$5.8 billion in 15 minutes

May 18, 2018

Before adjourning last weekend, the Vermont Legislature passed a budget for the 2019 fiscal year. Gov. Phil Scott says he’ll veto it over a disagreement about the use of one-time money, but the general framework is not likely to change. And it provides the answer to an obvious question: How does the state spend its money?

On this week's podcast, learn about every major spending category in Vermont's $5.8 billion blueprint, from administering the broad-ranging Agency of Human Services to pricing road salt for winter weather. And to illustrate how those dollars are divided, this episode is split up just like the state budget: the more money in a spending category, the longer you'll hear about it.

Legislative Chief Fiscal Officer Steven Klein and Senate Appropriations Chair Jane Kitchel describe where the state's major agencies are putting their pennies. VTDigger's Mike Faher reveals how this budget sets the stage for major changes to mental health services. Agency of Education CFO Emily Byrne talks about the tension around education funding. Secretary of Transportation Joe Flynn shows how VTrans is more than just snowplows. Plus, VTDigger's Colin Meyn puts the $33 million debate over one-time money in context ahead of next week's special session.

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Raising the wage divides Vermont Dems

May 11, 2018

Two policies aimed at lifting up low-income Vermonters took unusual paths to passage this week. Bills to raise the state’s minimum wage and provide workers with paid family leave were priorities of Democratic leaders throughout the session. Both have drawn opposition from Gov. Phil Scott, who says they will burden businesses and harm Vermont’s economy.

Republican lawmakers have concurred with the governor. But last week, key committees brought each bill to the floor without members’ approval, revealing divisions even among Vermont Democrats.

 

On this week’s podcast, VTDigger’s Xander Landen tracks the months-long debate that led to this week’s controversial vote. Plus, Rep. Maureen Dakin describes how that debate illustrates broader shifts in the party she’s belonged to since the 1970s.

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Conflict over chemical laws

April 27, 2018

Gov. Phil Scott's veto of S.103, a bill to regulate toxic chemicals, was upheld this week by nearly the entire House Republican caucus.

The move frustrated both environmental advocates and the Bennington delegation, who supported the proposal for its response to dangerous PFOA contamination in their districts. But the effort to suppress new environmental regulations may not be the last this session.

Another bill, S.197, would raise polluters’ liability for harming residents. While it narrowly passed the Senate, the governor has already said he would oppose it for creating barriers to doing business in Vermont.

Sen. Brian Campion, a Bennington Democrat who sponsored both bills, said he's been disappointed by the governor's actions.

"I never really saw this particular governor as an environmentalist," Campion said this week. But the veto still surprised him.

"I thought he had really understood what happened in Bennington and wanted to make sure that these kinds of things didn't happen. In that way, it surprised me personally."

He still hopes S.197 will have a shot. But if it joins S.103 in the veto bin, he plans to continue introducing measures aimed at resolving the pollution crisis his constituents still face.

On this week's podcast, Campion talks about working towards progress on toxics with an administration that doesn't see eye-to-eye.

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Precedent and politics in the Sawyer case

April 19, 2018

The case of a Poultney teen accused of plotting a school shooting in Fair Haven has already drawn attention for inspiring the historic set of gun restrictions signed into law by Gov. Phil Scott last week.

Now, as Sawyer’s legal proceedings carry on, the details of his case are leading lawmakers to reexamine the state’s definition of what constitutes an attempt to commit a crime.

Sawyer exchanged messages and wrote a journal about committing mass murder, purchased a shotgun and detailed plans to buy more equipment. He was arrested in February, before carrying out his alleged plot.

The case hinges on over a century of legal precedent. But revisions to the state’s attempt laws, which are under consideration in both chambers of the Legislature, could change the way cases like Sawyer’s are handled in the future.

On this week’s podcast: Robert Sand, of the Vermont Law School, explains how the legal standards surrounding the case could shift if legislators take action. Plus, VTDigger’s Alan Keays describes how Fair Haven residents are responding to the new developments.

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Ashe and Johnson’s endgame

April 13, 2018

Last month, Gov. Phil Scott sent legislators a memo targeting 15 bills that he said he'd veto over proposed taxes and fees. "Let’s work together to find ways for many of the proposals to advance, while respecting the need to provide Vermonters with another year of relief," he wrote.

Now, with the end of the session weeks away, the leaders of both chambers of the Legislature are considering their options for policies they want to advance in spite of the governor's pledge.

"The governor believes he has a non-negotiable position," Senate President Tim Ashe said in an interview this week. "The Legislature has non-negotiable positions. Usually, what you do is negotiate out those non-negotiable positions to get to a compromise, so everyone can move on to the next battle."

Ashe has made minimum wage legislation — one of the bills on the governor's list — a top priority for this year. House Speaker Mitzi Johnson wants to see clean water legislation, which Scott has threatened to veto over "the design of a fee," signed into law.

Both leaders also believe broad improvements to the state's education finance system merit serious consideration. But the possibility of a budget veto is not off the table yet.

