Category Archives: State House

Shumlin claims exchange victory

WINOOSKI — Gov. Peter Shumlin and his health care reform team said Monday they have met a key deadline in implementing a core function to Vermont Health Connect and plan to continue improving the online health insurance marketplace through the fall.

“Having Vermont Health Connect work as it was designed to is the best possible outcome for Vermont. There’s no question that the biggest challenge that we’ve faced since we launched is change-of-circumstance,” Shumlin said at a news conference Monday. “We set a deadline of today … and I’m pleased to announce that this team behind me and some who aren’t here have delivered.”

Shumlin said the upgrade of the site to include change-of-circumstance, the ability for customers to have their personal information changed online, meets the first of two self-imposed deadlines he laid out in March as he faced mounting pressure about the exchange’s performance. The upgrade, which is still being phased in by the administration, will allow customer service representatives to make changes to consumers’ accounts in an automated way.

The process until Monday required staff to make manual changes to accounts and sometimes included more than 20 different people to complete the process, according to Cassandra Gekas, operations manager for the exchange. Now, staff will be able to condense what was up to a two hour total process — and because of backlogs could take months to complete — should take about 10 minutes and be reflected on users’ accounts at the next billing cycle.

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Chief of Health Care Reform Lawrence Miller speaks to reporters Monday while Gov. Peter Shumlin and other state officials look on.

“It means that we now have the capability, the tool, to be able to change your circumstance when things change for your insurance. And the outcome of that, as we get it up and running, will be a much smoother system that has been evading us since we launched,” Shumlin said.

Shumlin promised the change-of-circumstance function would be operational by the end of May. He also promised that an automated renewal process would be in place by Oct. 1. The state’s main contractor, Optum, will now turn its attention to the second milestone, Shumlin said.

The promises in March followed a host of missed deadlines and technological setbacks since the exchange launched. The exchange, created under the federal Affordable Care Act, has never performed as expected and been a source of frustration for customers, the administration and lawmakers.

Shumlin said in March that failing to meet the goals would result in the state transitioning to an exchange run by the federal government, or perhaps a state-federal hybrid model. Shumlin said Monday his administration would continue to work with Optum and the two insurance carriers — Blue Cross Blue Shield of Vermont and MVP Health Care — that offer plans on the exchange to improve the site.

“There is no better solution for Vermont than to have our website work. Full stop. If there were the ability to partner with other states or state to solve our problems, we would have done that already,” the governor said. “We have been … incredibly frustrated by getting to this point and the point we need to be at for enrollment Oct. 1. But the best outcome for Vermont is to have their own website work and that’s what I will continue to try to achieve.”

The change-of-circumstance function is only being partially unveiled, however. For now, customers will need to continue to call customer service staff or fill out an online form to request a change to their personal information. The ability for customers to make their own changes online will not be allowed until October, officials said.

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Lawmakers strike tax deal without gov’s approval

MONTPELIER — House and Senate negotiators were nearing a deal on a $30 million revenue package early Saturday morning that will help balance the 2016 fiscal year budget and close a projected $113 million gap — but includes provisions Gov. Peter Shumlin has said he does not support.

The bulk of the new revenue comes from changes to the income tax code. Both the House and Senate have agreed with the governor to raise $15 million by eliminating taxpayers’ ability to deduct their prior year local and state taxes on their state returns.

Senate Finance Committee Chairman Tim Ashe, D/P-Chittenden, briefs reporters late Friday night on a tax plan. (Photo by Erin Sigrist)

Senate Finance Committee Chairman Tim Ashe, D/P-Chittenden, briefs reporters late Friday night on a tax plan. (Photo by Erin Sigrist)

But the House and Senate are also looking to raise about $10.5 million by making changes to how much taxpayers can deduct. Under the plan lawmakers were nearing agreement on, income tax deductions would be capped at two times the standard deduction — about $25,000 for a couple. The plan exempts charitable donations and deductions for catastrophic health care costs, however.

In total, lawmakers are looking to raise $26 million in new income taxes with the changes.

Shumlin has spent much of the week restating his opposition to lawmakers’ plans to limit deductions. He made that case again to the Vermont Press Bureau in an interview Friday morning.

“The reason states don’t tend to cap these deductions … is because they all provide an important role in ensuring you have a strong economy and a strong state and an economy that works for every single member of that state,” Shumlin told the Vermont Press Bureau in an interview. “Among the tax choices that are going to be made, let’s not make illogical choices.”

Senate President Pro Tem John Campbell, D-Windsor, has said Shumlin has threatened to veto the revenue bill because of his opposition to deduction limits.

But that didn’t stop lawmakers from forging ahead.

Senate Finance Committee Chairman Tim Ashe, D/P-Chittenden, said he worked with the House to complete a revenue plan both chambers could agree on.

“The governor’s made no hesitation to say that he would prefer that the only income tax that’s raised be the $15 million that he raised,” Ashe said. “We arrived at what we thought was a fair way to raise the money and that we could reach agreement with the House.”

