State workers, supporters rally against cuts

MONTPELIER — Hundreds rallied at the State House Saturday to oppose cuts to the state budget and $10.8 million in labor savings sought by both the Shumlin administration and lawmakers in an event organized by the Vermont State Employees Association.

The state employees’s union was joined by other unions and groups, including the Vermont NEA, AFSCME and the Vermont Workers Center, to protest the the budget plan sought by Gov. Peter Shumlin and lawmakers.

VSEA members and supporters held a rally at the State House Saturday, April 11, 2015.

VSEA members and supporters held a rally at the State House Saturday, April 11, 2015.

The House has passed a budget that uses $33 million in new tax revenue, $53 million in cuts and $25 million in one-time funds to close a $113 million budget gap. The VSEA and others, however, want to see more tax revenue raised and fewer cuts.

The House-passed budget includes $10.8 million in labor savings that Shumlin, a Democrat, proposed. He has asked the VSEA to renegotiate its contract to help achieve the savings. Failing to do so will result in hundreds of layoffs, according to the administration.

About $2 million in labor savings has been identified by the administration, but $8.8 million remains of its target. It wants to delay by six months a 2.5 percent cost of living increase due to state employees in the 2016 fiscal year, and delay by one-year step-increases that average out to an additional 1.7 percent pay increase next year. Those steps would require union approval.

The union has so far refused to renegotiate, and has proposed ways to raise additional revenue instead. The 500 or so people gathered at the State House Saturday heard from Ed Olsen, a snow plow driver for the Agency of Transportation, about why the union is not willing to renegotiate.

“I pay taxes to this great state of Vermont, just like all the other hardworking, middle-class people. As a matter of fact, we, the middle-class Vermonters, pay more than 10 percent of our wages to this beautiful statehouse behind me, unlike the wealthy citizens who pay back 8 percent of their wages to our economy,” Olsen said. “That ain’t right. It pisses me off. That’s the biggest reason why I came here today.”

Olsen said the state’s wealthiest residents “aren’t being asked to give up anything.”

Agency of Transportation worker Ed Olsen speaks at State House rally Saturday, April 11, 2015.

Agency of Transportation worker Ed Olsen speaks at State House rally Saturday, April 11, 2015.

“I’m tired of being asked to give back more and more of my wages and benefits to help rescue Vermont’s economy,” he said. “I need every bit of the cash I earn. Vermont has a budget deficit and they always want to balance the budget on the backs of hardworking, middle-class citizens of Vermont.”

Several speakers compared Shumlin to Wisconsin Republican Gov. Scott Walker, who has sought concessions from union workers to help save money in that state, including Rev. Earl Kooperkamp of Church of the Good Shepherd in Barre.

“Vermont is not Wisconsin. Peter Shumlin is not Scott Walker. But it’s getting pretty damn hard to tell the difference,” he said.

Kooperkamp equated the effort to obtain savings from state workers to the seventh commandment — thou shalt not steal.

“It’s wrong, it’s immoral, and we’re here to say that,” Kooperkamp said.

The Shumlin administration is expected to meet again early next week to continue negotiations.

neal.goswami@timesargus.com

Capitol Beat with the Governor 04-10-15

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Gov. Peter Shumlin chats with Vermont Press Bureau chief Neal Goswami about the ongoing process to find $10.8 million in labor savings from the Vermont State Employees Association. He also discusses a failed effort to ban teacher strikes and lawmakers’ efforts pare down his legislative proposals.

Administration, VSEA find some savings, still far short of $10.8 million target

MONTPELIER — Ongoing talks between the Shumlin administration and the Vermont State Employees Association have resulted in some identified savings, but the union is still not interested in reopening its contract to help secure the remainder of the $10.8 million in labor savings the administration is seeking.

The administration says it needs to cut $10.8 million in labor costs in order to close a $113 million budget gap. The union, meanwhile, has proposed ways to raise revenue instead. The administration has shrugged off those proposals, however, and says it will seek as many as 300 layoffs to achieve the requisite savings if the union does not renegotiate some terms.

The House has passed a passed a budget that incorporates a generic $10.8 million in labor savings.

Justin Johnson

Justin Johnson

Secretary of Administration Justin Johnson, following another meeting with the union Thursday, said his team has found about $2 million in savings by freezing salaries for exempt employees earning more than $100,000 a year, reducing the use of temporary employees and rescinding some benefits to designated managers.

The administration is also considering encouraging employee retirements.

“We have had a long conversation about the idea of retirement incentives,” Johnson said.

But the full benefit of offering retirement incentives is unclear. Johnson said the state treasurer’s office has some concerns because savings to the general fund would be offset elsewhere because of the need to begin paying out benefits. He said the expected savings is between $500,000 and $1 million.

