Category Archives: Politics

Election-day voter registration moves forward

MONTPELIER — Lawmakers are taking a step that could increase voter participation.

By a vote of 20 to 7 Thursday afternoon, the Senate gave preliminary approval to a bill that would allow residents to register to vote on the day of an election. Currently, an individual who wishes to cast a vote on a Tuesday must have registered to vote by the previous Wednesday.

“Those of us in this building spend a lot of time thinking about elections, but most people don’t,” said Sen. Jeanette White, D-Windham. “People move or go into long-term care facilities in a town where they were not originally registered to vote and didn’t get engaged until the last moment. That doesn’t mean they’re uninformed.”

Under the terms of the bill, an individual could show up at a polling place the day of an election and present documentation of residency as required by federal law, such as photo identification or a utility bill. Either the town clerk or members of the municipality’s board of civil authority would review the documentation, and if approved, the individual would be a allowed to vote that day.

Currently, 13 states, and the District of Columbia, allow election-day voter registration.

“This is a voter-rights issue,” said Sec. Of State James Condos, following the vote. “This is for the benefit of the voter, for the benefit of the citizens to exercise their constitutional right to cast a ballot.”

According to Condos, places that have election-day voter registration have seen their rates of participation rise 10-12 percent since implementation.

Several senators expressed concern that election-day voter registration could lead to voter fraud, including Kevin Mullin, R-Rutland — who voted for the bill — and Dustin Degree, R-Franklin, who did not.

“There are lots of problems with elections with the system we have now,” Degree said. “I think the integrity of our elections is more important than increased participation.”

White disagreed that the bill could open up the door to more voter fraud.

“There is no more potential for voter fraud than there is under the current system we use now,” White said. “If someone wants to commit fraud now, all they have to do is say they registered when they renewed their driver’s license.”

Condos downplayed the idea that voter fraud is much of an issue at all.
“We have a hard enough time getting people to vote once, never mind voting twice” Condos said “Voter fraud is really nonexistent in this country. There have been many, many accusations, but they usually filter out and there will be a logical reason for what happened.”

The bill is expected to come before the Senate for final approval Friday.

Shumlin’s chief of staff to depart in May

MONTPELIER — Gov. Peter Shumlin said Thursday his Chief of Staff Liz Miller will step down from the post in May and return to work in the private sector.

Darren Springer, currently the deputy commissioner of the Department of Public Service, will replace her, Shumlin said.

At a news conference Thursday, Shumlin said he convinced Miller more than 4 years ago to first become commissioner of DPS, and later to become his chief of staff after winning his first term as governor in 2010.

Shumlin praised Miller for her work on behalf of his administration and Vermonters.

Shumlin Chief of Staff Liz Miller, center, listens as Gov. Peter Shumlin announces that Deputy DPS Commissioner Darren Springer, right, will replace her in May when she steps down from the post.

Shumlin Chief of Staff Liz Miller, center, listens as Gov. Peter Shumlin announces that Deputy DPS Commissioner Darren Springer, right, will replace her in May when she steps down from the post.

“I have been blessed with one of the brightest, most hard-working, dedicated people that I’ve ever worked with in my lifetime. Liz has now made the decision at the end of May to do what she threatened to do two and a half years ago, go back to the private sector,” Shumlin said. “We could not have had a person who served this state with more distinction, dedication and more elbow grease and more grace than Liz Miller.”

Springer, who became deputy commissioner of DPS in March 2013, will continue in that role until the end of May. He previously served as a senior policy advisor for energy and environment issues for Sen. Bernie Sanders, and later as Sanders’ chief counsel. Prior to that Springer worked as the energy and transportation program director for the National Governors Association Center for Best Practices.

Shumlin said Springer has been “the really creative collaborator and creator of new ways of promoting renewables, promoting cleaner, greener energy throughout Vermont.”

“I couldn’t be more delighted to have someone of Darren’s caliber take over from Liz at the end of this legislative session,” Shumlin said.

Senate advances gun bill

MONTPELIER — The Vermont Senate on Wednesday gave preliminary approval to new gun restrictions by a 20 to 8 vote that will make it a state-level crime for some convicts to possess firearms and require that people determined by a court to be in need of mental health treatment be reported to a federal database.

Wednesday’s vote followed months of behind the scenes political machinations and some public spats as advocates and opponents of the new gun measures tried to gain the upper hand. Advocates, including Gun Sense Vermont, which strongly backed the bill, claimed success Wednesday.

“I think any time there is a vocal minority it can be a little tricky, but what’s so exciting is how vast, aggressive grassroots support has really changed the landscape. It’s meaningful because, finally, common sense gun legislation is getting passed,” Gun Sense Executive Director Ann Braden said.

But opponents, including the Vermont Federation of Sportsmen’s clubs and the National Rifle Association, also claimed victory because they were able to kill off earlier versions of proposed legislation that included expanded background checks.

“At the end of the day, from the bill that was originally proposed to this, the other side, I think that their agenda has been rejected. On that note we’re happy,” said NRA lobbyist Darin Goens. “If the question was asked on the original bill I think the vote would have been very different.”

Braden said her group will not be looking to restore the background check provision in the House.

“We’re focused just on this bill, not adding on,” she said.

