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vt.Buzz ~ a political blog

Political notes from Free Press staff writers Terri Hallenbeck, Sam Hemingway and Nancy Remsen



Challenging changes unveiled today

Lawmakers briefed Monday on how the Douglas administration plans to save $38 million using a new budget strategy predict much hand wringing today when the rest of the Legislature and special interest groups see the document.

Monday’s briefings – working sessions, according to the administration -- weren’t open to the public.

“People will look at this and see big heartburn,” said Senate Appropriations Chairwoman Susan Bartlett, D-Lamoille, after her briefing. She noted, however, that lawmakers would have a say whether the administration’s proposals go forward.

Under a bill passed earlier in the session, the Legislature agreed that the Douglas administration would address one portion of next year’s $150 million revenue shortfall using a new budgeting technique. The Legislature set a total savings target, $38 million, and listed the outcomes it wanted achieved in selected areas of government operation. It left to the executive branch the task of figuring out how to achieve the outcomes and the savings.

The report that will be unveiled at noon today in a hearing in the House chamber represents the administration’s first response to the challenge, “but there is not going to be a detailed list that adds up to $38 million,” said Tom Evslin, the administration’s point man for the project.

The plan also includes law and rule changes the Legislature would need to make before adjourning should lawmakers agree to the administration’s proposals and suggested measures of outcomes.

Evslin said of the report, “There are certainly going to be things that are controversial. There will be lots of topics for heated discussion.”
Evslin said there are five themes that recur: Improved integration of programs and services; increased use of technology to improve efficiency and access; more personal attention from professionals when appropriate; creation of “paths to independence” to wean people from services; and performance incentives for vendors and groups that receive grants.

“There were some interesting ideas, some of which would be pretty challenging” said House Speaker Shap Smith, D-Morristown, without elaborating. He expects House committees to begin vetting the proposals immediately. They have less than two weeks to refine proposals or offer alternatives that would produce both the required outcomes and needed savings.

The challenge strategy doesn’t ask state managers and staff if they can save $38 million. They have to – the money isn’t available to spend. The challenge is to take the money that is available and figure out how to deliver the same or better service.

“There is going to be plenty in here to criticize,” said Senate President Pro Tempore Peter Shumlin, D-Windham. “It is incumbent on us to find new approaches in area where we have concerns.”

For example, one challenge concerns economic development. Bartlett said Monday she didn’t like the administration’s recommendations. “There are other ways to reach the results.”

The “challenges for change” law directed the Douglas administration to redesign the state’s economic development initiatives to focus on spending that gets measurable results. The law suggested potential savings of $3.4 million, but allowed for $400,000 to be spent on planning and development of measurement infrastructure.

Julie Tessler, executive director of the Vermont Council of Developmental and Mental Health, said her group is wary of ideas affecting human services that it heard about during discussions state officials had earlier this month with developmental and mental health providers.

“There are ideas on the table that have potential, but they are going to take time to analyze and work through,” Tessler said. She worried Monday that big changes were on a fast track that could jeopardize the health and well being of vulnerable Vermonters.

“The Vermont Council does not want to obstruct the process,” Tessler said. Slow it down – absolutely.

-- Nancy Remsen




Analyst: No value in VY

Stock analysts saw last week’s news that New York state utility regulators nixed the Enexus move by which Vermont Yankee would be sliced off into a new company with five other nuclear power plants as the end of the line for the deal.

“We expect this vote in New York will end the spin-off plans,” Morningstar stock analysts said.

They also don’t seem to give two hoots about Vermont Yankee’s continued operation after 2012, which makes one wonder if Entergy Corp.’s board of directors will feel the same way.

“Renewal or no renewal, we see little incremental value in the Yankee plant for shareholders based on its relatively high cost, small capacity, and onerous power purchase contracts that we expect to persist for at least another decade. We think a decision to shut down Vermont Yankee when its license expires in March 2012 would not have a substantial impact on our fair value estimate,” the report said.

_ Terri Hallenbeck



Survey: Vters r agnst txtg

Keeping in mind that this is an unscientific survey, Sen. Bill Doyle’s annual Town Meeting Day results are in, and survey says: Vermonters are quite solid on the notion that drivers should not be allowed to text.

The 96 percent who said it should be prohibited set Doyle Town Meeting poll history. No question in the survey’s 41-year history has ever received that kind of response, said Doyle, R-Washington.

A texting ban is in the works in the Legislature, though it is complicated by the fact that the House added a number of other driving restrictions to the bill that the Senate doesn’t like and they’ve got to work that out. The survey found 74 percent also thought prohibiting cell phone use while driving was a good idea.

Doyle’s survey, which attracted 12,500 responses from 150 communities, also found a shift in support for the future of the Vermont Yankee nuclear power plant. This year, 52 percent said its license should not be renewed in 2012. Last year, only 37 percent thought that. There were also 17 percent this year who were unsure.

In other results, 53 percent said President Barack Obama was doing a good job; 49 percent did not think federal stimulus funds have been well-spent; 67 percent agreed with reducing Vermont’s prison population through alternatives; 43 percent said the University of Vermont should restore baseball and softball, but 40 percent were unsure.

- Terri Hallenbeck

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Condos plans kickoff

Former state Sen. Jim Condos will announce Wednesday that he’s running for secretary of state. He plans a 12:30 p.m. news conference at the Statehouse.

The Democrat who represented Chittenden County in the Senate and was chairman of the South Burlington City Council for many years, now lives in Montpelier. He is government affairs director for Vermont Gas Systems Inc.

He will face Charlie Merriman, a Middlesex lawyer, in the Democratic primary.

Interest in the seat is driven by the lack of an incumbent, as Secretary of State Deb Markowitz is running for governor. There will likely also be a Republican primary race, as announced candidate Chris Roy, a Williston lawyer, could face a challenge from Forest, Parks & Recreations Commissioner Jason Gibbs of Duxbury.

- Terri Hallenbeck

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Snelling sets staff

Mark Snelling, one of two Republican candidates for lieutenant governor, will have three people chairing his campaign — Mary Evslin, Stephan Morse, and Bill Stenger.

Evslin was founding chairwoman of the Vermont Telecommunications Authority. Morse is a former speaker of the Vermont House of Representatives. Stenger is president and chief executive officer of Jay Peak.