“That would require us not to fill any of the positions that retired. That’s problematic,” Johnson said.

If all of the proposed savings were realized, that would leave about $7.3 million that still needs to be achieved.

With the union’s blessing, Johnson said the administration would look to institute a six-month delay in the 2.5 percent cost of living salary increase the contract calls for in the 2016 fiscal year. That would save about $2.5 million.

“It wouldn’t cost anyone anything because no one’s pay would go down,” he said.

Eliminating one year of “step increases” would save $3.9 million. State workers are grouped into various pay grades, each containing 15 steps. The first five step increases occur in successive years. The next few step increases come every two years, and the remaining step increases come every three years. The pay raises average out to 1.7 percent annually.

Those ideas would require approval from the union.

“There are some big chunks of money that you could save by doing things, but they are contractual,” Johnson said.

The administration is also considering instituting five furlough days to save $3.5 million.

“That in some ways is worse than delaying the cost of living because it means people would actually get a cut in pay,” Johnson said.

Finally, a 50 percent reduction in mileage reimbursements would save more than $800,000.

All of those ideas were outlined in a memo to VSEA President Shelley Martin following a meeting between the two sides on Thursday.

“We’re just making the point that you could get to the numbers by doing some of these things. But, we can get to the numbers anyway,” Johnson said.

VSEA Executive Director Steve Howard said the union is willing to work with the administration on savings “right up to the last hour of the legislative session, but we’re not opening our contract.”

Steve Howard

Steve Howard

“We have been consistent throughout the whole effort … that state employees cannot be asked to dip into their paychecks to balance the state budget before wealthy Vermonters are asked to pay more,” he said.

Union members have been “actively engaged” in the process are not interested in renegotiating the terms of their contract.

The two sides are expected to meet early next week to continue discussions.

neal.goswami@timesargus.com

Read the memo to VSEA President Shelley Martin:

 

Read the Response from VSEA:

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

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

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

Lt. Gov. Phil Scott

Lt. Gov. Phil Scott

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sen. Peg Flory

Sen. Peg Flory

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Paul Burns

Paul Burns

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

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

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

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

neal.goswami@timesargus.com

Shumlin decries price hike in opiate overdose antidote

MONTPELIER — Gov. Peter Shumlin is asking the maker of a drug that serves as an antidote for opiate overdoses and has saved nearly 200 lives in Vermont to curb rapidly-rising prices as demand for the drug grows.

Shumlin, speaking at a State House news conference Wednesday, said the price of naloxone, made by Amphastar Pharmaceuticals, has jumped 62 percent in about a month. The cost of 10 doses of the nasal spray cost the state $113 in early March. Now, that cost has jumped 62 percent to $183, according to Shumlin.

“As the demand has increased, as smart states like Vermont have said, ‘We’re not going to let folks who suffer from disease die before our eyes because we don’t have the courage to have the rescue kits available,’ the company CEO has said, ‘Great, how can we make some more money on this?’” Shumlin said.

Gov. Peter Shumlin speaks at a State House news conference Wednesday, April 8, 2015.

Gov. Peter Shumlin speaks at a State House news conference Wednesday, April 8, 2015.

“My suspicion is the price increase is the result of capitalist instincts for more money,” the governor added.

Shumlin and members of his Criminal Justice and Substance Abuse Cabinet sent a letter to Amphastar CEO Jack Zhang Wednesday asking that the company “return to more reasonable prices.”

State officials say nearly 1,900 doses of Naloxone have been distributed around the state. Shumlin signed legislation to equip every Vermont State Trooper with the drug and distribute it to first responders and addiction treatment centers.

Shumlin said about 10 percent of the naloxone kits have been used and saved a life.

“We have saved 190 lives that we know about, that have been recorded by my Department of Health, as a result of getting this simple procedure in folks’ pockets,” he said.

But Bob Bick, CEO of the Howard Center in Burlington, said the state continues to battle opiate addiction and treatment needs are still not being met.

“The reality is that we continue to have a significant opiate addiction problem in the state of Vermont. We need to be focusing on prevention, treatment and intervention,” he said.

Bick said the Howard Center has 305 people on a waiting list and another 500 people have made contact with the agency but have not yet made it on to a waiting list. Those are the people that are most likely to need doses of naloxone, according to Bick.

“It’s really about those folks who are on the waiting list and the folks who have contacted us that we’re having this conversation today about naloxone. It really is about saving lives and the reality is, and I know it sounds trite, but this is a life and death issue,” he said.

The letter asks for the company to extend the same $6 rebates it negotiated with New York to other states.

