by Anne Galloway April 9, 2012 vtdigger.org As lawmakers hotly debated last week whether they should have a say in the CVPS and Green Mountain Power merger, the quasi-judicial body that ultimately will decide whether to approve the marriage between the stateâ s two largest utilities held hearings on the deal.Green Mountain Power CEO Mary Powell. VTD/Josh LarkinThe controversial merger case is now before the Vermont Public Service Board, and many of the same issues legislators have been exercised about over the last few weeks are undergoing deliberative scrutiny from the three-member panel.Gaz Metro, based in Montreal, which owns Green Mountain Power and Vermont Gas, beat out rival Canadian company, Fortis, in a bid for CVPS in July 2011. If the merger is approved, eight in 10 Vermonters will get their electricity from Green Mountain Power.While lawmakers made political hay out of the revelation that the $21 million owed to ratepayers for bailing out CVPS in 2007 would be paid for by raising rates, the board delved into the painstaking process of examining the merger deal in a series of hearings over the last several weeks.More details of the complex financial arrangement have come to light as a result of the proceedings.Here are a few of the findings from recent documents about the merger:Green Mountain Power projects total 10-year efficiency savings to be $226 million, and the company proposes to pass on $144 million of those savings to ratepayers.Gaz Metro would retain $82 million in savings over the first six years, most of which would be achieved through labor reductions of $110 million in the first five years. The $82 million would go toward the $524 million acquisition costs the Montreal-based corporation incurs (the total price, including CVPS debt is $702 million).The savings passed on to ratepayers in the first three years is $15 million and $144 million after 10 years;Green Mountain Power ratepayers will realize at least half of the savings;The board questions whether changes to the $21 million windfall distribution is a dealbreaker.The $82 million savingsThe Vermont Public Service Board has never before allowed a utility to recover an acquisition â premium’from merger savings that would ordinarily be passed on to consumers. If the three-member panel approves the arrangement, it would set new precedent, according to documents from the proceeding. The board says the utility would have to meet a heavy burden of proof to justify returning $82 million to the for-profit company from expected ratepayer savings.In the past, the board has not allowed utilities to recover acquisition costs from ratepayers and 100 percent of merger savings have benefited customers. In its questions for Gaz Metro, the board says of the $82 million sharing proposal that it â has not previously approved any similar arrangement.âThis deal is different, company officials say: It is historic in nature because of its size and the potential benefits it offers for customers.Green Mountain Power representatives wrote in a written response that the companyâ s offer would return 59 percent of the overall merger savings to consumers (net present value). Mary Powell, CEO of the utility, told the board in testimony last week that the sharing arrangements with ratepayers have been done in other jurisdictions and pointed out that the ratio is typically 50-50. The companyâ s offering, she said, is generous by comparison.â I think this is a really strong value proposition for customers because not only are we proposing the 59/41, but again as I view what weâ re proposing, you know, weâ re taking all the risk and customers are taking none of the risk,’Powell told the board. â Weâ ve guaranteed. We have guarantees in the first few years of savings for customers.âGMP officials argued in writing that the board should â follow the precedent of other jurisdictions’and approve the plan. One of those out-of-state precedents Green Mountain Power used as an example in expert testimony was the largest utility merger in U.S. history, involving Entergy Corp. and Gulf States Utilities in Texas.In a response to written questions from the board, Gaz Metro officials said they were committed to not pursuing â a more customary Wall Street-style merger, in which increased returns for shareholders are obtained through layoffs and accelerated consolidation of facilities and systems, at the expense of customer service impacts. It is also important to remember that in non-utility mergers, shareholders would expect 100 percent of synergy savings.âUnder Vermont law, utility companies are strictly regulated and must show regulators they are operating in the public interest.The board asks why it should make an exception for Gaz Metro and deviate from its precedent in order to approve the arrangement â considering, among other things, the effect such precedent might have on future rate-making proceedings involving any utility.âThe answer? Gaz Metro says â the proposal is consistent with precedent, including Vermont precedent.âThe board has approved three recent acquisition cases, involving the recent CVPS acquisition of the Readsboro and OMYA/Marble Valley power companies and the 1997 Nynex/Bell merger, in which all benefits from the transactions accrued to the ratepayers.In the Readsboro case, the board told CVPS the facts â do not support a deviation from longstanding Board precedent to exclude acquisition premiums from rates.