On this week's podcast, Ashe and Johnson talk to VTDigger's Anne Galloway and Colin Meyn about the Legislature's end-of-session strategy.

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All eyes on Mueller

April 5, 2018

For almost a year, the Justice Department investigation into President Donald Trump's ties to Russia, led by Special Counsel Robert Mueller, has been a constant topic of interest in Washington, D.C. While new information in the case is released at a careful pace, the resulting subpoenas and indictments have dominated dozens of news cycles.

According to one local expert, that's not likely to change anytime soon.

"I think we're probably somewhere around the third or the fourth inning of this game right now," says Garrett Graff, a journalist and cybersecurity expert based in Burlington, who covers the investigation for Wired magazine.

Graff, a Montpelier native, wrote a book about Mueller in 2011 called The Threat Matrix. He says he was "momentarily surprised" when Mueller was named the special counsel in the Trump investigation last May, but that the former FBI director's famously nonpartisan credentials make him uniquely qualified for the job.

This makes it all the more surprising, Graff says, that Mueller has become the target of an unprecedented effort by the White House to discredit federal intelligence agencies and the Department of Justice.

On this week's podcast, VTDigger's Washington reporter Elizabeth Hewitt talks to Garrett Graff about why the Mueller investigation matters — and how Vermont's members of Congress are playing in active role in what they see as an effort to safeguard democracy from future attacks.

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Inside the CoverageCo collapse

March 30, 2018

Grace Cottage Hospital, at one time the only hospital in Vermont with no cell phone service, was finally connected in June 2017. Now, less than one year later, that signal may disappear.

Vanu CoverageCo, a company that used new technology to provide cell service to major corridors and hotspots in dozens of rural Vermont towns, is on the brink of dissolving. The company is in debt to the electrical and internet utilities that make its service possible, and the revenue it brings in from cellular carriers isn’t closing the gap.

Over half of its coverage area has already gone dark.

 

On this week’s podcast, Grace Cottage’s Andrea Seaton describes what’s at stake for their facility and patients. Plus, Matt Dunne talks about how CoverageCo and its government partners could have worked towards a sustainable model — and how the next rural cellular vendor might do the same.

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“Common Sense” in Car Inspections

March 21, 2018

After the Vermont Department of Motor Vehicles rolled out an electronic vehicle inspection system in March 2017, drivers began to notice inspection-related repair bills creeping upward. The DMV's guidelines haven't changed, critics note, but the new, computerized system overrides mechanics' ability to use "common sense" when considering minor violations.

The state is responding to the backlash with new legislation and a rewrite of its inspection rules. But those changes, if passed, likely won't take effect until 2019 at the earliest.

In the meantime, drivers are left dealing with the effects of the enhanced system.

On this week's podcast, Ben Hewitt, a writer who discussed his concerns with the system in a VTDigger Commentary earlier this year, talks about how the changes are affecting low-income Vermonters. Vermont Tire and Service owner Mark Rochefort describes what he's seen as the proprietor of a busy inspection station. And VTDigger's Xander Landen runs through the next round of changes that the DMV hopes to roll out next year.

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Students Speak Out

March 15, 2018

This Wednesday, young people across the country walked out of their schools to demand an end to gun violence. In Vermont, students not only fought discouragement from education leaders, but also a winter storm that shut down school districts across the state, in order to get their message out.

The walkouts were the latest step in a rising wave of student activism following the shooting last month in Parkland, Florida, where 17 people were killed. Students have staged high-profile demonstrations at the Vermont Statehouse and the University of Vermont to pressure lawmakers to advance several pieces of pending gun control legislation.

"We're finally old enough where we can speak to our experience going to school in this world where we kind of have to fear our lives," says Sophia Venturo, a senior at Bellows Free Academy in St. Albans who helped organize a walkout with her peers. "We want to use our voices to call attention to the fact that that is not okay."

On today's podcast, Venturo describes what it's like growing up with the threat of gun violence in school as a daily reality. Plus, VTDigger editor Colin Meyn recaps the recent progress on the multiple gun bills under consideration in the Vermont Legislature.

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Tracking Town Meetings

March 8, 2018

On Tuesday, residents of Vermont's 246 municipalities turned out to vote on matters both local and global. Town meeting resolutions ranged from how to spend money in local school districts to how the state should fight climate change.

"It's really democracy on a human scale," says Rich Clark, a political science professor and director of the Polling Institute at Castleton University.

Clark is concerned that with more towns moving to the impersonal Australian ballot, Vermont's town meeting tradition may be in decline. Along with other area researchers and a cohort of students, he's helped launch a project to track participation levels in small towns across the state.

"We're taking the temperature," he said. "This is the annual physical for local democracy."

On this week's podcast, Clark talks about the group's findings for Town Meeting Day 2018. Plus, VTDigger's Tiffany Pache recaps a banner year for school budget approvals, Mike Faher follows up on the mood in Coventry, and Mike Polhamus covers a debate over pollution control measures near Lake Carmi.

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