Category Archives: State Senate

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.

McAllister’s future unclear, but resignation expected soon

This story was updated at 5:55 p.m.

MONTPELIER — Lt. Gov. Phil Scott said Monday that embattled Sen. Norm McAllister, who faces multiple sex crime charges, intends to resign within 24 hours. The announcement came as Gov. Peter Shumlin and legislators leaders all called for him to step down Monday morning.

But in a bizarre twist, McAllister, R-Franklin, reached by phone at his home Monday afternoon, said he was not aware that anyone had reached out to Scott to promise his resignation. McAllister said he has made no determination about his future and planned to meet with his lawyer Tuesday. He declined to discuss the case any further, but said he has “had better days.”

“My lawyer has told me not to talk to anybody about any of this,” McAllister said. “I’ll be talking to my lawyer tomorrow.”

His lawyer, Brooks McArthur, did not return a message seeking comment.

Sen. Norm McAllister

Sen. Norm McAllister

Later in the day, Scott confirmed that Sen. Peg Flory, R-Rutland, served as the messenger. Scott said Flory was in touch with McAllister throughout the weekend and relayed the message of his pending resignation. Flory spoke again with McAllister Monday afternoon and he is still expected to resign, according to Scott.

“I stand by what I was told and I still believe that I will receive his letter tomorrow morning,” he said.

Scott said he decided to reveal McAllister’s intention to resign after Shumlin and others called for him to step down.

“To be clear, I wouldn’t have announced it this morning without having it physically in my hand — until I heard the governor demanded his resignation and I thought, ‘Well, actually, he’s said he’s going to resign,’ and I thought it was important that I get that information out,” Scott said. “Maybe I shouldn’t have gotten involved but I just felt I had that and I should let people know because it was (McAllister’s) idea.”

McAllister, a second-term senator who previously served five terms in the House, pleaded not guilty Friday to charges of sexual assault and prohibited acts. Detailed court documents allege that McAllister forced women to have sex with him in exchange for rent and used sex as a punishment, among other things.

Seven Days reported over the weekend that one victim, who worked for the 63-year-old McAllister on his farm as well as an assistant or intern in Montpelier, alleged that she was possibly as young as 15 when he first assaulted her.

The charges and explicit details about the allegations released Friday in police affidavits have shaken many inside the State House as they work toward adjournment this week.

Scott, a Republican, told reporters McAllister promised early Monday morning to resign within 24 hours.

“I received word earlier this morning that within 24 hours I’ll be receiving his letter of resignation,” Scott told the Vermont Press Bureau.

Word came through a representative of McAllister’s, later revealed to be Flory at 7:30 a.m. “I have not spoken directly to him,” Scott said.

If a letter of resignation is received, Scott said he will hand it over to Senate Secretary John Bloomer who will then notify the governor and Senate President Pro Tem John Campbell, D-Windsor. The governor will eventually need to appoint someone to fill the remainder of McAllister’s term.

Scott said Monday that McAllister’s resignation is needed.

“I read the affidavit. The allegations are very serious, very troubling, to say the least. I feel that Sen. McAllister is making the right decision at this time. I think the people of Franklin County deserve a legislator that can devote themselves to their needs and I don’t think he can do that at this time,” the lieutenant governor said.

Earlier Monday, Shumlin, a Democrat called on McAllister to resign now that he is going through the judicial process.

“Given, the incredibly troubling allegations made against Sen. McAllister over the past several days, the right thing for him to do would be for him to resign from the Senate,” Shumlin told the Vermont Press Bureau in an interview. “Sen. McAllister will go through the legal process like any other accused individual, but for the good of Vermont he should not do so as a sitting senator.”

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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.

Sen. Norm McAllister arrested on sex charges

MONTPELIER — Franklin County Sen. Norm McAllister was arrested Thursday evening on sex charges, according to the Vermont State Police.

