Category Archives: Governor

Capitol Beat with the Governor 1-30-15

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Gov. Peter Shumlin sits down Vermont Press Bureau chief Neal Goswami to defend his payroll tax plan and discuss the needs of millennials in Vermont. He also predicts a Super Bowl victory for the New England Patriots on Sunday.

Gov. Peter Shumlin records Capitol Beat with the Governor.

Gov. Peter Shumlin records Capitol Beat with the Governor. (Photo by Jeb Wallace-Brodeur)

House advances annual budget adjustment

MONTPELIER — The Vermont House gave preliminary approval by voice vote Thursday to the annual budget adjustment bill, which will lower state spending in the current fiscal year by $12 million.

The reduction in spending is needed following a revenue forecast delivered by state economists last week that projects lower revenues than initially thought. In fact, the current, 2015 fiscal year budget is has seen a downgrade of more than $41 million since January 2014 — a 2.8 percent reduction in funds available to support government operations.

The budget adjustment, unanimously approved by the House Appropriations Committee Monday, uses $10 million in spending reductions to cover the downgrade and sets aside $2 million for use in balancing the 2016 fiscal year budget. It brings available revenue in line with spending, and sets 2015 fiscal year spending less than 1.5 percent more than the previous year, said House Appropriations Committee Chairwoman Mitzi Johnson, D-South Hero.

“This budget brings general fund growth to under what average growth in the economy is,” she said.

Rep. Mitzi Johnson

Rep. Mitzi Johnson

The plan approved by the Appropriations Committee covers increased costs for Vermont Health Connect, the state’s online health insurance marketplace. Overall spending on the exchange is rising by $28.3 million, including $14.6 million in state funds, according to Finance Commissioner James Reardon. It is the first time state funds are being used for operations related to the exchange.

The budget adjustment also includes $2.15 million in additional funds for the Vermont Veterans Home in Bennington. And, it funds 110 new opiate treatment slots in Bennington County, which will free up space in Rutland County.

“Though overall spending is down, we were able to make some investments,” Johnson said.

There are several large reductions, too, including $ 1 million in the Low-Income Home Energy Assistance Program, $437,000 in mental health housing vouchers and $224,000 in cuts to the Judiciary, which is expected to decrease the availability of judges.

Johnson said a plan to cut $500,000 from the Judiciary presented by Gov. Peter Shumlin was scaled back. Instead, the committee sent a letter to the Judiciary asking officials to find ways to cut costs without diminishing services or slowing justice.

Floor action on the bill came to a grinding halt Thursday afternoon when Rep, Mary Morrissey, R-Bennington, sought to introduce an amendment seeking greater transparency in exchange spending. Republicans said the amendment was triggered because of new state spending on the exchange.

House Speaker Shap Smith called for a recess to allow the Appropriations and Health Care Committees to review the amendment and provide time for the parties to caucus.

Rep. Mary Morrissey

Rep. Mary Morrissey

Morrissey’s amendment called for halting the expenditure of funds included in the budget adjustment for VHC unless Lawrence Miller, the governor’s chief of health care reform, provides lawmakers with:

— A full accounting of the state and federal expenditures through 2014 for development and implementation of the exchange
— Projected remaining development and implementation of the exchange through 2015
— Remaining balance of any federal grants awarded to the state for development and implementation of the exchange
— Projected expenditures for fiscal years 2015 and 2016 for the operation of the exchange by funding source and department

House Minority Leader Don Turner, R-Milton, said the amendment will force the administration to become more transparent and will provide information to lawmakers that so far has not been forthcoming.

“I think it’s a very good one if you believe in transparent government,” he said.

The Appropriations Committee substituted its own version of the amendment, essentially stripping Morrissey’s fingerprints from the process. The Democratic version, which was approved by the House on a voice vote, removed the threat of halting spending.

“We’re prepared to take action should we not receive satisfactory information,” Johnson said in an effort to placate discontent among Republicans.

The House later agreed to add the amendment to the budget adjustment on a 135 to 0 roll call vote. Democrats said they have already asked the administration for the data sought in the amendment and have already received most of it.

Morrissey said she is “appreciative” that the Democratic majority choice “to copy” her amendment.

neal.goswami@timesargus.com

Shumlin says no rush to legalize pot, won’t partake if Vermont acts

MONTPELIER — Gov. Peter Shumlin said Tuesday he has no plans to partake in legal marijuana if the state moves to allow it.

