Senate Panel Expected to Authorize Drivers’ Identification for Migrants

Immigrant Licenses

People hold signs during a committee hearing last year 2012 in Montpelier. A special Vermont legislative panel looked into whether immigrants working on Vermont dairy farms should be allowed to obtain drivers’ licenses or non-driver identification cards. (AP/Toby Talbot)

By Kirk Carapezza

The Senate Transportation Committee expects to recommend a bill as early as Wednesday that would grant driver identification cards to Vermont residents who are in the country illegally. And committee members say they’re preparing to take a lot of heat for the bill.

The measure would authorize the Department of Motor Vehicles to issue the ID cards, which would look different from a regular state license. The committee will take up the legislation again Wednesday morning, and could vote to send it to the full Senate.

As the country continues to debate broad issues surrounding undocumented immigrants, a lot of people and agencies in Vermont have come out in favor of the bill, including Gov. Peter Shumlin.

“I really want to see the bill for undocumented workers pass this session,” Shumlin told reporters last week. “It’s no secret that this nation has an immigration policy that leaves a lot to be desired. And it’s no secret that Vermont farmers can’t get their product to market without the help of guest laborers.”

“We’ve made it so that it wouldn’t ever be used as a federal ID,” Shumlin added. “It’s very clearly marked to be different from other drivers’ licenses that Vermont residents use.”

Migrant farm workers and their supporters have been lobbying for this bill for more than two years. “Life for us – for myself and all the farm worker communities living in a rural state without a driver’s license – is very difficult,” said Danilo Lopez, a spokesman for the group Migrant Justice. Lopez and other migrant advocates have been at the Statehouse for much of this legislative session to show their support.

“We always find ourselves depending on other people, whether that’s employers or even sometimes people who charge us really high prices so that we can get around and move around with basic freedom,” he said.

Lopez said the IDs would allow the migrant community the opportunity to live with more self-respect in Vermont. He sees the drivers’ identification card as much more than a piece of plastic. “For us it represents dignity and hard work that we’ve done here on this [legislation] and an improvement for the lives of our whole community.”

But some critics of the bill remain concerned about migrant workers’ use of the Vermont ID in other states and for federal identification.

“On any of these folks it’s not always easy to track them,” said Sen. Peg Flory, R-Rutland, who has called for stringent rules designed to preserve the integrity of the Vermont license as a form of identification. “If I go with my Vermont license and I move to New York, I want to make sure the state of New York will honor my Vermont license.”

Sen. Rich Westman, R-Lamoille, who supports the bill, said it’s a very contentious issue on both sides of the debate. “I have heard from a fair number of people in my area who say we shouldn’t be giving [migrant workers] preferential treatment,” Westman said in a phone interview. “We are going to take some heat.”

Members of the Senate Transportation Committee tell VPR it’s likely they will vote out the bill Wednesday.

Read the bill here.

House Advances Housekeeping Health Bill

VPR Staff

Lawmakers face a long list of bills that are ready for debate by the full House and Senate. That’s because a key deadline passed last week that required committees to complete work on bills that they want to be addressed this year.

And that’s how the House found itself tied up on the floor this afternoon. A “housekeeping bill” that’s designed to make technical changes to the health care exchanges that will launch next year has become a forum for a much larger debate.

On a voice vote, the House advanced a bill that would repeal the state’s existing health insurance programs, including Catamount Health. The bill’s lead sponsor Rep. Mike Fisher, D-Lincoln, said the measure would update state law so it conforms to the federal Affordable Care Act known as Obamacare.

“I really think that this bill is more of a technical corrections to conform with federal law,”  said Fisher, fending off criticism that the new health care exchange won’t control costs.

But Republicans repeatedly pressed Fisher and other majority Democrats for more information on how beneficiaries will be helped. Democrats said that’s a question for later, when the House debates the full budget.

Read the bill here.

Flinty New Englanders Take Late-Season Storm In Stride

SpringSnow!

Shopkeepers in Montpelier took in their spring signage as a late-season winter storm blanketed the region with fluffy, light snow.

