Shumlin Administration Facing Staff Exodus Posted by Paul Heintz (Please note: This is an April Fools Day story)
Just three months into his second term, Gov. Peter Shumlin is facing an unprecedented exodus of senior staff members and cabinet officials, Seven Days has learned.
Chief of staff Elizabeth Miller, deputy chief of staff and spokeswoman Sue Allen and legislative liaison Louis Porter all plan to leave the governor's office by the end of the month, administration officials confirmed late Sunday.
Meanwhile, two top cabinet members — Agency of Human Services Secretary Doug Racine and Commerce Secretary Lawrence Miller — are also planning their departures.
It's unclear whether the changes on the fifth floor of the Pavilion State Office Building are the result of a house-cleaning, a staff insurrection, or are mere coincidence. Just last week, the architect of Shumlin's single-payer health care plan, Anya Rader Wallack, announced she will step down in September as chairwoman of the Green Mountain Care Board.
Miller, a Burlington lawyer who served as Shumlin's secretary of public service before taking over as chief of staff in January, plans to join Green Mountain Power as vice president of a new solar division. She'll be tasked with implementing the company's ambitious plan to build an 18-megawatt solar farm on state land on the southern and western slopes of Camel's Hump.
"We're excited to be joined by such a talented and dynamic leader," said GMP spokeswoman Dotty Schnure, who confirmed the hire. "Plus, it's been about 10 months since we've hired someone out of state government."
Though Allen and Porter will no longer be working for the governor, they'll continue to work together. Both are rejoining their alma mater: the Barre-Montpelier Times Argus.
Allen, who previously served as the paper's top editor, will take that role again, according to Times Argus publisher Thom Lauzon. Allen will be charged with coordinating the merger of the Times Argus and its sister paper, the Rutland Herald, with Vermont Public Radio, the Burlington Free Press and VTDigger.org. The combined entity is tentatively being called the VermontPressHeraldArgus.org.
Porter — a former chief of the Vermont Press Bureau, which provides Statehouse coverage to the Times Argus and Herald — will rejoin the beleaguered entity and supervise the consolidation of all Statehouse bureaus into one. He'll also pen a Sunday outdoors column for the TA called, "Floatin' with Louis."
"People keep saying I've gone through the revolving door," said Porter, who joined the Shumlin administration in December as secretary of civil and military affairs. "Well, now I really have. Just not as often as Sue."
In perhaps the most surprising move of the Shumlin shakeup, the governor's human services secretary and one-time political rival is planning to join a prominent business advocacy group in early May. Racine, a former lieutenant governor and state senator, has been hired by the Vermont Chamber of Commerce as its chief legislative lobbyist.
"We've been truly impressed by Sec. Racine's recent commitment to holding the line on new revenues and ensuring that Vermont businesses can compete in the 21st century," explained Chamber president Betsy Bishop. "Doug understands that it's time for low-income Vermonters to pay their fair share."
Racine isn't the only cabinet member on his way out the door.
Commerce Secretary Miller confirms that he'll be joining Anheuser-Busch to assist in its planned corporate takeover of three Vermont breweries: Hill Farmstead, Lawson's Finest Liquids and the Alchemist. Miller, who founded Otter Creek Brewing, tells Seven Days he's looking forward to returning to an industry in which daytime drinking is even more acceptable than politics.
"Fuck, yeah!" Miller said.
Not everybody in the Shumlin administration is planning to leave. Secretary of Administration Jeb Spaulding said early Monday he's staying put.
"Why would I leave? I love being governor! Ahem, I mean, administration secretary," Spaulding said. "Anyway, I'm the only one around here who does any work."
Spaulding says it's too soon to say who will replace his departing colleagues, though he hinted that several former Douglas administration officials are being considered. He added that former Essex and Orleans state senator Vince Illuzzi has already applied for all five vacant positions. A confused-looking former state auditor Tom Salmon also recently showed up at the Pavilion with copies of his resume, Spaulding said.
One top contender to replace Allen as gubernatorial spokesperson is Green Mountain Daily's John Walters, whose experience carrying water for Vermont Democrats would make him a perfect fit. Walters has also pledged to work without pay from his mother's basement.
Administration officials declined a request from Seven Days Monday morning to interview Shumlin about the situation. According to Allen, the governor and Jay Peak owner Bill Stenger are en route to New Jersey in the state-owned Cessna to entice overtaxed millionaires and billionaires to purchase EB-5 visas and immigrate to Vermont.
