Category Archives: State House

House passes minimum wage bill, on way to gov’s desk

MONTPELIER — The Senate version of a minimum wage bill was passed by the House Friday night and will become law after it emerged as the only feasible option for boosting the incomes of the state’s lowest-paid workers.

Republicans agreed to suspend House rules Friday evening, allowing the bill to be taken up a day ahead of schedule. The plan — approved by the Senate on Monday — was passed by the House on a 132-3 vote and is now on its way to the governor’s desk after a bumpy few days.

The legislation will raise the minimum hourly rate to $10.50 in 2018. In the interim, the minimum wage will go from its current $8.73 per hour to $9.15 on Jan. 1. The wage would then go to $9.60, $10 and $10.50, respectively, over the next three years. Annual cost-of-living increases based on the consumer price index will occur each year thereafter.

The Senate version was reluctantly adopted by some Democrats and Progressives after all other options to raise the wage sooner were exhausted.

“We know we can do better. The House voted for what we thought was a better bill, but after a long process, this is the bill that we have. But, it accomplishes what we need to do,” Rep. Tom Stevens, D-Waterbury, said on the House floor Friday night, acknowledging the disappointment with the bill by some members.

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Scenes from the race to end the session

Technicality stalls minimum wage debate

MONTPELIER — A misprint in the House calendar discovered late Thursday night doomed consideration of a minimum wage bill until Saturday, just as Democratic leaders ramped up efforts to corral an unruly caucus.

House Minority Leader Don Turner, R-Milton, made a point of order around 10:30 p.m., hours after debate had begun. But House Speaker Shap Smith said minority Republicans were correct, and ruled that action must be postponed and placed back on the calendar, making Saturday the next day the bill will see action.

Democratic leaders were looking to pass a scaled back minimum wage bill from the more ambitious plan they previously passed. The new plan, hashed out following a day-long back-and-forth between the House, Senate and governor’s office, is much closer to one favored by Gov. Peter Shumlin. Continue reading

GMO labeling bill signed into law

Jeb Wallace-Brodeur / Staff Photo  A large crowd of legislators and supporters cheers after Gov. Peter Shumlin signed a bill into law on Thursday outside the State House that requires the labelling of GMO ingredients in food. It is the first law of its kind in the nation to pass without so-called trigger clauses.

Jeb Wallace-Brodeur / Staff Photo
A large crowd of legislators and supporters cheers after Gov. Peter Shumlin signed a bill into law on Thursday outside the State House that requires the labelling of GMO ingredients in food. It is the first law of its kind in the nation to pass without so-called trigger clauses.

By JOSH O’GORMAN
MONTPELIER – Before a cheering crowd of hundreds, Gov. Peter Shumlin signed a first-in-the-nation food labeling bill into law, even as food producers continue to voice their opposition.
The front lawn of the Statehouse was filled with families and consumer advocates as Shumlin signed a law that will require the packaging of some foods to indicate if they contain genetically modified organisms, or GMOs.
“We will sign the first bill in America, joining 60 other countries, where Vermonters will have the right to know what’s in their food,” said Shumlin, who compared the law to Vermont begin the first state to abolish slavery and allow civil unions. Continue reading

Walz tapped for House seat

MONTPELIER – Tommy Walz, a former educator from Barre City, has been tapped by Gov. Peter Shumlin to replace former Rep. Tess Taylor.

Walz was picked from a list of three candidates submitted to Gov. Shumlin by the Barre City Democratic Committee.

“I am pleased to appoint Tommy Walz to fill this opening,” Shumlin said in a statement. “His long-term commitment and service to the Barre community will make him an excellent voice for his constituents in the Vermont House of Representatives.”

Walz first moved to Barre in 1967 to teach English and German at Spaulding High School. He and his wife Leslie moved several times, including a stint living and working in Germany. Walz came returned to Vermont in 1979 where he again taught English at Spaulding High School before working in computer sales and data consulting.

“I am proud to be joining the Barre contingent in the Vermont House of Representatives,” Walz said in a statement. “Barre has given us much and Leslie and I have had the chance to return some small measure through volunteering and serving on local school boards. Representing the people of Barre City in the Vermont House provides yet one more way for me to serve my community.”

Walz currently serves on the Barre Supervisory Union Board and the Spaulding High School Board.

Taylor resigned from her seat in the House last month to serve as the executive director of Vermont’s Coalition for Universal Reform. The newly formed group is planning a push for Shumlin’s universal, publicly-financed health care plan.

Shumlin’s office said Walz will be sworn in “promptly.”

