Category Archives: News

Sanders sounds alarm on GOP budget

MONTPELIER — Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders warned governors in all 50 states Monday of pending cuts headed their way if a GOP spending plan being negotiated this week by House and Senate conferees is approved.

In separate letters to each state, the independent Sanders, ranking member on the Senate Budget Committee, characterized the potential cuts as ‘devastating.” He said they would impact working families, the elderly, the sick, the poor and children.

“It is an embarrassingly disastrous document,” Sanders said of the budget proposal in a telephone interview Monday.

According to Sanders, who is mulling a run for president to promote progressive ideals, Vermont could face dire consequences under the House and Senate budget resolutions that outline federal spending for the next decade. House and Senate conferees were working Monday to reconcile differences between the two chambers and are expected to reach agreement early this week.

Sen. Bernie Sanders

Sen. Bernie Sanders

Among the potential impacts in Vermont that Sanders outlined in his letter to Democratic Gov. Peter Shumlin are:

— 32,000 people could lose health coverage
— 5,000 jobs could be lost as a result of cuts to education, transportation and other programs
— Cuts to Pell grants could lead to higher tuition for 12,000 college students
— Investments for roads and bridges could be reduced by as much as $261 million

The cuts to programs and services that serve the poor “will be devastating for the middle class and working families of our country,” Sanders wrote in his letter.

“At a time of massive income and wealth inequality the Republican budget will make the very rich even richer, while causing increased pain and suffering for the middle class and the most vulnerable people in our state as a result of draconian cuts to important programs,” Sanders wrote.

Similar letters were sent to the other 49 governors outlining potential cuts in their states.

“I will do my best to see that (the budget plan) is defeated and I hope that some of these governors that we have written to will weigh in on this discussion,” Sanders said.

The GOP spending plan looks to “terminate” the Affordable Care Act, commonly known as Obamacare, and cut $40 billion from Medicaid over the next 10 years, according to Sanders. Doing so, he said, would mean a loss of health coverage for millions.

“They’re just going to throw another 27 million people off of health insurance with no plan to address that. None,” the senator said. “That will be a disaster for states who will have to figure out what to do. There is no question that people will die as a result of that.”

The plan that the GOP is finalizing drops a previous proposal to institute a voucher system for Medicare that would provide the elderly with subsidies to purchase private insurance.

Sanders also decried a nearly 100 billion cut to Pell grants for college students, cuts to nutrition programs and the elimination of the estate tax, which he said would provide about $270 billion in relief to the richest 0.2 percent of Americans over the next 10 years.

“It is a budget that is so bad that I think it’s hard for people to believe it’s true, but it is,” Sanders said.

Shumlin released a statement Monday expressing confidence that the state’s congressional delegation will advocate for a budget that serves Vermont well.

“As Senator Sanders outlines, the effects of federal budget decisions on Vermont are real and will have an impact on the services Vermonters rely on,” the governor said. “As we await the final budget from Washington, we do so knowing that we have fighting for us on the Budget Committee one of America’s greatest champions for the middle class in Bernie Sanders. Combined with Senator Patrick Leahy and Congressman Peter Welch, Vermont is well represented in Washington by the best Congressional Delegation in America.”

The budget resolution provides a broad spending plan but does not actually appropriate funds. Its passage would pave the way for spending bills that do appropriate funds to advance.

Sanders said he will look to prevent such spending bills from passing.

“I will certainly do everything I can to urge the president to veto any piece of legislation that comes out that has this framework in it,” he said. “Whether the president vetoes it or not, that’s another story. I certainly hope he will.”

According to Sanders, the impacts he identified are based on an evaluation of House and Senate versions of the budget resolutions by the Office of Management and Budget, the Economic Policy Institute and the Institution of Taxation and Economic Policy. Some data was generated based on projections from the Census Bureau and the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services.

neal.goswami@timesargus.com

Read Sanders’ letter to Gov. Peter Shumlin below:

Lawmakers look to retirement bonuses to save the state money

MONTPELIER — The Shumlin administration has proposed a retirement incentive package for state employees that could save the state $2.5 million, providing most of the retirees are not replaced.

Monday morning, the Senate Appropriations Committee reviewed a proposal that would offer financial bonus to as many as 300 employees who are already eligible to retire, with the goal of leaving 75 percent of those positions vacant after the employees retire.

The offer would be open to employees who are at least 62 years old and have put in at least 5 years of service; employees with at least 30 years of service; and employees whose age and years of service totals 87 or more.

