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Legislature 2019
Lawmakers set tone for legislative agenda

The 2019 legislative session will inevitably include partisan fights and scathing floor debates, but on opening day at least, a spirit of unity prevailed in Montpelier.

As elected officials brace for showdowns over issues like paid family leave, a $15 minimum wage — not to mention how much government should spend to educate its children, clean up its water, and help the poor — Democratic lawmakers and the Republican governor say they’re trying to map out some common ground.

At an open-door gathering in his ceremonial office in the Statehouse Wednesday morning, Gov. Phil Scott said it’s a new year, “and a clean slate.”

“And I think there’s a lot we can be proud of, a lot we can work together on, a lot of enthusiasm this morning across party lines coming in to talk about what we can do together,” Scott said.

Scott and Democratic lawmakers have feuded bitterly at times over the past two years. But Scott said he anticipates having a more constructive relationship.

“Because I think we have a lot of the same goals, we just may have different approaches on how to get there. And we’ll just sort that all out,” Scott said.

Appeals for cross-party unity were the order of the day Wednesday. In a speech to newly elected members, House Speaker Mitzi Johnson addressed Republican Minority Leader Pattie McCoy by name.

“You have a vital role in bringing a range of perspectives to the table. And I’m committed to working together to make sure that all voices are heard,” Johnson said. “We cannot lead this state without you.”

Leaders of the House and Senate both said Wednesday that they want lawmakers to focus on the state’s struggling rural economy during the 2019 legislative session. In her opening day remarks, Johnson singled out problems facing rural areas — two of the greatest needs, she said, are improving cell service and guaranteeing access to broadband.

“We have to do more to make sure that we have a strong, diverse rural economy and agricultural sector moving forward,” Johnson said. “And we have to ensure that our successes touch every corner of our state.”

Senate President Pro Tem Tim Ashe said in a speech Wednesday morning that addressing income inequality, including the disparity between the state’s cities and towns, should drive the work of the Legislature. He said there are now “two Vermonts” — one where families have a chance to improve their lives, and the other that leaves people stuck in low-wage jobs.

“I challenge each of you, I challenge each committee you will serve on, and I challenge myself to never let go of this one question: ‘What can we do to improve life in the other Vermont?’” Ashe said. “Answering this question is all of our jobs, and touches on almost every policy area we’ll work on.”

Ashe mentioned raising the minimum wage and developing state policies to combat climate change as two top priorities.

But the voices seeking to be heard in Montpelier don’t belong exclusively to lawmakers. A broad range of constituencies braved heavy snow Wednesday to make sure they were part of the chorus.

They included people like JT Dodge, a Newbury resident who organized a rally against a proposed tax on carbon-emitting fuels.

“This is the opening of the legislative session. This is us rallying the troops,” Dodge said. “This is saying that, ‘We’re here — look, you can see us.’”

Lawmakers would have been hard pressed to miss Dodge and the 40 or so Vermonters who showed up for his anti-carbon-tax rally Wednesday pretty well — they all wore yellow traffic vests, as a nod to carbon tax protesters in France.

“I just can’t afford to spend more money — we can’t afford to spend more money on fuel to drive to work,” Dodge said.

Statehouse advocacy on Wednesday came from a diverse group of constituents.

Ginger Knight, a junior at U-32 High School in East Montpelier, spoke at an event hosted by Rights and Democracy. The organization will urge lawmakers to pass paid family and medical leave and a $15 minimum wage.

“Today I am here because the bills that you pass impact my life as well as all the other youth in Vermont,” Knight said.

For the freshmen lawmakers who will have to weigh competing requests from various interest groups, the next few months will present a steep learning curve.

White River Junction Rep. Becca White is one of the 40 new faces in the House of Representatives. She said one of the better pieces of advice on legislating came from someone who reminded her she has two ears, and one mouth.

“I’ve heard over and over again that the best way to really accomplish your goals is to figure out who your allies are,” White said. “And I think you can do that better by listening than you can by just talking, so lots of listening and (a) little less talking than I normally would do.”


jebcas / Jeb Wallace-Brodeur / Staff Photo  

Trail work

A groomer from the Barre Town Thunder Chickens snowmobile club charges across a snowy field in Websterville on Wednesday. The club’s trail network is open for riding and conditions have improved greatly with recent snow storms.


