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Wednesday, April 14, 2021

Pension Task Force Bill Advances Despite Unions' Objections

Posted By on Wed, Apr 14, 2021 at 7:03 PM

JESS SUTTNER ©️ SEVEN DAYS
  • JESS SUTTNER ©️ Seven Days
Nearly two weeks after Democratic leaders shelved plans to tackle pension reform this legislative session, plans for a task force charged with tackling the issue this summer are taking shape.

A bill approved Wednesday by the House Government Operations Committee would create a 15-member Pension Design and Funding Task Force to generate ideas for fixing the state’s ailing pension system.

The bill would also add three new members to the existing seven-member committee focused on pension investments, which has come under legislative scrutiny for the investments' poor investment returns.

Taken together, the measures would tweak the pension governance structure this legislative session while putting off until next year the more controversial changes to future benefits and contribution rates for the state’s current 17,300 employees and teachers.

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Tuesday, April 6, 2021

Tim Ashe Lands Job as Deputy State Auditor

Posted By on Tue, Apr 6, 2021 at 9:02 PM

Tim Ashe - FILE: JEB WALLACE-BRODEUR
  • File: Jeb Wallace-Brodeur
  • Tim Ashe
Former Vermont Senate president pro tempore Tim Ashe has landed a new job in the state government he helped shepherd for more than a decade.

State Auditor Doug Hoffer said on Tuesday he had appointed Ashe as deputy auditor, citing his “incredibly valuable experience” in both the Senate and the nonprofit world.

“He’s exceptionally bright, very capable, has interesting experience, and I think we can do some good work together,” Hoffer said.

Ashe, of Burlington, left the safe Senate seat he had occupied since 2008 to run for lieutenant governor last year. But he came up short, losing in the August 2020 Democratic primary to newcomer Molly Gray.

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Scott Proposes Divvying Up $1 Billion in Aid to Housing, Broadband, and More

Posted By on Tue, Apr 6, 2021 at 6:44 PM

TIM NEWCOMB
  • Tim Newcomb
Gov. Phil Scott's administration on Tuesday announced plans for how to spend more than $1 billion in federal pandemic relief, with housing, broadband, climate change mitigation and economic development programs all slated for massive spending infusions.

Vermont is receiving $1.03 billion from the American Recovery Plan Act, or ARPA. The state has until December 2024 to allocate the massive pot of money.
The administration plans to present its plan to lawmakers in this legislative session, although the spending would be distributed over the next few years, "with needed adjustments on the way," said Administration Secretary Susanne Young.

The proposal calls for the state to spend $250.5 million to improve broadband in underserved rural areas. Of that, $225 million would be allocated as grants to Communications Union Districts, the governor’s office said.

Another $200 million is proposed for climate change mitigation and adaptation, including $25 million to add to Vermont’s existing 292 public electric vehicle charging stations. More than $20 million would go to improve energy efficiency in buildings and provide incentives for consumers to buy energy-efficient electric equipment for heating, cooling and transportation.

The administration also proposes to spend $250 million to create 5,000 units of housing, addressing a critical shortage that is seen as a contributor to rising home prices in Vermont. Housing has been a major economic development priority in the legislature for the last few years; employers have said they can’t find workers because prices are too high.

The money would be used to increase the capacity of emergency shelters, build new permanent multi-family housing, and pay for mixed-income rentals, manufactured homes, and farmworker housing, said Housing Commissioner Josh Hanford.

Chris Donnelly, director of community relations for the Champlain Housing Trust, said he was pleasantly surprised at the size of the proposal.

“It’s quite a demonstration of priority that we share,” said Donnelly. He noted 2,000 Vermont families are living in motels. “It’s going to make a huge difference,” he said. “People will hopefully have more choices about where they can live. And if we can move people out of motels and into permanent housing, that should be a moral imperative.”

Rep. Laura Sibilia (I-Dover), a longtime proponent of broadband expansion, also said she liked what she saw. “I was kind of holding my breath” before seeing the administration’s plan, she said.  “I was really pleased to see that we continue to kind of be moving along conceptually in the same way.”

Also on the list: $143 million for economic development and recovery. That includes $50 million in business grants, a number that disappointed business advocates who have said the unmet need is closer to $400 million. The state gave out $340 million in grants to businesses last year to help them stay afloat in the face of COVID-19 closures.

“If you’re [in] lodging, you’ve been pretty much shut down by virtue of the travel guidance for the longest time now, and restaurants have not been operating at full capacity,” said Austin Davis, government affairs manager for the Lake Champlain Chamber. “It’s difficult for these folks. There’s a lot of pain across the state.”

