Local senators muse over legislative session

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copyright the Chronicle March 22, 2017

 

by Elizabeth Trail

 

Due to concerns about federal budget cuts proposed by the Trump administration, Vermont’s Legislature may adjourn early this year and go back to Montpelier in October.

“Trump’s been talking about cutting a lot of stuff,” Senator Bobby Starr of North Troy said. “It may make more sense to draw up a temporary budget and reconvene when we have some real numbers.”

Senator Starr agrees with colleagues in the Legislature who are saying that it would make more sense to finish the budget in October than to function without a finished budget until next year.

“We’ve been taking testimony on the 2018 budget,” Mr. Starr said. “Where we’re going to run into trouble is not knowing what’s going to happen in Washington.”

In addition to being chair of the Senate Agriculture Committee, Mr. Starr sits on the Senate Appropriations Committee.

“Word is going out that the legislators should be making plans to be back here in the fall,” he said.

Meanwhile, he’s keeping busy in Montpelier, as is the region’s other Senator, John Rodgers of Glover.

“There’s always plenty to do here,” Mr. Rodgers said.

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Governor’s race: County lawmakers lean toward Milne

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Scott Milne.  Photo by Joseph Gresser

Scott Milne. Photo by Joseph Gresser

copyright the Chronicle November 12, 2014

by Tena Starr

If Orleans County’s legislative delegation had its way, Scott Milne would be Vermont’s next governor.

That’s not a surprising decision for the Republicans who represent the county, but as of this week only one of the three Democrats was willing to unequivocally say that he’ll follow tradition and support the candidate who won the popular vote.

Representative Sam Young of Glover said he will vote for Governor Shumlin.

“I think it’s generally a bad precedent if the Legislature starts electing people who didn’t win,” Mr. Young said.

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Lyme disease victims seek more options

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This is a tick that Graci Rudolph found on her skin recently.  She saved it to be tested for Lyme disease.  She was bitten by a tick three years ago and got Lyme disease and Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever.  Photo by Bethany M. Dunbar

This is a tick that Graci Rudolph found on her skin recently. She saved it to be tested for Lyme disease. She was bitten by a tick three years ago and got Lyme disease and Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever. Photo by Bethany M. Dunbar

copyright the Chronicle July 2, 2014  

by Bethany M. Dunbar

HOLLAND — Graci Rudolph was the director of an active nonprofit organization in New York, working long days. It was work she thrived on and a cause she believed in. She did public speaking and fund-raising, including television appearances.

Then one day — three years ago — she got bitten by a little insect, a tick, and got Lyme disease. Soon she could not sleep, her body became wracked with the most intense pain she has ever felt, she lost her physical balance and her ability to think clearly, or sometimes even get out of bed.

She wanted to die and says she can understand some Lyme disease patients’ impulse to commit suicide.

Ms. Rudolph, who now lives in Holland, is one of a sharply increasing number of people in Vermont who have contracted Lyme disease. According to the Vermont Department of Health, there were 37 cases in Vermont in 2002, and 623 in 2011. Most of the cases have been in the southern part of the state, but cases have been reported in every county except for Essex.

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Minimum wage hike will have ripple effect

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min wage webcopyright the Chronicle June 11, 2014

by Joseph Gresser

Local employers say a rise in pay for those at the bottom of the ladder is sure to increase salaries for those on the higher rungs.

That will be good news for many workers, they say, but could come at the cost of increased prices for goods and services.

Vermont’s minimum wage will rise on New Year’s Day 2015 and on each January 1 until 2018. The Vermont Legislature voted to increase it from the present level of $8.73 an hour to $10.50 in four annual jumps.

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GMO bill splits local legislators by party

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Wheat at Butterworks Farm in Westfield is grown organically, with no genetic modifications.  Photo by Bethany M. Dunbar

Wheat at Butterworks Farm in Westfield is grown organically, with no genetic modifications. Photo by Bethany M. Dunbar

copyright the Chronicle May 21, 2014

by Bethany M. Dunbar

Orleans County farmers and consumers won’t be immediately affected by Vermont’s first-in-the-nation passage of legislation requiring labeling of foods with genetically modified ingredients.

The legislation allows two years for the rulemaking process, and potential challenges are brewing in the courts and in Congress in the meantime.

