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Tuesday, April 24, 2018

Scott's Education Plan Includes Proposed Tax Penalties

Posted By on Tue, Apr 24, 2018 at 5:18 PM

Gov. Phil Scott - FILE: TERRI HALLENBECK
  • File: Terri Hallenbeck
  • Gov. Phil Scott
In an effort to reduce education costs long-term in Vermont, Gov. Phil Scott’s administration unveiled a proposal Tuesday that would result in increased property taxes for school districts with student-to-staff ratios below a state-mandated target.

Finance Commissioner Adam Greshin said the plan does not include a tax increase, because districts that beat the target would get a tax break, meaning the state wouldn't be taking in more money overall — even though some Vermonters would pay more.

“What the proposal does is, it levels the average statewide property tax,” Greshin told the House Education Committee Tuesday.

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Monday, April 23, 2018

Sean Hannity's Real Estate Empire Includes Okemo Condo

Posted By on Mon, Apr 23, 2018 at 6:32 PM

Sean Hannity - DREAMSTIME/ZHUKOVSKY
  • Dreamstime/Zhukovsky
  • Sean Hannity
An investigation by the Guardian revealed Sunday that Fox News host Sean Hannity spent at least $90 million on more than 870 properties in seven states — including Vermont.

The story was sparked by the revelation in federal court last week that Hannity was a client of President Donald Trump's attorney and fixer, Michael Cohen, whose home and office were raided the week before by the Federal Bureau of Investigation. Speaking on Fox News after the court hearing, Hannity said his work with Cohen focused almost exclusively on real estate.

"I hate the stock market," he said. "I prefer real estate. Michael knows real estate."

Hannity loves real estate so much that he bought dozens of properties out of foreclosure over the past decade, according to the Guardian. Some of those were purchased with support from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development — a fact that Hannity failed to disclose during an interview last June with HUD Secretary Ben Carson.

So where, exactly, are the Fox News host's Vermont holdings?

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Many Police Agencies in Vermont Stop Using License Plate Readers

Posted By on Mon, Apr 23, 2018 at 5:54 PM

In-car computers scan plates from photos of vehicles. - FILE: MATTHEW THORSEN
  • File: Matthew Thorsen
  • In-car computers scan plates from photos of vehicles.
The Vermont State Police and 17 other law enforcement agencies in the Green Mountain State have stopped using automated license plate readers, resulting in a steep decline in the amount of data collected about vehicles on Vermont’s roads.

State Police Capt. Kevin Lane told the House Judiciary Committee Friday that the agency stopped using the technology because of state rules put into place in 2016 and the potential cost of replacing the devices as they reach the end of their useful lifespan.

“Looking at replacements was expensive, and some of the reporting requirements when the law changed were very challenging to meet,” Lane said.

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Under Financial Pressure, Brattleboro Retreat Seeks State Funding Increase

Posted By on Mon, Apr 23, 2018 at 4:19 PM

FILE
  • File
After experiencing back-to-back deficits, the Brattleboro Retreat — Vermont’s largest provider of mental health care — is telling state lawmakers it needs a Medicaid rate increase.

“It has to happen,” Human Services Secretary Al Gobeille told members of the House Health Care Committee last Tuesday. “If we did nothing with rates and nothing to improve their business position, Brattleboro Retreat would go bankrupt.”

Retreat CEO Louis Josephson moderated Gobeille's prognosis during an April 20 interview but acknowledged that without a rate increase, the facility would likely have to “shrink dramatically” to stay in business.

That could have a catastrophic impact on what's already considered a mental health crisis in Vermont.

The 119-bed Retreat, which operates on a budget of approximately $70 million, serves both children and adults. Since Tropical Storm Irene destroyed the Vermont State Hospital in Waterbury in 2011, Vermont has contracted with the private psychiatric hospital to reserve 14 beds for patients who are in state custody and tend to be severely ill.

According to Josephson, half of the Retreat’s revenue comes from patients on Medicaid, the health insurance program funded by the state and federal governments. The rates set by the state to pay for those patients have remained essentially flat for eight years. Expenses, meanwhile, have steadily risen.

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Prosecutor Drops Most Serious Charges Against Accused Fair Haven School Plotter

Posted By on Mon, Apr 23, 2018 at 12:22 PM

Jack Sawyer with defense attorney Kelly Green in court - FILE POOL PHOTO: GLENN RUSSELL / BURLINGTON FREE PRESS
  • File Pool Photo: Glenn Russell / Burlington Free Press
  • Jack Sawyer with defense attorney Kelly Green in court
Rutland County State's Attorney Rosemary Kennedy has dismissed the most serious charges against the former student who allegedly plotted a massacre at Fair Haven Union High School.

The decision, which comes after weeks of legal challenges, could pave the way for 18-year-old Jack Sawyer to soon be released from jail.

The move has seemed inevitable since April 11, when the Vermont Supreme Court overturned Judge Thomas Zonay's decision to hold Sawyer without bail on the charges — three counts of attempted murder and one count of attempted aggravated assault. He still faces two misdemeanor charges of criminal threatening and carrying a dangerous weapon.

In their ruling, justices said Sawyer's actions were "preparatory" and not "undertaken in the attempt to commit a crime."

In a Friday filing with the court dismissing the charges, Kennedy said the Supreme Court decision rendered the charges "untenable" and left her with "no choice."

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Friday, April 20, 2018

Opinion
Walters: Corporate Contributions Ban Has a Tough Day

Posted By on Fri, Apr 20, 2018 at 5:05 PM

Rep. Jim Harrison, center, questions a witness about S.120. - JOHN WALTERS
  • John Walters
  • Rep. Jim Harrison, center, questions a witness about S.120.
Members of a Vermont House committee have plenty of questions about S.120, the Senate-passed bill that would ban corporate campaign contributions to candidates or political parties.

