Category Archives: State Government

Economists predict continued, moderate growth in Vermont

MONTPELIER — Economists for the Shumlin administration and the Legislature provided an updated economic forecast Monday that predicts continued moderate growth for the state’s economy into the foreseeable future.

Thomas Kavet and Jeffrey Carr, economists for the Legislature and administration, respectively, presented a consensus economic forecast to the Emergency Board Monday that predicts a 3 percent increase in general fund revenues over the last forecast in January for the 2016 fiscal year. That means the state is expected to collected about $40 million more in revenue than expected in January.

Economists Jeffrey Carr, left, and Thomas Kavet brief the Emergency Board.

Economists Jeffrey Carr, left, and Thomas Kavet brief the Emergency Board.

The 2016 expected revenues are aided by about $30 million in news taxes and fees signed into law following the recent legislative session.

The new forecast also predicts about $30 million more in general fund revenues in the 2017 fiscal year, which represents about 2 percent growth.

“It’s nice that we’re finally seeing some signs of the economic recovery that’s taking place in Vermont. We’ve got the fourth-lowest unemployment rate in America. We’ve got a lot of folks who want to hire and can’t find qualified workers,” Shumlin told reporters after Monday’s meeting. “The days of dark, deep-red ink were pretty depressing, and we’re starting to see the labor of our hard work.”

The Emergency Board is comprised of the governor and the chairs of the money committees in the House and Senate. The five-member panel voted unanimously to accept the consensus forecast.

The forecast also predicts the state’s education fund is expected to grow by $1.6 million and $1.7 million in 2016 and 2017, a growth of 0.8 and 0.9 percent, respectively. The transportation fund, however, is expected to decline by $800,000 in 2016 and $600,000 in 2017, a drop of 0.3 and 0.2 percent, respectively. The expected decline is based on oil prices.

Kavet said the forecast is “uneventful” because the 2015 fiscal year forecast was very close to year-end results. The national economy also did not deviate from expectations, he said.

“The external economy hasn’t changed that much either. We’re looking at this very slow, steady kind of expansion and there’s not a big shift in that,” Kavet said.

Gov. Peter Shumlin and Secretary of Administration Justin Johnson, right, at a meeting of the Emergency Board on Monday, July 27, 2015.

Gov. Peter Shumlin and Secretary of Administration Justin Johnson, right, at a meeting of the Emergency Board on Monday, July 27, 2015.

Meanwhile, the state’s relatively low unemployment rate, the fourth-lowest in the country, is a strong indication of a growing economy, according to Kavet.

“The fact is it’s a very good proxy for the state of the economy in general. When the unemployment rate is really high lots of other indicators show that bad things are happening at the same time. And when it gets really low that also is coincident with lots of other things being good,” Kavet said. “As a general yardstick for what’s happening … it’s a timely indicator.”

He said the state is “about a year away from full employment,” which should lead to wage and income growth.

Shumlin, who frequently touts the state’s low unemployment rate, said the state is on the right track.

“It sure is better than what I inherited in 2010 when we were seeing negative economic growth. I think we all recognize that we’re making the right choices, we’re heading in the right direction and we still have more work to do,” he said.

The economists warned of structural problems with the state’s tax code, however. There is a shrinking sales and use tax base because of online commerce and the proximity to sales tax-free New Hampshire, they said. And the state saw minimal growth in personal income tax withholdings in 2015.

Senate Finance Committee Chairman Tim Ashe, D/P-Chittenden, began a discussion earlier this year about expanding the sales tax to services. That effort did not gain traction, however, and Shumlin said he does not favor it.

“I think we should be careful not to misdiagnose the problem. The problem with the sales tax is being experienced by any state that has a sales tax. The Internet is killing Main Street sales of goods,” Shumlin said.

Shumlin signed a 2016 fiscal year state budget into law earlier this year that assumed a 3 percent growth in state revenues. That followed a January consensus forecast that called on the state to downgrade projections from 5 percent growth to 3 percent growth.

Reach Up cuts challenged in federal court

MONTPELIER — Vermont Legal Aid has filed a class action lawsuit in federal court against the state hoping to block a new statute that calls for a reduction in Reach Up benefits for some Vermonters.

Legislation recently signed into law by Gov. Peter Shumlin reduces the temporary cash assistance by $125 per month for as many as 860 households in Vermont.

That’s because of a provision in the approved 2016 fiscal year budget that counts $125 per month of federal Supplemental Security Income assistance, or SSI, against a family’s income when determining benefits under the state’s Reach Up program.

Department for Children and Families Commissioner Ken Schatz.

Department for Children and Families Commissioner Ken Schatz.

Under current law, an individual’s SSI disability benefits are not counted when determining a family’s Reach Up assistance. The change is part of a $1.6 million cut to the 2016 state budget.

