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Tuesday, May 26, 2020

Lawmakers Move to Sideline Scott From Vote-by-Mail Decision

Posted By on Tue, May 26, 2020 at 4:31 PM

Gov. Phil Scott (left) and Secretary of State Jim Condos - FILE
  • File
  • Gov. Phil Scott (left) and Secretary of State Jim Condos
Democratic lawmakers moved forward Tuesday with plans to strip Republican Gov. Phil Scott of a say in whether the November general election should be conducted largely by mail.

The Senate Government Operations Committee approved a bill that would remove Scott's power to decide how to conduct elections in 2020, leaving that authority solely with Secretary of State Jim Condos, a Democrat.

Condos and state elections officials have said they want to mail general election ballots to all registered voters to keep crowds small at the polls due to COVID-19 concerns. Health experts have raised the prospect of outbreaks in the fall.

“We just want to make certain that every Vermonter has the ability to vote safely in what will quite likely be a high-turnout election,” Chris Winters, deputy secretary of state, told the committee.

Scott has said he thinks the decision could wait until after the August 11 primary. Elections officials say there isn’t time to switch to mail-in voting by that date, but postcards will remind voters that they can request an absentee ballot. The governor would prefer to move toward restoring a sense of normalcy by holding a regular November election, if possible.

Elections officials have countered that the decision needs to be made now because mailing and printing contracts, voter education, and clerk training all need to commence to ensure the election goes smoothly.

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Saturday, May 23, 2020

House Appropriations Chair Kitty Toll Won't Seek Reelection

Posted By on Sat, May 23, 2020 at 8:00 AM

  • File: Jeb Wallace-Brodeur
  • Kitty Toll

Rep. Kitty Toll (D-Danville), the chair of the powerful House Appropriations Committee, announced Saturday that she will not seek reelection.

Her departure after 12 years in office will leave the House without one of its most experienced number-crunchers as it enters an era likely marked by economic scars caused by the pandemic.

In a statement, Toll said the decision was a difficult one and called  representing the residents of Cabot, Danville and Peacham in the Northeast Kingdom "one of the biggest honors of my life."

"We have experienced tumultuous economic times as well as a divided political landscape, and I am humbled by the trust my district has placed in me to help navigate these waters," Toll said.

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Friday, May 22, 2020

UVM, Burlington Plan 'Supportive Quarantine' Program for Returning Students

Posted By on Fri, May 22, 2020 at 5:43 PM

The University of Vermont and the state Department of Health are working with the Vermont National Guard to set up an on-campus testing site for students as they begin to return to Burlington on June 1.

Many off-campus leases begin that day, and the city and UVM are expecting students, a majority from out of state, to start streaming back into town. Officials and city residents have expressed concerns that those students could bring the coronavirus back with them.

Out-of-state students, like anyone returning to Vermont, must quarantine for 14 days — meaning stay on their property — before venturing out. Mayor Miro Weinberger said during a briefing Friday that, anticipating difficulties, the city will implement a "supportive quarantine" service for housebound students.

The program will also be available to other Burlington residents who return from out of state, such as second-home owners or snowbirds.

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Lawmakers to Consider Bypassing Scott to Switch to Mail-In Voting

Posted By on Fri, May 22, 2020 at 5:14 PM

  • Jeb Wallace-Brodeur
  • Gov. Phil Scott
Vermont lawmakers moved closer Friday to stripping Gov. Phil Scott of a say in whether the November general election should take place by mail-in voting.

Sen. Jeanette White (D-Windham), chair of the Senate Government Operations Committee, told colleagues Friday afternoon that since Scott and Secretary of State Jim Condos had not reached agreement on the issue, she planned to take up a bill Tuesday that would remove Scott from the equation.

“I’m not going to try to read anybody’s mind, but it seemed in the press conference as if the governor has actually invited us to do that,” White said.

White was referring to Scott's remarks earlier that morning. Asked by Seven Days about the maneuvering, the governor said, "If the legislature wants to take me out of it, that’s fine. I won’t stand in their way. They’re the ones who put me in to begin with.”

Lawmakers originally proposed giving Condos, a Democrat, the sole power to decide how elections should be safely conducted this year given health concerns about voters crowding polling places during a pandemic. In the interests of getting a bill passed quickly, lawmakers agreed to GOP demands that Scott, a Republican, share in the decision.

The compromise bill passed by lawmakers and signed by Scott on March 30 gives authority to the secretary of state, “in consultation and agreement with the Governor,” to make changes to 2020 elections for health and safety reasons.