The proposal would pay employees who have worked at least 5 years and less than 15 years a bonus of $750 for every year worked. Employees who have 15 or more years would receive $1,000 for every year worked.

Bonuses would be capped at $15,000 per employee and would be paid out either in one lump sum or in two payments, with no additional money for employees who choose to take two payments.

Currently, there are 915 state employees who are eligible for the incentives. The proposal would cap the maximum number of people who could take advantage of the incentives at 300. If more than 300 workers want to take the retirement bonus, the state will hold a lottery.

Committee Chairwoman Jane Kitchel, D-Caledonia, asked why the offer isn’t being made to employees who have been with the state the longest. Sec. of Administration Justin Johnson said the state needs to be very careful not to give the appearance of engaging in any behavior that could be construed as age discrimination.

Sen. Richard McCormack, D-Windsor, questioned the message some people might take from a proposal that ultimately looks to reduce the state’s work force by as many as 225 employees.

“Are we assuming their work was not being done efficiently?” McCormack asked. ““Either we’re saying these people weren’t pulling their weight in the first place, or their work was not essential.”

The retirement proposal is part of a plan by administration to save $10.8 million in state employee costs, one possible step to close the state’s $113 million budget gap. Shumlin has proposed reopening the state employee contract for renegotiation, a move opposed by the employees’ union.

The administration has warned that failing to reopen the contract could result in hundreds of layoffs, but on Monday, Johnson said that is not what the administration wants.

“It’s important that we don’t do across-the-board cookie-cutter cuts,” Johnson said.

Steve Howard, executive director of the Vermont State Employees Association, said the proposal — which could reduce the number of employee layoffs to fewer than 50 — has the support of his organization..

“We brought the issue of voluntary retirement incentives to the table for negotiation with the Shumlin administration,” Howard said. “While were not thrilled that we might see 300 fewer positions, we like the idea that this might result in fewer (layoffs).”

State Treasurer Beth Pearce warned that savings from offering retirement bonuses will only be found with a commitment to leave unfilled the positions vacated by the retiring employees.

In 2009, the state offered retirement bonuses to employees under a system that Johnson said “mirrors” the current proposal. A total of 243 people took advantage of the incentives.

However, that proposal was coupled with the plan to leave one-third — or 81 — of the positions unfilled. Instead, during the next four years, the state added 543 positions, according to Pearce.

Sen. Diane Snelling, R-Chittenden, referred to the 2009 round of retirements as “disruptive.”

“Will we ever get to the point when we have the right number of employees in the right places?” Snelling asked.

Capitol Beat 4-27-15

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Vermont Press Bureau chief Neal Goswami and VPB reporter Josh O’Gorman talk about the developments last week in the State House, including education, health care, vaccines and gun legislation.

Capitol Beat with the Governor 4-24-15

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Gov. Peter Shumlin and Vermont Press Bureau chief Neal Goswami discuss competing health care plans, the governor’s intention to sign gun legislation and the merits of lowering the state’s sales tax by expanding it to services.

Shumlin says he will sign gun bill

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

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

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

After review Shumlin said he intends to sign the bill.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

neal.goswami@timesargus.com

House advances paid sick leave bill

MONTPELIER — A bill to provide workers with paid sick time cleared the House Wednesday after majority Democrats defeated several attempts by Republicans to delay action on the measure.

After hours of debate, the chamber voted 76 to 66 in favor of providing earned sick time to most employees in Vermont. The bill would allow workers to earn a maximum of three days of paid time during the first two years of employment before increasing to five days. Those benefits would be available to workers after they put in 1,400 hours of work or after a year’s time with a company, whichever comes first.

Under the legislation, workers would be able to take paid time off that they have accrued for sickness, to care for a sick person in their care or even to care for children when there is a snow day at school.

Temporary and seasonal workers are exempt from the new mandate.

Rep. Helen Head

Rep. Helen Head

Rep. Helen Head, chairwoman of the House General, Housing and Military Affairs Committee, told her colleagues the bill would impact an estimated 60,000 workers in Vermont who do not currently have the option of earning paid time off. Similar measures have been introduced in the past but until Wednesday had been unable to clear either the House or Senate.

“This bill has been a decade in the making. The need is clear,” Head said.