The scaled-back bill passed Wednesday was the result of proposals from the Senate Judiciary Committee and the Health and Welfare Committee. Judiciary Committee Chairman Dick Sears, D-Bennington, told his colleagues on the Senate floor Wednesday that the bill looked to clarify a simple point — who should possess a firearm under Vermont state law.

Sears noted that that all of the other states have a similar state-level law that excludes some convicts from possessing firearms, as does the federal government.

“We are the outlier in this particular area. There are no other states at this point,” he said.

A agent with the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives and a federal prosecutor provided testimony to the Judiciary Committee that federal prosecutors “don’t have the time or the resources to prosecute these offenses in federal court,” Sears said.

Under the law, people convicted of so-called “listed crimes,” the most serious crimes in the state, will be restricted from possessing a firearm. The law makes some exceptions for lewd and lascivious behavior, as well as reckless endangerment and other motor vehicle-related crimes. The law also includes crimes involving the selling or trafficking of drugs that carry prison terms of at least 10 years.

The legislation will also require those found by a court to be “in need of treatment” for mental health reasons to be reported to the National Instant Criminal Background Check System. Sears said 38 states require such reporting.

Sears noted that the state of Virginia passed a law requiring such reporting following a mass shooting at Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University in 2007.

“I would hate for Vermont to wait for such a tragedy,” he said.

Much of the debate on the Senate floor Wednesday centered on how and when a person could have their right to possess a firearm restored after being reported to the database. The Senate approved an amendment that would allow a person to seek restoration of their right after 18 months, if they were found by a court to no longer be in need of treatment.

Sen. Joe Benning, R-Caledonia, sought passage of an amendment that would have eliminated a waiting period altogether, but it was defeated on a voice vote.

“This is a constitutionally delineated right,” Benning said. “My concern is that once you have had a constitutional right removed it should not be your problem to try and get it back.”

Sen. John Rodgers, D-Essex-Orleans, voiced opposition to the bill, fearing that it will be altered as it makes its way through the House. He asked why an existing state law that makes it a crime for people to possess a firearm while committing a crime is not enough.

“The key word is “while committing another crime,” Sears said, noting that state prosecutors, under the provisions of the bill, would be allowed to prosecute some convicts just for possessing the firearm.

“If you believe that convicted violent felons and drug traffickers …. ought not to have firearms, then I guess that’s how your vote would be. To me, this is a pretty simple policy choice that we’re faced with,” Sears said.

Rodgers also expressed a believe that many gun rights groups have expressed throughout the legislative process, that outside groups were influencing the legislation and encouraging lawmakers to act.

“This is largely driven from outside forces and I believe the Judiciary Committee had some evidence of that in testimony recently,” he said.

Rodgers said the state has a long heritage and tradition of gun ownership and those that disagree with it “may want to seek another place that has a culture that they like.” He made a motion to delay the bill by having it committed to the Appropriations Committee but that effort failed on a voice vote.

The bill is up for a final vote in the Senate Thursday before heading to the House.

A full story will appear in Thursday’s editions of the Barre-Montpelier Times Argus and the Rutland Herald.

Roll call vote results:

Yes
Sen. Tim Ashe, D/P-Chittenden
Sen. Becca Balint, D-Windham
Sen. Philip Baruth, D-Chittenden
Sen. Joe Benning, R-Caledonia
Sen. Chris Bray, D-Addison
Sen. John Campbell, D-Windsor
Sen. Brian Campion, D-Bennington
Sen. Ann Cummings, D-Washington
Sen. Jane Kitchel, D-Caledonia
Sen. Ginny Lyons, D-Chittenden
Sen. Mark MacDonald, D-Orange
Sen. Dick McCormack, D-Windsor
Sen. Alice Nitka, D-Windsor
Sen. Anthony Pollina, D-Washington
Sen. Dick Sears, D-Bennington
Sen. Michael Sirotkin, D-Chittenden
Sen. Barbara Snelling, R-Chittenden
Sen. Rich Westman, R-Lamoille
Sen. Jeanette White, D-Windham
Sen. David Zuckerman, P/D-Chittenden

No
Sen. Brian Colamore, R-Rutland
Sen. Dustin Degree, R-Franklin
Sen. Peg Flory, R-Rutland
Sen. Dick Mazza, D-Grand Isle
Sen. Norm McAllister, R-Franklin
Sen. Kevin Mullin, R-Rutland
Sen. John Rodgers, D-Essex-Orleans
Sen. Bobby Starr, D-Essex-Orleans

NRA lobbyist says he represents Vermont interests

MONTPELIER — A National Rifle Association lobbyist is on hand at the State House for today’s Senate debate and vote on a gun bill, just days after gun rights advocates accused Gun Sense Vermont of being a front for a national group.

Gun Sense maintains that it is a Vermont-based, grassroots organization. The two-year-old group is seeking passage of a bill, S.141, that would make it a state-level crime for some convicts to possess firearms. It would also require the names of people found to be mentally ill by a court to be reported to a national database.

Earlier versions of legislation before the Senate included an expansion of background checks to private gun sales, but that has since been shelved.

On Monday, the Vermont Second Amendment Coalition blasted Gun Sense for being a front for former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s group Everytown For Gun Safety. A lobbyist from the Necrason Group, testifying on behalf of Gun Sense, told the Senate Judiciary Committee that Gun Sense needed “to get national expertise” before signing off on a proposed amendment.

NRA lobbyist Darin Goens, right, sits in  the State House cafeteria Wednesday with Evan Hughes of the Vermont Federation of Sportsmen's Clubs.