“We implore your company to stop the steep increase in the price of naloxone, which is threatening our efforts to distribute rescue kits and save lives,” the letter reads. “Opiate addiction is a disease, and in Vermont we are treating it as such. We are reducing the stigma associated with addiction, expanding treatment, and saving lives. The soaring cost of naloxone threatens to thwart our progress.”

Shumlin said the company has not offered the state any explanation for the rapid hike in price. He said he doubts that higher demand for the drug is the cause.

“It’s entirely possible that’s the case, and if so, I would urge the company to make more of it because they’re being successful. But, generally, in the pharmaceutical industry, the trend has never been quite that altruistic when it comes to pricing for Americans buying pharmaceutical products,” he said.

Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders and Maryland Rep. Elijah Cummings sent their own letter to Amphastar last month inquiring about the rising cost of naloxone.

neal.goswami@timesargus.com

State, insurance carriers work to fix billing discrepancies

MONTPELIER — The Shumlin administration is working with the state’s health insurance carriers to reconcile millions of dollars in billing discrepancies resulting from Vermont Health Connect’s lack of key functions.

The reconciliation process has been ongoing for about three weeks, according to Lawrence Miller, Gov. Peter Shumlin’s chief of health care reform. Because automated functions on the state’s online insurance exchange are not working, the state’s carriers — Blue Cross Blue Shield and MVP Health Care — have billed out millions in premiums that have not been paid.

“It’s all because the automated change of circumstance functionality isn’t working,” Miller said.

Lawrence Miller

Lawrence Miller

The state worked with carriers to create contingency plans and develop manual processes to ensure people received coverage when the exchange launched in October 2013 with the automated functions in place. But the nature of those processes did not allow information to be easily shared between the state and the carriers.

Miller said the state focused its attention on signing people up for health plans and manually processing so-called change of circumstance requests for those who needed personal information change in order to receive benefits. Left at the back of the line were requests that would have resulted in the termination of coverage.

“They were not necessarily processing terminations or cancellations as a very high priority,” Miller said.

As a result, the insurance carriers in many cases were not informed by the state that they should stop billing customers. That left the carriers with gaping holes on their own ledgers that must be addressed through a laborious process of comparing records with the state. They are now working with the state and its contractors to determine if they are really owed money for the unpaid premiums on their books.

There is also a pool of money collected by Benaissance, a health care benefits administration firm the state uses to process payments, that has not been distributed. The money is the result of premium payments sent in by customers but without enough information to apply the credit to an account. There are at least “a few hundred checks” in that category, according to Miller.

All sides are hesitant to definitively state how much money is at stake. But Miller said at one point BCBS thought it could be as high as $4 million.

“I hesitate to quantify it until they’ve actually gone through the work,” Miller said. “It represents maximum exposure because if there are claims in there where people were covered and they do actually owe money, then we’ll go ahead and work with them to collect that.”

Cory Gustafson director of government and public relations for BCBS, said the company does not have a clear idea of how large the discrepancy is.360healthbystate_doc_6c2e5968

“It continues to change and the reconciliation process changes that even further,” he said. “I wouldn’t use that math. I know that that number has been up and done and all over the place.”

Miller said about 70 percent of the cases that have been resolved are the result of customers terminating their policy without the carriers knowing. If that percentage were to hold for all of the cases in question, the carriers could still be owed a significant amount of money.

“There is a chance,” Gustafson admitted.

The amount of money in question is significantly higher for BCBS than it is for MVP. BCBS sells more insurance plans in Vermont, but it also had a policy of keeping those plans on the books rather than risk mistakenly terminating them.

Miller said BCBS was more willing to take on risk to avoid creating unintended coverage gaps for customers. MVP, meanwhile, canceled policies more freely to avoid such a risk.

“They didn’t want that exposure. We had a bunch of people that we had to intervene with — hundreds — where MVP didn’t check with Vermont Health Connect,” Miller said. “They just did it.”

Gustafson said BCBS was looking to ensure the smoothest transactions possible for its customers, and therefore did not terminate policies unless there was very clear reason to do so.

“From our perspective, it’s all about the members,” he said. “Every choice we’ve made, every contingency, has been with the perspective that it will be better for the people that are buying plans on Vermont Health Connect. How we feel about it is irrelevant,” Gustafson said.

Still, he said clearing up the discrepancies remains a priority for BCBS. And he said the company is counting on the Shumlin administration to deliver on its promise to complete work on the automated systems the exchange now lacks to avoid a continuation of the existing problems.

“Any time there’s accounts receivable Blue Cross Blue Shield takes it seriously,” Gustafson said. “To us, our accounts receivable balance really symbolizes how important it is for the governor’s plan to be implemented to get to a fully functional exchange. The exchange isn’t going anywhere.”