News
President’s border security address
Trump speech falls flat with delegation

President Donald Trump’s immigration speech Tuesday, broadcast nationwide, didn’t do much to sway Vermont’s Congressional delegation.

In the speech, Trump made his case for funding a wall along the southern border. He made his remarks on the 18th day of a partial government shutdown which began when Trump opted not to sign a spending bill approved by Congress that didn’t include money for a border wall.

“Tonight, I am speaking to you because there is a growing humanitarian and security crisis at our southern border,” said Trump, according to the text of his speech posted by Politico. “Every day customs and border patrol agents encounter thousands of illegal immigrants trying to enter our country. We are out of space to hold them and we have no way to promptly return them back home to their country.”

Sen. Patrick Leahy said Tuesday the speech was “fact-free” and filled with misinformation.

“President Trump has spent years as the host of a reality TV show, but unfortunately, reality has never been his strong suit,” said Leahy. “Even before the Trump Shutdown, the President resorted to misinformation and stoking fear among the American people in order to justify a wasteful monument to himself. His prime time address was simply fact-free fearmongering and data-distorting demagoguery.”

Sen. Bernie Sanders, an independent from Vermont who is considering another run for the White House in 2020, streamed his remarks online via his website.

“President Trump has stated tonight, and, over and over again in recent weeks, that this country faces a national emergency. Well, he’s right. But it’s an emergency and a crisis that he himself has created,” said Sanders. “As we speak, some 800,000 federal employees, people who are our neighbors, friends, and family members, are going without pay. As working people, many of them are wondering how they will pay their mortgages, how they will feed their kids, and how they’ll be able to go to the doctor. These are people in the FBI, in the TSA, in the State Department, in the Treasury Department and other agencies who have, in some cases, worked for the government for years.”

House Rep. Peter Welch made a brief comment on Twitter regarding the speech.

“The President offered nothing tonight that will end his shutdown,” said Welch. “It’s time to open government, pay federal employees, and resume services for the American people.”

Trump claimed in his speech that the proposed wall would pay for itself, saying the costs associated with the illegal drug trade far exceed the price of the wall.

“This barrier is absolutely critical to border security. It’s also what our professionals at the border want and need,” Trump said. “This is just common sense.”

In his statements, Sanders said Congress has put forward bills that would reopen the government.

“President Trump tonight has told us why he believes we need the wall. It gives me no pleasure to tell you what most of you already know,” said Sanders. “President Trump lies all of the time – and in his remarks tonight, and in recent weeks regarding immigration and the wall, he continues to lie.”

Sanders said Trump has lied about the number of terrorists crossing the southern border.

“According to a State Department report released in September, ‘At year’s end there was no credible evidence indicating that international terrorist groups have … sent operatives via Mexico into the United States,’” said Sanders. “That is not Bernie Sanders’ opinion. That is a direct quote from Trump’s own State Department.”

Trump’s speech Tuesday focused mainly on concerns about criminals crossing the border, drug smugglers, gang members and human traffickers.

Trump blamed Democrats for the shutdown.

“The federal government remains shut down for one reason and one reason only because Democrats will not fund border security,” Trump said. “My administration is doing everything in our power to help those impacted by the situation. But the only solution is for Democrats to pass a spending bill that defends our borders and reopens the government.”

Sanders said Trump is to blame for the shutdown, citing previous remarks made by the president.

“In terms of this shutdown, President Trump has made it very clear who is responsible. As you will all recall in a very public meeting he held in the Oval Office, he said and I quote, ‘I am proud to shut down the government ... I will take the mantle. I will be the one to shut it down. I’m not going to blame you (Chuck Schumer) for it.’”

On Wednesday, Democrats in the Senate announced two bills they say would end the shutdown.

“These bills are the product of months of bipartisan work,” said Leahy, in a separate statement on Wednesday. “Congress was doing its job until President Trump ground our progress to a halt over his ever changing demands for a border wall, which he promised Mexico would pay for. It is time to end this nonsense and for Leader McConnell to bring these Republican bills to floor so we can do our job, reopen the government and end the Trump Shutdown.”