House Ways and Means Committee Chairwoman Janet Ancel, D-Calais, echoed Ashe’s comments, saying the revenue plan is one that both sides have agreed to.

“We’re trying to get a revenue bill and trying to get out of here,” Ancel said.

House Speaker Shap Smith, D-Morrisville, acknowledged the tax deal was arrived at without the governor’s approval.

“That is true, yes,” the speaker said.

But the plan addresses many of the concerns Shumlin has raised, according to Smith.

“We’ve responded to a number of the concerns that the governor expressed, particularly around the health care and the charitable deduction. We tried to address that. So, my hope is that in addressing those things we can move closer together. I’m eternally optimistic, but perhaps it is unwarranted in this instance,” he said.

The deduction cap included in the deal is fair, Smith said.

“You’re going to get a $25,000 cap on your itemized deductions. That’s a significant amount of allowable deductions, including, on top of that, charitable deductions and for medical. It seems to me pretty reasonable,” he said.

Lawmakers planned to complete the deal early Saturday morning and return later in the day to have both chambers vote on it. Smith declined to comment on how lawmakers would address a potential veto by Shumlin.

“We’ll take it one step at a time,” Smith said.

Scott Coriell, spokesman for Shumlin, left the State House around 11:30 p.m. Friday and said the administration was reviewing the proposal and would have no comment until later on Saturday.

House Appropriations Committee Chairwoman Mitzi Johnson, D-South Hero, left, and Senate Appropriations Committee Chairwoman Jane Kitchel, D-Caledonia, speak during budget negotiations Friday.

House Appropriations Committee Chairwoman Mitzi Johnson, D-South Hero, left, and Senate Appropriations Committee Chairwoman Jane Kitchel, D-Caledonia, speak during budget negotiations Friday.

The revenue plan also includes extending the state’s 6 percent sales tax to soft drinks, which will raise $5.1 million, extending the 9 percent rooms and meals tax to vending machine purchases, and includes a 3 percent minimum tax on taxpayers earning at least $150,000.

“That’s more of a floor payment on people with larger incomes,” he said.

The House and Senate had also agreed in principal to the budget and were expected to sign off on it early Saturday morning.

House GOP will support veto of tax bill

MONTPELIER — House Republicans voted in caucus Thursday afternoon to help sustain a veto of a revenue bill — if Gov. Peter Shumlin elects to veto the legislation — as House and Senate negotiators look to finalize how they will raise money to support the state budget.

GOP Leader Don Turner, of Milton, asked his caucus to take a position Thursday as negotiators continued to work.

“It’s my feeling that if the governor is going to step up and help us … then I think that’s a good thing,” Turner said.

Shumlin is opposed to how lawmakers have chosen to raise revenue. The House plan caps income tax deductions at 2.5 times the standard deduction. The Senate plan caps mortgage interest deductions and limits charitable contribution deductions to in-state charities.

Shumlin gathered a group of nonprofit leaders on the steps of the State House Wednesday to decry any tinkering with charitable contributions, saying it would cause less giving by Vermonters.

The House GOP caucus voted unanimously to support sustaining a veto after discussing potential pitfalls.

“Is this going to raise his political capital?” asked one member.

“I believe that the governor is doing what our constituents have asked us to do. If that’s the case, why wouldn’t we support it?” Turner countered.

Rep. Kurt Wright of Burlington cautioned the caucus to remember that Shumlin’s original budget proposal raised significantly more in new revenue than the plans passed by both chambers.

“The only thing to keep in mind — the governor didn’t like this tax package, but remember what he started with?” Wright said. “How do you know he doesn’t make a deal with the other side. … He had a larger tax increase on the table to start with.”

In the end, it was an enthusiastic vote in favor of helping Shumlin.

“We all campaigned last year. We all heard the same thing. Everybody in this building heard the same thing. People want their taxes under control. Therefore, if the governor is coming that way I’m more than willing to help him and us do what people asked us to do,” said Rep. Francis “Topper” McFaun, R-Barre Town.

Capitol Beat 5-11-15

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Barre-Montpelier Times Argus Editor Steve Pappas and Vermont Press Bureau chief Neal Goswami discuss the sexual assault case against Sen. Norm McAllister, R-Franklin, the last week of the session and Bernie Sanders.

RFK Jr. and Vermont moms make their cases on vaccines

MONTPELIER — A prominent member of the country’s most storied political family testified against the elimination of the state’s philosophical exemption for vaccines Tuesday, accusing the Centers for Disease Control of corruption as he made his case to lawmakers.

Robert F. Kennedy Jr., the son of the slain former U.S. senator, attorney general and presidential candidate, told members of the House Health Care Committee that he supports vaccination. But he said some vaccines that contain thimerosal, a mercury-containing compound in some vaccines, can cause harm in children.

