Politics

Final Reading: By the numbers

Some takeaways from a new poll released Thursday by Vermont Public Radio and Vermont PBS: 

Gov. Phil Scott is still very popular. President Joe Biden? Less so. And respondents were equally split (at 47%) on whether proof of vaccination should be required in public places such as stores and restaurants. 

The poll, directed by Castleton University’s Rich Clark, queried 600 Vermonters last week by landline, cellphone and online survey. It had a 4% margin of error. 

Scott’s popularity, while strong, has dipped since previous surveys. Among respondents, Scott had a 60% approval rating, down 8 points from a September 2020 poll. (Polling in Vermont is relatively scarce.) Sixty-eight percent said they approve of how Scott has handled the pandemic, down from 83% in July 2020.

And while a bill to create a state mask mandate has so far gotten a tepid response in the House, a majority of people surveyed — 58%, to be exact — said they would support such a measure. Notably, fewer than that said they “always” wear a mask indoors when away from their home: just 51%. 

Scott has said he would veto a mask mandate bill. 

The poll also asked participants to look ahead toward the Democratic primary for the U.S. House, with mixed results: About a third said they likely wouldn’t vote in the Dems’ primary, and a third were unsure who’d they’d support. Otherwise, 7% supported Senate President Pro Tempore Becca Balint, D-Windham, and 21% supported Lt. Gov. Molly Gray

These findings come exceedingly early in a race that’s still drawing more contenders. Mere hours after VPR and Vermont PBS released the results, Sen. Kesha Ram Hinsdale, D-Chittenden, formally launched her campaign

— Riley Robinson


Sen. Kesha Ram Hinsdale announces she is a candidate to be the Democratic nominee for Congress during a press conference in Winooski on Thursday, Jan. 13. Photo by Glenn Russell/VTDigger

IN THE KNOW

The $10 billion in federal Covid-19 stimulus and aid money circulating through Vermont continues to buoy the economy and state coffers. But while the outlook for the next 12 to 18 months looks rosy, things get much murkier after. 

“We’re going to start going through an unwinding process, which not a lot is terribly known about,” Jeff Carr, the Scott administration’s chief economist, told the state’s Emergency Board on Thursday. For emphasis, Tom Kavet, the Legislature’s (semi-retired) economist, cut in: “Nothing.” 

The E-Board includes the governor and the Legislature’s four money committee chairs. It meets twice a year to adopt consensus revenue forecasts crafted by the administration’s and Legislature’s economists.

In the short term, Vermont’s economists expect the state to bring in $44 million more this year than was originally forecasted last July. Revenue projections for 2023 have also been revised upward by $26 million. 

But the forecast for 2024 is flat — and that’s including new projected pot sales and excise tax revenues. Without cannabis receipts, the state’s revenue forecast for that year would otherwise reflect a $17 million downgrade, Carr noted.

— Lola Duffort

The House Judiciary Committee heard testimony Thursday related to S. 30, a bill that would ban guns in hospitals and the Statehouse. A version of it passed the Senate last year but did not make it through the House. 

Dr. Ryan Sexton, the president-elect of the Vermont Medical Society, discussed how medical emergencies can escalate to violence. A person may learn of a loved one’s dire health and lash out against a doctor — as Sexton himself experienced this year. If a weapon is in the room, that situation could prove fatal, he said. 

Devon Green, a spokesperson for the Vermont Association of Hospitals and Health Systems, told the committee that nationwide in 2018, health care workers accounted for 73% of  all workplace injuries from violence. Banning guns in hospitals would help reduce the increasing instances of harm against hospital workers, Green said. 

But not everyone agreed.

“I’m not a medical professional,” said Rep. Ken Gosland, R-Northfield, but “I think we could be opening up a situation where we’re actually creating more of a danger.”

“This is really weighing heavy on me,” he said. 

— Ethan Weinstein

In the nine months since Vermont stood up its Covid-19 rental assistance program, more than 8,000 low-income families received a total of $47 million for housing, according to leaders of the Vermont State Housing Authority.

Speaking to members of the House on Wednesday, executive director Kathleen Berk said that participation in the program has steadily increased. Most participants got help with current and past-due rent payments and court costs associated with eviction proceedings. A small share of them received help with security deposits, moving expenses and mold removal. 

While the program has been successful in the short term, Berk said, she urged legislators to think about a longer-term solution. Federal guidelines limit payouts to a total of 18 months, and many participants are halfway through that period. 

