Category Archives: Politics

Lawmakers launch new PAC

MONTPELIER — A pair of moderate lawmakers — one a Democrat, the other a Republican — have launched a nonpartisan PAC aimed at electing candidates that seek “fiscal responsibility” and “balanced, common-sense public policies.”

Rep. Heidi Scheuermann

Rep. Heidi Scheuermann

Reps. Heidi Scheuermann, R-Stowe, and Paul Ralston, D-Middlebury, who is not seeking reelection, announced the new political action committee, Vision to Action Vermont, on Monday. The duo, who have worked together on the House Commerce and Economic Development Committee for the past four years, say they want to “encourage economic prosperity, greater opportunities for Vermont families and businesses, and individual liberties and responsibility.”

“I am very excited to launch this new endeavor,” Scheuermann, who flirted with a run for governor earlier this year, said in a press release. “For many years, I have advocated strongly for a long-term, comprehensive strategy for economic growth in Vermont, and this organization will help bring that focus to the forefront.”

Ralston said November’s election is key, with lawmakers set to tackle health care, property taxes and “taxes in general” during the next legislative biennium that will have an impact on the state’s small businesses and families.

Rep. Paul Ralston

Rep. Paul Ralston

“We must be sure that those in elected positions address those issues thoughtfully and independently, and with an eye toward the benefits and consequences to our economy,” he said in the release.

The PAC plans to raise money to support, promote and endorse candidates of all parties “who are committed to policies of true economic growth, and show great leadership, strength, and independence, yet do so with compassion and respect.”

Milne admits past health, legal troubles

MONTPELIER — Republican gubernatorial candidate Scott Milne revealed in a statement to reporters Thursday that he was arrested three times in college and suffered a stroke in 2006.

The arrests, two for driving under the influence of alcohol and one for possession marijuana and cocaine, all resulted in convictions. Milne said in a telephone interview Thursday that the cases were “settled as expeditiously as possible without spending money on counsel.”

“I don’t think about them on a daily basis, but my presumption is they are part of the public record,” he said.

In 2006, Milne suffered an ischemic stroke caused by a blood clot in his brain. He said he has made a full recovery, suffers “very little residual effect,” and has been cleared by doctors to campaign and serve as governor.

“Basically, I have a little bit of numbness on one side of my buddy and that really is about it,” Milne said.

He gave credit for his recovery to his daughter who he said sought immediate medical attention when the stroke occurred.

Milne, who has yet to formally launch his campaign, said he wanted the information about his past to be out in the open. He said facts about his past “might be important and relevant” to supporters.

Scott Milne

Scott Milne

“I think we wanted to get it out. If we started to campaign earlier we would have sent it out a lot earlier,” he said. “It was a consideration when I was weighing whether or not to run.”

Milne, in the statement sent to reporters, said “Vermonters have a right to a governor who is upfront and transparent.” He promised transparency about his personal life as well as the “economic challenges and crisis of affordability we face as a state.”

Brock bows out

MONTPELIER — Republican Randy Brock, the Vermont GOP’s nominee for governor in 2012, announced in an email Sunday that he will not challenge Democratic Gov. Peter Shumlin again this year.

Brock, a former state auditor and state senator, had been publicly mulling a run. His decision comes after Stowe Rep. Heidi Scheuermann and former Wall Street executive Bruce Lisman already bowed out this year.

Scott Milne, president of Milne Travel, is the only other known Republican considering a run. Milne has said he wants a primary, however.

“I will not be a candidate for Governor of Vermont in 2014,” Brock wrote in his email. “This decision has not been easy to reach. I have arrived at it over several months after careful thought, much input and serious deliberation.”

Brock lost the 2012 race to Shumlin after winning only 38 percent of the vote after putting about $300,000 of his own money into the campaign. Brock said he was not prepared to pump his own cash into a race this year.

He said he is opting out of challenging Shumlin again this year despite persistent urging to do so from supporters.

Randy Brock

Randy Brock

“I am thankful to the many Vermonters who have called upon me to run. I have heard from people from all over our state offering words of encouragement,” he wrote. “This outpouring of support from so many has been extremely heartening and I will always be grateful for their unwavering loyalty.”

Brock, noting that his name will not appear on a ballot for the first time in 10 years, said he will miss being out on the campaign trail. But, sitting the election out “is the right decision for me and my family,” he said.

He pledged to remain “involved in helping to shape public policy.” The former auditor also said he plans “to continue to contribute to the debate through critical analysis and commentary.”

Another exchange deadline to be missed

MONTPELIER — Change of circumstance functionality expected to go live this weekend on Vermont Health Connect will not be deployed as testing continues, according to Department of Vermont Health Access Commissioner Mark Larson.

