Peter Hirschfeld

Reporter

Peter Hirschfeld covers state government and the Vermont Legislature. He is based in VPR’s Capital Bureau located across the street from Vermont’s Statehouse.

Hirschfeld is a leading Vermont journalist who has covered the Statehouse since 2009, most recently as bureau chief for the Rutland Herald and Times Argus. He began his career in 2003, working as a local sports reporter and copy editor at the Times Argus.

Ways to Connect

Frustrated by the lack of movement this year by the Shumlin Administration, the Vermont Senate is pressing forward with legislation related to single payer health care. And while lawmakers won’t take up the issue of public financing this year, they are assuming a more assertive role in the health care reform process.

Lawmakers are on track this year to raise Vermont’s minimum wage. But just how big a jump Democrats will push through the Legislature is still up for debate. And the fight for higher wages is about to heat up.

President Barack Obama has made raising the minimum wage one of the centerpieces of his second-term economic agenda. Obama wants to increase the minimum wage to $10.10 by 2017. And Gov. Peter Shumlin has decided he wants Vermont to show the way.

Campaign finance reports submitted Monday show that Gov. Peter Shumlin is resting on a seven-figure war chest heading into the 2014 election season.

Shumlin’s largesse comes thanks to out-of-state donors, who have contributed more than $240,000 to the second-term Democrat since last July. Shumlin raised only about $80,000 from Vermonters.

An effort to mandate paid sick days for all Vermont workers appears destined to wither on the vine this year. But at least one class of employees could soon be enjoying the new benefit.

The union that represents state workers and the Shumlin Administration have struck a tentative deal on issues surrounding the use of temporary employees. And the agreement would provide up to five days of paid sick leave per year for all temps working in state government.

Anya Rader Wallack

Gov. Peter Shumlin has again postponed the unveiling of financing options for single-payer health care. But one lawmaker says the administration needs to show its cards. And she’s taking action to press the issue.

Rep. Cynthia Browning, D-Arlington, filed a public records request with the Agency of Administration this week seeking access to all internal documents related to single-payer financing.

Lawmakers are looking to solve a glitch in the welfare system that can discourage low-income Vermonters from taking good-paying jobs. But addressing the problem will cost money. And advocates for needy residents are concerned about the funding mechanism.

For some welfare recipients, getting a promotion can be costly. That's due to an odd phenomenon known as the "benefits cliff." And it happens when the additional income from a pay raise isn’t enough to offset the reductions in state assistance that could come as a result.

A key committee in the Vermont House has unveiled a plan to slash 2 cents from the statewide property tax rate. And the proposal includes some of the staunchest efforts yet by Democrats to curb spending on public education.

As things stand now, the statewide property tax rate is headed for a 7-cent increase next year – the highest single jump in the history of the modern education funding system. But lawmakers look poised to intervene. And on Wednesday, the House Committee on Ways and Means unveiled a bill that would cut 2 cents from the tax rate.

State officials say a newly disclosed security breach involving Vermont Health Connect has not jeopardized the personal data of consumers. But a critic of the new health insurance website isn’t convinced the incident was so benign. And this latest episode promises to spark yet another political dustup over the massive reform initiative.

State officials don’t know who broke into the system, or what they wanted. But from an Internet address that was later traced to Romania, the attacker in December made his way undetected into a server located in Phoenix, Ariz.

The Shumlin Administration earlier this year promised to give lawmakers their first look at how Vermont might pay for single-payer health care. But the governor has once again opted to delay his financing timeline.

It’s been three years since Peter Shumlin vowed to deliver the nation’s first publicly financed health care system. But he has yet to show voters what taxes he’d use to raise the $2 billion or so  needed to fund the program.

With the shooting deaths of 20 first-graders in Newtown, Conn., still fresh on lawmakers’ minds, Linda Waite-Simpson figured the time was right last year for a debate about gun control here in Vermont.

The Essex lawmaker focused on what she thought were reasonable concessions – things like background checks on gun sales, and bringing state law in line with federal statutes. But as Waite-Simpson would quickly learn, the Vermont Statehouse is bleak territory for advocates of gun control.