“The approach we looked at was that we recognized that these are vulnerable families, but these families with SSI benefits did have more income available than other families (receiving Reach Up benefits),” said Ken Schatz, commissioner of the Department for Children and Families. “We geared this in such a manner to try to minimize the impact and also recognize that this approach, because it does deal with families that have more income available, was a better approach than an across-the-board cut to all families.”

But Christopher Curtis, the attorney with Vermont Legal Aid who filed the suit, said the cut to a subset of Vermonters receiving state benefits is unconstitutional.

“I think the single most striking thing about this proposed benefit cut is it singles out a distinct class of Vermonters,” he said. “That just jumps out on its face as discriminatory.”

Christopher Curtis (VPR photo)

Christopher Curtis (VPR photo)

“Supplemental security income is to meet the needs of disabled Vermonters who have very specific needs. It’s not necessarily to meet the needs of an entire household,” Curtis added. “We do not think that supplemental security income should be counted against the Reach Up grant and there’s a provision in federal law that supports that.”

Curtis said he is hoping the court will grant an injunction to stop the cut from taking effect on Aug. 1. A letter sent to Agency of Human Services Secretary Hal Cohen, asking that the state not implement the cut, did not work, he said. Cohen, according to Curtis, responded that the Legislature had acted and the administration is required to follow the law.

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Shumlin’s office weighs in on EB-5 director’s departure

MONTPELIER — The director of the EB-5 Vermont Regional Center has resigned to take a job at Mount Snow that will involve working on the resort’s EB-5 project, leading Gov. Peter Shumlin to raise concerns about potential conflicts of interest.

Brent Raymond submitted his resignation last Thursday, Secretary of Commerce and Community Development Patricia Moulton said. Raymond provided for 30 days notice in his resignation letter, but Moulton said she and other officials determined Raymond could not continue to oversee projects because he would soon be advocating for one. His last day on the job was Monday.

Brent Raymond (Courtesy photo)

Brent Raymond (Courtesy photo)

“His departure is amicable. We felt because he’s going to work for an EB-5 project he couldn’t remain on the job and work with other EB-5 projects,” Moulton said.

Raymond will continue to be paid for another 30 days, Moulton said, but is no longer employed by the state to “avoid any conflicts.”

“He fully understood that,” she said.

The Burlington Free Press was the first to report Raymond’s departure.

Gov. Peter Shumlin’s office weighed in on the matter Tuesday, saying the governor is concerned about potential conflicts emerging from Raymond’s pending position with Mount Snow.

“The Governor has concerns about the potential for a conflict of interest in this decision. As soon as the Governor’s Office was made aware of this development, we made very clear that the employee should cease working in his capacity as director of the Regional Center immediately. We fully expect all appointees and former appointees to comply with the Executive Code of Ethics,” spokesman Scott Coriell said in an email. “The Governor has also asked ACCD to review the communications leading up to this departure to ensure that all actions were in compliance with the Executive Code of Ethics and conflict of interest policies.”

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

Scott says state contracts with his company are no conflict

MONTPELIER — Republican Lt. Gov. Phil Scott says his construction business, and the millions of dollars in state contracts it has received since he has been involved in state government, is a major factor in whether or not he will run for the state’s top job.

Scott, 56, is co-owner of DuBois Construction, a Middlesex-based excavating and construction company, along with Don DuBois. Scott served five terms in the Vermont Senate, beginning in 2001, before being elected lieutenant governor in 2010. He served as vice-chairman of the Senate Transportation Committee and chairman of the Senate Institutions Committee during his tenure as a legislator. Both committees oversaw budgets that included contracts that Scott’s company received.

hardhat

Lt. Gov. Phil Scott (Courtesy photo)

Since 2001, DuBois Construction has received $3.785 million through more than 250 payments from the state, according to records provided by the Agency of Administration in response to a public records request filed Monday. Since Scott took office as lieutenant governor in 2011, DuBois Construction has been paid $2.657 million.

The majority of state funds paid to DuBois Construction — $2.58 million — has come from the Agency of Transportation. The Department of Forests, Parks and Recreation is second at $391,000, followed by the Departments of Buildings and General Services and Fish and Wildlife at $331,500 and $330,000, respectively.

When Gov. Peter Shumlin announced last month that he will not seek a fourth term in 2016, Scott immediately became a front-runner for the post. He is giving a bid for governor serious consideration, but does not plan to announce his intentions until at least Labor Day.

Scott said he has been very clear that his business interests will play a role in his decision to seek the governorship.

“A lot of it has been highlighted by me. I’ve been talking about it as one of the hurdles and obstacles since I’ve been thinking about it,” he said. “I keep reminding (people) that I have a business that we’ve been involved with for 30 years or more and I just want to make sure that — from a number of different standpoints — that the business continues, but also the fact that I’ve got to disassociate myself from the business because of the possible appearance of improprieties.”