“These folks need permanent rental housing,” she said, adding that the housing authority is looking to transition at least some of the participants to longer-term supports, such as the federal housing vouchers program.

— Liora Engel-Smith

Store owners say shoplifting spiked in 2021. A bill introduced last week by Sen. Phil Baruth, D/P-Chittenden, would assess penalties for merchandise theft based on how much someone stole over a three-month period, instead of on a single occasion.

During the second day of Senate Judiciary Committee testimony on S.180 Thursday, small business owners and interest groups representing them told lawmakers how merchandise theft has affected them over the past year.

In order to help stop the problem, Erin Sigrist, executive director of the Vermont Retail and Grocers Association, asked the committee to pass an amendment aligning the bill with a piece of legislation introduced in the U.S. Senate compelling online marketplaces to more strictly police their sellers.  

But Baruth threw cold water on the idea, saying it would make the bill less likely to pass.

Sen. Dick Sears, D-Bennington, who chairs the judiciary committee, said it could consider Sigrist’s proposed amendment next week when the bill gets marked up.

— Jack Lyons

A bill in the House Committee on General, Housing, and Military Affairs looks to strengthen Vermont’s laws prohibiting discrimination in several spheres, including housing, education and employment. The bill, which was originally introduced in April 2021, would change what is defined as discrimination — specifically that harassment does not need to be “severe and pervasive” to be discrimination. 

The bill would create a six-year statute of limitations for harassment and discrimination within housing, public accommodations and employment. If passed, Vermonters could choose not to go through an employer’s internal processes before filing a legal claim against an employer or the employee harassing them. 

— Talia Heisey


COVID CORNER

Wonder how Covid test makers can deliver kits without exposing them to winter’s killing temperatures?

So does House Speaker Jill Krowinski, D-Burlington.

“We have a little bit of a challenge,” Krowinski told lawmakers on the virtual House floor Thursday, referring to tests she hopes to distribute in advance of an eventual — possible — return to Montpelier. “Because of the cold weather, we cannot mail them.”

Enter what the speaker has dubbed “Operation Rapid Test Kits,” in which legislators are being asked to pick up and distribute kits to one another.

No word yet if those who volunteer will deliver the Statehouse cafeteria special with each order.

— Kevin O’Connor


IN CONGRESS

Much like ’70s fashion, corduroy, and Ben Affleck and J.Lo’s relationship, earmarks seem to be making a strong comeback, according to the Washington Post. A decade after the practice was banned in 2011, U.S. Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., who chairs the Senate Appropriations Committee, announced their return last spring

And as negotiations intensify over a delayed federal government spending bill — with a mid-February deadline — earmarks may help sweeten the deal. 

More than 220 House Democrats have requested more than 2,000 projects and 108 House Republicans have requested more than 700 projects, the Post reported. 

All three members of Vermont’s congressional delegation have requested earmark funding, for projects ranging from the Army National Guard Biathlon Facility in Jericho to the Stone Arch Bridge in Townshend. 

— Riley Robinson


WHAT’S ON TAP

Friday, Jan. 14

9 a.m. House Government Operations will take up a Republican amendment to H.589, the redistricting bill, and potentially vote out the bill later in the afternoon.

Noon — Students representing the Vermont Youth Lobby and Vermont Student Anti-Racism Network announce their priorities for the 2022 legislative session in a Zoom press conference

1 p.m. House Appropriations is scheduled to vote out its version of the Budget Adjustment Act.


WHAT WE’RE READING 

Seras, who asked that her last name not be used, and her three children have been in quarantine at their home in Barre since she contracted Covid-19. They are seen on the porch of their apartment on Monday, Jan. 10. Photo by Glenn Russell/VTDigger

Vermont students are missing thousands of days of class. Nobody knows how many yet. (VTDigger) 

‘The most intense violation of my life’: A beloved camp, a lost boy and the lifelong impact of child sexual trauma (USA Today)

Legislature, Supreme Court consider Act 250’s power in towns with limited land use regulation

(VTDigger) 

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Riley Robinson

About Riley

Riley Robinson is a general assignment and multimedia reporter, covering stories across the state in writing, photos and video. She is a graduate of Northeastern University's School of Journalism and first joined the Digger newsroom as a Dow Jones News Fund intern.

Email: [email protected]

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