The state’s vendor, CGI, was supposed to have the change of circumstance function live on the health insurance exchange website by May 21 based on an amendment to the original contract. But the state reached an agreement on a revised work plan to extend the deadline to June 8. Now there is a new delay.

“We’re making very good progress on the development of the functionality and we’re close with automated change of circumstance functionality, but have made the decision that it’s not ready to go this weekend into the live environment,” Larson said Friday.

When deployed, the upgrade will allow thousands of Vermonters to edit personal information online if mistakes were made during registration, or if they experienced a life-changing event such as marriage. A backlog of 10,000 requests has amassed since the site launched in October.

“It’s important to us to make sure that the functionality, when it’s ready to go, is ready to serve Vermonters well. So, we’re going to continue our work until we feel like it’s ready to serve Vermonters, and focus on the quality and thoroughness of our work at this point,” Larson said.

Rep. Michael Fisher

Rep. Michael Fisher

The delays are frustrating lawmakers, including House Health Committee Chairman Michael Fisher, D-Lincoln.

“I think this is a really serious problem and I think it’s really an unacceptable situation that we’re in right now. Ten thousand households, many of whom may have small inconsequential changes, a change of address or something, but many of these Vermonters are worried that they’re not going to be able to get the care that they need,” Fisher said.

Continued issues and delays with the exchange site could damage future health care reform efforts, he said.

“I just know that there’s a lot of worry out there and a lot of frustration and I have been hearing a lot of it,” Fisher said. “It really does impact people’s view of our ability to move forward on health care reform.”

Meanwhile, the state is negotiating with a new vendor to help the state deal with the backlog in change of circumstance requests. The backlog increased by about 2,000 requests in the last month or so.

The contract, details of which remain confidential as negotiations continue, was expected to be signed by the end of Friday, Larson said. It will provide additional workers to help users update their information.

“It will help in the ability to have the automated functionality be able to assist in the work of resolving the backlog of change of circumstance requests. It will make it faster, but it will not eliminate the work left to do in making sure that we respond to all of those Vermonters who have made requests,” he said.

State officials expect users will still want assistance in changing information once the functionality is deployed.

“We fully expect that there will be a lot of people who will continue to want assistance in that process and we’ll be able to be more efficient with that,” he said. “It’s still going to take a significant effort to respond to everybody.”

Larson said he would not provide a specific date when testing will be completed and the system can be upgraded. “I think we are hopeful that we will be able to deploy this functionality soon. Again, we really have made a significant amount of progress,” he said.

neal.goswami@timesargus.com

Lisman declines gov bid

MONTPELIER — Campaign for Vermont founder and former Wall Street executive Bruce Lisman announced Wednesday he will not launch a bid to unseat Gov. Peter Shumlin.

Lisman, the former chairman of the JP Morgan Chase Global Equity Division, said he was considering a campaign for governor at the urging of Vermonters. But in a statement issued Wednesday Lisman said he will instead focus on advocacy efforts.

“I love Vermont and believe that she faces serious challenges as seldom before in her history,” Lisman said in his statement. “At this time, however, I believe I can best contribute to improving Vermont’s future by publicly and vigorously advocating for a focused, core set of moderate, nonpartisan and common sense government reforms. Indeed, this coalition building effort is the best approach to policy change and consistent with my focus since 2011.”

Bruce Lisman

Bruce Lisman

Wednesday’s announcement follows on the heals of one made by Stowe Rep. Heidi Scheuermann, who just last week said she would not seek the GOP gubernatorial nomination and challenge Shumlin, a two-term Democrat.

Scott Milne, president of Milne Travel, and Randy Brock, a former state senator auditor and the GOP’s failed 2012 nominee, are the only other known Republicans considering a run.

Lisman was being viewed by Democrats as a serious challenger. The Vermont Democratic Party in recent months attacked Campaign for Vermont, a group that Lisman has pumped more than $1 million into, for being a conservative organization cloaked as a nonpartisan advocacy group.

Despite declining to run, Lisman’s announcement included an indictment of Shumlin’s tenure as governor, saying Vermonters are concerned about the state’s future. He said he plans to focus on the need for job growth and economic development, comprehensive ethics standards in government, transparency in health care reform and reducing property taxes.

“The vast majority of Vermonters, from all different parts of the state and all different backgrounds, want to see expanded job opportunities and economic growth which stem from a stronger business environment, a return to responsible budget management, ethics standards in government, enhanced transparency, particularly on health care, and a better and more effective education system,” Lisman said.

The plans Lisman laid out in his announcement could set him up for a future run.