âThe NYNEX/Bell merger savings over a three-year period were expected to run between $850 million to $900 million nationwide. Vermont customers were to receive $4.3 million in savings, and according to a summary of the merger from Westlaw, all of those savings were required to flow to ratepayers.Gaz Metro paid a $62 million premium to buy Green Mountain Power in 2007. The acquisition cost, as in the cases cited above, was not recouped in rates, according to a lawyer familiar with the case.A breakdown of the $226 million savingsThe $226 million in savings over a 10-year period includes $82 million in savings over the first six years that would go directly to Gaz Metro to cover acquisition costs.Under the original merger plan, ratepayers wouldnâ t have seen any of the $144 million in savings until year seven. The Vermont Department of Public Service pressed for more money up front for ratepayers, and agreed, in a recent memorandum of understanding, to a guarantee from the utility of $2.5 million in savings in year one; $5 million in year two; and $8 million in year three. Half of the savings would be made available between years four and eight, and 100 percent in year nine and 10. After that, the savings would continue â forever into the future,’according to Dotty Schnure, communications director for Green Mountain Power.The ratepayer savings of $144 million would be divided between Green Mountain Power and CVPS customers. Based on VTDigger calculations derived from the number of ratepayers and the per customer â net present value,’more than half of the reduction in rate increases over a 10-year period would go to CVPS ratepayers.The â net present value,’or the amount in todayâ s dollars CVPS’135,000 residential customers would receive as a result of the 10-year operations and energy efficiency program is $167.89. Green Mountain Power customers would receive about $175 each through the savings.If savings are distributed proportionally to the distribution of NPV to a typical residential customer, then CVPS ratepayers will see $70.5 M in savings over 10 years, according to VTDigger.org calculations. The windfall sharing agreement is $21 million. Figures for the net present value of the $144 million in savings were not available at press time.Rep. Cynthia Browning, D-Arlington, has proposed an amendment that would force the company to issue a cash payback of the $21 million owed to residential customers for the bailout of CVPS in the early 2000s. She says the full value of the bailout was $98 million, and CVPS shareholders have retained the other $77 million.â Green Mountain Power has told the Public Service Board that the net present discounted value of those savings for an individual CVPS customer will be about $167, total,’Browning wrote in a comment on VTDigger. â That doesnâ t sound as good as $144m does it? And it makes the residential bailout payback of $76, which has been so sneered at as inconsequential, look a little better.âBrowning alleges that using ratepayer money to fund investments is â business as usual for Gaz Metro.’She points to the Vermont Gas proposal to expand a pipeline into Addison County as another example. The Public Service Board recently approved the rate setting mechanism for Vermont Gas, which is also owned by Gaz Metro.â That cost shift is how they are financing the natural gas pipeline: raising rates so that customers pay for the investment, then charging them higher rates after it is built,’Browning wrote.The $21 million questionBoard members also questioned key players in the merger about whether returning the $21 million windfall directly to ratepayers is a deal breaker. They also wanted to know whoâ s responsible for repaying customers ‘shareholders or the purchaser. Both Gaz Metro and CVPS say the purchaser must pay for the windfall. AARP, an intervenor in the case on behalf of ratepayers over 50, says both companies knew about the obligation, which included the possibility of a direct payout.The big question is: Would Gaz Metro have grounds to back out of the deal if the merger is conditioned on a cash payment of the $21 million or changes to the 10-year saving plan?Larry Reilly, the CEO of CVPS, testified that the implementation of a 2001 Public Service Board order was baked in to the CVPS Green Mountain Power merger deal from the beginning. He said the windfall was assumed in the purchase price and had Gaz Metro not agreed to compensate ratepayers in some fashion, the pricetag would have been $21 million higher.In Reillyâ s estimation, the implementation of the order would likely not have a adverse material impact on the deal, though it could lead to delays and litigation.Powell has maintained that a payback would kill the deal.Elizabeth Miller, commissioner of the Department of Public Service, told the board under cross examination by Jim Dumont, a lawyer for AARP, that she was not aware that implementation of the sharing order would not have a material adverse on the merger agreement. Miller made her comments on April 4; the state agreed to a memorandum of understanding with Green Mountain Power regarding the use of the $21 million for weatherization and energy efficiency programs in March.In his testimony before the board, Reilly explained how the order was originally included in the contract with Fortis, the original CVPS buyer. Gaz Metro had offered more money for the company, but it included a â regulatory out’clause that CVPS thought was too onerous and could scuttle the deal because if regulators didnâ t accept the contract â as-is’Gaz Metro could walk away. The company sweetened its bid by removing that language and proposing $144 million in savings.April 9, 2012 vtdigger.org Carl Etnier contributed to this report.