“No,” Shumlin said, when asked during a news conference by Seven Days reporter Terri Hallenbeck if he would smoke legal weed. “Been there, done that.”

Shumlin appeared caught off guard when asked when he last smoked marijuana.

“Oh my God,” he said. It was a while ago. I’m old.”

Shumlin then clarified that he last smoked pot in his late 20s, but gave it up as his responsibilities grew.

“My guess is that a lot of Vermonters of my generation feel like I do about marijuana, which is, it is something that we smoked when we were young,” he said. I found that as I got into my 20s and took on more responsibility, it didn’t have the same desirable effect on me and I stopped smoking it because as I took on more responsibility, or I don’t know what in my late 20s, I just found that it wasn’t much fun anymore.”

“My staff’s going to kill me for this,” he added, glancing at Chief of Staff Liz Miller and spokesman Scott Coriell.

The RAND corp. recently released a report estimating that Vermont could net between $20 million and $75 million annually by legalizing marijuana. The higher end of potential revenue would be possible of surrounding states did not follow suit and out-of-state residents came to Vermont to purchase it.

Shumlin said he is in no rush to beat surrounding states simply for additional revenue.

“I don’t think we should be driven by tax revenue. I think we should be driven by doing the right thing for Vermonters in a way that is better than the current system, which forces an illegal market that isn’t regulated, that isn’t controlled, that anyone can have access to, including kids,” he said. “Kids will tell you that it’s easier to get pot … than it is alcohol. That suggests that the regulatory market works.”

Shumlin said he spoke with Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper on Monday about the issue. Colorado has legalized marijuana through a ballot initiative and Shumlin said Vermont should take its time and learn from both Colorado and the state of Washington before acting.

“I really think that we can learn a lot from the states that have gone first on this and are learning what works and what doesn’t,” he said. “I’ll continue to evolve and learn from their experiences. I think the report gives us a good road map of choices that we could make should we move to legalization.”

One lesson already learned, Shumlin said, is that Vermont should avoid allowing edible products made with marijuana.

“Edibles are a real challenge for states. I would love to see Vermont avoid those problems if we were to go ahead,” he said.

Shumlin heads to D.C. seeking federal highway funds

MONTPELIER — Gov. Peter Shumlin is heading to Washington Wednesday to provide testimony to the U.S. Senate Committee on Environment & Public Works about the need for funding in the Highway Trust Fund.

Vermont and other states rely on the federal fund to complete road, bridge and other infrastructure repairs and projects. But the fund, which is replenished through the federal gas tax, has solvency issues as that revenue source plummets.

The fund is supported with a federal gas tax of 18.3 cents per gallon, and a tax of 24.4 cents per gallon of diesel fuel. But Americans are driving less and the fund is not keeping pace with infrastructure needs across the country.

Shumlin said his testimony will focus on “the desperate need to refill the transportation trust fund so Vermont and the other 49 states can rebuild our crumbling roads and bridges.”

Gov. Peter Shumlin speaks to reporters during a news conference on Tuesday, Jan. 27.

Gov. Peter Shumlin speaks to reporters during a news conference on Tuesday, Jan. 27.

“I understand there’s tremendous difficulty getting anything done in Congress, but it seems to me the one thing that Republicans, Democrats, independents can agree on, if we let our roads and bridges crumble, we lose our quality of life and we lose our ability to grow jobs and economic opportunity,” Shumlin said at a news conference Tuesday.

Shumlin, who was invited to testify by Democratic California Sen. Barbara Boxer, according to his aides, will be joined by Republican Gov. Robert Brentley of Alabama, and South Dakota Secretary of Transportation Darin Bergquist. Connecticut Democratic Gov. Dannel Malloy canceled his appearance to oversee winter storm cleanup.

Shumlin said he was asked by the National Governor’s Association to present the states’ perspective to Congress.

“As I talk to both Republican and Democratic governors, we’re united on this one. The National Governor’s Association feels very strongly that Congress must come up with a solution by May to refill the transportation trust fund or we will lose jobs and we’ll lose our infrastructure, and it’s really critical,” he said.

States need to begin lining up contractors for the summer construction season but cannot commit to projects unless funding is secured.

“We just can’t be constantly in a situation where we say, ‘Hey, we have bridges that are falling apart, we have roads that are crumbling, but we can’t go out there and line up contractors because we just don’t know if the feds are going to get their act together to get us the money that we need to do it,’” Shumlin said.

The governor said he will not tell Congress how to address the shortfall in the Highway Trust Fund, but would support moving to a tax that is assessed on the number of miles driven rather based on the gallons of fuel purchased.