Snelling also named John Kleinhans of Lyndon as campaign coordinator and Charles Kittredge of Shelburne as campaign treasurer.

“It is a campaign dream team,“ Snelling said.

Sen. Phil Scott, a Republican, is also running.

— Nancy Remsen



So when is the primary?

When is the primary election?

We still don’t know.

The House and Senate have said they want to reschedule this year’s primary election to the fourth Tuesday in August – Aug. 24 – in order to give election officials a bigger window to get ballots to and from voters who are overseas. Because of a technical issue, the bill has pingponged between the two chambers over the past week. It has yet to be sent to the governor.

Will Gov. Jim Douglas agree to a new date even though he says the change is politically motivated? He argues Democrats want to give their gubernatorial candidate more time to recover after the primary election – which as of now features five candidates. Douglas says there would be other ways to make sure the military can vote.

Douglas will have five days from the date the bill arrives in his office to decide what to do. He could sign it, veto it or let it become law without his signature.

“I have to pick my fights,“ Douglas said last week. Is this a fight worth having?— Nancy Remsen



Plenty of chances to see Dems

There seem to be endless opportunities to hear the five Democratic gubernatorial candidates. Here are a few dates to note:

- THURSDAY: Labor unions have lined up a debate, 7:30-9 p.m. at the Old Labor Hall, Barre. Vermont Public Television will air the event live on the tube and the Web.

- APRIL 11: Addison County and Middlebury College Democrats will hold a debate, 2-4 p.m., Dana Auditorium, Middlebury College.

- APRIL 12, South Burlington and Shelburne Democratic committees will hold a forum, 7-9 p.m. Shelburne Town Hall.

— Nancy Remsen/Terri Hallenbeck




Roy heralds McCain endorsement

Republican Secretary of State candidate Chris Roy has landed the endorsement of U.S. Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., the erstwhile presidential candidate.

"This is an exciting day and a huge boost to our campaign," said Roy.

He cited McCain as a leader in issues of reform and government spending and quoted McCain as saying the two have known each other for more than 10 years.

Charles Merriman, a Democratic candidate for the seat, criticized the endorsement.

"Vermont deserves a Secretary of State dedicated to promoting open, responsive government and civic participation at the local and state level, not one focused on obtaining endorsements," Merriman said in a statement.

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VY's announcement

Vermont Yankee officials declared victory this morning over the nuclear power plant's tritium leak. Free Press photographer Glenn Russell has video of the announcement.

Check it out HERE:

Meanwhile, New York state utility regulators were delivering the plant's owners bad news in Albany - they rejected Entergy Corp.'s plans to move six nuclear power plants _ two in New York state and Vermont Yankee among them _ into a separate company.

- Terri Hallenbeck




Poll: Dubie leads all Dems

These poll numbers are not likely to be something the Vermont Democratic Party will be touting.

Rasmussen Reports says that likely Vermont voters would choose Republican Brian Dubie over any of his five possible Democratic opponents for governor this year.

In the poll taken March 18 of 500 likely Vermont voters, Dubie, a four-term lieutenant governor from Essex, had a:

- 46-39 percent lead over Secretary of State Deb Markowitz of Montpelier.
- 48-35 percent over Sen. Doug Racine of Richmond.
- 51-33 percent over Sen. Peter Shumlin of Putney.
- 51-29 percent over former Sen. Matt Dunne of Hartland.
- 52-26 percent over Sen. Susan Bartlett of Hyde Park.

Rasmussen's report on the poll indicated that this early in the race that will be decided in November, the percentage spread was less important than the percent of voters who feel particularly strongly one way or the other about each of the candidates.

Dubie led with a 31 percent very favorable rating. Markowitz had 22 percent, Shumlin and Racine each had 10 percent, Dunne had 8 percent, Bartlett had 5 percent.

When it came to very unfavorable ratings, Shumlin led with 23 percent, Bartlett had 16 percent, Dunne had 15 percent, Markowitz and Racine had 14 percent and Dubie had 13 percent. The poll had a margin of error of 4.5 percentage points.

Rasmussen concluded that Dubie and Markowitz are the best-known candidates while Dunne and Racine are the least-known, even though Racine is a former lieutenant governor.

Dubie's campaign heralded the poll numbers in an e-mail to supporters Wednesday and used the occasion to ask supporters for donations.

You can pore over the numbers HERE.

- Terri Hallenbeck

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Douglas has more fans than Obama

The Rasmussen poll also asked Vermont voters how they felt about President Obama and Gov. Douglas. Guess who's more popular?

Keeping in mind the numbers are within the margin for error, Obama won a favorable rating from 60 percent, Douglas from 64 percent. For Obama, 39 percent disapproved, while Douglas had a 36 percent disapproval rating.

Obama's fans and detractors were more feverish - he had 36 percent strongly favoring him and 29 percent strongly disapproving, while Douglas had 30 percent strongly favoring and 15 percent strongly disapproving.

Vermonters also showed support for the just-passed health care plan and were not keen on the state challenging the requirement that all buy health insurance in court. They got their way - 13 states are challenging it and Vermont is not among them.

You can see the poll questions and responses HERE.

- Terri Hallenbeck

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Election 2010: Vermont Senate

A Rasmussen report on a poll on Vermont's U.S. Senate race started out this way:

"Longtime Vermont Senator Patrick Leahy is comfortably on his way to a seventh term in Washington so far."

Republican challenger Len Britton took that as good news. When Britton saw the poll Monday he wasn't focused on those comments, he was looking at the number of people who said flat out without knowing who his opponent might be would vote against veteran U.S. Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt.

33 percent is that number. Britton, a Woodstock businessman, thought that was a good place to start.

The poll also found 58 percent would vote for Leahy.

Never mind, too, that Rasmussen's report said, "
No major Republican candidate has entered the race. Businessman Len Britton, a political newcomer, is the only declared GOP Senate candidate thus far."

Rasmussen also said that Leahy "clears an important early hurdle for an incumbent. At this early stage of a campaign, incumbents who earn less than 50% of the voter are considered potentially vulnerable."

Rasmussen also found:
- Male voters in the state break close to even between Leahy and the generic Republican, but women voters give the Democrat 67% support.

- Voters not affiliated with either major party prefer Leahy by a 49% to 36% margin.

- While a bare majority (52%) of Vermont voters think it would be better for the country if most incumbents in Congress were defeated this November, 51% say their local representative deserves reelection.