McAllister, a 63-year-old Republican from Highgate, has served in the Vermont Legislature since 2003, including four terms in the House. State police spokesman Scott Waterman issued a release late Thursday saying VSP detectives assigned to the Northwest Unit for Special Investigations arrested had McAllister and charged him with sexual assault, prohibited acts and human trafficking.

The Vermont State Police released this mug shot of Sen. Norm McAllister, R-Franklin.

The Vermont State Police released this mug shot of Sen. Norm McAllister, R-Franklin.

The charges stem from an investigation into complaints made against McAllister, according to police.

McAllister is being held at the Northwest Regional Correctional Center in St. Albans for lack of$20,000 bail. He will be arraigned in Franklin County District Court on Friday morning at 11 a.m.

Police said affidavits outlining the case against McAllister would be made public Friday following the arraignment.

McAllister’s arrest was first reported by the Burlington Free Press.

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

Shumlin steps into Senate budget process

MONTPELIER — The Shumlin administration is pushing back against the Senate’s budget plan as the chamber prepares to take it up on the floor Thursday.

“Less spending and fewer taxes,” Gov. Peter Shumlin said Thursday morning.

Administration officials were preparing to meet with the Senate Appropriations Committee Thursday morning to discuss further cuts and ease back some of the tax increases included in the Senate’s budget and tax bills.

“There’s not a set number for anything,” Secretary of Administration Justin Johnson said. “This is not an uncommon conversation for the end of the legislative session.”

A House-passed budget bill closes a $113 million projected gap in the 2016 fiscal year budget. It uses $53 million in spending cuts, $35 million in new revenue and about $25 million in one-time funds to balance the budget.

The Senate version balances the budget in a similar way.

But Shumlin is not pleased with the direction lawmakers have chosen.

“He’s not loving all the revenue. We think that in order to keep taxes down — tax increases down — we have to have a budget that’s as efficient as possible,” Johnson said. “We know that our growth is forecast over the next few years to be around 3 (percent) and the expenditures have been around 5 (percent). We’d like to get them under 5. It’s not a problem you’re going to solve all at once but one that we can solve over time

Johnson said the administration’s late-stage interest in negotiating different terms in the budget and tax bills is not out of the ordinary.

“It’s just sort of putting some pressure back on to make sure we do the best we can,” he said.

Lawmakers look to retirement bonuses to save the state money

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Senate approves “revenge porn” bill

MONTPELIER — A bill that would outlaw the disclosure of explicit images without the subject’s consent is one step closer to becoming a law.

Senate lawmakers Thursday passed a House bill that would create criminal penalties for individuals who share explicit images of a person without his or her consent, and stiff penalties for those who do so for profit or who host such images on a website.

Under H.105, a person who shares an explicit image — defined as genitals, buttocks, pubic hair and breasts below the areola — without a person’s consent can face a penalty of up to six months in prison and a $1,000 fine.

The penalty for disclosing such images with the intent of causing damage to the subject of the image carries a stiffer maximum penalty: two years in prison and a $2,000 fine.

The toughest penalties are for those individuals who share such images with the intent to profit from them, or who operates a website where such images are hosted: up to five years in prison and a $10,000 fine.

The images include those taken with or without a person’s consent; under the terms of the bill, posing for a photo does not mean the subject is consenting for the image to be shared.

If signed into law, Vermont would join 13 other states that have enacted laws against what is referred to as “revenge porn” or “cyber exploitation.”

California — one of the states where such behavior is against the law — had its first criminal conviction in December when a man received a 1-year prison sentence after he posted a topless photo of his ex-girlfriend on her employer’s Facebook page.

This week, lawmakers in Maine and North Carolina are taking testimony as they mull the creation of similar laws.

Karen Tronsgard-Scott, executive director of the Vermont Network Against Domestic & Sexual Violence, welcomed the bill’s passage by the Senate.

“We know that both the Senate and the House took a really good look at it, and they crafted a good balance between free expression and the rights of victims to privacy,” said Tronsgard-Scott, who noted a rise in the frequency with which explicit images are being posted to the Internet without the subject’s consent.

