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House convenes midnight session to address spending thresholds

MONTPELIER — Lawmakers burned the midnight oil early Saturday morning to approve a bill that softens the impact of school district spending thresholds. In the sort of move normally reserved for the final days of the legislative session in May, House members convened a special session shortly after midnight Saturday morning, after reaching a deadlock the day before on a bill that would raise school district spending thresholds and lower the tax penalties for exceeding them. It was more than one week ago when House lawmakers passed a bill that would raise every spending threshold — which vary from district to district — by 0.9 percent, and lower the tax penalty for exceeding them from 1 dollar for every dollar over the threshold to 25 cents for every dollar over. The thresholds themselves are a provision of Act 46, the school district merger bill passed by lawmakers in 2015, which seeks to create larger districts to both promote equity for students and contain costs. The thresholds were intended as a two-year stop-gap measure to give relief to property tax owners while the mergers take place. Continue Reading →

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Speaker: House to explore exchange options

VTHealthConnect

MONTPELIER — The House Health Care Committee will hold hearings next week to examine the state’s options for Vermont Health Connect as the exchange faces new challenges and unrest grows in the Legislature, according to House Speaker Shap Smith. The Shumlin administration revealed last week that a new backlog of exchange users waiting for changes to their accounts has emerged and includes more than 3,000 people. According to a Vermont Public Radio report, the Shumlin administration blamed the new backlog on a software upgrade that was not yet ready to be deployed. The administration reported last fall that it had dealt with a backlog of requested changes that at one time had numbered more than 10,000. Smith told the Vermont Press Bureau Tuesday the Shumlin administration needs to show quick progress on fixing the so-called change of circumstance function and reducing the backlog. Continue Reading →

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Donald Milne, longtime House clerk, dies at 81

Donald G. Milne

MONTPELIER — Longtime Vermont House of Representatives Clerk Donald George Milne, who also served as state representative from Washington, died Sunday at the age of 81 surrounded by his family after a short battle with cancer, according to his son. Milne, a Republican from Orange County, was born in Barre on July 16, 1934. He was educated at local public schools before graduating from Boston University and New York Law School. Milne was married to the late Marion Carson Milne, also a former state representative, until her death in August 2014. They had four children together — Chris Milne, Cathy Frey and Scott Milne, the Vermont Republican Party’s 2014 gubernatorial nominee. Continue Reading →

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Effort to bypass exchange for small business continues

VTHealthConnect

MONTPELIER — The Shumlin administration and lawmakers are moving forward with efforts to scrap plans for the small business function on the state’s online health insurance marketplace. Under state law, small businesses are supposed to be enrolling employees through Vermont Health Connect, the state-based insurance exchange created under the federal Affordable Care Act. But the website, which launched in October 2013, has never included that online function, known as Small Business Health Options Program, or SHOP. As a result, small businesses have enrolled employees directly through the two insurance carriers offering health plans on the exchange — Blue Cross Blue Shield of Vermont and MVP Health Care. Rep. William Lippert, D-Hinesburg, the chairman of the House Health Care Committee, has introduced a bill to allow the state to seek a so-called 1332 waiver to allow small businesses to continue enrollment directly through the carriers. Continue Reading →

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Capitol Beat 1.4.2016: Lawmakers return, Trump to rally in Burlington

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Vermont Press Bureau chief Neal Goswami, VPB reporter Josh O’Gorman and Times Argus Editor Steve Pappas discuss the return of lawmakers to Montpelier for the 2016 legislative session and a Donald Trump rally slated for Thursday. Continue Reading →

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Senate Dems leaning toward suspending McAllister

The Senate Democratic caucus met at the home of Senate President Pro Tem John Campbell Saturday to discuss several topics, including the potential legalization of marijuana in Vermont. (VPB/Neal Goswami)

HARTLAND — Senate Democrats are moving toward seeking the suspension of a Republican member of the body accused of sexual crimes to avoid interfering with his criminal case. Fifteen members of the Democratic caucus met Saturday at the timber frame home of Senate President Pro Tem John Campbell, and one on the phone, to discuss how the body should proceed regarding Franklin County Sen. Norm McAllister. The 64-year-old McAllister was arrested at the State House in May and stands accused of sexually assaulting three women, including a legislative intern who allegedly lived with him in Montpelier at times. He has pleaded not guilty to three felony and three misdemeanor charges, and his criminal case is pending. McAllister has refused to resign, despite immense pressure from both Republicans and Democrats. Continue Reading →