The poll was conducted March 18 of 500 likely voters, with a margin of error 3 percentage points.

There's more HERE.

- Terri Hallenbeck

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The day after health care

“People had an appreciation it was a crossing of the Rubicon,” recounted U.S. Rep. Peter Welch, D-Vt., Monday in the aftermath of Sunday’s historic votes by the U.S. House of Representatives on health care reform.

Just to be clear, crossing the Rubicon (a river in Italy that Caesar waded across with his army enroute to Rome) means, according to Webster’s, “to commit oneself to a definite act or decision, take a final, irrevocable step.”

It was a tense day, Welch said, because people — even politicians who regardless of party talk a lot about the need to make change — are apprehensive when it comes to actually doing it.

There was plenty of uncertainty about the vote count, too, Welch noted. “It wasn’t clear what the outcome would be until midday.”

Perhaps there shouldn’t have been any doubt about the vote since House Speaker Nancy Pelosi promised several weeks ago that she would deliver health care reform one way or another.

“We will go through the gate. If the gate is closed, we will go over the fence. If the fence is too high, we will pole vault in. If that doesn’t work, we will parachute in. But we are going to get health care reform passed,“ Pelosi said Jan. 28.

Welch took to the House floor Sunday afternoon to tell his colleagues that the choice in the upcoming vote was “simple.”

“Will Congress today choose on behalf of the American people who elected us to build a health care system where every American has access to health care and where every American shares in the responsibility of paying for it?” he posed. “Will we today free ourselves from the shackles of the broken status quo?”

After the vote, Welch said the mood changed — at least for the 219 who won. “People felt quite relieved and positive.”

Welch said President Barack Obama set the stage for the vote with the pep talk he gave the Democratic caucus about those moments in life when a decision makes a difference. “He was appealing to members of Congress and the American people to have the courage to take on the challenge of making the health care system work for everybody.”

Perhaps it’s not surprising that Welch described the phone calls and e-mail his office has received Monday as positive. He, no doubt, has colleagues whose constituents aren’t happy.

Welch highlighted the benefits of health care legislation: it reforms health insurance, strengthens Medicare, ensures 96 percent of Americans will have health coverage and promises significant deficit reduction. Check out more details at Welch’s Web site.

Its shortcomings, he said, include no public health insurance option, no mandated price negotiations on prescription drugs and no antitrust provisions. For those changes, he promised, “We will fight another day.”

- Nancy Remsen

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Perley charged

Rep. Peter Perley, a Republican from Enosburg Falls, was charged last week with drunken driving and resisting arrest.

"I certainly made a mistake — a very serious one,” Perley said Monday. “I am just so sorry that it happened. I’m quite frankly embarrassed.”

Perley, a first-term lawmaker who serves on the House Education Committee, wouldn’t discuss details of what happened, but according to the news reports, Franklin County Sheriff’s deputies were alerted about an intoxicated man by a clerk at the Mobil station on Vermont 105 about 10:30 p.m. March 15. Perley allegedly tried to pull away as a deputy sought to handcuff him.

Perley is a sponsor of “Nick’s Law” legislation that seeks tougher penalties for drunk-driving offenders following the 2007 death of Nick Fournier of Swanton. Asked whether the charge affects his standing on that, Perley said Monday he continues to support the legislation. Supporters of Nick’s Law plan their annual rally at the Statehouse on Tuesday.

- Terri Hallenbeck

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Douglas on health reform

Gov. Jim Douglas said Monday he was focused on implementation of the national health care reform package.

“We don’t know exactly what it is yet,” he noted, since the Senate has yet to vote on the reconciliation package that became the compromise between the U.S. House and Senate. Douglas said Republican senators “although they don’t have the numbers, they believe they may have some parliamentary arguments” to make about the pending reconciliation bill.

Still, Douglas has asked his health care cabinet to analyze the pair of health care bills to identify starting dates. He also wants his staff to determine if the Vermont Legislature needs to make any law changes in response to the federal measures and if there are grants or funds offered that the state ought to seek.

As chairman of the National Governors Association, Douglas said he will work on making the implementation as smooth as possible for states — not an easy task.

“A number of governors and legislators are going to be resistant,” Douglas predicted.

“I still regret the lack of partisanship,” Douglas said. As a result of the divisive politics associated with the bill, implementing it, he said, “is going to be a less smooth process.”

- Nancy Remsen

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Shumlin out-Foxed?

A few days after the Vermont Senate voted against letting the Public Service Board go ahead with a decision on Vermont Yankee’s future, Senate President Pro Tempore Peter Shumlin, D-Windham, went on a Fox TV business show that he surely is regretting now.

The show’s host, Stuart Varney, grilled Shumlin about where Vermont would get its power if not from the nuclear power plant. “You must be going back to coal or fossil fuels,” Varney challenged.

Shumlin answered that the state would turn to renewables. “The power market in America is going to dramatically shift,” Shumlin said. “Germany right now is producing 30 percent of its juice from solar.”

“Are you sure 30 percent of it comes from solar?” Varney countered.

“It happens to be a fact,” Shumlin said, until Varney’s colleagues starting surfing the Web and came up with indications that solar amounted to no more than 1 percent of Germany’s power. “I’m not really an expert on Germany,” Shumlin said. “That’s what I’ve been told.”

As it turns out, Germany’s goal for renewable energy is 30 percent. Supporters of Vermont Yankee and the Republican Governors Association have made hay of the interview, sending out e-mails and posting the interview online.

Shumlin said he was mistaken about Germany, but that he merely provided incorrect statistics, not under oath, and never suggested Vermont would replace all of Vermont Yankee’s power with renewables. Nor, he said, was the decision not to endorse Vermont Yankee’s continued operation based on that information. Varney, he said, started the show by spreading misinformation that Vermont would be turning to coal. “Only Fox News has that view,” he said.

The irony, of course, is that nothing has hurt Vermont Yankee’s cause more than its own misinformation in denying the existence of underground pipes that were later found to be leaking tritium.

The Fox interview can be seen at this pro-Vermont Yankee Web site.

- Terri Hallenbeck

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Where's Brian?

Most of last week, as the Vermont Senate conducted business, Lt. Gov. Brian Dubie was not at the front of the room, where it’s his job to preside. That meant senators had to fill in for him at the podium. There were grumbles through the Statehouse about whether Dubie was off campaigning for governor or what.