Fletcher Allen Health Care’s Stroke Center has received the American Heart Association/American Stroke Association’s ‘Get With The Guidelines’ Silver Achievement award for its success in providing excellent care for stroke patients according to evidence-based guidelines. ‘This award highlights our commitment to being one of the top hospitals in the country for providing aggressive, proven stroke care,’said Mark Gorman, MD, director of the Fletcher Allen Stroke Program, and University of Vermont associate professor of Neurology. ‘We’re honored to receive this additional validation that our expert Stroke Center staff provides best-practice care that saves lives and improves patient outcomes.’These measures include aggressive use of medications such as t-PA (a protein designed to dissolve blood clots), antithrombotics (such as aspirin), anticoagulation (coumadin) therapy where appropriate, cholesterol-reducing drugs and smoking cessation – all aimed at reducing death and disability and improving the lives of stroke patients. Stroke is the fourth leading cause of death in the U.S. and the primary cause of long-term disability. The Stroke Center team has been regularly recognized by the ‘Get with the Guidelines’program since 2008, and has been classified as a Primary Stroke Center by The Joint Commission, the nation’s leading organization for setting health care quality standards. About Fletcher AllenFletcher Allen Health Care, together with our partners at the University of Vermont College of Medicine and the College of Nursing and Health Sciences, is Vermont’s academic medical center. Fletcher Allen, along with Central Vermont Medical Center, CVPH Medical Center and Elizabethtown Community Hospital, are members of Fletcher Allen Partners, established to develop a more coordinated system of care throughout the region. Fletcher Allen’s mission is to improve the health of the people in the communities it serves by integrating patient care, education and research in a caring environment. Fletcher Allen also serves as a regional referral center — providing advanced care to approximately one million people in Vermont and northern New York — and as a community hospital for approximately 150,000 residents in Chittenden and Grand Isle counties. For more information about Fletcher Allen, find us online at http://www.fletcherallen.org(link is external) or on our Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and blog sites at www.fletcherallen.org/socialmedia(link is external).
by Anne Galloway August 11, 2013 vtdigger.org The state expects to save $150 million in long-term health care costs for retired teachers, thanks to a new program that maximizes use of government subsidies and pharmaceutical discounts for prescription drugs.The state will received enhanced Medicare subsidies for low-income retirees, which will help to lower overall expenditures for prescription drugs through the state health insurance plan for retired teachers.Meanwhile, the state’s 7,000-plus retired teachers will not see a change in prescription drug benefits as a result of the new program, according to State Treasurer Beth Pearce.The Vermont State Teachers’Retirement System board approved the plan last week. The state treasurer’s office, the Vermont-NEA, the Vermont Health Educational Initiative and BlueCross BlueShield of Vermont created a partnership to develop the new waiver plan, which will go into effect on Jan. 1.‘When we can lower the cost to taxpayers without making benefit reductions for retirees, it’s a win-win,’Pearce said in an interview. ‘When we’re working together we can get good things done.’Jon Harris, chair of the board, said in a statement that the waiver plan will ‘financially bolster the retirement system and help ensure important benefits remain intact for retirees.’The new Employer Group Waiver Plan for retirees who qualify for Medicare will save the state about $2.3 million per year on top of $1.5 million in other annual government subsidies. Over time, the $3.8 million in annual savings will result in long-term savings for the pension fund for retired teachers.‘Less money has to go out of our system, that’s how it reduces the unfunded liability,’Pearce says.The state’s unfunded obligations for long-term health care costs for retired teachers is $827 million over a 25-year period. According to the latest actuarial analysis from the treasurer’s office, the new waiver plan will reduce that liability by 18 percent $150 million, based on actuarial calculations for fiscal year 2012.Harris compared the savings to paying down a 30-year mortgage. Paying down the principal ahead of schedule lowers costs over the long haul.‘It’s almost too good to be true, we kept wondering where’s the shoe going to drop, but as we researched it, it made sense,’Harris said. When all the parties studied the fine print, it became apparent that as long as BCBS could handle the administrative details, the waiver plan would work.Health care plans for retired teachers have long been underfunded by the state and the annual expense has eaten into funding for pensions. The teacher retirement system is currently funded at about 67 percent.Even though the Vermont-NEA and the Douglas administration reached a deal in 2010 to increase the contribution from teachers through a variety of concessions, the unfunded portion of the pension system has continued to increase. The Vermont Legislature set aside $4.75 million in fiscal years 2013 and 2014 to help stem the erosion of the fund, but that amount plus contributions from employees hasn’t been enough to cover the growing cost of health care for retirees.Pearce has long been an advocate for increased state funding for the pension system, and her office will ask lawmakers this legislative session to make a larger investment in the retiree system. She says money invested now will have a big payoff down the road. If the state invested $20 million in the pension this year, for example, it would save taxpayers $58 million over the life of the program, Pearce says, though she declined to say just how much she will ask lawmakers to set aside for teachers’pensions this legislative session.Her sales pitch could meet with a less than enthusiastic reception this coming legislative session. Budget-writers will be faced with a $50 million gap right off the bat (the hole was filled with one-time funds in fiscal year 2014), plus an assortment of pending cuts to a wide range of federal programs. Tax revenues, meanwhile, have stayed flat.‘We need to balance all of our priorities and recognize that paying now rather than down the road is a good bang for the buck for taxpayers,’Pearce said.The state treasurer is also pursuing cost-saving programs offered by the federal government. Her office recently received $4.5 million in one-time reimbursement funds for retiree health care expenditures.‘Over the years, we’ve been very proactive in Vermont in terms of looking at our long term liability and working with the Legislature to make sure the pension program is secure,’Harris said.The new Employer Group Waiver Plan is a program of the Center for Medicare and Medicaid Services. The Affordable Care Act and other changes to federal law have made the program easier for insurance companies and administrators to implement and more cost-effective for employers, according to a press release from the treasurer’s office.Vermont is the only state that has a third party administrator that is a partnership between a teachers’union and a school boards association, according to Harris. VEHI works with BCBS to keep costs down, he said.
