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Monday, April 24, 2017

Despite Scott's Concerns, Senate United on Lunge Confirmation

Posted By on Mon, Apr 24, 2017 at 12:05 PM

The Vermont Statehouse in Montpelier - DREAMSTIME
  • dreamstime
  • The Vermont Statehouse in Montpelier
Despite concerns from Gov. Phil Scott, the Vermont Senate appears poised to confirm Green Mountain Care Board member Robin Lunge without opposition — even from Scott’s fellow Republicans — this week.

Senators are working on a consensus resolution that would acknowledge that former governor Peter Shumlin’s administration made mistakes in the appointment process, but that there was no question he intended to appoint Lunge, according to Sen. Peg Flory (R-Rutland).

“It seemed like the wisest option,” said Flory — meaning Senate Republicans decided against contesting the appointment.

The Senate is likely to vote on Lunge’s confirmation Tuesday or Wednesday.

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Friday, April 21, 2017

Walters: House Panel Puts a Wrap on Ethics Bill

Posted By on Fri, Apr 21, 2017 at 8:54 PM

House Government Operations Committee vice chair Ron Hubert (R-Vernon) and chair Maida Townsend (D-South Burlington) going over the wording of S.8. - JOHN WALTERS
  • John Walters
  • House Government Operations Committee vice chair Ron Hubert (R-Vernon) and chair Maida Townsend (D-South Burlington) going over the wording of S.8.
“I can’t believe it,” said Rep. Maida Townsend (D-South Burlington), chair of the Vermont House Government Operations Committee, when her panel reached agreement Friday afternoon on the language of an ethics reform bill.

She was only half kidding. The committee’s hours and hours of discussion had at times threatened to put a famous philosophical question to the test: If every step brings you halfway to your goal, do you ever actually arrive?

Well, the committee has finally arrived … almost.

The bill must be redrafted one more time before the panel can take a formal vote. Barring any last-second problems, that should be a formality.

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Vermont Senate Votes 21-9 for Marijuana Legalization

Posted By on Fri, Apr 21, 2017 at 12:54 PM

Sen. Dick Sears (right to left) confers with Sens. Bobby Starr and Peg Flory, Senate Secretary John Bloomer, Lt. Gov. David Zuckerman and Sen. Becca Balint on the Senate floor Friday. - TERRI HALLENBECK
  • Sen. Dick Sears (right to left) confers with Sens. Bobby Starr and Peg Flory, Senate Secretary John Bloomer, Lt. Gov. David Zuckerman and Sen. Becca Balint on the Senate floor Friday.
The Vermont Senate voted 21-9 on Friday to legalize, tax and regulate marijuana, a permissive stance on pot senators acknowledged the House is unlikely to embrace.

“We know that prohibition has not worked,” Sen. Jeanette White (D-Windham) said. “Let’s make it safer, less accessible to kids.”

The vote came in response to an amendment White made to another criminal justice bill. The Senate had been awaiting action from the House on legalization, but that chamber had yet to vote as the legislative session nears its early-May adjournment.

Sen. Peg Flory (R-Rutland) briefly succeeded in derailing White’s amendment when she questioned whether it was sufficiently related — or germane — to the underlying bill. It wasn’t, ruled Lt. Gov. David Zuckerman.

But Senate rules allow the chamber to make a non-germane amendment germane, if they can muster a three-fourths’ majority. They did, by a 23-7 vote — exactly enough to meet the threshold.*

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Wednesday, April 19, 2017

Walters: Vermont Shield Bill Passes Key House Vote

Posted By on Wed, Apr 19, 2017 at 5:55 PM

VTDigger's Mark Johnson interviews Paul Heintz of Seven Days and the Vermont Press Association after Wednesday's House vote on S.96. - JOHN WALTERS
  • John Walters
  • VTDigger's Mark Johnson interviews Paul Heintz of Seven Days and the Vermont Press Association after Wednesday's House vote on S.96.
A bill that would protect reporters from being forced to divulge confidential sources and hand over unpublished work material is one step away from the governor’s desk.

