Tag Archives: John Campbell

Health advocates propose tax on sugary drinks

MONTPELIER — Health advocates are calling for a tax on sugary drinks that could raise as much as $34 million in new revenue.

Members of Alliance for a Healthier Vermont — a coalition of more than 30 state organizations — gathered Tuesday at the State House to urge lawmakers to pass legislation that would impose a tax of 2 cents an ounce on sugary drinks.

“Some of you may have seen stories on a report that claims Vermont is the second-healthiest state in the nation. But beyond that happy-sounding headline, there is a sadder reality that deserves to be reported,” said Anthony Iarrapino, campaign director of Alliance for a Healthier Vermont. “The reality is, Vermont is not immune from obesity and the preventative diseases it causes.”

According to the state Department of Health, 60 percent of Vermonters are overweight or obese; for children, that number is 29 percent. Obesity is not just unhealthy, it’s expensive. In the United States, 21 percent of health care costs are spent on obesity-related conditions.

Alliance for a Healthier Vermont argues that raising the price on sugary drinks will result in a decline in consumption, which has risen 500 percent in the United States during the past 50 years. In January 2014, Mexico — the largest consumer of sugary drinks in the world — implemented a sugary-drink tax, and saw consumption decline 10 percent during the first six months of the year.

Rep. Alison Clarkson, D-Woodstock, has joined lead sponsor Rep George Till, D-Jericho, on a bill to tax sugary drinks. The bill is being crafted and is expected to be introduced next week.

“I’m a big support of — instead of paying for the problem, which is what we’re currently doing, for the obesity and the diabetes and all the issues that surround high-fructose corn syrup and sugar-sweetened beverages — I would rather tax its consumption,” Clarkson said. “I’d rather put the money into prevention than paying for the problem at the far end.”

According to the medical journal “Obesity Research,” obesity -related health issues cost Vermonters $200 million annually, including $41 million in Medicare costs and $57 million in Medicaid costs.

A tax on sugary drinks has been proposed in past sessions and has failed to garner much support among lawmakers.

“I don’t know what the current support is within the House. I think the challenge on this kind of revenue source always is this: you are building a revenue source that you hope is going to decline, because it will change behavior,” said House Speaker Shap Smith. “Great health benefit, but from a revenue perspective it’s problematic. We don’t need more declining sources of revenue in the general fund.”

Senate Pro Tem John Campbell, D-Windsor, voiced his opposition to the idea of a sugary drink tax, saying it will hurt merchants who operate along the state border in his county.

“I believe very strongly in advancing policy that will help Vermonters lead healthier lives. However, the proposal to tax beverages containing added sugar is not the way to address our shared goal,” Campbell said. “Taxation is not the way to encourage healthy behavior. This proposal will not only increase the cost of living for working families, it will also harm the businesses that produce these beverages and those who bottle, distribute and sell them.”

Jim Harrison, president of the Vermont Retailers & Grocers Association, voiced his opposition to taxing sugary drinks.

“A two-cents-per-ounce tax on certain beverages puts local businesses at a disadvantage to neighboring communities and will have a negative impact on family budgets,” Harrison said. “Politicians should focus on what matters most — education, jobs and the economy — and leave the grocery shopping to us and our customers.”


House, Senate poised to withdraw controversial tax plan, pave way for copacetic adjournment

Speaker of the House Shap Smith

Shap Smith

House and Senate Democrats look poised to end their veto showdown with Gov. Peter Shumlin by withdrawing an income-tax overhaul that would have delivered tax cuts to more than 200,000  middle-class Vermonters.

Neither House Speaker Shap Smith nor Senate President John Campbell have made any definitive announcements today about the status of their battle with Shumlin over the tax reform proposal. But in an interview on WDEV’s the Mark Johnson show this morning, Smith seemed to indicate that he didn’t want to escalate the standoff.

“It’s going to be a good proposal if it’s passed this year, or if it’s passed (next year),” Smith said.