The administration has said those automated functions will be in place by the end of May. If not, the administration has said it will abandon the state exchange and transition to one managed by the federal government.

Miller said the next release of the website is expected by May 30, at which time he expects all of the 2014 billing issues to be resolved, as well as any new ones created this year.

“It all has to be wrapped up before go live,” he said. “We want a clean and stable data set.”

For now, the carriers and the state are working together to resolve the issue. Both the state and the insurance carriers said they were aware that issues were likely when the exchange launched in October 2013 without all of the automated functions working.

“We all knew we were going to have to go through the reconciliation process and we all knew it would be a bear the first year. The automated reconciliation stuff isn’t set up yet and we have all these manual processes,” Miller said. “This is not a dispute between the state and Blue Cross right now, or MVP.”

Some “differences of opinion” could emerge once the reconciliation process is completed if the carriers’ books are not balanced, Miller said.

“If there is some bad debt at the end of that process it’s going to be a question of what’s the expected rate of bad debt accumulation at a carrier,” Miller said. “We shouldn’t cover what’s normal.”

imagesMVP spokeswoman Jacqueline Marciniak issued a brief statement Tuesday,

“MVP Health Care is committed to working with exchange officials to reconcile discrepancies and develop a solution that is mutually beneficial to our members and to the state of Vermont,” she wrote in an email.

neal.goswami@timesargus.com

Dem leaders look to kill ban on teacher strikes

MONTPELIER — Democratic leaders are maneuvering to amend a bill slated to hit the House floor Wednesday by replacing language that calls for a ban on teacher strikes and the imposition of labor contracts by school boards with a study.

That would significantly weaken the legislation, H.76, that has been pushed heavily by Republican Rep. Kurt Wright of Burlington. Although he has secured a vote on the bill from Democratic leaders, they are now looking to kill off key parts.

In addition to the ban on strikes and contract impositions, it would institute a 1-cent tax rate increase on districts that cannot reach a contract agreement within one year.

Rep. Tim Jerman

Rep. Tim Jerman

House Deputy Assistant Majority Leader Tim Jerman, D- Essex, said Democrats are considering an amendment to be offered on the House floor that would institute a study on whether teacher strikes should be banned.

“We anticipate having an amendment tomorrow that will change that somewhat substantially and be a study looking at the whole issue,” he said. “As of right now that’s what’s on the table.”

Jerman said he believes the Democratic leadership team will secure enough votes to pass an amended bill that will provide “an unfettered study that isn’t biased one way or the other.”

“I think so,” Jerman said. “It’s been a difficult count because the bill keeps changing.”

The bill is getting a floor vote because of commitments made by the leadership team in order to move a larger education bill through the chamber. Wright and others are now working to secure enough votes to maintain the strike ban.

Wright, who plans to hold a news conference about the bill Tuesday morning, said he expects some independents and about 12 to 15 Democrats will join the Republican caucus. It’s unclear whether that coalition can fend off the Democratic leadership’s efforts, though.

“I think that it’s time for us to act. This bill has been around for a long time,” Wright said. “We either want to ban strikes and the imposition of contracts or not.”

Rep. Kurt Wright

Rep. Kurt Wright

House Minority Leader Don Turner said House Republicans will stand together in support of the ban.

“We feel that it’s time to implement the ban on strikes. I think there’s been enough harm over the years, the most recent in South Burlington. It’s time to stop that. Police officers, fire fighters, they’re essential. They can’t strike. I think it’s time in Vermont to put teachers under that same category,” he said.

But he, too, said it is unclear how the House will vote on Wednesday.

“I am very hopeful. I am confident in our caucus and where we’re going to be. The problem is I don’t know what the (Democrats) will be offering up to their members to not vote for it. All we can do is stick together to support this.”

The bill cleared the House Education Committee on a 8 to 3 vote. However, the General, Housing and Military Affairs Committee, which oversees labor issues, rejected the bill on a 5 to 3 vote.

The bill puts the Vermont NEA, which opposes the bill, at odds with the Vermont School Boards Association, which supports it. Gov. Peter Shumlin angered the union last fall when he declared during an ongoing teacher strike in South Burlington that such strikes should be banned.

neal.goswami@timesargus.com

Lawmakers to discuss guns, education and health care

MONTPELIER — Lawmakers this week will tackle issues related to health care, economic development, gun control, education and advanced directives for the terminally ill.

Tuesday, the Senate is expected to give final approval to a bill that would expand the circle of people who are authorized to make end-of-life decisions for a patient who lacks the capacity to do so for himself or herself.