NRA lobbyist Darin Goens, right, sits in the State House cafeteria Wednesday with Evan Hughes of the Vermont Federation of Sportsmen’s Clubs.

On Wednesday, just hours before the Senate was due to debate the bill, NRA lobbyist Darin Goens denied being a national interest on the other side of the debate.

“We’re a grassroots organization. I represent Vermonters. I’m not sure they represent Vermont citizens. They’re a national group who has funded a lobbyist,” Goens said, while sitting and chatting with Evan Hughes of the Vermont Federation of Sportsmen’s Clubs.

Goes said he has worked with Hughes’ group in opposed S.141.

“We’ve worked hand-in-hand with the Federation of Sportsmens Clubs,” he said. “They’re our state association so we’ve worked with them for the last several years,” Goens said. “On this particular issue we’ve met with legislators jointly. We’ve discussed amendments. We’ve organized events to make sure that our membership turns up at the capitol to make sure they’re voice is heard.”

Shumlin says fed exchange possible if latest deadlines missed

MONTPELIER — The Shumlin administration will scrap Vermont Health Connect and pursue joining a federally-run health insurance market later this year if technology upgrades needed for the state site are not working by October, Gov. Peter Shumlin announced Friday.

Shumlin, in an interview Friday, said his administration would legislative language to the House Health Care Committee Friday afternoon that will codify the administration’s contingency plan. Shumlin said he expects the state’s contractor, Optum, to complete the so-called change of circumstance function by the end of May, as well as the necessary technology for individuals to enroll in insurance plans through the website by early October.

Should Optum not deliver, the state will begin pursuing a move to a Federally-Supported State-Based Marketplace for the 2017 open enrollment period, Shumlin said. The federal government provides three exchange marketplace options, all of which use the healthcare.gov web platform and federal call center.

But the FSSBM option would allow states to maintain the most authority over health plans, officials said. A bipartisan group put forth a similar idea earlier this year.

Listen to Gov. Peter Shumlin discuss the plan here.

A full story will appear in Saturday’s editions of the Barre-Montpelier Times Argus and Rutland Herald.

Capitol Beat with the Governor 3-20-15

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Gov. Peter Shumlin and Chief of Health Care Reform Lawrence Miller discuss the administration’s new self-imposed deadlines for Vermont Health Connect. Failure to deliver working technology will result in the state pursuing a transition to a federal health insurance exchange.

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Toxins debate reignited in Senate

MONTPELIER — A host of industry representatives are pushing back against language inserted into a Senate health care bill late last week that would alter a 1-year-old law that looks to regulate toxic products in commercial products.

The Senate Health and Welfare Committee heard testimony from several people Wednesday looking to scrap the language added to S.139 on Friday. It would make changes to Act 188, which was signed into law last year by Gov. Peter Shumlin following an arduous back-and-forth process that was finalized in the waning hours of the previous biennium.

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.

It also created the Chemicals of High Concern to Children Working Group that would make recommendations to the commissioner of health about regulating designated chemicals.

But an amendment to S.139 approved by the committee Friday would make significant changes to the law. It would allow the commissioner of health to add chemicals to the list through rule making based on “credible, scientific evidence,” removing language in the law that calls for “the weight of” such evidence to be considered.

Opponents of the change say it could allow a single study to form the basis for regulating a chemical.

It would also change the authority of the working group. Instead of allowing the commissioner of health to adopt rules regulating the sale or distribution of children’s products containing such chemicals “upon the recommendation” of the working group, the commissioner could act “after consultation” with the group. It diminishes the oversight and purpose of the group, which includes members with varying viewpoints.

The amendment would loosen the standard for allowing the commissioner of health to act by changing the threshold from “children will be exposed” to “there is potential for exposure.”

And it also removes language calling for “a probability” that exposure or frequency of exposure to such chemicals could cause or contribute to adverse health impacts before the commission of health could act.

Several industry representatives, including William Driscoll, vice president of Associated Industries of Vermont, testified Wednesday against the changes.

“We are very concerned about the proposed amendments to that statute, even as it is being implemented,” Driscoll said. “We feel that however well-intentioned, the amendments … are unwarranted and actually undermine the statute.”

Allison Crowley DeMag, a lobbyist representing the American Chemistry Council, said the language undermines the process undertaken last year to craft Act 188. The law that was eventually enacted represented a deal, she said, and the amendment seeking to change it would “undue what was a very collaborative effort last session.”

Allison Crowley DeMag

Allison Crowley DeMag

“At the end of the day, everyone in this room, as far as I know, we all gave some, we all won some, but we all came to a deal. Part of that deal was implementing this working group that represented all different types of interests,” she said.

Crowley DeMag urged the committee and others supporting changes to the law to allow the law to be enacted as passed last year.

“The working group hasn’t even been appointed yet and here we are undoing what I thought was a very collaborative effort last session. I’m just really disappointed in the process,” she said. “If the chemical industry had come out and done something like this I know people would be very, very concerned about it. I think that we should just go forward with what we did last session, whether we liked it or not, and just move ahead with the process as it was outlined last session.”

Representatives of IBM and the Personal Care Products Council also testified against the amendment, while representatives from Seventh Generation and Vermont Conservation Voters testified in favor of the changes.