Since the impacts of the reform proposal wouldn’t begin taking effect until fiscal year 2015 anyway, Smith said, “our feeling is we can still do it (next) January if we decide not to go forward with it today.”

The tone telegraphed the withdrawal of the proposal – an official announcement will be coming later this afternoon – a concession that would signal the end of a late-session battle that has pitted the Democratic governor against a House and Senate controlled by members of his own party.

Smith and Campbell had sought to cap itemized deductions, and used the resulting revenue to bring down marginal income-tax rates across the board. The changes would have had the effect of increasing taxes on about 15,000 wealthier tax filers, and decreased obligations modestly for about 240,000 people, mostly in low- and middle-class tax brackets.

Janet Ancel

Janet Ancel

Rep. Janet Ancel, chairwoman of the House Committee on Ways and Means, championed the plan as a revenue-neutral way of delivering tax relief to working Vermonters. Shumlin, however, said the proposal violated the no-new-taxes pledge he entered into with lawmakers last week, and made it clear he would veto the bill if it made it to his desk.

Shumlin also criticized the plan for coming so late in the session, and said it hadn’t been sufficiently vetted.

Smith this morning said that if there’s going to be a fight over the proposal, he wants it to be over the merits of the policy, not over whether it came too late in the session, or whether it reneges on any deals.

“We don’t think something that’s pretty good policy should be clouded by technical arguments, and we don’t want to fight about anything other than, is this a good idea?” Smith said.

In the months between now and the second half of the biennium, Smith said, he believes he can help Shumlin learn to appreciate the rightness of the House and Senate’s thinking.

“We think this is a fair tax policy that’s going to lower taxes for over 200,000 Vermonters, and we think we can take the time and convince the governor that this makes sense to do,” Smith said. “We think this is something the governor and the Legislature should be out championing, not fighting about.”

The dispute over tax policy may the most contentious issue standing between lawmakers and a Tuesday adjournment, but it isn’t the only area of disagreement in the building.

An effort to insert into the budget language previously stricken from a bill dealing with mountaintop wind development has tripped up negotiations around the $5.3 billion bill. House lawmakers are trying to desperately to salvage pieces of an education-funding reform bill that has stalled in the Senate. And the House floor this evening – and perhaps well into the night – will have one last debate over an end-of-life-choices bill that appears all but certain to win final passage.

Nine-person committee to recommend tax for single-payer – in 2015

The Shumlin administration and top legislative leaders will delegate to a nine-person panel the task of coming up with a way to finance single-payer health care.

The issue of financing has followed the Democratic governor since he made single-payer the cornerstone of his gubernatorial agenda in 2010. The single-payer law enacted five months after his election directed his administration to deliver a financing plan by last month. Shumlin, however, said it was still premature to tell Vermonters what tax he’d use to pay for the universal system.

The decision to form the new panel defers until 2015 the unveiling of an official financing recommendation.

The panel will includes two appointees each from Shumlin, House Speaker Shap Smith and Senate President John Campbell. The three men will then decide together who should fill the three remaining seats.

“They will really dig into the issue of what the cost of the system will be and how the system is currently financed, and what a system going forward would like if you financed it a different way,” Smith said today. “I would see them putting forward a financing plan that supported a single-payer plan, or as close to single-payer as we could get under law.”

For more on this story, check out tomorrow’s editions of The Times Argus and Rutland Herald.

Campbell wins uncontested race for pro tem

John Campbell, D-Windsor

John Campbell, D-Windsor

John Campbell’s biggest adversary just turned into his best friend.

In a surprise move moments ago, Chittenden County Republican Diane Snelling withdrew her candidacy for Senate President Pro Tem and instead nominated her would-be rival John Campbell.

“This may seem surprising to some, however I have been promised nothing more and nothing less than a fair and accountable process and productive Senate,” Snelling said on the floor of a packed Senate chamber.