Current law allows for family members — spouse, parent, adult child, sibling, or grandchild — members of the clergy to make decisions regarding do-not-resuscitate (DNR) orders or an order to continue life-sustaining treatment.

The proposed bill would allow for the designation of one or more “surrogates” who are capable of acting “in accordance with the patient’s known wishes and values,” the bill states.

Also on Tuesday, the Senate will take up an economic development bill that would lower the wage threshold for employers to qualify for the Vermont Economic Growth Initiative, a state program that provides financial incentives for employers in a number of fields — including manufacturing and technology — who offer their employees a “livable wage.”

The bill before the Senate would lower that wage amount from $14.64 an hour to $13 an hour. Critics of the bill say the reduction in the salary threshold could end up costing the state money as more workers qualify for public assistance.

Still on the Senate side, this week, the Senate Education Committee will discuss a school-district merger bill approved last week by the House. The bill calls for school districts to study and come up with proposals on how they will merge into districts with at least 1,100 students.

In a nod to the narrative coming out of the November elections that voters are fed up with rising property taxes, the bill includes a provision to cap education spending if it exceeds this year’s rate of growth of 2.95 percent.

Over on the House side, the Judiciary Committee will discuss and take testimony on a gun-control bill approved by the Senate in March. The bill would require the state to report individuals who have been adjudicated by a court as a danger to himself or others to the National Instant Criminal Background Check Registry.

The committee will take testimony from advocates of the bill — such as Ann Braden, co-founder of Gun Sense Vermont — and opponents, including Ed Cutler, president of Gun Owners of Vermont, who will likely rehash the arguments heard throughout the session in the Senate Judiciary Committee and during a public hearing in February.

Barring any surprises in the House Judiciary Committee, the real debate will likely occur when and if the bill comes up for a vote in the House.

On the health care front, the House Appropriations Committee will discuss a bill approved by a narrow margin last week by House Ways and Means that would raise taxes on cigarettes by 25 cents a pack and would impose an excise tax of 0.5 cents an ounce on sweetened beverages, which is projected to raise approximately $18 million.

The money is intended to leverage federal dollars to raise reimbursement rates for Medicare and Medicaid, but is less than the $52 million in revenue proposed by the House Health Care Committee.

The Appropriations Committee is expected to take recommendations from the Health Care Committee as to how the money should be used.

Capitol Beat 4-6-15

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Vermont Press Bureau chief Neal P. Goswami and VPB reporter Josh O’Gorman talk health care, education, voter registration and the week ahead at the State House in this week’s episode.

Welch returns from trip to Tunisia and Ukraine

WASHINGTON — Rep. Peter Welch has returned from a week-long trip abroad, visiting countries where democracy is under attack.

The democratic congressman was part of a fact-finding mission led by House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., Ukraine, which is facing incursions from its neighbor, Russia, and to Tunisia, whose economy is still reeling from a terrorist attack in March.

Welch, who serves on the Oversight and Government Reform Subcommittee on National Security, Homeland Defense and Foreign Operations, discussed his trip to the Bardo National Museum in Tunis — the capital of Tunisia — where, March 18, members of the self-proclaimed Islamic State killed 22 people, most of them tourists.

“It is the one place that is an island of safety in a cauldron of conflict,” Welch said of Tunisia’s place in the Middle East. “Tunisia does not have the sectarian violence plaguing other countries in the region.”

Tunisia was the birth place of the “Arab Spring,” a series of democratic revolutions that began in Tunisia in 2010 and continued in Egypt, Libya, Syria and Yemen. While the revolutions in the latter counties have devolved into partisan and sectarian violence, until recently, Tunisia remained relatively stable and safe.

“Its an example of how the Arab Spring could succeed and not fail,” Welch said.
The attack has led cruise ships to stop visiting the port city of Tunis, whose economy relies on tourism.

Welch’s delegation planned to visit Tunisia before the attack on the national museum, and during the trip, Welch and others toured the museum — which still had bullet holes in the walls throughout the building — and laid a wreath to honor the dead.

“It clearly meant a lot to the Tunisians that this congressional delegation kept its schedule and visited Bardo Museum,” Welch said.

The delegation also met with Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko, who is requesting military aid from the United States to assist in its conflict with Russia. In March 2014, Russia annexed the Crimean Peninsula — which was part of Ukraine — and Ukraine is facing skirmishes along its eastern border with Russia.

Russia is currently facing economic sanctions from the United States and the European Union, and in February, Congress approved a resolution to send Ukraine $350 million in military aid. Welch said he voted against the resolution because Congress did not debate or hold hearings on the subject.

Welch said he came away from the trip to Ukraine doubting that military aid is the right course of action.

