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Thursday, June 14, 2018

Walters: Governor and Legislature Still at Odds Over Taxes

Posted By on Thu, Jun 14, 2018 at 3:59 PM

Sen. Jane Kitchel, Senate President Pro Tempore Tim Ashe and Sen. Ann Cummings - JOHN WALTERS
  • John Walters
  • Sen. Jane Kitchel, Senate President Pro Tempore Tim Ashe and Sen. Ann Cummings
In back-to-back press conferences Thursday, Gov. Phil Scott and leaders of the Vermont Senate made clear that a compromise budget agreement remains elusive. The two sides have little more than two weeks to strike a deal and avert a possible government shutdown on July 1.

No one knows for sure what a shutdown would mean because there's no precedent in Vermont history. "The [Vermont] constitution is clear," Sen. Jane Kitchel (D-Caledonia) said at a Statehouse press conference. "We cannot spend money we haven't appropriated."

The governor, speaking at a press conference at Elmore State Park, refused to discuss whether his administration has prepared contingency plans, even as state employees and recipients of state funds grow increasingly anxious. "I'm confident we'll come to an agreement," Scott said. When another reporter raised the contingency question, he said again, "I'm confident we'll come to an agreement."

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Wednesday, June 13, 2018

Media Note: Valley News to Cut Printing, Design Operations

Posted By on Wed, Jun 13, 2018 at 12:56 PM

A front page from May
  • A front page from May
The Lebanon, N.H.-based Valley News will close its printing operation by the end of this year and is outsourcing its advertising design service next month.

Printing will be done at a new facility near Concord, N.H. that will serve three newspapers owned by Newspapers of New England — the News, the Concord Monitor and the Monadnock Ledger-Transcript. Publisher Dan McClory announced the changes in Wednesday's paper.

Three designers will lose their jobs in July, when the News will begin contracting with Gannett for design services. Twelve full-time and 18 part-time staffers in printing and distribution will have to choose whether to relocate to central New Hampshire or adapt to a commute that will take at least an hour each way. They'll have some time to decide; the new press won't be ready to go until December.

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Monday, June 11, 2018

Walters: David Mears to Leave Vermont Law School

Posted By on Mon, Jun 11, 2018 at 3:31 PM

  • Contributed Photo
  • David Mears
Former state environmental conservation commissioner David Mears is leaving his post as director of the Vermont Law School's Environmental Law Center effective at the end of June. Mears said he wants to pursue other options in environmental advocacy, but his rather sudden departure comes shortly after VLS president Thomas McHenry announced an unspecified number of layoffs and cutbacks.

Mears was a faculty member at VLS from 2005 to 2011, when then-governor Peter Shumlin named him commissioner of the Department of Environmental Conservation. In 2015, Mears left state government and returned to the school. Last August he was named head of the Environmental Law Center, which is a key part of the school's mission and appeal. E&E News, an online outlet for energy and environmental news, first reported Mears' resignation.

Mears dwelled on the positive for himself and the school, but hinted that the cuts played a part in his decision. The latest round of layoffs was announced on May 30.

"I wasn’t planning on this," he said. "It was a decision I reached in the last month."

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Thursday, June 7, 2018

Walters: Vermont Senate Fast-Tracks Budget Bill

Posted By on Thu, Jun 7, 2018 at 6:03 PM

Sen. Randy Brock (center) explains his budget amendment to fellow senators Ginny Lyons and Mark MacDonald. - JOHN WALTERS
  • John Walters
  • Sen. Randy Brock (center) explains his budget amendment to fellow senators Ginny Lyons and Mark MacDonald.
The state Senate on Thursday made quick work of passing H.13, a budget bill that encompasses the vast majority of the budget approved by the legislature in May, but excludes areas of disagreement with Gov. Phil Scott. He is likely to receive the bill on Saturday, which would give him until next Friday to sign or veto it. The governor has already promised a veto.

The bill would set homestead property tax rates at this year's level and allow nonresidential rates to rise by 5.5 cents. The latter portion has attracted the governor's opposition; he continues to oppose any increase in property tax rates. Majority Democrats argue that the bill does not actually include a tax increase; it merely allows current law to set the nonresidential tax rate. And if signed by the governor, it would avoid a potential government shutdown on July 1, the beginning of the new fiscal year.

