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Sick 'Em: Paid Leave Gets a Long-Delayed Vote

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Vermont Retailers & Grocers Association president Jim Harrison - FILE: STEFAN HARD
  • File: Stefan Hard
  • Vermont Retailers & Grocers Association president Jim Harrison

Ten years after Rep. Helen Head (D-South Burlington) first introduced legislation guaranteeing paid sick leave to workers, the Vermont House is finally poised to vote on the matter Wednesday.

It's gonna be a nail-biter.

"The vote count is tight, and we're having conversations with members to make sure enough people are on board for passage," says Head, who chairs the House Committee on General Housing and Military Affairs.

Last Friday, Head's committee voted five to three in favor of a scaled-back version of the bill. Instead of requiring seven days of paid leave a year, as earlier drafts would have, the current proposal offers three days for the first two years the law is in place and then five days after that. It excludes temporary and seasonal employees and those who've spent fewer than 1,400 hours on the job.

"Supporters of the bill have been touting it as a compromise, but that's really not the case," says Associated Industries of Vermont vice president Bill Driscoll. "These benefits cost money, and they have an impact on the bottom line of a business."

Driscoll and other opponents are peeved that a bill many believed was dead this year suddenly came back to life.

"It's very unusual for a bill to pop out of committee with three-plus weeks left in the session that hasn't passed either body," says Vermont Retail & Grocers Association president Jim Harrison.

He's right. So what gives?

Advocates say they purposely waited until after the House addressed the budget and Gov. Peter Shumlin's hefty, payroll tax-fueled health care bill. The former passed, while the latter is stuck in purgatory.

"I think those debates needed to happen, and they took up a lot of people's mental and emotional space," says Main Street Alliance state director Lindsay DesLauriers, who has lobbied for paid sick leave for years. "It feels like the legislature as a whole looked around and said, 'What are we going to do this year to move Vermont forward?'"

In the eyes of progressives, not much. Rather, the legislature has spent the session debating whether to close schools, cut funding for social services, fire state workers and ban teacher strikes.

Which probably explains why House Speaker Shap Smith (D-Morristown), who is eyeing a run for governor, allowed a vote to go forward after resisting one last year. And why Shumlin, who will almost certainly face a challenge from the left if he runs for reelection, reversed course last week and embraced the bill.

After all, now that it excludes the state's temporary workers — and, therefore, won't add a penny to the budget — the bill is a relatively painless giveaway to the left. And since the payroll tax and sugar-sweetened beverage tax are going nowhere fast, Shummy and Shap probably figure they can stick the business community with this instead.

Mind you, the gov is now claiming that he's always backed the bill.

"Why don't you go back to the record?" Shumlin said Tuesday on WVMT's Charlie + Ernie + Lisa Show. "I never opposed paid sick leave."

Um, actually, he refused to endorse the bill for years, repeatedly telling supporters that while he backed the general concept, "The devil's in the details." Meanwhile, he winked at business groups and signaled his opposition.

"We should be cautious, cautious about adding a burden that only business has to pay at a time when many business folks use this as a benefit," Shumlin said, when asked about the bill at the Vermont Chamber of Commerce's February 2014 legislative breakfast. He added, "We don't want to destroy jobs as we try to correct something that we would like to fix."

Shummy's switcheroo is reminiscent of last year's election-year conversion from GMO-labeling skeptic to full-throated supporter. By the time November rolled around, his campaign was running television ads saying he "made it happen," even though he'd voiced concerns for years that GMO labeling would land Vermont in court.

Of course, it's unlikely the gov will be able to hold a heroic signing ceremony on paid sick leave this year. If the bill clears the House this week, it will land in the Senate Rules Committee, because it missed the legislature's crossover deadline to leave its committee of origin halfway through the session.

Given that four of the Rules Committee's five members — Sens. John Campbell (D-Windsor), Joe Benning (R-Caledonia), Dick Mazza (D-Grand Isle) and Peg Flory (R-Rutland) — oppose the bill, it's unlikely to see action on the Senate floor this year.

"I can't imagine there are three votes there to vote it out," says Sen. Phil Baruth (D-Chittenden), the only committee member to support the bill.

Don't Be Rash

Speaking of resurrections, an effort to increase Vermont's vaccination rate got an unexpected shot in the arm last Wednesday.

As the Senate debated a blasé bill concerning disease registries, Sens. Campbell, Kevin Mullin (R-Rutland) and Dick Sears (D-Bennington) introduced an amendment to do away with the state's so-called philosophical exemption. That, like the state's religious exemption, allows parents to send their children to school even if they opt out of vaccinating them.

A similar measure passed the Senate in 2012 by a vote of 24 to 4, but the House watered it down and the exemption remained in place. Efforts to repeal it found renewed support in February following a measles outbreak in California.

"We were one plane ride away from measles hitting Vermont," Mullin reminded his colleagues last week.

The Rutland Republican found support from those, such as Sears and Sen. Jeanette White (D-Windham), who vividly recall acquaintances suffering disability or death by polio.

But not everyone was convinced.

Sen. Norm McAllister (R-Franklin) argued that eliminating the philosophical exemption would restrict parental rights, while Sen. David Zuckerman (P/D-Chittenden) questioned the science of vaccinations. He said that while conducting his own research on the matter, he came to believe that the pharmaceutical industry is foisting vaccinations on the public to make money, not fight disease.