Wednesday’s floor vote came after the bill was revived by scaling back its contents. Bill sponsor Rep. Tristan Toleno, D-Brattleboro, said he agreed to sponsor a bill that would be easier for businesses to adhere to. But even his original bill was scaled back by adding in longer waiting periods and limiting the amount of earned time that could accumulate.

Toleno said he was adamant about the bill being universal, however — meaning no special exemptions for small businesses. He said there was no logical place to draw such a line.

Rep. Steven Berry, D-Manchester, said he decided to vote for the bill after hearing that many small businesses would already be compliant with the bill’s requirements.

“I’ve come around 180 degrees in my perspective thanks to listening to people … and understanding exactly what it means to be fair in our state,” he said. “It is a standard to which all businesses should seek to aspire. I am very much for this particular bill.”

Rep. Steven Berry

Rep. Steven Berry

Others were firmly opposed.

Rep. Ronald Hubert, R-Milton, who owns a retail business, said between 10 and 12 “mom and pop stores” are closing every year because of state mandates.

“These are stores that can no longer, as a family business, make it anymore,” he said.

Rep. Butch Shaw, R-Florence, said he supports the concept of paid time off “but not by state mandate.” He also called a potential $5,000 for violating the mandate “unconscionable.”

“This bill may be well intended, but unfortunately, places another unfunded mandate on small businesses,” Shaw said.

Meanwhile, Rep. Cynthia Browning, D-Arlington, said businesses should be able to determine which benefits they offer.

“A business should have the right to operate their business as they see fit. They’re the ones with capital at risk,” she said.

Instead of mandating paid sick time, Browning said the state should create some type of insurance program that would allow the cost to businesses to be mitigated.

House Republicans made three motions during the three hour debate to send the bill to various committees for further review. Each motion was defeated. A fourth motion was made by Rep. Patrick Brennan, R-Colchester, to postpone action for one day until it could be determined how the legislation would impact state highway projects. That, too, was defeated.

Democratic Gov. Peter Shumlin announced last week that he supported the bill. He had resisted efforts to pass similar laws in the past but said the bill passed Wednesday eased his concerns about the impact on businesses.

“Most Vermonters agree that if you’re sick you shouldn’t be faced with the decision to either go to work and put others at risk or miss work, sacrifice your paycheck, and potentially lose your job. Many employers already provide fair earned leave policies. But some do not and that puts many Vermonters in a difficult and unfair situation,” Shumlin said in a statement after Wednesday’s vote. “In the past, I have been skeptical of proposals that did not do enough to recognize the costs and burdens to businesses this legislation might create. This bill addresses those concerns in a balanced and thoughtful way to provide this important benefit to Vermonters.”

Advocates said they will now look to the Senate to pass the bill. That seems unlikely, however, since the bill would first have to make it through the Senate Rules Committee because it did clear the House before the Legislature’s mid-way crossover deadline. The Senate committee is stacked with members who opposed such a law.

Still, Lindsay DesLauriers of the Main Street Alliance, who has lobbied for years for paid sick leave, said she and others will “try everything we can to pass it this year.”

“That would be an incredible turn of events. We see that. We know that. We acknowledge the challenges and we understand them. But, there is momentum around this bill right now. The governor came out for it. The president came out for it. We just had a pretty strong vote in the House,” she said.

The bill is up for final passage in the House on Thursday.

neal.goswami@timesargus.com

Shumlin apologizes for suicide remark

MONTPELIER — Gov. Peter Shumlin, facing more questions from reporters about the poor operation of Vermont Heath Connect, let loose his frustration Tuesday with a joke alluding to suicide during a news conference.

The governor last month promised that a key function missing from the state’s online health insurance marketplace would be in place by May 31. But with the self-imposed deadline fast approaching, the governor has faced continuing questions about what happens if the deadline is missed.

Last month, Shumlin promised that the so-called change of circumstance function, the ability for customers to change their personal information in their online accounts, would function by May 31. An automated renewal process was promised by the end of October. Missing either those deadlines would result in the administration beginning the process of switching to an exchange operated by the federal government, or perhaps a state-federal hybrid.

But the governor has seemed to back away from the first deadline, saying his administration would determine how to move forward in October — well after the initial May 31 deadline. House Speaker Shap Smith said last week that he wants to begin the process of moving away from Vermont Health Connect in June if change of circumstance is not working.

Asked several times what he intends to do on June 1 if change of circumstance is not working, the governor offered an off-color response.

