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Senate Committee Advances Drivers’ IDs for Migrants

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Brendan O’Neill, an advocate with the group Migrant Justice, says its work has paid off for the nearly 2,000 migrant workers on Vermont farms who’ve come to rely on their employers to get around the state.

By Kirk Carapezza

The Senate Transportation Committee on Friday advanced a bill that would grant driver identification cards to Vermont residents who are in this country illegally. The bill would allow people who can prove identity and residency in Vermont to get a “driving privilege card.”

Under the bill, the state would authorize the Department of Motor Vehicles to issue ID cards that would look different from a regular state license.

For migrant workers and their advocates, Friday’s vote comes after more than two years of lobbying in Montpelier.

“This is really a bill about fundamental human needs and rights as we see it,” said Brendan O’Neill, an advocate with the group Migrant Justice. O’Neill said the group’s work has paid off for the nearly 2,000 migrant workers on Vermont farms who’ve come to rely on their employers to get around the state. “Access to food, access to health care, access to Vermont life – without a license living and working in a rural state is very difficult and now this is going to really improve life for, particularly our immigrant community, but really all immigrant communities.”

Senate President John Campbell said one provision held up the committee’s decision on the bill. The proposed policy would have required migrant workers who want the privilege to drive to sign up for a costly, high-risk insurance. Opponents wanted to include that provision to protect against identification fraud, but Campbell said it was eliminated on a 4-to-1 vote.

“We dealt with that in the development of the card itself,” Campbell said, pointing out that the high-risk insurance is often given to those who have driven under the influence of alcohol.

Campbell said four out of the five senators on the committee considered that insurance to be discriminatory in this case. The bill now goes to the Senate floor. And if it reaches the governor’s desk for his signature this legislative session, Vermont would become the third state – after Washington State and New Mexico – that issues driver privilege cards to undocumented immigrants.

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The Senate also advanced on Friday a bill that would put regulations on the use of license plate readers.

In Vermont, law enforcement can hold information gathered by the automated devices attached to police cruisers and posted on the side of the road for criminal investigations indefinitely. This bill would set an 18-month limit, with the right to seek an extension.

Sen. Tim Ashe, P/D-Burlington, the lead sponsor of the bill, said the legislation, which passed the Senate unanimously, is a starting point. “There’s nothing magical about 18 months except that it was a comfort level for the Legislature,” Ashe explained on Friday. “As we learn more, we may come back and say it’s too long.” The Vermont Chapter of the ACLU had originally hoped to restrict data retention to 30 days.

House Budget Plan Passes Despite Opposition From Shumlin, GOP

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House Minority Leader Don Turner, R-Milton, explains to his colleagues why Republicans would withdraw their major budget amendment on Friday at the Statehouse.

By Kirk Carapezza

The House approved a budget on Friday that increases state spending by roughly 5 percent. The budget makes investments in such areas as higher education, low-income heating assistance and health care, while limiting how long someone can collect welfare benefits.

Republicans intended to offer an amendment that would have reduced spending growth. Money would have been put into reserves in anticipation of across-the-board federal spending cuts.

But the GOP plan was withdrawn after it was opposed by the House Appropriations Committee on a party-line vote.

“If it goes down in here by a 100-to-50 vote it’s not likely that any of these things in our proposal will ever be taken up,” House Minority Leader Don Turner, R-Milton, explained on the House floor shortly after the budget passed, 91-49. “So we thought it was in our best interest to withdraw it.”

Governor Peter Shumlin also opposes the House version of the budget. The governor wants to redirect $17 million from an earned income tax credit program for poor working Vermonters to subsidize child care, instead of raising broad based taxes. For months, the governor has staunchly defended his plan, saying that wealthy Vermonters will leave the state if their taxes go up. Some policy analysts dispute the governor’s claim. They argue that there’s no evidence to support his view.

Earlier in the week, Shumlin reiterated his disagreement with the House’s spending and revenue proposal. “I would go for the highest building that I could find to jump to make sure that I wasn’t here to see that tax package become law,” Shumlin told reporters.