White said she planned to take up a bill to simply remove the words "and agreement" from the existing law. She said the bill would be public before Tuesday and her committee would take testimony on it.

"I didn’t ask to be put in this position," Scott said at the presser. "The legislature’s the one that put me in this position to add my voice. If they expected a rubber stamp, they picked the wrong person, and maybe they should have just continued to put it in the hands of the secretary of state." 

Condos and Scott have been engaged in an increasingly tense standoff over the issue ever since the original law passed. Condos said there isn’t time to switch to mail-in voting for the August 11 primary, but it could be put in place for the November 3 general election — if preparations begin soon.

He and others argue that the best way to protect poll workers and voters from the coronavirus, which public health officials have said could flare up again in the fall, is to mail ballots to every registered voter in the state.

Voters would fill out their ballot, sign it under penalty of perjury and mail it back to their town clerks. Because of the scale of the mail-in voting proposed, the Secretary of State's Office would orchestrate the effort in conjunction with local clerks.

Voters would still have the ability to deliver their mail-in ballots to polling places on election day, but the goal of the effort is keep numbers at the polls as low as possible.

Scott has expressed concerns about the mail-in voting plan, arguing that the decision is premature. He has said he isn’t concerned about voter fraud. Rather, he argued the state should be working to return to normal, not to upend cherished institutions unnecessarily.

Democratic leaders and left-leaning groups like the Vermont Public Interest Research Group have come out strongly in favor of Condos’ plan. Meanwhile Vermont Republican Party chair Deb Billado has excoriated the plan as a liberal “power play” with great risk of fraud. Will Senning, the state’s director of elections and campaign finance, has called the fraud risk of mail-in ballots “infinitesimal.”

Condos has insisted that a decision needs to be made soon to allow elections officials to ink the requisite contracts with printing and mailing houses.

Senate President Pro Tempore Tim Ashe (D/P-Chittenden) has said it would be best if the two men could agree, but if they couldn't by this week the legislature needed to step in.

Even though the state has made excellent progress in containing COVID-19, Ashe favors moving forward with a mail-in process because experts have said there could be a resurgence of the virus as the economy reopens.

"'Let's say we learn that in September they’re expecting an October increase," Ashe said this week. "Well, it's going to be way too late at that point."

In the latest negotiations between Condos and Scott, Condos proposed an “off ramp” that would allow them to scrap mail-in voting in August if conditions improve. Scott countered by proposing that a five-member committee made up of elections, public health and local officials make the decision. 

Condos rejected that plan as abdicating the responsibility the legislature gave to them. “As the elected officials entrusted to make this decision, we need to lead,” Condos wrote.

Disclosure: Tim Ashe is the domestic partner of
Seven Days publisher and coeditor Paula Routly. Find our conflict-of-interest policy here:

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Scott Reopens More Businesses, Cancels Fairs and Festivals

Posted By on Fri, May 22, 2020 at 2:23 PM

Gov. Phil Scott watching Health Commissioner Mark Levine speak at Friday's briefing - JEB WALLACE-BRODEUR
  • Jeb Wallace-Brodeur
  • Gov. Phil Scott watching Health Commissioner Mark Levine speak at Friday's briefing
Vermont officials on Friday announced further steps to reopen the state's economy and health care system as part of the ongoing coronavirus recovery efforts.

But the good news was tempered by Gov. Phil Scott's order that all fairs and festivals be canceled "until further notice." Shortly after the governor's announcement, the Champlain Valley Exposition said it would cancel its annual 10-day fair, held each August in Essex Junction.

"This will be the first time in the history of the Champlain Valley Exposition that the Champlain Valley Fair will not occur," the organization said in a statement.

Scott, who outlined the latest turns of his metaphorical spigot during his regular press briefing Friday, said his goal is to reopen most businesses to 25 percent capacity by June 1.

"Then we can get on a path to all moving together in a very systematic way," he said.

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Thursday, May 21, 2020

Assistant Attorney General David Scherr Enters Senate Race

Posted By on Thu, May 21, 2020 at 5:11 PM

  • Courtesy of David Scherr
  • David Scherr
David Scherr, an assistant attorney general, is the latest candidate to announce a run in the six-seat Chittenden County state Senate district.

The 37-year-old Burlington resident and former public defender says he’s looking to bring his experience working for a fairer criminal justice system to the Statehouse. Scherr said in an interview that the skills he's developed in his criminal justice career will go a long way to help vulnerable Vermonters weather and recover from the pandemic.

“All of that experience and perspective and understanding of how people can really struggle in this state is exactly what we need in the legislature right now, maybe more than ever,” Scherr said.