A committee of Vermont emergency officials and planners has forwarded a list of 35 mitigation projects to the Federal Emergency Management Agency for approval. The $13 million in projects are part of the Hazard Mitigation Grant Program (HMGP) that awards funds to communities to fix problems that could cause damage in future disasters. HMGP covers up to 75 percent of project costs ‘ which would be just over $10 million if all projects are approved. Communities are required to provide a 25 local match to cover the costs. The funds are made available after a federal disaster declaration through competitive grant application process administered by the Vermont Division of Emergency Management and Homeland Security.A state committee reviews all applications to determine which projects meet federal standards and will have the greatest impact. Projects approved by Vermont range from elevation of buildings, to culvert upgrades, to home buyouts. All projects must be approved by FEMA.The program also provides funds for planning initiatives. The $13 million total includes $1.5 million in planning grants that will serve 23 Vermont towns.To date, Vermont has approved $38-million in mitigation projects following the Irene disaster declaration ‘ with $28 million being the federal share, of which FEMA has approved $15 million.Source: Division of Emergency Management and Homeland Security 9.5.2013
GlobalFoundries,On Thursday, June 5, IBM specialists will deliver a disaster preparedness workshop to Vermont FoodBank members from flood-prone communities to ensure that organizations caring for some of the state’s most vulnerable people have strategies in place before the next disaster strikes. The outcome will be plans that outline how several organizations providing food for Vermont residents can maintain its mission during periods of extreme emergency. This workshop is the last in a series of six sessions provided by IBM in partnership with the Vermont Council on Rural Development (VCRD) to help support the state’s recovery from Tropical Storm Irene.”At each session over the past year, IBM has helped us focus on building resiliency – not only through improved disaster preparedness, but also through the increased use of digital tools to disseminate information, mobilize community volunteers, and attract donations, ” said Sharon Combes-Farr, VCRD’s Vermont Digital Economy Project Director. “IBM’s commitment of $150,000 in Impact Grants provided a significant share of the matching funds for the federal Economic Development Administration disaster relief grant that funded this important VCRD project.”When Tropical Storm Irene tore through the state in 2011, all Vermonters suffered, and those depending on food banks and other services of the social safety net were among the hardest hit. As a result of the disaster preparedness workshops that IBM has conducted, service providers from many vital segments of Vermont’s nonprofit spectrum are now able to visualize their missions more clearly and have developed effective strategies and tactics to help ensure continuity of service during future times of crisis, Combes-Farr continued.”More and more, today’s nonprofits must be technologically savvy in leveraging digital tools – both for operational resilience and also to maximize their message reach, extend their mission, do more good work with less, and raise funds, ,” she said. “This is why the Vermont Digital Economy Project was delighted when IBM made their expert consultants available to us in these important areas.”According to Cathleen Finn, IBM Corporate Citizenship and Corporate Affairs Manager for New England, IBM Impact Grants provide consulting expertise specifically designed for nonprofit organizations so they can better serve their communities.”IBM wanted to help Vermont in the aftermath of Tropical Storm Irene. When we became aware of the Vermont Digital Economy Project, we came to the conclusion that providing IBM experts to conduct in-depth analysis and workshops on a number of topics related to disaster preparedness would help many of the state’s most essential nonprofits build effective strategies ahead of the next disaster,” Finn said. “We have been extremely impressed by how committed Vermont’s organizations are in adopting new ways to carry out their missions and better serve the people who depend on them.”Last year, IBM consultants delivered a workshop on disaster preparedness to executives of the Vermont FoodBank, who share responsibility for distributing food to its network of 270 food shelves throughout the state. A similar workshop was held for the 26 members of the Vermont Access Network, who work on the front lines of communication as highly localized media outlets. Though both organizations are very different, both shared the same starting point when preparing a disaster plan.”The IBM consultants explained that the first step for both organizations during times of disaster is to uphold their missions,” Combes-Farr said. “Knowing the most important thing you do helps to guide exactly what you must do in an emergency and what you must protect from risk.”In addition, the portfolio of grants also included a “Strategies for Social Media” workshop hosted by the Vermont Division of Emergency Management and Homeland Security for the state’s emergency managers and their extended nonprofit partners. The end result was a roadmap designed by the IBM consultants which will enable these disparate groups to leverage grassroots volunteers by communicating more seamlessly during times of disaster. A Strategies for Social Media grant was also delivered to the directors of 10 public libraries across the state, and a Web User Experience workshop was given to help Vermont 211 create a strong, more user-friendly website to meet the needs of people who access their website for information about healthcare, childcare, emergency food and shelter, and more.On Thursday, the IBM Impact Grants will wrap up with the final workshop for about a dozen member organizations of the Vermont FoodBank network from across the state.“Everyone at VCRD and our partner organizations is extremely proud of the work we are doing in Vermont’s flood-impacted communities and throughout the state,” said Combes-Farr. “Without the Impact Grant donations by IBM, much of this great work would not have been possible.”About The Vermont Digital Economy ProjectThe Vermont Digital Economy Project was created by the Vermont Council on Rural Development (VCRD) to address vulnerabilities of Vermont business and communities that are not fully utilizing online tools. The project offers free support to speed flood recovery, spur economic development and job growth, and improve community resilience to disasters. The project is working directly with more than 40 of the towns that were affected by flooding to help businesses, nonprofits, and municipalities expand their innovative use of online tools. It is funded by a disaster recovery grant from the Economic Development Administration and from the donations and expertise of its partners (IBM, Microsoft, the Snelling Center for Government, the Vermont Department of Libraries, the Vermont Small Business Development Center, and the Vermont State Colleges) to provide grant services. More information can be found online at: http://vtdigitaleconomy.org/(link is external).