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House Speaker Shap Smith announces the roll call on Friday.

But House Speaker Shap Smith on Friday seemed ready to talk the governor down from the fiscal ledge. Smith argued Shumlin handed House leaders a package that didn’t have any reserves in it and asked too much of the poor. Smith said he sees room for compromise.

 

“At the end of the day, everything has to be on the table for discussion and I would hope that all of the parties would be willing to come to the table instead of go to the roofs,” Smith said. “I’m not going to foreclose anything, but I have some real concerns about asking lower-income working Vermonters to put more money into the budget when you’re not asking those who make more money to do the same.”

The budget now goes to the Senate, where only a few lawmakers have indicated that they’re willing to consider the governor’s plan to reform Vermont’s earned income tax credit.

UPDATE: House Finalizes Budget; Senate Debates License Plate Readers

By Kirk Carapezza

The House voted 91-49 on Friday in favor of a state budge that increases  state spending by roughly 5 percent. The approval came after some amendments offered by Republican legislators were withdrawn. Still, as VPR’s Bob Kinzel reports, the bill sets up a major disagreement with Governor Peter Shumlin over the funding of child care programs.

VPR News: House Approves Budget With 5 Percent Increase

You can stream the House debate here.

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In the Senate, lawmakers are expected to pass a watered-down version of a bill that would regulate how long police authorities can retain information gathered by automated license plate readers. Civil rights advocates had hoped to limit retention to 30 days, but the bill before the Senate today would permit the information to be held for 18 months. Sen. John Campbell has proposed an amendment that would allow law enforcement to seek an extension.

It also appears the Vermont Senate is poised to restrict fire retardant chemicals in commercial products. Lawmakers have been trying this week to strike a deal between the business community and environmentalists.

House Bill Would Decriminalize Possession Of Small Amounts Of Marijuana

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Department of Public Safety Commissioner Keith Flynn, left, asks Vermont State Police Lieutenant Matthew Birmingham to display for lawmakers the difference between one and two ounces of marijuana.

By Kirk Carapezza

For the first time this legislative session, the subject of decriminalizing small amounts of marijuana has been before a key Vermont House Committee. The House Judiciary Committee heard testimony this morning on a bill that would replace criminal penalties with a $100 fine for those found carrying less than two ounces of marijuana.

Rep. Chris Pearson, P-Burlington, is a lead sponsor of the bill. He told the Committee it would free up police to enforce more serious crimes.

Commissioner of Public Safety Keith Flynn said he agrees with Pearson, though he’d like to reduce the amount from two ounces to one and make sure the measure allowed search and seizure. To prove his point, Flynn brought two bags of marijuana to display for lawmakers the difference between one and two ounces of pot.

Some Committee members raised concerns about the message the legislation might send to teenagers.

Decriminalizing marijuana possession was once considered one of the marquee issues of the session, but it has taken a back seat to the budget, taxes and renewable energy.

It’s a topic that has been moving quickly through the country, including neighboring New Hampshire, where House lawmakers last week passed legislation decriminalizing the possession of small amounts of marijuana for the fourth time in five years.

VPR News: House Committee Appears Set To Approve Marijuana Decriminalization

UPDATE: House Advances Shoreland Protection Bill, Turns To Taxes

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Houses line the shore of Woodbury Lake in Woodbury. (AP/Toby Talbot)

By Kirk Carapezza

The Vermont House takes up a bill that would establish lake shoreland protection standards. Advocates say the bill would preserve the ecosystem and is needed to slow down and filter polluting run-off. They say the bill has been reworked to address property owners’ concerns by saying shorelands of the state owned by private citizens will remain private property.

UPDATE 4:45 p.m.: The House has advanced the bill, but The Associated Press reports that environmental groups say the measure has been significantly watered down:

Jake Brown of the Vermont Natural Resources Council is calling the House version weak, and says he hopes the Senate can strengthen it.

Rep. Kate Webb, a Shelburne Democrat and a leading sponsor of the bill, says it went through 12 drafts as attempts were made to compromise with municipalities and property rights advocates.