“I’m going to find a high building,” Shumlin said. “I’m at the end of my rope. I don’t think the fifth floor [of the Pavillion Building where his office is located] is high enough.”

The governor’s office later issued a statement from the governor apologizing for the remark.

“Using that saying was an inappropriate way to express my frustration. It was insensitive and I apologize,” the governor said in the statement.

The governor’s remarks followed an emotional debate on the House floor last week over gun legislation in which mental illness and suicide were discussed.

Earlier in his exchange with reporters on Tuesday, Shumlin cautioned against creating conflicts over the deadline.

“I check on this with my team every day, sometimes three times a day. We all really want this to succeed. But, let’s focus on what we’re doing here. We’re on track. We’re optimistic that we’re on track. Why are we trying to create a fight over something that we may well never have to fight about,” he said.

“Let’s not create conflicts that we don’t need to have. I’m focused on trying to get the job done and I know the Legislature joins me in wanting the exchange to work,” Shumlin added.

Asked why he created the May 31 deadline in the first place, Shumlin said he wanted to ensure the public that his administration would seek other options if those lacking functions could not be completed.

“Because I feel like we’re all fed up. We’re all frustrated. Listen, this has been the most frustrating and disappointing experience of my public life. I’ve told you a million times that Vermonters and I are fed up. It’s incredibly frustrating,” he said.

neal.goswami@timesargus.com

Capitol Beat with the Governor 4-17-15

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Gov. Peter Shumlin discusses an audit of Vermont Health Connect and the exchange’s future.

Governor, speaker at odds over the future of Vermont Health Connect

MONTPELIER — House Speaker Shap Smith says he expects the state to move away from Vermont Health Connect if a key automated function is not in place by the end of May as promised by the Shumlin administration.

Smith’s comments, made Friday on WDEV’s The Mark Johnson Show, are in contrast to how the administration views the self-imposed deadline of May 31 to incorporate the so-called change of circumstance function into the state’s troubled online health insurance marketplace.

“If we don’t actually meet the May 31 deadline I just don’t see how we can go back to Vermonters and suggest that they should continue to have confidence in us to make the system work. So, I think that at that point in time we have to basically reassess where we’re going and my strong believe is that we need to explore other options,” Smith said.

House Speaker Shap Smith speaks on WDEV's The Mark Johnson show Friday, April, 17.

House Speaker Shap Smith speaks on WDEV’s The Mark Johnson show Friday, April, 17.

Gov. Peter Shumlin laid out a new time line for upgrading the exchange last month. He promised that change of circumstance, the ability for customers to make changes to their personal information online, would be working by the end of May. He also said that an automated system allowing costumers to sign up for health plans online would be in place by the fall.

At the time, Shumlin said if either of the new deadlines are missed the state would begin the process of moving to the exchange run by the federal government, or perhaps a state-federal hybrid model.

A performance audit released Thursday by Auditor Doug Hoffer questioned the state’s ability to meet those deadlines. Smith said he was troubled by the report.

“It caused some real concerns for me whether or not we’re going to be able to meet the May 31 deadline, which was set out by the administration. It calls into question, for me, whether the design of the system and the implementation date on May 31 is one that’s achievable,” he said.

Shumlin and Lawrence Miller, his chief of health care reform, now say that the administration will continue working on the change of circumstance functionality through the fall if it is not ready by May 31. They’ll determine whether to continue with Vermont Health Connect in the fall.

“If those aren’t working by November, by the end of November, we’re done. We’re going to either the federal exchange, which is a terrible choice for us, … or to some other hybrid,” Shumlin said in an interview Friday. “We believe that we will have change of circumstance working on May 31.”

Smith said he is not content to wait until the fall to determine how the state will proceed, however.

“The reality is that many Vermonters already have lost confidence in the exchange and I think that if we don’t meet another deadline it’s going to be almost impossible to get any confidence back at all,” he said.

Smith said Friday he is considering ways to force the administration to act if the May deadline is missed. It could involve having lawmakers return over the summer, although Smith acknowledged that only the governor has the authority to call them back into session.

“I could ask, and I think that we ought to be in a place where we have a structure set out that we can move in a different direction. Whether it needs to have the Legislature come back or there’s some other structure to do that, I think, is a matter for discussion,” Smith said.

Other options include using the Legislature’s Health Oversight Committee, Joint Fiscal Committee or Emergency Board to set in place a process to “have decision points to move to a different exchange.”