Leahy is vice chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee.

keith.whitcomb @rutlandherald.com


Local
VSP: Police missed steps in sexual assault case

WATERBURY — Vermont State Police say steps were missed by law enforcement in a case where a St. Johnsbury man allegedly left a treatment facility, kidnapped a woman and her child, and sexually assaulted the woman.

The man, Everett A. Simpson, 41, is currently facing felony charges in Washington County for an unrelated matter.

According to police, Simpson was in custody on charges stemming from an incident in September where he allegedly stole a vehicle and assaulted a trooper in Lyndon. He was released to Valley Vista, a substance-abuse rehabilitation facility in Bradford, on Jan. 3. Police said on the night of Jan. 4, Valley Vista notified police Simpson had left the facility because leaving the facility is a violation of Simpson’s conditions of release.

Police said a trooper, who has not been identified, tried to locate Simpson at his last known address in St. Johnsbury, but was unsuccessful. Before he ended his shift, the trooper alerted other troopers to Simpson’s disappearance.

On Jan. 5, police said a report came in regarding a vehicle that had been stolen in Newbury. The vehicle had a GPS device inside it and police said it was tracked to New Hampshire. Police said a “be on the lookout” for the vehicle was issued. The unoccupied vehicle was later located by police in Manchester, New Hampshire.

Later that night, state police learned Simpson was a suspect in a kidnapping and sexual assault case that occurred in White River Junction. Police said Simpson forced a woman and her child into their car at the Mall of New Hampshire and drove to White River Junction. He then forced the woman to rent a room at a local hotel, where he sexually assaulted her, according to police. Police said the victim was a stranger who was targeted at random.

Police obtained an arrest warrant for Simpson on Jan. 6 and he was taken into custody that night in Pennsylvania.

State police issued a statement late Tuesday night saying additional steps should have been taken in the case. Police said an arrest warrant should have been sought on Jan. 4 as well as a “be on the lookout” alert for Simpson and a press release to let the public know about him.

“The circumstances surrounding this incident are under review, including a formal investigation by the Vermont State Police Internal Affairs Unit,” the statement said.

For the Washington County case, Simpson pleaded not guilty in October to felony counts of failure to return a rented or leased vehicle and aggravated vehicle operation without the owner’s consent.

Berlin Police Officer Daniel W. Withrow said in his affidavit a report came in on Aug. 22 regarding rental vehicles that hadn’t been returned to 802 Toyota. Withrow said he went to the dealership and spoke to an employee who reported Simpson had rented two trucks from the dealership on July 19 that were supposed to be returned on Aug. 18. The employee told Withrow a family member of Simpson’s contacted the dealership on Aug. 20 stating there had been a family emergency and the trucks would be returned that day.

Withrow said the trucks hadn’t been returned by Aug. 22 and were reported as stolen. He said the agreement Simpson signed when he rented the trucks stated failure to return the trucks within 72 hours of the time they were supposed to be returned is a crime in Vermont.

On Aug. 27, the employee contacted Withrow and told him Simpson’s family member had been in contact with the dealership and reported the trucks were in St. Johnsbury and Gorham, New Hampshire.

Withrow said the truck in St. Johnsbury was found abandoned and towed back to the dealership on Sept. 11. The affidavit didn’t say whether the second truck was located or returned.

Withrow said it cost the dealership $261 to get the truck towed back from St. Johnsbury.

eric.blaisdell @timesargus.com


Local
Council ratifies police contract

BARRE — A newly ratified contract with unionized members of the city’s police department reflects a massive change to their salary schedule and a first-time requirement they pay a portion of their health insurance premiums.

Unanimously ratified by city councilors following a closed-door briefing Tuesday night, the two-year contract replaces the stop-gap one-year agreement that was reached 11 months into the contract year that ended last June.

Unionized police officers and emergency dispatchers have been working under the terms of that “strategic settlement” for the last six months. City Manager Steve Mackenzie announced a tentative settlement three months ago, and the final version of the labor agreement was presented to the council for ratification Tuesday night.

The latest round of negotiations focused almost exclusively on two issues — wages and health insurance benefits — that prevented the two sides from reaching a longer term settlement last year.

