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Saturday, June 23, 2018

Opinion
Walters: Budget Deal Remains Elusive

Posted By on Sat, Jun 23, 2018 at 10:24 AM

One of many procedural huddles on Friday. From left: House Speaker Mitzi Johnson, her aide, Katherine Levasseur, Rep. Diane Lanpher, House Minority Leader Jill Krowinski and Rep. Diana Gonzalez - JOHN WALTERS
  • John Walters
  • One of many procedural huddles on Friday. From left: House Speaker Mitzi Johnson, her aide, Katherine Levasseur, Rep. Diane Lanpher, House Minority Leader Jill Krowinski and Rep. Diana Gonzalez
Legislative leaders came achingly close on Friday to settling the weeks-long budget impasse with Gov. Phil Scott. Whether there was an actual deal or an informal agreement was a matter of interpretation; but at the end of a session that lasted until midnight, the House ended up abandoning attempts to find compromise between a Senate-passed budget and the governor, and approved the Senate bill, H.16, with a couple of minor changes.

The end of the session was marred by Republicans' confusion and outrage over what they saw as a violation of parliamentary procedure. The dispute will lead to a revote on the bill on Monday — which is a mere six days from a potential state government shutdown. And the Senate will have to wait for the House revote.

During an evening caucus, Scott told House Republicans that a deal had been struck on Friday morning between his administration and House leadership, "but it was taken off the table this afternoon."

After the caucus, he further explained to reporters that House Speaker Mitzi Johnson (D-South Hero) told him Friday afternoon that "she was proposing further amendment after talking with the pro tem," referring to Senate President Pro Tempore Tim Ashe (D/P-Chittenden).

In a written statement issued late Friday evening, Ashe did not directly address Scott's version of events. Ashe recounted the Senate's budget action this week and then stated, "The House has been instrumental as a partner to the Senate on every major piece of legislation, so we look forward to reviewing the changes being sent to the Senate on H.16."

The Senate had approved H.16 with a unanimous vote Thursday afternoon. The bill was almost entirely a repeat of a budget already vetoed by Scott, with two significant changes.

Scott's primary objection to the earlier budget was that it did not prevent a 5.5-cent increase in the nonresidential property tax rate. (That rate is set annually under state law, and legislative action is required to change it.)

The Senate's Thursday budget would bring down the nonresidential rate by a single penny — still allowing a 4.5-cent increase to go forward. It would also add a major cost-control item on Scott's wish list: statewide negotiation of teacher health care benefits. But there was one item Scott was likely to oppose: Any extra revenue received by the state would be invested in the teacher pension fund.

The Friday morning "deal" would have split any extra unanticipated revenue evenly between the state teacher pension fund and a temporary financial reserve that would buy down the 4.5-cent nonresidential hike at the end of fiscal year 2019, one year from now. That buy-down would depend on state revenues coming in higher than expected — which seems likely to occur.

"It was a true compromise," said Scott. He would give in on his key demand, keeping tax rates level right now, in exchange for a reasonable expectation that nonresidential taxpayers would get a break in one year's time.

But when that deal went sour, House leaders were left scrambling to craft a fresh one. Negotiations went on throughout the afternoon and into the early evening; at one point, Johnson ordered pizzas for House members and staff. The move was greeted with ambivalence; it meant free food, but also the expectation of a long evening.

At the end of the pizza break, House Appropriations Committee chair Kitty Toll (D-Danville) proposed a new version of H.16. Instead of a 50/50 split, it would have created a three-way division with one-third each going to the teacher pension fund, a reserve for the general fund and the nonresidential tax rate buy-down.

"I don't love, it, I don't hate it, but at this point I don't care," Toll said in a hallway conversation with the governor, expressing the sentiments of many in the building. The differences between 50/50 and three-way amount to a few million dollars in each segment. The dollars were getting ever fewer, but sometimes it's the small things that cause big problems.

And problems there were. After party caucuses, the House remained in recess until 10:00 p.m. It immediately became clear that something had unraveled. Instead of advancing her compromise proposal, Toll put forward the Senate version of H.16, with a couple of minor changes. The key element in House compromises — the 50/50 split or the three-way split — were out. As in the Senate's H.16, any extra revenues would go straight to the teacher pension fund, giving Scott little hope of achieving his goal of buying down nonresidential property tax rates.