The CDC, Kennedy said, which determines which vaccines children should receive, has not done a proper job of protecting them and has bowed to pressure from pharmaceutical companies. He said the trillion dollar industry spends twice as much on lobbying as any other industry.

“I’m pro-vaccine. I’ve had all six of my kids vaccinated,” Kennedy told the panel. “I think we ought to have state and federal policies that maximize vaccine coverage of the population but I think we have to begin the process by making sure the vaccines are safe, efficacious and that the regulatory agency which recommends vaccines … and monitors them has integrity and credibility and, unfortunately, that is not the case at the moment.”

Robert F. Kennedy Jr. at the Vermont State House on Tuesday, May 5, 2015.

Robert F. Kennedy Jr. at the Vermont State House on Tuesday, May 5, 2015.

Kennedy, who received a raucous standing ovation from some people after completing his testimony, has been an environmental activist for three decades and has worked on the vaccine issue for the past 10 years. He spent most of his 15 minutes before the committee denouncing the CDC’s oversight of vaccines.

“CDC is a troubled agency. There’s been four separate, scathing federal studies about CDC,” he said. “All of them together and separately paint a picture of an agency that has become a cesspool of corruption.”

Kennedy accused the agency of manipulating studies to show that vaccines are more effective than they are, and that they do not cause harm.

“You could design an epidemiological study that shows that cigarettes don’t cause cancer or sex didn’t cause pregnancy. You just get rid of all the pregnant people or you get rid of all the people who have cancer and then you present your study,” he said. “That’s what CDC has been doing with these nine epidemiological studies that they point to.”

He also faulted Congress for creating a “shield” for pharmaceutical companies in 1989 “that suddenly made vaccines very profitable,” causing an increase in the number of recommended vaccines by the CDC.

“When I was a kid the vaccines were not profitable. They were not profit centers for the company. They were almost a civic duty. But now vaccines can add revenue of a billion dollars a year for some of these companies and there is tremendous pressure to add these vaccines to the schedule,” he said. “Most of the people who sit on those committees are vaccine industry insiders. Many of them, if not most of them, have direct financial stakes in the outcome of their decision to add the vaccine to the schedule.”

Robert F. Kennedy Jr. speaks to reporters at the Vermont State House.

Robert F. Kennedy Jr. speaks to reporters at the Vermont State House.

“What’s very difficult is for the people of our country or the parents of Vermont to believe that those decisions are being made exclusively with the health of their children in mind,” Kennedy added.

Kennedy said the philosophical exemption in Vermont and other states is important because other protections and avenues of recourse no longer exist.

“The Congress has taken away jurisdiction in federal and state courts of any case against the vaccine industry so nobody can sue them. There’s no discovery, no depositions, there’s no class actions, there’s no documents,” he said. “All those things that protect us are gone. The only thing left that protects that child from that company, the only barrier standing, is the parent. And now we want tot make the parent away.”

Kennedy told reporters after his testimony that parents should vaccinate their children with mercury-free vaccines.

In Vermont, six vaccines are required for children to attend school, including ones for polio, Hepatitis B, measles and pertussis, according to Christine Finley, the Vermont Department of Health’s Immunization Program chief.

Currently, all 50 states allow medical exemptions. All but two states allow religious exemptions and 19 states have philosophical exemptions. Only Mississippi and West Virginia have neither religious nor philosophical exemptions.

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Vaccine debate heats up with a star witness

MONTPELIER — Action in the House on a bill that seeks to remove the state’s philosophical exemption for vaccines will be delayed until next week while a House Committee takes testimony on the issue.

Dylan Giambatista, chief of staff for Democratic House Speaker Shap Smith, said the House Health Care Committee will take testimony on Tuesday and Wednesday, and possibly Thursday. Currently, the committee is scheduled to hear from state health officials, medical professionals and advocates on both sides of the vaccine issue.

One of those advocates will be Robert F. Kennedy Jr., the son of former presidential candidate, U.S. attorney general and New York. Sen. Bobby Kennedy. Kennedy, who has testified around the country against forced vaccination, is scheduled to meet with Gov. Peter Shumlin Tuesday before providing testimony to the Health Care Committee, according to Kevin Ellis, a Montpelier-based lobbyist working to retain the state’s philosophical exemption.

Robert F. Kennedy Jr.

Robert F. Kennedy Jr.

Kennedy’s views and comments about vaccinations have been somewhat controversial. Last month he compared vaccination to a holocaust. And he has linked vaccinations with autism. The Journal of the American Medical Society has stated there is “no harmful association” between the measles, mumps and rubella vaccine and autism.

Shumlin spokesman Scott Coriell said Monday that Shumlin was asked to meet with Kennedy Tuesday and was told the governor “would probably have time in the afternoon to meet for a few minutes.” That meeting will not be open to the public, according to Coriell, and will not impact Shumlin’s views.

“The only voices that matter to the governor on this debate and any other are those of Vermonters,” he wrote in an email.