Sen. Ginny Lyons, D-Chittenden, vice chairwoman of the committee, said she is looking to make changes because of potential legislation in Washington that might undercut the state’s ability to regulate chemicals. Changes under consideration to the federal Toxic Substances Control Act could prevent the state from strengthening its law in the future, she said.

“We heard that the Congress is acting on TSCA to make changes which would hold states exactly where they are with respect to chemical regulation, or preempt us altogether, which I hope wouldn’t happen,” she said.

Lyons also said she is looking to enact language the Senate passed last year that was removed by the House before it became law. Because the session was ending, the two chambers did not go to a conference committee and the Senate had to settle for the House version, she said.

“We wanted to approve the language that was passed in the bill last year to ensure that our department of health can do its work,” she said. “This opens a conversation that we were unable to have last year because the bill went right up to the end.”

Driscoll said the there is no need for the state to rush because the changes being considered to the federal law would preempt state actions taken after Jan. 1 of this year. And the federal legislation is not focused on the “procedural matters” addressed in the committee’s new language, he said.

“Arguments that these amendments must be rushed into enactment to avoid federal preemption are without factual basis,” he said.

Others see the issue differently, including VPIRG. Executive Director Paul Burns said there was never a deal in place to pass the law.

Paul Burns

Paul Burns

“Right up until the end the industry lobbyists were opposing it and were opposing the Senate for suspending the rules to take it up. This notion that there was a deal, and certainly a deal that included an understanding that nobody would ever come back to try to change the law, that just doesn’t exist. That’s just a fantasy,” Burns said.

He said the “modest changes” added to S.139 are intended “to make a law that is designed to protect kids from toxic chemicals a little more effective.”

If changes are made to the federal law the state would be prevented from taking any action against chemicals that the federal Environmental Protection Agency considers regulating for a seven year period, Burns said.

“It puts it on list, so seven years later they may decide to regulate or they made decide not to. In all that time we would be prevented from taking any action,” he said.

By acting now, the state may be allowed to continue to regulate chemicals at the state level, depending on what Congress passes, according to Burns.

“That could be grandfathered in … if we could make it happen soon enough,” he said.

There are differences of opinion within the committee’s 5-member ranks. Sen. Dick McCormack, D-Windsor, said he believes the committee’s amendment is “superior to the language that’s in the law.”

However, McCormack also said he believes “a deal is a deal,” and making changes now could hinder future efforts to craft collaborative policy in the future.

“If a deal was made I’m reluctant to just say, ‘Well, it was a bad deal so now we’re going to make a new deal,’” he said. “I’ve got to roll this one around in my mind for a little while.”

Lyons challenged his position.

“So we’d never change a law again? I’m going to push you on that one,” she said.

Lyons said the Senate’s position last year was abandoned because of the time crunch.

“The deal, as it left the Senate, was all consumer products were being regulated. That was a deal I felt very firm about,” she said. “Some of the changes that were made in the House, I think, have been identified here as being problematic.”

First-term Sen. Brian Collamore, R-Rutland, indicated he supports keeping the existing law as is.

“I do think that you had disparate parties brought together. There was concession on both sides, an agreement was reached and Act 188 was passed,” he said. “You haven’t allowed the process to work yet.”

Meanwhile, Sen. Anthony Pollina, P-Washington, indicated his willingness to amend the law. Committee Chairwoman Claire Ayer, D-Addison, was absent Wednesday due to a family emergency.

The committee is expected to make a final decision on whether to seek changes to Act 188 this week.

neal.goswami@timesargus.com

House budget plan becoming more clear

MONTPELIER — The House’s path to closing the state’s $113 million budget gap is becoming more clear after a new framework was revealed Friday by House Appropriations Committee Chairwoman Mitzi Johnson.

Johnson, D-South Hero, in her first year leading Appropriations, unveiled her own budget proposal the committee will use to finalize its 2016 fiscal year spending plan. It incorporates many of Gov. Peter Shumlin’s ideas to close the original $94 million hole the state faced in January, and incorporates new ideas for the additional $18.6 million needed after a revenue downgrade in late January.

Rep. Mitzi Johnson

Rep. Mitzi Johnson

Some of Johnson’s ideas are taken from a list of potential cuts totaling $29 million that lawmakers crafted with the Shumlin administration. House Speaker Shap Smith, D-Morrisville, said Monday that list of potential cuts “is appropriate to use” to close the gap.

Among the cuts used by Johnson in her budget proposal are:

— $5 million reduction for Vermont Health Connect, including subsidies
— Eliminating a $6 million state contribution to the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program
— Closing the Southeast State Correctional Facility in Windsor, for a $820,000 savings in both the 2016 and 2017 fiscal years
— A $1 million reduction in funding for the Vermont Veterans Home
— A $1 million reduction in funding for the Department of Information and Innovation
— A $560,000 reduction in funding for Vermont PBS split over the next two years

In total, Johnson’s proposal makes about $57 million in general fund cuts. It would incorporate $10.8 million labor savings the administration is seeking from state employees and also consolidate four emergency dispatch centers down to two.

Johnson’s proposal would utilize more than $20 million one-time or short-term funding sources. About $5 million in reserve funds would be tapped to help close the gap. It also would shift $4.8 million in spending for the Vermont Housing and Conservation Board to the capital bill to be raised through bonds. Another $1.7 million would be generated by leasing prison beds to the U.S. Marshal Service.