Snelling last year made little effort to veil her contempt for the chaotic scheduling and procedure blamed for casting the body into disarray.

Campbell has apparently convinced her it won’t happen again. More on his victory speech coming soon.

House, Senate getting ready to kick off 2013

This year will feature plenty of contentious debates over things like the budget, health care, renewable energy and drug policy.

But today will be more style than substance as lawmakers settle in for the rituals of the new biennium.

The House chamber is already beginning to fill up in anticipation of the election of Shap Smith to a third term as Speaker of the House. Smith will then deliver a speech to the 150-person body before presiding over the swearing in of new members.

The Senate ceremonies will go down in much the same way, though Senate President John Campbell faces a challenge for pro tem in the form of Republican Diane Snelling.

Advocates will try to make an early mark on elected officials. A coalition of environmental groups convened a press conference earlier this morning to seek assurances from lawmakers to improve the quality of Vermont’s waterways. The Vermont Workers Center is holding a rally at 11:30 this morning telling lawmakers to “Put people first.” The group tends to come out in large numbers, and will be seeking a budget geared toward the interests of low- and working-class Vermonters.

A couple unions – 1199SEIU and AFSCME – are on hand today in advance of their legisaltive push to organize about 6,000 home-care workers in the state.

Stay tuned here at www.vermontpressbureau.com for live updates from the festivities.




Senate waits with bated breath for 2013 committee assignments

The palace intrigue continues today in the Senate, where a rumored shake-up in some key committee chairwomanships has set off a wave of speculation about who will end up where.

Sen. Dick Mazza, one of three members on the powerful ” Committee on Committees,” said he, Senate Pro Tem John Campbell and Lt. Gov. Phil Scott are hoping to ink a final roster by Thursday. They’ll probably announce the decisions to members on Friday morning – “so they have assignments before they go home for the weekend,” Mazza said.

The Friday news drop serves another key function: giving spurned senators 72 hours to ice their brusied egos before returning to Montpelier for the first full week of the session.

“There are going to be some happy folks and some unhappy folks,” Mazza said this morning. “But you deal with it and within a week or so people usually move on.”

Mazza, Campbell and Scott – the lite guv always gets a spot on the committee on committees – have been working for weeks on a roster of committee assignments. Sen. Ginny Lyons, longtime chairwoman of the Senate Committee on Natural Resources, is rumored to be on the chopping block – she had earlier this year pondered a run against Campbell for pro tem.

Sen. Ann Cummings won’t continue as chairwoman of Senate Finance – she requested last month to be pulled from the plum assignment, something that likely would have happened anyway given her very public dressing-down of Campbell at a Senate caucus last month.

Vince Illuzzi’s departure fom the body opens up another chairmanship in the Committee on Economic Development, House and General Affairs.

The Committee on Committees has done a pretty good job keeping people guessing – some of the senators who will be most directly impacted by its chioces still don’t know what’s coming. It’s the kind of inside baseball that no one who works outside Montpelier will probably care much about, but the committee compositions will signal changes in the Senate’s evolving power dynamic, and could have an effect on prospects for some key pieces of legislation.

Senator wants sway over Public Service Board, and more from the first bills of 2013

Forget about broad-based taxes, death with dignity, marijuana decriminalization and probitions on mountaintop wind: the first House bill of the new biennium aims to simplify judicial bookkeeping.

In a sure sign that the new session is nearly upon us, legislative staff have unveiled the texts of bills that are ready for introduction.

H1 is a gripping bit of statute that would repeal a provision requiring superior court clerks to “keep a book of judgments separate from the originals.”

Like most of the 1,000 or so bills introduced in a given biennium, H1 won’t generate much talk outside the committee to which it’s assigned. But in addition to the mundane work of legal bookkeeping, lawmakers will consider scores of bills this year that could have a real impact on the lives of the Vermonters they represent.