Here’s what Dubie said he was up to last week:

Monday, he was chairing the meeting of the Aerospace States Association meeting, a group of lieutenant governor and other state officials focused on aerospace issues. Tuesday, he attended his farewell National Lieutenant Governor’s Association meeting in Washington. Wednesday, he met with the Canadian and Mexican ambassadors.

On Thursday, Gov. Jim Douglas was out of state (in Boston, meeting with Gov. Deval Patrick), making Dubie the acting governor which means he can’t preside over the Senate. Friday, Dubie presided over the Senate at the start of the day, but stepped away mid-morning for a previously scheduled meeting with former Republican Rep. Michael Bernhardt, who was delivering Dubie the good news that he wouldn’t mount an independent campaign for governor.

- Terri Hallenbeck

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Stern starts campaign

Keith Stern of Springfield announced on YouTube on Monday that he is running for Congress as a Republican, challenging Democrat Peter Welch, D-Vt.

“Peter Welch has voted repeatedly for bigger government and out-control spending,” Stern said on the video. “He is as responsible as anyone in Washington for the national debt climbing to over $12 trillion.”

Stern, who said he favors a flat income tax, ran for the office as an independent in 2006, the first year Welch was elected to the seat. Stern landed .3 percent of the vote in a field of eight candidates.

The executive director of the Vermont Republican Party, Eric Mason, told the Associated Press that some other Republicans are also considering challenging Welch and Stern said if a stronger Republican emerges, he’s likely to throw his support to that person.

You can catch his announcement HERE and go to his Web site HERE.

- Terri Hallenbeck

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This week under Dome

Looking for something to do this week? How about a trip to the Statehouse to watch some debate? There will be plenty of action. Check out the daily House and Senate calendars at the Legislature’s Web site.

The House takes up a bill today that would restructure the court system. It has upset probate judges because it shrinks their numbers and upset assistant judges because it strips them of some responsibilities.

Two of three money bills come up in the House, too. By money bills, we mean legislation outlining transportation work and the House version of the budget to run state government. These bills don’t always produce partisan bickering, but they usually prompt questions.

The House also takes up a miscellaneous tax bill that includes some changes in how the education tax will be assessed on certain homeowners.

In the Senate, a bill that would allow medical marijuana dispensaries comes up for consideration later in the week. No controversy there, right?

- Nancy Remsen




Tallies to watch

Lots of exciting tallies to watch for this weekend.

- The male Hoop Cats against the Cuse Orangemen tonight.

- The lady Hoop Cats against the Wisconsin Badgers early Sunday afternoon.

- The health care bill in the U.S. House on Sunday. That might be the closest of them all.


- Terri Hallenbeck



Bernhardt won't run for Vt. gov

Mike Bernhardt, a former Republican state legislator from South Londonderry, will not run for governor as an independent as he had considered, he announced Friday.

Bernhardt said if he were to run, it might result in no candidate winning a majority in the November election, leaving the election to be decided by a Democratic-controlled Legislature, which he fears would choose a Democrat.

"his party has demonstrated petulance for spending and a lack of fiscal restraint," Bernhardt said in a statement. "The only break to that was provided by a governor of the opposite party. ... The voters of Vermont must elect a governor who can offer our citizens the promise of an actual balance of power."

Bernhardt said he supports Republican candidate Brian Dubie. Last fall, Bernhardt said he didn't think any of the candidates would sufficiently address the states fiscal problems, but he said Friday he has since come to believe Dubie will do that.

Five Democrats _ Sen. Susan Bartlett of Hyde Park, former Sen. Matt Dunne of Hartland, Secretary of State Deb Markowitz of Montpelier, Sen. Doug Racine of Richmond and Sen. Peter Shumlin of Putney _ are facing off in that party's primary.

- Terri Hallenbeck

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Bartlett calls the middle

Sen. Susan Bartlett made her most direct effort yet to cast herself as the lone moderate in the race for governor.

In an e-mail to those on her campaign's e-mail list, she said of her opponents (Democrats and Republican): "One speaks of strength. One speaks of changing everything. One says Montpelier is grid-locked. One wants to raise taxes. One would continue to gut state government."

She seeks to lay claim to the middle and says: "It is time for the middle to rise up."

She is pointed about the Democratic Party's past candidates.
"Since Howard Dean we have had to choose between a liberal and a conservative. Douglas and Racine. Douglas and Parker. Douglas and Clavelle. Douglas and Symington or Pollina. This time moderates have a choice for governor that reflects our values. Fiscal responsibility and balance."

As proof of her status as a moderate she points to Seven Days recent legislative survey (without noting the dismal participation rate the survey received), which found her "most knowledgeable," "best informed" and "stingiest" of legislators.

And she notes her stance on Vermont Yankee in which she objected to the timing of this month's vote.

Does Bartlett rightly lay claim to being the most moderate of the candidates?

- Terri Hallenbeck

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Another gubernatorial forum

If you are looking for a chance to compare and contrast gubernatorial candidates -- at least the five Democratic candidates -- there's a forum planned for Monday in South Burlington.

The Vermont Council of Developmental and Mental Health Services has scheduled a forum for 5-7 p.m. at South Burlington High School. It's free and open to the public.

"The future of mental health, developmental services and substance abuse treatment will be greatly impacted by decisions made by the next governor," said Ken Libertoff, director of the Vermont Association for Mental Health.

Todd Centybear, executive director of HowardCenter, added, "The public needs to know what set of values the new governor will use when facing difficult choices."

All the announced candidates for governor were invited, the sponsors said. The five Democrats -- Sen. Susan Bartlett, former Sen. Matt Dunne, Secretary of State Deb Markowitz, Sen. Doug Racine and Sen. Peter Shumlin -- accepted the invitation. Lt. Gov.Brian Dubie, the Republican candidate, hasn't participated in any early forums and isn't expected at this one.

-- Nancy Remsen

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Quick update on gubernatorial candidate finances

Lt. Gov. Brian Dubie isn't the only gubernatorial candidate raising money. Recall that last week he raised $115,000 at a birthday party for himself.

Most all the Democrats are busy, too.

However, as we have mentioned before, the public won't get a detailed accounting of how much candidates have raised, from whom or how they've spent the money until next summer when they have to file their first campaign finance reports. Right now any news about money is based on what candidates and their campaigns are willing to release.