Whatever proposal the Appropriations Committee settles on will be paired with a revenue package fine-tuned by the House Ways and Means Committee. Smith, D-Morrisville, said the House will likely move forward with a revenue package of $35 million.

It will include, Smith said, a Shumlin proposal to eliminate the ability to deduct the previous year’s state and local taxes for taxpayers who itemize deductions. That will generate an additional $15 million tax revenue.

House Speaker Shap Smith

House Speaker Shap Smith

The House will look to also cap the amount of all itemized deductions at 2.5 times the standard deduction, according to Smith. That will raise about $18 million in additional revenue. Another $2 million in a separate fee bill will generate the remaining revenue to help balance the general fund.

Smith said he supports the framework of Johnson’s proposal which will help the committee finalize its plan this week, including the use of reserve funds.

“I do think that the framework that she’s put forward, it works. I think we both have been trying to figure out ways to bring down the amount of one-time money that is used, recognizing that next year could be difficult as well. At this point in time, I think she’s done about as good of a job as she can limiting the use one-time money,” he said. “I think it is appropriate to use (reserve funds) given the challenge that we face as long as we’re thinking strategically how we might replace it … in outgoing years.”

Smith and other House leaders are still planning to finalize a budget plan this week, but additional time will be taken if needed, he said.

“My view is that if something comes up I’d rather get it right than get it done fast. I think that we’re on target right now for the completion of the budget by the end of the week with consideration of the full House next week,” Smith said.

neal.goswami@timesargus.com

Read Johnson’s budget outline below:

Capitol Beat 3-16-15

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Vermont Press Bureau reporter Josh O’Gorman and bureau chief Neal Goswami discuss guns, a sugar tax, new budget proposals and education in this week’s episode.

Gun bill advances in Senate

MONTPELIER — The Senate Judiciary Committee advanced a bill ahead of the Legislature’s Friday evening deadline for non-money bills on a 5-0 vote, ensuring the full Senate will consider a scaled back-gun bill this year.

The legislation, supported unanimously in the committee Friday, seeks to ban some convicted criminals from possessing weapons and will require people found by a court to be a danger to themselves or others to be reported to the federal National Instant Criminal Background Check System. It would take effect on Oct. 1.

The legislation is a scaled back version of another bill, S.31, that Judiciary Committee Chairman Dick Sears, D-Bennington, declared “dead,” because it included an expansion of background checks for private gun sales, something that was vehemently opposed by gun rights activists.

Sears, who wrote the original draft of the revised bill that looks to keep guns out of the hands of some convicts, said he supports the idea because Vermont is the only state in the nation without such a statute. The federal government also has a similar law, but federal prosecutors often do not prosecute because of limited resources, advocates argued.

The committee voted unanimously Friday to merge the Sears-crafted language with the mental health reporting component, which came as a proposal from the Senate Health and Welfare Committee. That committee’s chairwoman, Claire Ayer, D-Addison, urged the Judiciary Committee to include it in its provision earlier this week. It was also part of S.31.

Those found by a court to be a danger to themselves will, if the bill is signed in to law, be reported to the federal database beginning Oct. 1. Anyone reported to the database could be removed from the database after three years if a court rules they are no longer a danger.

The committee labored over which crimes to include in the ban Friday morning before voting on the measure. Most major crimes in Vermont are included, but the committee agreed Friday to remove lewd and lascivious conduct, several motor vehicle crimes and all misdemeanors except domestic violence.

The committee’s action Friday was hailed by Gun Sense President Ann Braden, who helped launch the effort for new gun laws in January. She called the vote “an historic victory.”

“This is a gun violence prevention bill that’s going forward despite the opposition of the gun lobby. It shows that second amendment rights [and] respect for the 16th amendment in the Vermont Constitution goes hand-in-hand with gun violence prevention,” Braden said.

Although Sears declared Friday that S.31 — and expanded background checks for private gun sales — is dead for this year and next year, Braden said her group will continue to push for it.

Sen. Dick Sears

Sen. Dick Sears

“I think these are really important measures that are definitely going to keep guns out of the wrong hands. In terms of background checks, we still want that to happen. We knew that this was going to take a long time,” she said.

Evan Hughs, legislative liaison for the Vermont Federation of Sportsmen’s Clubs, said his group will also continue its effort to ensure that gun rights are not infringed upon.

“It’s one more step in an evolving process of legislation. As the federation we’re concerned about the interests of the hunting and shooting community in the state of Vermont,” he said following Friday’s vote. “At this point we still have things that concern us but we’re willing to participate in getting the bill right.”

The meticulous attention the committee paid to the bill Friday illustrates the delicate process — and political challenges — involved in passing gun legislation. Sears said he felt “extreme pressure from all sides.”

“When I announced that I wasn’t supporting the background portion of the bill that pissed off most of the more liberal members of my caucus as well as the leadership of my caucus as well as many of my constituents back home,” he said.

Senate President Pro Tem John Campbell, D-Windsor, an original sponsor of S.31, pushed Sears hard to advance a bill. He spent considerable time in the Judiciary Committee, often seated near Sears, monitoring its progress.

“I think his behavior has been fascinating,” Sears said.

His attention was bothersome to Sears, and prompted the veteran lawmaker, who is known to express his displeasure at times, to offer Campbell total control earlier this week.

“There was one point where I asked him if he really wanted to chair the committee,” Sears said.