The new contract reflects what councilors were told is “a complete overhaul of the wage system,” including the elimination of “longevity payments” that under the old agreement could add as much as $50 a week — $2,600 a year — to employees’ paychecks.

The weekly benefit was available to employees with at least three years of service to the city. Following the last contractual adjustment, employees were paid $1.85 a week for each year they had been on the job, provided that figure didn’t exceed $50.

A police officer who had worked for the city for 10 years received an extra $18.50 a week, or $962 a year, under the program, while a 20-year veteran was paid an extra $37 a week, or $1,924 a year.

The new contract creates a 25-step salary schedule to replace the 11-step version that had been used for years.

Both salary schedules contemplate a newly hired officer with no previous experience receiving three separate pay raises in their first two years of employment. However, the new schedule reflects annual “step increases” for those who have worked for the city for up to 23 years, while those “step increases” stopped after eight years under the old contract.

Briefing materials supplied to councilors suggested that was flagged as a problem the new salary schedule is designed to resolve.

“… The manner in which wages were allocated was confusing, failed to recognize the contributions of long-term officers, and was not helpful in recruiting new officers to the department,” the city’s labor attorney wrote in a memo drafted at Mackenzie’s request.

According to the memo, officers and emergency dispatchers with more than eight years experience with the department received a negotiated cost of living adjustment and a longevity payment, while they’re less seasoned counterparts received the cost of living adjustment, an annual step increase and, if they were eligible, a longevity payment.

Mackenzie said Police Chief Tim Bombardier had long lobbied for an expanded salary schedule as a recruitment tool and the one that was agreed to reflects a compromise.

Shifting to the new salary schedule for the contract year that started last July will involve a “one-time expense,” two retroactive cost of living adjustments and an annual step increase for all employees this fiscal year. The total first-year cost of the wage settlement reflects an increase of 3.5 percent, that includes a cost of living adjustment of 1.35 percent that will be paid retroactively to July 1, 2018, and an additional .65 percent cost of living adjustment that was triggered on Jan. 1.

Councilors were told the 3.5 percent figure compares favorably to the 3.66 percent increase that would have been incurred under the old system assuming a 2 percent cost of living adjustment.

The wage-related increase is more modest in the second and final year of the contract, which starts July 1. The contract contemplates a 2 percent cost of living adjustment to the new salary schedule and “step increases” that would pad that figure by roughly .8 percent.

That brings the combined increase associated with the negotiated wage adjustments to 6.3 percent, though councilors were told it is actually closer to 4 percent “new money”— roughly 2 percent a year — when you consider cost that will no longer be incurred for longevity payments.

The new contract will require employees to pay a portion of health insurance premiums — most if not all of them for the first time.

Under the old agreement, the city paid 100 percent of the premiums for the Gold CDHP plan offered on the state-run exchange and offered to pay 90 percent of the premiums for employees who chose to enroll in the Platinum plan.

Starting this month, the city will pay 97.5 percent of the premiums for the Gold CDHP plan and 87.5 percent of the premiums for the Platinum plan. Employees, including 16 police officers, six emergency dispatchers and a community service officer, will be responsible for the balance.

Starting on Jan. 1, 2020, the city will pay 95 percent of the premiums for a Gold CDHP plan and 85 percent of the premiums for a Platinum plan from that point through the expiration of the contract on June 30, 2020.

The city will continue to make annual contributions to Health Savings Accounts (HSA) established for employees. Those enrolled in single, two-person and parent-child plans will have $1,800 a year deposited in their HSAs, while those enrolled in family plans will receive annual contributions of $2,250.

Those numbers are unchanged from the last contract. However, maximum out-of-pocket expenses have increased for employees. Those enrolled in single plans will see their out-of-pocket exposure increase from $2,750 to $3,000 a year, while those enrolled in family and multi-person plans could pay as much as $6,000 out of pocket — a $500 increase.

Ratification of the contract clears the deck for looming negotiations with the city’s three other labor unions.

Unionized firefighters and clerical and custodial staff are working under separate contracts that will both expire June 30, while members of the Public Works Department are under contract through Dec. 31.

david.delcore @timesargus.com