The process took only a single day thanks to a suspension of Senate rules, which was approved on a 21-4 vote. Senators Carolyn Branagan (R-Franklin), Randy Brock (R-Franklin), Brian Collamore (R-Rutland) and Dave Soucy (R-Rutland) were the dissenters, while two members of the Republican caucus were absent and one — Sen. Richard Westman (R-Lamoille) — voted with the Democratic majority.

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Friday, June 1, 2018

Walters: Vermont House Advances Budget Bill

Posted By on Fri, Jun 1, 2018 at 7:03 PM

  • File: Jeb Wallace-brodeur
  • Mitzi Johnson
After a long Friday of meetings, floor debates and two consecutive fire alarms, the Vermont House advanced a budget bill that would exclude areas of disagreement with Gov. Phil Scott, who had vetoed the legislature's original budget over concerns about property taxes and school spending.

The vote was 86-44, and broke essentially along party lines. The bill must gain approval on a second vote, to be taken on Tuesday. It would then move to the Senate, most likely next Thursday.

And at the end of all this is a near-certain gubernatorial veto.

Scott has insisted on two key points: Using onetime money to prevent increases in either homestead or nonresidential property tax rates, and enacting a five-year plan to curtail school spending. The House bill would keep homestead rates at current levels, but allow an increase in nonresidential rates mandated by existing law.

In a memo to legislative leaders sent on Thursday, Administration Secretary Susanne Young expressed the governor's opposition to the bill because it would only keep homestead tax rates level. She wrote that under the bill as it stood, "meaningful and good faith conversations on preventing an increase for the non-residential payers cannot occur."

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Thursday, May 31, 2018

Walters: VTGOP Falls Short on Candidates

Posted By on Thu, May 31, 2018 at 7:51 PM

Democratic gubernatorial candidates Brenda Siegel and James Ehlers outside the Vermont Secretary of State's office - JOHN WALTERS
  • John Walters
  • Democratic gubernatorial candidates Brenda Siegel and James Ehlers outside the Vermont Secretary of State's office
The filing deadline for candidates in Vermont's August primary was 5 p.m. Thursday. There were no huge last-minute surprises; the rumor mill proved thoroughly unreliable.

The latest subject of speculation to formally pull out: former Barre mayor Thom Lauzon, who'd been pondering a Republican candidacy for lieutenant governor. The deciding factor, he said, was his wife, Karen. "She said, 'Do you really have a passion for the job?' I said, 'No, because I don't really know what the job is!'"

Republicans did get a late challenger to Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.): Manchester real estate agent Lawrence Zupan, who's virtually unknown in Vermont political circles. Zupan joins Burlington attorney Jasdeep Pannu and perpetual candidate H. Brooke Paige of Washington on the Republican primary ballot, contending for the chance to challenge Sanders, the most popular politician in the state. He happens to have more than $6 million in his reelection war chest. (A necessary caveat: Petitions must be checked by the Secretary of State's office, so the candidates listed in this column are not yet official.)

In the August primary, Sanders will face long-odds Democratic challengers Rocky de la Fuente, a Californian best known as a fringe candidate for president; and Folasade Adeluola, a resident of Indiana whose petitions list a Shelburne motel as her official residence.

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Wednesday, May 30, 2018

Walters: House Democrats' Budget Workaround Hits Heavy Water

Posted By on Wed, May 30, 2018 at 6:31 PM

Rep. Kitty Toll (D-Danville) - JOHN WALTERS
  • John Walters
  • Rep. Kitty Toll (D-Danville)
The Vermont House failed on Wednesday to advance a budget bill designed to avoid a state government shutdown. The Republican minority blocked immediate action on the bill, and Republican Gov. Phil Scott signaled he would likely veto it.

The bill would essentially pass almost all of the budget Scott previously vetoed — except for the school funding provisions to which he objected. It passed the House Appropriations Committee on Tuesday; action on the House floor Wednesday would have required a rules suspension, to which House Republicans did not agree.

Scott continued to insist on his school funding plan, including the use of $44 million in onetime money to keep property tax rates level and a package of measures designed to rein in school spending. Those include higher student-to-staff ratios, statewide bargaining of teacher health care benefits, reforms in special education funding and further consolidation in the public school system.

If there's no budget in place by July 1, the start of the new fiscal year, state government would be forced to shut down. Citing the ongoing standoff, House Democratic leaders put together a budget that omits the areas of disagreement and would lift the pressure of a July 1 deadline. "Vermonters are not well served by a shutdown, or by the possibility of a shutdown," said Rep. Janet Ancel (D-Calais), chair of the House Ways and Means Committee.

