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MONTPELIER — On a snowy February day in 2010, Democratic lawmakers celebrated a Senate vote they said would force the closure of Vermont Yankee. On Thursday evening, many of those same legislators huddled to regroup after learning that a federal judge had stripped their authority to shutter the nuclear power plant.
“It’s disappointing that the court found that the people of Vermont, through their Legislature, could not have a voice about the continued operation of the plant,” said House Speaker Shap Smith.
Word of the ruling spread through the Statehouse like wildfire. Shortly after its release, Smith and Senate President John Campbell hunkered in the speaker’s office with a small corps of lawyers and lawmakers to read the 102-page decision and draft a response.
Campbell called the decision from U.S. District Court Judge J. Garvan Murtha a blow to Vermont sovereignty.
“I think it shows the deterioration of states’ rights,” he said.
MONTPELIER – When Gov. Peter Shumlin was president pro tem of the Senate, Gov. Jim Douglas occupied the fifth floor, and the two clashed over numerous issues.
Now that he is governor, Shumlin told Douglas on Thursday, he sees how frustrating it can be when you're on the other end of the deal, trying to get the unwieldy House and Senate to do what you want.
As an example, Shumlin pointed to his ongoing effort to pass a “simple little bill” through the Legislature that would let Vermonters have “Vermont Strong” license plates on their cars. The license plates are designed raise money for Irene victims.
“They can't move the thing along,” said Shumlin, referring to the Legislature.
During a light-hearted meeting in the governor's ceremonial office with Douglas on Thursday, Shumlin admitted he may have been guilty of causing the gears of government to grind when he was in the Senate, and said he repented for his sins.
“Funny how your perspective has changed,” said Douglas.
Shumlin played host at the Statehouse to Douglas and the Middlebury College political science class Douglas is teaching.
Shumlin riffed on his top agenda items, and answered questions from students.
The two former rivals kept it light, offering jokes when the opportunity arose.
In comedy, timing is...everything. And timing matters when rising to the governor's office, too, said Shumlin, noting that in his first year in office Vermont was hit with a record blizzard, record rain and record flooding – including Irene.
“The governor knew when to get out,” said Shumlin.
MONTPELIER -- Sen. Kevin Mullin, a Rutland County Republican who went along with Democrats last year and voted in favor of the single-payer health care law, wants to make sure Vermonters are getting their money's worth out of all five members of the Green Mountain Care Board.
During a Statehouse hearing Thursday, Mullin asked the chairwoman of the board, Anya Rader Wallack, about a public perception that the other members of the board are not doing much work.
“Right now the public perception is you are Peter Shumlin's point person on health care and nobody else knows what they're doing,” said Mullin.
Wallack assured him the board members are working hard.
“Each of them have been up to their eyeballs in various issues,” Wallack said.
Mullin suggested notifying the press and the public when the board is out and about and hard at work in order to combat the perception.
MONTPELIER – One of the highest stakes games in the Statehouse this year is the move toward what's known as a Renewable Portfolio Standard, which is a requirement that electric utilities in Vermont have a certain amount of energy come from renewable resources like wind and solar.
The House Natural Resources and Energy Committee has taken extensive testimony on the idea, which is designed to spur the development of renewable energy. Shumlin said in his State of the State address that he wants to enact an RPS. And the quasi-judicial Public Service Board also recommends the idea, and has put forth a proposal that could add hundreds of millions of dollars to the cost of electricity over a 20-year period. (That's in the context of about $10 billion that Vermonters are expected to spend on electricity during that same period.)
But when it comes to the cost and effectiveness of an RPS, the devil's in the details, and the Shumlin administration hasn't put a proposal on paper for the House Natural Resources and Energy Committee to dissect to determine how it might affect electricity rates.
And the cost to ratepayers in any proposal is a king – both practically and politically.
Lawmakers were clearly getting a little antsy Wednesday morning as they listened to testimony from Asa Hopkins, who's with the Department of Public Service.
“I want to consider the rate impact of a specific proposal,” said Rep. Tony Klein, chairman of the committee.
“Even if there are all these variables, you've got to have a starting point,” echoed Rep. Betty Nuovo.
It's unclear when exactly the administration will offer its RPS plan.
Never one to mince words, Con Hogan made plain yesterday his contempt for media coverage of the Green Mountain Care Board’s decision to launch a $50,000 “public engagement” strategy.
Hogan’s job as a part-time member of the five-person board is the latest in a long line of state-government gigs for the East Montpelier resident. He was secretary of human services for most of the 1990s, and spent more than a decade in corrections before that.
He’s a big man. With a big voice. Which means when Hogan talks, people tend to listen. And his not-too-subtle jab during a board meeting Tuesday definitely perked the ears of the half-dozen or so reporters there to cover it.