On Wednesday, the Vermont House approved S.96, the “shield bill,” on a lopsided voice vote after minimal debate. The chamber must reaffirm its approval in another vote Thursday, but barring a very unusual event, the bill is on track for final passage.

S.96 had earlier passed the Senate on a unanimous vote. Gov. Phil Scott’s office did not immediately return a call for comment; but during the gubernatorial campaign, Scott expressed support for a shield law with some qualifications — including an exception for cases where information cannot be obtained elsewhere. That exception is included in S.96.

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Senators Plan Renewed Push for Marijuana Legalization

Posted By on Wed, Apr 19, 2017 at 3:19 PM

As the 2017 legislative session nears completion, two senators have plans to revive prospects for marijuana legalization.

Sen. Jeanette White (D-Windham) plans to introduce a revised version of a legalization bill that the Senate passed last year to allow for possession and sale of taxed marijuana starting in 2019. While last year's bill easily passed the Senate, it failed in the House.

White's effort would be in an amendment to another Senate bill — H.167 — expected to be up for action on the Senate floor Friday. Her revision would add legalization of homegrown marijuana.

Sen. Dick Sears (D-Bennington) said he plans to vote for White's amendment. But anticipating that it's unlikely to pass the House, he has another, less ambitious plan. He'll offer up legislation to establish a study committee that would figure out how Vermont could tax and regulate marijuana. He plans to present it as an amendment to another bill on the Senate floor next week.

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Tuesday, April 18, 2017

House, Senate Clash Over Fentanyl Penalties

Posted By on Tue, Apr 18, 2017 at 10:38 PM

Sen. Dick Sears (D-Bennington) - JEB WALLACE-BRODEUR
  • Sen. Dick Sears (D-Bennington)
After the House quashed a Senate bill last week that would establish additional criminal penalties for people who possess fentanyl, senators are plotting to revive it.

“For the House to completely gut the bill and study it again, it’s disappointing,” said Sen. Dick Sears (D-Bennington), who sponsored the legislation and saw it sail through the Senate.

Sears argues that the deadliness of fentanyl — which caused nearly half of the state’s overdose deaths in 2016 — warrants tougher penalties than those already in place for heroin and other drugs. “There’s no place in [state] law that mentions fentanyl, so it’s been difficult to prosecute,” said Sears.

His bill, S.22, would create new penalties specifically for possessing and dealing fentanyl. Possession would bring a maximum of two years in prison and a $10,000 fine, and penalties steeply increase for dealing: Someone selling four milligrams of a drug containing fentanyl would face up to 10 years in prison and a $250,000 fine.

Lawmakers in both chambers say they’re committed to cracking down on big-time dealers who offer the incredibly potent and increasingly common drug. But the House and Senate disagree over whether S.22 would also ensnare low-level users, who both sides agree should receive treatment, not jail time.

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Despite Questions, Senate Plans to Vote on Shumlin Appointee

Posted By on Tue, Apr 18, 2017 at 8:42 PM

Gov. Phil Scott and his legal counsel, Jaye Pershing Johnson, at a press conference Tuesday - TERRI HALLENBECK
  • Gov. Phil Scott and his legal counsel, Jaye Pershing Johnson, at a press conference Tuesday
For months last year, D.C. politicians dickered over the validity of the president’s U.S. Supreme Court nomination. Now, Vermont has its own nomination fight.

As in Washington, this spat pits Democrats against Republicans.

Gov. Phil Scott, a Republican who took office in January, is questioning whether his predecessor, Peter Shumlin, properly nominated Robin Lunge for her position on the Green Mountain Care Board.

“We haven’t been able to find any of the paperwork,” Scott said.

Apparently, official documents detailing her appointment — announced in November — never went from the governor’s office to the Senate, or to the Secretary of State’s Office, as they normally would.

That raises questions about whether Lunge — who has served on the board for more than four months — can legitimately continue to work on the $95,000-a-year job, Scott said. The five-member board oversees health care spending in Vermont; one of its powers is regulating hospital budgets.