Take H6, introduced by Rep. Paul Poirier, the Barre City Independent who late last month dropped his insurgent candidacy for Speaker of the House. Poirier’s legislation would add “mental injury” to the list of job-related afflictions for which employees are entitled to workers’ compensation.

In the Senate’s first piece of new legislation, Sen. Tim Ashe, a Chittenden County Democrat/Progressive, wants to require judges “to consider the approximate financial cost” of a sentence before handing down a ruling.

It won’t the first go-round in Montpelier for many of the bills under consideration in 2013. Already on the calendar in the Senate is a bill relating to concussions in youth sports. Lawmakers failed to reach consensus on a proposal last year; S.4, introduced by Ashe, Sen. Dick Sears and Senate President John Campbell, would, among other things, prohibit a coach from letting a child reenter a game after suffering a concussion.

Sen. Robert Hartwell, a Bennington Democrat and vocal critic of the Public Service Board, promises to spark a lively debate with his first piece of legislation of the biennium. Hartwell, an opponent of ridgeline wind development and wireless “smart meters,” want to give the Senate more influence over the composition of the three-person panel responsible for regulating those technologies.

Hartwell’s S16 would require the governor’s appointments to the Public Service Board to first win consent from the Senate.

You can scroll through the first 24 bills of the session yourself at

http://www.leg.state.vt.us/docs/serviceMain.cfm, and expect to see many more added in the coming days.

Dems pick Philip Baruth as next Senate Majority Leader

One of the more vocal critics of Senate leadership over the past two years was elected by his Democratic peers Saturday to help fix it.

Sen. Philip Baruth, a second-term Chittenden County Democrat, will serve as his 23-member caucus’ next majority leader. During his first two years in office, Baruth often chided Senate President John Campbell for a top-down leadership style he said was used to subvert the will of the majority.

Baruth on Sunday said he thinks he and Campbell are primed to improve the dynamic.

“A lot of problems were caused by bills that had lot of support in the caucus but then didn’t have quite enough support to get out of committee,” Baruth said. “We have had very good discussion about that at (the Senate Democratic caucus Saturday) and talked about ways to massage that situation so we wouldn’t have quite so much pressure build up around certain issues.”

Baruth named the childcare unionization bill specifically as one of piece of legislation blocked from seeing a floor vote last year. Does that mean the controversial legislation, opposed by Campbell, is headed for an up-or-down vote on the floor in 2013?

“I wouldn’t want to say anything definitive on any specific bill, but it certainly seems as though discussions are moving in that way,” Baruth said.

A professor of English at the University of Vermont, Baruth said even Republican lawmakers will have a voice in the Democratic caucus. Sen. Diane Snelling, a Chittenden County Republican, is running against Campbell for a Senate presidency that will be decided this week.

“I know John Campbell is not taking anything for granted, and I am very sure he’s talking on a regular basis with Republicans that have been in the body for awhile, as well as those just coming in,” Baruth said. “In the Senate, it’s less about R’s versus D’s and it’s more about wrangling over the vision for ideal government, and then how you pay for that ideal government.”

Baruth, who won the post in a unanimous voice vote, had voiced interest last fall in being a member of the leadership team, but said he’d cede the top spot to a more senior member of the body. No one else emerged to take the job.

Sen. Claire Ayer, an Addison County Democrat and chairwoman of the Senate Committee on Health and Welfare, will serve as assistant majority leader.

From his more experienced No. 2, Baruth said he’ll seek “advice and guidance.”

“Claire is an extremely experienced and savvy person,” Baruth said. “And what I need from her is mostly her advice.”

Lawmakers will convene in Montpelier on Wednesday for the opening of the 2013 session. Gov. Peter Shumlin delivers his State of the State address on Thursday.

Campbell admits to past failures, then wins second term as Senate pro tem

Following a lengthy mea culpa in which he acknowledged his “deficiencies” as a leader, Sen. John Campbell was nominated by his Democratic colleagues Tuesday evening to a second term as pro tem of the Vermont Senate.

