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Thursday, May 28, 2020

Technical Difficulties Prompt Vermont House to Cancel Committee Meetings

Posted By on Thu, May 28, 2020 at 11:20 AM

The Vermont Statehouse - DREAMSTIME
  • Dreamstime
  • The Vermont Statehouse
Updated at 8:05 p.m.

For a couple of hours Thursday morning, committees of the Vermont legislature conducted remote meetings that members of the public could not view.

According to an email to legislators from director of information technology Kevin Moore, "a communication issue between Zoom and YouTube" prevented the legislature's livestreams from functioning properly. Committees use Zoom's online platform to conduct meetings, which are simultaneously broadcast to the public via YouTube.

When contacted about the problem later Thursday morning, representatives of House Speaker Mitzi Johnson (D-South Hero) and Senate President Pro Tempore Tim Ashe (D/P-Chittenden) told Seven Days that committee meetings would continue and be uploaded for public viewing later on Thursday.

Subsequently, at around 10:30 a.m., the House decided to cancel all meetings until the problem was resolved, according to Johnson's chief of staff, Katherine Levasseur. The Senate, however, continued to meet, according to Ashe's chief of staff, Peter Sterling.

Around midday, according to Levasseur and Sterling, the legislature’s IT staff devised a workaround that allowed committees to broadcast live using a different method. Several House committees resumed their work. By the end of the day Thursday, videos of the earlier House and Senate committee meetings were still not available online.

The situation could raise questions about the legislature's adherence to rules around transparency. While the legislature has argued that it is not subject to the state's open meetings law, the Vermont Constitution requires that the doors of the Statehouse "shall be open for the admission of all persons who behave decently."

Thursday’s incident was not the first time the legislature has struggled to do its work remotely. A day earlier, the livestream of a Senate floor proceeding was interrupted due to unrelated technical difficulties. The meeting continued for a short period of time before the feed could be fixed, according to Senate Secretary John Bloomer, but no video was recorded.

Last month, a quorum of the Senate briefly discussed public policy issues during a private portion of an online caucus meeting. Ashe subsequently apologized for failing to make the meeting accessible to the public sooner.

Kevin McCallum contributed reporting.

Disclosure: Tim Ashe is the domestic partner of Seven Days publisher and coeditor Paula Routly. Find our conflict-of-interest policy here: sevendaysvt.com/disclosure.

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Tuesday, May 26, 2020

Lawmakers Move to Sideline Scott From Vote-by-Mail Decision

Posted By on Tue, May 26, 2020 at 4:31 PM

Gov. Phil Scott (left) and Secretary of State Jim Condos - FILE
  • File
  • Gov. Phil Scott (left) and Secretary of State Jim Condos
Democratic lawmakers moved forward Tuesday with plans to strip Republican Gov. Phil Scott of a say in whether the November general election should be conducted largely by mail.

The Senate Government Operations Committee approved a bill that would remove Scott's power to decide how to conduct elections in 2020, leaving that authority solely with Secretary of State Jim Condos, a Democrat.

Condos and state elections officials have said they want to mail general election ballots to all registered voters to keep crowds small at the polls due to COVID-19 concerns. Health experts have raised the prospect of outbreaks in the fall.

“We just want to make certain that every Vermonter has the ability to vote safely in what will quite likely be a high-turnout election,” Chris Winters, deputy secretary of state, told the committee.

Scott has said he thinks the decision could wait until after the August 11 primary. Elections officials say there isn’t time to switch to mail-in voting by that date, but postcards will remind voters that they can request an absentee ballot. The governor would prefer to move toward restoring a sense of normalcy by holding a regular November election, if possible.

Elections officials have countered that the decision needs to be made now because mailing and printing contracts, voter education, and clerk training all need to commence to ensure the election goes smoothly.

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Saturday, May 23, 2020

House Appropriations Chair Kitty Toll Won't Seek Reelection

Posted By on Sat, May 23, 2020 at 8:00 AM

Kitty Toll - FILE: JEB WALLACE-BRODEUR
  • File: Jeb Wallace-Brodeur
  • Kitty Toll

Rep. Kitty Toll (D-Danville), the chair of the powerful House Appropriations Committee, announced Saturday that she will not seek reelection.

Her departure after 12 years in office will leave the House without one of its most experienced number-crunchers as it enters an era likely marked by economic scars caused by the pandemic.