The overall economic development package is designed to incentivize business growth, said Commerce Secretary Lindsay Kurrle. She said the administration has been working with lawmakers for the last four months to come up with a program that will direct aid to businesses that aren’t eligible or federal relief such as the Paycheck Protection Program.

About $25 million would create a statewide hazard mitigation program targeted to low-income communities that repeatedly suffer losses from climate-related emergencies such as flooding. And another $100 million would support implementation of Vermont’s climate action plan.

The administration also included $170 million to develop and improve water and sewer infrastructure, saying that there are several areas of the state where work in these areas is long overdue.

“Projects can range in size from serving a small number of properties to connecting a whole village,” the administration said in prepared materials.

Brian Shupe, executive director of the Vermont Natural Resources Council, questioned a measure to exempt development projects from Act 250 land use regulation.

“We appreciate that the governor is prioritizing climate change, clean water and affordable housing in the use of the money,” said Shupe. “We applaud that, and share those priorities.” But “we have four years to roll out this spending plan, and it shouldn’t come at the expense of our environmental standards.”

Administration officials have said exempting ARPA-funded projects from Act 250 would help developers meet the timeline set by the federal government for use of the relief money. ARPA projects in designated downtowns, village centers, new town centers, neighborhood designated areas, and existing industrial parks would be exempt from that environmental review, as would state bridge replacement and road projects.

Developers often point to Act 250 as the primary reason for project delays and added expense.

“Development is occurring at a pretty rapid pace in the state now,” with Act 250 in place, Shupe said. “If I were a private developer I would ask, ‘Why does this set of projects get priority over mine?”

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Friday, April 2, 2021

Vermont Lawmakers Shelve Pension Reform Plan

Posted By on Fri, Apr 2, 2021 at 2:47 PM

House Speaker Jill Krowinski - FILE
  • File
  • House Speaker Jill Krowinski
House Speaker Jill Krowinski (D-Burlington) has shelved plans for sweeping reform to the state’s teetering pension system following fierce blowback from public employees and the erosion of support among Democratic leaders.

Krowinski announced Friday morning that instead of pushing changes that would increase costs and reduce benefits for most of the state’s 17,300 state employees and teachers, she would instead form a summer task force to explore the issue further.

“It's clear that people are struggling with how to find real systemic change to resolve this crisis right now,” she said.

Instead, lawmakers would focus on changes to the governance structure of the pension system in an effort to improve the anemic investment returns, which, along with losses from the Great Recession, have contributed to an unfunded liability that has ballooned to $3 billion. When health care and other long-term costs for the state’s 18,500 retirees is considered, that number swells to $5.6 billion.

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Wednesday, March 31, 2021

Vermont Senate Committee Turns Off Video During Public Meeting

Posted By on Wed, Mar 31, 2021 at 5:34 PM

Sen. Michael Sirotkin (D-Chittenden) - FILE: JEB WALLACE-BRODEUR
  • File: Jeb Wallace-Brodeur
  • Sen. Michael Sirotkin (D-Chittenden)
A Vermont Senate committee chair on Wednesday turned off the live video feed of a policy debate so senators could discuss a bill in private, a decision Senate President Pro Tempore Becca Balint (D-Windham) called "inappropriate."

Sen. Michael Sirotkin (D-Chittenden) abruptly terminated the broadcast of the public meeting of the Economic Development, Housing and General Affairs Committee when he grew concerned that the conversation had strayed from policy into strategy.

Sirotkin, an attorney who chairs the committee, said his members quickly changed course and never discussed anything substantive offline.

“It was a harmless error,” Sirotkin told Seven Days afterward.

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Tuesday, March 30, 2021

Senate Passes Measure to Regulate and Inspect Short-Term Rentals

Posted By on Tue, Mar 30, 2021 at 12:03 PM

Phineas Swann Inn in Montgomery Center - COURTESY OF DARREN DREVIK
  • Courtesy of Darren Drevik
  • Phineas Swann Inn in Montgomery Center
Darren Drevik, who co-owns the Phineas Swann Inn and Spa, says he pays $500 in state fees each year to offer 10 rooms and serve meals. He’d like short-term rentals to do the same, and he’s hoping a bill that's headed to the House will make that happen.

The Senate on Tuesday approved S.79, a wide-ranging bill that aims to improve enforcement of health and safety standards for apartments around the state. The measure would include short-term rentals such as Vrbo and Airbnb in that registry. Owners of conventional lodging have said for years they’re competing on an uneven playing field.

Drevik noted that when the state shut down all inns, hotels and B&Bs last year because of the pandemic, it had no way of knowing who was operating an Airbnb.

