Politics

Final Reading: 'Gut-wrenching'

Protesters hold up fists
Abortion-rights advocates rallied at the Statehouse in May 2019 to protest abortion restrictions in other states. Now, Vermont's political leaders are reacting to the news that the U.S. Supreme Court is poised to overturn Roe v. Wade. File photo by Mike Dougherty/VTDigger

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When Vermont political leaders saw the news that the U.S. Supreme Court was poised to strike down nationwide abortion protections that have stood for nearly five decades, they couldn’t believe it was real.

Senate President Pro Tempore Becca Balint, D-Windham, told reporters at a Wednesday morning news conference that in the hours after Politico published a leaked draft opinion, in which Justice Samuel Alito explicitly calls for the overturning of Roe v. Wade and Planned Parenthood v. Casey, “it became absolutely clear that it was horribly real.”

Lt. Gov. Molly Gray said she at first doubted the authenticity of the leaked draft and couldn’t believe there was a leak from within the famously tight-lipped Supreme Court. But when the document was corroborated by Chief Justice John Roberts, she said, the news felt “dystopian.”

House Speaker Jill Krowinski, D-Burlington, told reporters Wednesday that she is angry, but unsurprised, that “a conservative, handpicked Supreme Court is poised to overturn Roe v. Wade.” Krowinski previously worked for Planned Parenthood, and to hear the news Monday night was “gut-wrenching,” she said.

“I immediately thought of the network of health care providers across the country and what it means for them, what it means for people across this country who had this access and who won't, and who will be targeted, and will be forced to carry a pregnancy,” she said.

“Gut-wrenching. It was gut-wrenching,” she repeated, shaking her head.

Balint said her mind flashed to the women she knows in her own life who have had abortions.

“They’re our sisters. They’re our moms. They’re our cousins. They’re our daughters. They are our family members and neighbors,” Balint said. “This issue is often talked about that it impacts unnamed strangers. There's a reason why the majority of Americans support reproductive freedom. They want to control their own bodies, and they want their loved ones to be able to control their own bodies.”

The leaked opinion is only a draft, and not a final decision as of Wednesday. Abortion is still legal at the federal level, though many states have imposed significant restrictions for patients attempting to obtain the procedure.

If and when Roe is struck down, abortion will remain legal in Vermont thanks to a law signed in 2019. In November, Vermonters can vote on Proposal 5, which would enshrine the right to an abortion in the state constitution. If Prop 5 passes, Vermont would be the first state in the nation to make such a constitutional amendment.

— Sarah Mearhoff


IN THE KNOW

After nearly a dozen years as Vermont’s state banker and chief investment officer, Treasurer Beth Pearce intends to retire when her term expires in January. 

The 68-year-old Barre Democrat had been planning to seek reelection this year, she told VTDigger in an interview, but changed her mind late last month after she was diagnosed with cancer. 

“I can’t do my job, run for reelection and do all the treatment I need to do for this. I think I’ve hit the limit,” she said. “I hate it because I love this job. It’s been the most enjoyable — sometimes frustrating — job I’ve had.”

Now, Pearce said, she expects “to concentrate on doing what the doctors say I need to do and on making sure this place is in tiptop shape for the next treasurer.”

Read more here

— Lola Duffort and Paul Heintz

Intuit, the company behind TurboTax, will pay Vermont about $290,000 as part of a nationwide settlement agreement, Vermont Attorney General TJ Donovan announced Wednesday. The settlement is meant to pay back customers tricked into paying for tax preparation services that were advertised as “free, free, free!” 

All 50 states’ attorneys general signed on to the settlement. The agreement requires Intuit to pay a total of $141 million, according to the Associated Press. The company also agreed to suspend its “free, free, free” ad campaign. 

Vermont and other states began looking into TurboTax after ProPublica published a (badass, IMO) investigation of the tax-prep service back in 2019. According to ProPublica’s reporting, Intuit spent millions on lobbying to keep its hold on the multi-billion-dollar tax prep industry. Intuit agreed to offer a free service for some taxpayers, and in exchange, the IRS wouldn’t set up its own tax-prep service. 

ProPublica found TurboTax then used deceptive design to steer customers into paying for tax services, and away from free services. 

Intuit is paying back customers who used TurboTax Free Edition from 2016 to 2018. Vermont customers should receive direct payments of about $30 for each year they were wrongly charged for the service, according to a press release from the Vermont Attorney General’s Office. Those payments would be sent automatically and arrive as a check in the mail. 

— Riley Robinson 

Another bill aimed at police reform in Vermont is getting gutted, with a key provision of the proposed legislation that had called for creating a database of law enforcement officers with credibility issues turned into a study instead.

That’s according to the latest draft of S.250 presented Wednesday to the House Committee on Government Operations. The committee briefly discussed the proposed changes to the legislation, but took no action on the bill.

“It’s a continuation of what we’ve seen with many of the bills focused on law enforcement accountability this year,” Falko Schilling, advocacy director for the Vermont chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, said in an interview Wednesday afternoon. 

“Time and time again,” he added, “important reforms are turned into studies and the can is just kicked down the road.” 

The bill had also previously included a section ending qualified immunity that was removed before gaining approval in the Senate earlier this session. Qualified immunity can be used to prevent citizens from suing individual police officers for events that happened on the job.

A separate bill, S.254, which had also called for an end of qualified immunity was also gutted this session, with the latest version authorizing only a study of the issue. 

Read more here.

— Alan Keays

The Senate on Wednesday made yet another change to a proposed rental housing registry opposed by Gov. Phil Scott.