Vermont Business Magazine Attorney General William Sorrell has opened an investigation into the disclosure by Volkswagen that some of its diesel vehicles carried software designed to produce false emissions test results – violating clear air regulations and deceiving consumers. Attorney General Sorrell said that, “Volkswagen should be held accountable for any evasion of environmental laws and emissions standards, deception of consumers, and violation of the public trust.”The AG’s office is working with the Vermont Agency of Natural Resources and also collaborating with other attorneys general in the investigation.RELATED: Vermonters sue Volkswagen over emissions testing deceit“Circumventing vehicle emission controls is a serious charge,” said Agency of Natural Resources Secretary Deb Markowitz. “VW has compromised Vermonters’ health by increasing pollutants that can aggravate respiratory conditions like asthma, and threatened our crops and forests.”Nearly 2,900 VW and Audi A3 diesel vehicles for the relevant model years are currently registered in Vermont. For a list of affected models and model years, as well as information for owners of affected vehicles, check the EPA website(link is external). Any persons who have concerns about their diesel vehicles should contact the Vermont Consumer Assistance Program at 802-656-3183, 1-800-649-2424, or file a complaint(link is external)electronically.Vermont Attorney General: Sept 24, 2015
Vermont Business Magazine Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack today announced that the deadline to enroll for the dairy Margin Protection Program for coverage in 2016 has been extended until November 20, 2015. The voluntary program, established by the 2014 Farm Bill, provides financial assistance to participating farmers when the margin – the difference between the price of milk and feed costs – falls below the coverage level selected by the farmer.Senator Patrick Leahy (D-Vermont), the senior-most member of the Senate Agriculture Committee and a conferee on the 2014 Farm Bill, said in a statement: “I thank Secretary Vilsack for recognizing that dairy farmers need more time to consider their options under the relatively new Margin Protection Program (MPP). The previous signup deadline of September 30 would have hit many farmers at the height of their fall harvest season, and just when many are also making important decisions on enrollment in Agricultural Risk Coverage and other USDA programs. This added time is needed to ensure that farmers can review all the information USDA has made available, and then to make the best decisions for their individual operations. This signup extension, combined with the added flexibility USDA is giving farmers in how they pay their MPP premiums for insurance coverage for 2016, will help producers best use the MPP for their particular needs.”“The fall harvest is a busy time of the year for agriculture, so this extension will ensure that dairy producers have more time to make their choices,” said Vilsack. “We encourage all operations to examine the protections offered by this program, because despite the very best forecasts, markets can change.”Vilsack encouraged producers to use the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Farm Agency Service (FSA) online Web resource at www.fsa.usda.gov/mpptool(link is external) to calculate the best levels of coverage for their dairy operation. The secure website can be accessed via computer, smartphone or tablet.He also reminds operations that were enrolled in 2015 that they need to make a coverage election for 2016 and pay the $100 administration fee. Although any unpaid premium balances for 2015 must be paid in full by the enrollment deadline to remain eligible for higher coverage levels in 2016, premiums for 2016 are not due until Sept. 1, 2016. Also, producers can work with milk marketing companies to remit premiums on their behalf.To enroll in the Margin Protection Program for Dairy, contact your local FSA county office. To find your local FSA county office, visit http://offices.usda.gov(link is external).Payments under the program may be reduced by a certain percentage due to a sequester order required by Congress and issued pursuant to the Balanced Budget and Emergency Deficit Control Act of 1985. Should a payment reduction be necessary, FSA will reduce the payment by the required amount.The Margin Protection Program for Dairy was made possible through the 2014 Farm Bill, which builds on historic economic gains in rural America over the past six years, while achieving meaningful reform and billions of dollars in savings for the taxpayer. Since enactment, USDA has made significant progress to implement each provision of this critical legislation, including providing disaster relief to farmers and ranchers; strengthening risk management tools; expanding access to rural credit; funding critical research; establishing innovative public-private conservation partnerships; developing new markets for rural-made products; and investing in infrastructure, housing and community facilities to help improve quality of life in rural America. For more information, visit www.usda.gov/farmbill(link is external).WASHINGTON, Sept. 22, 2015 – USDA