Should he become governor, Scott said it would be imperative to distance himself from the company to avoid even the appearance of impropriety or conflicts of interest. A “firewall of some sort to take me out of the day-to-day operations” of the company would be put in place, he said.

“I view being the governor as being the CEO of a company. You’re running the government and you have people you put in charge of different sectors,” he said. “You have much more power in running the day-to-day operations of state government. Some of those day-to-day operations are in the area of my business.” Continue reading

Shumlin administration sees more staff changes

MONTPELIER — Department of Environmental Conservation Commissioner David Mears is is leaving the Shumlin administration to rejoin the faculty of Vermont Law School.

Mears, who joined the administration in 2011, helped spearhead Gov. Peter Shumlin’s effort to pass clean water legislation during the last legislative session. He will return to VLS as the director of the Environmental and Natural Resources Law Clinic, the position he previously held at the school. Deputy Commissioner Alyssa Schuren will take over the department’s top spot on August 10.

David Mears

David Mears

Agency of Natural Resources Secretary Deborah Markowitz said Mears is leaving the state and the department “better than he found them.”

“From the Lake Champlain clean-up plan, to cleaning up polluted industrial sites so that they could again serve as community assets, David’s leadership has helped Vermont advance our shared environmental mission,” she said.

Mears’ departure was part of a handful of staff changes Gov. Peter Shumlin announced on Thursday, and the most significant since announcing in early June that he will not seek a fourth term in 2016. Nearly a dozen top agency and department heads have departed since last summer.

Alyson Richards, deputy Chief of Staff and Director of Intergovernmental Affairs for Shumlin, is leaving the administration on July 24. She has been an influential part of the administration’s education policies.

“Aly has been a trusted member of my team, close advisor, and great friend,” Shumlin said in a statement. “She has played an integral role in our efforts to expand educational opportunities for Vermont kids, helping to pass universal pre-k and secure tens of millions in federal grants that will help us expand and bolster our early childhood education system in this state. Kids born in this state are better off thanks to Aly Richard’s good work.”

Alyson Richards

Alyson Richards

The administration did not say what Richards’ plans are after leaving her post. Her departure follows that of Elizabeth Miller, Shumlin’s now-former chief of staff.

Meanwhile, Jon Copans is taking over as deputy commissioner at the Public Service Department on Aug. 17. He will fill the post left vacant by Darren Springer, who is now Shumlin’s chief of staff. Copans is currently a senior policy advisor for government affairs for ANR. He previously worked as deputy state director and campaign manager for Congressman Peter Welch.

“Jon has great experience in both environmental and energy issues and I look forward to continuing our progress in advancing energy and telecommunications efforts on behalf of all Vermonters,” Public Service Department Commissioner Chris Recchia said in a statement.

Director of Vermont Emergency Management Joe Flynn will become deputy commissioner of the Department of Public Safety. Flynn will take over the position for Francis (Paco) Aumand, who is retiring on July 24.

Dunne sets frenetic fundraising pace for gov hopefuls

MONTPELIER — Democrat Matt Dunne posted an impressive fundraising haul Wednesday of more than $100,000 as he considers a bid for governor.

Dunne, a 45-year-old former state senator from Windsor County, now works as the head of community affairs for Google. He has launched previous, unsuccessful campaigns for both lieutenant governor and governor.

Dunne was part of the five-way Democratic primary for governor in 2010, from which Gov. Peter Shumlin emerged victorious. Another primary is likely in 2016, as House Speaker Shap Smith and Vermont Agency of Transportation Secretary Sue Minter ponder their own bids. But neither filed a July 15 campaign finance disclosure statement required for candidates with who raise or spend more than $500.

Matt Dunne

Matt Dunne

Dunne’s campaign finance disclosure form filed this week shows that his contacts with tech executives helped him take in about $114,500 in contributions for the 2016 election cycle in just the past several weeks. That doesn’t include about $20,000 more than came within the two-day period before Wednesday’s filing deadline, he said.

Reid Hoffman, the co-founder of LinkedIn, along with his wife Michelle Yee, contributed a total of $8,000. Dunne said Hoffman, who attended the Putney School, has connections to the Green Mountain State. Christopher Brousseau, of San Mateo, Calif., who donated $2,000, grew up in Vermont with Dunner and Burlington Mayor Miro Weinburger, according to Dunne.

Married tech tycoons Mark Pincus and Allison Pincus, founders of the Zynga online gaming company and the One King’s Lane retail outlet, respectively, also kicked in $8,000 in contributions.

Support from people “who just aren’t able to live in Vermont is not insignificant,” Dunne said of his many out-of-state contributions.

Closer to home, Dunne’s report showed that he is locking in early support from big-wig Democrats, including Jane and Bill Stetson, who collectively contributed $4,000. Dunne said the Stetsons, who are big Democratic donors, did not support him in 2010. Dealer.com co-founder Mike Lane contributed $3,000.

