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Thursday, January 17, 2019

Walters: Vermont Ethics Panel Seeks More Authority

Posted By on Thu, Jan 17, 2019 at 6:15 PM

Larry Novins and Madeleine Motta - JOHN WALTERS
  • John Walters
  • Larry Novins and Madeleine Motta
The Vermont State Ethics Commission, which has just entered its second year of existence, is seeking a broader mandate and more resources, as well as a change in the law inspired by its highest-profile action of 2018.

Commission chair Madeleine Motta and executive director Larry Novins presented the panel's first annual report to the Senate Government Operations Committee Thursday afternoon and laid out their case for expanded authority.

The mostly powerless ethics commission was created by the legislature in 2017. It was given no investigative authority and a single, part-time executive director. The panel's primary function is to receive ethics complaints and refer them to the appropriate enforcement agency, such as the Attorney General's Office or the Department of Human Resources.

At Thursday's hearing, Motta and Novins argued for the power to investigate allegations of conflicts-of-interest. "We should have the authority to reach out to all parties," Novins said. "It's difficult to weigh a complaint without hearing from all those involved, and the subject of a complaint should have the opportunity to respond."

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Legislators Call for Delaying Forced School District Mergers

Posted By on Thu, Jan 17, 2019 at 4:39 PM

Rep. Heidi Scheuermann (R-Stowe) - TAYLOR DOBBS
  • Taylor Dobbs
  • Rep. Heidi Scheuermann (R-Stowe)
A tripartisan group of more than two dozen lawmakers plans to advance legislation that would delay school district mergers that are required by Act 46.

The 2015 law created property tax incentives for communities that opted to merge school districts, and also set a deadline after which districts could be forced to consolidate. Last year, after the deadline passed and the Vermont Board of Education ordered mergers, more than 30 school boards sued to stop the process.

The coalition of House and Senate lawmakers, led by Rep. Heidi Scheuermann (R-Stowe) and Rep. Mike Mrowicki (D-Putney) said the state should delay the forced mergers until those legal cases are decided.

“We need more time,” Mrowicki said.

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Vermont Democrats Counter Scott With Mandatory Paid Leave Plan

Posted By on Thu, Jan 17, 2019 at 12:55 PM

House Speaker Mitzi Johnson - FILE: JEB WALLACE-BRODEUR
  • File: Jeb Wallace-Brodeur
  • House Speaker Mitzi Johnson
A day after Republican Gov. Phil Scott pitched a plan for a voluntary paid family leave program, the Democratic leaders of the Vermont legislature threw their support behind an alternative proposal that would provide the benefit to all Vermonters and fund it with a payroll tax.

At a Statehouse press conference Thursday, House Speaker Mitzi Johnson (D-South Hero) and Senate President Pro Tempore Tim Ashe (D/P-Chittenden) characterized their plan as a better way to protect those helping a sick or injured relative, becoming new parents or recovering from an illness themselves.

“When that happens, a maybe secure financial situation becomes insecure lightning fast,” Ashe said.

The Democratic proposal, which is expected to be introduced soon in the Vermont House, would provide 12 weeks of leave with full pay, according to Ashley Moore, the state director of the Main Street Alliance and co-chair of the Vermont Family and Medical Leave Insurance Coalition. It would be funded by a 0.93-percent payroll tax, split evenly between employers and employees.

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Wednesday, January 16, 2019

Scott Proposes a Paid Family Leave Partnership With New Hampshire

Posted By on Wed, Jan 16, 2019 at 3:19 PM

Vermont Gov. Phil Scott, right, with New Hampshire Gov. Chris Sununu - TAYLOR DOBBS
  • Taylor Dobbs
  • Vermont Gov. Phil Scott, right, with New Hampshire Gov. Chris Sununu
A proposal by Vermont Gov. Phil Scott and New Hampshire Gov. Chris Sununu would provide paid family leave for employees of both states through an insurance system that would also be open to private businesses and individuals who opt to join.

The Republican governors presented their plan Wednesday at the Schilling Beer Company in Littleton, N.H.