“I will focus on showcasing the public’s growing frustration about these issues and the need to implement tangible solutions for true change, change that Vermonters are demanding” he said. “Vermonters have made it clear they are not satisfied with the direction of the state and I will make it my mission to influence citizen-led forward progress.”

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.

Continue reading

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

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.”

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.

House approves campaign finance measure

MONTPELIER — The Housed passed a campaign finance reform bill Thursday on a bipartisan vote following a conference committee with Senate negotiators.

The legislation sailed through the House on a 124 to 15 roll call vote, but some members are disappointed in the final version of the legislation. The plan will raise some contribution limits.

House and Senate negotiators met out of session over the last several months after failing to reach agreement before the end of the 2013 legislative session. They  signed off on a compromise plan Tuesday, the first day of the 2014 legislative session.

The agreement will allow individuals, corporations and PACs  to contribute twice as much money — from $2,000 to $4,000 — directly to statewide candidates and PACs.

Meanwhile, political parties can now raise $10,000 directly from those same groups, up from $2,000, and up to $60,000 from their national parties.

Candidates for the Legislature will see a decrease in the contributions they can currently receive. Contributions to House candidates will capped at $1,000, while contributions to Senate candidates will be reduced to $1,500.

Political parties will be able to funnel unlimited amounts of money to candidates, however.

Independent and Progressive candidates said that provides an unfair advantage to Democrats and Republicans who can receive unlimited funding from their respective parties.

Some House members addressed the chamber to explain their votes, saying they voted in favor of the bill because it is time for the state to have limits in place.

Rep. Cynthia Browning, a Democrat from Arlington, said she voted against the bill because the contribution limits are too high and more disclosure should be required closer to elections. The bill is “not enough to even be called campaign finance reform,” she said.

The Senate will consider the compromise bill next week.

House Dems to get 7-4 edge on health care committee with reassigment of Republican

The balance of power in the House Committee on Health Care will shift in favor of Democrats next year when House Speaker Shap Smith drops a Republican from the 11-person panel and replaces him with a member of the ruling party.

Gone from the committee, Smith said late Friday evening, is Rep. John Mitchell, a Republican from Fairfax now headed to the House Committee on Education. Replacing him is incoming Democratic Rep. Kathy Hoyt, appointed by Gov. Peter Shumlin earlier this year to replace the seat vacated by Margaret Cheney.

House Speaker Shap Smith said the move is designed to make way for a newly minted lawmaker whose “breadth and depth of experience are critically important as we move forward with health care reform.”

House Minority Leader Don Turner, however, said the shake up amounts to partisan maneuvering designed to undermine the influence of the GOP as the Democratic supermajority prepares to face tough questions over the troubled roll out of the new health insurance exchange.

“I’m very concerned and I’m very disappointed,” Turner said late Friday evening. “I think Vermonters will see through this – that Democrats don’t like tough questions when it comes to health care, and that by taking away a person who is asking those like tough questions may make it easier for them.”

The personnel change comes during the middle of the two-year biennium, and isn’t the only reassignment Smith confirmed Friday. Rep. Patti Lewis, a Berlin Republican, will move from education to the House Committee on Government Operations. Incoming Democratic Rep. Marjorie Ryerson, who filled the Randolph seat opened up by the death of Larry Townsend, will be assigned to the House Committee on Energy and Natural Resources. Rep. Rebecca Ellis, a Waterbury Democrat, will take over as vice-chairwoman of energy and natural resources, a position formerly held by Cheney.

Hoyt, who lives in Norwich, has a long career in government that includes stints as secretary of administration under former Govs. Madeline Kunin and Howard Dean. She was a also a member of a three-person panel that spent more than a year examining ways to overhaul the state’s tax structure.

With his “direct appointment” of Hoyt in September, Shumlin bypassed the conventional nominating process in which the local party committee forwards three names to the governor’s desk. Hoyt’s predecessor left when she accepted Shumlin’s appointment to a seat on the three-person Public Service Board.

“(Hoyt) is someone who has seen state government from every angle, and her experience will be invaluable on that committee,” Smith said.

Turner said that if Smith wanted to find room for Hoyt on the committee, he could have done so without eroding what little representation the GOP has on a panel that will be dealing next year not only with the exchange, but with the seeds of a public financing system for the single-payer system Shumlin has said will come online by 2017.

“I think it’s wrong,” Turner said. “I just don’t like that we’re going to have only two Republicans on one of the most important committees in the House right now.”

Smith said the composition of the Health Care Committee during the last session wasn’t reflective of the partisan make-up of the body. The six Democrats, one Progressive, one Independent and three Republicans, Smith said, didn’t mirror the near super-majority status of his party.