Shumlin on Friday maintained that the future of Vermont Health Connect will be determined by his administration this fall.

Gov. Peter Shumlin

Gov. Peter Shumlin

“What I laid out a month ago was that change of circumstance has to be working and have to have the bugs fixed to sign up folks in November and that’s when we’ll make that decision,” Shumlin said. “I think the speaker and I agree, this thing’s got to work.”

The governor declined to discuss the options laid out by Smith.

“We’re focused on getting it done,” Shumlin said. “I’m not going to sit here and talk about what happens if it doesn’t work. We’ve said what’s going to happen if it doesn’t work. If the two functions don’t work we’re moving on.”

neal.goswami@timesargus.com

Audit: Exchange remains high risk despite improvements

MONTPELIER — The state has been paying for work that hasn’t been performed and is at a high risk of failing to meet pending key deadlines in the development of the state’s online health insurance exchange, according to a performance audit released Thursday by State Auditor Doug Hoffer.

The audit also indicates growing unease by the state’s largest health insurance carrier, Blue Cross Blue Shield, over billing discrepancies amounting to millions of dollars in unpaid premiums on the company’s ledger.

The myriad malfunctions and setbacks associated with Vermont Health Connect have been well-documented since its bungled launch in October 2013. Key automated functions expected to be part of the online marketplace remain absent, and small businesses must still enroll offline directly through insurance carriers.

Doug Hoffer

Doug Hoffer

That is after nearly $200 million in federal funding has been spent by the state on planning, developing and implementing the exchange to meet requirements laid out in the federal Affordable Care Act.

Rather than rehash the exchange’s known shortcomings, Hoffer’s office spent the past several months reviewing the Shumlin administration’s response to those challenges and whether appropriate changes have been made to achieve the administration’s desired outcomes.

The results outlined in the report are mixed.

Gov. Peter Shumlin, a third-term Democrat, announced last month a new time frame for bringing key automated functions online. The ability to make online changes to one’s personal information, known as change of circumstance, will be in place by May 30, the administration now promises. An automated coverage renewal process will follow and in place by the fall — in time for the next open enrollment period.

Should those deadlines be missed, the administration said last month it will begin to transition away from its own exchange and attempt to migrate to one run by the federal government.

Hoffer’s report outlines several issues that makes meeting the deadlines questionable.

The state’s contract with Optum, the firm now developing VHC, contains no provision allowing the state to seek monetary consequences if it fails to deliver the missing functions. There are no financial penalties or liquidated damages like those in place with the state’s previous contractor, CGI, which the state parted ways with last fall. Nor is there a provision allowing the state to retain payment until the project is complete.

“Without these types of clauses, Optum has assumed little contractual risk and the State has limited its ability to seek recourse if the contractor’s performance is unacceptable. This seems to be a result of the State’s limited leverage to negotiate better terms,” the report states.

Meanwhile, the state does not have a contract in place to complete the second upgrade slated for the fall. If a contract is in place in the next couple of months then completing the project “is considered feasible,” according to the report.

Still, the state will not know if it has the funding to pay for all of the development work until it negotiates a price with Optum. The state would have to reduce the scope of work or find additional funding sources if the developer’s prices is higher than the federal funding available.

“According to an independent verification and validation contractor, as of April 3, 2015, the VHC development project has been in long-term “red,” or high-risk, status due to continuous contracting delays and unresolved agreement on the scope to support all VHC requirements,” the report states.

Hoffer’s report also raises concerns about competition for the staffing and technical resources within state government needed to meet the administration’s self-imposed deadlines. It notes that a March 16 internal project status report indicated that the resources to help meet those deadlines had not yet been confirmed. And there was a lack of agreement between various Agency of Human Services departments about which resources would be allocated to the VHC system development project.

Lawrence Miller, Shumlin’s chief of health care reform and the man charged with righting the ship, acknowledged the report is highly critical and lacks confidence in the administration’s ability to meets its deadlines.

Lawrence Miller

Lawrence Miller

“I don’t know that the track record of Vermont Health Connect has given anybody the basis for confidence,” he said in an interview before the audit’s release. “I think that the auditor’s assessment of the risk of completing the project on time is accurate. There is not a lot of slack in the schedule.”

Still, Miller said the administration remains confident the work will be completed on time.

“This has been done with a good, detailed project plan. Optum and the carriers are saying it’s achievable,” he said. “Things are happening on time.”