“I would love to see us move to a vehicle miles traveled tax, but I understand that can’t get done by May. The point is we have both a long-term need to move to a fairer way of raising revenue, because obviously electric cars need to contribute to, but the real challenge we face right now is if we don’t get money in that fund by May, all 50 states will lose the battle against crumbling roads and bridges and I just don’t think there’s an American who believes that’s a good idea,” Shumlin said.

neal.goswami@timesargus.com

DMV briefs lawmakers on driver’s privilege card fraud

MONTPELIER — Department of Motor Vehicles officials told the House Transportation Committee Tuesday that they are continuing to investigate fraudulent applications for the state’s driver’s privilege cards from out-of-state people.

According to DMV Commissioner Robert Ide, the Department is investigating 144 people that may have obtained a Vermont driver’s privilege card through fraud. It’s unclear how many of those applicants have received the card. Officials said Tuesday that not all of the applicants have been contacted by the DMV.

The driver privilege card was created and approved by lawmakers, and signed in to law by Gov. Peter Shumlin last year, to allow undocumented immigrants to secure the ability to drive.

Workers at the DMV office in Bennington flagged a number of applications for such cards after they noticed that many people were using the same addresses on their applications.

Ide told the committee that 144 possible fraudulent applications “does seem like a very, very big number to us and we’re certainly not pleased with that number.”

“Should it have been caught? We could argue that it perhaps should have been caught sooner,” Ide said. “Clearly, that’s not a good number.”

Michael Smith, the DMV’s operations division director, provided limited details because the investigations are ongoing. However, he said in some cases, the two pieces of mail with a physical address that is among the requirements to obtain a driver’s privilege card appeared to be suspicious.

A sample driver's privilege card provided by the Vermont Department of Motor Vehicles.

A sample driver’s privilege card provided by the Vermont Department of Motor Vehicles.

“Two different entities in the top left hand corner mailed to the same person on the front and it’s all in the same handwriting,” he said. “That’s where the questioning starts happening. When you’re in a small office and staff have been in that area their entire life they’re saying, ‘Wait a minute, I know where that address is, it’s empty.’ That’s where a referral would be made to enforcement and safety.”

He said the ongoing investigations have also found that in some cases people are “allowing addresses to be used for compensation.”

“There are some people out there taking advantage and charging fees to help people that are not residents of Vermont get privilege cards in Vermont,” Smith said.

Rep. Timothy Corcoran, D-Bennington, said he voted against the creation of the driver’s privilege card last year because he had concerns with potential illegal activity. He questioned why it took so long for DMV workers to notice something amiss.

“How did we get that far and not catch it? It just seems like something blatantly went wrong,” Corcoran said.

Ide said workers are always looking for fraudulent activity, but also assume that applicants are providing honest and accurate information.

“We look for fraud in every area where we do business and we expect honesty from every person that we do business with. Whenever there is a new product there are opportunities for people who think in this way,” he said. “I want to stress that this is a very, very small number, but we are diligent.”

All cases of potential fraud are investigated when discovered, Ide said.

“When we have activity that is in our opinion suspicious we do examine it. Sometimes we find that our suspicions were not properly place and sometimes we find our suspicious are properly placed,” Ide said.

The driver’s privilege card that undocumented immigrants can obtain allows for a larger list of items that can be used as proof of identification than what is asked of those seeking an enhanced identification card that legal Vermont residents can obtain. To obtain the card at least two of the following items are required:

— A valid passport
— A birth identification
— Consular identification

Ide said the program has worked well in most cases.

“There are a number of cards that have been issued to what we all thought was the original target audience that have been issued properly and perfectly and those people are driving responsibly,” he told the committee.

The most problems have occurred in DMV branches closest to large, urban areas in other states. Those areas tend to be in southern Vermont, according to Ide.

DMV officials did not anticipate an influx of out-of-state undocumented immigrants seeking a driver’s privilege card in Vermont.

“The migrant worker in another state is not the audience that any of us thought that we were trying to get to. So, we continue to work very, very diligently and very fairly,” Ide said.

California recently approved a similar driver’s privilege card and officials there expect about 3 percent of applications to be fraudulent.

“I suspect that there will always be a certain amount of fraud in our industry,” Ide said. “It’s not exactly perfect. We wish it were more perfect.”

Gov. Peter Shumlin speaks at a news conference on Tuesday, Jan. 27.