Perhaps the most impressive distinction about Dunne’s fundraising is that it has only been about two weeks since he began dialing for dollars.

“I’ve made it really clear that we are serious about a potential race for governor. Over the last 10 days we’ve started reaching out to Vermonters to gauge their interest,” he said. “As you can see that response is very positive. People are ready for new ideas and new leadership. The financial support is a great indication of the enthusiasm that’s out there.”

Gov. Peter Shumlin announced in early June that he would not seek a fourth term. But then U.S. Rep. Peter Welch entered the fray, saying he would consider a return to Vermont and a gubernatorial bid. It was only recently that Welch bagged his trial balloon and Dunne returned from a vacation to begin seeking support in earnest.

“This was all part of a process that started after my friend Peter Welch decided that he wanted to stay fighting for Vermont in Washington, D.C.,” Dunne said. “When I got back I started reaching out to Vermonters all over the state to gauge their interest in a different kind of approach to Montpelier and to leadership. The response, as you can see, was really, really positive.”

Despite his early fundraising prowess, Dunne continues to maintain that his mind is not made up on a run. He said most Vermonters are not engaged in politics this far ahead of the election.

“We’ll make that announcement when we feel like we have all the pieces in place and the timing is right,” Dunne said.

Smith, meanwhile, said he has not begun to ask supporters to contribute financially. Although he has been traveling the state gauging support, and even lining up campaign staff, the speaker said Wednesday he has not reached a final decision about his political future.

House Speaker Shap Smith

House Speaker Shap Smith

“I have been deciding whether I’m going to run for governor and I think once I make that decision I’ll raise money from people. I’m not going to do that before then,” Smith said.

The six-term House member from Morrisville said he is not worried about Dunne’s impressive tally.

“It’s July of 2015 and a primary wouldn’t be until August of 2016. That’s more than 12 months. So, the answer to that is no,” Smith said. “We’re talking about more than a year before the primary and 15 months before the general election. There’s more than enough time to raise the money for a primary.”

“My focus really has been on what Vermonters are looking for in 2016, talking to them about whether they would support me if I ran for governor, and most importantly, talking to my family about what it would mean to run for governor,” he added. “I always expected that the people who would be in the race would be able to raise funds.”

Minter, a former House member and Tropical Storm Irene recovery officer, has said she is considering a run for office but appears to be making fewer behind-the-scenes moves than Dunne and Smith.

On the Republican side, Lt. Gov. Phil Scott, who says he is considering a bid for the top job, filed a disclosure report as lieutenant governor. That report shows no new contributions to Scott for the 2016 cycle. Dan Feliciano, who ran in 2014 as a Libertarian and registered 4 percent of the vote last November, reported no financial activity and about $90 to carry over into the 2016 campaign cycle. He has since joined the Republican Party and is said to be considering a second run for governor.

Read Matt Dunne’s report below:

Exchange work to continue, despite SCOTUS ruling

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lt. Gov. Phil Scott

Lt. Gov. Phil Scott

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lawrence Miller

Lawrence Miller

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

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

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

neal.goswami@timesargus.com

T.J. Donovan to run for AG

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Welch says he won’t take long to decide on gov bid

MONTPELIER — U.S. Rep. Peter Welch says he plans to make a decision soon on whether he will give up his seat in Congress to run for governor.

Welch, now in his fifth term as Vermont’s sole congressman, emerged as a potential candidate following Gov. Peter Shumlin’s surprise announcement Monday that he will not seek a fourth term in 2016. Welch, a former state senator, ran unsuccessfully for governor in 1990.

Welch, 68, said in an interview Thursday he continues to enjoy serving in Congress. Despite the Democrats’ minority status, Welch said he has recently managed to push legislation into law, including energy efficiency requirements and funding for the National Institute of Health.

Rep. Peter Welch

Rep. Peter Welch

“I have a great job and I love doing this job. I find myself part of a group down here that’s trying to make this institution work and I’ve been able to establish good relationships with my Republican colleagues that benefit Vermont,” he said. “I could be very happy continuing to serve Vermonters right here.”

But, “circumstances change,” Welch said. With Shumlin vowing to bow out of politics, a return to Vermont and another bid for governor could be in the best interests of Vermonters and himself, according to Welch.

“It causes me and others to stop and pause and ask the question of what is best for Vermont,” he said. “You deal with the circumstances that exist and the big opportunity in public service is that you get to serve, it’s not that you dictate the terms of how you get to serve.”

Serving as a member of Congress is “a totally different job and totally different situation” than serving as governor, Welch said. But the challenges in Washington, D.C., and Montpelier are similar — “trying to build an economy that works for middle-income families,” he said.

“It’s really hard on middle-income families to make ends meet,” Welch said. “My focus, in all of my political career … has been a focus on trying to make sure the middle income families have a shot. The jobs are different but the objective and the orientation I’ve had has been the same, and that’s been true from the state Senate to Congress.”