The House Government Operations Committee held its first hearing on the bill Friday morning. Both Democrats and Republicans appeared to be skeptical that the bill would accomplish its purpose: to keep Vermont immune from the effects of big-money politics. That’s because corporations would still be able to donate unlimited funds through political action committees and independent organizations.

“Many of us have gotten lots of calls asking us to get corporate money out of Vermont politics,” said committee chair Rep. Maida Townsend (D-South Burlington). “This bill, the PACs would collect the money and put it into our political system. If it’s direct from corporation to candidate it’s not OK, but if it goes from corporation to PAC to candidate, it is OK?”

Rep. Jim Harrison (R-Chittenden) wondered, half-jokingly, if S.120 didn’t simply create “a way to launder the money,” and pointed out that “any candidate could set up a PAC and accept corporate contributions.”

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Thursday, April 19, 2018

Opinion
Walters: Scott Proposes One-Time Money to Patch Education Fund

Posted By on Thu, Apr 19, 2018 at 4:33 PM

Gov. Phil Scott - TAYLOR DOBBS
  • Taylor Dobbs
  • Gov. Phil Scott
Updated at 6:08 p.m.

Gov. Phil Scott has proposed using one-time money from elsewhere in the state budget to prevent a projected 5.5 cent increase in the statewide property tax rate.

Speaking at his weekly press conference on Thursday, Scott called the use of one-time money “an investment” in measures to cut school spending in future years.

“We may not be able to book immediate savings because I’m not asking the schools to go back and do anything with their budgets,” he said. “But if we could find an opportunity for savings over the next few years, we’d look at it as an investment utilizing one-time money this year.”

Scott is looking to fill a $40 million shortfall in the education fund, caused in large part by a 2017 deal with the legislature that involved spending reserves and one-time funds to reduce property taxes. He noted that that deal “wasn’t my initiative, as you may recall.” And he said he’s willing to use one-time money only if there are significant moves to cut costs measurably in the next few years.

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Vermont Senate Votes to Override Scott's Veto of Toxics Bill

Posted By on Thu, Apr 19, 2018 at 3:02 PM

Sen. Tim Ashe - FILE: JEB WALLACE-BRODEUR
  • File: Jeb Wallace-Brodeur
  • Sen. Tim Ashe
The Vermont Senate voted 22-8 Thursday to override Gov. Phil Scott’s veto of a bill that would expand state regulation of toxic chemicals in consumer products. The House is now expected to hold a vote next week that will decide whether the bill becomes law despite the governor’s objections.

Scott vetoed the bill, S.103, on Monday due to his concerns that the legislation would make the state less business-friendly without substantially improving public health. He specifically objected to a section of the bill that would give the commissioner of the Department of Health — a gubernatorial appointee — expanded power to require labeling or even ban the sale of products determined likely to expose children to harmful toxins.

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Nonprofits Urge Vermont Lawmakers to Ditch Tax Change

Posted By on Thu, Apr 19, 2018 at 2:34 PM

Rep. Janet Ancel - FILE: JEB WALLACE-BRODEUR
  • File: Jeb Wallace-Brodeur
  • Rep. Janet Ancel
Updated at 5:58 p.m.

A large coalition of Vermont nonprofits are concerned that a proposal currently under consideration in the state legislature would discourage large charitable donations.

The tax bill, which passed the House and is now under review in the Senate, includes a provision that would eliminate the tax deduction for charitable donations at the state level and replace it with a 5 percent tax credit, which would apply to contributions of $10,000 or less.

The University of Vermont, the Vermont State Colleges, Vermont Public Radio, the Vermont Foodbank and a number of other nonprofits wrote in a strongly worded letter to Gov. Phil Scott and the legislature that the change would send a message to potential donors that “Vermont does not encourage or welcome large, transformational gifts.”

“It is clear that deconstructing charitable giving in Vermont will have a detrimental effect on the state’s nonprofits, and most importantly, the people we serve,” the letter reads. “Attempting to raise revenue on the backs of the charitable sector is irresponsible and will hurt our communities.”

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Welch Takes Campaign Cash From Telecom Regulated by His Wife

Posted By on Thu, Apr 19, 2018 at 1:37 PM

Congressman Peter Welch and Public Utility Commissioner Margaret Cheney at a Vermont Democratic Party gathering - FILE: TERRI HALLENBECK
  • File: Terri Hallenbeck
  • Congressman Peter Welch and Public Utility Commissioner Margaret Cheney at a Vermont Democratic Party gathering
On March 1, Vermont Public Utility Commissioner Margaret Cheney signed permits for three T-Mobile cell towers in Chittenden County. Five days later, the company's political action committee spent $500 hosting Cheney's husband, Congressman Peter Welch (D-Vt.), at a campaign fundraiser.

Within two weeks of the permit approvals, on March 12, the T-Mobile PAC cut a $2,500 check to Welch's reelection campaign. Soon after that, on March 27, T-Mobile filed another motion with Cheney’s Public Utility Commission, this time to update equipment at a Jay Peak cell site.

Welch and Cheney maintain that neither was involved in the other’s dealings with T-Mobile. They say a strict firewall separates their respective careers.

But the episode demonstrates how their work with regulated utilities could raise at least the perception of a conflict of interest. It also raises questions as to whether Welch has abided by a 2016 pledge to refuse campaign contributions from companies appearing before Cheney’s board.

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