Category Archives: Politics

Capitol Beat with the Governor 1-30-15

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Gov. Peter Shumlin sits down Vermont Press Bureau chief Neal Goswami to defend his payroll tax plan and discuss the needs of millennials in Vermont. He also predicts a Super Bowl victory for the New England Patriots on Sunday.

Gov. Peter Shumlin records Capitol Beat with the Governor.

Gov. Peter Shumlin records Capitol Beat with the Governor. (Photo by Jeb Wallace-Brodeur)

Release: Welch stands up for privacy with GPS Act

Rep. Peter Welch, joined by Sen. Ron Wyden (D-OR), Sen. Mark Kirk (R-IL), Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-UT) and Jon Conyers Jr. (D-MI), reintroduced the Geolocation Privacy and Surveillance Act (GPS Act) last week.  The legislation creates clear rules about when law enforcement agencies can access and track Americans’ electronic location data.

 “Cell phones are in the pockets and purses of most Americans,” said Welch. “While tracking technology has transformed our lives in many positive ways, it also poses a risk to privacy through potential misuse of tracking data.  The time has come to modernize our statutes to reflect the technology of our age.  This bipartisan legislation protects Americans’ right to privacy while ensuring law enforcement officials are able do their important jobs.”

 “Buying a smartphone shouldn’t be interpreted as giving the government a free pass to track your movements,” said Wyden. “GPS data can be a valuable tool for law enforcement, but our laws need to keep up with technology and set out exactly when and how the government can collect Americans’ electronic location data.”

 “As technology makes tracking people’s movements easier and less expensive, we need to update our laws to protect privacy and respect individual rights,” said Chaffetz. “In light of the Supreme Court’s decision in United States vJones, which was certainly a step in the right direction, we need clarification specific to the use of GPS technology. This law will settle the controversy and provide specific and clear guidelines to ensure this valuable and effective technology is not abused.”

 “Smartphones make our lives easier, but the privacy of the individual and due process are fundamental to the American way of life,” said Kirk. “Law enforcement can greatly benefit from information obtained from smartphones and GPS devices – but only if it’s obtained legally.”

 “We must enact the Geolocation Privacy and Surveillance Act to require the government to obtain a warrant based on probable cause to compel companies such as cell phone service providers to disclose the geolocation information of their customers,” said Conyers. “Geolocation tracking, whether information about where we have been or where we are going, strikes at the heart of personal privacy interests.  The pattern of our movements reveals much about ourselves.  When individuals are tracked in this way, the government is able to generate a profile of a person’s public movements that includes details about a person’s familial, political, professional, religious, and other intimate associations.  That is why we need this legislation to provide a strong and clear legal standard to protect this information.”

 Courts have issued conflicting opinions about whether the government needs a warrant to track Americans through their cell phones and other GPS devices. The Supreme Court unanimously ruled in 2012’s U.S. vs. Jones case that attaching a GPS tracking device to a vehicle requires a warrant, but it did not address other digital location tracking, including through cell phones, OnStar systems and consumer electronics devices.

 The GPS Act applies to all domestic law enforcement acquisitions of the geolocation information of individual Americans without their knowledge, including acquisitions from private companies and direct acquisitions through the use of ‘Stingrays’ and other devices.  It would also combat high-tech stalking by creating criminal penalties for surreptitiously using an electronic device to track a person’s movements, and it would prohibit commercial service providers from sharing customers’ geolocation information with outside entities without customer consent.

Video: Vermont This Week on Vermont PBS

Bureau chief Neal Goswami joins moderator Stewart Ledbetter, Local 22/Local 44 reporter Steph Machado and Tim McQuiston from Vermont Business Magazine on this week’s Vermont This Week panel.

HEADLINES: State Economists Project Major Stimulus From Oil Decline; Gasoline Price Disparities In Spotlight; Bipartisan Group Proposes New Health Exchange; Auditor Questions If Ski Resorts Pay Fair Share; Senate Leaders Introduce Gun Bill; Sugar-Sweetened Beverage Tax Is Back.

Browning files public records request bill

MONTPELIER — A lawmaker who sued Gov. Peter Shumlin for documents related to his now-shelved single payer health care proposal has introduced legislation that would require the documents to be revealed in the future in similar situations.