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Monday, May 28, 2018

Walters: Holcombe Calls a Halt to Gubernatorial Speculation

Posted By on Mon, May 28, 2018 at 11:15 AM

  • File: Jeb Wallace-Brodeur
  • Rebecca Holcombe
Former education secretary Rebecca Holcombe says she is not running for governor of Vermont, putting an end to rumors that have circulated in Montpelier for weeks.

Holcombe resigned suddenly on March 27 after more than four years at the helm of the state Agency of Education. She gave less than a week's notice and has since refused to publicly discuss the reasons for her departure.

Quoting state Board of Education chair Krista Huling and sources close to Holcombe, Seven Days reported last month that the secretary broke with Gov. Phil Scott over his insistence on further school budget cuts — even after local voters approved modest budget increases on Town Meeting Day.

Scott, a first-term Republican, is still in the process of hiring Holcombe's replacement.

Speculation about a gubernatorial bid grew in Democratic circles after Holcombe began posting thinly veiled criticism of administration policies on social media, and when she spoke at a recent teachers' union rally at the Statehouse.

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Wednesday, May 23, 2018

Walters: Scott, Legislature Remain at Odds

Posted By on Wed, May 23, 2018 at 8:18 PM

Reps. Kitty Toll, Janet Ancel and David Sharpe convene a multi-committee hearing Wednesday. - JOHN WALTERS
  • John Walters
  • Reps. Kitty Toll, Janet Ancel and David Sharpe convene a multi-committee hearing Wednesday.
The Vermont legislature began a special session Wednesday as ordered by Gov. Phil Scott. After brief floor sessions, key House and Senate committees heard presentations from administration officials and their own fiscal analysts — and it became clear that nothing has really changed.

If anything, the two sides were a bit further apart than they were a week and a half ago, when the legislature adjourned after approving tax and budget bills that the governor promised to veto. Presentations by administration officials Wednesday were met with a barrage of skeptical questions, and their answers did not satisfy majority Democrats.

The administration is still presenting virtually the same plan it put forward in early May. "I didn't see any changes from what they presented before," said Rep. Janet Ancel (D-Calais), chair of the House Ways and Means Committee, after the House hearing.

Scott's plan still calls for the use of onetime money to keep property tax rates level for the fiscal year starting July 1, although the amount of those funds has shrunk from $58 million to $44 million. Scott says the money would be paid back over five years with some of the savings realized through his proposal to rein in school costs. The administration estimates the savings at $300 million.

Administration projections of those savings are profoundly different than those of legislative analysts — which leaves lawmakers in a state of uncertainty.

"I'm very concerned with these aggressive savings without seeing any analysis behind it," said Rep. Kitty Toll (D-Danville), chair of the House Appropriations Committee. "In early May, I asked the administration for the analysis for some of the proposals, and I didn't receive anything."

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Walters: Botzow Becomes Fifth Vermont House Chair to Retire

Posted By on Wed, May 23, 2018 at 12:46 PM

Rep. Bill Botzow introduces Kesha Ram at her October 2015 lieutenant gubernatorial campaign kickoff in Burlington - FILE: PAUL HEINTZ
  • File: Paul Heintz
  • Rep. Bill Botzow introduces Kesha Ram at her October 2015 lieutenant gubernatorial campaign kickoff in Burlington
Yet another committee chair is leaving the Vermont House.

Rep. Bill Botzow (D-Pownal), who runs the House Commerce and Economic Development Committee, announced in a letter to constituents that he will not seek a ninth term this fall. The Bennington Banner first reported his decision.

"I thought hard about it. I'm at peace with the decision," Botzow told Seven Days. "Sixteen years. I've got a life. I have responsibilities and hopefully opportunities. I thought hard about it." He added that former representative Martha Heath once told him about retirement, "You just know when you know."

Botzow is the fifth House chair to announce his departure this year, following Rep. Helen Head (D-South Burlington) of the General, Housing and Military Affairs Committee; Rep. David Sharpe (D-Bristol) of the Education Committee; Rep. David Deen (D-Westminster) of the Natural Resources, Fish and Wildlife Committee; and Rep. Stephen Carr (D-Brandon) of the Energy and Technology Committee.

Two Senate committee chairs are also stepping down: Sen. Peg Flory (R-Rutland) of the Institutions Committee and Sen. Claire Ayer (D-Addison) of the Health and Welfare Committee.

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