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

An incendiary allegation at the heart of a Newsweek story on Vermont’s health insurance exchange claims that contractors willfully deceived state officials about the readiness of the new website.

But Commissioner of Vermont Health Access Mark Larson says he doesn’t believe the alleged incident is “based in any truth or evidence.”

AP File/Toby Talbot

The good news is that the biggest construction project in state history is on budget. The bad news is that it might not be on budget for long.

A deal with a construction firm has cleared the way for the rebuild of the state office complex in Waterbury. But lingering uncertainties over the massive renovation still threaten to add to the project's costs. 

Technological glitches on the new health insurance exchange are having a ripple effect on information technology projects across state government. And a $100 million computer upgrade has now been put on hold as state officials work to resolve their digital problems.

The computer system at the Agency of Human Services has been around since the 1980s. And state officials say its old age and weak performance is hobbling their ability to reform the social safety net.

Lawmakers have been working for years on reforms to the state’s premier land conservation program. But differences between the House and Senate are again threatening to derail legislation.

The Current Use program has been around since the late 1970s. And land-use experts say it’s probably the most successful conservation program in the history of Vermont.

The Shumlin Administration is moving ahead with plans for a publicly financed health care system. But one group is working hard to derail the governor’s single-payer proposal. And a new documentary commissioned by the group is making the rounds at screening rooms across the state.

Darcie Johnston is the founder and director of Vermonters for Health Care Freedom. She says the group spent $25,000 to produce the documentary, called Vermont Experiments.

Flanked by former Republican Gov. James Douglas, a political newcomer announced a candidacy for the Vermont House Tuesday that will pit her against two well-known Democrats in Montpelier.

Republican Valerie Mullin, a mother of three who works as an independent beauty consultant for Mary Kay cosmetics, says Vermont’s tax burden is too high, and that Democrats’ push for single-payer health care will harm the medical system in this state.

The fight over laws governing involuntary medication has turned into an emotional debate, as quickly became evident at a public hearing Thursday night in Montpelier.

Deb Ward-Lyons was among the parents of mentally ill children to speak out in favor of legislation that would expedite the forced medication process. And when it was her turn to speak, she recited words written by her son in the midst of a psychotic break.

Screamin' Ridge Farm

For Joe Buley, there was the matter of the potatoes. As Buley’s burgeoning soup-making operation took hold, the process of removing skin from spud was consuming ever greater portions of his employees’ work days.

So when the Working Lands Enterprise Board advertised its first round of grants in 2012, Buley applied for a $15,000 award. And when the check arrived, the owner of Screamin’ Ridge Farm in Montpelier bought himself a commercial potato peeler.

Wilson Ring / AP/file

By an overwhelming majority, the Vermont House on Wednesday advanced a bill that aims to expand the number of small-scale solar energy projects in Vermont. Supporters say the legislation will deliver both environmental and economic benefits.

The bill passed the House by a 136-8 margin, and it deals with something called "net metering." Even people unfamiliar with the term have likely begun to notice its impact on the state.

VPR/Peter Hirschfeld

Rep. Chris Pearson is the leader of the Progressive Party caucus in the Vermont House of Representatives. And he sometimes likes to use oversized graphs to illustrate his point.

“I’ll just highlight a couple of charts, and these come from the joint Fiscal Office,” Pearson said at a news conference in the Statehouse Tuesday. “This one is to me staggering.”

Gov. Peter Shumlin announced Monday that he appointed Michael Sirotkin, a registered lobbyist, to fill the vacant Senate seat of Sirotkin's late wife Sally Fox.

Fox died of a rare form of lung cancer Jan. 10.

A press release from Shumlin's office said Sirotkin will start work in the Senate on Feb. 11. The Senate has been operating with 29 members instead of its normal 30 since the legislative session started at the beginning of the month.

Angela Evancie / VPR file

The Legislature is settling into its session, with most of the work taking place off the floor and in committee. Some of the main issues before lawmakers this week were health care and transportation funding.

Broadcast on Saturday, January 25, 2014 at 8:35 a.m.

Learn more about VPR's coverage of the Vermont Legislature.

Inequality For All

Robert Reich is the star of a new movie. And Bernie Sanders probably could have written the script.

This weekend, the two men will host a screening of Reich’s new documentary, Inequality for All. Reich and Sanders have been preaching the same progressive gospel for years. And Reich says the message finally seems to be resonating.

VPR/Peter Hirschfeld

It’s being called the fiscal sinkhole. And it could be coming to a road near you.

In his budget address last week, Gov. Peter Shumlin unveiled a plan for record-setting transportation spending. But partisan politics in Washington, D.C., could soon threaten some of that money.

The problem is in the Federal Highway Trust Fund, a multi-billion dollar pot of money that accounts for about half of Vermont’s annual road budget. And it’s going to run dry in September unless Congress votes to fill it back up.

When federal lawmakers finally came to a budget deal last month, they did so at the expense of military retirees. The congressional spending plan reduced cost-of-living adjustments for veterans’ pensions. And that provision is expected to cost former service members $6 billion in lost income over the next 10 years. 

As local school boards put the finishing touches on the budget proposals they’ll put before voters in March, Gov. Peter Shumlin continues to push for austerity from afar.

After telling Vermonters in his budget address last week to closely scrutinize spending proposals on Town Meeting Day, Shumlin used his weekly press conference to reinforce the message.

Asked by reporters how he can tell school boards to keep costs down when his own state budget proposal for next year exceeds the rate of inflation, Shumlin said that’s “easy.”

Peter Hirschfeld / VPR

Vermont lawmakers are at a critical juncture in their quest for a publicly financed health care system. And they’re bringing aboard a $10,000-a-month consultant to help them get it right.

The Legislature already has a small staff of fiscal analysts to call on. But as lawmakers undertake the most ambitious health care reform agenda in state history, they’re spending some money on outside experts.

In a State of the State address devoted entirely to what he says is Vermont’s “full blown heroin crisis,” Gov. Peter Shumlin on Jan. 8 announced $10 million in new spending on an addiction treatment infrastructure plagued by long waiting lists and a shortage of providers.

“Let’s start treating drug addiction as the immediate health crisis that it is by dramatically increasing treatment across Vermont,” Shumlin said.

Anya Rader Wallack

The man in charge of developing the financing mechanism for Gov. Peter Shumlin’s single-payer health care plan made his first appearance of the year before the Legislature Friday.

That man is Michael Costa, a lawyer whose title in the Shumlin Administration is deputy director of health care reform.

But Costa isn’t tipping the administration’s hand about what taxes will be used to pay for the new system.

VPR/Peter Hirschfeld

Four years ago, lawmakers worked to help wrongfully convicted inmates obtain the DNA evidence needed to win their release. This year, the Legislature will try to prevent innocent suspects from going to jail in the first place. 

Dennis Maher had to spend 19 years in prison before the arrival of DNA evidence  proved he wasn’t guilty of the rape charge that landed him there. Maher can trace the roots of his wrongful conviction to a photo line-up in which the victim misidentified him as the perpetrator of the crime.

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