By Kirk Carapezza

A winter storm warming is now posted for much of New England. Several inches of snow had already accumulated on the ground by the time residents in Vermont rolled out of bed Tuesday.

The storm moved across New England in the early morning hours, blasting fluffy, light snow on roads and rooftops, with the highest accumulation – 14 to 18 inches – expected to fall along the spine of the Green Mountains in the center of the state.

Flinty New Englanders accustomed to early spring storms woke up, grabbed their shovels and began to dig out. In Montpelier, the day before spring officially begins, Rodney Dimick of Marshfield took it all in stride.

“I’d rather see spring, but it’s not the biggest storm we’ve seen so you get used to it,” Dimick said, his hands turning red as he heaved snow from the sidewalk.

On State Street, shopkeepers took in their colorful spring signage as forecasters predicted snow would continue to fall across northern New England throughout the day.

School Closings

Eye on the Sky forecast

Road Conditions

Smith Says Lawmakers Need to Scale Back Spending

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House Speaker Shap Smith talks to reporters at the Statehouse on Monday.

VPR Staff

House Speaker Shap Smith says a tight state budget means lawmakers will have to scale back Gov. Peter Shumlin’s spending priorities.

The governor wants to increase child care subsidies by using $17 million now spent on a tax credit for working Vermonters. Smith says that idea lacks support in the House.

And the Speaker says other spending proposals, such as a new thermal energy efficiency program, will have to be reduced to reflect budget realities.

We are not going to be able make the same investments that the governor has proposed,” Smith explained Monday. “That’s not because we disagree with the governor. I think we share the goals that he has. We just have a different view of the budget eight weeks after he proposed it.”

Smith’s priorities for the next few weeks include an equal pay for equal work bill that would end wage disparities for women, and a transportation bill that would fund repairs to roads and bridges. Smith told lawmakers Tuesday morning that they will take up that bill, which would phase in about $26 million in new gas tax revenues over two years, on Wednesday.

All this week, the House Ways and Means Committee is exploring ways to raise additional revenues, including an income tax.

On a voice vote Tuesday, the House passed a bill that would require out-of-state companies that offer health coverage to the spouses of opposite-sex married couples to provide the same benefits to same-sex couples.

The full senate is expected to debate later this week a controversial bill that would subject renewable energy projects to more regulation. Most mainstream environmental groups oppose the legislation, saying it presents unnecessary hurdles to clean energy projects.

On Wednesday, the Senate Transportation Committee will vote on legislation that would make migrant workers eligible for special licenses to drive a vehicle. As the country continues to debate broad issues surrounding undocumented immigrants, the panel is widely expected to approve the legislation. Some skeptics, however, are worried about preserving the integrity of Vermont’s license as a form of identification.

Listen to VPR’s Ross Sneyd talk with Vermont Edition about the “crossover deadline” in the Vermont Legislature here.

Shumlin Sticks to His Budget Proposals

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Gov. Peter Shumlin speaks to reporters at the Statehouse on Thursday.

By Kirk Carapezza

We’re quickly approaching the crossover point for this legislative session, and Governor Peter Shumlin is not backing down from his spending and revenue proposals.

This week, Shumlin has been meeting with Senate and House leaders behind closed doors. It’s part of an effort to see if there’s any way the Legislature can find some common ground on the state budget.

In and out of committee, Senate and House leaders seem to agree: there are serious challenges ahead as they debate the governor’s plan to fund early childcare and a variety of energy programs.

House Speaker Shap Smith admits many of his colleagues strongly disagree with the governor’s funding schemes – specifically moving $17 million out of the state’s Earned Income Tax Credit to pay for childcare subsidies.

“If we want to move forward with some of these investments I think it’s important for us to try to find some other way that we can pay for them if we don’t like the way the governor has proposed,” Smith said.

When asked whether he’s ready to compromise on his proposals, however, Shumlin won’t identify those areas where there could be some give-and-take – at least not yet.

“Well, you know, if I answered that question I’d be a dumb governor,” Shumlin said on Thursday. Instead, the Governor is insisting that lawmakers approve his budget plan, which doesn’t increase the sales tax, income tax or meals and rooms tax.