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Zuckerman kicks off lt. gov. campaign

David Zuckerman

BURLINGTON — David Zuckerman is banking that progressive values will lead him the second-highest office in the state. The two-term senator from Chittenden County formally kicked off his campaign for lieutenant governor Thursday night before nearly 200 cheering supporters, with a promise to continue the work he has carried out in the State House for nearly two decades. “As a state policy maker for nearly 20 years, I have worked to bring the Vermont work ethic, community-minded social values and common decency into Montpelier,” Zuckerman said. “I remember the sense of history we all felt when we passed civil unions. I have tried to focus on inequity and how to eliminate it and I’d like to bring that emphasis to the office of lieutenant governor.”

Zuckerman is currently serving his second term as a state senator, having previously served as representative for Burlington. Continue Reading →

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Story + Video: Coalition seeks study, expansion of Dr. Dynasaur

Main Street Alliance State Director Lindsay Deslauriers (VPB/Neal Goswami)

https://youtu.be/-DVkj8Z5dJ0

WINOOSKI — A newly formed coalition of labor organizations, consumer groups and non-profits is asking lawmakers to consider expanding the state’s Dr. Dynasaur program for Vermonters through age 26, a request that has the backing of House Speaker Shap Smith. The group announced its new Dr. Dynasaur 2.0 campaign to convince lawmakers to study the expansion of the publicly funded health insurance program for Vermont kids and lower-income pregnant women at a Winooski news conference Wednesday. The program currently covers children through age 18. By expanding the program through age 26, Vermonters and the state’s employers could save thousands in premium costs, Main Street Alliance State Director Lindsay Deslauriers said. “Health insurance is expensive and since the implementation of the Affordable Care Act, even with insurance, health care is expensive,” she said. Continue Reading →

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Branagan calls on Vermont GOP to denounce Trump

Rep. Carolyn Branagan

MONTPELIER — Georgia Rep. Carolyn Branagan is calling on leaders of the Vermont Republican Party to condemn recent comments by presidential candidate Donald Trump in which he called for banning all Muslims from traveling to the U.S.

Branagan, in an email Monday to Vermont Republican Party Chairman David Sunderland and Executive Director Jeffrey Bartley, asked for the party to “point out that his comment is against everything America stands for” and that “he is damaging to all Republicans.”

Trump, the real estate mogul and the frontrunner for the Republican Party’s presidential nomination, called Monday for “a total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States until our country’s representatives can figure out what is going on.” Trump has previously advocated for surveillance of mosques in the U.S. and perhaps creating a database of Muslims in the country. “What trump was talking about is not the terrorists or people who mean us ill will. He’s talking about banning an entire group of people based on only their religion,” Branagan told the Vermont Press Bureau Tuesday. “It is not Republican, it is not American, it is not anything except Trump.”

“I really think it’s time to stand up and say that he’s going over the edge. He doesn’t speak for me,” she added. Continue Reading →

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Property tax increase projections lowest in three years, but are subject to change

Mary Peterson discusses projected tax rates while Gov. Peter Shumlin looks on.

MONTPELIER — The Shumlin Administration is projecting property taxes will increase by 1 percent in the coming year, with the governor pledging action to fine tune school district spending thresholds within the first month of the legislative session. The Agency of education, the Department of Taxes and the Joint Fiscal Office are projecting an average statewide tax increase of 1.12 percent, the lowest increase in three years, although that figure is a best-guess that will be subject to revision in the coming months. “What we’re anticipating from what were seeing in these numbers is that that the average tax bill be going up by a little more than 1 percent, and education spending is going up by 2.5 percent,” said Mary Peterson, commissioner of the Department of Taxes. On the residential side, the average homestead tax rate is projected to increase by 1 cent, to $1.535 for every $100 of assessed property; however, tax increases will vary from municipality to municipality depending upon how much they spend on education. The non-residential tax rate is projected to increase by 0.3 cents, to $1.538 for every $100 of assessed property. Continue Reading →

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