Shumlin joins fight against emissions
BRATTLEBORO -- Gov. Peter Shumlin announced this week the state has joined in filing motions supporting the federal government’s efforts to address greenhouse gas emissions.
Shumlin, a first-term Democrat, also stated Vermont filed two appellate briefs defending state authority to address the harm from climate change and air pollution caused by coal-fired power plants.
The legal action includes two lawsuits filed by Vermont, eight other states and New York City moving to intervene in support of the Environmental Protection Agency’s decision to adopt mandatory greenhouse gas reporting requirements for emissions from petroleum and natural gas systems.
Earlier this month, Vermont and 13 other states joined in a brief filed with the U.S. Supreme Court in support of North Carolina in its efforts to hold the Tennessee Valley Authority accountable for damages. Last week, the state was involved in another brief with the court in a long-running lawsuit filed against electric power corporations that are the top five carbon dioxide emitters in the country.
"I am committed to aggressively fighting interstate air pollution and climate change. Vermont has joined with other states in battling emissions from coal-fired power plants, and will make this effort to make the fight against pollution from Midwest power plants a top priority," Shumlin said.
"Coal-fired power plants in the Midwest are significant emitters of carbon dioxide, which is the primary greenhouse gas contributing to climate change. Climate impacts in Vermont include the loss of our hardwood trees, including sugar maples, the spread of insect pests impacting our forests, waters and public health and increased soil erosion."
Elsewhere in the Statehouse, lawmakers passed a bill requiring employers to give their workers a 30-minute break for every six-hour work period.
The measure, debated on the floor for roughly nine hours, would clarify language in the current law, which states employers must only give reasonable breaks. While supporters said a top complaint by employees is their bosses denying them breaks, critics say the bill amounts to another regulation on Vermont businesses.
"There were some people that thought it worked counter to what is presently in our laws and was probably more restrictive on the employee than the employer," said Rep. Michael Hebert, R-Vernon. "It was not a(n) along party-line vote, it was a very nonpartisan vote."
Representatives voted 72 to 61 in favor of the bill, just exceeding the 67 votes needed for it to move forward.
According to Jamaica Republican Oliver Olsen, the measure agitated many small business owners because it’s another burden from the state. But Wardsboro Democrat John Moran said it sends a good message to businesses because almost all employers in the state maintain a good working relationship with their employees (oftentimes offering more generous breaks than the legislation requires) and the bill is for the rare situations in Vermont.
"We had a few horror stories from people who were actually told they couldn’t take a break," Moran said. "We made a few exceptions. There were exceptions for situations where a break from work would pose a threat to property, life, public safety, public health, then the employer may offer shorter breaks or reschedule timed breaks."
Employees do not have to break during the six-hour span if they choose not to, but employers need to give them the opportunity to use the restroom as they need it.
The bill moves on to the Senate for approval next week.
In the committees
-- Olsen said the House Ways & Means Committee passed out the miscellaneous tax bill on Friday evening and moved it to the House floor for action next week.
The miscellaneous tax bill is a result of statute reviews, resulting in technical changes in the tax laws, as well as major initiatives suggested by the executive branch. The bill, which this year includes an increase in statewide property taxes, typically undergoes several weeks of testimony and numerous revisions until the measure goes before the entire House.
-- The House Human Services Committee passed out its largest and most comprehensive bill of the session related to palliative care.
Currently House Bill No. 201, palliative care has become an increasingly important issue as the practice of this modality of care has grown and improved, especially as a large segment of the population ages.
Committee member Mike Mrowicki, D-Putney, said the bill addresses Vermonters’ concerns on where and how they live out their last days. "While research shows 80 percent of Vermonters would prefer to die at home, 50 percent die in hospitals and 29 percent die in nursing homes," he said.
According to Mrowicki, extending hospice care to a period of 12 months will provide more access to a greater number of Vermonters and to raise the profile of this issue so more can request palliative care.
Bellows Falls Democrat Matt Trieber said the state has one of the worst rates of hospice care. "What this bill aims to do is to increase doctor’s awareness of pain management through continuing medical education training requirements."
The committee is also working on in-house bills, which are not subject to the limits of crossover week, such as unionizing some child care workers. Trieber and Mrowicki also plan to hold a public hearing within the county sometime this spring to review how the designated agency system is working and the ways to improve quality within it.
The time, date and location will be announced as more details become available.