by Elizabeth Hewitt vtdigger.org(link is external) In a crowded Statehouse conference room, the Senate Government Operations Committee roughed out a sketch of what a regulated cannabis market in Vermont could look like. Legislative attorneys anticipate getting a first draft of the bill to committee chair Senator Jeanette White, D-Windham, by the end of the month. The tight timeline will give lawmakers just enough time to prepare the legislation for lawmakers’ return to Montpelier in early January. The preliminary legislation proposes a five-tiered licensure structure that would allow some Vermonters to cultivate plants at home in a 100-square-foot plot. Other licenses would regulate transporters of marijuana, product manufacturers, researchers and retailers.Sen. Jeanette White, D-Windham, during committee discussion Thursday. Photo by Elizabeth Hewitt/VTDiggerLawmakers are shaping a legalization bill that would roll out a regulatory structure over time, creating an independent board, similar to the Public Service Board or the Green Mountain Care Board, charged with ongoing oversight and management.Related storyBusiness group proposes framework for legal marijuana.(link is external)But the committee opted to stay silent on some of the most controversial topics that have been debated — including whether to allow edible products. Instead, lawmakers are deferring to a separate commission that would be created to oversee the implementation of the law in the short-term.Sen. Joe Benning, R-Caledonia, a strong proponent of pot legalization, backed the idea of a commission to work through some of the more controversial issues. When the committee delegates the issues of edibles to the commission, he told three-dozen onlookers, they are “putting it in the hands of people who understand the issue better than we do.”Sen. Anthony Pollina, D/P-Washington, had a starker view of the matter, asserting “I don’t think anybody should expect a bill like this to pass this year” if edibles are part of the legislation.The committee solicited input from the meeting’s attendees, a practice that White defended, telling the crowd, “I think that it is important for us to ask you.”But while many were eager to chime in as the five lawmakers pounded out elements of a draft bill, others were not impressed.Rutland City Mayor Chris Louras, who stopped by the committee meeting for part of the day, criticized the process, noting that he has “never seen such a free flow, stream-of-consciousness committee process in my life, and I don’t think it bodes well for the state. This isn’t a process,” Louras said, “it’s a circus.”A member of the Vermont League of Cities and Towns board, Louras said that he strongly opposes the proposal to legalize marijuana, and has heard from many of his constituents in Rutland that they are also against it.For Louras, Colorado’s experience with legalization is a clear warning sign that Vermont should not go down that path. He referred to a study of hospitalizations related to marijuana published in September by the Rocky Mountain High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area that found that the annual average of 5,937 visits between 2009 and 2012 leaped up to an annual average of 9,865 visits in 2013 and 2014.Meanwhile, many in the Statehouse are hung up on health concerns.Sen. Chris Bray, D-Addison, a member of the committee, hasn’t yet decided if he’ll put his name on the bill. He described himself as “open-minded” but noted, “I’m not there yet.”Bray, who comes from a family of doctors, has reservations on the grounds of public health. In the course of the trajectory the bill takes through legislative committee, he hopes that the proposal will be thoroughly vetted by lawmakers on the health committees.“It’s a long way from here ’til May,” Bray said.Benning, when asked if he plans to sponsor the bill, answered “probably.” The Northeast Kingdom senator is still mulling the effective dates for provisions in the legislation. His primary concern is reducing the criminal market for marijuana and increasing the economic development aspects as quickly as possible.White answered emphatically that she plans to put her name on the bill as a sponsor.She’s hoping that the bill will wind its way through both legislative chambers by the end of the session in May — which will also conclude the biennium.Despite the fact that Senate Government Operations has taken more than 50 hours of testimony on the topic this calendar year, White sees room for more public input. Her goal is to work through some of the big questions in the likely next stop for the bill — Senate Judiciary, of which she is also a member.Sen. Dick Sears, D-Bennington, chair of that committee, plans to take up the bill in the second week of the legislative session.The Bennington Democrat has “many concerns,” he said by phone Thursday, but he is gearing up to thoroughly weigh the proposal. Sears plans to hold public hearings, including some outside of the Statehouse in other parts of the state to gauge public sentiment.For Sears, public health and reducing overall marijuana use needs to be a core goal of the bill.“If we’re going to do this, the only reason I can think of is that prohibition is not working,” Sears said. “If prohibition is not working, how do we eliminate or lower the use of the black market.”