Campbell, a deputy state’s attorney in Windsor County and a former police officer, said he was pleased with Friday’s vote, but noted it is only “one small battle won.” The extra attention, he said, was a result of its importance.

“When you see the effect that heroin and other drugs have had on our families here in Vermont, I was willing to do anything I needed to do to try to come up with an answer,” he said. “In addition to being the pro tem I am also one of the senators. This is a bill that I actually sponsored, and as such, it was one where I felt I had not only a duty but an obligation to shepherd it in any way I could.”

The Senate Judiciary Committee, and Senate President Pro Tem John Campbell, D-Windsor, listen to testimony on a gun bill.

The Senate Judiciary Committee, and Senate President Pro Tem John Campbell, D-Windsor, listen to testimony on a gun bill.

Campbell said he was aware of Gov. Peter Shumlin’s discussions with members of the committee and was trying to counter that force.

“The governor made it very clear how he feels about this bill. He doesn’t support it,” Campbell said. “The governor is very powerful and the administration is very powerful. As such, I guess I had to step up my involvement.”

Shumlin, who strongly opposes any new gun laws, was pushing his message. Sears said he had conversations with Shumlin, including a call Thursday night from the governor to inquire about the bill’s status.

“He asked me what I was expecting to have happen,” Sears said. “He never said, ‘Don’t do it,’ but he’s been pretty clear publicly.”

The governor has adopted a wait-and-see stance. He acknowledged in an interview Friday that he has been speaking with committee members “over the last weeks,” but will not declare if he intends to veto the legislation if it clears both chambers and reaches his desk.

“If a bill comes to my desk, I will look at it when it gets to me. These bills have a long way to go. My feelings I’ve made clear. We’ll see what happens,” he said. “Let’s give them the latitude to do what they think is right and the governor will do what I think is right.”

Sears said the bill, as crafted, is narrow and could end up with the governor’s support.

“If we can get it through without adding something on in either the Senate or the House, I suspect he’s going to be comfortable with the idea that there’s certainly people that probably shouldn’t possess firearms,” Sears said. “It’s up to him. He’ll do what he wants.”

Shumlin, however, is far from offering his support.

“These are tough bills. (Sears is) trying to come out with one that he thinks is sensible, but we may well agree to disagree,” Shumlin said.

Campbell, despite warnings from some opponents of the bill that his efforts would cause him political harm, said he decided to push away.

“The price that I will end up paying for this is one that won’t be known for a couple years. I’ve had people tell me, quite frankly, that my political career is over for pushing this bill. As I’ve said before, that’s fine, I’m ready to deal with that.”

neal.goswami@timesargus.com

Read the legislation below:

Capitol Beat with the Governor 3-13-15

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Gov. Peter Shumlin chats with Vermont Press Bureau Neal P. Goswami about a House Health Care Committee bill, the state budget and gun legislation.

Administration asks for list of state jobs to cut

MONTPELIER — The Shumlin administration has asked state agencies and departments to identify up to 325 state jobs to be cut to obtain $10.8 million in labor savings.

Agency of Administration Justin Johnson made the request in a memo sent to agency secretaries and department commissioners Wednesday. The memo was first reported Thursday by Seven Days.

The administration is seeking the labor savings to help balance the 2016 fiscal year budget, which has a hole of about $113 million because revenues are rising slower than the budget’s rate of growth. Officials have asked the Vermont State Employees Association to open the union’s existing labor contract to avoid job cuts, but the union has refused to do so.

Justin Johnson

Justin Johnson

The administration is looking to nix a 2.5 percent cost of living increase due to state employees during the 2016 fiscal year, and slow down so-called “step increases,” which average out to about a 1.7 percent additional pay increase for state employees annually.

Because the union is unwilling to renegotiate, job cuts will be needed, according to Johnson.

“It seems unlikely that the State’s labor contract will be reopened as part of the solution to balancing the budget. This situation leaves me with no alternative but to begin planning for a significant reduction in force across all sectors ofVermont state government to be effective July 2015, the start of the new fiscal year,” Johnson wrote in his memo.

The number of job cuts needed ranges from 150 to 325, depending on the positions. On average, the state’s general fund covers about 40 percent of the cost for each position. Each position, including salary and benefits, has an average cost of $83,000.

Johnson asked that positions be identified by March 16, and that vacant positions be considered first.

The Agency of Human Services, the largest state agency, has been asked to achieve the most savings — more than $4.5 million. The Agencies of Natural Resources, Public Safety and Administration must identify more than $1 million in saves each.

See the memo and the administration’s target reductions below:

Tax code changes eyed to balance budget

MONTPELIER — The 2016 fiscal year state budget the House considers is likely to include $35 million in new revenue raised through changes in the tax code, according to House Speaker Shap Smith.

That amount is consistent with what Gov. Peter Shumlin recommended in his budget, which was presented to lawmakers in January, the Democratic speaker said in an interview Thursday. But the House plan will likely also look to cap itemized tax deductions to raise additional tax revenue from wealthier Vermonters, he said.

“The governor’s original budget relied on $35 million of new revenue and we are looking at that amount of revenue to balance the budget that the governor presented, as well as the additional … $18 million that was necessitated by the revenue downgrade. We’re continuing to rely on the need to raise $35 million in new revenue,” Smith said.

The 2016 fiscal year budget has a current hole of about $113 million. After raising $35 million revenue, lawmakers will need to make about $78 million in cuts.