-- Rep. Carolyn Partridge, D-Windham, said the 2011 jobs proposal passed the House Friday with some good investments in the agriculture sector.
Partridge, chairwoman of the House Agriculture Committee, said new investment opportunities include a local food coordinator, a skilled meat cutting curriculum, assistance for farmers with capital upgrades to meet Good Agriculture Standards to sell their products and competitive matching grants to increase slaughterhouse and processing facility capacity.
"The local food coordinator will work with the 22 food hubs around the state, state and municipal governments, 14 hospitals, countless schools and institutions of higher learning and many other entities to perform a matchmaking function as we attempt to fulfill the goals of the Farm-to-Plate Initiative and increase economic output, keep millions of Vermont dollars in the state, create an estimated 1,500 jobs over the next 10 years, and put more Vermont food on Vermont plates, which is fresher, healthier and has a lower carbon footprint," she said.
"This person will also work to develop markets in state and regionally for farmers so that they can do what they do best, which is farm. They will also work with the Farm-to-School and Farm-to-Institutions programs," Partridge added. "As food security becomes more of an issue, this person will provide technical support to local communities in that area. Additionally, they will help facilitate the opportunity for state employees to participate in a Community Supported Agriculture program."
-- Lawmakers are optimistic the proposed health care reform legislation will appear before the full House next week.
The House Health Care Committee approved the bill, which is designed to move the state toward a single-payer health care plan, on Thursday night by an 8 to 3 party-line vote. The measure calls for new federal exchanges that are included in the national health care law passed last March, but would also require waivers from Washington, D.C.
The bill also established a five-member Health Care Board to oversee most aspects of the system. It is modeled after the utility regulation Public Service Board.
-- The House Education Committee approved a bill proposing to restructure education governance.
Rep. Valerie Stuart, D-Brattleboro, said the measure calls to transform the Department of Education into an agency that is under the direction of a secretary instead of a commissioner. The governor would appoint the secretary with the advice and consent of the Vermont Senate and then become a member of the administration.
"Over a period of several years, the bill would change membership on the state board of education to be statutorily representative of both citizens at-large and persons with expertise in educational issues," Stuart said. "The board would be responsible for engaging with local communities, the education community and state and local policy makers to help inform and develop a statewide vision for education."
If the legislation passes, the new agency would direct lawmakers to prepare a draft bill for presentation to the Legislature on or before Jan. 1, 2012.
The bill has moved to the House General Operations Committee for review next week.
-- Sarah Edwards, P/D-Brattleboro, said the House did its first reading of House Bill No. 218, a measure designed to improve Vermont’s recycling rates.
"The aim is to increase Vermont’s recycling rate which is woefully low at 32 percent. We have been successful over the years with some materials, but we need to include as many materials as we can to reduce what goes to our landfills, which is a big expense for our municipalities across the state. We can do much better," she said.
The Committee on Natural Resources & Energy will likely take testimony on the complex issue, Edwards added, saying the discussions will continue into the 2012 session.
-- More than 175 Vermonters rallied at the Statehouse this week to support legislation to give early educators the ability to work together with the state government to improve the quality of early childhood education in Vermont.
Legislation currently in both chambers calls for early childhood education professionals to have a greater voice in the decision-making process. The bills have received bipartisan support in the House and Senate, as well as the endorsement from Shumlin.
-- Vermont’s two largest political parties both announced the hiring of new executive directors this week.
The Vermont Republican Party reported the appointment of Tayt R. Brooks as the new executive director. Brooks formerly served in the same role in late 2008 and most recently was commissioner of Economic, Housing and Community Development in the Douglas administration.
"I’m excited to have Tayt join our team. His experience in working with people around the state and in working with members of the General Assembly makes Tayt a good fit to advance my plan to grow our party," said GOP Party Chairwoman Pat McDonald.
The Democrats announced Jesse Bragg, currently the political director for the party, will take over as executive director beginning in April. He will replace outgoing director Robert Dempsey.
"We are very sad to see Robert go, I have really enjoyed working with him and he has served our party well, overseeing the most successful cycle for Vermont Democrats in some time," said Chairwoman Judy Bevans. "However, we are also excited to welcome Jesse to the position and look forward to him continuing the progress Robert began."
Chris Garofolo is the political reporter for the Reformer. He can be reached at email@example.com or 802-254-2311 ext. 275.
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