"For me, as long as there's the extreme financial conflicts of interest out there that are driving much of this debate and discussion, I have to maintain the individual right for someone to do their own research as well and make that decision," Zuckerman said.

Though a majority seemed inclined to ditch the exemption, several supportive senators said they would not do so on the fly — without the Senate Committee on Health and Welfare taking testimony and making a recommendation. Sen. Dick McCormack (D-Windsor) argued that circumventing the committee process would give vaccination skeptics just cause to say the Senate "railroaded it" through.

As often happens in the Senate, the formal debate devolved into a recess, during which senators huddled on the floor and hashed it out in heated whispers. At the center of the scrum was Health and Welfare chair Claire Ayer (D-Addison), who said her committee was too busy this late in the session to take testimony on the matter.

In the end, the amendment's supporters prevailed on her to take it up this Wednesday for two hours, immediately after which the Senate will resume its debate.

"Fine," she said. "But I'm only taking testimony from experts — not parents of kids who have a rash."

Bully for You

When Attorney General Bill Sorrell accused former lieutenant gubernatorial candidate Dean Corren of violating campaign finance laws at a press conference last month, VTDigger.org reporter Morgan True asked why he didn't investigate others.

"We had this complaint," Sorrell responded, referring to an October 2014 email Dorset Republican Ralph Colin sent his office requesting an investigation. "This is the one that we looked at. It's taken a lot of staff time dealing with this complaint. We don't typically — not just in the campaign finance arena — we don't typically just go out, sort of trying to find matters to bring enforcement actions in. We usually respond to complaints."

Not always, it seems.

On Sunday, Vermont Republican Party vice chair Brady Toensing accused the AG himself of "long-term and chronic flouting of Vermont's campaign finance laws." In a four-part complaint, based largely on reporting by Seven Days and the New York Times, Toensing called on Sorrell to appoint an independent counsel to investigate whether he'd committed any wrongdoing.

The AG quickly declared himself innocent, a luxury Corren would surely have enjoyed.

"It's unfortunate that there are questions about whether there was undue influence," he told the Associated Press' Dave Gram, referring to an allegation that he hired a firm to sue 29 oil and gas companies only after the firm and its representatives donated $10,000 to his campaign. "I know there was no undue influence."

Though he happily spent "a lot of staff time" dealing with the Corren complaint, Sorell told Gram he was "not about to waste a lot of taxpayer money responding to [Toensing's] call for an independent counsel."

The AG continued to dig himself deeper. He told Vermont Public Radio's Peter Hirschfeld that it wasn't even his decision to sue in the first place.

"The reality is it was the Agency of Natural Resources that made the decision ... to attack the oil industry for allegedly polluting our groundwater by these additives they put in auto fuels for a long time," Sorrell told VPR on Monday.

That's not how Department of Environmental Conservation Commissioner David Mears remembers it.

"The idea did originate with the attorney general's office, but I thought it was a terrific idea," Mears told Seven Days last week.

Sorrell, who didn't return a call for comment, clarified by email Tuesday that his office indeed "approached ANR" about the matter. After Mears and his team signed off on the lawsuit, both offices worked together to decide which firms to hire.

"I approved the recommendation made to me to hire these firms," Sorrell confirmed.

Now that the AG has declined to investigate himself, will anyone else step up to the plate? Apparently not Gov. Shumlin, who also has the power to appoint an independent counsel.

"I, as you can imagine, am really focused on trying to get my agenda through the legislature," the gov said at a press conference Tuesday. "I have not had a chance to read the complaint. When the legislature is all done, I suppose I'll have time to do that."

Both Shumlin and Sorrell noted that state's attorneys also have the power to investigate an AG. But when then-Vermont GOP chairman Jack Lindley filed a similar complaint against Sorrell with Addison County State's Attorney David Fenster in 2012, he declined to take action.

"None of our offices are structured in such a way where we have a ready staff to engage in these types of investigations," Fenster said at the time.

Jeezum crow! Even the county sheriff is accountable to the high bailiff!

Though Sorrell appears to be responsible to nobody but himself, he still seems rather bummed about it.

When a friend posted on his Facebook page Monday that he must "despise politics" sometimes, Sorrell responded, "I'm not going to pretend today is fun. But, give in to Bullies?"

If "Bullies" are those who expect public servants to enforce the law, this state could sure use a few more of them.

Media Notes

Toensing's complaint and Seven Days' recent reporting on Sorrell drew from the work of New York Times investigative reporter Eric Lipton. Last year, he wrote a three-part series exposing the growing influence of corporate lobbying on state attorneys general.

On Monday, Lipton won a Pulitzer Prize for the series, called "Courting Favor."

The Philadelphia native knows Vermont well. A 1987 graduate of the University of Vermont, Lipton got his start writing for the student paper, the Vermont Cynic, and eventually became its editor in chief. After graduation, he spent two years at the Valley News, covering White River Junction, before moving on to the Hartford Courant, the Washington Post and the Times.

This ain't Lipton's first Pulitzer. He won one in 1992 for a story on the Hubble Space Telescope and was a finalist for another in 2002 for reporting on the aftermath of the World Trade Center attacks.

The original print version of this article was headlined "Sick 'Em"

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