Gov. Peter Shumlin speaks at a news conference on Tuesday, Jan. 27.

Gov. Peter Shumlin, in an unrelated news conference Tuesday, said he continues to support the use of driver’s privilege cards for undocumented immigrants in Vermont.

“I’m confident that we’re on the right path making it possible for folks not to be isolated on farms, not to be able to get to the grocery store or the doc. Like any new effort, there’s clearly some areas where we need to make improvements and so I’m not surprised, particularly, that there’s a few bumps in the road,” the governor said. “I’ve asked my commissioners and others to work together to fix the bumps so that we make sure that we’re getting the driver privilege cards to the folks that ought to be having them.”

Shumlin said he wants officials to improve the system to prevent out-of-state undocumented immigrants from obtaining driver’s privilege cards in Vermont.

“We should not let that happen and I think administratively we’ve got some work to do,” he said.

neal.goswami@timesargus.com

Casino bill to benefit the elderly proposed

MONTPELIER — A Republican representative has once again introduced legislation to allow for a casino in Vermont, this time with state revenue benefiting senior citizens.

Rep. Ronald Hubert, R-Milton, has introduced a similar bill each session for the past six years. He said the proposals have varied slightly. With the state facing a significant budget gap in the 2016 fiscal year, Hubert said it could help generate revenue for the state.

“We’re in such desperate need for taxes, how about some voluntary taxes? It’s something that most states have done and the numbers show that we could bring in annually somewhere between $8 million to $15 million to state coffers,” Hubert said.

Rep. Ronald Hubert

Rep. Ronald Hubert

The bill, which has 17 cosponsors, mostly Republicans, would require the Vermont Lottery Commission to issue a license for the operation of one casino in Vermont. The license would be good for six years and require a $6 million license fee that could be paid in full or split over six years.

The Lottery Commission would have the authority to create rules governing the casino, investigate applicants to determine eligibility and supervise casino operations. The bill calls for a $100,000, nonrefundable application fee.

Hubert’s bill would also create a 10 percent tax on the gross receipts of the casino that would go the general fund.

He said there are between 75 and 100 organized bus trips from Vermont to casinos in surrounding states each year.

“A lot of Vermonters are interested in going to a casino, and there’s more to a casino,” Hubert said.

A casino would also generate additional tax revenue for the state through rooms and meals, alcohol and food sales and the state’s sales tax, Hubert said.

This year Hubert’s bill calls for the 10 percent tax on the casino receipts to be used to help elderly Vermonters. The money generated would be divided by the number of people 65 and older that receive income sensitivity on their property taxes. Those people would receive a payment from the state under the legislation.

Hubert said the money would help elderly Vermonters on fixed incomes that are not keeping pace with inflation.

“These are people that no longer have children in schools and are generally on fixed incomes,” he said.

Hubert said he hopes his new plan for the revenue will draw additional support. He said lawmakers could even opt to use the money to help drawdown federal matching funds for the state’s Medicaid program.

“I’m certainly hoping so. With the gov looking to put a $110 million payroll tax out there, I’d certainly be open to using it for the Medicaid drawdown,” he said.

Don’t expect to roll the dice any time soon, though.

Scott Coriell, Gov. Peter Shumlin’s spokesman, said Monday that Shumlin is unequivocally opposed to casino gaming in Vermont.

“The governor is not in favor of building casinos in the state, period. As long as he’s governor, he’ll do everything in his power to stop casino gaming in Vermont,” Coriell said.

House Speaker Shap Smith is also opposed to the idea of allowing a casino in Vermont.

“I think that the experience of casinos shows that there’s an over-saturation and that moving in that direction is a bad idea,” he said. “I’m not a big fan of casinos at all as a way to fund state government.”

Smith was blunt about the legislation’s prospects.

“I don’t think that it’s going anywhere,” he said.

neal.goswami@timesargus.com

Read the proposed legislation below:

Video: Vermont This Week on Vermont PBS

Bureau chief Neal Goswami joins moderator Stewart Ledbetter, Local 22/Local 44 reporter Steph Machado and Tim McQuiston from Vermont Business Magazine on this week’s Vermont This Week panel.

HEADLINES: State Economists Project Major Stimulus From Oil Decline; Gasoline Price Disparities In Spotlight; Bipartisan Group Proposes New Health Exchange; Auditor Questions If Ski Resorts Pay Fair Share; Senate Leaders Introduce Gun Bill; Sugar-Sweetened Beverage Tax Is Back.