House Republicans were outraged. "This flies in the face of what I was told in the speaker's office earlier today," said Rep. Kurt Wright (R-Burlington). "This is not our finest hour."

"A deal is a deal," said House Minority Leader Don Turner (R-Milton). "I'm very disappointed we're not adopting it tonight."

Rep. Heidi Scheuermann (R-Stowe) proposed an amendment to Toll's latest proposal that would have reinserted the three-way compromise.

Toll attempted to defend her apparent reversal. "In the afternoon, several members told me they could not support [the three-way split]," she said. "I felt the best way to move forward was to remove that part and move the process onward." She then advised House members to contact their senators and ask them to support a compromise on the budget.

It was a curious moment; the House's chief budget writer was essentially telling her colleagues to vote against an amendment she had herself proposed and shepherded to a unanimous committee vote earlier that evening.

But even curiouser was just around the corner. After Scheuermann's amendment was rejected, Johnson called for a vote on Toll's latest bill. It carried on a one-sided voice vote — but Republicans didn't realize it was the final vote until it was too late.

They protested that House procedure hadn't been followed — that there were still proposed amendments on the calendar that hadn't been debated. Johnson called a recess, and Republican leaders rushed the podium.

"How can this be?" demanded Turner.

"The question was asked," replied Johnson. "I asked if people were ready for the question."

"But, Mitzi, that's not the normal procedure," said Rep. Anne Donahue (R-Northfield). "There were additional amendments on the calendar."

"I didn't even know what we were voting on," added Turner.

Johnson stood her ground. Turner then said that he would move for reconsideration of the vote. Johnson noted that in order to do so, Turner would have to have voted in favor of the bill.

"Prove that I didn't," replied Turner. Which would be impossible on a voice vote.

Johnson and Turner disappeared from the floor to discuss the situation. When they returned, Johnson called for a motion to adjourn and told the House, "We can expect reconsideration of H.16 when we return on Monday."

If one of the two compromise plans had gone through, there was a reasonably clear path to resolution of the budget impasse. The Senate would have considered whichever compromise the House approved  — either the 50/50 split of extra revenue, or the three-way split — and if the Senate concurred, the bill would be on its way to a governor who hadn't formally committed, but appeared inclined to accept either one.

But neither passed.

Earlier in the evening, Scott had expressed caution on Toll's three-way compromise: "I'm going to wait until the final product, then I'll weigh in at that point," he said. At the time, it seemed an exercise in typical Phil Scott caution.

By midnight, it seemed like the smartest thing anybody said all day long.

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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Friday, June 22, 2018

Opinion
Walters: Vermont House Approves Resolution Opposing Family Separation

Posted By on Fri, Jun 22, 2018 at 6:30 PM

Rep. Gary Viens - VERMONT LEGISLATURE
  • Vermont Legislature
  • Rep. Gary Viens
The state House approved a resolution Friday condemning the Trump administration's recently reversed policy of separating members of immigrant families who cross the border seeking asylum.

The resolution also expressed "a profound hope that the family separation policy will not be reinstated," and that federal authorities would reunite separated families "immediately."

The measure had 90 cosponsors. The final tally was 106 in favor and 17 against, with the dissenting votes all coming from Republicans. There was no floor debate before the vote, but some members rose to explain their votes afterward. The longest statement in opposition came from Rep. Gary Viens (R-Newport), a retired U.S. Border Patrol agent.

"Any time parents and children come to the United States illegally, they are processed," he said. "They have two choices: Family members can admit they crossed the border illegally and return home, or face detention and prosecution."

Viens continued, "It's terrible what's going on, but it was the parents' decision that led to the separation, not the government's."

The 16 other no votes came from Reps. Lynn Batchelor (R-Derby Line), Steve Beyor (R-Highgate Springs), Patrick Brennan (R-Colchester), Thomas Burditt (R-West Rutland), Bob Frenier (R-Chelsea), Doug Gage (R-Rutland City), Marianna Gamache (R-Swanton), Rodney Graham (R-Williamstown), Bob Helm (R-Fair Haven), Mark Higley (R-Lowell), Marcia Martel (R-Waterford), Constance Quimby (R-Concord), Carl Rosenquist (R-St. Albans), Brian Savage (R-Swanton), Brian Smith (R-Derby) and Warren Van Wyck (R-Ferrisburgh). 