“That’s a very close call. Some of my colleagues would like to give military aid. I came away a skeptic,” said Welch, who supports the positions held by diplomats he met with from France and Germany who are advocating against military aid and in favor of continuing the economic sanctions.

“Europeans see increased sanctions as the best option and there is concern that a military escalation will make a bad situation worse,” Welch said. ““They don’t see the possibility of a military victory for Ukraine if Russia is involved.”

Capitol Beat with the Governor 4-3-15

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

House gives final approval to school district consolidation bill

MONTPELIER — A bill that proposes to merge school districts and potentially cap education spending is on its way to the Senate.

House lawmakers approved a bill Thursday that would create larger school districts — voluntarily or involuntarily — and cap future education spending if it increase more than it did when voters approved their school budgets in March.

The spending cap component of the bill — created through an amendment from Rep. Sarah Buxton, D-Tunbridge, and approved by House lawmakers Wednesday — would trigger a 2-percent spending cap in 2017 and 2018 if the statewide average education spending increase in 2016 exceeds 2.95 percent, the average rate of growth for budgets approved by voters last month.

As they did Wednesday, lawmakers offered a host of amendments to the bill. Rep. Christopher Pearson, P-Burlington, made a motion to reconsider the Buxton amendment.

“Yesterday, we discussed what kind of cap we should have. Today, I want to discuss if we should have a cap,” Pearson said.

Rep. Ann Donahue, R-Northfield, said she supported repealing the spending cap provision because she did not believe its structure would curb education spending.

However, House lawmakers declined to take up the discussion, defeating Pearson’s motion by a vote of 114 to 22.

Rep Curtis McCormack, D-Burlington, made a motion to amend the bill to address the repayment of money to the state following the sale of a school.

Currently, when a school district sells a school for which they received construction aid from the state, the district must reimburse the state for 30 percent of the sale price.

The district merger bill calls for a suspension of that rule, allowing the school district to keep all of the money following the sale of a school. McCormack, whose amendment called for the preservation of the current law regarding repayment to the state, argued that such a provision could motivate districts to close and sell off their schools.

“I would suggest that this amendment does not unravel this bill, but rather, restores the integrity of this bill,” McCormack said. “This way, you will not have an incentive to close small schools.”

Rep, David Sharpe, D-Bristol, who chairs the House Education Committee, argued that exempting a school district from having to repay the state for construction aid will benefit the community where the school is located.

“If this small piece allows a school to become an economic driver … then we shouldn’t take away that piece,” Sharpe said.

Lawmakers defeated McCormack’s amendment.

The most radical amendment of the day came from Rep. Heidi Scheuermann, R-Stowe, who called on lawmakers to scrap the entire bill and study the feasibility of her long-offered plan to overhaul education governance.

For the past seven years, Scheuermann has proposed a plan that would create 15 regional tax districts based around the state’s technical centers. Her plan would preserve local school boards, who would create individual school budgets and forward them to a central board, which would create a single budget to be voted on by residents within the district.

Students would have school choice for any school within the tax district, and parents within the district would share a common property tax rate.

“The elimination of local school districts and local school boards, the elimination of local community voice in providing educational services to the students they know best, is not, in my view, the direction we should go,” Scheuermann said.

Sharpe’s committee voted unanimously to not support the amendment.

“This eviscerates the bill that we supported yesterday,” Sharpe said. “It sets us back in our effort to create better education for students at a price Vermonters can afford.”

Sheuermann’s amendment was defeated by a vote of 83 to 37.

The Senate will have the next month to choose to take up the bill, longer than they had last year when a school district merger bill was approved by the House in mid-April.

Beverage tax advances to support health care spending

MONTPELIER — The House Ways and Means Committee on Thursday advanced a sweetened beverage tax and a hike in the state’s cigarette tax to cover the cost of proposed health care initiatives after weeks of wrangling.

Thursday’s vote came after a number of potential revenue sources were laboriously explored. Committee Chairwoman Janet Ancel, D-Calais, and Democratic House leaders considered myriad options before piecing together a plan that raises about $18 million and could also garner enough votes.

In the end, the committee found just enough votes to pass the bill out on a 6 to 5 vote.

Rep. Janet Ancel

Rep. Janet Ancel

“I would like to have a stronger vote coming out of the committee than we’re going to have, but I really appreciate the work that people have done to get to where we are,” Ancel said before the vote.

The committee-passed revenue plan includes a half-penny excise tax on sweetened beverages, including diet drinks and any beverage with artificial sweeteners. It also includes a 25-cent increase in the cigarette tax with a proportional increase in the tax on other related products like chewing tobacco. In addition, the plan eliminates the current sales tax exemption on dietary supplements.