Secretary of State Deb Markowitz, one of five Democratic gubernatorial candidates, held some kickoff events last week and her campaign staff report she raised about $25,000 from 117 donors.

Sen. Peter Shumlin, D-Windham, another of the Democratic five, is in the midst of a “charge the battery” fund drive. He wants to raise $20,000 in 20 days and reports raising nearly $8,000 with 15 days to go.

A campaign spokesperson for Sen. Doug Racine, D-Chittenden, said he hasn’t scheduled special fundraising events this month because of his hectic legislative schedule.

Sen. Susan Bartlett, D-Lamoille, said she, too, is a bit tied up writing a budget for state government. Her campaign manager said her fundraising is on track with the campaign's plan.

Matt Dunne, another of the Democratic candidates, reported Monday that Sarah Judd joined his campaign as finance director. Dunne said his gubernatorial campaign has raised more than the $100,000-plus he amassed for a 2006 primary challenge he faced in his run for lieutenant governor.

-- Nancy Remsen

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REVving up for new job

I can't help but feel sorry to see my friend and former colleague Sue Allen moving out of journalism, but I wish her well anyway.

Most recently she worked as a reporter covering Montpelier for the Times-Argus. She takes over as executive director of Renewable Energy Vermont, a nonprofit that
represents 300 energy companies, banks, law firms, colleges and others working in the renewable energy field.

She replaces Andrew Perchlik, who last year became director of the state's Clean Energy Development Fund.

- Terri Hallenbeck

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Making money decisions

Three House committees wrap up work on the bills that state government needs to operate after July 1 – the budget bill, the transportation budget bill and the capital project bill.

House Appropriations Committee Chairwoman Martha Heath, D-Westford, seemed confident Monday that her committee would recommend a budget that addressed the $150 million shortfall without decimating state services.

Heath gave the House Ways and Means Committee a sketch of the budget late last week. Here are some highlights about how the committee closes the gap:

*$15 million from changes in teacher retirement

*$38 million from structural changes through Challenges for Change process

*$9.2 million from changes in employee contract

*$20 million in redirected use of revenues proposed by Douglas administration

*$15 million carried forward in Medicaid

*$8 million anticipated from recertification of state psychiatric hospital

*$7 million in expected additional revenue from hospital provider tax

*$19 million in other changes that include $1 million from restructuring courts and $13.3 million from payments the state won’t have to make to Medicare

*and $10 million in cuts in human services.

That would leave about $9 million still to find. “We believe we will,” Heath said Monday.

Transportation Committee Chairman Patrick Brennan, R-Colchester, also reported being close to finished with the transportation project budget.

The committee had one recent surprise, he noted Monday. The panel found out it would have $3.5 million less than expected because the Appropriations Committee wasn’t going along with as big a reduction in the amount of transportation taxes supporting the Department of Public Safety as the Douglas administration recommended.

Brennan said the committee has found a potential solution – toll credits. Because the Lake Champlain Ferry is having a new boat built, there will be toll credits available that the state can use as its match for federal transportation dollars. The toll credits free up the state dollars needed to cover the public safety expenses the panel hadn’t counted on.

“I think everybody is OK with that,” Brennan said.

The Capital bill -- detailing how the state would spend $71.8 million in borrowed money -- could be voted out of committee on Wednesday, according to House Institutions Chairwoman Alice Emmons, D-Springfield.

Emmons said one of the expenses the bill will start to cover is the need for investments in rehabilitating the state office complex. The need is extensive, she said, noting there are code issues and roof problems.

The bill also provides $6.9 million to put toward the cost of the new state office building in Bennington. That, added to $8 million set aside last year, is enough to get the construction underway, Emmons said.

-- Nancy Remsen

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Update on the SOS race

What’s SOS? Shorthand for “Secretary of State.” With Deb Markowitz seeking higher office, the job is open. There’s some vigorous, under-the-radar campaigning going on.

Chris Roy, Republican candidate for secretary of state, reported Monday he had received an endorsement from former Lt. Gov. Barbara Snelling. Roy plans a fundraiser on March 25 in Barre. Check here for details.

What’s the Democratic challenger doing? Besides visiting lots of towns, Charles Merriman is revamping his Web site . Looks like his campaign will have a new color scheme – yellow and green.

There are two other people who have said they are seriously weighing runs for secretary of state, but neither has made it official. They are Democrat Jim Condos, a former senator, and Republican Jason Gibbs, commissioner of forest, parks and recreation.

-- Nancy Remsen

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Stirring the political pot

A couple of controversial bills are scheduled for debate and votes Tuesday morning – one in the House and another in the Senate.

The House will take up the Senate bill banning texting while driving, which the House Judiciary Committee voted unanimously to amend to include a host of other highway safety measures in a House-passed bill that the Senate has ignored.

Some of the extra provisions the House supported previously include a ban on cell phone use by young drivers and a restriction to hand-held phones for adults, nighttime driving restrictions for junior drivers and authorization for police to stop and cite drivers who aren’t obeying the state’s mandatory seat belt requirement.

The House and Senate have sparred on these issues repeatedly in recent years. Any debate on the House floor today could be about whether it’s worth going another round.

Meanwhile the Senate is scheduled to vote on a bill that would move the primary election from mid-September to the last Tuesday in August. The Senate already passed the change and the House has agreed, but rewrote the bill. The controversy here isn’t the Legislature’s position, but that of Gov. Jim Douglas. He disagrees. Will he veto the change?

-- Nancy Remsen

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Health care, anyone?

Down in D.C., health-care legislation is on the line. Vermont’s delegation is hoping the Senate bill passes the House this week, an outcome that is in question, with further details to be worked out in a reconciliation bill.

It could be that by week’s end, Rep. Peter Welch, D-Vt., has joined his House colleagues in voting for either the Senate plan or the reconciliation bill, but the timing is as much up in the air as the outcome.

What’s on the table is not quite what any of Vermont’s three-member delegation wanted, but it’s got enough to make them prefer it over nothing.

They like the idea that the plan would make health insurance available to more people: High-risk people would have access to lower-cost plans. Insurance companies would be barred from denying coverage for pre-existing conditions. Children could stay on their parents’ plans until age 26. Adults without coverage could shop for plans through an exchange, theoretically at lower prices. Many employers would be penalized for not providing insurance, but could receive tax credits to help pay for it.