Rep. Cynthia Browning, D-Arlington, plans to introduce a bill to require greater access to public records under certain conditions and require judicial rulings on appeals of denials of access within a certain period of time. Browning said the legislation is needed based on her own legal case against the governor.

Browning, though she lost her case in superior court, maintains the administration inappropriately used executive privilege to prevent the release of information prior to his announcement on Dec. 17 that he was no longer pursuing a universal, publicly financed health care system because of its cost.

Rep. Cynthia Browning

Rep. Cynthia Browning

“My understanding is that executive privilege is intended to serve the public by ensuring that government officials can have thorough and confidential discussions of policy alternatives. It is not intended to protect those officials from inconvenience or embarrassment. If a person
claims to believe in the principles of transparency and accountability they must uphold them when it is hard as well as when it is easy,” Browning said in a release Friday. “I think that in this case executive privilege was used to conceal the politically difficult facts related to how much the single payer plan might cost and how much taxes might have to increase to
finance it. Ironically, this concealment did not serve the Governor well politically with either supporters or skeptics of the plan.”

Browning’s bill contains several provisions, including:

— If reports or documents have been shared by executive branch staff with people who are not part of that branch or working for it outside of the presence of the governor, executive privilege would be waived.

— If an official or public agency is required by law to produce a report on a date certain and it is not produced it and the law is not amended to extend the date, any records related to that report cannot be covered by executive privilege.

— If a public records request is denied by the government a Vermonter can appeal that denial to Superior Court. The current statute requires that such an appeal receive a judicial ruling “expeditiously,” and that such dockets should be handled before other cases, but the word
“expeditious” is not given a time definition. The bill would define “expeditious” as 45 calendar days after the last brief filed by the complainant.

Browning said the Shumlin administration shared documents and reports with some legislators, including House Speaker Shap Smith when the governor was not present and still claimed executive privilege. She argues that executive privilege should not be extended to a separate branch of government.

Shumlin, according to Act 48, was originally supposed to release a financing plan for his health care plan in January 2013 but did not. Browning said the Legislature did nothing to enforce that deadline and the administration was allowed to withhold information. Browning filed a public records request to the administration in March 2014 seeking documents and reports. The Legislature did not act to extend the governor’s deadline in law until May 2014, she said.

Browning said Vermonters should be able to obtain materials when a report is overdue, even when the Legislature does not try to enforce the law.

The 45-day timeline for judicial rulings is needed to speed up the process of records request, Browning said. She filed her case on Sept. 4, 2014, but the judge did not issue a ruling until Dec. 10 — a span of 14 weeks. Browning said the length “does not meet a common sense definition of expeditious.”

Read the proposed legislation below:

Capitol Beat with the Governor 1-23-15

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Gov. Peter Shumlin and Vermont Press Bureau chief Neal Goswami discuss a recent revenue downgrade, the president’s support for paid sick leave, gun legislation introduced in the Senate and legislators’ efforts to scuttle Vermont Health Connect.

 

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Gun bill introduced in the Vermont Senate

MONTPELIER — Legislation to expand background checks for all gun purchases in Vermont was introduced in the Senate Thursday and sets the stage for vigorous debate.

Democratic Sens. John Campbell, D-Windsor, Claire Ayer, D-Addison and Philip Baruth, D-Chittenden, all members of Senate Democratic leadership, have sponsored the bill.

Current law requires background checks when purchasing a gun from a federally licensed dealer. But background checks are not required when purchasing firearms at a gun show or online. The bill introduced Thursday would expand background checks for those purchases.

The bill is strongly backed by Gun Sense, a gun control advocacy group. It is vigorously opposed by several pro-gun groups, including Gun Owners of Vermont.

Democratic Gov. Peter Shumlin said Thursday he remains opposed to new gun regulations in Vermont, preferring instead, for the federal government to enforce laws on the books. He said anyone breaking federal law to purchase a gun is also likely to break a state law.

“Vermont is currently well-served by the laws we have on the books. I want to keep what we have in place. Obviously, the Legislature is going to debate all kinds of issues. This will be one of them. We always welcome a robust debate. My feeling is the gun laws that we have in Vermont are the ones that we should keep,” he said. “Federal law precludes them from buying guns. I would hope that we would enforce the law.”

The governor refused to say Thursday if he would veto the legislation if it clears the House and Senate and reaches his desk.

“I never issue veto threats unless I am going to veto a bill. Let’s let the process work and have the debate,” he said.