Campbell had come under withering criticism during his first two years on the job, much of it from fellow Democrats who blamed the Windsor County lawmaker for a “chaotic” environment that at times resulted in dramatic procedural breakdowns on the Senate floor.

Sen. Ann Cummings, the Washington County Democrat who mounted a challenge to Campbell Tuesday, lamented a “dysfunctional Senate” that had, under Campbell’s aegis, become a body of which she was embarrassed to be a member.

“I was really hoping there was going to be a change in how things ran (after the first year with Campbell as pro tem),” Cummings said in a plea for votes Tuesday. “There wasn’t. It got worse the second year.”

Campbell acknowledged “shortcomings” that he said stemmed largely from his failure to engage all members of the body. He vowed to do better during the next biennium.

“I won’t back away from (my mistakes), I’m not going to make excuses for them,” Campbell said. “But I can tell you this – I’ve certainly learned from them. Me, who is always preaching to have communication be the most important asset that any leader can have, and I think I failed there.”

Campbell’s plea for a second chance ultimately earned him a lopsided 15-6 victory over Cummings, the longtime chairwoman of the Senate Committee on Finance. And while Republican Sen. Diane Snelling has said she’d like to take over as pro tem, Campbell is almost certain to win the title when the full Senate reconvenes on Jan. 9.

Look for a full rundown of Tuesday’s proceedings in tomorrow’s editions of the Times Argus and Rutland Herald.

Pot decrim and death with dignity? According to Shumlin, “we’re going to get them done.”

From death with dignity to marijuana decriminalization, Gov. Peter Shumlin on Tuesday said he aims to seal the deal on several notable pieces of unfinished business from the last legislative biennium.

Shumlin in his first term was unable to deliver on some of his highest-profile legislative initiatives, including union rights for child care workers. At a morning press conference Tuesday, Shumlin said he’s confident lawmakers will send those bills to his desk in 2013.

“I’m confident that regardless of who leads the various bodies in the Legislature, that we can pass decriminalization of marijuana, death with dignity and the (unionization) bill for childcare workers,” Shumlin said. “We’re going to get them done.”

Key lawmakers aren’t so sure.

Sen. John Campbell, the Windsor County Democrat aiming for a second term as Senate president later this afternoon, was the Statehouse’s most prominent opponent to the death with dignity and childcare unionization bills. He said Tuesday his positions on those issues have not evolved in recent months, and that he’s not convinced either has the support needed to make it through the Legislature.

Campbell, however, said he won’t try to squelch a vote on any death with dignity legislation. In fact he said the topic in 2013 will receive more attention from Senate committees than it did in either of the last two sessions.

“I recognize that this issue is not going to go away, and if the majority of people want to have a debate, then that debate should happen,” Campbell said.

Campbell said he envisions joint hearings between Senate committees on  judiciary and health and welfare. He said the hearings come in response to requests for additional debate from people on both sides of the issue.

“If it passes it passes. If it doesn’t it doesn’t,” Campbell said. “But I think everyone involved in this conversation agrees there are issues that need to be vetted, so I think it’s worth taking the time to vet them.”

Look for more on the governor’s wishlist for 2013, and what lawmakes have to say about it, in tomorrow’s editions of The Times Argus and Rutland Herald.

Pollina looks to reclaim “lost nickels” from soda, beer giants

Amid all the merger action today, Senate lawmakers manage to tick some other bills off the backlog that’s been piling up over the last couple weeks.

Once it became clear that it would take hours for legislators to cobble together freshly worded merger amendments, Senate President John Campbell opted to move on to the capital bill. Then came the solid waste bill, legislation dealing with private activity bonds, and the prescription-drug monitoring bill. All won final approval bynoon.