The bill originally called for new restrictions on development within 100 feet of the water’s edge on Vermont lakes, and for preservation of most vegetation along the shore.

Now it calls for a permit for building within 250 feet of the water.

This afternoon, the House will consider a $26 million tax package that would include a half percent increase on rooms and meals. It would also apply the sales tax to soda, candy, bottled water and clothing costing more than $110. There are currently no amendments to the bill, but some could arise on the floor – including one that would support a tax on sugar-sweetened beverages. The package would also make changes to the income tax in 2015, putting a cap on certain itemized deductions to raise an additional $19 million.

The Vermont Judiciary Committee is preparing to take up a bill on Thursday that would replace criminal penalties with a $100 fine for those caught carrying less than two ounces of marijuana. Rep. Chris Pearson, P-Burlington, is sponsoring the bill that would decriminalize growing a small number of marijuana plants. Pearson gets a hearing before the committee tomorrow morning. Commissioner of Public Safety Keith Flynn , who’s been lukewarm on the idea, is also set to testify before lawmakers.

In the Senate, after a long day deliberating renewable energy projects, a bill that aims to regulate how long police authorities can retain information gathered by automated license plate readers is on the calendar. As proposed, the bill would require information be retained for only 18 months after it is collected:

“The Department of Public Safety shall establish a review process to ensure that information obtained through use of [automated license plate readers] systems is used only for the purposes permitted by this section. The Department shall report the results of this review annually on or before January 15 to the Senate and House Committees on Judiciary and on Transportation.”

House Committee Approves Budget That Would Limit Welfare

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Rep. Martha Heath, D-Westford, chairwoman of the House Appropriations Committee, supports a plan to cap welfare benefits at five years.

By Kirk Carapezza

The Vermont House is preparing to debate the budget and a number of new tax proposals this week, and House leaders are already trying to line up votes for a $1.3 billion plan that includes a contentious bid to cap welfare benefits.

Since national welfare reform in the 1990s, Vermont hasn’t limited how long someone can collect benefits. But the budget before the House this week would set time limits for the program known as Reach Up.

“When welfare reform happened, people were very concerned with the changes that came with it and I think they probably didn’t want a time limit,” said Rep. Martha Heath, D-Westford, chairwoman of the House Appropriations Committee, which proposed a five-year limit on welfare benefits – a move that, Heath admits, could strain the state’s social service budget.

“We’d rather have people being served in other systems than in a program that is designed to get people to work,” Heath argued. “Thirty-five other states have that limit and other states have limits that are less than 60 months. So I don’t find it arbitrary.”

Advocates for the poor strongly disagree, saying without additional support the state can’t afford to cap welfare benefits.

“The Reach Up program works and arbitrary time limits don’t,” said Chris Curtis, a staff attorney with Vermont Legal Aid. Curtis said the proposal contradicts evidence from other states like Maine, which have recently restricted welfare benefits, that shows the cost to working families could be severe.

“Homelessness, family destabilization, economic destabilization and the consequences to budgets are really harsh,” Curtis said. “In Maine, they have skyrocketing costs to their general assistance program. We’re already maxed out.”

House Speaker Shap Smith, who supports capping Reach Up, said the House budget spends less than Governor Peter Shumlin proposed and a companion tax bill would raise less money. But Smith said the House plan leaves more money in reserves in case there are additional federal cuts.

“We were trying to make investments that make sense but recognize that we will face further downgrades from the federal government,” Smith said. “We need to face that fact and understand that with the investment that we’re going to make we may be bearing a greater burden for it over time.”

The House budget would also invest in higher education, health care, lower income heating assistance and child care.

It comes up for a full debate on Thursday and Friday.

VPR News: House Budget Would Cap Welfare Benefits

Senators Modify Renewable Energy Bill; House Takes Up Shoreline Protection

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Sen. David Zuckerman, P-Chittenden, reviews the energy and wind bill on the Senate floor in Montpelier.