Begin forwarded message:
From:"Allen, Susan" <Susan.Allen@state.vt.us>
Subject: AFTERNOON MEDIA CLIPS FOR THURSDAY, MARCH 28:
Date: March 28, 2013 4:13:17 PM EDT
To: "Allen, Susan" <Susan.Allen@state.vt.us>
BURLINGTON FREE PRESS:
Vermont House considers marijuana decriminalization bill Proposal would make possession of small amounts of marijuana a civil offense, like a traffic ticket TERRI HALLENBECK MONTPELIER — The House Judiciary Committee began to hear testimony Thursday on a bill to decriminalize small amounts of marijuana.
Rep. Chris Pearson, P-Burlington, told the members that this bill is not about legalizing the drug, but instead seeks to make 2 ounces or less subject to a civil fine like a traffic ticket.
Public Safety Commissioner Keith Flynn said he supports decriminalization but not at 2 ounces.
Committee Chairman Bill Lippert said the amount will be a key part of committee discussions. He said the committee will hear more testimony next Wednesday and he expects to vote a bill out next week or the week after.
Tax bill opponents in House have numbers to support a veto House Republican leader says caucus chose to voice its opposition to the tax bill, but not offer amendments to dismantle it in order to solidify rather than splinter opposition to the package. NANCY REMSEN MONTPELIER — Opponents of the $27 million tax package that a majority in the House passed this morning may have lost the battle, but they showed they had enough muscle to sustain a veto, should Gov. Peter Shumlin choose that route later in the session.
In Wednesday’s vote to give the bill preliminary approval, opponents mustered 55 votes to supporters 85. The 55 included eight Democrats, one Progressive and one independent. The final vote on passage was by voice vote.
The governor has said he doesn’t like the House tax bill. He will press the Senate to rewrite the tax bill and he will have some allies there.
“Dick Mazza is not going to go along,” Sen. Richard Mazza, D-Chittenden/Grand Isle, said of the House package in a comment to House Republican Leader Don Turner of Milton when they passed on the Statehouse corridor Thursday morning.
Turner explained that his caucus chose to voice its opposition to the tax bill, but not offer a raft of amendments trying to dismantle it in order to solidify rather than splinter opposition to the package.
“This allows us to show the governor there was enough opposition,” Turner said, referring to 51 votes needed to support a veto. “If he thinks it is that bad and he decides to veto it, there are enough votes to sustain.”
Senate President Pro Tempore John Campbell, D-Windsor, offered no hints about what the Senate might do with the revenue bill.
On one hand he said, “I think the House Ways and Mans has done an incredible job.” In the same breath, Campbell said, “We will just take all of it as recommendations.”
The lone amendment that Republicans tried unsuccessfully to make to the tax bill also supported a Shumlin initiative — to make permanent a moratorium-imposed sales tax exemption on cloud computing.
The moratorium on assessing the sales tax on the purchase of pre-written software via the Internet expires on July 1. The tax is projected to raise $2.3 million, with $800,000 going to the Education Fund.
Rep. Heidi Scheuermann, R-Stowe, said exempting cloud computing from the sales tax offered the Legislature “an opportunity to try to grow our economy rather than stifle it.”
Rep. Paul Ralston, D-Middlebury, joined Scheuermann in calling for an exemption for this sector of the economy.
“Taxes do change behavior,” Ralston said. “This tax will change behavior. I urge you to think about that when you vote.” He explained later that while the tax might not have a big financial impact on business, psychologically this is a “devastating blow.”
Ways and Means Committee Chairwoman Janet Ancel, D-Calais, said her panel didn’t consider the cloud tax exemption during its deliberations on the options for its tax package. She noted, however, that allowing the tax to take effect would not make Vermont an island. “We would not be an outlier in taxing pre-written software.”
The vote on the cloud computing amendment failed by a vote of 90-50, but the number of opponents, which included Democrats, suggested the governor could count on some help on trying to win support for holding off on the tax.
Energy bill leaves Senate without another fight TERRI HALLENBECK MONTPELIER — The Senate voted Thursday to send the pared-down energy bill to the House without any of the fight that had surrounded the issue two days earlier.
The bill, which started out as a moratorium on wind, has become largely a study of the effects and effectiveness of wind energy. Whether that bill will ever pass the House remains unclear.
Those who wanted to give communities more say on wind and other energy projects opted Thursday against trying to restore measures that would do that in the bill, despite coming close with a 16-14 vote Tuesday.