The Senate notably shot down an amendment to the solid waste bill offered by Sen. Anthony Pollina. Pollina wanted to reclaim on Vermonters’ behalf the nickels that beverage companies get to hold onto when people don’t return their redeemable bottles or cans.

Right now, companies like Coca Cola or Anheuser Busch get to keep those nickels, and they add up fast. According to one estimate, unclaimed deposits exceed $2 million annually. The beverage lobby successfully fended off the effort – they say the money helps defray the considerable costs incurred by soda and beer companies in the transport of recyclables.

Pollina said lawmakers ought not worry about companies like Coke, which recorded $2 billion in profits in the last quarter and paid its CEO $24 million last year.

He chalked up the amendment’s 12-18 defeat on the Senate floor to the skilled lobbyists employed by beverage associations, which combined spent more than $150,000 on Statehouse lobbying services between July of 2011 and January of this year.

Check out the Times Argus and Rutland Herald this weekend for a full story on Pollina’s proposal, and why he says it failed.

The Senate has broken for lunch, but is scheduled to return at 1:30 to take up, again, issues related to the utility merger.

Merger windfall on tap in House this week

House Speaker Shap Smith wasn’t kidding when he said he thought the merger windfall issues deserved formal committee deliberations.

According to a schedule posted over the weekend, the House Committee on Commerce and Economic Development looks to be dedicating the whole of next week to the proposed merger of Central Vermont Public Service and Green Mountain Power.

At issue specifically is how the utilities plan to return $21 million to CVPS ratepayers, who bailed the utility out of a bad power deal in 2001. A group of four House lawmakers has spearheaded a movement to pass an amendment that would require the Public Service Board, as a condition of any merger, to issue $76 checks to approximately 130,000 CVPS customers.

The utilities, by contrast, want to invest $21 million in weatherization and other efficiency programs. Oh yeah – they also want to recoup that $21 million by charging the same ratepayers that bailed them out higher rates in the future.

The conversation kicks off at9 a.m.Tuesday, when attorneys for the Legislature will provide an overview of “merger issues, possible amendment issues.”

The real action looks to be on tap Wednesday, when Reps. Cynthia Browning, Patti Komline, Chris Pearson and Paul Poirier make their case for the proposed amendment.

So far at least, no one from the administration – which has endorsed the utilities’ proposal – is scheduled to testify.

In the Senate, meanwhile, lawmakers this week are expected to fashion their own plan to address the utilities’ proposal, which has engendered similarly severe criticism in that chamber.

One thing we know: lawmakers aren’t going to pass a bill forcing the Public Service Board to do anything. Both Smith and Senate President John Campbell say intervention in an open docket could have catastrophic impacts on the integrity of the regulatory system.

But it sure looks like they’re going to do something. Whether it’s a nonbinding resolution asking the PSB to enforce the issuance of checks, or a formal public shaming of the Shumlin administration for endorsing the deal, it’s hard to imagine leadership departing this session without letting the rank-and-file cast a vote on what has become the biggest political football of 2012.

Final stand today for Death with Dignity

Reporters are counting down the minutes as the Senate readies for a floor session this afternoon in which lawmakers are expected to take up – wait for it – a bill that would prohibit minors from using tanning beds.

It isn’t the underlying bill of course that’s attracting so much attention, but the death-with-dignity amendment attached to it by the Senate Committee on Health and Welfare earlier this week.

The controversial legislation doesn’t stand much of a chance. Lt. Gov. Phil Scott, whose constitutional duties including serving as grand overseer of the Vermont Senate, will rule the amendment not germane to the tanning bill, and strip it from consideration.

In an open letter to Scott shipped to media outlets earlier this morning, the chairman of the Patient Choices Vermont – the state’s leading right-to-die advocacy group – urges the Republican to reconsider his ruling:

“In questions like this, that have been well discussed and bottled up for many, many years, and where opinions have crystallized, we would respectfully ask you to consider allowing the entire Senate to fully debate and vote – as opposed to yourself or 2 or 3 Senators (on either side of the issue) being the issue’s final arbiter.”