A return to living full-time in Vermont could perhaps sway the Windsor County resident to leave Washington and launch a bid for governor.

“Of course I would like to be back in Vermont. Every week when I get home I get off the plane and it’s just relief. My emotional life is in Vermont. I work in Washington, I love my work, but my heart is in Vermont,” he said.

Welch said he has been “fully absorbed” in his current job and had not thought about a gubernatorial bid until Shumlin’s Monday announcement.

“When you step back, you realize that this decision by Gov. Shumlin was stunning and surprising,” he said. “It sets off an anxiety among politicians about who will run for what.”

Most pundits believe that the plethora of Democrats considering a bid, including House Speaker Shap Smith and former state senator and unsuccessful candidate for governor, Matt Dunne, will await Welch’s decision before making theirs. Should Welch decide to run for governor there could be a shift in focus that leads to a mad dash for the congressional seat.

Welch said his decision will come “sooner rather than later.”

“It’s really a personal process of giving consideration to where I can best serve,” he said. “Obviously, talking to my family is a big part of the process.”

Welch said he expects other candidates to determine their own futures regardless of what he does. “We’ve got a lot of good Democrats. We’ll have no shortage of democrats for any office that is open,” he said.

neal.goswami@timesargus.com

Capitol Beat with the Governor 6-09-15

Play

Vermont Gov. Peter Shumlin speaks to Vermont Press Bureau chief Neal Goswami about his decision, announced Monday, to not seek re-election in 2016.

Gov. Peter Shumlin discusses his decision to not seek re-election in 2016 on the Capitol Beat podcast.

Gov. Peter Shumlin discusses his decision to not seek re-election in 2016 on the Capitol Beat podcast.

Potential candidates for governor abound

MONTPELIER — Gov. Peter Shumlin’s surprise announcement Monday that he will not seek re-election throws the 2016 gubernatorial election wide open — and several candidates on both sides of the aisle say they are interested.

A potential surprise candidate emerged Monday when former Shumlin Chief of Staff Bill Lofy told the National Journal that Democratic Congressman Peter Welch “would be the prohibitive favorite” if he were to jump into the race. Welch has served as Vermont’s lone representative in the House since 2006, and has handily won re-election every two years.

Rep. Peter Welch

Rep. Peter Welch

Welch Chief of Staff Bob Rogan said Monday that Welch will consider his options and has not ruled out a run for governor.

“It’s likely Congressman Welch will seek re-election to Congress but this news comes as a surprise so he will be taking the time he needs to thoughtfully consider how he can best serve Vermonters,” Rogan said.

Democratic House Speaker Shap Smith made clear after the legislative session ended last month that he wants to be governor. But Smith said at the time that he did not want to run in a primary against Shumlin.

“I was pretty clear that I was not running … a primary against the governor. I was also pretty clear that I was interested in running for statewide office. So, it does change the dynamic,” Smith told reporters Monday.

Smith said he and Shumlin have worked together for years “for years trying to make sure that the state of Vermont could be an even better place than it is now and I think that we all owe a debt to Peter for his great work as governor.” He credited Shumlin for his response to the devastating impact Tropical Storm Irene had on Vermont.

Smith said he will consult with many people before deciding if he will launch a campaign for governor.

House Speaker Shap Smith

House Speaker Shap Smith

“I need to spend some time talking with my family first and foremost. This would be a really major decision for our family life. I acknowledge that and I want to make sure that they’re on board with it. I also want to talk to friends and Vermonters to see whether they think it’s a good idea for me to run for governor,” Smith said.

As someone who has never appeared on a statewide ballot, Smith could face a challenge with name recognition.

“I think that we all think that we’re better known than we are. I do find myself on occasion in other parts of Vermont where people say, ‘You’re that speaker guy, right?’” he said. “I don’t think any of us should overestimate how many people know us.”

Meanwhile, former state senator and current Google executive Matt Dunne, has made clear that he’s also itching to return to the Vermont political scene as governor. Dunne, who was part of the five-way Democratic primary in 2010 that Shumlin eventually won, said he plans to consult with his wife, Sarah, as well as his past supporters, before making a decision.

“As I shared with people during the campaign five years ago and more recently, there’s no better job in the world than to represent the people of the state of Vermont and to be able to have a role in helping to move the state forward,” he said. “I will absolutely be considering a run for governor. I’ve been flattered by the large number of phone calls and text messages and Facebook messages and emails I’ve received this afternoon and will take time to talk things over with Sarah and a number of people across the state of Vermont before making a decision.”

Dunne, who is the head of community affairs for Google, said he is not setting any time frame for announcing his decision.

Matt Dunne

Matt Dunne

“I’m not going to set a hard date. It’s going to depend on making the time to have that conversation with Sarah and my kids, who are old enough to be aware of what a campaign means this time, as well as touch base with folks who have supported me in the past and others who have just reach out to me today,” he said.