“I’m really proud of Vermont as a state,” said Jack Lazor of Butterworks Farm in Westfield, a leader in the organic farming movement. He said he has always thought those who like genetically modified organisms (GMOs) ought to be happy to include them on their labels.

“Well, if it’s that safe, label it and be proud of it,” he said.

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Kilmartin won’t seek re-election

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Duncan Kilmartin.

Duncan Kilmartin.

copyright the Chronicle May 14, 2014

by Paul Lefebvre

Duncan Kilmartin will not seek re-election to the Vermont House.

In a farewell address to members of the House last week, Mr. Kilmartin did not explain his decision to step down, preferring instead to thank legislators for their prayers and thoughts for his wife, Gail, who is known to be ill.

Mr. Kilmartin, a Newport attorney, was known for his biting wit and his elocution skills.

“He was never at a loss for words,” recalled his friend and running mate, Michael Marcotte of Coventry.

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The Legislature this week: House raises minimum wage to $10.10

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David Mealiea and Anna Dirkse, both of Burlington, were two of four singing pickets who stood outside the State House in March, in support of raising the minimum wage.  “We fight for human rights so all can be free,” they sang.  Photo by Paul Lefebvre

David Mealiea and Anna Dirkse, both of Burlington, were two of four singing pickets who stood outside the State House in March, in support of raising the minimum wage. “We fight for human rights so all can be free,” they sang. Photo by Paul Lefebvre

copyright the Chronicle April 9, 2014

by Paul Lefebvre

MONTPELIER — Vermont is going to increase its hourly minimum wage.

Vermont legislators generally agreed that it was the right and ethical thing to do.

But when, and by how much, is still hanging in the air.

Under a House bill that won preliminary approval Tuesday, next year on January 1, 2015, a minimum wage worker could see his or her weekly pay check jump by roughly $40.

That’s the result of an increase in the minimum wage going from $8.73 to $10.10 an hour.

“Forty dollars in your pocket is not a theory,” said Representative Tom Stevens of Waterbury, speaking in the urgent tone of legislators who wanted to make a change.

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In the Legislature: Local control in wind siting unlikely

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David Mealiea and Anna Dirkse, both of Burlington, were two of four singing pickets who stood outside the State House last Thursday in support of raising the minimum wage.  “We fight for human rights so all can be free,” they sang.  Photo by Paul Lefebvre

David Mealiea and Anna Dirkse, both of Burlington, were two of four singing pickets who stood outside the State House last Thursday in support of raising the minimum wage. “We fight for human rights so all can be free,” they sang. Photo by Paul Lefebvre

copyright the Chronicle March 26, 2014

by Paul Lefebvre

MONTPELIER — Regional and local planners are expected to be the big losers in a bill to open up the siting process for ridgeline industrial wind projects.

Scheduled to appear on the Senate floor, the bill was rerouted to the Senate Committee on Appropriations Tuesday as negotiations continued behind the scenes to strike a compromise and keep it alive.

“Unfortunately, regional planning is one of those things we’re probably not going to wind up with,” said Senator John Rodgers of Glover during a telephone interview Tuesday.

One of the stated purposes of the bill was “to strengthen the role of planning commissions and local selectboard and planning commissions in the siting review process for energy facilities by giving greater weight to their recommendations and plans.”

But at the end of the day, that’s not likely what’s going to happen.

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Advocates say Reach Up works and should not be cut

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SONY DSC

Kate Kanelstein, in the second row at left, testified against imposing a three-year cutoff in the Reach Up program Monday at a Vermont Interactive Television hearing on the state budget. Beside her is Cindy Perron of Barton, who testified on health care. In the foreground at right, George Frisbee, commander of the Jay Peak Post of the American Legion, testifies against a proposed tax on break open tickets. Beside him is Harvey Robitaille, past commander of Legion Post 21 in Newport. Legion members attended the hearings at sites across the state to argue that the tax would cripple the charitable programs the Legion supports in Vermont. Photo by Chris Braithwaite

by Chris Braithwaite

copyright the Chronicle 2-13-13

NEWPORT — Kate Kanelstein of the Vermont Workers Center was a bit apologetic when she sat in front of the camera during a statewide budget hearing Monday afternoon.

She had planned to bring several women who face the loss of their Reach Up benefits under the cutoff proposed by Governor Peter Shumlin.

But none of them could make it, she told the members of the House and Senate Appropriations committees who convened the hearing.