Small biz direct enrollment to last through 2015 open enrollment

MONTPELIER — The Shumlin administration told lawmakers Tuesday that small businesses will have the option to continue directly enrolling in health care insurance plans during the next open enrollment period slated for this fall.

Director of Health Care Reform Robin Lunge delivered the update to the Senate Finance Committee early Tuesday afternoon. Mark Larson, commissioner of the Department of Vermont Health Access, delivered the same message later to the House Health Care Committee.

“The good news that I have is that the feds have approved the ability for us to continue with direct enrollment moving forward through the 2015 open enrollment period for 2016 plans and our intention is to allow this as an additional option,” Lunge said.

Direct enrollment with the state’s two insurance carriers was a contingency plan offered by Gov. Peter Shumlin when the state’s federally mandated online insurance marketplace, Vermont Health Connect, failed to function properly at launch last October. Small businesses were able to bypass the exchange and deal directly with insurers.

Employees of small businesses with 50 or fewer employees are required by state statute to obtain health insurance through Vermont Health Connect. But the website still does not allow for online enrollment. Administration officials say they expect it to be working when the 2015 open enrollment period begins in October.

Larson said the direct enrollment option is in no way an indication that the exchange website will still not be fully functional by October. Rather, it provides Vermonters with additional ways to enroll in qualified health insurance plans, he said.

However, direct enrollment with insurance carriers provides a limited choice of insurance plans. Individual using the website can choose from 18 plans between the two carriers. Small business employees can only choose from four plans.

Larson said the Centers for Medicaid and Medicare, which has approved the state’s request to continue direct enrollment, “is mindful of employee choice.” Larson said conversations with insurers are taking place to try and expand options.

“They are very interested in making sure that employees have the greatest ability to have choice in their plans as possible. That will be one of the conversations that we have, is how to do direct enrollment so employees continue to have access to as many plans as possible through their employer.”

House Health Care Committee Chairman Rep. Michael Fisher, following Larson’s appearance, said he is happy the direct enrollment option will be preserved for the next enrollment period.

“I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard that this piece of IT structure or that piece will be ready in time, and so I don’t have any confidence that anything is going to work until I see it working,” he said. “I think Vermonters are comfortable going through the carriers directly and I’m pleased that the administration moved to a place that is supporting that. So, I think that’s a good thing.”

neal.goswami@timesargus.com

GOP leaders seek federal investigation into exchange

MONTPELIER — Republican leaders in the Legislature are seeking a federal investigation into Vermont Health Connect based on an anonymous tip that a state contractor duped state officials last year.

House Minority Leader Don Turner of Milton and Senate Minority Leader Joe Benning of Caledonia County sent a letter Wednesday to Tristram Coffin, the U.S. Attorney for the District of Vermont, requesting the investigation. The request is based on “whistleblower allegations alleging a fraudulent software demonstration on July 26, 2013 by CGI Technologies & Solutions.”

Newsweek published an article earlier this month in which an anonymous source said a demonstration by CGI last July designed to show connectivity with the state’s online insurance marketplace with a federal data hub was faked.

The exchange site, for which CGI has an $84 million contract to build, is still not fully functional, the GOP leaders wrote in their letter.

“We believe the unexplained and extensive delay, coupled with evidence suggesting the company in charge of designing the system may have duped Vermont officials into incorrectly thinking that the software system was working and on schedule, constitutes sufficient legal and factual predicate to begin a federal investigation,” they wrote. “If true, such a fraud prevented state officials from performing proper contractual oversight, prevented corrective measures, and helped CGI retain its multi-million dollar contract with the state.”

Mark Larson, commissioner of the Department of Vermont Health Access, has maintained that the July demonstration did feature a live connection with the federal data hub.

Linda F. Odorisio, vice president of communications for CGI, said in an emailed statement Wednesday evening that the demonstration did connect the state site to the federal hub.

“CGI confirms that the demonstration conducted on July 26, 2013 included a live interface to the Federal Data Services Hub, with the real time sending and receiving of data,” she wrote.

Vermont’s state of the state address makes the New York Times

In the nightly news budget they send out the New York Times had the Vermont State of the State address listed as one story in consideration for the front page for today's paper. Instead of A1, Gov. Shumlin's single-minded focus on addiction landed on A12, but still, a nice write up from Katharine Q. Seelye from the State House yesterday:

In Annual Speech, Vermont Governor Shifts Focus to Drug Abuse

MONTPELIER, Vt. – In a sign of how drastic the epidemic of drug addiction here has become, Gov. Peter Shumlin on Wednesday devoted his entire State of the State Message to what he said was a “full-blown heroin crisis” gripping Vermont.