The proposal would allow covered employees to take up to six weeks of paid family leave while receiving 60 percent of their usual salaries. Businesses enrolling their entire staff would get a discount on premiums, Scott said, but the insurance would be available on an employee-by-employee basis as well. Workers at businesses that don’t opt in to the program could sign up individually, Scott said.

Last year, Scott vetoed a bill to create a family leave program because it was not optional, and it would have been funded by a payroll tax on Vermont businesses.

“I said last year ... that I share the goal of providing this type of benefit,” Scott said in a taproom overlooking the icy Ammonoosuc River. “I just thought we should be doing it on a volunteer basis, but I didn’t have a plan together at that point. Now we have a plan, and we have details as well.”

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Monday, January 14, 2019

White Nationalist Crashes Press Conference on Racial Harassment of Kiah Morris

Posted By on Mon, Jan 14, 2019 at 3:52 PM

  • Derek Brouwer
  • Kiah Morris
Updated 8:14 p.m.

A self-proclaimed white nationalist accused of harassing former state representative Kiah Morris strode into the Congregation Beth El synagogue in Bennington during a press conference held Monday to announce the findings of a state probe into alleged racist acts against the ex-lawmaker.

Morris, a Bennington Democrat who is African American, cited years of racial harassment when she resigned from her position last fall before the end of her term.

The press conference went off the rails when Bennington resident Max Misch entered the room as Morris answered a television reporter's question about the AG's probe. Misch had been subject to a yearlong protective order in 2016 prohibiting him from contacting Morris over a series of racist tweets, messages and online comments he aimed at her.

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Thursday, January 10, 2019

Walters: Lyons, Benning Named Senate Committee Chairs

Posted By on Thu, Jan 10, 2019 at 6:07 PM

  • File: Jeb Wallace-Brodeur
  • Sen. Ginny Lyons
Two committees in the Vermont Senate will have new chairs this biennium, Senate leadership announced Thursday afternoon. But in contrast to the House, which saw a substantial makeover Wednesday, Senate committee composition is relatively unchanged.

The new chairs replace two members who chose not to seek reelection last year. Sen. Ginny Lyons (D-Chittenden) will replace former senator Claire Ayer, a Democrat, as chair of the Health and Welfare Committee. Sen. Joe Benning (R-Caledonia) will chair the Institutions Committee, a post formerly occupied by Republican Peg Flory.

Benning also replaces Flory as the only Republican committee chair. "Even with the diminished number of Republicans, we respect the minority's point of view and want to include them in leadership roles," said Senate President Pro Tempore Tim Ashe (D/P-Chittenden). Only six of the Senate's 30 members are Republicans; the GOP lost one seat in last November's elections.

Senate committee seats are assigned by a three-member panel called the Committee on Committees. Its members are Ashe, Lt. Gov. David Zuckerman and Sen. Dick Mazza (D-Grand Isle).

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In Second Inaugural Address, Scott Vows to Grow Vermont's Workforce

Posted By on Thu, Jan 10, 2019 at 4:10 PM

Vermont National Guard Adjutant General Steven Cray greets Gov. Phil Scott at the governor's inauguration. - JEB WALLACE-BRODEUR
  • Jeb Wallace-Brodeur
  • Vermont National Guard Adjutant General Steven Cray greets Gov. Phil Scott at the governor's inauguration.
Updated at 6:42 p.m.

As he began his second term Thursday, Gov. Phil Scott warned lawmakers that Vermont faces a demographic crisis that could cripple state government and diminish Vermonters’ way of life.

The state’s stagnant population and shrinking labor force, he said in his inaugural address, are “threatening every service we deliver, every program we administer and every investment we hope to make.” Without a different approach, he continued, “our current revenues won’t support our obligations, our wants or even our needs.”

Scott delivered his remarks to a joint assembly of the Vermont House and Senate after he and the state’s five other statewide officers swore their oaths of office. The 60-year-old Berlin Republican, a former state senator and lieutenant governor, won his second two-year term last fall.

After outlining the challenges he said the state faced, Scott spent much of his 32-minute address outlining his approach to solving them, focusing mostly on health, education, business and housing. Though he was light on specifics — as most governors are in their inaugural and state of the state addresses — he provided plenty of hints of agenda items to come.