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Lawmakers discuss vaccine exemptions for children

MONTPELIER — Senate lawmakers are considering the elimination of the philosophical exemption for parents who wish to send their children to public school without being vaccinated.

Wednesday afternoon, Sen. Kevin Mullin, R-Rutland, introduced an amendment to a bill that modifies how the Department of Health handles information in its vaccine registries. 

Mullin said the amendment addresses concerns both immediate and long term.

“We’re one plane ride away from measles hitting Vermont,” said Mullin, noting a measles outbreak in December in California that spread to 16 other states, including New York.

Mullin’s other concern is the decline in the number of children who are being vaccinated in Vermont.

By one measure, Vermont has one of the lowest rates of child vaccination of any state in the country. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, during the 2012-13 school year, 6.1 percent of children entering kindergarten in Vermont did not receive one or more of 34 vaccinations recommended by age 6 by the CDC.

And not only is Vermont’s rate near the top for the country, it is growing. During the 2011-12 school year, 5.7 percent of incoming kindergartners did not receive one or more vaccinations.

The philosophical exemption is the most common one invoked by Vermont parents who do not want to vaccinate their children. During the 2012-13 school year, 371 children who entered kindergarten without one or more vaccinations claimed a philosophical exemption, compared with 30 children claiming a medical exemption and only 14 claiming religious exemption.

Mullin’s amendment — which includes support from co-sponsors Sen. Richard Sears, D-Bennington; and Senate Pro Tem John Campbell, D-Windsor — met with opposition from lawmakers who might otherwise support eliminating the philosophical exemption.

Sen. Richard McCormack, D-Windsor, who had a family member with polio and who was a “polio pioneer” by being among the first children to receive the vaccine, said that while he supports vaccination, he opposed the amendment because it was introduced without first being discussed by the Senate Health and Welfare Committee.

Sen. Ann Cummings, D-Washington, concurred with McCormack, noting that while the issue came up for debate three years ago, there has not been any debate this session.

“I voted for this in the past but I won’t vote for it today,” Cummings said. “The people have a right to be heard, not two years ago or three years ago, but today.”
Sen. Jeanette White, D-Windham, spoke in support of eliminating the philosophical exemption, while suggesting it doesn’t go far enough.

“I’m not even sure there should be a religious exemption,” White said. “If it were up to me, I’d eliminate the religious exemption, too.”

Mullin said that, based on past testimony taken from parents who use the religious exemption, that eliminating it “raises the specter of a court battle.”

In the end, lawmakers decided to take testimony on the issue, which will be limited to new scientific studies issued since the last time they took testimony, and will revisit the issue Wednesday.

McCormack noted that, regardless what decision he and his fellow lawmakers make, parents will be unhappy.

“No matter what we do, large numbers of Vermonters will feel we erred and did an injustice to the people,” McCormack said.

Senate supports climate-change resolution

MONTPELIER — Senate lawmakers have given preliminary approval to a resolution that acknowledges both climate change and impact caused by fossil fuel use.

By a vote of 23 to 5, Senate lawmakers Tuesday approved a resolution that “recognizes that climate change is a real and present danger to health and well-being of all Vermonters,” and “that human activities make a substantive contribution to climate change.”

The resolution was introduced by Sen. Brian Campion, D-Bennington, who serves on the Senate Natural Resources and Energy Committee. The Committee approved the resolution by a vote of 4-0-1.

“It recognizes that the warming in the climate system is unequivocal and the human influence on the climate system is clear and substantive,” Campion said. “It acknowledges the state of Vermont recognizes climate change is a real and present danger to the health and well-being of all Vermonters.”

Vermont has a goal of reducing its carbon foot print by 50 percent — compared with 1990 levels — by the year 2028, and reduce carbon output by 75 percent by 2050. The state has already blown one deadline, by not reducing carbon emissions by 25 percent by the year 2012.

Pointing to the founding fathers of the United States as men who valued the importance of science, Campion argued that lawmakers should take science into account when crafting legislation that could impact the environment.

Sen. Anthony Pollina, P/D-Washington, spoke in support of the resolution, while noting the state’s financial goals and environmental goals might be at odds.

“I support it, in part, because in the resolution, we take responsibility for our actions.” Pollina noted “It’s somewhat ironic that while we as a state are concerned about climate change and want to do what we can to fight it, that we continue to invest in hope to profit from fossil fuel companies that cause climate change.”