Vermont Business Magazine Vermont, with 16,400 workers, is among the leaders in adding construction jobs over the last year, according to the Associated General Contractors of America. New England overall had a good year, with Rhode Island, Massachusetts and New Hampshire ranking second, third and fourth respectively. Forty-three states and the District of Columbia added construction jobs between February 2015 and February 2016, while construction employment increased in 27 states between January and February, according to analysis of Labor Department data. Association officials said the pullback in energy prices and farm income appeared to be dampening demand for construction in some states while firms in other states continue to expand.PC Construction works on the new transit center in Burlington in March.”In most of the country, construction continues to outpace other industries in adding jobs,” said Ken Simonson, chief economist for the association. “Contractors remain upbeat about demand for many types of projects, but they are having difficulty finding enough qualified workers.” Simonson noted that job openings spiked in January, according to the latest survey from the Bureau of Labor Statistics.California added the most construction jobs (53,800 jobs, 7.6 percent) between February 2015 and February 2016. Other states adding a high number of new construction jobs for the past 12 months include Florida (25,800 jobs, 6.2 percent), New York (19,100 jobs, 5.5 percent) and Massachusetts (14,600 jobs, 11.0 percent). Hawaii added the highest percentage of new construction jobs during the past year (19.1 percent, 6,300 jobs), followed by Rhode Island (14.6 percent, 2,400 jobs), Massachusetts, New Hampshire (10.2 percent, 2,400 jobs), Tennessee (8.8 percent, 10,200 jobs) and Vermont (7.9 percent, 1,200 jobs).North Dakota lost the highest percent and total number of construction jobs (-14.5 percent, -5,300 jobs). Other states that lost jobs for the year include Alaska (-8.2 percent, -1,500 jobs), Wyoming (-7.2 percent, -1,700 jobs), West Virginia (-6.9 percent, -2,300 jobs), Kansas (-6.5 percent, -4,000 jobs), Mississippi (-1.7 percent, -800 jobs) and Pennsylvania (-1.4 percent, -3,200 jobs).”The states with the steepest declines in construction jobs during the past 12 months have been hurt by the pullback in oil and gas drilling, coal mining and farm income,” Simonson noted. “A wide variety of influences boosted construction employment in other states, including weather that was more favorable this February than a year ago.”California added the most construction jobs between January and February (12,300 jobs, 1.6 percent). Other states adding a high number of construction jobs include Washington (5,500 jobs, 3.1 percent), New York (4,500 jobs, 1.2 percent), Michigan (3,900 jobs, 2.6 percent) and Minnesota (3,200 jobs, 2.7 percent). Washington added the highest percentage of construction jobs during the past month, followed by Kentucky (2.9 percent, 2,200 jobs), Minnesota and Michigan. Vermont was 12th (1.2 percent, 200 jobs), likely helped by the warmer weather allowing for more construction activity.Construction employment declined in 21 states and DC during the past month and held steady in Rhode Island and Tennessee. Texas shed more construction jobs than any other state (-5,300 jobs, -0.8 percent), followed by Louisiana (-4,700 jobs, -3.2 percent), Illinois (-2,400 jobs, -1.1 percent), Kansas (-1,900 jobs, -3.2 percent) and Florida (-1,800 jobs, -0.4 percent). Maine lost the highest percentage of construction jobs between January and February (-3.6 percent, -1,000 jobs), followed by Louisiana and Kansas.Association officials said the new hiring figures show contractors continue to be able to find and hire new workers despite widespread reports of labor shortages. But they cautioned that labor shortages may undermine overall employment levels in the sector in the near future.”Without additional programs to recruit and prepare new workers, especially at the high school level, firms may not be able to find new workers as demand for their services continues to expand,” said Stephen E. Sandherr, the association’s chief executive officer.