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Wednesday, January 9, 2019

As Vermont Legislature Reconvenes, Speaker Johnson Shakes Up Chairmanships

Posted By and on Wed, Jan 9, 2019 at 5:37 PM

Members of the House take their oaths of office. - JEB WALLACE-BRODEUR
  • Jeb Wallace-Brodeur
  • Members of the House take their oaths of office.
Vermont lawmakers braved slippery highways and slushy streets Wednesday morning to begin the 2019 legislative session inside a snow-covered Statehouse.

The day of ceremony featured the reelection of the legislature's top leaders — House Speaker Mitzi Johnson (D-South Hero) and Senate President Pro Tempore Tim Ashe (D/P-Chittenden) — and an overhaul of the House committee leadership.

Following a wave of retirements last year, Johnson appointed new chairs to seven of the House's 14 standing committees, including those with jurisdiction over education, energy, natural resources, commerce and housing.

In addition to filling five vacant chairmanships, the speaker replaced two returning chairs. Rep. Curt McCormack (D-Burlington) will take over the House Transportation Committee from Rep. Patrick Brennan (R-Colchester), while Rep. Sarah Copeland Hanzas (D-Bradford) will succeed Rep. Maida Townsend (D-South Burlington) atop the House Government Operations Committee.

"I'm disappointed but looking forward to the new challenge," said Brennan, whose consolation prize is a seat on the influential House Ways and Means Committee.

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Walters: Rallies Abound on Vermont Legislature's Opening Day

Posted By on Wed, Jan 9, 2019 at 5:18 PM

Members of No Carbon Tax Vermont - JEB WALLACE-BRODEUR
  • Jeb Wallace-Brodeur
  • Members of No Carbon Tax Vermont
As the Vermont legislature opened its new session Wednesday, several advocacy groups made their presence felt in the Statehouse.

About 50 members of No Carbon Tax Vermont, a new group opposed to carbon pricing as a way of combating climate change, gathered in the Statehouse for a rally featuring multiple speakers. Participants wore bright yellow safety vests, a visual echo of the orange-vested gun-rights supporters who were so prevalent during the 2018 gun legislation debate.

In fact, many leaders of that movement are now active in No Carbon Tax Vermont — such as the rally's emcee, J.T. Dodge of Newbury, who is also cochair of the pro-gun Vermont Citizens Defense League. Dodge said the group's get-up wasn't inspired by protesters in France, who have also donned yellow vests.

Participants first gathered on the Statehouse steps but moved the rally indoors because of the wet, snowy weather. Dodge opened the proceedings by insisting that the group is nonpartisan — "It's not about parties or politicians. It's about us!" he said. But most of the speakers represented conservative interests and often criticized the left-leaning legislative majority. Dodge said that an unnamed Democratic lawmaker had been invited to speak but had declined.

"The carbon tax is a corrupt stew of bad politics and bad policy," said Rob Roper, president of the conservative Ethan Allen Institute. "Despite that, it seems to come back every year."

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Tuesday, January 8, 2019

Montpeculiar: Legislator Preps for Session — With a Plea for a Toaster

Posted By on Tue, Jan 8, 2019 at 4:47 PM

  • Photo Illustration: Bryan Parmelee
Rep. Mary Sullivan (D-Burlington) has seen her fair share of sausage being made in Montpelier, but this legislative session she’d like a little toast to go with it.

As the Queen City pol was looking to outfit her new capital digs for the winter, she issued an unusual request of her constituents. Did anyone, she inquired recently on the neighborhood listserv Front Porch Forum, have a toaster they could lend her for the upcoming session?

Sullivan and two other reps, seeking to sidestep the daily drudgery of a commute to the capital, scored a sweet short-term rental near the Statehouse. “Going back and forth in the winter is really difficult, especially since some of the committee meetings can go late,” she said.

The lawmaker recalled buying crampons a couple years back to help her scale the slippery slopes to her previous attic apartment in the capital. This year's pad, on Bailey Avenue, couldn’t be better — just steps from the Statehouse — but it lacked some basic creature comforts.

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