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Wednesday, June 20, 2018

Opinion
Walters: Scott, Legislature Still Talking Past Each Other

Posted By on Wed, Jun 20, 2018 at 5:07 PM

Administration Secretary Susanne Young addresses three Senate committees - JOHN WALTERS
  • John Walters
  • Administration Secretary Susanne Young addresses three Senate committees
Three Vermont Senate committees met Wednesday morning to begin work on the legislature's third version of a budget bill, the first two having been vetoed by Gov. Phil Scott. By day's end, the three panels had approved a proposal that moves slightly in Scott's direction — but only slightly.

"I would not predict a veto," Administration Secretary Susanne Young said after the hearing. "But this new proposal is not substantially different from the last one."

The most recent budget, H.13, would have held residential property tax rates level but would have not stopped a 5.5-cent statutory increase in nonresidential rates from going forward. The committees' new plan reduces the nonresidential rate by one penny.

The Appropriations, Finance and Education committees convened jointly due to severe time constraints. If there's no budget on July 1, state government would be forced to shut down. And so far, the Scott administration has refused to disclose contingency plans for that eventuality.

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GlobalFoundries Cuts Jobs at Essex Junction Manufacturing Facility

Posted By on Wed, Jun 20, 2018 at 3:52 PM

GlobalFoundries in Essex Junction - FILE: MATT THORSEN
  • File: Matt Thorsen
  • GlobalFoundries in Essex Junction
It's a familiar refrain: More layoffs are underway at GlobalFoundries in Essex Junction.

Employees were notified Wednesday of job reductions that were expected to trim about 130 people from the semiconductor plant's workforce of roughly 2,600.

"I've heard from affected workers that it happened today," Vermont Labor Commissioner Lindsay Kurrle told Seven Days Wednesday afternoon.

A company spokesman confirmed the layoffs in an email Wednesday but would not say how many workers lost their jobs. The company also sounded an ominous note about Vermont's high utility costs and suggested the expense could drive future investments to a rival plant in New York.

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Tuesday, June 19, 2018

Cannabis
Vermont State Police Talk Changes in Enforcement With New Weed Law

Posted By on Tue, Jun 19, 2018 at 5:50 PM

Lt. John Flannigan - SARA TABIN
  • Sara Tabin
  • Lt. John Flannigan
Recreational cannabis will be legalized July 1 in Vermont, but driving under the influence of drugs remains dangerous and illegal, Vermont State Police warned Tuesday during a wide-ranging discussion with the media about law enforcement changes surrounding the new law.

Cannabis-sniffing canines will be given new assignments and the agency has considered purchasing scales for patrol cars so troopers can weigh motorists' weed, according to Capt. James Whitcomb. Possession of more than one ounce of cannabis is illegal, according to Act 86, Vermont's new recreational marijuana law.

Tuesday's talk at state police headquarters in Waterbury came less than two weeks before weed legalization takes effect. And though the date is coming ever closer, Whitcomb said state police won't be more lenient in the intervening 11 days.

"There has been no easing of enforcement," Whitcomb said. "July 1 is a hard date."

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Opinion
Walters: Vermont House Fails to Override Scott's Budget Veto

Posted By on Tue, Jun 19, 2018 at 3:46 PM

House Minority Leader Don Turner speaking to reporters after the veto override vote - JOHN WALTERS
  • John Walters
  • House Minority Leader Don Turner speaking to reporters after the veto override vote
The Vermont House failed to override Gov. Phil Scott's latest budget veto Tuesday afternoon in a vote that broke almost entirely along partisan lines. A two-thirds majority was needed to override; the final tally was 90 yes, 51 no.

Every Republican present voted to sustain their governor's veto, including those who had previously voted "yes" on the budget bill. Only three Republicans were absent.

There was no debate before the roll call. It appeared that all sides knew how the vote would turn out and saw no reason to delay the inevitable.

Legislative leaders crafted the budget bill, H.13, to include the vast majority of a new spending plan while setting aside the few areas of disagreement with Scott. It would have lifted the pressure of a pending government shutdown, which would happen on July 1 in the absence of a budget. But the governor vetoed the bill because, he argued, it would have done nothing to prevent a statutory increase in nonresidential property taxes. (Democratic leaders have said they would have addressed the automatic increase in separate legislation.)

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South Burlington Motel Residents Worry About Its Planned Demolition

Posted By on Tue, Jun 19, 2018 at 1:08 PM

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Gasoline mogul Skip Vallee wants to demolish the extended-stay Maple Leaf Motel on Route 7 in South Burlington to make way for a large service station and convenience store — leading residents to fret about where they'll live.

