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Monday, July 12, 2021

Scott Names Former Political Rival Hallquist to Lead Broadband Expansion

Posted By on Mon, Jul 12, 2021 at 4:27 PM

Christine Hallquist - JAMES BUCK
  • James Buck
  • Christine Hallquist
Gov. Phil Scott has appointed a former political rival, Christine Hallquist, to lead Vermont’s latest push to expand broadband access.

Hallquist will be the first executive director of the Vermont Community Broadband Board, a new entity created by lawmakers to coordinate and accelerate the rollout of high-speed internet services to the 23 percent of Vermont households that lack it.

A veteran of the electric utility industry, Hallquist ran against Scott in 2018. She made history as the first transgender major party gubernatorial candidate in the country. She won just 40 percent of the vote to Scott’s 55 percent.

Hallquist made broadband a major platform in her campaign. She argued that her experience as CEO of Vermont Electric Cooperative positioned her well to help expand the service. She currently works for two communications union districts rolling out broadband in Lamoille County and the Northeast Kingdom.

In a press release, Scott framed broadband as an economic equity issue and praised Hallquist for her years of work advancing the issue.

“I cannot think of a better person to lead this important effort than Christine,” Scott said. “Her experience as a cooperative executive and most recent experience with two CUDs as well as her long-standing commitment to expanding broadband in Vermont will be valuable to this work.”

Communications union districts are a type of municipal entity designed to bridge the digital divide in the state. There are now nine such districts, which can build broadband infrastructure themselves or work with private internet providers to expand service. They cover more than 200 towns and are managed mostly by volunteer boards.

The five-member Vermont Community Broadband Board was formed to help these fledgling districts design, fund and manage the rollout of broadband networks. Future state grants will flow almost exclusively through such districts. Board members have yet to be appointed.

Hallquist compares the challenge of expanding broadband to the rural electrification effort of the 1930s and 1940s that gave birth to the electric co-op that she headed from 2005 to 2018.

In an interview Monday, Hallquist said she was honored to be appointed and learned she'd been selected during a “gracious” call from Scott last week. She said she’s been impressed with Scott’s handling of the COVID-19 pandemic and told him so.

"I think he did a better job than I could have done,” Hallquist said.

Hallquist will work in the Department of Public Service. Her first order of business will be to get the five board members appointed and ready for the board’s first meeting on August 9, she said.

The state has set aside $150 million for broadband expansion, and Hallquist will be largely responsible for helping the board direct those dollars to fiber-optic projects serving all residents, she said.

“I’m very excited and looking to get to work helping CUDs maximize the value of those grant funds,” Hallquist said.

She will make $120,000 annually and begin work July 26.

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Friday, July 2, 2021

Scott Vetoes Rental Housing Registry Bill

Posted By on Fri, Jul 2, 2021 at 2:36 PM

  • Jeb Wallace-Brodeur
  • Gov. Phil Scott
Updated at 4:16 p.m.

Continuing his post-session showdown with the legislature, Gov. Phil Scott on Friday vetoed a bill that aims to improve and expand the state’s rental housing stock.

The bill, S.79, would require landlords of both short- and long-term rentals to register with the state and pay a $35-per-unit annual fee to fund a new team of housing safety inspectors.

The measure didn’t get over the finish line during the regular session, but lawmakers took it up during a veto session last week. It squeaked by in the 30-member Senate, receiving the exact number of votes — 20 — needed to override the governor's veto. Three moderate Democrats joined all seven Republicans in opposition.

In his veto message to lawmakers, Scott argued that the bill would actually reduce the number of rental properties in the state at a time when there is a need for significantly more.

“Most agree we suffer from a critical housing shortage for middle income, low income and homeless Vermonters, but the solution is not more regulation,” Scott wrote.

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Thursday, June 24, 2021

Vermont Senate Overrides Vetoes, Passes Housing Registry

Posted By on Thu, Jun 24, 2021 at 3:35 PM

  • © Andrii Yalanskyi | Dreamstime
The Vermont Senate on Thursday wrapped up what may be their final exercise in remote legislating by narrowly overriding two gubernatorial vetoes and passing two hotly debated housing bills that they couldn’t finish last month.