Doug Racine, a former lieutenant governor and candidate in the 2010 Democratic primary, could also consider a bid. He was fired as secretary of the Agency of Human Services last year by Shumlin.

A number of Republicans have been considering a run — even against Shumlin if he were to run again. But Monday’s announcement by the governor may make the prospect of running even more appealing.

At the head of the pack is Lt. Gov. Phil Scott, a Republican and a member of Shumlin’s cabinet, who said last week he is considering a run for governor. Scott, known for being an affable politician but one who has not yet had to take strong policy stands as lieutenant governor, said he intends to decide his political future over the next several weeks. Monday’s announcement, he said, will not impact that decision.

Lt. Gov. Phil Scott

Lt. Gov. Phil Scott

“Certainly it was a bit of a surprise, coming today, but as I’ve said consistently, whether the governor decided to run or not run will have no bearing on my decision making,” Scott said. “I’ll contemplate this over the next few weeks.”

Scott said he wants to be governor if the situation is right.

“Sure. I think that given the right circumstances, if I think that I’m the right person to lead Vermont and can help in some way, and my family and business will survive this, then I want to be governor,” he said. “It has to be more than about you. It has to be about others and the whole of Vermont.”

The lieutenant governor was not at Monday’s announcement and said Shumlin did not tell him before making the public announcement.

“I understand. Politics is what it is. I’m not surprised. This obviously had to be a tough decision to make and he wanted to share it with those closest to him,” Scott said.

Former State Auditor and Sen. Randy Brock, who was soundly beaten by Shumlin in 2012, says he may also seek the governorship.

Randy Brock

Randy Brock

“I’m certainly considering running again and been talking with people over the past several weeks and have some more to do. It’s something I’m considering but no decision has been made. It’s a decision that will be made over the summer,” he said.

Brock said any potential candidate “needs to declare relatively early because there’s a lot of work to be done, not the least of which is significant fundraising challenges.” Shumlin’s announcement, Brock said, will not sway him in either direction.

“It was always a possibility, and probably a real one after the 2014 election, that Gov. Shumlin would not run again,” he said.

Scott Milne, meanwhile, who lost a razor-thin election to Shumlin in November, said he has not yet determined if he will again seek the office. He said be believes “t’s a good move by Peter to step aside.”

“I believe Vermonters are more aware now than at any time this decade just how bad things are, and how much needs to change in order to save Vermont,” he said. “Whether as a candidate, or as a citizen helping good people get elected in 2016, I am looking forward to the campaign trail again.”

Now that the race for governor features no incumbent, more candidates could explore the idea of entering the race.

Shumlin said during his afternoon announcement that he will work to support the Democratic nominee in 2016.

“I’m going fight to ensure that whoever takes my place as governor is a Democrat with the values and priorities to build upon, rather than undermine, the extraordinary progress we have made,” he said.

neal.goswami@timesargus.com

Shumlin says he will not seek re-election in 2016

MONTPELIER — Gov. Peter Shumlin announced Monday afternoon that he will not seek reelection, and will instead return to his hometown of Putney to resume his role in his student travel business.

The announcement was made at the State House Monday, shortly after he informed his staff and cabinet members of his decision. Many of his current and past staff stood behind him as he told reporters of his plans.

“I am announcing today that I will not be a candidate for a fourth term in 2016,” Shumlin said, after listing what he considers the successes of his tenure as the state’s chief executive.

Gov. Peter Shumlin, with current and former staff behind him, announces Monday that he will not seek re-election in 2016.

Gov. Peter Shumlin, with current and former staff behind him, announces Monday that he will not seek re-election in 2016.

“I reached this decision after a lot of thought and consideration. It is the honor of my life to serve as Vermont’s governor. I want to serve in this role until I feel confident that we have accomplished what we promised to do. By January of 2017, I believe we will have done just that. We’re making tough decisions, we’re taking some risks, and we’re getting a lot of good done for the state of Vermont,” he said. “I decided to make this decision now because I want these next 18 months in office to be focused entirely on continuing the work we started together. And we have a lot left to do.”

The announcement follows a tough re-election fight in November, in which Shumlin received a slim-plurality of the vote against Republican political neophyte Scott Milne. Because Shumlin did not receive a majority of the vote, lawmakers had to formally elect him on the first day of the legislative session in January.

Shumlin said he intends to end his political career when his term expires, and “will not be going to Washington.”

“I have always thought that the right time for a governor to serve is six years. It’s just always the way I have looked at it. I thought that as my third term was evolving, as often happens in life, my perspective might change. It never did,” he said. “I have never wanted to be a full-time politician. I know I’ve told you this before and it’s been greeted with eyes of disbelief, but I’ve never had any desire to live in Washington, D.C., to serve in Congress, to serve in anybody’s cabinet. I truly ran for governor because I wanted to make changes to the state that has given me so much, and then go back to private life.”