Ellis said he does not expect Kennedy’s recent comment to detract from his testimony.

“He’s been right on everything that matters,” Ellis said. “I think he apologized. We all make mistakes in the passion of the moment. He’s an important voice in the debate and it’s a debate that we need to have.”

Advocates in favor of removing the state’s philosophical exemption are also slated to be at the State House Tuesday. A group of Vermont mothers and grandmothers are holding a news conference Tuesday afternoon.

Passionate debate over the issue of vaccine exemptions was reignited earlier this year when Sen. Kevin Mullin, R-Rutland, introduced a bill to remove the right of parents to decline vaccinations for their children for philosophical reasons. It would also prevent students who are not vaccinated from attending school. A medical exemption and a religious exemption would remain.

That bill did not move, but Mullin and others were able to attach legislative language to another bill dealing with a disease registry. The bill, which included removing the philosophical exemption, passed the Senate on an 18 to 11 vote.

Sen. Kevin Mullin

Sen. Kevin Mullin

The bill as amended by the Senate has since languished in the House for nearly two weeks. The House postponed action on it until May 6, but that will now be pushed back further, Giambatista said, to what is expected to be the final week of this legislative session.

“I don’t think it’s going to be this week. It would be next week at the earliest, so it’s going to be down to the wire on the clock,” he said. “We’re trying to do our due diligence and have our opportunity for discussion.”

The Senate passed a similar repeal of the philosophical exemption in 2012, only to see it squashed by the House. Smith, whose wife is a physician, supports repealing the exemption, but it remains unclear if there is enough support in the House to advance it.

“He shares that with both sides on the issue. He is very clear on this issue,” Giambatista said. “The conversation is going to be ongoing.”

The speaker has met with both proponents and opponents of removing the exemption. Both sides will have a chance to testify before the House Health Care Committee this week.

“In terms of support levels, I don’t know. It’s a difficult issue to call because both sides are well-organized,” Giambatista.

Shumlin has been a supporter of keeping the exemption in place, but has indicated a willingness in recent weeks to entertain the debate. Coriell said Monday that Shumlin wants to give the law he signed in 2012 time to work.

That law requires parents or guardians to sign a form from the Heath Department acknowledging they have “reviewed and understands evidence-based educational material provided by the department of health regarding immunizations, including information about the risks of adverse reactions to immunization.”

The law also allows students to remain in school without required vaccines for up to six months if they are in the process of receiving them.

“The governor supports the law he signed two years ago and thinks we should give it a chance to work. If the Legislature wants to debate this issue further, he is open to that debate,” Coriell said.

neal.goswami@timesargus.com

House votes to maintain safeguards, fends off repeal of Act 39

MONTPELIER — The Vermont House on Wednesday voted to maintain safeguards in place under the state’s aid-in-dying law after defeating an effort to repeal it entirely.

On a 83 to 60 vote, the chamber defeated an amendment by independent Barre Rep. Paul Poirier to repeal Act 39, which was signed into law in 2013. The law allows terminally ill patients to receive a prescription for lethal medication.

Any patient seeking to take advantage of the law must live in Vermont and have a prognosis of less than six months to live. A doctor must also find that the patient has the capacity to make the decision to obtain the medication voluntarily.

Some provisions, however, are set to expire in July 2016 if the law is not amended. Among those are that a second doctor must concur on the prognosis, and a doctor must tell the patient in person and in writing about the nature of the diagnosis and effects of the lethal medication.

Also set to expire is a requirement that the patient must make two oral requests for the lethal drug at least 15 days apart followed by a written request with two witnesses attesting that it was made voluntarily.

Those protections built into the law are scheduled to expire because two former senators had made that a condition of their support for the law.

The House voted by voice Wednesday, after defeating Poirier’s amendment, to repeal the sunset and maintain the safeguards. The Senate approved the measure last month after fending off similar efforts to repeal the underlying law.

Poirier said Wednesday his objection to the law is philosophical.

“I don’t believe that the state of Vermont, as a government, has the right to take away the life of another human being,” he said on the floor in support of his amendment. “State sponsored end of life measures could lead us to a very, very slippery slope. Where does it end?”

Poirier said the state’s palliative care options have improved. He said all 14 hospitals in the state, as well as the Vermont Veterans Home and most nursing homes, have approved policies disallowing the aid-in-dying option for patients in their care.

“We live in a society where we respect life. We respect life even for those who are suffering,” Poirier said.

Rep. Anne Donahue, R-Northfield, was more forceful in her attacks on what she labeled an “incredibly badly written law.”

She said most of the protections originally considered by the Legislature in 2013 were whittled away to secure the support of enough lawmakers to pass it. Among the things tossed aside, she said, were most data gathering and reporting requirements.

“How, today, can we say it’s working as intended?” Donahue said. “We don’t have the information.”

