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Friday, March 24, 2017

Senate Revives Effort to Raise Smoking Age, But Future Uncertain

Posted By on Fri, Mar 24, 2017 at 4:14 PM

Sen. Debbie Ingram (D/P-Chittenden) speaks in favor of raising the legal smoking age to 21 - TERRI HALLENBECK
  • Sen. Debbie Ingram (D/P-Chittenden) speaks in favor of raising the legal smoking age to 21
Lt. Gov. David Zuckerman broke his first tie Friday on a vote to rescue a bill that would raise the smoking age to 21.

The bill’s prospects remain in limbo, however, as senators later put the bill, S.88,  on hold. Supporters indicated that while they had just enough votes to keep the bill alive, they lack sufficient backing to pass it.

“We wanted to give senators more time to be educated on the bill and address some of the concerns,” said Sen. Debbie Ingram (D/P-Chittenden), a leading supporter of raising the smoking age.

One of those concerns is money the state would lose by collecting less in cigarette taxes. Under the bill as written, the state would lose an estimated $1.4 million next year from cigarettes not sold to consumers under age 21.

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Thursday, March 23, 2017

Walters: Nothing to See Here, Say Senators

Posted By on Thu, Mar 23, 2017 at 3:21 PM

  • File: Jeb Wallace-Brodeur
  • Sen. Dick Mazza
These are uncomfortable days in the Vermont Senate, after its most senior and powerful member became tangentially involved in a major drug bust.

Last weekend, federal agents arrested two suspected drug dealers and seized more than a kilo of heroin — street value as high as half a million dollars —outside Almighty Peaks Painting, a business located in a Colchester strip mall owned by Sen. Dick Mazza (D-Grand Isle).

The mall is across the street from Mazza’s renowned general store, and includes nine storefronts. Mazza told that business owner Darrick Holmes, who has also been arrested by the feds, had been his tenant for about seven years.

Word hit the Senate like a big ol’ blanket drenched in cold water. Mazza’s colleagues were uniformly discomfited by the news. They clearly sought to minimize Mazza’s responsibility, and wanted the story to just go away.

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Scott Supreme Court Appointment Makes Court Majority Women

Posted By on Thu, Mar 23, 2017 at 12:30 PM

Vermont Supreme Court - FILE
  • File
  • Vermont Supreme Court
Gov. Phil Scott appointed Karen Carroll to fill a vacancy on the Vermont Supreme Court, meaning the state's highest court will be majority women for the first time in state history.

Carroll, who has been a state Superior Court judge since 2000, will replace retiring Justice John Dooley when she takes her seat April 1. Her appointment is subject to confirmation by the state Senate.

Scott chose Carroll from a pool of eight candidates nominated by the Judicial Nominating Board, according to the governor's office.

Senate President Pro Tempore Tim Ashe (D/P-Chittenden) served on the Judicial Nominating Board. He anticipated no problem with confirming Carroll.

"The process at the Judicial Nominating Board is nonpartisan, thoughtful, really trying to cull from the list the very best," he said. "She wouldn't have advanced if there were reservations."

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Wednesday, March 22, 2017

Safe Injection Site Commission Acknowledges Political Difficulties

Posted By on Wed, Mar 22, 2017 at 5:58 PM

Chittenden County State's Attorney Sarah George at a press conference Wednesday - MARK DAVIS
  • Mark Davis
  • Chittenden County State's Attorney Sarah George at a press conference Wednesday
Chittenden County officials on Wednesday launched an initiative to study the creation of safe drug injection sites by acknowledging the resistance the idea could face.

State's Attorney Sarah George, who created the study commission, urged skeptics to keep an open mind, and stressed that current, less controversial practices have left hundreds of Vermonters struggling with addiction.

"They don't want to be committing crimes; they want to be reliable and trustworthy," George said.

She hopes the commission makes a recommendation in the next few months on whether the county should open an injection site where street drug users would have medical supervision and be exempt from arrest, she said.

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Legal Pot Bill Clears Key Committee in Vermont House

Posted By on Wed, Mar 22, 2017 at 3:27 PM

House Judiciary Committee chair Maxine Grad (D-Moretown), flanked by Reps. Chip Conquest (D-Newbury), left, and Tom Burditt (R-West Rutland) in committee Wednesday - TERRI HALLENBECK
  • House Judiciary Committee chair Maxine Grad (D-Moretown), flanked by Reps. Chip Conquest (D-Newbury), left, and Tom Burditt (R-West Rutland) in committee Wednesday
A bill that would legalize marijuana in Vermont is headed to the House floor next week, where leaders expect it will pass.

The House Judiciary Committee voted out the bill, H.170, by an 8-3 vote on Wednesday.

The action was delayed because House leaders feared the bill lacked the votes to pass the full chamber. That appears to have changed in the past few days.

“It sounds like we do have the votes ,” said Rep. Maxine Grad (D-Moretown), chair of the House Judiciary Committee.