As expected, the Senate followed their House colleagues in overriding Gov. Phil Scott’s vetoes of two bills that will allow nonresidents in Montpelier and Winooski to vote in local elections.

Less expected was just how close those votes would be, with the 30-member chamber just mustering the 20 votes needed to override a veto.

Three Democratic senators joined the chamber’s seven Republicans in the 20-10 votes. Sens. Dick Mazza (D-Grand Isle), Bobby Starr (D-Essex/Orleans) and Alice Nitka (D-Windsor) all opposed the overrides. None explained their opposition.

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Wednesday, June 23, 2021

House Overrides Scott Veto of Voting Rights for Noncitizens

Posted By on Wed, Jun 23, 2021 at 12:32 PM

  • Luke Eastman ©️ Seven Days
The Vermont House of Representatives voted on Wednesday to override Gov. Phil Scott’s vetoes of two bills that would allow noncitizens in Montpelier and Winooski to vote in local elections.

By a vote of 103 to 47, representatives mustered the two-thirds vote necessary to force the bills into law over the governor’s objections. The 30-member Senate is expected to follow suit later this week.

The residents of the two cities had already voted overwhelmingly to change their charters to allow noncitizens to vote in local — but not statewide or national — elections. The Vermont legislature must approve all proposed local charter changes, and it did so in these cases. But Scott vetoed both measures earlier this month.

“This is the local control that Vermont champions,” Rep. Hal Colston (D-Winooski) said. “This is the local democracy that other states covet.”

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Monday, June 7, 2021

Scott Signs Universal Mail-In Voting Bill, Urges Legislature to Expand It

Posted By on Mon, Jun 7, 2021 at 5:57 PM

Voters will be able to fix mail-in ballot mistakes under a new bill - FILE: EVA SOLLBERGER ©️ SEVEN DAYS
  • File: Eva Sollberger ©️ Seven Days
  • Voters will be able to fix mail-in ballot mistakes under a new bill
Gov. Phil Scott on Monday signed legislation that allows mail-in voting for all future general elections, making permanent a pandemic-era rule designed to increase voter participation amid the public health crisis.

He also urged lawmakers to return to the topic next session and extend the changes to primaries and local elections, too.

“I’m signing this bill because I believe making sure voting is easy and accessible, and increasing voter participation, is important," Scott said in a press release. "Having said that, we should not limit this expansion of access to general elections alone, which already have the highest voter turnout."

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Saturday, June 5, 2021

Vermont Lawmaker Kelly Pajala Feels Housing Pinch First-Hand

Posted By on Sat, Jun 5, 2021 at 3:40 PM

  • © Andrii Yalanskyi | Dreamstime
As a member of Vermont’s House of Representatives, Rep. Kelly Pajala (I-Londonderry) has participated in many hearings about the state's rental housing shortage.

Pajala, the Londonderry town clerk, also often hears from constituents unable to find a place they can afford.

Now Pajala faces her own housing crisis. The condo that she rents is up for sale, and she’s having trouble finding another place for her family to live.

As town clerk, she has to stay in Londonderry, a Windham County ski town. The county’s median listing price for a home has risen 14 percent in the last year, according to the Vermont Association of Realtors.

After nine years as town clerk, “I have a pretty good idea of where the rentals are,” said Pajala, the single mother of two boys ages 13 and 14. “And you know, there is just not a lot of options out there.”

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Thursday, June 3, 2021

Businesses Skipped Over for Pandemic Relief Get Preference for New Grants

Posted By on Thu, Jun 3, 2021 at 5:49 PM

  • Tim Newcomb ©️ Seven Days
Vermont businesses that have not received state or federal COVID-19 relief funds will go to the front of the line when the state starts handing out $30 million in relief grants next week.

They'll be given priority for the first 30 days of the new Economic Recovery Bridge Program, which will give them first crack at $10 million of the program's funds and will provide grants of up to $150,000 per business.