Rep. Sandy Haas, P-Rochester, said the House Human Services Committee amended the Senate version of the bill to require more data gathering and reporting. Under the changes, which the House approved Wednesday, the Department of Health will be able to identify which patients fill prescriptions under the law. And beginning in 2018, it will have to generate a biennial statistical report of information collected.

“We believe that this will increase public confidence that the law is being properly followed,” Haas said.

Donahue further charged that doctors were being shamed into participating in the voluntary program and patients are being bullied into requesting the medication. She also said the law lacks an informed consent provision.

“It is a myth that doctors and other providers do not have to participate in any way if they don’t want to and it is a myth that patients are not being pressured to consider using a prescription,” she said.

Haas, meanwhile, said state law already requires informed consent for all health care decisions so it was not necessary to include it in Act 39. And no complaints have been filed with the attorney general’s office or the Department of Health, she said.

The legislation is up for final approval in the House on Thursday. Additional amendments are expected.

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

Dem leaders look to kill ban on teacher strikes

MONTPELIER — Democratic leaders are maneuvering to amend a bill slated to hit the House floor Wednesday by replacing language that calls for a ban on teacher strikes and the imposition of labor contracts by school boards with a study.

That would significantly weaken the legislation, H.76, that has been pushed heavily by Republican Rep. Kurt Wright of Burlington. Although he has secured a vote on the bill from Democratic leaders, they are now looking to kill off key parts.

In addition to the ban on strikes and contract impositions, it would institute a 1-cent tax rate increase on districts that cannot reach a contract agreement within one year.

Rep. Tim Jerman

Rep. Tim Jerman

House Deputy Assistant Majority Leader Tim Jerman, D- Essex, said Democrats are considering an amendment to be offered on the House floor that would institute a study on whether teacher strikes should be banned.

“We anticipate having an amendment tomorrow that will change that somewhat substantially and be a study looking at the whole issue,” he said. “As of right now that’s what’s on the table.”

Jerman said he believes the Democratic leadership team will secure enough votes to pass an amended bill that will provide “an unfettered study that isn’t biased one way or the other.”

“I think so,” Jerman said. “It’s been a difficult count because the bill keeps changing.”

The bill is getting a floor vote because of commitments made by the leadership team in order to move a larger education bill through the chamber. Wright and others are now working to secure enough votes to maintain the strike ban.

Wright, who plans to hold a news conference about the bill Tuesday morning, said he expects some independents and about 12 to 15 Democrats will join the Republican caucus. It’s unclear whether that coalition can fend off the Democratic leadership’s efforts, though.

“I think that it’s time for us to act. This bill has been around for a long time,” Wright said. “We either want to ban strikes and the imposition of contracts or not.”

Rep. Kurt Wright

Rep. Kurt Wright

House Minority Leader Don Turner said House Republicans will stand together in support of the ban.

“We feel that it’s time to implement the ban on strikes. I think there’s been enough harm over the years, the most recent in South Burlington. It’s time to stop that. Police officers, fire fighters, they’re essential. They can’t strike. I think it’s time in Vermont to put teachers under that same category,” he said.

But he, too, said it is unclear how the House will vote on Wednesday.

“I am very hopeful. I am confident in our caucus and where we’re going to be. The problem is I don’t know what the (Democrats) will be offering up to their members to not vote for it. All we can do is stick together to support this.”

The bill cleared the House Education Committee on a 8 to 3 vote. However, the General, Housing and Military Affairs Committee, which oversees labor issues, rejected the bill on a 5 to 3 vote.

The bill puts the Vermont NEA, which opposes the bill, at odds with the Vermont School Boards Association, which supports it. Gov. Peter Shumlin angered the union last fall when he declared during an ongoing teacher strike in South Burlington that such strikes should be banned.

neal.goswami@timesargus.com

Lawmakers to discuss guns, education and health care

MONTPELIER — Lawmakers this week will tackle issues related to health care, economic development, gun control, education and advanced directives for the terminally ill.

Tuesday, the Senate is expected to give final approval to a bill that would expand the circle of people who are authorized to make end-of-life decisions for a patient who lacks the capacity to do so for himself or herself.

Current law allows for family members — spouse, parent, adult child, sibling, or grandchild — members of the clergy to make decisions regarding do-not-resuscitate (DNR) orders or an order to continue life-sustaining treatment.

The proposed bill would allow for the designation of one or more “surrogates” who are capable of acting “in accordance with the patient’s known wishes and values,” the bill states.

Also on Tuesday, the Senate will take up an economic development bill that would lower the wage threshold for employers to qualify for the Vermont Economic Growth Initiative, a state program that provides financial incentives for employers in a number of fields — including manufacturing and technology — who offer their employees a “livable wage.”

The bill before the Senate would lower that wage amount from $14.64 an hour to $13 an hour. Critics of the bill say the reduction in the salary threshold could end up costing the state money as more workers qualify for public assistance.

Still on the Senate side, this week, the Senate Education Committee will discuss a school-district merger bill approved last week by the House. The bill calls for school districts to study and come up with proposals on how they will merge into districts with at least 1,100 students.