Sen. Robert Hartwell, D-Bennington, chairman of the Senate Natural Resources & Energy Committee and a supporter of the original moratorium, said any notion of a moratorium is dead for the year. He said efforts to require that Act 250 land-use criteria be used in siting energy projects, as he sought to do with the bill Tuesday, are also likely off the table this year.
Hartwell said some lawmakers might still try to require developers to give towns at least six months’ notice of a project by attaching that measure to other legislation this year.
A state siting commission is due to come out with recommendations for changes the state might consider to locating energy projects in response to complaints that neighbors do not have enough say.
TIMES ARGUS/RUTLAND HERALD:
Vermont Republicans expected to offer amendment to budget By Peter Hirschfeld MONTPELIER – Having failed in their bid to derail a tax bill that would raise more than $20 million in new revenue next year, House Republicans have now turned their focus toward changing the ways in which Democrats want to spend the money.
The GOP super-minority will offer an amendment to the budget Friday that would ax spending on new programs and redirect the money to buy down public-pension obligations and bolster rainy-day reserves.
The amendment will undoubtedly fail, and by a wide margin. But House Minority Leader Don Turner said his caucus is at least making its points.
“Vermont needs to get its fiscal house in order,”Turner said Thursday. “It's already very expensive to live in Vermont. And these (budget and tax) bills make it much, much worse.”
Turner said that at the outset of the session, he presented House Speaker Shap Smith with the conditions that would be needed to earn his caucus' support for the fiscal year 2014 spending plan. They included: an overall spending increase of not more than 3 percent; limiting new employees to the 17 positions needed to staff the new state hospital; and the creation of a $20 million reserve to absorb looming cuts in federal aid.
“We knew full well we wouldn't achieve everything on this, but we hoped to see some movement on some,” Turner said. “This budget being brought to the floor does not do that.”
Read more about Thursday's budget fight in Friday's edition of The Times Argus.
Students complete career readiness program MONTPELIER — At just 15, Shaylee Martin knows she wants to become a preschool teacher. Taylor Beaudet, 16, is interested in graphic design. And Dylan Martin, 17, a senior, plans to be a truck driver after high school.
They are among 11 Williamstown High School students who have completed a 15-week pilot program run by their school and the Community College of Vermont to get them ready for work or college after high school. The school was among six in Vermont that were awarded grants in the fall of 2011 to engage in innovative learning.
During the fall and winter, the Williamstown students learned how to put together resumes and an online portfolio of themselves and worked on computer, speaking and collaboration skills. They took tests to assess their achievements in reading and math. And they did some of that outside of school, at Community College on Vermont.
“We weren’t just stuck in the classroom five days a week,” Martin said. “We actually got to go to CCV and try different things.”
On Thursday, Gov. Peter Shumlin presented them with the Governor’s Career Ready Certificates at the Statehouse. Later they met with legislators to talk about what they’ve learned.
Beadet said she and some other students impressed perspective employers at a technology job fair in Winooski when they handed out their resumes for possible summer internships.
“They were impressed with the resumes because they hadn’t seen many kids actually had resumes with them,” she said. She doesn’t have job experience to list but can tell potential employers what she’s interested in and good at.
The program is part of a move to find different ways to engage kids in their learning, said Williamstown High School Principal Scott Lang.
“We’re a rural, pretty poor community with not a lot of families who are educated. So for many of our kids it’s a first experience,” he said.
The Legislature is considering a bill that would combine and expand secondary school programs including dual enrollment and early college to increase the number of students completing school and help prepare them for life after high school.
“It offers a lot of different choices for kids. It keeps them engaged,” said Johannah Donovan, chairwoman of the House Education Committee. “Oftentimes it gets these kids working toward a future and they actually have concrete plans.”
Vt. town wants to keep state police office ST. JOHNSBURY — The St. Johnsbury select board wants to keep the Vermont State Police barracks in town, but a high ranking trooper says it’s likely the office will be moving in several years.
This week the select board voted unanimously urging the state police to keep their regional office just off Route 5 south of the downtown.
State Police Capt. Tim Clouatre says long-term plans call for consolidating the office in St. Johnsbury with another in Bradford by building a new facility in Barnet.
Clouatre says troopers aren’t as tied to offices as they used to be because their cruisers have much of the equipment they need, including computers and video cameras, and they carry cellphones.