By Kirk Carapezza

In what is seen as a major victory for wind proponents, the Vermont Senate has amended a bill that would have established a new, more rigid process for siting energy projects.

The amendment, which passed 16-14, effectively strips the legislation of its major policy goal: to grant local control over energy development, specifically ridgeline wind projects.

House lawmakers will debate a bill this week that would establish lake shoreland protection standards. They will also consider new taxes proposed by the Ways and Means Committee, including a half percent tax increase on rooms and meals.

On Monday, the House Appropriations Committee approved Governor Peter Shumlin’s plan to cap welfare benefits, known as Reach Up, at five years. Last year, the Department of Children and Families issued a report recommending against doing exactly that because the human and economic costs would be too high.

The House is set to debate the proposal when it considers a $1.3 billion budget package on Thursday and Friday.

All A Matter Of Timing

By Amy Kolb Noyes

The Town of Lincoln has scheduled a special town meeting to ratify the results from Town Meeting Day earlier this month. And the following day a special election will be held to follow up on a Town Meeting Day decision.

The special town meeting is necessary because Vermont law says the annual town report must be distributed to voters at least ten days prior to town meeting, which was not the case in Lincoln this year. The following notice has been posted on the town’s website:

“Because the Town Report did not arrive in residents’ hands until quite late, both the Town and the Lincoln School District have warned articles to ratify the results at a meeting on May 13 in Burnham Hall.”

Below is the article on which the town will be voting. There will also be a vote on a similar school district article.

“Shall the action taken at the meeting of the Town of Lincoln on March 4, 2013, at 6:00 pm, in spite of the fact that the auditors’ report did not arrive on time, and any act or action of the municipal officers or agents pursuant thereto, be readopted, ratified and confirmed. [17 V.S.A. 2662]“

The next day, May 14, Lincoln voters will go to the polls to elect two new select board members. On Town Meeting Day Lincoln voted to expand its select board from three to five members. Now the town is encouraging residents to step up and run for office. However, due to the timing issues from back in February, the town website states new board members will only serve for about ten months.

These two additional select board members will each serve for a term of one year. However, for the first two elected, their terms will expire on the date of our annual town meeting in March 2014, which means that they will serve for only about 10 months until they choose to either run for re-election or not.

Interested candidates must submit a petition with at least 11 signatures to the Town Clerk no later than Monday, April 8.

Work Resumes On St. Albans Streetscape

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By Amy Kolb Noyes

Construction work has resumed in downtown St. Albans. The Downtown Streetscape Project began last fall with the east side of Main Street, between Congress and Bank Streets. This construction season work will be completed on the west side, between Kingman and Hudson Streets. The entire project is scheduled to be completed in September.

Work got under way Monday morning, with construction crews taking down old trees, preparing to remove sidewalks, and digging to access utilities.

“We’ve been making contacts with businesses and tenants along the project, and we think everyone is ready to weather the storm of construction and look forward to the final product,” stated Chip Sawyer, the city’s director of planning & development. “It has people pretty excited.”

When the project is complete, St. Albans’ downtown will have new sidewalks, crosswalks, streetlights, trees, trash/recycling bins, bike racks, and stone benches. The project also includes new water, sewer and stormwater utilities, and a traffic signal at Fairfield, Lake and Main Streets will be replaced.

“This will be a significant improvement for downtown,” said City Manager Dominic Cloud.  “Downtown Main Street will have a brand new look, adding marketability to our businesses and buildings, our underground utilities will have a much longer useful life, and our busiest intersection will be much better for traffic and pedestrians.”

The total cost of the Downtown Streetscape Project is $3 million, with roughly $2.1 million provided by federal grants.

“This is the largest single public investment in downtown in decades and it is more than worth it,” said Sawyer.

Sawyer added downtown businesses and offices will remain open during the project.  Two-way traffic will be maintained on Main Street, until the paving happens in the fall.  Some parking will be lost temporarily during the construction, so the city will be allowing 2 ½ hour parking without a permit in the parking lot and behind City Hall.