"Congressman Welch is going to continue pushing for a bill that extends
coverage to all Americans, ends abusive health insurance company
practices and makes health coverage more affordable for families and
businesses,” Welch spokesman Paul Heintz said.

Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., is keen on the projection that this legislation would offer 74,000 more Vermonters health coverage, spokesman David Carle said. Leahy is also hoping the final version will institute rate reviews for sizable premium hikes, he said.

Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., has his eye on $12.5 billion for health centers and doctor training, which he expects to survive the process, spokesman Michael Briggs said. Researchers at George Washington University have estimated it would save $17 billion in Medicaid costs over five years by providing those patients with preventive rather than emergency care, Briggs said.

The plan doesn’t have the public option that all three members of Vermont’s delegation back. Sanders hasn’t given up hope for it, but also looks to an option in the Senate plan that would allow states to establish their own single-payer program starting in 2017, Briggs said. Sanders hopes to see that date changed to 2014, he said.

Welch and Leahy also pledge to keep working on mandatory prescription drug-price negotiations and a repeal of the insurance industry’s exemption from anti-trust laws.

- Terri Hallenbeck

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Health care at home

While Washington wiggles its way through health care, the debate goes on in Vermont too.

William Hsiao, a Harvard economist who specializes in health care, will speak to Senate and House health committees at 2 p.m. Thursday in Room 11 of the Statehouse. Hsiao helped design Taiwan’s universal health-care system, based on the Canadian system.

“Dr. Hsiao has the skills to redesign
our health care system and I am hopeful that legislation will be passed
this year that will begin that process,” said Senate President Pro Tempore Peter Shumlin, D-Windham, a candidate for governor.

In a November New York Times interview, Hsiao said, “You can have universal coverage and good quality health care while still managing to control costs. But you have to have a single-payer system to do it.” To see the interview, visit HERE.

Meanwhile, Sen. Doug Racine, D-Chittenden, another gubernatorial candidate, is drumming up support for his legislation to create a panel to come up with three detailed options for universal coverage. He asked supporters to sign on to the bill as “citizen co-sponsors” on his campaign Web site.

Before it can reach the Senate floor, Racine’s bill has to go to the Senate Appropriations Committee, where Chairwoman Susan Bartlett, D-Lamoille, is also a candidate for governor.

- Terri Hallenbeck



Starting Senate run

Chittenden State Senate candidate Mike Yantachka, a Democrat from Charlotte, will kick off his campaign with an event at 6 p.m. March 24 at the Outer Space Cafe on Flynn Avenue in Burlington.

He’s among those who will be competing in the six-seat district. Among those declining his invite on Facebook was fellow candidate Philip Baruth of Burlington, who begged off saying he had a class to teach at that time.

- Terri Hallenbeck



VY travels

A week ago Sunday, I was strolling down a sidewalk in southern California when a woman from Greenpeace approached and asked for our help in saving the whales. There was a whale festival going on in honor of gray whale migration season.

The conversation inevitably turned to where we were from. Before I knew it, pretty much my first conversation in California turned to Vermont Yankee.

“Oh, we just shut down the nuclear power plant there," she said. "Because of Greenpeace.”

To which I replied, “Sort of.”

As in, Greenpeace sort of was involved and the plant has sort of been shut down.

I didn't expect the whale woman to know all the details, any more than I have a clue about whales. It struck me, though, the way the word was spreading.

Greenpeace lobbied against Vermont Yankee, but one might argue that a number of other organizations were also involved and that Vermont Yankee itself played quite a role in the vote the Senate recently took not to support continued operation.

It's also very much still running. As irony would have it, I’d been there for a tour just two days earlier and stood in the control room while they powered it back up to 100 percent from running at 70-something percent for fuel maintenance.

Technically speaking, what the Senate did was vote not to allow the Public Service Board to rule on Vermont Yankee’s continued operation after March 2012. That vote could still be reversed or challenged.

The whale-saver might not have had all the nuclear power details down, but it goes to show you this story is migrating faster than a gray whale.

- Terri Hallenbeck




Birthday Bash math

Lots of comments have come in on the math surrounding Brian Dubie's birthday bash campaign fundraiser on Tuesday.

Here's the explanation.

He had 430 people come to the party. The charge to enter was $51 per head, in recognition of his new age.

However, people could choose to help "sponsor" the event by giving much more. There were four sponsorship levels between the maximum contribution allowed for the year -- $2000 and $250. More than 200 people contributed at one of the sponsorship levels. As a result, Corry Bliss, campaign manager, reports the total raised was $115,000.

-- Nancy Remsen

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Birthday bash raises $115,000 for Dubie

We don't get much information about the fundraising by the gubernatorial candidates and won't see their reports until summer.

Still, Lt. Gov. Brian Dubie, Republican candidate, reports today that his birthday bash Tuesday garnered $115,000 for his campaign.

In an email, his campaign staff report his $51 per head party attracted 430 people.

Dubie commented, "I am truly humbled by last night’s strong show of support for my campaign for governor. When I decided to have a birthday fundraiser I set the goal to raise $30,000 and sell 150 $51 tickets. To raise over $115,000 in one night and have 430 people buy tickets is beyond my expectations."

-- Nancy Remsen

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Welch and others call on Reid to act

Rep. Peter Welch, D-VT, and 32 other members of the House have sent a letter of complaint to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid asking him to do something about the "silent filibuster."

The group argues that silent filibusters bottle up legislation and prevent debate on important issues. From the House perspective, there are more than 200 important bills passed by the House but stuck in the Senate.

Check out the letter here.

Anybody think the rules of operation for the U.S. Senate need a rewrite? Anybody think it will happen?

-- Nancy Remsen

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Markowitz on campaign kickoff tour

These days candidates no longer campaign. They do tours.

Deb Markowitz, Democratic gubernatorial candidate, held a campaign kickoff event Monday in Barre and then set out on a loop around the state -- a two-day tour. To read an account of her kickoff event, go here.

Markowitz is one of five Democratic candidates vying for the party's nomination to run against -- presumably -- Republican Brian Dubie, who has also been on one long business tour this winter.

One line in Markowitz's speech Monday in Barre raised a question in my mind. She declared, "I'm not a professional politician."