Capital City eyes going solar MONTPELIER — It’s too early to break into a chorus of “Good Day Sunshine” but city councilors this week moved a step closer, approving the issue of a formal Request for Information to explore building a privately developed solar array on a yet-to-be-determined piece of municipal property.
If all goes as outlined by council member Anne Watson, the array could be built at no net cost to the city.
“I’ve read the material and it sounds fantastic,” said councilor Tom Golonka. “It’s almost too good to be true.”
The project could be funded by the developer through a combination of tax incentives, grants, and possible 3rd or 4th party funding according to a draft of a request for proposal that is posted on the city’s website. The array would be hooked up directly to Green Mountain Power’s grid and the city would receive stable electric rates negotiated with the successful developer. Rates terms could be negotiated for as long as ten or twenty years, with the option for the city to purchase the array at the end of the contract.
“I think that we are looking at doing one installation at first and if that works maybe we would do it again,” City Manager Bill Fraser said.
Dan Jones, chairman of the city’s energy committee, who was not in attendance at Wednesday night’s meeting, said he would encourage the city to explore building several different arrays.
“The city gets a predictable future energy cost and the bill for the city will be well below the cost from the utilities, so the more we have the more we save,” he said.
Among the potential sites mentioned for the array are municipal land adjacent to the city wastewater treatment plant, and land near Berlin Pond. In order for the array to be effective it must be sited will be sited to gain optimum sunlight and heat.
The city would need several acres to install a 150 kilowatt (kw) array and as many as seven or eight acres for a 500kw array. A 150kw array produces 150 killowats per hour on a bright sunny day, while per hour production in the cloud-covered months of winter could drop below 50 percent. Both solar power production and electricity demands on the grid are generally highest during sunny summer months. It is too soon to determine the eventual savings such an array would produce, but they would definitely help to bring down costs substantially over time.
Windsor Hospital to Close Nursing Home CHRIS FLEISHER Windsor — Nearly two dozen nursing home residents in Windsor must find a new place to live in the coming months after Mt. Ascutney Hospital and Health Center announced it would close its nursing home Sept. 1 because of lower funding from Medicare.
The 25-bed facility had been facing financial difficulties for years, but a 2 percent cut in the hospital’s Medicare funding scheduled to take effect April 1 pushed the situation over the top and forced Mt. Ascutney to cease providing nursing home care, hospital CEO Kevin Donovan Donovan said yesterday.
Hospital officials informed the nursing home residents, their families and staff Tuesday night and told the rest of the hospital yesterday morning. In all, 23 residents and 35 full- and part-time staff will be affected, Donovan said.
The decrease in Medicare funding is part of the federal spending cuts known as sequestration, and will result in about $500,000 less annual revenue for Mt. Ascutney. Donovan said the hospital was also hampered by a 3 percent revenue growth cap set by the Green Mountain Care Board, the regulatory authority created by the state in 2011 to oversee hospital budgets and help rein in health care costs. The cap restricts the hospital’s ability to boost patient revenue in other areas in order to make up the Medicare shortfall.
The decision to close the nursing home was a difficult one, Donovan said. But, when looking at how Mt. Ascutney could absorb Medicare cuts with the least amount of impact to the community, the nursing home was the obvious choice.
“We need to continue to focus on where the greatest demand is and where people have the greatest need,” Donovan said. “It doesn’t mean (nursing care) is not a great service. It doesn’t mean we don’t provide wonderful care. ... It just really means, unfortunately, if we want to stay open, sustainable long term, we need to focus on where the greatest community need and impact are.”
Mt. Ascutney sees about 15,000 patients at its physician provider clinics every year and 11,500 at the hospital, Donovan said. There are also 4,000 patients who come through the emergency room. That compares to the approximately 33 nursing home residents who are admitted to Mt. Ascutney every year.
Closing the nursing home will improve the hospital’s bottom line by $1.2 million, Donovan said. That money will go to other services, including an expansion of its inpatient rehabilitation program. That program will occupy the nursing home space when it closes.
The priority now, however, is finding new places for the 23 residents to live, Donovan said. Mt. Ascutney has been working with the state and local organizations to place them in other homes.
Residents’ relocation will be handled on a case by case basis, Donovan said, and depend largely on a person’s needs and what is available.
Nursing home administrator Barbara Voorhees said information packets would be sent out to residents and their families soon to help them learn about the other places where they might relocate. She is encouraging them to visit other long-term care facilities and make a list of their favorites so that Mt. Ascutney can help refer them to a place that will suit their needs.