Teachers and school boards disagree on labor proposal

Organizations that represent teachers and school boards disagree on a proposal that would force them to negotiate.

During his budget address last week, Gov. Peter Shumlin called on lawmakers to pass legislation that would prohibit teachers from going on strike and school boards from imposing working conditions, and instead require both sides to enter into binding arbitration.

“We should pass legislation prohibiting both teacher strikes and board-imposed contracts, while requiring both sides to resolve differences through third-party decision-making when negotiation fails,” Shumlin said at the time.

For the Vermont-NEA and the Vermont School Boards Association, which represent teachers and school board members in the State House, the proposal, for the most part, is palatable.

“We understand that strikes are very disruptive to the communities where they occur. The vast majority of contracts are settled without strikes and imposition,” said Nicole Mace, general counsel for the Vermont School Boards Association, which supports the idea of prohibiting teacher strikes and contract imposition.

Teacher strikes in Vermont are few and far between, according to statistics from the Vermont-NEA, which cites 26 strikes in the more than 40 years that teachers have been permitted to collectively bargain, including seven in the past 10 years.

During the past 10 years, school boards have imposed contracts on their teachers 10 times, most recently in the Addison-Rutland Supervisory Union in 2012.

“Since the late ‘90s, the Vermont-NEA has been willing to forgo the right to strike if, and only if, school boards forgo the right to impose working conditions and both parties enter into binding arbitration,” said Darren Allen, communications director for the Vermont-NEA.

That last bit about binding arbitration is what’s standing in the way of total agreement on both sides. While it supports the proposition of prohibiting strikes and contract imposition, the Vermont School Boards Association has adopted a resolution opposing the requirement that both sides enter into binding arbitration.

“Binding-interest arbitration tends to maintain the status quo,” Mace said. “It will perpetuate current contracts, many of which were negotiated 30 years ago, and in many cases those contract frameworks continue to exist.”

Allen asserts that it is the school boards, not the teachers, that are standing in the way of changing the way both sides negotiate.

“The biggest concession here is that a labor group is willing to forgo their most powerful tool. It is school boards that are standing in the way and preserving the status quo,” Allen said.

Currently, Vermont is one of 12 states that allow teachers to strike. If lawmakers were to adopt Shumlin’s proposal, Vermont would join five other states — Connecticut, Delaware, Iowa, Maryland and Nevada — that prohibit strikes and require binding arbitration.

Agency of Education Secretary Rebecca Holcombe said she is in favor of legislation that would prohibit teacher strikes.

“Ultimately, I think schools are essential services. It’s not only the way we educate our students, but parents rely on them to keep to keep their children safe, and for the neediest of our children, it’s the place where they get most of their nutritious meals,” Holcombe said. “Just like we expect our road crews to show up when it’s snowing, we need our teachers to show up in the classroom.”

josh.ogorman@rutlandherald.com

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Shumlin pardons three women

MONTPELIER — Gov. Peter Shumlin issued pardons to three women Friday, saying the women have atoned for their mistakes.

According to the governor’s office, Aimee Sheehan, of Williston, Amber Thibault, of Charlotte, and Lori Morse, of Bennington, have been pardoned for various convictions.

Sheehan pleaded guilty to violating a restraining order involving her grandmother in 2001 when she was 18 years old. She currently works as a nurse but has been limited in her career because of the conviction. Sheehan’s grandmother supported the pardon application, according to the governor’s office.

Thibault pleaded guilty to a domestic assault on her mother in 2002, which took place “during a period of transition in Amber’s life following the death her father.” Thibault has pursued a career as a nurse but has been held back as a result of her conviction, the governor’s office said. Thibault and her mother have repaired their relationship and her mother supported her pardon.

Finally, Morse pleaded guilty to a number of non-violent felonies and misdemeanors related to substance abuse and addiction during her 30s in the late 1990s. The convictions included passing bad checks, possession of cocaine and forgery, the governor’s office said. Since her convictions, Morse completed substance abuse treatment, including the Tapestry Program in Brattleboro. She also received a bachelor’s degree from Union Institute in Brattleboro and has written a memoir about overcoming abuse and substance abuse.

Shumlin said Friday he decided to pardon all three women because of the progress they have made since their convictions.

“I was proud to pardon three women today who have all worked very hard to overcome obstacles in their lives and mistakes made in their pasts,” Shumlin said. “All three have shown a commitment to helping others and to making a better life for themselves and their family. Past mistakes do not define a person’s future, and I hope these three will serve as an inspiration for others looking to turn their lives around.”