In a nod to the narrative coming out of the November elections that voters are fed up with rising property taxes, the bill includes a provision to cap education spending if it exceeds this year’s rate of growth of 2.95 percent.

Over on the House side, the Judiciary Committee will discuss and take testimony on a gun-control bill approved by the Senate in March. The bill would require the state to report individuals who have been adjudicated by a court as a danger to himself or others to the National Instant Criminal Background Check Registry.

The committee will take testimony from advocates of the bill — such as Ann Braden, co-founder of Gun Sense Vermont — and opponents, including Ed Cutler, president of Gun Owners of Vermont, who will likely rehash the arguments heard throughout the session in the Senate Judiciary Committee and during a public hearing in February.

Barring any surprises in the House Judiciary Committee, the real debate will likely occur when and if the bill comes up for a vote in the House.

On the health care front, the House Appropriations Committee will discuss a bill approved by a narrow margin last week by House Ways and Means that would raise taxes on cigarettes by 25 cents a pack and would impose an excise tax of 0.5 cents an ounce on sweetened beverages, which is projected to raise approximately $18 million.

The money is intended to leverage federal dollars to raise reimbursement rates for Medicare and Medicaid, but is less than the $52 million in revenue proposed by the House Health Care Committee.

The Appropriations Committee is expected to take recommendations from the Health Care Committee as to how the money should be used.

Capitol Beat with the Governor 4-3-15

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Gov. Peter Shumlin chats with Vermont Press Bureau chief Neal Goswami about the House’s health care bill. He’s not a fan.

House gives final approval to school district consolidation bill

MONTPELIER — A bill that proposes to merge school districts and potentially cap education spending is on its way to the Senate.

House lawmakers approved a bill Thursday that would create larger school districts — voluntarily or involuntarily — and cap future education spending if it increase more than it did when voters approved their school budgets in March.

The spending cap component of the bill — created through an amendment from Rep. Sarah Buxton, D-Tunbridge, and approved by House lawmakers Wednesday — would trigger a 2-percent spending cap in 2017 and 2018 if the statewide average education spending increase in 2016 exceeds 2.95 percent, the average rate of growth for budgets approved by voters last month.

As they did Wednesday, lawmakers offered a host of amendments to the bill. Rep. Christopher Pearson, P-Burlington, made a motion to reconsider the Buxton amendment.

“Yesterday, we discussed what kind of cap we should have. Today, I want to discuss if we should have a cap,” Pearson said.

Rep. Ann Donahue, R-Northfield, said she supported repealing the spending cap provision because she did not believe its structure would curb education spending.

However, House lawmakers declined to take up the discussion, defeating Pearson’s motion by a vote of 114 to 22.

Rep Curtis McCormack, D-Burlington, made a motion to amend the bill to address the repayment of money to the state following the sale of a school.

Currently, when a school district sells a school for which they received construction aid from the state, the district must reimburse the state for 30 percent of the sale price.

The district merger bill calls for a suspension of that rule, allowing the school district to keep all of the money following the sale of a school. McCormack, whose amendment called for the preservation of the current law regarding repayment to the state, argued that such a provision could motivate districts to close and sell off their schools.

“I would suggest that this amendment does not unravel this bill, but rather, restores the integrity of this bill,” McCormack said. “This way, you will not have an incentive to close small schools.”

Rep, David Sharpe, D-Bristol, who chairs the House Education Committee, argued that exempting a school district from having to repay the state for construction aid will benefit the community where the school is located.

“If this small piece allows a school to become an economic driver … then we shouldn’t take away that piece,” Sharpe said.

Lawmakers defeated McCormack’s amendment.

The most radical amendment of the day came from Rep. Heidi Scheuermann, R-Stowe, who called on lawmakers to scrap the entire bill and study the feasibility of her long-offered plan to overhaul education governance.

For the past seven years, Scheuermann has proposed a plan that would create 15 regional tax districts based around the state’s technical centers. Her plan would preserve local school boards, who would create individual school budgets and forward them to a central board, which would create a single budget to be voted on by residents within the district.

Students would have school choice for any school within the tax district, and parents within the district would share a common property tax rate.

“The elimination of local school districts and local school boards, the elimination of local community voice in providing educational services to the students they know best, is not, in my view, the direction we should go,” Scheuermann said.

Sharpe’s committee voted unanimously to not support the amendment.

“This eviscerates the bill that we supported yesterday,” Sharpe said. “It sets us back in our effort to create better education for students at a price Vermonters can afford.”

Sheuermann’s amendment was defeated by a vote of 83 to 37.

The Senate will have the next month to choose to take up the bill, longer than they had last year when a school district merger bill was approved by the House in mid-April.

Beverage tax advances to support health care spending

MONTPELIER — The House Ways and Means Committee on Thursday advanced a sweetened beverage tax and a hike in the state’s cigarette tax to cover the cost of proposed health care initiatives after weeks of wrangling.