Don’t expect any shocking turnabouts though.

Peter Shumlin, who has long championed death with dignity, said yesterday that much as he supports the legislation, it would be inappropriate to tack it onto the tanning bill.

Though the Senate should be allowed to cast what he calls a “vote of conscience,” “I also believe it should be done in a way that meets the Senate rules,” Shumlin said. “I used all the very persuasive powers I had with Sen. Campbell, Sears and others to put it to a vote in the Senate. We lost that battle, but I don’t think putting the bill on a non-germane bill is going to get us a vote.”

The Merger Drama: How does it end?

The $21 million windfall provision in the proposed merger of Central Vermont Public Service and Green Mountain Power has become the odd and unlikely political thriller of 2012.

And while the climax is coming soon – legislative leadership aims to have members out the door before May – no one seems to know yet how this drama will end.

The back story by now is familiar to most everyone: pushed to the brink of insolvency by an ill-fated power deal with HydroQuebec, CVPS in 2001 asked the Public Service Board to stave off bankruptcy by forcing customers to pay above-market costs for electricity.

The three-person board granted the request, under one condition: if CVPS ever became financially healthy enough to attract a takeover bid, the utility would have to somehow compensate ratepayers for keeping the company afloat.

The board left open the question of precisely how that compensation should be administered, a vagueness largely responsible for decibel level of the debate 11 years later.

The controversy in Montpelier bubbled up slowly at first, springing from a disagreement over how the $21 million windfall ought to be returned to ratepayers. Utilities proposed allocating it to a seed fund for efficiency programs; lawmakers, emboldened in part by a well-funded campaign by AARP of Vermont, wanted $76 checks sent directly to CVPS ratepayers. 

Things started getting crazy on March 27, when the Department of Public Service unveiled a Memorandum of Understanding between the state and GMP and CVPS.

Only then did lawmakers find out that not only would the $21 million be used for weatherization programs, but that the ratepayers themselves would be billed back, in the form of higher rates, for any money deposited by the utilities into the efficiency fund.

Shock and outrage ensued.

The debate has tugged at the populist heartstrings of lawmakers from across the political spectrum, more than 70 of whom in the House have signed their names to an amendment that would, as a condition of any merger approval, require the Public Service Board to force utilities to send checks back to ratepayers, and prevent them from recapturing the $21 million in rate base.

The Senate too has joined the battle. Led by Senate President John Campbell, lawmakers downstairs have amped up the rhetoric against a proposal that has been described in turns as “dishonest,” “unjust” and “unfair.”

So many words, but what do they all mean?

Nothing, so far.

Lawmakers had initially hoped escalating political pressure would compel the governor to reopen the MOU. But that’s not going to happen.  

At a press conference Wednesday, Peter Shumlin issued a full-throated defense of his administration’s deal with the power companies.

“My own judgment is that my department negotiated the toughest deal we could get for ratepayers in this merger that’s going to bring real value to customers,” he said.

Asked twice whether it was shareholders, and not ratepayers, who ought to be funding the $21 million windfall provision, Shumlin deflected the inquiry, saying reporters are asking the wrong question.

“I think you’re missing the question – I really feel this strongly,” he said. “The question to me is, how do you take the merger of a utility and get the best possible deal for ratepayers that you can?”

Two key components of the MOU, Shumlin said, offer proof that Commissioner of Public Service Elizabeth Miller “drove (the utilities) as far down the pike as we can get them.”

The rate at which the $144 million in merger-related savings will accrue to utility customers, Shumlin said, has been increased dramatically as a result of government intervention.

VELCO governance, too – at one point the most controversial aspect of this merger deal – has also been largely resolved in an MOU in which Gaz Metro agrees to cede power over the transmission company to a independently governed public-benefits corporation.

As for the thornier issue of where the $21 million comes from?