Senators who voted against the resolution included Sens. Peg Flory, R-Rutland; Brian Collamore, R-Rutland; and Norm McAllister, R-Franklin.

The lone Democrat to vote against the resolution — Sen. John Rodgers, D-Essex-Orleans — was also the only member of the Senate Natural Resources and Energy Committee to not vote in favor of it in the first place.

An opponent of large-scale wind projects, Rodgers said the resolution could result in the state approving more such projects without local input.

“I do believe that our climate is changing. I do believe that we are contributing to that change,” Rodgers said. “Absent a serious change in the way the Public Service Board sites renewable energy, I’m not willing to give them another reason — which I believe this is — to rubber-stamp bad renewable energy projects along with the good.”

Sen. Minority Leader Joe Benning, R-Caledonia, explained why he also voted against the resolution.

“I do believe the climate is changing and I do believe that humans have exacerbated that situation,” Benning said. “But, I do not believe this body should grandstand with meaningless resolutions, which ultimately only serve as fodder for political and advocacy organizations to extract dollars from their followers. By forcing us into categories, these proclamation resolutions position us into making decisions based on passion and emotion, rather than careful and deliberative thought.”

Sanders considers campaign logistics as he mulls presidential bid

MONTPELIER — Vermont’s independent Sen. Bernie Sanders is considering the details of how a presidential campaign might look and operate as he nears a decision on whether to run, according to an advisor who met with the state’s junior senator over the weekend.

Tad Devine, a veteran campaign operative who worked on the presidential campaigns of Al Gore and John Kerry, huddled with Sanders and others in Vermont over the weekend to continue discussions that have been ongoing for months. A decision from the 73-year-old self-described democratic socialist is expected by the end of the month, according to Devine.

“If he’s going to do this it’s going to be a serious campaign. It’s not going to be a symbolic campaign. It’s not going to be Bernie walking around by himself talking to people and maybe having a debate or two later in the year,” he said Monday.

Sanders’ interest in running for president is no secret — he’s flirted with the idea since last year and has traveled several times to Iowa and New Hampshire where the first primary contests take place. But his interest in running has always included some caveats — is there enough support for his vision around the country, and can he raise enough money to compete with Hillary Clinton, the former secretary of state and first lady who announced her own bid Sunday in a video.

Tad Devine

Tad Devine

Recent trips to Texas, California and Nevada have shown Sanders there is support for his message, according to Devine.

“I think what he’s learning is that there’s a lot of support out there for a … progressive candidate that wants to talk about the issues that he wants to talk about,” Devine said.

Sanders is finding that people are concerned about climate change. And, Devine said, they worry about the impact of the Citizens United court case on American democracy and “the fact that campaigns are no longer about candidates raising money and running campaigns under their own banner.”

“That’s something that he really is finding as he travels around the country that is really there that previously didn’t exist,” Devine said.

Sanders issued a statement Sunday following Clinton’s announcement. Calling the former Democratic New York senator “an experienced and well-qualified leader,” Sanders urged her and other candidates to speak about the issues he cares about.

“During this campaign, it is imperative that Secretary Clinton, like every other candidate, address the great challenges of our time: the grotesque level of income and wealth inequality that is crushing our middle class; high unemployment and low wages; the threat that global climate change presents to our future and the future of our children; and the fact that democracy itself is at risk because of the catastrophic decision of the Supreme Court in the Citizens United case which is allowing billionaires to spend unlimited sums to buy the government of United States,” Sanders said. “I hope that Secretary Clinton will speak out on these and other important issues in the days and weeks ahead.”

Sen. Bernie Sanders

Sen. Bernie Sanders

Devine said Sanders understands Clinton has “enormous support,” vast resources and experience from her failed 2008 bid. But a Sanders campaign will focus on promoting his own ideas, not running against Clinton.

“I think one of the things that he understands … is that if he’s going to succeed in this process it’s not going to be by reacting to her in any way. He’s got to plot a distinctive, strategic course to success,” Devine said. “Reacting to Hillary or dealing with her in that respect, no, that’s not really a consideration.”

What is a consideration is whether to run at all, Sanders and his advisors say. Should he choose to run, Sanders will “take some actionable steps” by the end of the month, according to Devine. He declined to comment on the “technical stuff,” like whether Sanders would launch an exploratory committee or a full-throated campaign by May.

“There are many hours to be spent with many lawyers and compliance people before you answer that question. We’ve already had some of that discussion,” Devine said.