“It’s 6-5 committee right now, and the balance is different than most of the other committees, and that plays a role in the decision,” Smith said. “And it’s not an easy decision.”

That narrow margin led to some very public setbacks last session for the committee’s Democratic chairman, who saw his committee go against him on at least one high-profile vote.

Rep. Mary Morrissey, who will be one of two Republicans left on the Health Care Committee, said the change “disrespects” the work that Mitchell and the committee have done over the first half of the session.

Turner said he appreciated that the speaker called him earlier this week to inform him of his plan, and that Smith was willing to work with Republicans in determining which of the three would be sent to the education committee.

Turner said he thinks Hoyt’s experience on the Blue Ribbon Tax Commission, the panel that worked in 2009 to try to reform the income and sales tax, is one of the reasons Smith wants her on health care.

“From my perspective, I think they’re trying to figure out how they’re going to do single-payer,” Turner said. “And being a former member of that commission, I’m sure she has a lot of information about taxation.”

Smith said Hoyt’s facility with the tax code is one reason among many she’ll be a good fit on the committee.

“Certainly it helps that she was on the Blue Ribbon Tax Commission,” Smith said. “But it really is the breadth and depth of her experience.”

Darcie Johnston, head of Vermonters for Health Care Freedom, which working to stymie progress toward single-payer, said the committee reassignments underscore the urgency of the opposition.

“This is a clearly partisan political move to rearrange the deck chairs to get the political result they want of moving single payer health care forward,” she said.

In speech at GOP fundraiser, Christie offers self up as “blueprint” for Republican resurgence

New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie (courtesy photo)

New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie (courtesy photo)

“Candidates matter.”

That was the message from the Republican governor of New Jersey Wednesday night as he regaled nearly 700 members of the Vermont GOP with the story of his own unlikely rise to prominence in a state where politics tend to run the same shade of blue as in Vermont.

“Here’s our message: candidates matter. Candidates matter more than money. Candidates matter more than data mining… Candidates matter more than TV commercials and they matter more than mail pieces and they matter more than those incredibly annoying automated phone calls. They matter more than any of that,” Christie said Wednesday.

Media were barred from attending Wednesday’s fundraising gala at the Champlain Valley Expo in Essex Junction, but an audio recorder belonging to the Vermont Press Bureau made it past the gates. In addition to Christie, the recording captured speeches delivered by Lt. Gov. Phil Scott and Rep. Heidi Scheuermann, who were among the lead organizers of an event they say marked the dawn of a new era in the Vermont Republican Party. Continue reading

Documents spotlight state’s escalating fight with exchange contractor

In a sternly worded letter to a top executive at the technology firm hired to build Vermont’s new health insurance exchange, the Shumlin administration late last month served notice that it plans to withhold more than $5 million in payments as a result of CGI’s “failure” to meet key deadlines.

The Nov. 21 correspondence represents the first formal move by the state to impose the “liquidated damages” that CGI Technologies and Solutions could face for missing at least four “critical milestones.”

Larson_letter1

Larson_letter2

And it comes as the state seeks new bargaining power over the company on which it’s relying to fix the problems that will otherwise prevent Vermont from having a fully functioning exchange.

“What we’re focused on now is making sure we exercise the rights we have under the contract … and making sure Vermonters get what they were promised,” Mark Larson, commissioner of the Department of Vermont Health Access, said in a phone interview Tuesday. Continue reading

Christie fundraiser sells out

MONTPELIER — The Vermont GOP’s Welcome Winter Gala featuring New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie has sold out, according to a party official.

Brent Burns, the state GOP’s political director, wrote to supporters Monday with the news. Party officials “have been absolutely overwhelmed by the excitement it has generated among Vermonters across the political spectrum,” he wrote.

New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie

New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie

The event, set for Dec. 11 at the Champlain Valley Expo in Essex, is being hosted by Lt. Gov. Phil Scott and Stowe Rep. Heidi Scheuermann. Christie, who easily won a second term earlier this month over Democratic challenger Barbara Buono, is likely to headline the Vermont GOP’s most successful event ever, according to Burns

“It has been a long time since we’ve enjoyed this kind of enthusiasm, and we couldn’t be more proud. We have already sold more than 600 seats and this event promises to be the most successful VTGOP event of all time,” he wrote.

No additional tickets can be reserved at this time. But Burns said the party is looking at options to allow more people to attend and is generating a waiting list if additional tickets can be sold.

The Vermont GOP recently reorganized and elected a new party chairman following a public, intra-party spat between party factions. The Christie fundraiser is “just the beginning of the revitalization of the Vermont Republican Party in Vermont,” Burns wrote.