The women had encountered problems with child care, car troubles, sick family members, and one of them was in labor, Ms. Kanelstein said.

She used her few minutes on Vermont Interactive Television to read a statement from Reach Up participant Jess Ray of West Charleston.

But the explanations she offered the committee might serve as a quick summary of the problems that keep Reach Up participants, typically single mothers, out of the labor force.

Ms. Ray, for example, wrote that she is a mother of two, living with a boyfriend.  “Combined, we get $770 each month.  Our rent is $550 so after paying bills I usually end up with like $20 for everything else.  I love to sew and want to be a seamstress, but I would do pretty much anything if I could get a job.”

Ms. Ray went on the say that the arrival of her first child ended her career at a Barton nursing home five years ago.  “I went on Reach Up for the first time because I didn’t get any maternity leave with my job.”

They left Reach Up when her boyfriend got a job, but returned in less than a year because the company went bankrupt, she wrote.

“Then we got off again when I got a job at Thibault’s Market in Orleans but our car wasn’t inspectable and we didn’t have the money for the repairs so after about three months I couldn’t get there and lost that job, too.  As you can see we live on the edge and it’s really hard to get stable….  Living in West Charleston without transportation makes it incredibly difficult.”

“I also want to understand what you are basing these budget decisions on,” Ms. Ray told the legislators.  “Do you look at the real life situations of people in our communities?  I think that is where we should start.”

The decision in question is whether the Legislature should follow the Governor’s wishes and, on October 1, cut off all families who have been in the Reach Up program for three years.

According to Chris Curtis, a staff attorney with Vermont Legal Aid, 1,188 families would lose their benefits in October, of a total of about 6,400 families on the program.

Of that total, as of September last year, 315 families with 775 family members are in the Newport district of the Department of Children and Families, which oversees Reach Up.  Their benefits that month totaled $147,764, or about $470 a family.

The average Reach Up participant wouldn’t be affected by a three-year cutoff.  According to a state report, “the average amount of time that an individual in Reach Up receives case management services is approximately 24 months.”

But people who know the program in Newport are worried about the impact a cutoff would have.

“My biggest fear is the children,” said Mary Hamel, who runs a job site for Reach Up participants as associate director of employment and training for NECKA.

“Reach up is for families,” Ms. Hamel said.  “Cutting them off is taking away their rent money — the roof over a child’s head.  That concerns me.”

It concerns Mr. Curtis too.  People forced out of Reach Up may end up in the state’s emergency shelter program, he said, and that is already “an exploding part of state government.  What happens if you add another 1,200 families, just as the winter season arrives?”

Other branches of state government, including the Department of Corrections, may face a “ripple effect” from the Reach Up cuts, Mr. Curtis fears.  “Are we really saving any money here?”

His estimate is that the cuts will save Reach Up about $6-million.  “That’s huge to the families,” he said, “but to the General Fund it’s a relatively small amount.”

Mr. Curtis argues that the statistics show Reach Up works for most of the people who are forced to use it.  “The state of Vermont has invested a lot of resources into making this bridge out of poverty,” he argued.  “Why would we blow up that bridge?”

Since she set up a Reach Up work site for NECKA in 2008, Ms. Hamel said, “we have seen many success stories.”

NECKA provides jobs for 15 to 30 Reach Up participants, Ms. Hamel said.  Some work at the Parent Child Center in Newport, as a receptionist or a maintenance worker.  Others work at the cash register or keeping track of the inventory at NEKCA’s thrift store in Newport.

Reach Up has other partners who provide jobs in schools, municipalities and with nonprofit organizations.

The jobs go to Reach Up participants who can’t find work.  They pay nothing (outside of Reach Up benefit payments) but aim to help the participants learn job skills.

Younger Reach Up participants fulfill their job requirement by going to school.

The Governor’s proposal would permit families to take advantage of the full five years of benefits supported by federal block grants.  But there would be interruptions.  After three years, participants would be on their own for a year.  Then they could sign up for another year, be left on their own for a year, and come back to the program for a fifth and final year.

Efforts to reach Paul Dragon, director of the Reach Up program, were unsuccessful.  In his budget address to the Legislature, Governor Shumlin said “there is no better social program than a good paying job.  We will not allow vulnerable Vermonters, such as those who are disabled, to fall through the cracks, but we will ask those who can work to get the training and support they need and get a job.”