Shumlin noted Monday that his administration has boosted the state’s infrastructure, cutting the number of structurally deficient bridges in half. He said his administration has slowed the growth in hospital budgets, and reduced the number of uninsured Vermonters by half. And he has begun to move Vermont away from the current fee-for-service payment model to one that pays health care providers based on health outcomes.

Additionally, Shumlin said his administration has helped the state’s most vulnerable by increasing the minimum wage, and providing more free meals at school to students in need. And, Shumlin said, his administration has altered the way the state deals with its opiate addiction problem.

Gov. Peter Shumlin returns to his ceremonial office in the State House after announcing that he will not seek re-election in 2016.

Gov. Peter Shumlin returns to his ceremonial office in the State House after announcing that he will not seek re-election in 2016.

“When I took office, we politely averted our eyes to opiate addiction in our front yards while we feared and fought treatment centers in our backyards. Today Vermont is one of the most innovative states in treating opiate addiction as the disease it is, saving lives and giving hope, jobs, and a future to those who are suffering while reducing incarceration rates and making our state safer,” Shumlin said.

The governor’s surprise announcement will certainly change the political landscape. Lt. Gov. Phil Scott, a Republican and a member of Shumlin’s cabinet, said last week he was considering a run for the governor. He was not at Monday’s announcement.

And Democratic Speaker of the House Shap Smith told the Vermont Press Bureau after the legislative session ended last month that he wants to be governor, but did not want to run in a primary against Shumlin. Meanwhile, former state senator and current Google executive Matt Dunne, is also rumored to be considering a run.

Shumlin said he would work to ensure a Democrat succeeds him.

“I’m going fight to ensure that whoever takes my place as governor is a Democrat with the values and priorities to build upon, rather than undermine, the extraordinary progress we have made,” he said.

Now that the race for governor features no incumbent, more candidates are likely to explore the idea of running.

Shumlin said he plans to continue pushing for his agenda until his current term expires. He will push for an all-payer waiver from the federal government to transition the state to a new payment model for health care. He also promised to continue reforming the criminal justice system and focusing on opiate treatment. And, he said he would push for ending childhood homelessness, passing paid sick leave, and expanding renewable energy projects in Vermont.

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

neal.goswami@timesargus.com

Same-day voter registration signed into law

MONTPELIER — Gov. Peter Shumlin signed a bill into law Monday that will allow voters to register to vote on Election Day beginning in 2017.

The same-day voter registration bill, S.29, makes Vermont the 14th state to allow last-minute registration. Advocates say it will boost voter participation in elections.

Gov. Peter Shumlin signs same-day voter registration legislation into law Monday.

Gov. Peter Shumlin signs same-day voter registration legislation into law Monday.

“It’s so important because for the greatest democracy in the world, the number of people who vote in elections is lower than it should be and hurts our democracy because it’s so low,” Shumlin said before signing the bill at Montpelier City Hall. “One thing that we all know is that if you give folks access to voting, not barriers to voting that have become so fashionable is state after state in America, but access to voting, the numbers go up and democracy is healthier as a result.”

Until Jan. 1, 2017, voters in Vermont must be registered to vote on the Wednesday before an election if they want to cast a ballot. Allowing voters to register at the polls as improved participation where it is already allowed, Shumlin said.

“The numbers all show that with same-day voter registration the numbers go up anywhere from 7 and 14 percent. That is a huge accomplishment to ensure that our democracy remains healthy,” he said.

Many town and city clerks around Vermont have been opposed to the idea, believing it will lead to administrative problems. Clerks expressed concern in testimony to lawmakers that voters could potentially vote in two locations, or perhaps register in the wrong district.

But Montpelier City Clerk John Odum said it will remove a barrier that has prevented some people from voting.

“From my perspective as a clerk it’s, in a sense, a small thing, because this is what we do. This is what we do as Americans. It’s our birthright to choose our leaders, to make our decisions, and this is what we do as clerks,” Odum said. “We are responsible for maintaining a trustworthy system that puts as little interference between Americans exercising that birthright as possible.”

Others, including some lawmakers, have been opposed because they believe it will lead to voter fraud. Voters will be able to register at the polls on Election Day without identification.

Vermont Secretary of State Jim Condos said voter fraud has not been a problem, however.

“It’s nonexistent. It really doesn’t happen. The really true voter fraud is when someone is denied the right to vote,” Condos said.

“This is a voters’ rights bill,” he added. “We have more issues, more times where people are denied and they’re eligible, they’re denied the right to vote, than voter fraud.”

House Speaker Shap Smith, a strong proponent of the new law, said many states are looking to restrict voters’ rights. Vermont’s new law should serve as example, he said.