The Democratic Senate, which votes on nominees, plans to push ahead with Lunge’s confirmation, possibly this week, said Senate Health and Welfare Committee Chair Claire Ayer (D-Addison).

“We’re going to vote for her,” Ayer said.

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Friday, April 14, 2017

Montpeculiar: Feeling Spurned, House Republicans Threaten to Boycott

Posted By on Fri, Apr 14, 2017 at 1:58 PM

House Speaker Mitzi Johnson (D-South Hero) apologizes to Republicans as Minority Leader Don Turner (R-Milton) looks on. - TERRI HALLENBECK
  • Terri Hallenbeck
  • House Speaker Mitzi Johnson (D-South Hero) apologizes to Republicans as Minority Leader Don Turner (R-Milton) looks on.
Everyone wants to feel needed. That’s perhaps the takeaway from a dramatic clash Friday involving House Republicans and Speaker Mitzi Johnson (D-South Hero).

Johnson temporarily halted debate on a workers’ compensation bill in deference to Republican members who’d asked for a caucus. When it was time to return to the floor, the electronic bells meant to summon lawmakers back to the Chamber tolled repeatedly throughout the building.

The Republicans, who were meeting in a room downstairs, didn’t heed the chiming, assuming the Speaker would wait until they were ready.

Instead, Johnson went ahead with the day’s business and held a vote, despite the conspicuously large number of empty chairs (Republicans hold 52 seats).

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Wednesday, April 12, 2017

House Nixes Lottery-Liquor Merger, But Senate Has Other Plans

Posted By on Wed, Apr 12, 2017 at 10:15 PM

Rep. Oliver Olsen (I-Londonderry) speaks against plans to nix the merger of lottery and liquor. - TERRI HALLENBECK
  • Rep. Oliver Olsen (I-Londonderry) speaks against plans to nix the merger of lottery and liquor.
Who holds the power in the Vermont Statehouse? The House, the Senate or the governor? That appeared to be the question in play Wednesday.

By an 82-63 vote, the majority Democratic House stood up to Republican Gov. Phil Scott by defeating his executive order to merge the state Lottery Commission and the Department of Liquor Control.

House members said they like the idea of merging Lottery and Liquor — they just don’t trust the governor enough to let him do it without their input.

“These are great goals,” said Rep. Helen Head (D-South Burlington), chair of the House General, Housing and Military Affairs Committee. But she added, “There is not enough detail.”

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Walters: House Panel Trims Ethics Bill

Posted By on Wed, Apr 12, 2017 at 9:13 PM

Members of the Vermont House Government Operations Committee discussing S.8. - JOHN WALTERS
  • John Walters
  • Members of the Vermont House Government Operations Committee discussing S.8.
If you ever want to witness a world-class blizzard of hypotheticals, just check out a roomful of lawmakers discussing a bill that affects themselves.

Case in point, S.8 — this year's iteration of an ethics reform bill, already beaten down by multiple blizzards on the Senate side, now trudging upwind in the House Government Operations Committee.

On Wednesday morning, the panel began its discussion of S.8. A Legislative Council staffer carefully explained each provision of the bill, and members parsed the various jots and tittles therein. When it comes to subjects like ethics reform or campaign finance, the debate takes on a level of scrutiny worthy of the pickiest Pharisee. Such was the case in House Gov Ops, although only one section of the bill was actually rewritten.

In nearly two hours of deliberation, members worked through three and a half sections of a bill that's 16 sections long. Committee chair Maida Townsend (D-South Burlington) is hoping to finish the walk-through and conduct a final vote on Thursday, while holding the prospect of a dreaded Friday afternoon session over the heads of her charges.

As passed by the Senate, S.8 would establish an authority-free, minimally-funded state ethics commission with a part-time executive director. The bill also sets new rules aimed at slowing the "revolving door" between public service and lobbying, limits political contributions by contractors who receive no-bid state contracts, and sets new financial disclosure requirements for officeholders and candidates for statewide office.