Read the proposed legislation below:

House members pitch new exchange proposal

MONTPELIER — A bipartisan group of House members are pushing a new proposal to move the state away from Vermont Health Connect, but the consequences remain unclear if the state were to adopt the proposal.

On Thursday, Reps. Patti Komline, R-Dorset, Heidi Scheuermann, R-Stowe, Jim Condon D-Colchester, and Adam Greshin, I-Warren, called for the state to transition from Vermont Health Connect to a Supported State-Based Marketplace Exchange. Oregon and Nevada have adopted the hybrid state-federal model after their state-based exchanges faced significant problems.

Vermont’s exchange, which also experienced significant tech challenges and is still not fully functional, allows some individuals to sign up for insurance plans through the website. But other individuals and all small businesses are enrolling through a paper process. And users cannot currently make changes to their information online in an automated way.

Rep. Patti Komline

Rep. Patti Komline

Komline said by adopting the model used by other states the state could shed its IT woes while maintaining control of the plans offered, and without losing the ability to provide federal and state subsidies to help make insurance more affordable to Vermont residents.

“We can control the plans that we’re offering, but when it comes to handling the IT, we can call on healthcare.gov to do that,” she said. “The transition costs for Oregon was $7 million. They were able to use the grant money from the feds. It took them six months to make that transition and so far it’s gone very smoothly for them.”

“It’s a viable alternative. We’re not just playing political games with it, but it’s something that we can really do,” Komline added.

Condon said his goal is to provide Vermonters with a fully functioning insurance marketplace.

“Vermonters deserve a functioning insurance portal. They don’t have that yet, but citizens deserve the ability to be able to go online and get their business done and take care of this. It’s just not happening as well as it should be,” he said. “My own personal opinion is that we should have gone the fed way to begin with. I think it would have saved a lot of hassles.”

The federal government is not charging Oregon and Nevada, at least for 2015, for the use of the federal site. But, it could begin charging them 3.5 percent of the cost of premiums as it does for other states that fully use the federal exchange. With Vermont’s $200 million in premium spending, that would mean a $7 million tax for Vermonters in total.

Previous opposition to moving to the federal exchange included the likely scenario that Vermont would not longer be able to provide state-level subsidies, among other reasons. Massachusetts is the only other state to do so, and it is not clear if CMS would allow that to continue.

“A key point is that we keep our subsidies with this,” Komline told reporters Thursday. “The officials in Oregon and New Mexico and in Nevada are all saying that they’re covered. That they’re subsidies are fully covered.

But the Centers for Medicaid and Medicare, which oversees state and federal exchanges, has never before considered whether a state could continue to provide state-level subsidies through the hybrid model.

The state expects to spend about $8 million this year on operating the portion of Vermont Health Connect that deals with exchange plans. That cost would be gone under the proposal released Thursday, according to Komline.

But their plan does not address Medicaid, which also flows through the state exchange. Komline said the state’s Medicaid program would continue to be run by the state. Lawrence Miller, Gov. Peter Shumlin’s chief of health care reform, said Vermont Health Connect would continue to be needed and built out in order for the state to effectively manage the Medicaid program.

There would still be a savings to the state, Komline insisted.

And Scheuermann said state officials would work with the federal government to answer questions that remain unknown.

“These are the questions that we do want answered and we want to work with. But this is relatively new,” Scheuermann said. “We want to work with the feds to do that, both with regard to Medicaid and with regard to the state subsidies.”

Lawrence Miller

Lawrence Miller

Miller acknowledged Thursday that Vermont Health Connect’s “current operations are unacceptable.” But he said many of the functions needed for the state’s Medicaid program are also needed for the part of the exchange the proposal revealed Thursday would jettison to the federal site.

“It’s a viable alternative to the qualified health plan component. The concern, of course, is that Vermont Health Connect is also the Medicaid eligibility and enrollment engine,” Miller said. “It’s a question of how to accomplish multiple goals most effectively. It certainly address the qualified health plan issue, but the exchange is primarily, by volume and users, Medicaid eligibility and enrollment.”

Miller said the administration has already engaged with CMS in discussions of several options and will continue to explore the best path forward for the state.

“We’ve discussed everything with CMS. Nobody’s particular happy with where we are,” he said.

The legislation proposed Thursday calls for the administration to have a transition plan ready by March 31. Miller said the administration will be prepared to offer a formal response if the bill advances.