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Wednesday, May 20, 2020

Homeless Will Return to North Beach Campground — In Tents

Posted By on Wed, May 20, 2020 at 8:11 PM

The campground bathhouse - FILE: JAMES BUCK
  • File: James Buck
  • The campground bathhouse
Burlington's North Beach Campground will again host a low-barrier homeless shelter, this time with a sanctioned tenting site.

ANEW Place will begin operating a 30-tent shelter on June 1, according to executive director Kevin Pounds. Guests had previously stayed there in leased camper-trailers.

The popular spot will otherwise be closed for camping this season, though pedestrians, cyclists and vehicles can still access the property, according to the Burlington Parks, Recreation and Waterfront Department. City officials did not immediately respond to an interview request.

The 137-site North Beach Campground draws nearly 30,000 visitors between May and October every year. Campsite reservations there accounted for more than $625,000 in revenue in 2018.
Pounds is grateful that the city has offered up the space.

"This is a unique situation," he said, adding, "The city has been very proactive in working with us to find solutions."

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Scott Proposes $400 Million Economic Relief Package

Posted By on Wed, May 20, 2020 at 3:15 PM

  • Gov. Phil Scott
Gov. Phil Scott on Wednesday proposed a $400 million economic relief package to help businesses hit hard during the coronavirus crisis.

Funded by Vermont's $1.25 billion share of the federal CARES Act, the first phase of the plan would allocate $310 million for "immediate relief ... to help businesses survive," Scott said at a press conference.

"I know there's too many small-business owners who are desperate right now," Scott said. "Family businesses that have been around for decades don't see a path out of the red. I know you're all scared, sad, and probably pretty angry."

The administration will detail how the remaining $90 million would be used in the coming weeks but hinted that it could include investments in broadband, housing and employee-training programs.

The plan is far from finalized: The House and Senate both have to sign off and could significantly revise the package before doing so.

"Hopefully they'll expedite this so that we can put it in the hands of Vermonters that need it right now," Scott said.

Scott's proposal would allocate $250 million for loans and grants to businesses, including:

  • $150 million in "restart grants" to the food, accommodations, retail, and agriculture sectors for fixed costs such as rent and mortgage payments
  • $80 million in "economic injury and disaster" grants and low- or no-interest loans for sectors not receiving restart grants
  • $20 million in loans and grants for small businesses and nonprofits with less than $1 million in revenues and five or fewer employees
Another $50 million would be distributed as cash payments to dairy farmers and processors. A $42 million slice would provide rental assistance for property owners whose tenants haven't been able to pay rent, and $8 million would create 250 housing units for homeless families.

The remaining $10 million would be spent on programs to help businesses apply for financial assistance and on marketing campaigns to encourage Vermonters to shop local.

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Thousands of Vermonters Flock to Food Distribution in Middlebury

Posted By and on Wed, May 20, 2020 at 2:38 PM

Angela Scalvo stretching her legs during the wait - JAMES BUCK
  • James Buck
  • Angela Scalvo stretching her legs during the wait
Updated at 5:18 p.m.

Another food giveaway — this time at the Middlebury State Airport — drew thousands of Vermonters who lined the approaching roads on Wednesday and waited hours for provisions.

Many in line said they had never before experienced food insecurity. The scope of this and other food assistance events have been unparalleled in Vermont's modern history.

"My daughter came out of the driveway to get in line at seven o'clock, and the line was already way down [Route] 116 and around the corner," said Jason Murray, who lives on Airport Road. "She got back probably around 10:45."

"They're doing a good job, though," he added.

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Scott Proposes 8 Percent Cut to Much of Vermont's State Budget

Posted By on Wed, May 20, 2020 at 12:14 AM

Finance Commissioner Adam Greshin and Gov. Phil Scott - FILE: JOHN WALTERS
  • File: John Walters
  • Finance Commissioner Adam Greshin and Gov. Phil Scott
Gov. Phil Scott's administration on Tuesday recommended wide-ranging cuts to state government next year in response to an expected decline in tax revenue.

In a budget proposal submitted to the House Appropriations Committee, the administration said that most agencies and departments should spend 8 percent less in the first quarter of the next fiscal year than they did this year.

"We're thinking that it's not going to be a major issue for any one department, but it will be, call it slight pain spread broadly," Scott's finance commissioner, Adam Greshin, told committee members Tuesday afternoon.

With the submission of its proposal to the legislature, the administration began the second of three budgeting processes taking place in a short period of time in response to the economic fallout of the coronavirus pandemic.

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