Those seeking pardons must file an application. The Department of Corrections reviews the applications and conducts an investigation before they are forwarded to the governor.

Shumlin seeks disaster declaration

MONTPELIER – Gov. Peter Shumlin made a formal request Friday for federal disaster relief to help 10 of Vermont’s 14 counties pay for repairs to the power grid and other public infrastructure damaged in a winter storm last month.

The administration said Addison, Chittenden, Essex, Franklin, Lamoille, Orange, Orleans, Rutland, Washington and Windsor counties have damages that meet federal standards to qualify for a Public Assistance disaster declaration.

The disaster declaration, if granted, would allow communities and public utilities in impacted counties to receive a 75 percent reimbursement for storm response and recovery. Those costs include debris removal and repairs to the power grid, public roads, bridges and other infrastructure damaged during the storm.

A preliminary assessment by the Federal Emergency Management Agency that started on December 17 has identified nearly $4 million in damages in Vermont during the storm between December 9 and 12. The state is required to show $1 million in damages to qualify for a disaster declaration. Continue reading

Browning files public records request bill

MONTPELIER — A lawmaker who sued Gov. Peter Shumlin for documents related to his now-shelved single payer health care proposal has introduced legislation that would require the documents to be revealed in the future in similar situations.

Rep. Cynthia Browning, D-Arlington, plans to introduce a bill to require greater access to public records under certain conditions and require judicial rulings on appeals of denials of access within a certain period of time. Browning said the legislation is needed based on her own legal case against the governor.

Browning, though she lost her case in superior court, maintains the administration inappropriately used executive privilege to prevent the release of information prior to his announcement on Dec. 17 that he was no longer pursuing a universal, publicly financed health care system because of its cost.

Rep. Cynthia Browning

Rep. Cynthia Browning

“My understanding is that executive privilege is intended to serve the public by ensuring that government officials can have thorough and confidential discussions of policy alternatives. It is not intended to protect those officials from inconvenience or embarrassment. If a person
claims to believe in the principles of transparency and accountability they must uphold them when it is hard as well as when it is easy,” Browning said in a release Friday. “I think that in this case executive privilege was used to conceal the politically difficult facts related to how much the single payer plan might cost and how much taxes might have to increase to
finance it. Ironically, this concealment did not serve the Governor well politically with either supporters or skeptics of the plan.”

Browning’s bill contains several provisions, including:

— If reports or documents have been shared by executive branch staff with people who are not part of that branch or working for it outside of the presence of the governor, executive privilege would be waived.

— If an official or public agency is required by law to produce a report on a date certain and it is not produced it and the law is not amended to extend the date, any records related to that report cannot be covered by executive privilege.

— If a public records request is denied by the government a Vermonter can appeal that denial to Superior Court. The current statute requires that such an appeal receive a judicial ruling “expeditiously,” and that such dockets should be handled before other cases, but the word
“expeditious” is not given a time definition. The bill would define “expeditious” as 45 calendar days after the last brief filed by the complainant.

Browning said the Shumlin administration shared documents and reports with some legislators, including House Speaker Shap Smith when the governor was not present and still claimed executive privilege. She argues that executive privilege should not be extended to a separate branch of government.

Shumlin, according to Act 48, was originally supposed to release a financing plan for his health care plan in January 2013 but did not. Browning said the Legislature did nothing to enforce that deadline and the administration was allowed to withhold information. Browning filed a public records request to the administration in March 2014 seeking documents and reports. The Legislature did not act to extend the governor’s deadline in law until May 2014, she said.

Browning said Vermonters should be able to obtain materials when a report is overdue, even when the Legislature does not try to enforce the law.

The 45-day timeline for judicial rulings is needed to speed up the process of records request, Browning said. She filed her case on Sept. 4, 2014, but the judge did not issue a ruling until Dec. 10 — a span of 14 weeks. Browning said the length “does not meet a common sense definition of expeditious.”

Read the proposed legislation below:

Capitol Beat with the Governor 1-23-15

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Gov. Peter Shumlin and Vermont Press Bureau chief Neal Goswami discuss a recent revenue downgrade, the president’s support for paid sick leave, gun legislation introduced in the Senate and legislators’ efforts to scuttle Vermont Health Connect.

 

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Gun bill introduced in the Vermont Senate

MONTPELIER — Legislation to expand background checks for all gun purchases in Vermont was introduced in the Senate Thursday and sets the stage for vigorous debate.