“We’re not waiting for the Legislature to make a decision about this. If this is passed we would have begun our groundwork well before,” he said.

The so-called change of circumstance function that is still not part of the exchange, which would allow automated changes to be made by users, is on track to be completed in April, according to Miller. He said the state will continue to ask its contractor, Optum, to complete that work. Other recent deadlines have been met by the company, he said.

“I would support continuing to complete the change of circumstance functionality because we need that for the Medicaid … eligibility, anyway. It’s not something we can just stop doing. We don’t have another way of doing Medicaid enrollment or redetermination. That is the path,” Miller said.

neal.goswami@timesargus.com

Read the proposed legislation below:

Congressional members ask for FairPoint assessment

CONCORD, N.H. (AP) — Members of Congress from Vermont and New Hampshire have called on the Federal Communications Commission to assess the ability of FairPoint Communications to operate emergency communications networks in both states following outages last year.

There was a six-hour outage of Vermont’s 911 system in November and a four-hour outage of Portsmouth, New Hampshire 911 services in December.

With about 1,800 FairPoint workers on strike in Maine, New Hampshire and Vermont since October, the lawmakers said in their letter Wednesday that FairPoint’s networks and equipment have failed with increasing frequency and customer complaints have soared.

A FairPoint spokeswoman says the utility is making progress daily to reduce load trouble caused by the strike and “incredibly bad” weather over the past three months.

Vermont Sens. Bernie Sanders and Patrick Leahy and Rep. Peter Welch; and New Hampshire Sen. Jeanne Shaheen and Rep. Annie Kuster sent the letter.

Larson to leave DVHA in March

MONTPELIER – Department of Vermont Health Access Commissioner Mark Larson is stepping down from his post in March and will be replaced by Deputy Commissioner Lori Collins on an interim basis, the Shumlin administration announced Tuesday.

Larson has had a rocky tenure as commissioner. It included overseeing the botched rollout of Vermont Health Connect, the state’s online health insurance marketplace that is part of the federal Affordable Care Act.

Larson, a former state representative from Burlington and chairman of the House Health Care Committee, was eventually stripped of his oversight of the exchange in September of last year by Gov. Peter Shumlin. The site was taken offline by the state after the federal government raised concerns over its security and threatened to disconnect the state from a federal data hub.

Larson oversight role was taken over by Chief of Health Care Reform Lawrence Miller, Shumlin’s former Commerce secretary, who was first brought on in January 2014 to help the Shumlin administration right the ship after the botched exchange rollout in October 2013.

Larson was also chastised last year by Shumlin and legislative leaders after he offered misleading statements concerning an exchange security breach to the House Health Care Committee.

Mark Larson

Mark Larson

Still, Shumlin praised Larson’s work as commissioner in a statement Tuesday.

“Mark has worked as hard as anyone on my team over the last four years,” Shumlin said. “Mark led the Department through some challenging times, but no one cared more or tried harder to overcome those challenges so Vermonters could access affordable health care than Mark. Thanks to the work of Mark and others, tens of thousands more Vermonters are now insured. I appreciate his service and understand his desire to take some time to step back and explore new opportunities.”

Larson, in his statement released by the administration, acknowledged the challenges during his tenure, but also noted the decrease in Vermont’s uninsured population.

“The last three years have involved a historic transition in health care for Vermont and our country, and has not been without its challenges. I am proud of the fact that in Vermont we have reduced by half the number of uninsured Vermonters and are on track to significantly reform how Medicaid pay providers for health services,” Larson said. “I am proud to have been part of this tremendous effort. As the Department prepares to engage its next phase of work, it is time for me to move on to new opportunities. I look forward to stepping back to the role of citizen and witnessing the continued progress toward coverage for all Vermonters and more rational ways to pay for health services.”

DVHA, which oversees the state’s Medicaid program, implemented an expansion of Medicaid services available under the ACA. That resulted in thousands of Vermonters obtaining new coverage through Medicaid. The administration also highlighted DVHA’s role in the Blueprint for Health, which has allowed most Vermonters to receive primary care from an enrolled provider.

A search is ongoing for a permanent replacement, according to the administration.