 

Larson testimony was contrary to report filed with federal officials

MONTPELIER — Department of Vermont Health Access Commissioner Mark Larson unequivocally denied any security breaches within Vermont Health Connect to lawmakers earlier this month, information that was contrary to what he apparently knew at the time of his testimony before the House Health Care Committee.

Larson penned a letter of apology over the discrepancy to the committee’s chairman on Sunday, which was made public by the Shumlin administration on Monday.

Larson was peppered with questions by Republican Rep. Mary Morrissey during a Nov. 5 hearing about Vermont Health Connect, the state’s version of the online health insurance marketplaces required under the federal Affordable Care Act. Morrissey was inquiring about security concerns with the website.

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The Bennington Republican said she had heard of security breaches and asked Larson if any users’ personal information had been accessed in an unauthorized way.

Larson responded unequivocally that no security breaches had occurred.

“We have no situations where somebody’s private information has been breached,” he said. “We have looked into and we have found no situation where somebody’s private information has been breached.”

Seemingly unconvinced, Morrissey tried again: “There has been none?” she
asked.

“Yes. We have done the appropriate investigation of each case. We’ve identified … we have investigated each one. We have followed our appropriate privacy and security procedures,” Larson responded.

In his apology letter, Larson acknowledged in his response to those questions his failure to include information about one particular case, first reported on Friday by the Associated Press.

“During the November 5th committee hearing, I was asked about whether any security failures had occurred in Vermont Health Connect. I responded that no situation had occurred where somebody’s private information had been breached. I then attempted to clarify that we had investigated all reports and followed appropriate procedures. I should have instead also included in my response the facts of this single incident, and am sorry that my statements to the committee did not do so,” Larson wrote.

The AP reported Friday that Larson’s department knew of a security breach about three weeks before his testimony to the House Health Care Committee. His office had notified the federal Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services about an incident in which the social security number of one person using Vermont Health Connect was inadvertently supplied to another user on the system.

Gov. Peter Shumlin, who spoke with reporters Monday at an unrelated event, said the breach was the result of two users with similar user names.

“One of them got the other one’s information and alerted us to that fact. It was not an external security breach where people can go in and see other people’s information,” Shumlin said.

The governor said he became aware of Larson’s testimony “in the last couple of days by reading about it in the press.” Despite Larson’s “lapse in judgment,” Shumlin said the commissioner maintains his full support.

“I have absolute confidence in Commissioner Larson. He’s under tremendous pressure. They all are at Vermont Health Connect. He’s doing an extraordinary job there, working long hours, seven days a week. They’ll continue to get that website right and get good results,” Shumlin said.

The governor said he did not at any point consider asking Larson to resign his post.

“It’s as simple as this: We all make mistakes. None of us are immune to making mistakes. Commissioner Larson has acknowledged he made a mistake. He viewed the question, differently than, I think, objectively, many of us would have. I take Mark at his word that he made a mistake. We’re all capable of them. I make them, too. We go forward from here,” Shumlin said.

Read tomorrow’s editions of The Times Argus and Rutland Herald for full coverage of this story by Dave Gram, the Associated Press reporter who broke news of the security breach last Friday.

Klein ready to contemplate partial deregulation of electric utilities

State Rep. Tony Klein

State Rep. Tony Klein

The chairman of the House’s top energy committee says it might be time to bring competition back to Vermont’s electricity market.

Rep. Tony Klein, an East Montpelier Democrat, said Tuesday that he’ll entertain a proposal to partially deregulate the state’s utility market, and allow the state’s largest corporate consumers of electricity to negotiate with power dealers outside their service territory.

The proposal comes as large electricity customers bemoan the cost of power than can account for as much as 20 percent of their operating expenses.

“I want to talk about creating a program, a model program, where some of the larger industries can benefit from a deregulated power market for some of their power needs,” Klein said while attending an annual meeting of the Associated Industries of Vermont. “It would be a big deal, but it’s something to think about, because the world is changing.”

Klein said he’s discussed the idea with the Department of Public Service and the Agency of Commerce.

Under the proposal, still in conceptual form, industrial customers would continue to pay the transmission-infrastructure fees assessed by the public utility in whose service territory they reside. But Klein says customers would be able to broker deals for the power flowing through those lines with whatever entity offered the lowest price.

For more on this story, check out tomorrow’s editions of The Times Argus and Rutland Herald.