Thursday’s vote came after a number of potential revenue sources were laboriously explored. Committee Chairwoman Janet Ancel, D-Calais, and Democratic House leaders considered myriad options before piecing together a plan that raises about $18 million and could also garner enough votes.

In the end, the committee found just enough votes to pass the bill out on a 6 to 5 vote.

Rep. Janet Ancel

Rep. Janet Ancel

“I would like to have a stronger vote coming out of the committee than we’re going to have, but I really appreciate the work that people have done to get to where we are,” Ancel said before the vote.

The committee-passed revenue plan includes a half-penny excise tax on sweetened beverages, including diet drinks and any beverage with artificial sweeteners. It also includes a 25-cent increase in the cigarette tax with a proportional increase in the tax on other related products like chewing tobacco. In addition, the plan eliminates the current sales tax exemption on dietary supplements.

Competing revenue plans sought to eliminate sales tax exemptions on soda, candy, bottled water and other products, but never found enough support on the committee, which features centrist Democrat Jim Condon of Colchester and independent Adam Greshin of Warren.

“Anytime you have an array of taxes and you’re looking at sales tax exemptions, which is kind of the alternative funding sources that we looked at, you have issues because of folks who live on the New Hampshire border,” Ancel said. “I think the retailers have been successful lobbyists against any sales tax on candy and soda for years. It was a whole variety of things. I think if you talk to any member of the committee they would have their own reasons for having trouble getting to yes.”

Democrats waited patiently for days for all committee members to be present. With Rep. Johanna Donovan, D-Burlington, back at the State House Thursday after several days away, Democrats finally had enough votes in place to advance the revenue package.

The bill that arrived from the House Health Care Committee was a non-starter for many members of Ways and Means. That plan sought to spend about $52 million on health care and used a 0.3 percent payroll tax and a 2-cent per ounce excise tax on sugar-sweetened beverages.

Through its weeks-long deliberations, Ways and Means killed off the payroll tax — first proposed by Democratic Gov. Peter Shumlin in January at 0.7 percent — and lowered the beverage tax significantly. Ways and Means also extended the beverage tax to diet drinks and anything that is sweetened with either natural or artificial sweeteners. Maple syrup, the state’s hallmark product, is exempt.

For Reps. Sam Young, D-Glover, and Jim Masland, D-Thetford, the two-cent tax was just too high. But eliminating it altogether was not an option for Rep. George Till, D-Jericho, a medical doctor, who sought an increase in the cigarette tax.

The final Ways and Means revenue plan nearly hit another roadblock Thursday when Young made a motion to reduce to the increase in the cigarette tax. Young agreed to withdraw the amendment after Till threatened to drop his support for the entire measure.

Opponents of the excise tax vowed to continue fighting against. Jim Harrison, president of the Vermont Retailers and Grocers Association, said the Ways and Means plan “is totally going in the wrong direction.”

“The excise tax is absolutely a nonstarter for us. This is a very regressive tax on food products that’s going to do nothing except hurt Vermonters in their pocketbook and send more retail business out of state because products in Vermont will be more expensive,” Harrison said.

And Andrew MacLean, a lobbyist for the beverage industry, said the original “health care aspects of the bill have dissipated” as lawmakers have moved beyond just sugar-sweetened beverages. It is now “strictly a revenue generator,” he said.

Andrew MacLean

Andrew MacLean

“I think the problem with the excise tax is it puts a stigma on a particular business and a particular product and its something that can be raised over time,” MacLean said.

The bill passed Thursday by Ways and Means discarded the House Health Care Committee’s previous policies and spending. The Health Care Committee’s revised plan that takes into account the available revenue will be finalized by the House Appropriations Committee.

That plan, outlined this week will provide about $3.3 million in state funding during the 2016 fiscal year to boost Medicaid reimbursement rates for primary care providers. That would draw down $3.7 million in federal funds.

The health care proposal would also provide $2.45 million for a Medicaid rate increase for professional services, drawing down $2.77 million. No additional state funds will be applied to hospital outpatient rate increases.

The House Health Care Committee’s plan provides just a fraction of the Medicaid rate increases that Shumlin proposed in his January budget address.

neal.goswami@timesargus.com

House gives preliminary approval to school district merger bill

MONTPELIER — House lawmakers have given preliminary approval to a bill that would merge the state’s school districts and potentially cap education spending.

By a vote that was not divided by party lines so much by the size of the towns and cities they represent, House members Wednesday approved a bill that would overhaul school governance in the state by a vote of 88 to 55.

“This bill will provide for valuable improvements to education for our students and do it within a cost structure affordable to Vermont residents,” said Rep. David Sharpe, D- Bristol, who chairs the House Education Committee.

The bill, which has been in the works since January and which follows a district merger bill that received House approval last session before dying in the Senate, calls for the merger of the state’s nearly 300 school districts into districts that provide Pre-K-12 education with at least 1,100 students by the year 2019.

