House budget plan reduces gap to $18 million

MONTPELIER — House Speaker Mitzi Johnson and the chairwoman of the House Appropriations Committee say they have found ways to reduce the state’s projected budget from $72 million to about $18 million, but many tough decisions must still be made to bring the 2018 fiscal year budget into balance. Johnson, D-South Hero, and Rep. Kitty Toll, D-Danville, briefed reporters on the status of their budget work Friday as lawmakers prepared for the annual week-long Town Meeting Day break. Republican Gov. Phil Scott’s proposed budget called for increased spending in early and higher education. It called for funding the increase by moving some general fund obligations to the education fund, level-funding local school district budgets and requiring teachers to pay at least 20 percent of their health care premiums.

But the governor’s education proposals were rejected almost immediately by the Democratic-led Legislature. Toll said her committee has been “really slugging it out” during the first two months of the legislative session and has essentially shelved the governor’s entire budget proposal and is working off of the current budget to craft the 2018 fiscal year spending plan. Continue Reading →

Vermont delegation pressures Sessions

MONTPELIER — Vermont’s congressional delegation joined a growing chorus of Democratic voices Thursday raising questions about U.S. Attorney General Jeff Session’s meetings with a Russian diplomat during last year’s presidential campaign. Sessions, a former senator from Alabama, told members of the Senate Judiciary Committee earlier this year during his confirmation hearings that he did not have contact with any Russian government officials. But Sessions has since acknowledged meeting with the Russian ambassador to the United States twice during the presidential campaign when he served as a surrogate and adviser to President Donald Trump. Sessions was already under fire from Democrats over his refusal to recuse himself from a Department of Justice probe into Russian meddling in the presidential election between Trump and Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton. Late Thursday afternoon, after top Republican lawmakers joined the call for recusal, the attorney general complied. Continue Reading →

Ashe: Governor needs funding source for new spending

MONTPELIER — Senate President Pro Tem Tim Ashe said the state Senate is moving forward on crafting a state budget that does not include any of Gov. Phil Scott’s proposed new spending unless he provides lawmakers with a different plan to pay for it. The governor’s proposed 2018 fiscal year state budget included new spending for early and higher education as well as housing. But the new spending was covered by shifting some general fund obligations to the education fund, a move lawmakers have all but rejected. Ashe, a Chittenden County Democrat, told reporters Tuesday at his weekly briefing that the new spending will be off the table unless the governor and lawmakers can agree on other areas to cut to cover it. Scott has maintained his promise not to balance the state budget with new taxes or fees, making closing a projected $70 million gap a larger challenge. Continue Reading →

Welch to bring Iraqi interpreter to Trump’s address to Congress

MONTPELIER — U.S. Rep. Peter Welch is planning to bring an Iraqi national who served as an interpreter for the U.S. military to Republican President Donald Trump’s address to a joint session of Congress Tuesday. Trump will deliver his first address to Congress — and the nation — inside the U.S. Capitol Tuesday night as his immigration policies continue to reverberate in Washington and across the country. Welch, a Democrat, has invited Ahmed Alsaeedi, an Iraqi from Baghdad who served as an interpreter for the U.S Army and now lives in Burlington, to be his personal guest at the speech. Many of Welch’s colleagues in Congress are also extending invitations to former interpreters and others who assisted the U.S. in Iraq and Afghanistan. Welch said he thought to invite Alsaeedi after a recent meeting they had and “my horror at the executive order, including in its original form, that it would have cut off access to safety” for people like Alsaeedi. Continue Reading →

Lawmakers unfazed by White House comments on marijuana

MONTPELIER — A White House official warned last week of a possible crackdown on federal marijuana policy but officials in Vermont say the discussion about whether to legalize the drug here will continue. White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer responded to questions at the White House’s daily briefing last Thursday with vague warnings about potential enforcement of the federal government’s policy. “I do believe that you’ll see greater enforcement of it,” he told reporters. Former Democratic President Barack Obama’s administration’s policy was to largely look the other way as states moved forward with state-level legalization. But Republican President Donald Trump may change all of that, putting states like Colorado, where there is a large, regulated marijuana retail market, in the Trump administration’s bullseye. Continue Reading →

Scott: Trump looking to tone down immigration rhetoric

MONTPELIER — Gov. Phil Scott said he believes Republican President Donald Trump is looking to walk back his rhetoric on immigration after attending meetings with the president on Sunday and Monday. Scott was in Washington, D.C., over the weekend and into Monday for a National Governors Association meeting. Scott attended the annual Governor’s Ball at the White House on Sunday evening, as well as a meeting at the White House with the president Monday morning. The White House events were a first for Scott, who told reporters last week that he had never before visited the famed building, even as a tourist. Scott has emerged as one of the president’s most vocal critics when it comes to immigration policy among the Republican governors. Continue Reading →

Senate passes bill to limit Trump’s executive orders

MONTPELIER — The Vermont Senate advanced a bill on a unanimous vote Thursday that aims to keep state, county and local law enforcement agencies from helping federal authorities enforce immigration laws. All 30 senators — including seven Republicans — voted in favor of the legislation, sending it to a final vote Friday. The bill was crafted by Republican Gov. Phil Scott, Democratic Attorney General T.J. Donovan and lawmakers in response to a series of executive orders signed by President Donald Trump regarding immigration enforcement and border security. The bill grants the governor sole authority to approve agreements that would, in effect, deputize state, county or local police officers to enforce federal immigration law. One of the president’s executive orders calls for such agreements to help federal authorities. Continue Reading →