“We had state troopers literally coming to our door and checking to make sure that there were no cars in our parking lot from out of state and no guests in our inn,” said Drevik. “And then we had short-term rentals in my town with cars from New York and Massachusetts.”

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Monday, March 29, 2021

Cannabis
Scott Announces Picks for Vermont's Cannabis Control Board

Posted By on Mon, Mar 29, 2021 at 8:00 PM

Gov. Phil Scott - FILE: JEB WALLACE-BRODEUR
  • File: Jeb Wallace-Brodeur
  • Gov. Phil Scott
Gov. Phil Scott has named his three picks for the Cannabis Control Board, the entity responsible for licensing and regulating all stages of Vermont's budding adult-use marijuana marketplace.

Scott's office announced the nominations in a press release Monday afternoon. They include James Pepper, a deputy state’s attorney for the Department of State’s Attorneys and Sheriffs; Julie Hulburd, the human resources director at the Vermont Student Assistance Corporation; and Kyle Harris, an agriculture development specialist at the Vermont Agency of Agriculture, Food & Markets.

The three were among nearly 100 applicants for the new board. The state Senate must confirm the nominees before they can begin their full-time gigs.

“The Board will play a critical role in ensuring public safety, equity and fairness while implementing this new market,” Scott said in the press release, noting that his three nominees bring  "diverse and relevant experience."

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Friday, March 26, 2021

Housing Bill Advances Despite Water Pollution Concerns

Posted By on Fri, Mar 26, 2021 at 6:43 PM

A sign in Vergennes after a storm in 2019. - KEVIN MCCALLUM ©️ SEVEN DAYS
  • Kevin McCallum ©️ Seven Days
  • A sign in Vergennes after a storm in 2019.
Vermont senators advanced a bill Friday to encourage the construction of more affordable housing over the objections of water quality advocates who say it will increase the amount of untreated wastewater flushed into waterways during rainstorms.

Lawmakers have been deluged in recent weeks with concerns from environmental groups and residents who worry that streamlining wastewater permits for new housing projects would only further pollute the state’s streams, rivers and lakes.

One of the most controversial provisions of the bill would delegate the state's authority to issue new water and wastewater permits to municipalities, replacing the current “redundant and costly” system, Senate President Pro Tempore Becca Balint (D-Windham) said.

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Thursday, March 25, 2021

Vermont Panel Formed to Plan Semiquincentennial Celebrations

Posted By on Thu, Mar 25, 2021 at 10:40 AM

A Battle of Hubbardton reenactment - COURTESY OF HUBBARDTON BATTLEFIELD STATE HISTORIC SITE ©️ SEVEN DAYS
  • Courtesy of Hubbardton Battlefield State Historic Site ©️ Seven Days
  • A Battle of Hubbardton reenactment
It’s never too early to start planning for a semiquincentennial.

That would be July 4, 2026 — the 250th anniversary of the adoption of the Declaration of Independence. Gov. Phil Scott's administration has included $25,000 in its budget to put together a 15-member commission to plan events around that date.

Finalized this week, the commission includes Susan McClure, the executive director of the Lake Champlain Maritime Museum, and Jim Lockridge, executive director of the Big Heavy World music nonprofit in Burlington.

Also on the commission is Jonah Spivak, who is hoping to raise the profile of the upcoming 250th anniversary of Bennington Battle Day on August 16, 2027.

Although Vermont didn’t become a state until 1791, there was a lot of energy expended in 1776 in what was then a part of New Hampshire and New York to fight the British on Lake Champlain. Among other notable clashes was the Battle of Valcour Island, where the Americans suffered heavy casualties to the British in one of the first naval battles of the American Revolution.

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Wednesday, March 24, 2021

Pension Reform Plan Would Cost State Workers More

Posted By on Wed, Mar 24, 2021 at 6:30 PM

TIM NEWCOMB ©️ SEVEN DAYS
  • Tim Newcomb ©️ Seven Days
Current state workers would pay more toward the ballooning cost of their pensions and receive less generous benefits in retirement under a proposal put forward by House leadership Wednesday and immediately blasted by union leaders.

The package of reforms presented in the House Government Operations Committee attempts to confront a pension crisis that has deepened with the revelation in the fall that the state system is $600 million worse off than previously revealed.

“Nobody likes the situation we’re in,” Rep. Sarah Copeland Hanzas (D-Bradford) told her colleagues as she presented the preliminary plan. “But we are looking to try to find the right combination of changes that will make this more sustainable for the General Fund as well as for the retirees and beneficiaries.”

Union officials unloaded on the plan, saying it has not been crafted transparently, unfairly burdens workers and represents a failure of leadership to tackle the problem collaboratively.

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