Release: Speaker seeks input on economic development

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE:
January 20, 2014

CONTACT:
Dylan Giambatista
(802) 828-2245

HOUSE SPEAKER SHAP SMITH SEEKS PUBLIC INPUT FOR ECONOMIC DEVELOPMENT, JOB GROWTH STRATEGIES

Montpelier, Vt. – House Speaker Shap Smith today asked Vermonters, employers, policy makers and stakeholders to submit proposals for economic development and job growth strategies for consideration in the legislative biennium.

“On the first day of the session, I called on lawmakers to work together as we strive to create an atmosphere of opportunity across Vermont. It is in this spirit that we are asking for public input on state economic development strategies,” announced Speaker Smith.

The Speaker’s Office launched a similar initiative in December, requesting public input for education system reforms. Vermonters responded by submitting over 85 education proposals. Speaker Smith shared the feedback with the House Education Committee for review and incorporation into its agenda. Similarly, public proposals on economic development will be shared with the Commerce and Economic Development Committee for consideration.

“Vermonters want a business environment that fosters sustainable, good paying jobs that reward employers and workers alike. I have instructed the Commerce Committee to explore policies that support and nourish Vermont businesses. It is my hope that public input will supplement their work and drive the agenda forward.”

The Speaker’s Office has asked that all respondents reply by February 3, 2015. Proposals may be submitted electronically using the email address Speaker@leg.state.vt.us. Mailed materials may be sent to: Speaker’s Office, 115 State Street, Montpelier, VT 05633.

Video: Capitol Beat on ORCA with Speaker Shap Smith

House Speaker Shap Smith sits down with Vermont Press Bureau chief Neal Goswami and VPB reporter Josh O’Gorman to discuss the first two weeks of the legislative session.

Release: Hearing on gas prices set for Thursday

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE:
January 16, 2015

CONTACT:
Dylan Giambatista
802-828-2245

House Speaker Shap Smith Announces Jan. 22 Hearing to Discuss High Gas Prices

House Speaker Shap Smith today announced tri-partisan support for public hearings to investigate the cost of gasoline in Northwestern Vermont, which can be up to 30 or 40 cents higher than prices found in other parts of the state. The hearings will be held on Thursday, January 22 from 5:00 – 7:00pm in Room 11 of the State House.

“Folks who live or travel around Northwestern Vermont ask why filling up at the pump is so expensive,” explained Speaker Smith. “Although fuel prices have dropped nationally and across Vermont, the cost reduction has not kept pace in our Northwest communities. I have instructed the House Transportation and Commerce Committees to hold a public hearing to investigate this matter and report back with recommendations for next steps.” Continue reading

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VIDEO: Gov. Peter Shumlin’s budget address

Watch Gov. Peter Shumlin’s budget address below:

Leahy leads delegation to Cuba

WASHINGTON (AP) — A delegation of congressional Democrats began a three-day visit to Cuba on Saturday to discuss expectations for the normalization of relations between the United States and the island nation.

The delegation’s leader, Sen. Patrick Leahy of Vermont, said in a statement Saturday that the lawmakers want to explore opportunities for greater cooperation and to encourage Cuban officials to address issues of concern to Americans and their representatives in Congress.

Traveling with Leahy were Sens. Dick Durbin of Illinois, Debbie Stabenow of Michigan and Sheldon Whitehouse of Rhode Island and congressmen Chris Van Hollen of Maryland and Peter Welch of Vermont.

New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo is planning a trade mission to Cuba to promote the state, spokeswoman Melissa DeRosa said Saturday. Details were not announced.

Last month, President Barack Obama announced plans for renewed economic ties and other administration-led initiatives aimed at re-establishing relations with Cuba. Many congressional Republicans have been cool to the effort.

Sanders proposes moratorium on Postal Service cuts

BURLINGTON, Vt. (AP) — U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders has proposed legislation to impose a two-year ban on the U.S. Postal Service’s plan to cut up to 15,000 jobs, close more mail-sorting plants and stop overnight delivery of first-class mail and periodicals.

Sanders, an independent, filed the proposal Friday as an amendment to a bill pending in the full Senate.

Sanders said the Postal Service has closed 141 mail-processing plants since 2012 and wants to close as many as 82 facilities. He says unless Congress acts, the cuts could affect thousands of workers in 37 states.

His proposal was co-sponsored by Sen. Patrick Leahy and other Democratic senators from Connecticut, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, Montana, New Mexico, Oregon and Wisconsin.