2013 Recap: The Digger Top 10 news stories

Gov. Peter Shumlin and Department of Vermont Health Access Commissioner Mark Larson fielded lots of questions about the state's new health care exchange this fall. Photo by Andrew Stein/VTDigger

Gov. Peter Shumlin and Department of Vermont Health Access Commissioner Mark Larson field questions about the state’s new health care exchange earlier this month in Montpelier. Photo by Andrew Stein/VTDigger

VTDigger has chosen the rollout of Vermont Health Connect as the top story we covered in 2013.

It was a two-horse race this year, pitting the state’s new health insurance exchange and its related technical problems against the announcement of the closing of the Vermont Yankee nuclear power plant by the end of 2014. We limited the selection to the areas we cover: state government, politics, business and public policy.

Users guide

For just about everything you wanted to know about the state’s health care exchange, but were afraid to ask, go to
VTDigger’s user’s guide to Vermont
Health Connect.

The guide includes an interactive
chart that helps you find your estimated subsidy level instantly.

As important and surprising as the Yankee decision was, we believe Vermont Health Connect will affect more Vermonters for a longer period of time. The price of electricity is likely to rise with or without Yankee’s presence and there are alternatives for replacing the plant’s base-load capacity — clean and not so clean.

Vermont Health Connect is a state-run, Web-based marketplace where Vermonters can compare and buy health insurance plans. It was mandated by the federal Affordable Care Act and was designed to remove some of the barriers to health insurance coverage, such as serving those with pre-existing conditions. It is an attempt to provide more Vermonters with health insurance and require that more people pay for that coverage.

Vermont chose to go its own way in creating an online marketplace, drawing down hundred of millions of federal dollars (not including the subsidies paid to individual and family subscribers). An independent review of the state’s health information technology projects estimates they will cost the state $427.5 million over five years. The estimated cost for the website portion is $224 million.

Regardless of the technical difficulties with the website, it is too soon to determine the effectiveness of this major health care overhaul, which places the state squarely on the path to a publicly financed system. Either way, it represents a monumental change for Vermonters.

Vermont Yankee nuclear power plant, Feb. 21, 2010

Vermont Yankee nuclear power plant, Feb. 21, 2010

2. Vermont Yankee. The plant’s impending closure made a late charge at No. 1 when state and Entergy officials announced Monday that a tentative deal had been reached on details of the aging facility’s dismantling.

Closing the plant has been an objective of Gov. Peter Shumlin’s since his days as president pro tem of the state Senate.

With the facility based in his home turf of Windham County, the governor has consistently cited concerns over safety and the trustworthiness of the nuclear plant’s Louisiana-based operator.

In an interview with VTDigger recently, Shumlin chose the closing of the plant as his top news story of the year.

3. Death with Dignity. An emotional issue that ebbed and flowed in the Legislature many times over the past decade, physician-assisted suicide was finally signed into law in May. The bill, S.77, makes Vermont the first state to grant terminally ill patients the right to obtain medication to help them end their lives.

The law expires after three years, by which time it is expected that the medical community will set its own guidelines to regulate the practice.

Supporters of the bill say it offers patients an option when faced with a terminal diagnosis.

“This bill does not compel anyone to do anything that they don’t choose in sound mind to do,” Shumlin said at the bill’s signing. “All it does is give those who are facing terminal illness, are facing excruciating pain, a choice in a very carefully regulated way.”

Opponents, who say they are concerned that some patients will feel coerced into choosing to end their lives, say they will monitor the process and will compile lists of “safe” doctors who will not participate in the practice.

Lockheed Martin F-35 Lightning II

Lockheed Martin F-35 Lightning II

4. F-35 coming to Vermont. Another passionate debate dominated the summer and fall and culminated (but not ended) with the U.S. Air Force announcing that the Vermont Air National Guard was selected to host 18-24 F-35 fighter jets beginning in 2020.

Opponents and supporters of basing the next-generation warplanes at Burlington International Airport fought hard to make their cases, which ranged from noise and safety concerns for surrounding neighborhoods to the economic and national security benefits of keeping the Vermont Guard robust.

5. Marijuana decriminalization. The Legislature decided that possession of an ounce of pot or 5 grams of hashish should be more like a traffic violation and less like a criminal offense.

A fine of up to $200 will be assessed for a first offense, ranging up to $500 for a third offense. Violators age 16-21 will go into court diversion. The Marijuana Project Policy, which lobbied hard for the bill, is expected to continue its effort to make the drug legal in Vermont.

6. IBM layoffs. More than 400 workers at IBM’s Essex Junction plant lost their jobs as what was once the state’s largest private employer continued to downsize its Vermont operation. Making the losses more significant was debate over the company’s habit of keeping its layoff numbers secret and the state’s growing frustration over the practice. Layoffs at Vermont Yankee and the Burlington Free Press also kept Labor Department officials busy.

7. Earned income scheme fails. In a blue state with a Democratic governor and Democrats in control of both chambers, it is significant when one of the chief executive’s major priorities is scuttled. So it was when lawmakers soundly rejected Shumlin’s plan to eliminate $17 million in tax credits for low-income Vermonters and transfer the money to a child care subsidy program.

Jeremy Dodge of East Montpelier holds the folder on which Gov. Peter Shumlin sketched out the details on the sale of Dodge's property. Photo by Andrew Stein/VTDigger

Jeremy Dodge of East Montpelier holds the folder on which Gov. Peter Shumlin sketched out the details on the sale of Dodge’s property. Photo by Andrew Stein/VTDigger

8. Jeremy Dodge’s famous neighbor. Gov. Peter Shumlin apparently had no idea that a plan to “help” his next-door neighbor out of a jam would blow up. Shumlin, who built a home in East Montpelier, offered to buy an adjoining property from Jeremy Dodge, a low-income man facing a tax sale. Critics reacted harshly, accusing the governor of taking advantage of Dodge and the deal was eventually canceled, giving Dodge an opportunity to keep his house.

9. Migrant driver’s licenses. About 1,500 migrant workers on Vermont dairy farms won the right to obtain an operator’s privilege card allowing them drive on Vermont roads.

10. Pension forfeiture. Lawmakers moved swiftly after Vermont State Police Trooper James Deeghan was found to have padded his time sheet to the tune of $200,000. A new law strips pensions for state employees who commit financially related felonies, such as larceny, embezzlement and fraud.

Among the contenders for the top 10 were action on GMO labeling, approval of phase one of the Vermont Gas pipeline project, progress on the 2012 announcement of an effort to develop the Northeast Kingdom, Sen. Patrick Leahy’s elevation to third on the presidential succession ladder, protests at the Lowell wind farm site and the opening of a Walmart in St. Albans after a 20-year regulatory battle.

For all of the 2014 headlines, stay tuned to VTDigger. Happy New Year.

Tom Brown

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