Some say they'll have nowhere to go, given the shortage of affordable housing in Chittenden County.

"They are going to make us homeless," predicted Jamie Thompson.

Thompson works as an aide for a special-needs child and has lived in a one-bedroom efficiency at the motel for three years, she said. She pays $500 a month, and so does her roommate, who Thompson said works at a gas station and a Dunkin' Donuts.

It will be very difficult to find an equivalent $1,000-a-month rental anywhere nearby, Thompson said.

"I don't know what's going to happen," she said. "I really don't. It's a scary thing."

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Monday, June 18, 2018

Magnolia Bistro Owner's Facebook Post Sparks Calls for Boycott

Posted By on Mon, Jun 18, 2018 at 3:24 PM

Magnolia Bistro - KATIE JICKLING
  • Katie Jickling
  • Magnolia Bistro
Updated on June 19, 2018.

A Burlington restaurant owner has come under fire after he posted on Facebook that "junkies should detox or die," leading to a flurry of calls to boycott his business.

Magnolia Bistro owner Shannon Reilly wrote the inflammatory comment on Friday in response to a post by Mayor Miro Weinberger, who shared a Seven Days article about the city's efforts to more quickly provide buprenorphine to drug users seeking treatment. Buprenorphine, also referred to as bupe or its commercial name, Suboxone, is an opioid that mitigates heroin withdrawal symptoms and cravings.

"The junkies should detox or die," Reilly wrote. "Sorry. So fuckin pathetic employing people spaced out on bupe. Fuckin useless. Let them die."

Reilly also took a shot at Weinberger: "F U Wondeboy. Stop trying to act like you are doing anything good for this town! You deserved to be buried under that mall you douchbag," he wrote, apparently referring to the redevelopment of the Burlington Town Center, which has been rechristened CityPlace Burlington.

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Sunday, June 17, 2018

Burlington Police Chief del Pozo Hospitalized After Serious Bike Crash in Adirondacks

Posted By on Sun, Jun 17, 2018 at 8:07 PM

Burlington Police Chief Brandon del Pozo - FILE: MATTHEW THORSEN
  • File: Matthew Thorsen
  • Burlington Police Chief Brandon del Pozo
Updated on June 18, 2018.

Burlington Police Chief Brandon del Pozo could remain hospitalized "for a sustained period" after a serious bicycle crash Saturday in the Adirondacks, the city said in a press release.

The chief suffered a concussion, a broken collarbone, a broken right shoulder and road rash when he crashed on "a hill he has ridden many times" on Route 73 in Keene, N.Y., according to Katie Vane, a spokesperson for Mayor Miro Weinberger.

Del Pozo was taken by ambulance to a hospital in Saranac Lake, N.Y., before he was airlifted to the University of Vermont Medical Center. He remained in the intensive care unit, and doctors were "optimistic about a full recovery," the release said. Deputy Police Chief Jan Wright will serve as acting chief while del Pozo is sidelined.

Weinberger has twice visited del Pozo in the hospital and has been in touch with his wife, Vane said on Monday.

"The mayor reported that he had a great conversation with the chief in his visit Sunday night, and left very optimistic that the chief was on the mend," Vane said in a written message. "The chief is still in the ICU, although he is expected to be moved to a different section of the hospital relatively soon. We are not sure yet when he will be released from the hospital."

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Friday, June 15, 2018

Entrepreneurship Community Planned for Cambrian Rise

Posted By on Fri, Jun 15, 2018 at 4:50 PM

Rendering of Cambrian Rise - COURTESY OF LINCOLN BROWN ILLUSTRATION
  • Courtesy of Lincoln Brown Illustration
  • Rendering of Cambrian Rise
Vermont's first co-living and coworking business accelerator will find a home at Burlington's Cambrian Rise.

Local investors will help pay for and design one of 12 buildings that will make up the development. The "innovation hub" will allow entrepreneurs to work and learn together, get access to startup funds for business, and live in a place that facilitates "the intense collision of ideas and mentoring," according to a description of the project provided by its creators.

The project, called the Vermont Innovation Commons, will "bring talent and capital and business growth and, ultimately, jobs to a place that really needs it," said Mark Naud, who's heading up the effort. "There's ... nothing like that in the state of Vermont or in Burlington, certainly."

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