Democratic Sens. John Campbell, D-Windsor, Claire Ayer, D-Addison and Philip Baruth, D-Chittenden, all members of Senate Democratic leadership, have sponsored the bill.

Current law requires background checks when purchasing a gun from a federally licensed dealer. But background checks are not required when purchasing firearms at a gun show or online. The bill introduced Thursday would expand background checks for those purchases.

The bill is strongly backed by Gun Sense, a gun control advocacy group. It is vigorously opposed by several pro-gun groups, including Gun Owners of Vermont.

Democratic Gov. Peter Shumlin said Thursday he remains opposed to new gun regulations in Vermont, preferring instead, for the federal government to enforce laws on the books. He said anyone breaking federal law to purchase a gun is also likely to break a state law.

“Vermont is currently well-served by the laws we have on the books. I want to keep what we have in place. Obviously, the Legislature is going to debate all kinds of issues. This will be one of them. We always welcome a robust debate. My feeling is the gun laws that we have in Vermont are the ones that we should keep,” he said. “Federal law precludes them from buying guns. I would hope that we would enforce the law.”

The governor refused to say Thursday if he would veto the legislation if it clears the House and Senate and reaches his desk.

“I never issue veto threats unless I am going to veto a bill. Let’s let the process work and have the debate,” he said.

Read the proposed legislation below:

Economists: Revenue downgrade for general fund, despite drop in oil prices

MONTPELIER — Gov. Peter Shumlin and lawmakers crafting the 2016 fiscal year budget will have to dig a little deeper after state economists provided a downgrade to the general fund revenue forecast Tuesday, despite positive signs in the economy related to lower oil prices.

The Emergency Board, comprised of the governor and the chairs of the Legislature’s money committees, were told Tuesday that revenues are projected to be $18 million lower than previously expected in the 2016 fiscal year budget. The state was already facing a $94 million projected gap, which Shumlin’s proposed budget would close through a combination of cuts and tax increases.

Jeff Carr, left, and Tom Kavet

Jeff Carr, left, and Tom Kavet

Economists Jeffrey Carr and Tom Kavet, who provide revenue forecasts to the state twice a year, also downgraded revenues for the current fiscal year by $10 million. The Shumlin administration and lawmakers, anticipating that, are working to lower the current budget in the annual budget adjustment process by $17 million. That follows about $31 million in rescissions that took place in August.

The downgrade is projected despite an expected uptick in spending by Vermont residents as oil process drop.

“We’re looking at the economy finally starting to pick up like we haven’t seen in some time. A big part of that is the drop in oil prices,” Kavet told the board. “That’s something that’s very substantial to Vermont and other New England states.”

The Emergency Board receives an updated revenue forecast Tuesday inside Gov. Peter Shumlin's ceremonial State House office.

The Emergency Board receives an updated revenue forecast Tuesday inside Gov. Peter Shumlin’s ceremonial State House office.

Vermonters spend more than $2 billion annually on petroleum-based energy, mostly in transportation and home heating. With the price of oil around $60 per barrel, and projected to drop to around $40 per barrel this year before rising to $70 to $80 per barrel, Vermonters are projected to save about $600 million in 2015, according to Kavet.

“That’s a phenomenal stimulus to the economy and it really hasn’t been felt in full at all,” he said. “The projections right now are coming down not up.”

“To get an additional $2,500 (per family) in spending money … is bigger than any raise that anybody’s gotten for a long, long, time,” Kavet added.

Lower energy costs acts like a tax cut in the economy, without the corresponding decreases in government spending that actual taxes cause.

It also changes the psychology of residents and alters their spending habits, Carr said.

“The critical thing is it will help with psychology. Part of the reason that we really haven’t broken out of our funk is that people have been looking for some reason, there has got to be some catalyst,” Carr said. “I think that there still is kind of a residual hangover in households. Some of us now know what our parents and grandparents went through when we went through the Great Recession that they went through during the Great Depression. It changes you. It fundamentally alters the way that you approach things. You weren’t quite so aggressive in your spending.”

Oil prices in previous forecasts were projected at $103 per barrel. The current forecast projects prices at $63 per barrel, but prices will likely drop lower. As a result, the two economists boosted expected consumption taxes based on expected spending in their latest forecast.

Still, despite the relief in energy prices, unstable corporate income taxes and uncertainty surrounding some high-earning taxpayers has led to the near-term downgrade, according to the economists. Additionally, businesses are expected to hire, but profits will drop as they train and bring new hires up to speed, they said. That will likely lead to larger state refunds for businesses.