If the cutoff becomes law, Ms. Hamel said, “it will cause more homelessness, more hunger, more stress.

“I just don’t think it’s a great idea.  Maybe it’s a good idea to have a conversation about it, but I think it’s a bad thing to take the Governor’s plan seriously.”

contact Chris Braithwaite at [email protected]

For more free articles from the Chronicle like this one, see our Editor’s Picks pages. For all the Chronicle’s stories, pick up a print copy or subscribe, either for print or digital editions.

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Legislators tour through Jay and Newport

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Bill Stenger, president of Jay Peak Resort, testifies before the combined forces of the House Commerce and Economic Development Committee and the Transportation Committee Tuesday at North Country Career Center in Newport.  Photo by Joseph Gresser

Bill Stenger, president of Jay Peak Resort, testifies before the combined forces of the House Commerce and Economic Development Committee and the Transportation Committee Tuesday at North Country Career Center in Newport. Photo by Joseph Gresser

by Joseph Gresser

copyright the Chronicle 2-6-13

NEWPORT — A passel of state representatives on a bus tour of the Northeast Kingdom heard firsthand about the issues that will have to be addressed to help the area adjust to $500-million-worth of planned development.  One problem the area won’t have to address is an influx of 10,000 new jobs.

Bill Stenger, co-owner of Jay Peak Resort and one of the main forces behind the new investment, told the legislators that although there will be 10,000 jobs created in response to the investment, the total of direct jobs in Orleans County will be between 1,500 and 2,000.

The rest of the 10,000 figure will be a consequence of the economic activity created by the new business, and will ripple through the state and out into New England, Mr. Stenger explained.

He was the first witness to testify before a combined meeting of the House Commerce and Economic Development Committee and the Transportation Committee, supplemented by one or two members of the House Education Committee.

The legislators arrived for lunch at the North Country Career Center after taking a tour of Jay Peak and hearing the plans for economic development in the Northeast Kingdom proposed by Mr. Stenger and his partners.  They were accompanied on their journey by a group of high-ranking officials from the state agencies of Commerce and Community Development, and Transportation.

When they got to the Career Center the delegation found a crowd of around 90 people, including educators, local officials, business owners and interested citizens had already assembled.

Representative Bill Botzow of Pownal, chairman of the commerce committee, opened the meeting and gave Representative Mike Marcotte of Coventry, his vice-chairman, an opportunity to say a few words.

“I want to thank the legislators for coming up here.  We’re really proud of what we have here,” Representative Marcotte said.

He said of the work that must be done in connection with planned development, “they’re great challenges to have, but they’re challenges we have to meet.”

Mr. Stenger, who was the first witness, told the representatives that it was the “quality and character of the community” that inspired his plans.  Capital, he said, was the key to development, and the federal EB-5 visa program, which allows foreigners to get residency status in the U.S. in exchange for a job-creating investment, has provided an ideal source of capital.

He said the program has allowed Jay Peak to realize good ideas without the necessity of having a mortgage.

When the program got to the point where it needed to be renewed by Congress, Mr. Stenger said, he sat down with Senator Patrick Leahy, who was one of those behind the law, and Governor Peter Shumlin to think of what might be done if the law was extended.

They decided that it would make sense to bring in good new businesses and give them the opportunity to grow in the Northeast Kingdom.

When the bill reauthorizing the program was signed in September it opened a three-year window, Mr. Stenger said.

In those three years two new business, AnC Bio and Menck Windows, will have to be up and running.  Other ideas, such as a hotel and convention center in Newport and a redeveloped block in the city, will have to be substantially complete, he said.

He said that he and his partners have been working closely with educators around the area to make sure that people have the skills needed when it comes time to hire workers.

The issues that will need to be addressed as the current plans come to fruition include transportation, health care, housing, and education and training.

“All those elements are represented in this room,” Mr. Stenger said of those seated behind him.

“Keep our eye on us, because it’s been a long time since this part of Vermont has been a leader.  We’re going to do great work,” he concluded.

Before leaving the witness table Mr. Stenger, smiling broadly, said he was glad that whoever put together a list of projects for the Agency of Transportation included rebuilding Route 242, the road that serves Jay Peak.  “It made my day.”