“The media over the last few days has been full of crap – words like ‘flacks’ to describe the kind of person we’re looking for, that we’re creating a Department of Propaganda, that our sole purpose is to improve the personal images of the people on this board,” Hogan said.
As for Gov. Peter Shumlin, who dispatched two of his closest aides to try to convince board chairwoman Anya Rader Wallack to rescind the RFP for a “communication plan:”
“As far as I’m concerned the administration completely overreacted,” Hogan said. “This kind of environment is geared to cause us not to move forward. It throws sand in the gears of our attempts to meet our terms.”
The board, which subsequently voted 4-1 to abandon the RFP, will apparently have to find other ways to communicate with the people of Vermont. Rader Wallack, glass half full, noted that while the spotlight might not have been flattering, “we did get a lot of free media” as a result of the controversy.
MONTPELIER – Under a proposal from Gov. Peter Shumlin, Barre will get 170 state workers, Waterbury will ideally be made whole again, and Washington County will benefit from a net gain of state employees.
During a press briefing with reporters before Shumlin's budget address, administration officials laid out the governor's vision for solving one of the most vexing issues that has cropped up as a result of Tropical Storm Irene: replacing the flooded out state office complex in Waterbury that previously housed 1,500 workers.
Shumlin's plan calls for moving about 350 Agency of Natural Resources employees from Waterbury to the National Life building in Montpelier; moving 170 Department of Education workers from three separate locations to downtown Barre; and an attempt to bring Agency of Human Resources employees from Chittenden County to Waterbury. Under the administration's ideal scenario, Waterbury would end up with more than 1,000 Agency of Human Services employees.
The outcome of the shuffling of state workers could have major economic impacts, positive or negative, for the towns that lose or gain state workers.
Waterbury officials have been seeking certainty since shortly after the flood that the 1,500 displaced state workers – and the economic benefits they bring with them – would return to the central Vermont town.
Shumlin's plan won't give them that certainty, because he still wants to vet any plan to go back to Waterbury and it could be too expensive.
“Our hope is we can deal with the flood protection and modernization issues in an affordable fashion, but we're not going to jump ahead,” Administration Secretary Jeb Spaulding said.
State officials still plan to view an alternate scenario for a different site for Agency of Human Services workers at a central Vermont site not at the office complex in Waterbury, Spaulding said.
“We will also be doing a scenario in central Vermont so taxpayers, the Legislature and the governor can look at what is the cost of doing to that in Waterbruy compared to doing it somewhere else,” Spaulding said.
In the earliest budget address in a decade, Gov. Peter Shumlin today will outline a $5.1 billion spending plan that increases overall spending by more than 5 percent over last year without raising any broad-based taxes.
Administration Secretary Jeb Spaulding said during a press briefing earlier this morning that the budget “finishes the job of Irene and makes strategic investments in our economic future.”
The transportation budget, up by 7.5 percent over last year thanks to additional aid from the federal government, will include more than $4 million in aid to towns and cities whose roads suffered severe damage in the late-August floods.
“For communities especially hard hit by Irene, we a proposing an expansion of the state match in the federal highway aid program,” Spaulding said, noting that the state will also pick up full freight of the cost to repair some town roads.
The governor will also dedicate about $2 million of the Vermont Housing and Conservation Board’s $13.6 million budget to “flood mitigation.” That essentially means VHCB will buy out the homes and properties of people who lost their assets in Irene.
An unexpected windfall in the estate tax will fund an $8 million plan for “innovation” in higher education, including $4 million for the University of Vermont and $4 million for state colleges.
The money will in part fund a continuing education program for older Vermonters interested in developing the math, science and tech skills needed for a career change
Though general-fund spending is up by more than 5 percent, or $65 million, Reardon says that more than $20 million of that is needed to offset lost federal revenue, meaning the increase is “really only like a 3 percent increase.”
Spaulding said the administration has ensured full funding for existing human-services programs, but drew a line in the sand when it comes to starting new initiatives.
For that reason, he says, the administration has proposed eliminating a new mandate that would require the state to fund services for children with autism. Scrapping the new mandate, expected to cost about $10 million annually, helped the state balance the budget without raising taxes, Spaulding said.
“The governor’s budget tries to balance the appetite for spending on untold needs and Vermonters’ ability to pay for them,” he said.
Spaulding said the administration will catch flack from two sides – those who say the 5 percent increase is too much, and those who believe the state should raise taxes to pay for things like the autism mandate.
Save for a 0.1-percent increase in the hospital provider tax – a surcharge Spaulding said won’t impact their bottom lines (it’s being used, he said, to draw down federal funds – the administration’s spending plan doesn’t raise a dime in new taxes, officials said.
The budget does rely on a “fee bill” that will increase revenues from fees at places like the Agency of Transportation and Agency of Natural Resources by $11 million annually.
Spaulding said those are regularly scheduled increases designed to keep pace with the cost of providing services.
House Republicans will offer a critique of the plan at a press conference later this afternoon.