Markowitz has held elected office for a dozen years. That's been her job. So what is the definition of a professional politician? Who is one and who isn't?

-- Nancy Remsen

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They're back

After a week away from the Statehouse, lawmakers return today, many with fresh insight about Vermonters’ views on pending budget decisions and other bills thanks to conversations with constituents.

Lawmakers will be greeted with unpleasant news today. State revenues have continued to decline – especially personal income receipts.

The weight of this bad financial news falls especially on the House Appropriations Committee, which must wrap up work on its budget bill in the next two weeks.

Recall that revenues for next year already were projected to fall short of expenditures by $150 million. While the Legislature and Douglas administration agreed on a way to find $38 million in savings, the House budget-writing committee now must put on the table its plan to address the remaining shortfall – and more if the new revenue shrinkage turns into a long-term trend.

Secretary of Administration Neale Lunderville said there is no way lawmakers can avoid spending cuts. In a statement accompanying the February revenue report, he warned, "Now is not the time to rely on one-time patches or tax increases, both of which will slow our recovery and speed an exodus of businesses and taxpayers from Vermont."

There won’t even be standing room in the House Appropriations Committee as representatives of interest groups crowd in to witness the decision-making this week and next. The gasps coming from the room will either be reaction to cuts or to lack of breathable air.

-- Nancy Remsen

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It's crossover

What’s that, you ask?

Each year, legislative leaders set a deadline for committees to complete work on bills they would like their counterparts in the other body to take up. The idea is to give roughly equal time for the House and Senate to review bills.

This year, the magic date is Friday. Of course, there are exceptions. The House gets a few more weeks on the money bills because the Senate works on these bills without having them in their possession.

One of the biggest bills moving this week to make the crossover deadline will be a judicial restructuring proposal that the House Judiciary Committee has labored over since the beginning of the session.

The House Education Committee expects to vote Friday on a bill that would give school districts new incentives to consider consolidation. Prior to the vote, members of the House and Senate education committees will hold a rescheduled (weather did in the first date) hearing Wednesday night to give the public a chance to weigh in on an array of consolidation proposals – including some that mandate shrinkage in the number of school districts.

There could be a few final decisions on legislation this week.

Senate President Pro Tempore Peter Shumlin, D-Windham, said the Senate, for example, could endorse the revised version of a bill moving the primary election to the last week of August. The Senate approved the change last year, but the House didn’t take up the bill until this session. The House recently endorsed the new primary date, but rewrote the bill – which means the Senate gets another bite at the apple.

The House seems poised to wrap up work on an $8 million job-creation bill the Senate already passed. It includes aid to farmers, help for Addison County businesses affected by the closure of the Champlain Bridge and job training money.

Lawmakers won’t act soon, however, on any bill addressing the bankrupt unemployment compensation fund. Despite a year and a half of discussion, lawmakers, the administration, workers and employers can’t agree on a remedy.

"Unemployment will need the committed attention of the speaker, governor, myself and the committee chairs to come up with a solution," Shumlin said.

"There are continuing conversations," said House Speaker Shap Smith, D-Morristown. "We’ve got to do something."

-- Nancy Remsen

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Quebec award for Douglas

Gov. Jim Douglas is headed to Quebec Wednesday for meetings to improve bilateral relations between this state and its neighbor to the North.

The schedule was full, but now it includes a ceremony Thursday at the National Assembly during which Douglas will be given the highest honor awarded by the government of Quebec — the Ordre national du Québec or, in English, the National Order of Quebec.

The award, when given to foreigners, recognizes loyal friendship and efforts that help build respect for the province.

Douglas will receive the "Officer’s Insignia." Do we now call him Sir Jim?

Douglas started building ties with Quebec shortly after he was elected governor.

"Since we both took office in 2003, it has been a great pleasure to work with Premier Charest on issues of mutual importance," Douglas said, listing examples such as border security, a celebration of shared history, trade and environmental proteciton. "Working closely with our neighbors to the north is critical. Not only do Vermonters have friends and family in Quebec, they are our largest trading partner and many Quebec-based businesses employ Vermonters."

Douglas is bringing several Cabinet officials, business leaders and Lt. Gov. Brian Dubie with him for meetings with their Quebec counterparts. Topics for the talks include how to promote local food products in the region, green energy and trade.

Also during the visit, officials will sign two agreements. One updates cooperation on cleaning up Lake Champlain and the other commits the state and province to work on food initiatives.

-- Nancy Remsen

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Happy Birthday Brian

Lt. Gov. Brian Dubie, Republican candidate for governor, celebrates his birthday tonight with a campaign fundraiser.

That explains the odd contribution amount — $51 per person to mark his new age.

-- Nancy Remsen



On tap for Vermont Yankee

Can a week go by without something happening that involves Vermont Yankee?

Not this week, at least.

Wednesday afternoon, the Public Service Board will hold a hearing on whether Entergy Nuclear Vermont Yankee should cease operating the nuclear plant until it finds and fixes the tritium leak.

The hearing will also consider whether there is cause to revoke the plant’s certificate of public good and whether the company should be penalized for the radioactive leaks.

Meanwhile, down at the plant, a "remotely operated vehicle" continues its probe of a tunnel and drainpipes that have been found to leak.

According to Monday’s dispatch from Entergy, "The inspection will allow engineers to determine the source for the small amount of leakage remaining internal to the tunnel and develop additional remediation steps that can be taken to completely eliminate the leak. As previously reported, water coming from the pipe is not reaching the environment. The water is being collected in a sump for processing through plant systems as designed."

Does it help Yankee's case before the board that there's been progress in identifying the cause of the leak?

— Nancy Remsen

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Britton calling

I apparently got the same call yesterday that Jon Margolis did. One of those long pauses when you answer the phone that tells you either nobody is on the other end or a telemarketer-type is. This pause was longer than usual, I'd say, and I would guess most people would hang up in the meantime, but I hung around for curiosity. I doubt the average person would have that much curiosity.

The recorded voice asked me to press one if I had a favorable opinion about Sen. Patrick Leahy, 2 if I had an unfavorable opinion. There was no third choice.

Next question: Would you vote for Patrick Leahy regardless of who ran against him? Really pushing for how many people would vote for Leahy no matter what. As Margolis suggests, perhaps so that opponent Len Britton can show supporters there are indeed people who might vote against Leahy.