The state’s revenue growth should see improvements down the road.

“There is some good news. It’s a little farther out on the horizon than we might like,” Kavet said. “There’s some very good things happening right now.”

Shumlin said Tuesday that his administration anticipated a further downgrade in the current budget and moved to make cuts ahead of the annual budget adjustment in each January. He said a downgrade to the 2016 fiscal year budget was also expected, but the administration did not plan further efforts to patch it without knowing how much it would be.

“We didn’t know what to expect,” the governor said. “Obviously, we don’t guess. We have to actually build a budget based on the facts and we now have to work together with the Legislature to balance the budget, which is what I’ve done every term that I’ve been governor.”

He said he is “heartened” that the downgrade isn’t larger, and noted that the economists said there could even be revenue growth later in the year.

“I just heard a pretty upbeat report in terms of their hopes for their future, so we’re going to manage to the money but this is not an insurmountable challenge,” Shumlin said. “My job as governor is to roll with the punches and deal with the numbers as they come in. My job is to balance the budget and be fiscally responsible when we do it and we’re going to continue to do that.”

House Speaker Shap Smith laid the onus of addressing the $18 million additional gap in the 2016 fiscal year budget directly at Shumlin’s feet on Tuesday.

“Vermont joins other states in continuing to experience slower than expected revenue growth. The data presented today presents challenges for our money committees. I look forward to receiving a proposal from the administration on how they will address the additional shortfall,” Smith said.

Tuesday’s updated revenue forecast projected no changes to the transportation fund for the remained of the 2015 fiscal year, and a 1 percent increase in revenue, amounting to $2.7 million, for the 2016 fiscal year.

The education fund, meanwhile, is projected to see a revenue increase of $1.6 million, or about 0.9 percent, for the remainder of the 2015 fiscal year. In fiscal year 2016, the education fund is expected to see a 1.5 percent growth in revenue, which would amount to $2.8 million.

Larson to leave DVHA in March

MONTPELIER – Department of Vermont Health Access Commissioner Mark Larson is stepping down from his post in March and will be replaced by Deputy Commissioner Lori Collins on an interim basis, the Shumlin administration announced Tuesday.

Larson has had a rocky tenure as commissioner. It included overseeing the botched rollout of Vermont Health Connect, the state’s online health insurance marketplace that is part of the federal Affordable Care Act.

Larson, a former state representative from Burlington and chairman of the House Health Care Committee, was eventually stripped of his oversight of the exchange in September of last year by Gov. Peter Shumlin. The site was taken offline by the state after the federal government raised concerns over its security and threatened to disconnect the state from a federal data hub.

Larson oversight role was taken over by Chief of Health Care Reform Lawrence Miller, Shumlin’s former Commerce secretary, who was first brought on in January 2014 to help the Shumlin administration right the ship after the botched exchange rollout in October 2013.

Larson was also chastised last year by Shumlin and legislative leaders after he offered misleading statements concerning an exchange security breach to the House Health Care Committee.

Mark Larson

Mark Larson

Still, Shumlin praised Larson’s work as commissioner in a statement Tuesday.

“Mark has worked as hard as anyone on my team over the last four years,” Shumlin said. “Mark led the Department through some challenging times, but no one cared more or tried harder to overcome those challenges so Vermonters could access affordable health care than Mark. Thanks to the work of Mark and others, tens of thousands more Vermonters are now insured. I appreciate his service and understand his desire to take some time to step back and explore new opportunities.”

Larson, in his statement released by the administration, acknowledged the challenges during his tenure, but also noted the decrease in Vermont’s uninsured population.

“The last three years have involved a historic transition in health care for Vermont and our country, and has not been without its challenges. I am proud of the fact that in Vermont we have reduced by half the number of uninsured Vermonters and are on track to significantly reform how Medicaid pay providers for health services,” Larson said. “I am proud to have been part of this tremendous effort. As the Department prepares to engage its next phase of work, it is time for me to move on to new opportunities. I look forward to stepping back to the role of citizen and witnessing the continued progress toward coverage for all Vermonters and more rational ways to pay for health services.”

DVHA, which oversees the state’s Medicaid program, implemented an expansion of Medicaid services available under the ACA. That resulted in thousands of Vermonters obtaining new coverage through Medicaid. The administration also highlighted DVHA’s role in the Blueprint for Health, which has allowed most Vermonters to receive primary care from an enrolled provider.

A search is ongoing for a permanent replacement, according to the administration.