Competing revenue plans sought to eliminate sales tax exemptions on soda, candy, bottled water and other products, but never found enough support on the committee, which features centrist Democrat Jim Condon of Colchester and independent Adam Greshin of Warren.

“Anytime you have an array of taxes and you’re looking at sales tax exemptions, which is kind of the alternative funding sources that we looked at, you have issues because of folks who live on the New Hampshire border,” Ancel said. “I think the retailers have been successful lobbyists against any sales tax on candy and soda for years. It was a whole variety of things. I think if you talk to any member of the committee they would have their own reasons for having trouble getting to yes.”

Democrats waited patiently for days for all committee members to be present. With Rep. Johanna Donovan, D-Burlington, back at the State House Thursday after several days away, Democrats finally had enough votes in place to advance the revenue package.

The bill that arrived from the House Health Care Committee was a non-starter for many members of Ways and Means. That plan sought to spend about $52 million on health care and used a 0.3 percent payroll tax and a 2-cent per ounce excise tax on sugar-sweetened beverages.

Through its weeks-long deliberations, Ways and Means killed off the payroll tax — first proposed by Democratic Gov. Peter Shumlin in January at 0.7 percent — and lowered the beverage tax significantly. Ways and Means also extended the beverage tax to diet drinks and anything that is sweetened with either natural or artificial sweeteners. Maple syrup, the state’s hallmark product, is exempt.

For Reps. Sam Young, D-Glover, and Jim Masland, D-Thetford, the two-cent tax was just too high. But eliminating it altogether was not an option for Rep. George Till, D-Jericho, a medical doctor, who sought an increase in the cigarette tax.

The final Ways and Means revenue plan nearly hit another roadblock Thursday when Young made a motion to reduce to the increase in the cigarette tax. Young agreed to withdraw the amendment after Till threatened to drop his support for the entire measure.

Opponents of the excise tax vowed to continue fighting against. Jim Harrison, president of the Vermont Retailers and Grocers Association, said the Ways and Means plan “is totally going in the wrong direction.”

“The excise tax is absolutely a nonstarter for us. This is a very regressive tax on food products that’s going to do nothing except hurt Vermonters in their pocketbook and send more retail business out of state because products in Vermont will be more expensive,” Harrison said.

And Andrew MacLean, a lobbyist for the beverage industry, said the original “health care aspects of the bill have dissipated” as lawmakers have moved beyond just sugar-sweetened beverages. It is now “strictly a revenue generator,” he said.

Andrew MacLean

Andrew MacLean

“I think the problem with the excise tax is it puts a stigma on a particular business and a particular product and its something that can be raised over time,” MacLean said.

The bill passed Thursday by Ways and Means discarded the House Health Care Committee’s previous policies and spending. The Health Care Committee’s revised plan that takes into account the available revenue will be finalized by the House Appropriations Committee.

That plan, outlined this week will provide about $3.3 million in state funding during the 2016 fiscal year to boost Medicaid reimbursement rates for primary care providers. That would draw down $3.7 million in federal funds.

The health care proposal would also provide $2.45 million for a Medicaid rate increase for professional services, drawing down $2.77 million. No additional state funds will be applied to hospital outpatient rate increases.

The House Health Care Committee’s plan provides just a fraction of the Medicaid rate increases that Shumlin proposed in his January budget address.

neal.goswami@timesargus.com

House gives preliminary approval to school district merger bill

MONTPELIER — House lawmakers have given preliminary approval to a bill that would merge the state’s school districts and potentially cap education spending.

By a vote that was not divided by party lines so much by the size of the towns and cities they represent, House members Wednesday approved a bill that would overhaul school governance in the state by a vote of 88 to 55.

“This bill will provide for valuable improvements to education for our students and do it within a cost structure affordable to Vermont residents,” said Rep. David Sharpe, D- Bristol, who chairs the House Education Committee.

The bill, which has been in the works since January and which follows a district merger bill that received House approval last session before dying in the Senate, calls for the merger of the state’s nearly 300 school districts into districts that provide Pre-K-12 education with at least 1,100 students by the year 2019.

The bill would compel districts to conduct studies on the feasibility of merging with their neighbors — or any other district — and present merger plans to voters for approval by 2017. Following voter approval, the merger plan would be presented to the State Board of Education for final approval.

Districts that do not act by 2017 would have their merger plans made for them by the Agency of Education.

Rep. Cynthia Browning, D-Arlington, offered an amendment to the bill that would have removed the mandatory district consolidation component of the bill.

“I don’t think school districts that are performing satisfactorily in the eyes of a community should be forced to reorganize,” Browning said, expressing opposition to the idea that merger plans would be subject to the approval of the unelected members of the State Board of Education.