Then: Did I have a favorable, unfavorable or no impression about Len Britton? This time, recipients were allowed to have no opinion.

The voice then declared the poll was paid for by Len Britton's campaign, the Republican running against Leahy.

- Terri Hallenbeck

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The pilot and politician

The Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association's Web site has an article on Republican Lt. Gov. Brian Dubie, the pilot and politician. You can read it HERE.

- Terri Hallenbeck




Politics and the VY vote

When this legislative session started in January, we knew the fact that the Senate contained four people running for governor and one for lieutenant governor would make for some interesting political theater. Last Wednesday might just have been the command performance.

The Senate’s vote on the future of the Vermont Yankee nuclear power plant was oozing with political undertones.

Scene 1:

Sen. Phil Scott, R-Washington, (candidate for lieutenant governor), started things off by questioning the Senate Rules Committee vote to allow the Yankee bill to reach the floor without ever meeting in person. Standing almost directly behind Scott in the audience was Mark Snelling (fellow Republican candidate for lieutenant governor).

Senate President Pro Tempore Peter Shumlin, D-Windham,(candidate for governor) polled the committee members and declared the approval unanimous. He claimed it was a common practice.

Under questioning from Scott, Sen. Kevin Mullin, R-Rutland, said he didn’t believe he gave his approval.

A recess was called so the senators could sort this out, at which Republican Lt. Gov. Brian Dubie, (candidate for governor) said, “We’ve got a problem.”

To which Shumlin responded, “You’re creating a problem.”

Back on the floor, Scott called it a “flawed process.”

Shumlin accused Scott waiting to raise the issue in public when news cameras were rolling.

Then Mullin backed down, suggesting he and Shumlin had misunderstood each other and that he would never vote by informal polling again.

“I don’t want anyone to think my colleague from Windham was trying to pull a fast one,” Mullin said, referring to Shumlin. That pretty much left Scott hanging out alone.

Scott would continue challenging the Yankee bill. In the end, he was one of four senators to vote in support of the plant, calling the vote “a blatant political maneuver.”

Afterward, Scott said, referring to his own moves, “It may be political suicide.”

His support of Vermont Yankee might help him in the Republican primary, but then there’s the general election.

Scene II:

Shumlin, meanwhile, had a more subtle clash with Sen. Susan Bartlett, D-Lamoille, (fellow candidate for governor).

A few days before the vote, Bartlett issued a statement saying that though she was against Vermont Yankee operation after 2012, Shumlin’s timing on the vote was “more political theater than making good public policy.”

Shumlin slapped back, telling Vermont Public Radio the next day, “I understand that politicians don't always want to go on record taking courageous positions but it's time to move ahead."

A couple days later on the Senate floor, Bartlett had her response, "This vote is not an act of courage. Education reform was an act of courage. Civil unions was an act of courage. Equal marriage was an act of courage. This is a no-brainer."

Scene III:

Dubie, who presides over the Senate but doesn’t vote except to break a tie and doesn’t engage in the debate, had plenty to say when we asked him afterward, most of it directed at Shumlin:
- The Senate had not considered all the implications of the vote, should not have voted now, and if he had had a vote it would have been in support of the plant, he said.
- He noted that the Senate Finance Committee, which sent the bill to the Senate, is all Democrats, by virtue of appointments Shumlin made. “There’s not a contrarion view on the Finance Committee,” he said.

- Terri Hallenbeck

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At least 14 towns are slated to weigh in on Vermont Yankee’s future at town meeting this year. Organizers of the anti-Yankee advisory resolution sought out towns that did not vote on the issue last year.

This year, resolutions are on the ballot in Sharon, Thetford, Cabot, Danville, Peacham, Bristol, Jamaica, Winooski, Moretown, Huntington, Montgomery, Cambridge, Waitsfield, and Brookfield. Residents in other towns could bring it up under other business from the floor.

In Woodstock on Saturday, a resolution to support the Senate’s vote last week came up on the floor and passed 20-11.

- Terri Hallenbeck




Word came out Friday about the Public Service Board's decision to hear the case for whether Vermont Yankee should be shut down until the leaking tritium is stopped. The board will hold an initial hearing at 1:30 p.m. March 10.

How common is it for a state regulator to ponder a nuclear shutdown? Not so common. Nuclear Regulatory Commission spokesman Neil Sheehan said he knows of no other similar entity in another state that has opened a case to consider closing a nuclear plant down.

Does the board have the authority to shut the plant down? In its order issued last week, the board asserted it does when it comes to economic and nonradiological-health-and-safety consequences.

"It appears indisputable that the leaksmay result in increased site contamination that could substantially increase decommissioning costs. Increased site contamination could also delay completion of the decommissioning process, which in turn could affect the future economic use of the site," the board said.

"Whether the board could order the shut down of Vermont Yankee in response to these concerns, or in response to environmental damage associated with the leaks, is less clear, and requires more extensive legal briefing by the parties. Even if we were ultimately to conclude that we were preempted from closing down the plant, however, there may be other non-preempted actions we could take to ameliorate economic and land-use impacts of the leaks."

- Terri Hallenbeck



Doyle poll

Sen. Bill Doyle’s annual Town Meeting Day poll is back with a list of timely questions for the masses.

Some of the topics he hits: Vermont Yankee’s continued operation, driving with cell phones, driving while texting, health insurance, broadband access, whether non-violent offenders should be jailed, how President Barack Obama is doing and whether the University of Vermont ought to bring back baseball and softball.

- Terri Hallenbeck

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Push for health care

The University of Vermont faculty union, United Academics, is hosting a forum on single-payer health care, 7-8:45 p.m. Wednesday, Memorial Lounge, Waterman Building,UVM. Their goal, they say, is to goose proposed legislation on the issue in Montpelier.

- Terri Hallenbeck

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D.C. doings

Rep. Peter Welch on Monday called for new campaign finance legislation in the wake of the Supreme Court’s decision.

Welch called for a constitutional amendment to clarify Congress’ authority to limit corporate campaign contributions. He also said he supports legislation to ban foreign companies, government contractors and recipients of the Troubled Asset Relief Program from spending money on elections; require company executives and top donors to appear in campaign ads; ban groups’ coordination with a candidate within 90 days of a primary election for House and Senate races and 120 days for a presidential race.

- Terri Hallenbeck

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