House Speaker Shap Smith

House Speaker Shap Smith

The House, Smith said, will use the governor’s proposal to eliminate a current policy that allows taxpayers who itemize deductions to deduct their previous year’s state and local tax liability from their taxable income. But the House will look to go even further and cap all itemized deductions at two-and-a-half times the standard deduction. For a couple filing jointly that would be about $31,000.

Those two measures would raise $32.4 million, Sara Teachout, a fiscal analyst with the Joint Fiscal Office, told the House Ways and Means Committee Thursday. Revenue included in a fee bill makes up the additional general fund revenue needed to hit the $35 million target.

Smith said he did not want to commit to that plan before the committee fully considers it, but said he supports it.

“I think that given the reductions that we’re making in the budget and the fact that it largely impacts people at the lower end of the income ladder that it’s fair to ask those at the upper end of the income ladder to pitch in to solve the problem, and through capping the itemized deductions I think we could do that,” he said.

According to Teachout, Vermonters earning $75,000 or less would chip in an additional $3.91 million under the proposal. Vermonters earning $75,000 or more would contribute an additional $28.48 million in tax revenue.

According to data Teachout provided the Ways and Means Committee Thursday, about 84,000 of Vermont’s 310,389 tax filers would see a tax increase. But the increases would be minimal for low- and middle-income Vermonters. People earning $75,000 or less would see their tax bills rise by $144 or less, on average. The state’s 355 filers earning $1 million or more would see an average tax increase of $18,603.

Smith said limiting deductions will put Vermont more in line with tax policy in most states.

“They often times don’t allow the itemized deductions that we do. I think it moves us closer to what other states do,” he said.

Exactly where the House will look to make budget cuts is still evolving, Smith said. However, some of Shumlin’s recommendations are likely to be used, including cuts to the state’s assistance program known as Reach Up and to the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program and through the consolidation of emergency dispatch centers.

The House will also look to include $10.8 million in labor savings from the state’s work force, according to Smith.

“Under any circumstance in balancing this budget it’s going to require some labor savings,” he said.

The administration ratcheted up pressure on the Vermont State Employees Association this week in its effort to obtain the labor savings by requesting that agencies and departments identify up to 325 positions to be cut. The administration has asked the union to reopen its contract to negotiate the savings without job cuts, but the union has so far refused to do so.

Meanwhile, the House Appropriations Committee held a public hearing Thursday on a list of potential cuts totaling $29 million. The list features a range of ideas, but most would not provide immediate savings for the 2016 fiscal year, Smith said. Many of those ideas could be used to address future budget gaps, including in 2017, which faces a shortfall of about $45 million.

Smith said the Appropriations Committee, led by Chairwoman Mitzi Johnson, D-South Hero, will use the list as needed.

“I really do have confidence that that committee will make the right recommendations that need to be done to balance the budget. I really rely heavily … on that committee to make the right decisions,” he said.

The final House plan must pass muster with both the administration and the Senate. Smith said there are ongoing conversations with both, but areas of disagreement will be addressed when the Senate considers the House version.

“I don’t think that we have identified, sort of, the areas of tension yet. I don’t think we’ll have a good sense of that until it gets over to the Senate,” he said.

neal.goswami@timesargus.com

Senate fends off effort to repeal aid-in-dying law

MONTPELIER — The Senate gave preliminary approval Wednesday to legislation that prevents safeguards in the state’s aid-in-dying law from expiring after fending off a spirited attempt to repeal the 2013 law that allows terminal patients to obtain lethal medication to end their lives.

Under the current law, patients who want to obtain lethal medication must be a Vermont resident and have a terminal diagnosis with a prognosis, according to two doctors, of less than six months to live. A doctor must also find that the patient has the capacity to make the decision to obtain the medication voluntarily. And, the patient must make two oral requests at least 15 days apart followed by a written request with two witnesses attesting that the request was made voluntarily.

But those steps, based on a landmark Oregon law, are set to expire in July 2016 if the law is not amended. That’s because two former senators who did not seek re-election last year — Peter Galbraith of Windham County and Bob Hartwell of Bennington County — insisted those safeguards sunset in exchange for supporting the law.

Sen. Claire Ayer

Sen. Claire Ayer

Senate Health and Welfare Committee Chairwoman Claire Ayer, D-Addison, is spearheading the effort to amend the law to ensure those provisions remain. Legislation to do that hit the Senate floor Wednesday and was approved on a voice vote.

“It was our opinion, based on testimony, that safeguards need to be in place,” she said.

Ayer said Attorney General William Sorrell informed her committee that there have been no investigations of abuse or coercion, which the safeguards aim to prevent, because of the law. And the Department of Health reported that the law is working as intended, she said.

Ayer also said family members of patients who have utilized the law — six patients have initiated the process and at least three have taken the lethal medication — support retaining the safeguards.

The safeguards do not expire until next year, but Ayer said she wants the Senate to act now.

“We don’t want to risk it getting caught up … in the end of the biennium swirl next year,” she said.

Voting in favor of keeping the safeguards is not a vote in favor of the law, but “a vote to protect the interests of your constituents.”

Sen. Kevin Mullin, R-Rutland, made a motion to postpone action on the bill until January 2016 to allow lawmakers more time to consider the law’s impact. That motion was rejected on a voice vote.

