Lessons learned from the ‘61 standoff

June 22, 2018

As the budget standoff in Montpelier reaches into the summer, a common refrain among analysts is that it’s the closest Vermont has come to a government shutdown since 1961. That year’s legislative session lasted a record 210 days, as a governor who pledged to avoid tax increases faced off against a Senate leader with his own priorities.

Stephen Terry, a Vermont journalist who co-wrote a book about 1960s state politics, says the dynamics that year were muted compared to today.

Terry says a shutdown was never really on the table in the summer of ‘61: Legislators voted to extend the session into August well before risking a budget-less government. And while the governor that year moved to keep tax rates level, spending issues took a backseat to “personality issues.”

Ray Keyser, a former speaker of the House, was the youngest person in history to occupy the governor’s office. He found a rival in Asa Bloomer, then the Senate president pro tem, who fought Keyser’s proposals. Delaying adjournment was just one of Bloomer’s tactics.

The 1961 battle had consequences. It widened an already significant rift between the governor’s office and the Legislature. And it set the stage for the historic election of 1962, when freshman legislator Phil Hoff became the first Democrat elected governor in over a century.

On this week’s podcast, Stephen Terry recounts the legislative struggles of 1961 — and the lessons learned in the years that followed.


More mergers loom under school plan’s next phase

June 15, 2018

As schools around Vermont go quiet for the year, the effects of the state's 2015 consolidation law are increasingly visible.

Earlier this month, the Agency of Education kicked off phase two of Act 46, recommending that 43 districts that haven't yet volunteered to merge do so next year.

State Board of Education Chair Krista Huling reiterated this week that the plan is meant to provide educational opportunities through larger governance systems. But, she said, "not everybody's happy with these decisions." 

And if districts opt not to implement the state's recommendations? "Under law, the state board has the authority to merge districts," she said. "That's where these conversations become very difficult."

Meanwhile, some districts that already volunteered to merge are seeing local schools shutter. In Chelsea, a pro-merger vote last fall led to the closure this week of the town's high school, which has served as a linchpin of the community for a century.

“It’s been a very trying and frustrating process,” said Chelsea Principal Mark Blount. He knows the school will look very different next year — but recognizes that residents were "loud and clear" in voting to become a choice district for high schoolers. 

On this week's podcast, go inside Chelsea High School's last days with Hechinger Report editor Caroline Preston. Plus, Krista Huling describes what's next for the state's recommended merger plan.


Marijuana offenders face clean slates

June 7, 2018

In the coming week, state’s attorneys in two counties will hold "Expungement Days," offering assistance to Vermonters looking to clear their records of misdemeanor marijuana convictions.

The initiative comes weeks ahead of the July 1 start date for the state's new policy that legalizes possession of small amounts of marijuana.

"Why should a person be saddled with a conviction for a lifetime, for behavior that will be legal as of this summer?" asked Windsor County State's Attorney David Cahill, who will hold an expungement clinic on Saturday at Vermont Law School. "I anticipate that it's going to be the first of many steps that we take to get people who are entitled to expungement the actual relief that they deserve."


On this week's podcast, one former Vermonter with two possession charges explains what he hopes to gain from a clean slate. Plus, Vermont Legal Aid's Mairead O'Reilly describes how the expungement process works for those looking to apply.


Lottery winners’ suspicious sums

June 1, 2018

A VTDigger investigation published in April revealed a pattern of unlikely lottery wins by retailers and their relatives. Total payoffs for some individuals have reached into the hundreds of thousands of dollars. Collectively, at least 117 retailers won nearly $1.8 million.

For reporter Katy Savage, tracking down those winners didn't come easily. The Vermont Lottery Commission would name the towns, but not the stores, where prizewinners purchased their tickets. So Savage took to the phone, calling multiple lottery outlets near the locations of major claims, and connecting those wins to retailers.

Eventually, a second set of data, along with relationship mapping from genealogy websites, allowed her to confirm what she'd already determined: that dozens of Vermont Lottery winners were clocking statistically improbable sums.

The results led to an immediate response from the state. Gov. Phil Scott tasked Danny Rachek, the director of the Vermont Lottery, with reviewing the system's integrity. Scott told VTDigger this week that he's reviewed an initial version of Rachek's report.

"Are there improvements we could make? I believe there are," Scott said. But he said the findings did not reveal apparent wrongdoing. Meanwhile, legislators are calling for a separate investigation under a new, proposed department that would manage both liquor and lottery sales.

On this week's podcast, Katy Savage talks about the year-long process of determining when lottery winners were using more than luck.


“A lethal combination” in the Lumumba homicide

May 25, 2018

The apparent murder of Anako Lumumba, a 33-year-old South Burlington nurse who was allegedly killed by her boyfriend Leroy Headley, has set off an interstate manhunt. It's also renewed a statewide conversation about firearms and domestic violence.

Lumumba had sought two relief-from-abuse orders against Headley in 2017. But both were vacated before being finalized, limiting law enforcement's ability to intervene.

Auburn Watersong, the policy director at the Vermont Network Against Domestic and Sexual Violence, calls guns in households experiencing domestic violence "a lethal combination."

Lawmakers worked to address the issue this session with H.422, a bill that allows law enforcement to seize guns during domestic violence citations. But that law does not address limitations with the relief-from-abuse order process that advocates say leave gaps for abuse.

On this week's podcast, Watersong describes the challenges of addressing the chronic problem of domestic violence. Plus, South Burlington Police Chief Trevor Whipple discusses the ongoing search for Leroy Headley.


$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.


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.


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.


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.


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.