was a contingency plan offered by Gov. Peter Shumlin when the state’s federally mandated online insurance marketplace, Vermont Health Connect, failed to function properly at launch last October. Small businesses were able to bypass the exchange and deal directly with insurers.

Employees of small businesses with 50 or fewer employees are required by state statute to obtain health insurance through Vermont Health Connect. But the website still does not allow for online enrollment. Administration officials say they expect it to be working when the 2015 open enrollment period begins in October.

Larson said the direct enrollment option is in no way an indication that the exchange website will still not be fully functional by October. Rather, it provides Vermonters with additional ways to enroll in qualified health insurance plans, he said.

However, direct enrollment with insurance carriers provides a limited choice of insurance plans. Individual using the website can choose from 18 plans between the two carriers. Small business employees can only choose from four plans.

Larson said the Centers for Medicaid and Medicare, which has approved the state’s request to continue direct enrollment, “is mindful of employee choice.” Larson said conversations with insurers are taking place to try and expand options.

“They are very interested in making sure that employees have the greatest ability to have choice in their plans as possible. That will be one of the conversations that we have, is how to do direct enrollment so employees continue to have access to as many plans as possible through their employer.”

House Health Care Committee Chairman Rep. Michael Fisher, following Larson’s appearance, said he is happy the direct enrollment option will be preserved for the next enrollment period.

“I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard that this piece of IT structure or that piece will be ready in time, and so I don’t have any confidence that anything is going to work until I see it working,” he said. “I think Vermonters are comfortable going through the carriers directly and I’m pleased that the administration moved to a place that is supporting that. So, I think that’s a good thing.”

neal.goswami@timesargus.com

Online payments go live on state exchange

MONTPELIER — The state’s online health insurance marketplace is now accepting payment online for premiums, the Shumlin administration announced Monday.

Individual Vermonters enrolling in insurance plans on Vermont Health Connect, the online marketplace mandated under the federal Affordable Care Act, can now pay for monthly premiums online, according to the Department of Vermont Health Access. The site underwent an upgrade over the weekend, officials said.

Small businesses will continue to enroll directly through the state’s two insurers — Blue Cross Blue Shield and MVP Health Care.

The payment system will now allow Vermonters to pay premiums with a debit card, credit card or direct deposit from a bank account in addition to paper checks.

“This is great news for all Vermonters using VHC to enroll in health plans. Paying online provides convenience for Vermonters, and we’re pleased this functionality is now up and running. Our focus over the next month is to continue to enroll Vermonters through VHC,” DVHA Commissioner Mark Larson said in a statement.

Administration officials said additional system upgrades over the weekend will allow VHC staff to better process applications and provide a better overall experience for users.

The addition of online payments comes months after the site launched last Oct. 1. At launch, the site experienced significant technological failures that prevented most users from selecting plans. Small businesses can still not enroll on the site and must do so directly through insurers.

GOP leaders seek federal investigation into exchange

MONTPELIER — Republican leaders in the Legislature are seeking a federal investigation into Vermont Health Connect based on an anonymous tip that a state contractor duped state officials last year.

House Minority Leader Don Turner of Milton and Senate Minority Leader Joe Benning of Caledonia County sent a letter Wednesday to Tristram Coffin, the U.S. Attorney for the District of Vermont, requesting the investigation. The request is based on “whistleblower allegations alleging a fraudulent software demonstration on July 26, 2013 by CGI Technologies & Solutions.”

Newsweek published an article earlier this month in which an anonymous source said a demonstration by CGI last July designed to show connectivity with the state’s online insurance marketplace with a federal data hub was faked.

The exchange site, for which CGI has an $84 million contract to build, is still not fully functional, the GOP leaders wrote in their letter.

“We believe the unexplained and extensive delay, coupled with evidence suggesting the company in charge of designing the system may have duped Vermont officials into incorrectly thinking that the software system was working and on schedule, constitutes sufficient legal and factual predicate to begin a federal investigation,” they wrote. “If true, such a fraud prevented state officials from performing proper contractual oversight, prevented corrective measures, and helped CGI retain its multi-million dollar contract with the state.”

Mark Larson, commissioner of the Department of Vermont Health Access, has maintained that the July demonstration did feature a live connection with the federal data hub.

Linda F. Odorisio, vice president of communications for CGI, said in an emailed statement Wednesday evening that the demonstration did connect the state site to the federal hub.

“CGI confirms that the demonstration conducted on July 26, 2013 included a live interface to the Federal Data Services Hub, with the real time sending and receiving of data,” she wrote.

House approves campaign finance measure

MONTPELIER — The Housed passed a campaign finance reform bill Thursday on a bipartisan vote following a conference committee with Senate negotiators.

The legislation sailed through the House on a 124 to 15 roll call vote, but some members are disappointed in the final version of the legislation. The plan will raise some contribution limits.

House and Senate negotiators met out of session over the last several months after failing to reach agreement before the end of the 2013 legislative session. They  signed off on a compromise plan Tuesday, the first day of the 2014 legislative session.

The agreement will allow individuals, corporations and PACs  to contribute twice as much money — from $2,000 to $4,000 — directly to statewide candidates and PACs.

Meanwhile, political parties can now raise $10,000 directly from those same groups, up from $2,000, and up to $60,000 from their national parties.

Candidates for the Legislature will see a decrease in the contributions they can currently receive. Contributions to House candidates will capped at $1,000, while contributions to Senate candidates will be reduced to $1,500.

Political parties will be able to funnel unlimited amounts of money to candidates, however.

Independent and Progressive candidates said that provides an unfair advantage to Democrats and Republicans who can receive unlimited funding from their respective parties.

Some House members addressed the chamber to explain their votes, saying they voted in favor of the bill because it is time for the state to have limits in place.

Rep. Cynthia Browning, a Democrat from Arlington, said she voted against the bill because the contribution limits are too high and more disclosure should be required closer to elections. The bill is “not enough to even be called campaign finance reform,” she said.

The Senate will consider the compromise bill next week.