“Ten years ago, this wasn’t much of an issue, but it’s really exploded,” Tronsgard-Scott said. “When you think about when you’re applying for a job, people Google you, so the impact is devastating. In Vermont, we’re drawing a line in the sand and saying this is wrong.”

Allen Gilbert, executive director of the ACLU of Vermont, said his organization continues to oppose the bill.

“We think issues of this kind really should be handled through civil lawsuits rather than through criminal action,” said Gilbert, saying the bill limits free expression as guaranteed by the First Amendment.

“If someone had written in words that they are now posting in images, would you have made a crime around that?” Gilbert said. “Because it’s image, it takes on more power.”

Senate Ed approves school district merger bill

MONTPELIER — Senate lawmakers have given preliminary approval to a bill intended to merge some of the state’s nearly 300 school districts.

Late Tuesday night, the Senate Education Committee unanimously approved their version of a bill that would provide financial incentives to school districts that merge voluntarily, and would force the merger of districts that do not meet criteria regarding quality and staffing ratios.

In some ways, the Senate version of the bill takes a somewhat softer approach to school district mergers than the proposal approved by House lawmakers earlier this month. While the House version calls for the creation of Pre-K-12 districts with a minimum of 1,100 students, the Senate bill offers more flexibility.

While the Senate bill calls for districts with at least 900 students — an ideal, not a mandate — it also acknowledges the variability across the state in terms of geography and student populations, and proposes a number of acceptable governance structures, including supervisory unions.

Much like Act 153 of 2010 — which has resulted in two school district mergers in five years — the Senate bill offers financial incentives for districts to merge voluntarily. The bill also calls for the Agency of Education to create merger plans for districts that do not meet certain criteria, both in terms of academics and student-to-staff ratios.

While academic performance will be measured by the state’s Education Quality Standards, the student-to-staff ratio threshold will be set later.

At 4.7 to 1, Vermont’s student to staff ratio is the lowest in the country. According to the Joint Fiscal Office, having a student-to-staff ratio of 5 to 1 would result in the elimination of 1,239 full-time positions and would save the state $75.7 million.

The Senate bill also eliminates a proposal from House lawmakers to cap education spending.

While there are differences between the Senate and House proposals, there are also similarities. Both bills look to eliminates small-school grants and the hold-harmless “phantom student” provisions, unless the school is involved in a merger.

Just prior to approving the bill, the Senate Education Committee held a two-hour hearing to take testimony from the public, some of whom traveled from distant corners of the state for a chance to be heard.

“We fear this bill could eliminate our school, harm our children and destroy our community,” said Susan Edgerton, who serves on the Readsboro School Board, overseeing a small K-8 school.

David Giddings, of Readsboro, noted that while the intent of the bill is not to close small schools, the elimination of small-school grants and the hold-harmless “phantom student” provision would cause sufficient financial pressure to force the school to close.

Jon Guiffre, chairman of the Roxbury School Board, also spoke in opposition to the bill.

“Our broken education system cannot be fixed with incremental changes and half measures,” Guiffre said. “Please, let this bill die.”

The merger proposal also drew many supporters, including Brett Blanchard, principal at Fair Haven Union High School.

“We have way too many administrators, like myself. We need to make sure every district has a single governing board,” Blanchard said. “Should there be a need to close some schools, a single board would be more apt to do that.”

Lee Sease, a retired educator from Randolph, argued that the current debate is focused on the wrong people.

“The discussion today is more about adults than it is about students,” Sease said. “It’s about power, who has the power and who keeps the power.”

The bill still needs to pass through Senate committees on Finance and Ways and Means before coming up for a vote before the full Senate.

Lawmakers discuss vaccine exemptions for children

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Senate supports climate-change resolution

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lt. gov casts vote, helps kill changes to law regulating chemicals

MONTPELIER — Lt. Gov. Phil Scott cast a rare vote in the Senate Thursday to break a tie and kill off proposed changes to legislation passed last year that allows the state to regulate “chemicals of concern to children.”

