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Lawmakers adjourn, await veto

MONTPELIER — Lawmakers ended the legislative session early Friday morning, passing a state budget and other key bills, but with no accord reached with Gov. Phil Scott on the cost of teachers’ health care benefits, lawmakers will surely return next month for a veto session. House Speaker Mitzi Johnson, D-South Hero, and Senate President Pro Tem Tim Ashe, D-Chittenden, met with the Republican governor several times Thursday hoping to hammer out a deal. The meetings occurred with such frequency that rank-and-file lawmakers began to assume a deal was imminent. But the legislative leaders finally acknowledged Thursday evening that a deal was to remain elusive and set in motion the process required to complete the budget and other money bills without the governor’s approval for adjournment. Scott, who spoke to both chambers before they adjourned, reaffirmed his intention to veto the budget and a bill that sets property tax rates. Continue Reading →

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Unions oppose latest attempt to resolve teacher health care showdown

MONTPELIER — Democratic House Speaker Mitzi Johnson’s proposal to save on the cost of teachers’ health care plans appears to be growing on Gov. Phil Scott, but she received a lashing from unions Tuesday and may have trouble getting fellow Democrats on board. Democratic leaders in the Legislature and the Republican governor have been engaged in a stalemate for three weeks over a demand by Scott that teachers pay at least 20 percent of their health care premiums. The impasse has caused the Legislature to remain in session beyond the 18 weeks included in the state budget. Democratic leaders and Scott agree that savings can be achieved from changes to the health insurance plans offered to teachers by the Vermont Education Health Initiative. VEHI is offering new plans to all Vermont teachers beginning in January that have lower premium costs but higher out-of-pocket expenses. That change is driven by a provision in the federal Affordable Care Act that will tax high-end insurance plans that many teachers currently have. Continue Reading →

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Dems fend off push to alter teacher health care negotiations

MONTPELIER — The House and Senate are continuing to wrangle with crucial money bills as they aim to adjourn the first half of the legislative biennium Saturday. They have plenty of work left to do, however, and a showdown with Republican Gov. Phil Scott looms large at the end of this legislative session over his main priority for this year. Late Wednesday night, Democratic House Speaker Mitzi Johnson cast a rare vote to fend off a Republican-led amendment to fundamentally change the way teachers in the state negotiate their health care benefits. Johnson, D-South Hero, cast her vote after the House voted 74-73 to embrace a plan pushed by Scott to move negotiating for teachers’ health care benefits from the local school district level to one statewide contract. With her vote against the measure, the House was knotted at 74-74 — close, but not enough for the GOP and 16 Democrats who bucked their own leadership to secure a majority. Continue Reading →

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Thousands of Vermonters at risk after massive data breach

massive security breach at the Vermont Department of Labor may have compromised the Social Security numbers of tens of thousands of Vermonters, and Gov. Phil Scott says the state is contemplating legal action against the private vendor responsible for the breach. The breach affects a database maintained for the state of Vermont by a third-party vendor, called America’s Job Link Alliance. Scott says the state learned Wednesday that “the vendor now believes more than 180,000 accounts on Joblink were compromised.”

The breach could affect anyone who’s applied for unemployment since 2003, and has entered information into an online jobs database that people are required to use to demonstrate they’re seeking new employment. When people file for unemployment, they’re in most cases required by state and federal law to look for work. “And as part of their regular job search, they have to put their information into the database and they then can use that database to help them find jobs,” says Commissioner of Labor Lindsay Kurrle. Continue Reading →

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Vermont businesses may see decrease in costs, lawmakers say

MONTPELIER — Legislative leaders say Vermont businesses are expected to see a $28 million decrease in expenses this year from lower workers’ compensat ion and unemployment insurance costs. Senate President Pro Tem Tim Ashe, D-Chittenden, and House Speaker Mitzi Johnson, D-South Hero, said projections from the Vermont Department of Labor indicate businesses will see the significant decrease in their costs. The reprieve in unemployment insurance costs comes as the state recovers from the Great Recession when the number of unemployed Vermonters surged. “The really good news for business out there is that between 2016 and 2017, between workers’ comp and unemployment insurance, businesses within the state of Vermont will see a $28 million reduction in expenses, which is, I think, pretty exciting and good news for businesses,” Johnson said. The speaker said projections show a $ 1 2 . Continue Reading →

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Scott proposes level budget, seeks education mandates from Montpelier

Editor’s note: This story was updated at 6:15 p.m.