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Tuesday, March 21, 2017

Liberal Legislators Call for New Taxes to Counter State Budget Cuts

Posted By on Tue, Mar 21, 2017 at 9:54 PM

Rep. Tom Stevens (D-Waterbury) advocates for a paid family leave bill Tuesday. - TERRI HALLENBECK
  • Rep. Tom Stevens (D-Waterbury) advocates for a paid family leave bill Tuesday.
Some of the Vermont legislature’s most liberal members have a message for their colleagues: Don’t bow to Gov. Phil Scott’s vow to veto tax increases.

The appeal came as the House Appropriations Committee prepares to finish its budget bill by the end of the week. As the panel pared a $73 million budget gap down to $6.4 million, complaints about budget cuts began to mount this week.

The committee is building a budget based on $5 million in new revenue that would be generated by cracking down on tax-law compliance, but has otherwise avoided raising taxes or fees.

That’s not sitting well with some members of the legislature.

“We have said, ‘Don’t take the liberal wing for granted,’” Rep. Paul Poirier (I-Barre) said Tuesday, flanked by other members of the Legislative Working Vermonters’ Caucus during a Statehouse press conference. “The workers caucus is not interested in cutting the human services budget.”

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Key Senators Pledge to Increase Wages for Mental Health Workers

Posted By on Tue, Mar 21, 2017 at 8:52 PM

Sen. Tim Ashe, Sen. Claire Ayer and Sen. Jane Kitchel - FILE: PAUL HEINTZ
  • File: Paul Heintz
  • Sen. Tim Ashe, Sen. Claire Ayer and Sen. Jane Kitchel
Senate leaders said Tuesday that they’re committed to increasing mental health workers’ wages this year.

“We will vote to increase compensation for these positions this year,” Sen. President Pro Tempore Tim Ashe (D/P-Chittenden) told reporters at a briefing in his Statehouse office.

It’s a surprising pledge, coming when the legislature is struggling to fill a budget gap while meeting the governor’s request that it not raise taxes or fees.

Sen. Claire Ayer (D-Addison), who chairs the Senate Health and Welfare Committee, told the assembled reporters that uncompetitive pay is the “single biggest issue” contributing to a strained mental health system, which has left patients languishing in emergency rooms. She noted that there are currently about 400 vacancies across the designated agencies that provide community-based care for people who are mentally ill.

Last week, Ayer’s committee passed a bill that, among other things, would allocate $30 million to increase designated agency employees’ pay to at least $15 an hour, and to pay professional staff at least 85 percent of the market rate.

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Saturday, March 18, 2017

Montpeculiar: Reporters Turn Lobbyists for Shield Law Debate

Posted By on Sat, Mar 18, 2017 at 11:31 AM

Then-senator Norm McAllister addresses reporters outside the Statehouse. - FILE
  • File
  • Then-senator Norm McAllister addresses reporters outside the Statehouse.
Something big happened Friday — reporters met a deadline. More specifically, a coalition of Vermont journalists successfully got a media shield bill passed out of a Senate committee in time to make the legislature’s crossover deadline.

The bill survived an onslaught of hypotheticals posed by lawmakers in the final hours before the deadline. Legislation had to be voted out of committee by the end of the week to make it to the other chamber this session — and therefore have a chance at making it into law.

The task put reporters in an awkward position as they had to lobby legislators to pass a bill prompted, in part, by the fallout from a criminal sexual assault case involving former state senator Norm McAllister.

Prosecutors in that case, which continues today, subpoenaed reporters from Seven Days and Vermont Public Radio who had interviewed McAllister. The situation drew attention to the lack of legal protection for journalists and their sources in Vermont, one of a handful of states that doesn’t have a shield law.

The argument goes that whistleblowers and others need to know their identities will be protected in order to feel comfortable confiding in reporters.

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Friday, March 17, 2017

Vermont House Panel Backs Paid Family Leave

Posted By on Fri, Mar 17, 2017 at 7:24 PM

Vermont Statehouse - FILE
  • File
  • Vermont Statehouse
A House committee passed a pared-down paid family leave bill that would obligate all Vermont employees to contribute to a program that would provide 12 weeks of paid time off for certain medical situations.

By a 7-4 vote, the House General, Housing and Military Affairs Committee advanced the legislation. It’s unclear, however, whether the bill — strongly opposed by business organizations — will make it through the full legislature this year.

The legislation calls for a 0.93 percent mandatory tax on all employees in Vermont. That money would go into a pool to pay for up to 12 weeks time off for the birth of a child, a serious personal illness or caring for a seriously ill family member starting in 2019.

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Marijuana Legalization Bill Is Still Alive, But Lacks Strong Support

Posted By on Fri, Mar 17, 2017 at 6:41 PM

  • luke eastman
The Vermont legislature’s crossover deadline for bills to emerge from committee came and went Friday with no sign of the House’s long-awaited marijuana legalization bill.

The missed deadline doesn’t mean the bill is dead, though it does indicate a lack of vigorous support in the House.

House and Senate leaders agreed Friday to give the bill a one-week extension to emerge from the House Judiciary Committee while House leaders continue to count floor votes.

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