Mr. Stenger was followed by superintendents Robert Kern of the North Country Supervisory Union, Chris Masson of the Essex North Supervisory Union, and Stephen Urgenson of the Orleans Central Supervisory Union.

Mr. Kern said that many of the schools in the area are old and need work if they are to accommodate an increased population of students.  He asked the legislators to consider providing help for school renovation, noting that Morgan has repeatedly voted down bonds because its voters feel they cannot pay for renovations on their own.

He also suggested that the state needs to provide demographic information to allow schools to make informed decisions about needs they will have to meet quickly.

Mr. Kern said he has no way of knowing how many new workers will be arriving or how many children they will bring with them.

Mr. Masson pleaded for consideration of spreading the development into the Canaan area.  The number of jobs in the community has dropped precipitously since Ethan Allen moved much of its production to its Orleans plant, he said.

Mr. Urgenson asked for a better communications infrastructure in the Northeast Kingdom.  Faster communications and better cell phone coverage will result in greater creativity, he argued.

Representing higher education, Penne Ciaraldi of Community College of Vermont, Ann Nygard of Lyndon State College, and Cindy Robillard of the Department of Labor outlined their efforts to create a partnership to develop job training programs in the Northeast Kingdom.

Ms. Nygard said educators have to build a “cradle to career pathway” for students.

Eileen Illuzzi, interim director of the Career Center, told how her school has worked to anticipate career opportunities.  She said the career center established its hospitality program three years earlier after a visit to Jay Peak.

“Hospitality is not a career choice, we need to make it a destination career,” she said.

She said the career center is “all about options.”  Even students who decide not to complete a two-year career program may have gained something.

Ms. Illuzzi told the story of a student who hoped to go to medical school.  When she fainted at the sight of blood during a visit to an operating room, it gave her a chance to reconsider her path, Ms. Illuzzi said.

The Menck Window company, a German firm, may want to consider working with the career center to create an apprenticeship program, Ms. Illuzzi said, something that accords with their national style.

Patricia Sears of the Newport City Renaissance Corporation gave a ringing endorsement of the city.

“This is Newport’s time, this is Vermont’s time, this is our time,” she declared.

She talked about opportunities that can be created by a planned foreign trade zone, which if approved by the federal government would greatly expand the possibilities of international trade in the area.

“We’re all on the path to awesome,” Ms. Sears announced.

Doug Morton of the Northeastern Vermont Development Association said his organization has conducted a number of studies of transportation needs in Orleans and Caledonia counties.  The studies could use revision, he acknowledged, but the basic information is still sound.

After the scheduled testimony, Mr. Botzow asked if any individuals wished to offer their opinions.  Nick Ecker-Racz of Glover stepped forward to tell the legislators that he thinks that an improved public transportation system ought to be part of their thinking.  He also warned against programs that involved excess regulation.

Finally Mr. Ecker-Racz cautioned the representatives that increased wealth in the community will inevitably result in an influx of drugs, including cocaine and heroin.  Programs should be put in place beginning in elementary school to guard against the problem.

Eleanor Leger of Charleston said she thinks that good local businesses will thrive in the new environment.  She expressed excitement about the proposed free trade zone, which she said could aid her business, Eden Ice Cider, which gets many of its bottling supplies from South America.

Reed Ogden of Barton warned against too eager acceptance of a Walmart scheduled for construction in Derby.  Studies, he said, show that every Walmart employee costs taxpayers $1,000 in support services due to the company’s low wages and benefits.  He acknowledged that the data behind that study was eight years old.

Mr. Ogden pointed to a community-sponsored for-profit store established in Saranac Lake, New York, as an example of an alternative way for people to buy the goods they need at a price they can afford.

Finally, Newport Mayor Paul Monette told the legislators that his city welcomes all the development.  He said that transportation was the only problem he could see.

He said that a bottleneck at the bottom of Main Street could be eliminated by building a roundabout.  Or a new bridge, which he suggested might have to go through the spot where Representative Marcotte’s store now stands, could serve as a bypass for traffic.

In concluding the meeting Mr. Botzow offered a kind of benediction.

“I think the future is bright,” he said.  “I hope in five, ten or 20 years we look back and say ‘we did it right.’”

contact Joseph Gresser at [email protected]

For more free articles from the Chronicle like this one, see our Editor’s Picks pages. For all the Chronicle’s stories, pick up a print copy or subscribe, either for print or digital editions.

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