Mount Snow Resort,Resort officials say an unseasonably warm winter, rather than unforeseen delays in obtaining $52 million in foreign investor money, is the reason for a temporary lay off of an undisclosed number of employeesby Mike Faher/The Commons(link is external) A warm, unseasonable winter has forced an undisclosed number of layoffs at Mount Snow ski resort in Dover. But resort administrators expect to hire back those employees soon. And they say the furloughs aren’t related to a $52 million cash crunch in the resort’s EB-5 foreign investor program — a problem that has slowed new development at Mount Snow.“One has absolutely nothing to do with the other,” Mount Snow President Dick Deutsch said. “One is on the development side … and one is strictly operational.”Deutsch added that “just about every ski resort in New England had a sub-par season this year. So this [layoff] is not atypical of what people do in the ski resort business.”Mount Snow bills itself as “Vermont’s closest big mountain to the Northeast’s metropolitan areas.” But that wasn’t much help during a winter that featured historically warm temperatures and little natural snow.Resort spokesman Thad Quimby said Mount Snow was open for roughly a full season, though he acknowledged that a lack of snow in December 2015 made things difficult. He credited the resort’s staff for keeping the slopes open to the fullest extent possible.“From our perspective, it was a huge success in that we were able to rebound with our snowmaking,” Quimby said. He added that, throughout the winter of 2015-16, “we had all the events that we normally would have.”Quimby said he couldn’t release statistics detailing the warm winter’s impact at Mount Snow. But the resort’s parent, Missouri-based Peak Resorts, noted a 23-percent decline in skier and tuber visits companywide when releasing financial results for the quarter that ended Jan. 31.Timothy Boyd, Peak’s president and chief executive officer, said the 2015-16 ski season “got off to a late and very choppy start due to unseasonably warm weather in both our Northeast and Midwest regions.”As a result, Boyd said in March that he expected Peak’s fiscal year revenue to be down from last year because “the effect of the poor weather conditions was simply too much to overcome.”At Mount Snow, that has translated into furloughs that go above and beyond the normal springtime workforce reduction. Neither Quimby nor Deutsch would say how many employees were affected, but Deutsch characterized the positions as “seasonal, hourly” staffers.“Operationally, the impact is very minimal for us,” Quimby added. “We look forward to having all these employees back as we ramp up for the summer.”Deutsch said there is recent precedent for such reductions at Mount Snow. “In 2011-12, we had a subpar year. We did it then,” he said. “There are some ski resorts that do it every year.”He was adamant, though, that resort employment isn’t connected to EB-5 funding delays at Mount Snow.The federal EB-5 program, created by Congress in 1990, aims to stimulate the economy by allowing foreign investors to obtain visas if they contribute certain amounts to job-creating projects in the U.S. Generally, the minimum investment required is $1 million, but that is reduced to $500,000 in a “targeted employment area” like Mount Snow.The EB-5 program is under scrutiny after state and federal authorities earlier this month alleged a $200 million “Ponzi-like scheme” by developers in Vermont’s Northeast Kingdom. The allegations include EB-5-funded activities at Jay Peak and Q Burke resort properties.Deutsch took pains to separate Mount Snow’s EB-5 projects from the recent headlines, stressing that his company has “no connection to Jay Peak.” He acknowledged, though, that he is concerned that the public’s perception of EB-5 will be negatively impacted by the legal drama unfolding a few hours to the north.“I’m very concerned. I’d be foolish not to be concerned,” he said. “But it’s important to know that we are in good standing with the state of Vermont.”That’s not to say EB-5 isn’t causing some headaches at Mount Snow. The resort’s first such project — consisting of the West Lake snow-making upgrade and the new Carinthia Ski Lodge — has slowed dramatically because $52 million in foreign investment funds are in escrow while Mount Snow awaits approvals from the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS).In reporting Peak Resorts’ quarterly earnings last month, Boyd noted that the company already had invested more than $12 million in the West Lake project, which is expected to give Mount Snow six times the water-storage capacity it currently has.“We will be reimbursed for that spending when the committed funds are released from escrow,” Boyd said. “Our advisers continue to indicate that there are no areas of concern in the USCIS approval process and attribute the delay to a growing review backlog at the USCIS.”He added, though, that the “slower-than-expected timeline for approval of our EB-5 project has resulted in cash balances that are lower than we had anticipated.”Deutsch said Mount Snow and Peak Resorts have enlisted congressional help to free up the EB-5 money. But he said “we’ve not been able to get a date certain.”“We are now in our 23rd month of waiting for the immigration service to approve our first investor and our project,” Deutsch said. “We think it’s because they’ve just been deluged with thousands of applications.”Federal documents confirm that is the case. The USCIS website shows that the current, estimated waiting time for approval of an I-526 petition — the kind submitted by foreign investors under the EB-5 program — is 16.6 months.A year-by-year list of I-526 petitions details the program’s rapid growth. The government received 3,805 petitions in fiscal year 2011; 6,346 petitions in fiscal 2013; and 14,373 petitions in fiscal 2015.Officials are approving or denying thousands of petitions each year, but it isn’t happening quickly enough to avoid long waits. In the first quarter of fiscal year 2016 alone, so-called “alien entrepreneurs” filed 6,277 new I-526 petitions, and nearly 22,000 applications were listed as pending overall.While not commenting specifically on Mount Snow’s case, a USCIS spokesperson said the agency “has taken many actions to improve overall efficiency.” Those include a greater focus on clearing “aging cases” and reducing processing times.The Immigrant Investor Program Office also is hiring more adjudicators and economists to try and address the backlog: The office has 125 full-time employees and is looking to reach 171 staffers by the end of 2016, the spokesperson said.Deutsch, who also serves as a Peak Resorts vice president, said he is hoping Mount Snow’s wait is over soon.“I think the future of Mount Snow is great. We have really been very satisfied with our investment at Mount Snow,” Deutsch said. “We have invested in our [West Lake] project to date. And we hope the EB-5 project continues for many years to come.”Originally published in The Commons issue #354 (Wednesday, April 27, 2016). www.commonsnews.org(link is external)