In a statement, Toll said the decision was a difficult one and called  representing the residents of Cabot, Danville and Peacham in the Northeast Kingdom "one of the biggest honors of my life."

"We have experienced tumultuous economic times as well as a divided political landscape, and I am humbled by the trust my district has placed in me to help navigate these waters," Toll said.

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Wednesday, May 20, 2020

Scott Proposes 8 Percent Cut to Much of Vermont's State Budget

Posted By on Wed, May 20, 2020 at 12:14 AM

Finance Commissioner Adam Greshin and Gov. Phil Scott - FILE: JOHN WALTERS
  • File: John Walters
  • Finance Commissioner Adam Greshin and Gov. Phil Scott
Gov. Phil Scott's administration on Tuesday recommended wide-ranging cuts to state government next year in response to an expected decline in tax revenue.

In a budget proposal submitted to the House Appropriations Committee, the administration said that most agencies and departments should spend 8 percent less in the first quarter of the next fiscal year than they did this year.

"We're thinking that it's not going to be a major issue for any one department, but it will be, call it slight pain spread broadly," Scott's finance commissioner, Adam Greshin, told committee members Tuesday afternoon.

With the submission of its proposal to the legislature, the administration began the second of three budgeting processes taking place in a short period of time in response to the economic fallout of the coronavirus pandemic.

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Tuesday, May 19, 2020

Legislative Leaders Call on Scott to Mandate Masks in Vermont Stores

Posted By on Tue, May 19, 2020 at 3:47 PM

Rep. Patty McCoy, House Speaker Mitzi Johnson and Senate President Pro Tempore Tim Ashe at the Statehouse earlier this year - FILE: PAUL HEINTZ
  • File: Paul Heintz
  • Rep. Patty McCoy, House Speaker Mitzi Johnson and Senate President Pro Tempore Tim Ashe at the Statehouse earlier this year
Updated at 4:20 p.m.

The leaders of the state Senate and House on Tuesday called for Gov. Phil Scott to require Vermonters to wear face masks while shopping and engaging in other public activities.

An executive order reopening retail stores on Monday mandated that employees wear face coverings, but the governor has resisted forcing customers to do the same. Speaking to reporters Tuesday morning, Senate President Pro Tempore Tim Ashe (D/P-Chittenden) said the edict had the "very strange consequence" of protecting the customer from the coronavirus, but not the employee.

"I feel like we would be doing everyone a favor by having one uniform policy," he said.

Ashe suggested that if Scott refused to change course, he would ask fellow senators whether they have "the appetite to push for a mandatory policy." The pro tem added, "It's not ideal for the legislature to be making public health orders, effectively, but if the governor isn't going to go there, then I think we've gotta at least debate the question."

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Friday, May 15, 2020

Vermont House Backs Bill to Fill $195 Million State Budget Hole

Posted By on Fri, May 15, 2020 at 6:28 PM

Rep. Kitty Toll, chair of the House Appropriations Committee, describes a midyear budget bill Friday during a remote meeting of the Vermont House. - SCREENSHOT
  • Screenshot
  • Rep. Kitty Toll, chair of the House Appropriations Committee, describes a midyear budget bill Friday during a remote meeting of the Vermont House.
By a nearly unanimous vote Friday morning, the Vermont House advanced a mid-year budget bill to address steep revenue declines brought on by the coronavirus outbreak. The legislation won approval after a brief debate during a remote meeting of the House; a final vote is expected next week, after which the bill would move to the Senate for consideration.

The legislation aims to fill a $195 million hole in the current state budget, which expires at the end of next month. Much of the revenue shortfall is due to the federal government's decision to delay the income tax due date by three months and the state's decision to waive penalties on late payments of rooms, meals, sales and use taxes. Vermont still expects to collect $143 million of the money next fiscal year, but $52 million is gone for good.

The House plan largely mirrors a proposal put forward last week by Gov. Phil Scott to borrow from the state's cash reserves to cover the deferred revenue and then refill those reserves when the money comes in this summer.
It also counts on nearly $62 million worth of newfound money and unexpected savings. Those include $38 million in additional Medicaid funding from the federal government and $8.7 million in Medicaid savings due to a reduction in standard medical services during the outbreak. It also includes an unexpected $4.6 million uptick in state liquor revenue, partially driven by an increased demand for alcohol in recent months.