“This is a painful issue,” Senate Majority Leader Philip Baruth, D-Chittenden, said. “The pain is not eased in any way by delaying what we’ve set out to do.”

The debate Wednesday was much shorter than the debate in 2013 when the underlying law passed by a thin margin. But there was still passionate debate.

Sen. Norm McAllister, R-Franklin, who sponsored an amendment Wednesday to repeal the 2013 law, said his wife died a year-and-a-half ago of a painful disease that “eats you alive.” But his wife relied on available palliative care, McAllister said.

“There were days that were very bad, but we worked through those,” he said. “I had to deal with that.”

His amendment failed by a 12 to 18 roll call vote.

McAllister said government should not be involved in how and when people die.

“Seeing what the palliative care is in this state and the comfort they give you and the support they give the families, I don’t think this bill is necessary and I think it sends a real bad message that we’re letting government involved in decisions that need to be personal,” he said.

McAllister also said many doctors in his district are opposed to the law.

Ayer conceded that some doctors are opposed to the law, but they are not forced to write prescriptions if they are opposed, she said.

“A lot of health care providers have a problem with it, that’s why it’s completely voluntary,” Ayer said.

Sen. Dick McCormack, D-Windsor, said the 2013 law created a right for Vermonters and repealing the law would be “an extreme act and it ought to be done with the utmost caution.”

“The amendment to repeal the bill undoes an existing right. That is a weighty and unusual step for the Legislature,” he said. “It’s done, but it’s done in extreme circumstances.”

Rutland County Republican Sen. Peg Flory said the state should not be sending a message to residents that it is OK to end your own life.

Sen. Peg Flory

Sen. Peg Flory

“I think it’s bad policy when the state tells people that it should be a viable alternative, that some lives you ought to consider ending,” she said.

Flory sponsored another amendment that would prevent doctors who prescribe medications to patients for symptom relief of terminal illness that are then used by a patient to end their lives from facing any criminal or civil liability or professional disciplinary action. It also sought to repeal the aid-in-dying law. It failed on a 10 to 20 roll call vote.

Lynne Cleveland Vitzthum, who represents the Vermont Center for Independent Living, has played a leading role in the effort to repeal the law. Vitzthum, who has a son with disabilities, said Wednesday following the votes that she expects future challenges to the law.

“It’s certainly not settled for the future. As I’ve said before, this issue is never going to go away,” she said.

The legislation is up for final approval in the Senate Thursday before heading to the House.

neal.goswami@timesargus.com

Towns receive millions in federal community development money

 MONTPELIER — Thirteen municipalities in Vermont will share in more than $4 million in federal dollars to provide economic development, low-income housing and recovery from Tropical Storm Irene.

Wednesday, Gov. Peter Shumlin announced nearly $4.3 million in grants ranging from $19,000 to $850,000 from the state’s Agency of Commerce and Community Development. The grants are funded through the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development’s Community Development Block Grant Program.

“Spring is coming and soon these grants will lead to construction projects across state that will help improve communities, grow jobs and spur economic growth,” Shumlin said. “From Lyndon to Wilmington, these projects will help our small towns complete disaster recovery projects, create more affordable housing and further develop their communities.”

“While targeted to the needs of lower income Vermonters, these projects will benefit their towns in many ways and for years to come,” said Patricia Moulton, secretary of the Agency of Commerce and Community Development. “Each will make their community stronger from building new affordable homes in the heart of Hinesburg and ensuring all residents can access the public library in Washington to repairing Brandon’s historic town office building.”

The town of Brandon received $500,000 to repair and rehabilitate the town office, which was significantly damaged during the flooding that followed Tropical Storm Irene in 2011.

“Most of the project wasn’t FEMA eligible,” said Sen. Peg Flory, R-Rutland. “It left a huge gap and the town just can’t afford to do the work on it.”

Rutland County was the recipient of the single-largest grant award, with $850,000 going to NeighborWorks of Western Vermont in West Rutland, to be used to continue the organization’s loan fund for home repairs and energy efficiency improvements.

“NeighborWorks does a lot of good things for Rutland County. It’s definitely needed,” Flory said. “Rutland County sometimes seems the county that gets forgotten and so it’s really encouraging to see this.”

At the other end of the spectrum is Barre City, which received $19,830 to determine the feasibility of establishing Granite City Grocery, a proposed co-op grocery store, in downtown Barre.

“We are gong to use this funding for planning and organizing purposes to hire some critical skill sets that we don’t currently have on our board,” said Rebecca Pincus, who is on the Granite City Grocery board.

Picus said the grant will help the organization choose a location and start a capital campaign to make a downtown grocery store a reality.

“It will provide opportunities for those who are mobility limited and it will continue the great revitalization of downtown Barre that is going on,” Picus said.

Other grants include:

Athens — $412,620 for Tropical Storm Irene road repairs;

Brattleboro — $425,000 to Windham & Windsor Housing Trust for the rehabilitation of 29 units of affordable housing in town;

Chester — $108,000 for road repairs following Tropical Storm Irene;

Hinesburg — $675,000 to build 24 units of affordable housing

Lyndon — $500,000 to rehabilitate 28 units of low-income senior housing.

Rochester — $30,000 for affordable senior housing;

Warren — $275,000 to improve safety and accessibility in the village downtown;

Washington — $75,000 for improvements to Calef Memorial Library;

Wilmington — $300,000 to construct a downtown sidewalk.