Shumlin appoints Hoyt to fill Cheney seat

Gov. Peter Shumlin has appointed Kathy Hoyt of Norwich to the House seat formerly held by Rep. Margaret Cheney, D-Norwich, who was named earlier this week to a post on the state Public Service Board.
Hoyt is no newcomer to state government.
She previously served as commissioner of the state Department of Employment and Training, planning director for the Vermont Agency of Human Services, Gov. Madeleine Kunin’s and Gov. Howard Dean’s chief of staff, and secretary of the Agency of Administration.
According to the governor’s office, Hoyt has most recently been caring for her husband, former Tax Commissioner Norrie Hoyt, who died in early August. Norrie Hoyt held the same House seat for nine years, ending in 1983.
Under Vermont statute, the governor has the option of requesting nominees and choosing among them, or making a direct appointment. On previous vacancies, Shumlin has requested submissions from the parties, a process he is currently using to fill a vacancy in the Randolph House district.
However, the governor’s office said in a press release, given Hoyt’s experience and long connection to Norwich and her district, he chose to make a direct appointment.

Joint committee meeting to review energy projects

MONTPELIER — Suggestions for a new process for how to permit and site wind turbines and other electrical generation projects will be the topic when the House and Senate committees on natural resources and energy hold a joint hearing in Montpelier on Sept. 25.
The hearing is part of a review of how the state’s permit process balances state, local and other interests when it comes to wind, solar and other power projects. That review began with a siting policy commission report stemming from an executive order by Gov. Peter Shumlin last fall.
The joint committees will hear from several parties, including the siting commission’s director and several representatives of state agencies involved in the permit process. The meeting will start at 9:30 a.m. in Room 10 of the Statehouse. Time for public comment is scheduled for 11:15 a.m. For more information go to http://bit.ly/19b0EvY.

State eats $4 million loss on Essex building with sale

MONTPELIER — When it comes to real estate, the state of Vermont has always tended to buy high and sell low.

But the sale earlier this year of a building known as “IBM 617” closed the final chapter in one of the costliest misfires in the history of government land purchases in Vermont. And top policymakers, including some of the elected officials responsible for authorizing the purchase, say the nearly $4 million loss suffered by the state offers some instructive lessons on how not to conduct business in the future.

“Unforeseen circumstances, differing visions, and the marketplace all played a role in how it turned out, and it obviously is something that we all regret in some ways,” said Lt. Gov. Phil Scott, who served as chairman of the Senate Committee on Institutions when Vermont purchased the building in 2005. “I think about it often — what should we have done differently? Because we certainly can’t afford to let something like that happen again.”

When Vermont purchased the 180,000-square-foot building from Pizzagalli for $6.2 million in 2005, it was to be the new home of several key government institutions, including health and forensic laboratories, state police barracks and an emergency operations center.

Instead, the structure, which stands on a 50-acre parcel on Allen Martin Drive in Essex, served almost no useful purpose during the eight years Vermont would own it. The state finally sold the building in April for $2.4 million to a developer based in Williston.

The nearly $4 million bath the state took on the deal doesn’t include the approximately $250,000 it spent annually on heat, electricity and basic grounds maintenance to “mothball” the empty facility while it sat empty. All told, the state sank about $6 million into an investment that yielded virtually no return.

“At some point you’ve got to decide to cut your losses,” said Rep. Alice Emmons, chairwoman of the House Committee on Corrections and Institutions, a role she held back in 2005.

For the full story on the Rutland Herald web site >>>

House, Senate poised to withdraw controversial tax plan, pave way for copacetic adjournment

Speaker of the House Shap Smith

Shap Smith

House and Senate Democrats look poised to end their veto showdown with Gov. Peter Shumlin by withdrawing an income-tax overhaul that would have delivered tax cuts to more than 200,000  middle-class Vermonters.

Neither House Speaker Shap Smith nor Senate President John Campbell have made any definitive announcements today about the status of their battle with Shumlin over the tax reform proposal. But in an interview on WDEV’s the Mark Johnson show this morning, Smith seemed to indicate that he didn’t want to escalate the standoff.

“It’s going to be a good proposal if it’s passed this year, or if it’s passed (next year),” Smith said.

Since the impacts of the reform proposal wouldn’t begin taking effect until fiscal year 2015 anyway, Smith said, “our feeling is we can still do it (next) January if we decide not to go forward with it today.”

The tone telegraphed the withdrawal of the proposal – an official announcement will be coming later this afternoon – a concession that would signal the end of a late-session battle that has pitted the Democratic governor against a House and Senate controlled by members of his own party.