The committee balked at a measure that would require candidates for statewide offices — governor, lieutenant governor, attorney general, auditor, secretary of state and treasurer — to disclose their tax returns. The most full-throated opponent was Rep. Ron Hubert (R-Milton), who labeled the provision an invasion of privacy and floated the most far-fetched hypothetical of the day: that the requirement would scare candidates away, even resulting in empty ballots and unfilled offices.

"Why do people need to know all this?" he thundered. "To me, this is a fishing expedition, an infringement on people's rights." He offered a sarcastic apology to anyone who "wants to know what time I brush my teeth."

Calm down, sir. No one wants to hear about your grooming regimen. But there might be an actual public interest in knowing the personal financials of a potential governor or, goodness knows, treasurer.

There is a perfectly valid argument, especially in the age of President Donald Trump, that anyone who seeks high public office can be subjected to higher disclosure standards than the average bear. But no one on the committee made that argument, and the tax-disclosure section was stricken from the bill, with Rep. Warren Kitzmiller (D-Montpelier) casting a lonely vote to retain it.

The only other change made on Wednesday actually toughened — very slightly — a financial-disclosure standard for state officeholders. The Senate version calls for officials to disclose, by name only, all income sources of $10,000 or more. No specific amounts, just a simple list.

The House committee opted for a ranked disclosure of all income sources of $1,000 or more. Each person would list all income sources in descending order, but with no specific amounts.

The committee adjourned at noon, in the middle of discussing section four. Which leaves them with 12 and a half sections to cover in, at most, the next two days. Should be entertaining, in a watching-paint-dry sort of way.

Before launching its walk-through, the panel heard from witnesses who suggested changes that seem destined for the cutting-room floor. Michael Palmer of the Middlebury consulting firm Ethics By Design urged the panel to give the ethics commission a full-time executive director.

"My guess is that the 'part-time' executive director will end up working full-time anyway," he noted. "You can't just turn off the switch and go home. It will require lots of volunteer time."

Lawmakers envision a staffer sitting around waiting for complaints to come in. Palmer points out that fielding ethics complaints is far from the only duty on the executive director's desk. That person would have to oversee an ethics program with educational and training components and be available to offer advisory opinions for state officials and members of the public, among other things.

But hiring a full-timer would add to the cost of the ethics commission, which weighs heavily on the minds of lawmakers. No member of the committee expressed support for the idea, but they will get a chance when the walk-through reaches that section of S.8.

A spectacularly ill-timed suggestion came from Rep. Matt Trieber (D-Bellows Falls). He noted that the revolving-door provision would bar lawmakers from becoming Statehouse lobbyists for a full year after leaving office, and said that the same standard should apply the other way — to lobbyists becoming lawmakers.

Also on Wednesday, the (until recently) longtime lobbyist Jim Harrison was to be formally seated as a state representative, having been appointed by Gov. Phil Scott to fill a vacancy left by the resignation of Job Tate (R-Mendon).

Harrison is a very popular guy in the hallowed halls, as this writer witnessed firsthand. During a brief hallway conversation, just about every passer-by stopped to offer heartfelt congratulations to Harrison on his appointment.

"This is the worst day to present my suggestion," Trieber acknowledged ruefully. He praised Harrison's character to the skies, but added that "ethics is also about perception," and the revolving door creates a perception of insider dealing. No committee member spoke in support of Trieber's suggestion.

Indeed, the committee's deliberations often revealed a tone-deafness to outside perception. There were denials aplenty that any ethics law was really needed, except perhaps to quiet outside critics and reduce that pesky perception problem. Many committee members seemed to be shocked by the very idea that their ethics might be called into question.

Which seems downright strange, coming on the heels of former senator Norm McAllister's disgrace, the ever-simmering EB-5 scandal, and the unprecedented independent investigation of then-attorney general Bill Sorrell, not to mention Vermont's reputation as a friendly place for embezzlers.

Perhaps we need another scandal to pierce the veil of institutional denial. Given what we've already been through, one has to wonder how bad a scandal it would have to be.

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