“I understand that they’re going to have different ideas, but I would argue: judge us by what we sign at the end of the session,” Shumlin said. “This is tough stuff.”

Tough stuff, but lawmakers say the governor may be forgetting that there’s some diplomacy required to strike a deal. Sen. Richard Westman, R- Lamoille, and the Senate Transportation Committee have been debating a new gas tax proposed by the Shumlin administration to fund the state’s transportation infrastructure.

“Certainly the proposals are not going to look like the way that the governor proposed,” Westman said. “I think it will look very different when the fuel tax piece leaves transportation in the Senate.”

Whether it’s a fuel tax or cutting the Earned Income Tax Credit, Senate and House leaders say it’s time for the governor to either make concessions or introduce new revenue sources.

Town Meeting Wrap-up: Part III

By Amy Kolb Noyes

Prior to Vermont’s 2013 town meetings, VPR News tweeted some interesting items found in the various warnings. Since Town Meeting Day we’ve been following up on and tweeting those results. Find them on Twitter using #PublicPost or follow Amy Kolb Noyes on Twitter. Here are the latest, in case you missed them:

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Three Towns Weigh In On Rights Of Nature

By Amy Kolb Noyes

Strafford resident Steve Marx thinks nature deserves the same rights afforded to people and, in light of the Citizens United Supreme Court case, corporations. And he aims to change the Vermont Constitution to guarantee those rights. With the help of the Vermont Law Schoolʼs Environmental Law Center, the Earth Law Center and others, Marx  drafted a proposed “rights of nature” article that was considered at town meetings in Strafford, Thetford and Norwich.

The article called for the towns to petition the state for an amendment to the Vermont Constitution that would “recognize in the law the natural, inherent and inalienable rights of forests, natural areas, waterways, and fish and wildlife populations of Vermont to exist, thrive and evolve.”

Marx argued, “People have rights, corporations have rights, and nature should have rights as well.” He said he does not envision the amendment would prohibit logging or hunting, but would ensure that natural resources are managed in a sustainable and ecological manner.

Norwich voters passed the article by Australian ballot, 689-284. In Thetford, Marx said, there was initially a tie vote on the floor of town meeting, but one person left and the item lost by a single vote in the second round.

Voters in Strafford amended the original article and passed it on a voice vote. The language that appeared on the town meeting warning was shortened in response to concerns that the article as originally written might open the door for expensive litigation. The article as passed reads:

To see if the voters of the Town of Strafford will vote to petition, alone or with other communities, the passage of the following amendment to the Constitution of the State of Vermont:

Chapter1, Article 22 (Rights of Nature). That the natural environment of Vermont, including its forests, natural areas, surface and ground waters, and fish and wildlife populations, has certain natural, inherent and unalienable rights to clean water and air.


The language that was trimmed went on to state, “…to health uncompromised by anthropogenic substances damaging to the systems of life and to flourishing, connected habitats which support the well‐being of the flora and fauna of Vermont. Every person in this state shall have recourse to the laws for all violations of this article, with damages recurring in full to the injured environmental system to ensure its prompt restoration.”

Marx was unphased by the change saying, “The amendment doesn’t matter because the Legislature will do what they want once they get it.”

Vt. Chamber of Commerce Opposes Paid Leave Bill

By Kirk Carapezza

The Vermont Chamber of Commerce says a bill in the House that would guarantee paid sick days for Vermont workers goes too far.

If the measure were approved, workers would gain one hour of paid leave for every 30 hours worked up to 56 total hours – or seven days – each year.

But Jessica Gingras, the government affairs program manager with the Vermont Chamber of Commerce, says many businesses in Vermont do not believe the law is necessary.

“Most of our members – just in conversation –have some type of paid time off policy,” Gingras explained. “Whether that is called paid sick leave or not is really up to the employer.”

“Our members think that this should be handled on a case-by-case, employer-by-employer basis,” Gingras said. “We have a lot of unique sectors in Vermont. We have a huge tourism industry. The time off policy in a one- or two-person shop is going to be very different from an employer with 50 employees.”