“How would Vermont feel if Congress in DC said to Rhode Island and Vermont, ‘You know, your states are small. You need to merge’?” Browning said.

Sharpe noted that Act 153 of 2010 provides financial incentives for districts to merge voluntarily, and in the intervening five years, very few districts have actually merged.

“The voluntary process might work in 100 years, but we don’t have 100 years,” Sharpe said.

Browning’s amendment was defeated by a vote of 80 to 62.

House lawmakers did approve an amendment offered by Rep. Patricia Komline, R-Dorset, to require any future bills dealing with education that cost money to be paid for with a transfer from the General Fund to the Education Fund.

The amendment, which received broad support by a vote of 129 to 19, would not apply to expenses incurred from mandates within the bill itself.

Lawmakers also approved an amendment from Rep. Sarah Buxton, D-Tunbridge, that would implement a school district spending cap if districts do not curb their spending increases voluntarily.

Under the Buxton amendment, if the average increase of school budgets in the state exceeds 2.95 percent in 2016 — the average rate of growth for school budgets approved at town meeting in March — then districts would face a spending cap of 2 percent the following year.

As she did for most of the day, Browning expressed opposition to the idea of a spending cap, saying that requiring school boards to cap their budgets while lawmakers do not cap their own spending smacks of hypocrisy.

“This is, ‘Do as we say, not as we do,’” Browning said.

The bill is expected come before the House for final approval Thursday. But, even if approved, the bill will be sent to the Senate Rules Committee, where last year’s school district merger bill languished until the end of the session.

Senate passes Election Day registration, defeats ID requirement

MONTPELIER — The Senate passed an election day registration bill Wednesday after defeating an amendment that would have required voters using the provision to provide voter identification.

The legislation, which passed on a voice vote, would allow residents to register to vote on the day of an election. Under current law, a person who wants to cast a vote on Election Day must be registered to vote by the previous Wednesday.

Proponents said the bill will provide greater access to voting booths for Vermonters.

“I am extremely grateful to the Senate for taking up and passing Election Day voter registration with overwhelming support. The support showed by the vote indicates that the Senate appreciates that this is truly a voter rights issue,” Secretary of State Jim Condos said Wednesday.

Franklin County Sen. Dustin Degree, a Republican, tried to amend the bill to require photo identification in order to register on the day of an election. He said the bill in question “doesn’t have any of the safe guards that other states do.”

Sen. Dustin Degree

Sen. Dustin Degree

According to Degree, nine of the 10 states that currently allow same day registration require a valid photo ID. He said six of the states have a provisional ballot process for potential voters that do not have the proper identification.

Degree said has “been convinced by the articles and the studies that have been done that say election day registration can be both effective and a safe way to enhance voter participation.” But additional safeguards to avoid fraud would be better, he said.

“My fear is that while we are citing wonderful studies that show the benefits of election day registration, we don’t have any of the safeguards that other states have. We have none of them,” Degree said.

Most of his colleagues in the Senate disagreed, rejecting the amendment on a 7 to 21.

Senate Government Operations Committee Chairwoman Jeanette White, D-Windham, said her committee was split on Degree’s proposal and did not take a formal position. White said she personally found that it created “two tiers of voters in Vermont,” including a “second level of voter who isn’t quite a full voter unless they can show the valid photo ID.”

Democratic Windham County Sen. Becca Balint said voter fraud is “extremely rare.” Laws requiring identification “are designed to restrict people from voting,” she said, and disproportionately impact the young, elderly, minorities and the poor.

Sen. Becca Balint

Sen. Becca Balint

“It’s critical that we ensure the integrity of our elections, but we should not undermine free and fair access to the ballot under the guise of voter fraud,” Balint said.

Degree’s fellow Republican, Sen. Diane Snelling of Chittenden County, call the amendment “well-intentioned but troubling.”

“It’s hard not to think about southern states that are trying to prevent people from voting,” she said. “I’m not saying this is that but it does remind me of it.”

Condos, following Wednesday’s votes, echoed many of the arguments made by senator’s against the amendment.

“Sen. Degree’s amendment would have changed the way we register voters — it would have created a second tier of registration just for Election Day that systematically targets students, new residents, the elderly, and Vermonters living in rural areas of the state. These Vermonters are fully eligible to vote but may not have the very specific forms of identification laid out in the amendment,” he said.

Julia Michel, a democracy advocate for VPIRG, hailed the bill’s passage Wednesday.

“With the Senate’s vote today it’s pretty clear they view the bigger problem being a lack of voter participation rather than unsubstantiated cases of fraud. VPIRG is thrilled. This is a good day for democracy,” she said.

The legislation now moves to the House for its consideration.

neal.goswami@timesargus.com