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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In the Zone: Voices From the F-35 Debate

February 27, 2018

South Burlington's Chamberlin neighborhood sits just west of the Burlington International Airport and the Vermont Air National Guard base.

In the fall of 2019, the Air Force plans to station eighteen F-35 fighter jets at the base. The military's own environmental impact data has residents concerned about how the jets will affect their neighborhood, a neighborhood that's already seen decades of changes related to the airport's expansion. The decision to move forward with the project set off years of intense public debate.

In this podcast, hear from people who have been a part of that debate: members of organized campaigns opposing the F-35, neighbors concerned about future home buyouts, and vocal supporters of the basing. Many have differing views on the planes — but all expect that within a few years, the airport neighborhood will look very different from today.

This podcast is part of Rough Landing, a VTDigger special project on the F-35 debate in Burlington. See more at vtdigger.org.

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Burlington Candidates in Conversation

February 16, 2018

Livability issues dominated Thursday night's mayoral candidate forum in Burlington. As Mayor Miro Weinberger highlighted his administration's accomplishments in housing and infrastructure development over the past six years, independent candidates Carina Driscoll and Infinite Culcleasure suggested that the mayor runs the city too much like a business.

VTDigger's Burlington reporter Cory Dawson says that after weeks of campaigning, the candidates have settled into a rhythm. And while Thursday's event didn't hold many surprises, it clarified the distinctions that voters will take into account at the ballot box in less than three weeks.

On this week's podcast, hear highlights from the forum, reactions from the candidates and analysis from Cory Dawson.

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Vermonters Take Pyeongchang

February 8, 2018

Starting this week, about 30 athletes with Vermont ties are competing for Team USA in the 2018 Winter Olympics.

VTDigger's Kevin O'Connor has been checking in with Olympic coaches, sportswriters, athletes and their families. On this week's podcast, he talks about what to watch for in this year's games.

Hopefuls range from veteran snowboarder Kelly Clark to newcomer Caroline Claire, a skier who's also a high school senior. Five competitors come from families with multiple generations of Vermont Olympians.

Plus, Kevin talks about other Vermonters who have a role in this year's games: gold medalist-turned-snowboard coach Ross Powers, Rutland-based Team USA sportswriter Peggy Shinn, and the parents that cheer on their Olympians from back home.

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Grappling with Gun Rights

February 2, 2018

Three bills under consideration in the Legislature have reopened the longstanding debate over gun rights in Vermont. At a crowded public hearing Tuesday, dozens of Vermonters testified about why they thought new gun safety measures should — or shouldn't — advance.

Members of gun owners groups argued that these bills would do nothing to make the state safer, and warned that minor restrictions on gun rights could lead to more drastic bills in the future. 

Supporters of the legislation shared specific stories of domestic violence that they said could have been prevented if the abusers had less access to firearms.

The future of the bills remains unclear. But activists on both sides are taking the opportunity to make their voices heard. 

On this week's podcast, Sen. Phil Baruth, who sponsored a bill mandating universal background checks on gun sales, talks about how he's seen the gun debate evolve. Plus, Clai Lasher-Sommers, the head of GunSense Vermont, and Ed Cutler, the president of Gun Owners of Vermont, discuss their paths to advocacy around gun legislation.

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