MONTPELIER — Republican Gov. Phil Scott has proposed a massive makeover of the state’s education system that focuses on students from pre-K through college and asks lawmakers to impose new conditions on local school districts to help achieve his vision. Scott, who was sworn in as governor earlier this month, delivered his first budget address to the Democratic-led Legislature Tuesday, laying out bold, controversial proposals that face long odds with lawmakers. The new governor is asking lawmakers to force teachers to pay at least 20 percent of their health care insurance premiums to bring them up to the level paid for by state employees. That will save the state $15 million. But facing down the Vermont National Education Association — the state’s largest labor union — is not likely something many Democrats, or even some Republicans, are likely relishing. Continue Reading →

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Judiciary, VSEA reach agreement

MONTPELIER — The Vermont Judiciary and the Vermont State Employees Association have reached a tentative agreement on a new labor contract after nearly a year of tense negotiations. The two sides announced the deal Wednesday, which still requires ratification by the VSEA’s judiciary bargaining unit. The two sides agreed not to release details on the proposed agreement until the 170-member bargaining unit backs it. The agreement, reached after about 11 months of negotiations, comes on the heels of a fact-finder’s report and even an attempt at mediation by the Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service. The Maine-based fact-finder, Michael Ryan, recommended that docket clerks and court officers receive an immediate wage review by a third party. Continue Reading →

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VSEA’s legislative committee backs Galbraith, Zuckerman

MONTPELIER — Democratic gubernatorial candidate Peter Galbraith and Sen. David Zuckerman, a Democratic candidate for lieutenant governor, have the early advantage in netting endorsements from the Vermont State Employees Association after the union’s legislative committee voted to recommend them to the Board of Trustees and the full membership. The union’s 23-member legislative committee voted Tuesday to recommend Galbraith, a former diplomat and state senator from Windham County, for governor in the Democratic primary over Matt Dunne and Sue Minter. Sen. David Zuckerman, who represents Chittenden County as a Progressive and Democrat, was selected by the panel for lieutenant governor over House Speaker Shap Smith and Burlington Rep. Kesha ram. The committee’s recommendation is the first step in the union’s new endorsement process. The VSEA’s full membership of about 5,500 state workers now has until June 6 to vote in a non-binding online straw poll, which will help the union’s Board of Trustees select candidates to be endorsed by the group, according to VSEA Executive Director Steve Howard. Continue Reading →

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Independent contractor bill gets new lease on life

MONTPELIER — A bill seeking to clarify who can be classified as an independent contractor by employers was recalled to the House floor Thursday by Democrats after they got wind of a Republican effort to do the same. The House Committee on Commerce and Economic Development passed the bill out of committee unanimously in March, but was it recommitted to the committee after House Speaker Shap Smith said the bill would face opposition on the House floor and had a slim chance of passing in the Senate. The issue has been brewing for several years, but legislation clarifying the difference between an employee and an independent contractor has never made it to the finish line. Representatives of labor and business groups have been unable to find common ground. On Thursday, Rep. Kurt Wright, R-Burlington, was preparing to make a motion to relieve the committee of the bill and return it to the House. Continue Reading →

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VSEA, Democratic candidates call for funding labor contract

MONTPELIER — The Vermont State Employees Association and the three Democratic candidates for governor are calling on lawmakers to fully fund a new labor contract for state workers recommended by the Vermont Labor Relations Board, but Democratic Gov. Peter Shumlin says it is too costly. The VSEA and the candidates — Matt Dunne, Sue Minter and Peter Galbraith — held a State House news conference Wednesday calling on the Legislature to include a 2 percent salary increase for state workers in the 2017 fiscal year state budget and a 2.25 percent increase in the 2018 fiscal year budget. That increase was recommended by the Vermont Labor Relations Board Tuesday in a 3 to 2 split decision over the Shumlin administration’s proposal for a 1 percent increase in 2017 and a 1.25 percent increase in 2018. VSEA President Dave Bellini said Wednesday the union has been seeking a fair contract through collective bargaining since last August that respects state employees. “You show respect and support by putting your money where your mouth is — funding our contracts, our retirements, making investments in safety for the hardworking Vermonters who are state employees,” he said. Continue Reading →

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