Smith and Campbell had sought to cap itemized deductions, and used the resulting revenue to bring down marginal income-tax rates across the board. The changes would have had the effect of increasing taxes on about 15,000 wealthier tax filers, and decreased obligations modestly for about 240,000 people, mostly in low- and middle-class tax brackets.

Janet Ancel

Janet Ancel

Rep. Janet Ancel, chairwoman of the House Committee on Ways and Means, championed the plan as a revenue-neutral way of delivering tax relief to working Vermonters. Shumlin, however, said the proposal violated the no-new-taxes pledge he entered into with lawmakers last week, and made it clear he would veto the bill if it made it to his desk.

Shumlin also criticized the plan for coming so late in the session, and said it hadn’t been sufficiently vetted.

Smith this morning said that if there’s going to be a fight over the proposal, he wants it to be over the merits of the policy, not over whether it came too late in the session, or whether it reneges on any deals.

“We don’t think something that’s pretty good policy should be clouded by technical arguments, and we don’t want to fight about anything other than, is this a good idea?” Smith said.

In the months between now and the second half of the biennium, Smith said, he believes he can help Shumlin learn to appreciate the rightness of the House and Senate’s thinking.

“We think this is a fair tax policy that’s going to lower taxes for over 200,000 Vermonters, and we think we can take the time and convince the governor that this makes sense to do,” Smith said. “We think this is something the governor and the Legislature should be out championing, not fighting about.”

The dispute over tax policy may the most contentious issue standing between lawmakers and a Tuesday adjournment, but it isn’t the only area of disagreement in the building.

An effort to insert into the budget language previously stricken from a bill dealing with mountaintop wind development has tripped up negotiations around the $5.3 billion bill. House lawmakers are trying to desperately to salvage pieces of an education-funding reform bill that has stalled in the Senate. And the House floor this evening – and perhaps well into the night – will have one last debate over an end-of-life-choices bill that appears all but certain to win final passage.

House fuels up for long night of debate over end-of-life choices

House lawmakers this evening rejected a last-ditch attempt to postpone action on “death with dignity,” paving the way for an hours-long debate that will likely end with the preliminary approval of legislation that would allow doctors to prescribe lethal doses of medication to terminally ill patients.

 

An amendment offered at the outset of this highly anticipated floor debate sought to delay indefinitely action on a bill known here as “S.77.” The measure failed by a vote of 51-90, after which House Speaker Shap Smith declared an hour-long recess for dinner.

 

When debate resumes at 7:30 p.m., lawmakers will consider a slew of amendments, most of them authored by opponents of the legislation. Rep. Mary Morrissey, a Republican from Bennington, for instance, wants medical examiners to have to list the lethal dose of medication as the immediate cause of death for people who choose to avail themselves of what critics call “physician assisted suicide.”

 

Rep. Duncan Kilmartin, a Newport Republican, wants to spend $250,000 to create a “special investigations unit” at the Attorney General’s Office, where a prosecutor and investigator would work full-time probing for abuses of the new statute.

 

“People who are well-educated and or well-heeled may have the resources to make very informed decisions,” Kilmartin said during a Democratic caucus earlier today. But when you look at what constitutes an informed decision, there are many among us without those resources, either monetary or (intellectual).”

 

Rep. George Till, a Jericho Democrat and the lone medical doctor in the Legislature, will offer an amendment that would create a tiered medical license system – one for physicians who would agree to aid in hastening the death of a suffering patient, one for those who would not.

 

Till said a significant number of doctors have ethical issues with the practice, and “don’t want to be painted with a broad brush as part of a physician community that performs this.”

 

Till’s amendment calls for a signifying decal to be placed on the medical licenses of doctors who have said they would consider prescribing the lethal dose.

 

And Rep. Doug Gage, a Rutland Republican, will offer an amendment that would require a doctor to be present at the time the patient takes the medication. Gage’s proposal would also institute a host of record-keeping requirements, including the number of seconds between the moment a patient takes the medication, and moment they lose consciousness.

 

Democrats representing the committees of jurisdiction on this issue – human services and the judiciary - summarily dismissed the need for each of the amendments earlier today, and they all are expected to fail later tonight. Rep. Linda Waite-Simpson, an Essex Junction Democrat, said Gage’s request for physician oversight would make for an “unnecessary intrusion into a very private and sad time for a family.”

 

As for the use of a stop clock between ingestion and death, Waite-Simpson said, “I don’t know why anybody would want to know that information. It does not seem pertinent.”