The bill would compel districts to conduct studies on the feasibility of merging with their neighbors — or any other district — and present merger plans to voters for approval by 2017. Following voter approval, the merger plan would be presented to the State Board of Education for final approval.

Districts that do not act by 2017 would have their merger plans made for them by the Agency of Education.

Rep. Cynthia Browning, D-Arlington, offered an amendment to the bill that would have removed the mandatory district consolidation component of the bill.

“I don’t think school districts that are performing satisfactorily in the eyes of a community should be forced to reorganize,” Browning said, expressing opposition to the idea that merger plans would be subject to the approval of the unelected members of the State Board of Education.

“How would Vermont feel if Congress in DC said to Rhode Island and Vermont, ‘You know, your states are small. You need to merge’?” Browning said.

Sharpe noted that Act 153 of 2010 provides financial incentives for districts to merge voluntarily, and in the intervening five years, very few districts have actually merged.

“The voluntary process might work in 100 years, but we don’t have 100 years,” Sharpe said.

Browning’s amendment was defeated by a vote of 80 to 62.

House lawmakers did approve an amendment offered by Rep. Patricia Komline, R-Dorset, to require any future bills dealing with education that cost money to be paid for with a transfer from the General Fund to the Education Fund.

The amendment, which received broad support by a vote of 129 to 19, would not apply to expenses incurred from mandates within the bill itself.

Lawmakers also approved an amendment from Rep. Sarah Buxton, D-Tunbridge, that would implement a school district spending cap if districts do not curb their spending increases voluntarily.

Under the Buxton amendment, if the average increase of school budgets in the state exceeds 2.95 percent in 2016 — the average rate of growth for school budgets approved at town meeting in March — then districts would face a spending cap of 2 percent the following year.

As she did for most of the day, Browning expressed opposition to the idea of a spending cap, saying that requiring school boards to cap their budgets while lawmakers do not cap their own spending smacks of hypocrisy.

“This is, ‘Do as we say, not as we do,’” Browning said.

The bill is expected come before the House for final approval Thursday. But, even if approved, the bill will be sent to the Senate Rules Committee, where last year’s school district merger bill languished until the end of the session.

New report finds savings in school district consolidation

BARRE — On the eve of a legislative debate on a bill to consolidate the state’s school districts, the Agency of Education released a joint report showing small school districts spend more to educate students than their larger counterparts, and offer fewer educational opportunities.

Tuesday, the Agency of Education and Rutgers University released a report titled “When is Small Too Small? Efficiency, Equity & the Organization of Vermont Public Schools,” which is intended, in part, to refute previous study claiming school district consolidation would not save money or improve students’ education experiences.

In January, Daniella Hall and Ian Burfoot-Rochford, researchers at Penn State University, released a study asserting district consolidation in Vermont would not save money, and argued for the preservation of small schools and the state aid that allows them to be financially viable.

However, the new report — from Wendy Geller, data administration director for the Agency of Education, and Bruce Baker, a professor at Rutgers Graduate School of Education — asserts that Hall and Burfoot-Rochford’s study presents a “selective, inaccurate, and imbalanced characterization” of their source materials by “conflating” studies on school consolidation with studies on school district consolidation.

“What this report does is document the fact Vermont’s numbers are so much smaller than most people’s that it’s not the same conversation and so the previously cited information from Penn State was not really pertinent to Vermont’s situation,” said Stephen Dale, executive director of the Vermont School Boards Association.

Hall and Burfoot-Rochford did not return a call seeking comment Tuesday.
The new report cites a 2007 study of school district consolidation in rural upstate New York from authors William Duncombe and John Yinger — who Geller called “seminal thinkers in the field” — that looked at 12 school district mergers from 1985 to 1997.

The study concluded that a school district that doubled in size, from 300 students to 600 students, saw an average decrease in its per-pupil spending of 61.7 percent.

The study notes that many district mergers necessitated the school construction. However, even when taking into account capital construction costs, a district that doubled in size from 300 students to 600 students still saw its per-pupil costs decrease by an average of 31.5 percent.

The study also looked at course work and non-academic activities and determined that high schools with fewer than 400 students offered students substantially less than larger high schools.

The AOE-Rutgers report also looked at data in Vermont, finding that at the elementary level, on average, smaller school districts spend $1,000 more per pupil than larger districts.

“What we are hearing increasingly is that our smaller schools, or the smallest schools, are challenged with regard to breadth of opportunity for students, impressions of sustainability in their own communities and the fact that they’re making investments, in some cases, at fairly substantial rates, just to hang on to what they have and not to expand in any manner,” said Jeff Francis, executive director of the Vermont Superintendents Association.

The report comes as House lawmakers prepare to debate the merits of a bill that would consolidate the state’s school districts into units with at least 1,100 students that offer pre-K-12 education.

Lawmakers are expected to take up the bill today.

Read the report: