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Tuesday, May 16, 2017

Walters: House Speaker, Union Leaders Very Publicly Air Grievances

Posted By on Tue, May 16, 2017 at 12:51 PM

House Speaker Mitzi Johnson meets with labor leaders at the Statehouse cafeteria. - JOHN WALTERS
  • John Walters
  • House Speaker Mitzi Johnson meets with labor leaders at the Statehouse cafeteria.
Tuesday morning brought an extraordinary moment in the Vermont legislature's end-of-session drama: House Speaker Mitzi Johnson (D-South Hero) met publicly with a couple dozen labor leaders in the Statehouse cafeteria to air their differences on how to end the standoff between the Democratic legislature and Republican Gov. Phil Scott.

At issue is Scott's demand that negotiations for teacher health care benefits be done on a statewide basis — the best way, he says, to maximize taxpayer savings from pending changes in health insurance due to the federal Affordable Care Act. Democrats have pushed back on Scott's idea as an encroachment on the collective bargaining process between teachers and local school boards. House and Senate leaders have sought common ground with the governor, so far without success.

Johnson's plan has not been made public, but its outline has been widely circulated. It would leave negotiations at the local level while establishing statewide parameters for health care bargaining.

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Thursday, March 23, 2017

Walters: State Data Breach Much Larger Than First Thought

Posted By on Thu, Mar 23, 2017 at 8:20 PM

Gov. Phil Scott and Labor Commissioner Lindsay Kurrle - JOHN WALTERS
  • John Walters
  • Gov. Phil Scott and Labor Commissioner Lindsay Kurrle
Gov. Phil Scott announced Thursday that a data breach at a state contractor affects far more Vermonters than initially thought.

The breach happened at a private firm called America’s Job Link Alliance, which contracts with Vermont and nine other states to provide a database for job seekers and employers. Under state law, anyone who applies for unemployment benefits — unless they have a firm return-to-work date within 10 weeks — is required to register with JobLink and regularly use the site to search for work.

Scott said the personal data — name, address, birthdate and Social Security number — of all applicants may have been compromised, going all the way back to the year 2003, when the state began contracting with AJLA. That’s a total of 180,000 applicants in Vermont.

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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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Thursday, January 19, 2017

Anticipated State Revenues Are Down in Economic Report

Posted By on Thu, Jan 19, 2017 at 2:32 PM

Gov. Phil Scott and the legislative money committee chairs listen to economists Tom Kavet and Jeff Carr on Thursday. - TERRI HALLENBECK
  • Terri Hallenbeck
  • Gov. Phil Scott and the legislative money committee chairs listen to economists Tom Kavet and Jeff Carr on Thursday.
Economists told the state’s Emergency Board on Thursday that Vermont is likely to see less money coming in over the next two years than previously thought.

For fiscal year 2017, which lasts through June, the state can expect to see $24.6 million less in general fund revenues than had been anticipated. For the 2018 budget, Gov. Phil Scott and legislative leaders were told to expect $7.7 million less than previously thought. And in 2019, expectations were curtailed by $10.4 million.

To handle the blow in the current 2017 budget, Scott’s financial team doesn’t seem to be sweating the details. Finance Commissioner Andy Pallito said he is proposing to tap into various reserve funds and areas where spending was less than expected.

The 2018 figures are being built into Scott’s much-anticipated first state budget, which he will release next Tuesday. “We were forecasting this,” he said. But he bemoaned, “We’re starting with less revenue than last year.”

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Monday, December 19, 2016

Walters: State Treasurer Refutes Scott’s Pension Idea

Posted By on Mon, Dec 19, 2016 at 10:32 AM

Rep. Don Turner speaks with Treasurer Beth Pearce - FILE: JEB WALLACE-BRODEUR
  • File: Jeb Wallace-Brodeur
  • Rep. Don Turner speaks with Treasurer Beth Pearce
Republican governor-elect Phil Scott remains interested in shifting public-sector pension plans from “defined benefit” to “defined contribution,” an idea Vermont labor unions say is a nonstarter.

Well, he’s interested in his own elliptical way.

“Yeah, sure, we want to take a look at that,” he told Seven Days last week. “We’ll continue to have that conversation and debate the issue and make our case for why that might be good to consider for future hires. But we’ll take a look.”

Commitment, Phil Scott style: “Have that conversation,” “debate the issue,” “consider,” and, not once but twice, “take a look.” All in one paragraph.

As long as Scott plans to “take a look” at that, Democratic state Treasurer Beth Pearce plans to fight back.

Currently, members of the Vermont State Employees’ Association and Vermont-National Education Association — the state’s largest public-sector unions — enjoy defined benefit pensions: They are guaranteed certain retirement benefits. In a defined contribution system, employer and employee pay into a retirement account, but no specific benefits are promised.

Scott touts defined contribution as a way to cut the cost of public sector pensions. But Pearce argues that it will reduce pension security without saving money — not in the short term, not in the long term.

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Friday, December 16, 2016

Scott Names Former Burlington Police Chief Commerce Secretary

Posted By on Fri, Dec 16, 2016 at 4:36 PM

  • Matthew Thorsen/File
  • Mike Schirling
Governor-elect Phil Scott named former Burlington police chief Mike Schirling his commerce secretary and tapped central Vermont small business owner Lindsay Kurrle to lead the Department of Labor.

Scott made the announcements Friday afternoon as he slowly fills cabinet positions ahead of his January 5 inauguration.

Schirling, who retired from the police force in 2015, has been executive director of the economic development and technology nonprofit organization BTV Ignite for a little more than a year.

Scott cited Schirling’s innovation and leadership experience in hiring him to run an agency that will be under particular pressure to produce results. Scott campaigned on a promise of generating economic growth.

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Tuesday, December 13, 2016

Walters: Scott Pension Proposal Riles Labor Unions

Posted By on Tue, Dec 13, 2016 at 9:01 PM

Governor-elect Phil Scott - FILE: JEB WALLACE-BRODEUR
  • File: Jeb Wallace-Brodeur
  • Governor-elect Phil Scott
Governor-elect Phil Scott is advocating a fundamental change in pension plans for members of public-sector labor unions — one that is steadfastly opposed by the unions themselves.

Currently, public school teachers and state workers receive “defined benefit” plans, which establish certain retirement benefits to be received by each worker. Scott favors a “defined contribution” plan, in which the state and the employee would contribute set amounts, which might or might not cover the cost of a retiree’s golden years.

Scott would allow current staffers to keep their defined benefits, while future workers would fall under a defined contribution system. But as far as Vermont’s two biggest public sector unions are concerned, the notion is a non-starter.

“We are steadfastly opposed to the idea and will continue to be,” says Doug Gibson, a spokesman for the Vermont State Employees’ Association.

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Tuesday, April 26, 2016

Senate Narrowly Supports Administration’s Privatization Initiative

Posted By on Tue, Apr 26, 2016 at 5:35 PM

Sen. Anthony Pollina (P/D-Washington) argues against privatization of the Office of Risk Management. - NANCY REMSEN
  • Nancy Remsen
  • Sen. Anthony Pollina (P/D-Washington) argues against privatization of the Office of Risk Management.
 The Vermont State Employees’ Association had hoped Tuesday to stop the Shumlin administration from outsourcing work now done by state employees in the Office of Risk Management — but came up two votes short in the Senate.

The Shumlin administration has been exploring whether it could save money if it contracted with a private company to process worker compensation claims and advise on work safety. Secretary of Administration Justin Johnson said state officials solicited information about the cost and services that private companies might offer. The responses suggested potential savings ranging from 35 to 55 percent, Johnson said.

The state subsequently requested bids, he said. The binding offers submitted reflected the same levels of savings, he said. The bids are under review.

The state spends $1.8 million to operate the Office of Risk Management, Johnson said. The office has a dozen employees, he said. Privatizing the operation could save the state at least $500,000 a year.

That is the amount of savings that the Senate Appropriations Committee included in its version of the budget to run state government next year.

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Friday, February 26, 2016

House Joins Call for Divestment from Coal and ExxonMobil

Posted By on Fri, Feb 26, 2016 at 5:32 PM

Rep. Mary Sullivan (D-Burlington), lead sponsor of a  resolution calling for pension funds to divest fossil fuel stocks, addresses the House. - NANCY REMSEN
  • Nancy Remsen
  • Rep. Mary Sullivan (D-Burlington), lead sponsor of a resolution calling for pension funds to divest fossil fuel stocks, addresses the House.
In a largely party-line vote, the House approved a resolution Friday urging the state treasurer and the Vermont Pension Investment Committee to take steps for the state’s pension funds to divest their coal and ExxonMobil stocks. The vote: 76-57.

The resolution supports the call for divestment that Gov. Peter Shumlin made in his State of the State address in January. He appealed directly to the Vermont Pension Investment Committee earlier this week.

Treasurer Beth Pearce has argued that decisions about how pension money is invested should be based on financial factors, not politics. But after Shumlin addressed the investment committee, she and VPIC agreed to look into possible divestment of coal and ExxonMobil stocks.

The House resolution focused on both the climate change and financial arguments for divesting from fossil fuel assets. It noted, for example, that a growing number of coal companies are filing for bankruptcy.

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Tuesday, February 23, 2016

Committee Hustling Toward Vote to “Ban the Box”

Posted By on Tue, Feb 23, 2016 at 7:51 PM

Sue Bette, owner of Bluebird Barbecue, testifies in support of a bill that would prohibit employers from requiring a job applicant to disclose a criminal record. - NANCY REMSEN
  • Nancy Remsen
  • Sue Bette, owner of Bluebird Barbecue, testifies in support of a bill that would prohibit employers from requiring a job applicant to disclose a criminal record.
Gov. Peter Shumlin used an executive order last spring to remove questions about criminal records from applications for state jobs, thereby giving all applicants a fair chance of being considered for employment openings.

Now the House Committee on General, Housing & Military Affairs is considering a bill that would ban private employers from requiring job applicants to disclose their criminal history on the initial job application. The bill would allow employers to query applicants later in the process, such as during interviews. That approach would let applicants explain their records and possibly provide character references.

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