“It seems hard to believe, but in 2020 there was a group that wasn’t eligible for our grants, and they were essentially out of luck,” said state Economic Development Commissioner Joan Goldstein. They includes businesses that, because they opened in 2020, couldn’t demonstrate a loss compared to a prior year. “We want them to stay in business. We don’t want them to just close up shop,” she said.

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Wednesday, June 2, 2021

Vermont Lawmakers Vow to Override Gov. Scott's Vetoes

Posted By on Wed, Jun 2, 2021 at 5:35 PM

Senate President Pro Tempore Becca Balint (D-Windham) speaking outside the Statehouse Wednesday - KEVIN MCCALLUM ©️ SEVEN DAYS
  • Kevin McCallum ©️ Seven Days
  • Senate President Pro Tempore Becca Balint (D-Windham) speaking outside the Statehouse Wednesday
Less than two weeks after adjourning for the year, legislative leaders on Wednesday vowed to return in coming weeks to try to override Republican Gov. Phil Scott’s latest vetoes, including ones blocking communities from giving noncitizens voting rights.

From the Statehouse steps, Senate President Pro Tempore Becca Balint (D-Windham) confirmed that lawmakers did not intend to let Scott stand in the way of key legislation passed by the General Assembly.

“You can bet we’ll be back for a veto session,” Balint vowed.

She stressed that she still needed to confirm details with House Speaker Jill Krowinski (D-Burlington), but a spokesperson for Krowinski removed any doubt that the battle lines were being fortified.

“These vetoes sealed the deal,” Conor Kennedy, Krowinski’s chief of staff, confirmed.

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Tuesday, June 1, 2021

Scott Vetoes Noncitizen Voting Proposals, Signs Bupe Bill

Posted By on Tue, Jun 1, 2021 at 7:53 PM

  • File: Jeb Wallace-Brodeur ©️ Seven Days
  • Gov. Phil Scott
Gov. Phil Scott on Tuesday vetoed a pair of bills that would have granted local voting rights to noncitizen residents of Winooski and Montpelier, asserting that the topic needed "further consideration and debate."

Scott based his rejection on the argument that the two charter change proposals lacked clarity on who exactly would be able to vote and would lead to inconsistent election policies across the state. He urged the legislature to develop a statewide policy or "uniform template" for municipalities seeking to expand voting rights.

"I understand these charter changes are well-intentioned," Scott wrote in a letter to lawmakers Tuesday evening. "But I ask the Legislature to revisit the issue of non-citizen voting in a more comprehensive manner."

The decision will come as a blow to the two cities, where voters overwhelmingly supported the proposals. The vetoes will also likely fuel accusations of paternalism from those pushing for more municipal freedom.

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Friday, May 21, 2021

Lawmakers Pass Historic $7.3 Billion Budget Laden With Stimulus Funds

Posted By on Fri, May 21, 2021 at 6:34 PM

The Vermont Statehouse - FILE ©️ SEVEN DAYS
  • File ©️ Seven Days
  • The Vermont Statehouse
Vermont lawmakers on Friday passed a $7.3 billion budget swollen with nearly $600 million in federal dollars to stimulate the pandemic-battered economy, accelerate broadband internet availability, invest in new affordable housing and reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

“This is a lot of money going into the Vermont economy in a lot of ways,” Sen. Jane Kitchel (D-Caledonia) told colleagues shortly before the Senate passed what lawmakers refer to as the “big bill.”

That move, and a subsequent vote by the House, marked the last consequential action of the legislative session, after which lawmakers formally adjourned the first year of the biennium.

The close of the first — and likely last — fully-remote legislative session of the General Assembly was accompanied by congratulations from leaders for all they’ve accomplished this session.

"We demonstrated so clearly that we still have a healthy democracy here in the Green Mountain State, and soon we will all be back in the People’s House
Senate President Pro Tempore Becca Balint - JEB WALLACE-BRODEUR
  • Jeb Wallace-Brodeur
  • Senate President Pro Tempore Becca Balint
 together," Senate President Pro Tempore Becca Balint (D-Windham) said before adjourning.

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