Shumlin said that when Gaz Metro acquired GMP in 2007 – an acquisition that also involved a ratepayer windfall related to a bad HydroQuebec deal – the Public Service Board approved a plan almost identical to the one outlined in the latest MOU.

Back then, GMP created an $8 million efficiency fund, but collected that investment from customers in the form of higher rates. The savings that accrued to customers as a result of those ratepayer-funded investments, the board ruled in 2007, satisfied the windfall requirements.

“This particular piece happened to be exactly what the Public Service Board ordered the last time we had an identical deal,” Shumlin said. “It seemed logical it would be dealt with in the exact same way.”

With the governor unbowed by political pressure, lawmakers are contemplating their next move.

Rep. Patti Komline, a Dorset Republican, helped author the amendment that looks to intervene in the open PSB docket. But she needs a vehicle to which to attach it, and House leadership is blocking, for now, the only two bills to which the amendment would be germane.

In the Senate, meanwhile, lawmakers are eying the miscellaneous tax bill as a vehicle for some version of a windfall amendment.

But much as he dislikes the utilities’ windfall proposal, Campbell has said he strongly opposes legislative intervention in the quasi-judicial Public Service Board process. So barring a coup, any windfall-related riders on the tax bill won’t go as far as the most ardent opponents would like.

Last week, word spread in the House of a compromise measure that involved a nonbinding resolution. A resolution would offer opponents a chance to register their disdain in a roll call vote, while allowing House and Senate leaders to avoid interfering in the PSB deliberations.

But negotiations in the House are by most accounts nonexistent at this point, with opposing sides communicating mainly through the press.

Under no circumstance will the Legislature will depart the 2012 session with a law dictating to the Public Service Board the terms of the merger.

While Komline has 72 sponsors on her amendment, that doesn’t mean she’s got the votes to win on the House floor. House Speaker Shap Smith hasn’t discouraged members of his caucus from signing on to the amendment – he in fact has reportedly given his blessing to constituents for whom the issue could otherwise become a political liability come election time.

Should Smith feel compelled to undermine Komline’s sponsor list, Democratic support for the amendment would peel off dramatically.

And if the sun rose in the west and the House passed a law interfering in an open Public Service Board docket, then Shumlin would veto the measure forthwith.

So what IS next?

A procedural maneuver in the House could see a floor vote on whether to unblock one of the pieces of legislation to which Komline’s amendment would be germane (they include  a DPS housekeeping bill and a smart meter bill). That vote would almost certainly fail, but would be viewed as a stand-in for a vote on her windfall amendment.

Either late this week or sometime next, the Senate will telegraph its plans for action. Until then, the merger issue will likely continue to command an inordinate share of media attention.

As Shumlin said at the close of his press conference Wednesday:

“I’m glad we had this $21 million, because it’s distracting you guys from the real issues of the day, and we’re getting a lot passed here while you’re focused on it.”

Controversy brews over mental health as Senate preps for vote

Senate lawmakers this morning are frenetically preparing for a floor session this afternoon during which leaders aim to pass out, at long last, the mental-health bill that Gov. Peter Shumlin says will alleviate the “crisis” unfolding in hospitals across Vermont.

It’s been a long road for the legislation, which lays out a replacement plan for the 54-bed psychiatric hospital flooded out in Tropical Storm Irene. Seven weeks of legislative debate have done little to quell dissent over the administration’s plan. And a spate of amendments on the Senate calendar today spotlights the major areas of disagreement.

The size of the replacement hospital remains the biggest sticking point. Shumlin has demanded a bill that calls for a facility, to be located somewhere in central Vermont, with no greater than 16 beds. Exceeding that number, Shumlin says, will cost taxpayers nearly $10 million in foregone federal revenue annually. That’s because new rules in place at the Center for Medicaid and State Operations, he says, prohibit federal Medicaid matches for facilities with greater than 16 beds. Continue reading