“One of the things I can do is help that process go the smoothest it can,” she said. “We don’t want families to have to worry about all the details they shouldn’t have to worry about.”
The options for nursing home care in Vermont have dwindled over the years as the state shifts emphasis toward less intensive home-based and assisted living situations.
Two other Vermont nursing homes closed last year — McGirr Rehabilitation and Nursing Care Center in Bellows Falls, and Prospect Nursing Home in North Bennington. As of last December, there were 3,237 licensed nursing home beds in the state, including those that do not accept Medicaid, according to the latest figures available from the Vermont Department of Disabilities, Aging and Independent Living. That number is down from 3,475 in 2005.
The state has a goal to have half of its residents with long-term care needs in nursing homes, and the other half in less-intensive, home and assisted living communities.
Vermont has just about achieved that equilibrium, said Laura Pelosi, who handles government relations for the Vermont Health Care Association, a group that represents nursing homes in the state. The concern now should be on maintaining quality of care and making sure the state has enough beds to support Vermont’s growing elderly population.
“The focus on the number of beds really isn’t appropriate,” Pelosi said. “With the aging population and high acuity we have at nursing homes, we need that resource to remain viable. ... Our perspective is that the focus should be on quality and not bed reduction.”
The revenue growth cap, while perhaps challenging to hospitals, is not the only financial pressure they face, said Green Mountain Care Board Chairwoman Anya Rader Wallack. Every hospital needs to look at ways of cutting costs and being more efficient, and the cap is one way of pushing hospitals to do that, she said.
“We’re very concerned with the fact that health care costs have been growing faster than income growth and our ability to pay for health care,” she said.
Mt. Ascutney has been working with other nursing homes to see who might be able to accept residents over the next four months. The ability of other providers to do so could become an issue, however.
Cedar Hill Continuing Care Community in Windsor is one of the organizations Mt. Ascutney has been working with. Cedar Hill has 39 nursing beds, 38 of which are currently occupied, said Patricia Horn, Cedar Hill’s administrator and co-owner. Five Cedar Hill residents are there on a short-term basis for rehabilitation, which would open up a few beds, but Horn said she could not take on all of Mt. Ascutney’s residents.
“No one thinks we could accommodate all 23 residents,” Horn said. “And not all of them will want to come to Cedar Hill. This is really going to be a decision by the residents and the families.”
Cedar Hill is hoping to build a two-story addition that would add 40 beds for assisted living and memory impairment care. Also, Mt. Ascutney is exploring the potential to transfer 11 licensed nursing home beds to Cedar Hill, Donovan said. All of this requires further planning and regulatory approval from the state that is unlikely to be finished by Sept. 1.
Even if the state signed off on the transfer of beds to Cedar Hill, the nursing home would need to make sure it was financially viable, Horn said.
“When Mt. Ascutney started talking to us, we said of course we’ll consider it,” she said. “But we have to see financially if it’s feasible.”
Nursing home care is very expensive, requiring staff and facilities that less intensive options don’t. Voorhees said 80 percent of Mt. Ascutney residents are on Medicaid, which does not reimburse the full cost of care. And as reimbursements continue to get cut, the financial outlook for nursing homes gets dimmer.
Mt. Ascutney has cut the number of nursing home beds several times over the years, going from 66 originally down to 50, and then reducing the number to 25 in 2007.
Donovan hopes to retain as much of the staff as possible. Existing employees will get first consideration for any open positions elsewhere in the hospital.
“My hope and my desire is that as many of those 35 people that work here today can still continue to work here on Sept. 1, albeit maybe in different roles or departments than they do today,” he said.
One of them is Mary Desmarais, who has worked at the nursing home for 39 years. As a case manager, she helps admit and discharge patients from the facility, enroll them in Medicaid and attends to their other needs.
Yesterday was a difficult one for Desmarais and the rest of the staff, some of whom have family members in the nursing home. Desmarais is proud of the work she has done and the level of care the nursing home has been able to provide. Large banners proclaiming it U.S. News and World Report’s “Best Nursing Homes 2011” still hang around the hospital.
Desmarais said she hoped to continue working at the hospital. She understands the financial pressures on Mt. Ascutney, and while she wasn’t surprised at the closing, she was nevertheless disappointed.
She will be working with patients and their families to find other accommodations over the coming months, even as she navigates her own questions about where she’ll work after the facility closes.
“Personally, it’s difficult,” she said, her eyes reddening. “It certainly has been a lifelong passion. I would say I’m very dedicated to this facility. ...