If there is a campaign, look for its headquarters to be nestled in the Green Mountains.

“Certainly, if he decides to do this, I think Vermont is probably the best place to sort of center the campaign like [former Gov.] Howard Dean did. He’s got a lot of resources there that know him that want to contribute,” Devine said.

And the resources, including a devoted following willing to work on Sanders’ behalf, are conveniently located right across the Connecticut River from the first-in-the-nation presidential primary.

“Being next to New Hampshire is a very good thing for candidates,” Devine said. “All those decisions haven’t been made yet. If he decides to do this he’ll probably want to look at taking advantage of his assets.”

Devine’s media consulting firm, Devine Mulvey Longabaugh, will help guide Sanders’ media strategy if he runs, but the campaign will be run by others.

“Presidential campaigns, they should be run by young people. Guys like me give a lot of advice and maybe have sense of how things work, having done it before,” he said. “We’ll be involved but if he does this we’re going to have to get some good people involved.”

neal.goswami@timesargus.com

State workers, supporters rally against cuts

MONTPELIER — Hundreds rallied at the State House Saturday to oppose cuts to the state budget and $10.8 million in labor savings sought by both the Shumlin administration and lawmakers in an event organized by the Vermont State Employees Association.

The state employees’s union was joined by other unions and groups, including the Vermont NEA, AFSCME and the Vermont Workers Center, to protest the the budget plan sought by Gov. Peter Shumlin and lawmakers.

VSEA members and supporters held a rally at the State House Saturday, April 11, 2015.

VSEA members and supporters held a rally at the State House Saturday, April 11, 2015.

The House has passed a budget that uses $33 million in new tax revenue, $53 million in cuts and $25 million in one-time funds to close a $113 million budget gap. The VSEA and others, however, want to see more tax revenue raised and fewer cuts.

The House-passed budget includes $10.8 million in labor savings that Shumlin, a Democrat, proposed. He has asked the VSEA to renegotiate its contract to help achieve the savings. Failing to do so will result in hundreds of layoffs, according to the administration.

About $2 million in labor savings has been identified by the administration, but $8.8 million remains of its target. It wants to delay by six months a 2.5 percent cost of living increase due to state employees in the 2016 fiscal year, and delay by one-year step-increases that average out to an additional 1.7 percent pay increase next year. Those steps would require union approval.

The union has so far refused to renegotiate, and has proposed ways to raise additional revenue instead. The 500 or so people gathered at the State House Saturday heard from Ed Olsen, a snow plow driver for the Agency of Transportation, about why the union is not willing to renegotiate.

“I pay taxes to this great state of Vermont, just like all the other hardworking, middle-class people. As a matter of fact, we, the middle-class Vermonters, pay more than 10 percent of our wages to this beautiful statehouse behind me, unlike the wealthy citizens who pay back 8 percent of their wages to our economy,” Olsen said. “That ain’t right. It pisses me off. That’s the biggest reason why I came here today.”

Olsen said the state’s wealthiest residents “aren’t being asked to give up anything.”

Agency of Transportation worker Ed Olsen speaks at State House rally Saturday, April 11, 2015.

Agency of Transportation worker Ed Olsen speaks at State House rally Saturday, April 11, 2015.

“I’m tired of being asked to give back more and more of my wages and benefits to help rescue Vermont’s economy,” he said. “I need every bit of the cash I earn. Vermont has a budget deficit and they always want to balance the budget on the backs of hardworking, middle-class citizens of Vermont.”

Several speakers compared Shumlin to Wisconsin Republican Gov. Scott Walker, who has sought concessions from union workers to help save money in that state, including Rev. Earl Kooperkamp of Church of the Good Shepherd in Barre.

“Vermont is not Wisconsin. Peter Shumlin is not Scott Walker. But it’s getting pretty damn hard to tell the difference,” he said.

Kooperkamp equated the effort to obtain savings from state workers to the seventh commandment — thou shalt not steal.

“It’s wrong, it’s immoral, and we’re here to say that,” Kooperkamp said.

The Shumlin administration is expected to meet again early next week to continue negotiations.

neal.goswami@timesargus.com

Capitol Beat with the Governor 04-10-15

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Gov. Peter Shumlin chats with Vermont Press Bureau chief Neal Goswami about the ongoing process to find $10.8 million in labor savings from the Vermont State Employees Association. He also discusses a failed effort to ban teacher strikes and lawmakers’ efforts pare down his legislative proposals.