Supporters, however, say state-sanctioned paid sick days are a fundamental right for workers. Dan Barlow, a public policy manager with the Vermont Businesses for Social Responsibility, says families are facing the possibility of debt or bankruptcy without a safety net that includes paid leave for employees.

“Family dynamics have changed, the workforce has changed over many years, but for the most part our policies and regulations really haven’t,” Barlow said.

Earlier: Kunin Pushes for Paid Sick Leave Legislation

National Designation to Preserve Wild & Scenic Rivers

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By Amy Kolb Noyes

The National Wild and Scenic Rivers System was created by Congress 45 years ago through the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act.The law is intended to protect rivers, or river segments with “outstanding natural, cultural, and recreational values in a free-flowing condition for the enjoyment of present and future generations.”

In 2009, a group of northern Vermont residents formed The Wild & Scenic River Study Committee to evaluate Wild and Scenic Designation along the upper Missisquoi and Trout Rivers. According to committee, the Upper Missisquoi River and the Trout River are the first two rivers in Vermont to be considered for inclusion under the National Wild and Scenic Rivers Act.

The sections of river in question travel through ten communities: Berkshire, Town of Enosburgh, Village of Enosburg Falls, Jay, Lowell, Montgomery, Richford, Town of Troy, Village of North Troy and Westfield. This Town Meeting Day, an article appeared in the warning of each of those towns, with the exception of Jay, asking voters to support petitioning Congress to include the Upper Missisquoi and Trout Rivers as National Wild and Scenic Rivers “with the understanding that such designation would be based on the locally-developed rivers Management Plan and would not involve federal acquisition or management of lands.”

Only Lowell voted against supporting the designation. The Jay Select Board voted against including the article on the town meeting warning, primarily because Jay is only home to a tributary to the Upper Missisquoi.

The Wild & Scenic River Study Committee will discuss next steps at a meeting in Richford on Thursday, March 21.

F-35 Opponents Herald Leahy Letter As Major “U Turn”

By Kirk Carapezza

Some of the opponents of an Air Force proposal to base the next generation F-35 fighter jet in Vermont are sincerely hoping a letter sent by Sen. Patrick Leahy on Tuesday might indicate a striking shift in his views on the Pentagon’s program.

As a senior member of the Senate Appropriations Committee, Leahy has been a major proponent for South Burlington being considered for the basing of the F-35 despite noise concerns raised in the Air Force’s draft Environmental Impact Statement.

In a letter responding to South Burlington resident Chris Hurd, a residential real estate agent who staunchly opposes the F-35, Leahy says the Joint Fighter program is a “textbook example of how not to buy military equipment.” Projected to cost nearly $400 billion, the F-35 is already the world’s most expensive weapon system and has been delayed repeatedly for technical problems.

“I believe the F-35 program is approaching a point where the military services and a majority of Congress will recognize that the jet is just too costly to proceed with purchases at today’s planned levels,” Leahy writes, adding that the Pentagon may opt to reduce the total number of F-35s that it plans to buy. “I do not believe, because of the huge sums taxpayers have already invested and because the F-35 is our only next-generation aircraft presently in development, that a majority of Congress or military leaders will support terminating the program entirely.”

Hurd and other F-35 critics in Vermont said Tuesday Leahy’s language marks a major change in his previous stance.

“Senator Leahy has been a leading proponent of the most expensive military project in United States history – the F35,” Hurd said. “He has never come out against the F-35 until today.”

Leahy’s office, however, said the letter doesn’t present a new position on the Pentagon’s mismanagement of the overall program. In fact, spokesman David Carle explained the correspondence reflects Leahy’s “long-held” views.

“For years he has been concerned about management of the program, which has been rife with development and procurement problems,” Carle said. “He has not backed away from strenuous oversight of wasteful spending in the overall program just because he supports F-35 basing in Vermont.”

Leahy, Sen. Bernie Sanders, Gov. Peter Shumlin, and Congressman Peter Welch have maintained that the question of whether the Pentagon buys the F-35 is separate from where it will be based.

VPR News: For Vt. Delegation, Little Political Risk In Defending F-35 Program

EarlierShumlin Says F-35 Is Not Much Louder Than F-16