“Throughout history we have seen the way that you restrict the rights of people who are without power and that is by restricting the right to the ballot box,” Smith said. “This is an important step in the right direction, the direction that we should be going throughout the country, and when many of my colleagues are working to restrict access to the right to vote, I am proud today to have a bill go in to law that allows people easier access to the right to vote. That should be happening around the country. It’s not.”

The law will take effect in 2017 to give clerks time to familiarize themselves with a new statewide voter checklist system. It also allows the new policy to take effect after the 2016 presidential election when voter turnout is expected to be high.

The Vermont Public Interest Research Group and other advocacy groups were strong advocates for the law.

neal.goswami@timesargus.com

Shumlin admin to offer all-payer waiver request by end of June

MONTPELIER — Gov. Peter Shumlin says the state’s preliminary application for an all-payer waiver to level reimbursements to health care providers among all payers will be submitted by the end of June.

A universal, publicly-financed health care system is off the table. And Shumlin’s grand plan to pump additional funds into Medicaid through a $90 million payroll tax was ignored by lawmakers. But the administration has been making steady progress on another major reform in health care — changing the payment structure.

An all-payer waiver will allow the state to move forward with an ambitious plan to eliminate the current fee-for-service payment model that pays providers for each procedure and replace it with a system that pays providers on the quality of care they provide and the health outcomes of their patients.

Gov. Peter Shumlin

Gov. Peter Shumlin

“This is taking Medicare, Medicaid, private pay, in other words our entire payment system, and moving it to one where we literally pay our providers for keeping us healthy and giving them skin in the game,” Shumlin said in a recent interview. “It’s a revolution in the way we pay for health care. They get paid for keeping you healthy not for the number of things they do to you.”

State officials say if Vermont obtains the waiver from the federal Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, all insurance plans will pay the same amount and providers will have an incentive to work collectively to have the best health outcome that is not paid for based on the number of tests and procedures performed.

Currently, Maryland is the only state operating under an all-payer waiver, and has been doing so since the late 1970s. But Maryland’s system only sets Medicaid rates for hospitals. In Vermont, the goal is to take it further and include primary care providers and specialists as well as hospitals.

“What we’re talking about in Vermont is doing it with everybody, including Medicare, which is, of course, where the bulk of our money is,” Shumlin said. “It really is a very, very significant conversation.”

Officials with CMS will visit Vermont in the next couple of weeks to work with state officials on its application. The process requires rolling at least two waivers into one document that the state and federal government can agree on. Shumlin said his administration will have the document completed by the end of June, and the state should have an idea this fall whether the project is feasible.

Vermont currently has a Medicaid waiver to spend federal matching dollars outside of more rigid federal regulations. That waiver, known as the global commitment waiver, has been around since the administration of former Republican Gov. James Douglas, but it expires at the end of 2016.

The state’s application will also include a Medicare waiver that will allow it to spend Medicare funds outside the current regulations. However, “In no way does the state take control of Medicare money,” says Al Gobeille, chairman of the Green Mountain Care Board, the state’s health regulatory body.

Al Gobeille

Al Gobeille

“They are such substantially different waivers. What Medicare would be willing to do is relax its payment rules so we could tell them ahead of time how we’re going to do our rules and set our standards of care to meet their measures,” he said.

Completing the state’s preliminary application will only begin a long process of reforming the health care payment system in Vermont, Gobeille said. Once the state and federal governments come to terms, physicians will also have to buy in. Gobeille said the will take its plan to providers and ask them, “What do you think?”

“That begins a whole process of making sure that this is a good idea,” he said.

There are plenty of ways the project could crumble, though, both Shumlin and Gobeille said.

“My take is we’re going to negotiate with the federal government. There’s a possible chance that we could walk away and then maybe next year we try again. I’ve been clear with the governor and the legislature that if we don’t get something that’s a good idea … for both sides then we should exercise caution,” Gobeille said. “I don’t know if this is a good idea or bad idea yet until I know what the federal government is willing to do.”

Shumlin said he is worried about the ability to level out payments from all payers in a way that is fair.

“It could fall apart … at any time because it’s all fine to have everybody sitting around and agreeing that the current system is broken and we’ve got to fix it. The fight’s going to come when start talking about who gets paid what,” he said.

The state’s health care systems — hospitals and their subsidiaries — have varying interests based on their size and location. Shumlin said balanced those interests will be difficult.

“Here’s where this thing could fall apart — who is the person or people that controls the money? Let’s be honest, if it’s the big hospitals you lose all of the little folks. If it’s the little folks, the big people distrust. So, we have a huge project ahead to find an objective, transparent, trustworthy process that everyone can believe in or it will never work,” the governor said.

Reforming the payment system is crucial, though, to bending the cost curve in health care, he said.

“We’re all dead if we don’t get this one right because it will bankrupt us,” Shumlin said.

neal.goswami@timesargus.com

State to move out-of-state inmates to Michigan

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

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

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

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

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