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Wednesday, March 22, 2017

Vermont Senate Unanimously Passes Media Shield Bill

Posted By on Wed, Mar 22, 2017 at 4:35 PM

Freelance journalist Hilary Niles testifies in favor of a shield law in the Senate Government Operations Committee. - FILE: ALICIA FREESE
  • File: Alicia Freese
  • Freelance journalist Hilary Niles testifies in favor of a shield law in the Senate Government Operations Committee.
The Vermont Senate voted unanimously Wednesday to provide protections for local journalists — and their sources.

Under the media shield bill, journalists could not be compelled to reveal confidential sources or the information that those sources provide.

S.96 also limits when a reporter can be forced to disclose information provided by a nonconfidential source to situations in which the material is highly relevant to a significant court case, unattainable by other means and when there's a "compelling need for disclosure."

"Lately, as we have seen, the press has come under assault like never before," said Sen. Jeanette White (D-Windham), who cosponsored the bill. "It is therefore timely that we review their role and how to protect it."

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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
  • 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

Opinion
Walters: The Leahy-Gorsuch Two-Step

Posted By on Tue, Mar 21, 2017 at 10:49 PM

Sen. Patrick Leahy questions Judge Neil Gorsuch before the Senate Judiciary Committee on Tuesday. - RON SACHS / CNP VIA AP
  • Ron Sachs / CNP via AP
  • Sen. Patrick Leahy questions Judge Neil Gorsuch before the Senate Judiciary Committee on Tuesday.
U.S. Supreme Court nomination hearings are a tightly choreographed dance. Members of the Senate Judiciary Committee deliver lengthy orations with questions dangling precariously at the end, and nominees try their best not to say anything that might reveal the slightest hint of an opinion.

Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) has performed this dance more than probably any other human being who’s ever walked the earth, as the Senate’s longest currently serving member and the senior Democrat on the Judiciary Committee. On Tuesday, he took a new partner for a spin: Appellate Court Judge Neil Gorsuch, President Donald Trump’s first Supreme Court nominee. It was the second day of Gorsuch’s confirmation hearings but the first time the nominee was questioned under oath.

As in a dance, each partner plays a well-rehearsed role and is fully aware of the other’s moves. The one big difference: Astaire tries to step on his partner’s toes and provoke a reaction, while Rogers’ face maintains a resolute smile.

At Tuesday’s hearing, Leahy sometimes provoked a visible clench from the witness and a response best described as obsequious condescension. Gorsuch isn’t quite a skilled enough Rogers to completely hide his political differences with Leahy and his impatience with the senator’s tactics.

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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
  • 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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After Arrests, Attorney Says ICE is Targeting Migrant Justice

Posted By on Tue, Mar 21, 2017 at 3:24 PM

Activists rally to release Migrant Justice activists Saturday. - SASHA GOLDSTEIN
  • Sasha Goldstein
  • Activists rally to release Migrant Justice activists Saturday.
The detention of three immigrant advocates last week points to a systematic targeting of Migrant Justice workers, according to their immigration attorney.

Matt Cameron, a Boston-based immigration attorney, has agreed to represent Cesar Alex Carrillo, Enrique Balcazar and Zully Palacios pro bono. He called the arrests a "clear, simple case of retaliation" and painted a picture of a vindictive, overreaching Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency in Vermont.

"There's nowhere else where they would surveil people like [them]," Cameron said in a phone interview with Seven Days on Tuesday.

He called the Vermont office "over-resourced" and contended that the three most recent arrests, coupled with the arrests of Victor Diaz and Miguel Alcudia last year, point to a broader trend. "Why are we wasting resources on thoroughly decent people like Zully and Enrique who are doing really important work for their communities?" he said.

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Monday, March 20, 2017

Vermont's Congressional Delegation Joins the Criticism of ICE Arrests

Posted By on Mon, Mar 20, 2017 at 9:00 PM

Protesters marching on Saturday - SASHA GOLDSTEIN
  • Sasha Goldstein
  • Protesters marching on Saturday
The members of Vermont's congressional delegation on Monday evening said they have expressed "serious concerns" to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement about the recent arrests of Migrant Justice activists.

Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and Congressman Peter Welch (D-Vt.) questioned ICE's actions and the potential impact on a crucial state industry. Their statement says: "Instead of focusing on removing those people who pose a threat to public safety or national security, the Trump administration is targeting all undocumented persons, including the people that help keep our dairy farms and rural economy afloat."

It also says, "Instead of common sense reform, we now have a divisive and xenophobic executive order issued unilaterally by President Trump that is tearing families and communities apart, and endangering our dairy farms here in Vermont."

Activists took to Twitter and the streets Friday and Saturday to denounce the arrests of Enrique Balcazar, Zully Palacios and Cesar Alex Carrillo, who were all detained within a three-day period in Burlington.

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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

ICE Arrests Two More Immigration Advocates in Burlington

Posted By on Fri, Mar 17, 2017 at 8:37 PM

Zully Palacios and Enrique Balcazar - COURTESY OF MIGRANT JUSTICE
  • Courtesy of Migrant Justice
  • Zully Palacios and Enrique Balcazar
Updated March 18, 2017 at 1:55 p.m.

Immigration officials arrested two more undocumented Migrant Justice advocates Friday afternoon, leading to protests that drew hundreds of people.

Enrique Balcazar, 24, and Zully Palacios, 23, were arrested and detained by undercover Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents during a traffic stop on Shelburne Road in Burlington, said Will Lambek, a spokesman for the Vermont-based human rights organization.

Migrant Justice members arrived on the scene to see both Balcazar and Palacios being loaded into an ICE van. Neither had a criminal record, according to Lambek.

The incident marks the third ICE arrest in three days. On Wednesday, 23-year-old Cesar Alex Carrillo was detained on his way to a Burlington courthouse to respond to a misdemeanor DUI charge. The charge was later dismissed, though Carrillo was not present at the hearing.

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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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