Scott, a Republican, said he has cast fewer than six votes in the Senate since taking office in 2010. The state’s constitution requires the lieutenant governor, the presiding officer of the Senate, to vote when there is a tie.

Lt. Gov. Phil Scott

Lt. Gov. Phil Scott

The Senate Health and Welfare Committee was proposing to make changes to Act 188, which passed last year. The law created a reporting mechanism for manufacturers that use certain chemicals in children’s products.

Beginning in July of next year, manufacturers that use chemicals designated by the state as “chemicals of high concern to children” must disclose information about those chemicals to the Department of Health. The law also created a working group that would make recommendations to the health commissioner about regulating designated chemicals.

Language in the law states that the commissioner of Health can move to add a chemical to an existing list of 66 chemicals of high concern to children “upon the recommendation of the working group.” The committee’s amendment sought to amend the law to state that such action could be taken “after consultation” with the group.

Other changes sought in the amendment would require that there be a “reasonable risk of exposure” rather than “children will be exposed” to such chemicals. It also added language that there must be “one or more safer and technically and economically feasible alternatives to the chemical” before it can be added to the list.

The Senate voted to approve those changes to the existing law before considering an amendment from Sen. Peg Flory, R-Rutland, to kill that section of S.139. The changes sought to Act 188 were attached to the legislation, a miscellaneous health bill.

Flory said she heard from members of the business community that were concerned about the proposed changes.

Sen. Peg Flory

Sen. Peg Flory

“They were not thrilled with the bill passed last year,” she said. “With this they were really concerned.”

The vote on Flory’s amendment to eliminate the changes was first taken by voice. Flory then called for “division,” which requires members of the Senate to stand to show how they voted. That resulted in a 15 to 15 tie, requiring Scott to fulfill his constitutional duty.

“I will be voting yes, so the motion passes,” Scott said from the Senate dais.

The lieutenant governor said he sided with the business community, which opposed the changes, so as not to create uncertainty for them.

“I’ve talked a lot over the last couple of years about certainty in the business environment. I remember some of the debate last year and I think there was some exceptions made in the business community, and others came together on this bill. So, I thought, ‘Why not give it a chance to work and see what happens?’” Scott said after the vote.

The Health and Welfare Committee took testimony on the proposed changes to Act 188 last month and heard from several representatives of the business community who were opposed to the changes. Those arguments proved to be enough to scuttle the changes Thursday.

Sen. Anthony Pollina, a member of the committee who presented the proposal to his colleagues on the Senate floor, said the changes would bring the language in the law more in line with the language used by the federal Environmental Protection Agency and other regulatory authorities.

“We are talking about chemicals that we know are dangerous. I want to make that very clear,” Pollina said. “What we’re trying to do is bring … our law in line with accepted practices.”

Paul Burns, executive director of VPIRG, a public advocacy group that pushed heavily for the proposed changes to Act 188, said the law’s current language could “invite legal action” if a commissioner were to add new chemicals to the list. He said he was disappointed with Thursday’s developments.

Paul Burns

Paul Burns

“We want the law to be able to work in order to protect children’s health,” he said. “It’s more difficult, for sure, and some of the language in the current law presents a very high bar for the commissioner to meet if he or she is ever going to take action to regulate a toxic chemical.”

Burns said VPIRG would look at ways to change the outcome before a third and final vote on the underlying bill is taken Friday.

William Driscoll, vice president of the Associated Industries of Vermont, said he and others opposed to the changes would look to preserve Thursday’s outcome.

“Frankly, at some point, if people go overboard trying to undo something, it doesn’t look very good for them. At some point some sort of sense of seemliness and appropriate behavior has to prevail,” Driscoll said. “It would be kind of analogous to that they’re trying to undue what the did last year, and then they try to undue what they did just the next day. I guess they need to decide what kind of people they want to be.”

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

Play

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