As results on school budget votes poured in from across the state Tuesday night, local board members weren’t the only ones taking notice. Lawmakers too were keeping a close eye on voting trends. And legislators like Rep. Joey Donovan, D-Burlington, the chairwoman of the House Committee on Education, say the message was loud and clear.

“I think there’s a little bit of revolution afoot,” Donovan says. “I think people want to support kids, but they want to know they’re doing it in a real cost-effective way.”

The gun-control group that won big in Burlington on Tuesday is promising to continue its advocacy in the Legislature. But the early legislative prognosis for three proposed charter changes is looking grim.

The voters of Burlington approved three charter changes Tuesday that would institute new restrictions on firearm owners in the state’s largest city. But the changes will need sign-off from the Legislature before they can go into effect. And House Speaker Shap Smith on Wednesday said chances for that happening aren’t too promising.

One of the most contentious municipal races of the year ended Tuesday night when Montpelier Mayor John Hollar defeated challenger Gwen Hallsmith. And the incumbent says the result represents a vote of confidence in city leadership.­­­­­

It was a bitter battle, waged between two candidates whose mutual disdain for each other became center stage in a very public political grudge match.

A pair of Republican lawmakers wants to throw out the state’s education funding system. And they’re asking Vermonters to sign on to the cause.

A petition posted to change.org Sunday seeks signatures from residents who support a move to repeal Act 60/68 effective July 1 of 2016, and replace it with some other yet-to-identified public financing mechanism.

The union that represents state employees says the Shumlin Administration is relying too heavily on temporary workers. And proposed legislation from the Vermont State Employees Association aims to turn many of those temps into fulltime government employees.

Temps aren’t counted as state employees. But they play a significant role in the operation of Vermont’s government. In fiscal year 2013 alone, the state spent more than $15 million on wages for temporary workers. And the state workers union says things are getting out of hand.

Thirteen years ago, Kay Curtis transformed the two-car garage attached to her Brattleboro home into a small childcare facility. She calls it Happy Hands: A Little School for Little People. And of the 16 families she serves, 12 pay with childcare subsidies supplied by state government.

But those subsidies haven’t increased much over the past decade. And as a small businesswoman consumed by the day-to-day of caring for small children, Curtis isn’t exactly able to negotiate her compensations rates with the state of Vermont.

Peter Hirschfeld / VPR

The roughest politics in Montpelier are usually found in the Statehouse or governor’s office. But at City Hall this year, a combative race for mayor is as fierce as anything going on under the Golden Dome.

The contest pits incumbent John Hollar against the challenger Gwen Hallsmith, who also happens to be the city’s recently fired planning director. And neither has made much effort to veil his or her contempt for the other.

Hallsmith has had especially cross words for Hollar, whom she says orchestrated her termination from city government last November.

The Vermont Senate has advanced a controversial bill dealing with the involuntary medication of patients with mental illness.

Hospitals, doctors and the families of some patients have asked lawmakers to speed up the process used to determine whether mentally ill patients should be medicated against their will.

They say the existing legal procedure can drag on for months. Bennington Senator Dick Sears said that can unnecessarily delay the recovery of people unable to recognize their need for treatment.

Toby Talbot / AP

 As the Shumlin Administration fine tunes its case to lawmakers for a publicly financed health care system, the governor is tapping a familiar name to help make the sale.

Former House Majority Leader Floyd Nease left the Statehouse in 2011. But he’s maintained relationships with many of the lawmakers he served with. And he’ll put them to good use as the latest addition to the team of administration officials spearheading the governor’s single-payer agenda.

John Dillon / VPR file

The stage is set for a historic vote next year on a public financing plan for single-payer health care. And the head of the Vermont Republican Party says that if Vermonters care about what happens in 2015, then they need to think long hard about how they vote in 2014.

When it comes to elections, all eyes are usually on the high-profile races at the top of the ticket. But David Sunderland is devoting much of his attention in 2014 to races in the House and Senate.

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