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Emma Mulvaney-Stanak Announces Bid for Vermont House

Posted By on Fri, May 15, 2020 at 4:15 PM

Emma Mulvaney-Stanak - COURTESY OF LAURA HALE
  • Courtesy of Laura Hale
  • Emma Mulvaney-Stanak
Emma Mulvaney-Stanak, who formerly served as both a Burlington city councilor and as chair of the Vermont Progressive Party, has announced her candidacy for the Vermont House.

Mulvaney-Stanak will run in the Chittenden 6-2 House district, where Rep. Jean O’Sullivan (D-Burlington) currently holds the sole seat. It includes parts of Burlington’s Old North End and New North End neighborhoods. Mulvaney-Stanak said she plans to seek the Democratic nomination, as well as the Progressive endorsement.

"Now more than ever, we really need voices in the Statehouse that are clearly and laser-focused on economic justice issues," she told Seven Days, including decent wages and workers' rights. The mother of two said she'd also focus on equity and education, and added that Vermont should do more for young families.

"I have a front-row seat to the struggles of finding affordable, high-quality childcare," she said. "That is a real-life struggle for thousands of Vermonters. It matters when you have people in the Statehouse who are actually living that."

Mulvaney-Stanak worked for more than 10 years for the Vermont-National Education Association teachers' union, where she led organizing and leadership development efforts. In 2018, she launched a consulting business, EMStrategies, through which, she said, she supports social change and equity issues for clients such as unions and school districts. She also coaches political candidates.

O'Sullivan, a businesswoman who established a financial services company,  was appointed to the seat in 2012 and has been reelected four times since. She, too, formerly served as a Burlington city councilor.

O'Sullivan did not respond to requests for comment. 

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Thursday, May 14, 2020

Waylaid by Pandemic, Lawmakers Return Attention to More Routine Bills

Posted By on Thu, May 14, 2020 at 5:22 PM

The Senate meeting on Zoom Thursday - SCREENSHOT
  • Screenshot
  • The Senate meeting on Zoom Thursday
Vermont lawmakers began turning the spigot on non-coronavirus legislation Thursday, breaking a logjam of bills that formed after the start of the crisis two months ago.

The Senate for the first time since the outbreak took up less pressing and potentially more partisan legislation, such as expanding energy efficiency programs and tweaking teacher health care benefits.

“I believe now, just as the economy is slowly opening, it’s time to start resurrecting the typical legislative process in terms of what bills get taken up,” Senate President Pro Tempore Tim Ashe (D/P-Chittenden) told his colleagues on Wednesday.

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Tuesday, May 5, 2020

Eviction Moratorium Bill Heads to Gov. Phil Scott

Posted By on Tue, May 5, 2020 at 11:28 AM

FILE: KIM SCAFURO
  • File: Kim Scafuro
The Vermont Senate on Tuesday gave final approval to a bill that would place a moratorium on evictions and foreclosures until 30 days after Vermont's state of emergency is lifted.

Senators, who backed the bill last month in their first-ever remote vote, approved several proposed amendments from the lower chamber on Tuesday before unanimously agreeing to send the bill to Gov. Phil Scott, who has not said whether he will sign it.

"It [is] an unusual bill in the sense that both sides — landlords and tenants, [who] usually have differences when it comes to legislation — all came together, and, in the COVID-19 spirit of legislation, agreed," Sen. Michael Sirotkin (D-Chittenden) said prior to Tuesday's vote.

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Monday, May 4, 2020

Scott Proposes Balancing Budget by Borrowing From Reserves

Posted By on Mon, May 4, 2020 at 11:35 PM

Finance Commissioner Adam Greshin and Gov. Phil Scott - FILE: JOHN WALTERS
  • File: John Walters
  • Finance Commissioner Adam Greshin and Gov. Phil Scott
Though the coronavirus pandemic has blown a hole in Vermont's state budget, Gov. Phil Scott's administration believes it can close out the current fiscal year without major cuts to government programs.

In a presentation to the House Appropriations Committee on Monday, Finance Commissioner Adam Greshin outlined the administration's proposal to address a nearly $195 million deficit in the state's General Fund brought on by the public health crisis. The plan largely relies upon borrowing $138 million from the state's reserve funds — and then paying the money back early next fiscal year.

"We're well aware there will be some challenges in [next year's] budget, so we thought we would take it light this year," Greshin told committee members. "And the good news is, we were able to do that."

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