Earlier this week, the Senate Committee on Economic Development, Housing and General Affairs exempted homes rented for less than 120 days a year from registration requirements in an effort to win Scott over and prevent a veto of the bill, S.210. The committee’s chair, Sen. Michael Sirotkin, D-Chitttenden, said then: “I throw that out as an olive branch.”

On Wednesday, the olive branch went away.

“We’re not going to 120 days,” Sirotkin told colleagues. “It’s going to piss off the House.”

The House had approved an exemption for homes rented less than 90 days a year. And now, so has the Senate. It passed S.210 with the registry and sent it back to the House.

— Fred Thys


ON THE MOVE

The Senate has unanimously voted to override Gov. Phil Scott’s veto of S.286, a pension reform bill brokered between lawmakers and the state’s public sector unions.

Republicans joined Democrats and Progressives to advance the measure by a vote of 30-0 on Wednesday morning. The House is scheduling its override vote for Friday, according to Conor Kennedy, chief of staff to House Speaker Jill Krowinski, D-Burlington.

Read more here.

— Lola Duffort

House lawmakers voted Wednesday to pass a bill that, if signed by the governor, would establish Vermont’s first environmental justice policy.

The proposed policy requires state agencies to acknowledge and lessen environmental burdens — such as pollution and the impacts of climate change — that disproportionately impact people of color, people who have low incomes, people with disabilities and others in Vermont.

The bill, as amended by members of the House, is headed back to the Senate for final approval before it goes to the governor’s desk.

Read more here.

— Emma Cotton

Gov. Phil Scott signed into law Vermont’s first-ever statewide code of ethics for public officials on Tuesday, putting to rest a yearslong debate in the Statehouse and bringing Vermont in line with a majority of other states.

S.171 establishes a baseline code of ethics for public officials in the legislative, executive and judiciary branches of state government. It sets boundaries around conflicts of interest, preferential treatment, gifts, outside employment, the use of state employment for personal gain and more. It also protects whistleblowers from retaliation.

Read more here.

— Sarah Mearhoff


ON THE CAMPAIGN TRAIL

Rep. Tanya Vyhovsky, P/D-Essex, is looking to switch chambers next session. Vyhovsky announced Wednesday she is running for the Vermont Senate in the new Chittenden-Central district, which includes Winooski and portions of Burlington, Essex and Colchester. 

Vyhovsky is wrapping up her first term in the House, where she serves on the House Committee on Government Operations. She has sponsored 91 bills over the past two years and was the lead sponsor on H.661, which would amend licensure requirements for mental health professionals. H.661 has now passed both the House and Senate. 

“During my time in the statehouse, I’ve seen first-hand how much work needs to be done for struggling Vermonters,” Vyhovsky said in a press release Wednesday. “From saving the teacher and state employee pensions from draconian cuts and ensuring a balanced and fair solution, to expanding tenant protections and voter access, I’ve fought hard to make sure that no one is left out and left behind.”

— Riley Robinson

A Democratic candidate has entered the race for Stowe’s lone House seat, which is currently held by 16-year incumbent Rep. Heidi Scheuermann, R-Stowe. (Scheuermann said Wednesday she was still weighing whether to run this year and would announce her plans next week.) 

Scott Weathers, 28, is the former chair of the Lamoille County Democrats, and works in nonprofit consulting. He moved to Stowe in 2020 with his partner, and sits on the boards of several local organizations. Last fall, he was a spokesperson for a grassroots group that ran TV ads calling for Stowe to remove Kyle Walker from his role as fire chief, following allegations that Walker sexually assaulted a woman when he was a Stowe police officer.

Weathers is campaigning on paid family leave, a higher minimum wage and climate change action. But paid leave is the issue that prompted his run, Weathers said in an interview Wednesday. His father had Parkinson’s disease, and when Weathers became his caregiver, he had to choose between his job and his family, he said. 

“I had to make a decision no Vermonter should have to make,” he said. 

— Riley Robinson and Sarah Mearhoff


HAPPY BIRTHDAY

Happy birthday to Senate President Pro Tempore Becca Balint, D-Windham! Every year, she tells me, she treats herself to a new pair of birthday shoes. This year, she picked a pair with a blue and white watercolor pattern, purchased online from Zappos (this is not native advertising).

“You can only get Birkenstocks in Brattleboro,” she quipped.

You may be wondering, “It’s 2022. Are we still able to write about what women are wearing?” Well, joke’s on you, because I’m a woman and I say it’s OK in this case.

— Sarah Mearhoff

Behold! Becca Balint's birthday shoes. Photo by Sarah Mearhoff/VTDigger

WHAT’S FOR LUNCH 

Thursday is Cinco de Mayo and the cafeteria will have beef and chicken tacos — both hard-shell and soft-shell — as the special, according to Chef Bryant Palmer. The deli special is a Cuban panini, and the grill will have nachos. (Pickled jalapeños on the side.) 

— Riley Robinson


WHAT WE’RE READING

VTDigger wins top honors for investigative reporting, photography and social media (VTDigger)

UVM reproductive health expert on the legal landscape for abortion in Vermont (VPR)

Vermont’s Take-Home Methadone Dispenser Program Could Be a ‘Game Changer’ (Seven Days)

After Online Trainings Were Mocked, Educators Rally Around LGBTQ Youth (Seven Days)

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Lola Duffort

About Lola

Lola Duffort is a political reporter for VTDigger, covering Vermont state government, the congressional delegation and elections. She previously covered education for Digger, the Concord Monitor in New Hampshire and the Rutland Herald. She has also freelanced for the Miami Herald in Florida, where she grew up. She is a graduate of McGill University in Canada.

Email: [email protected]

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