News roundup: Vermont officials report record-high 1,727 COVID cases, 12.4% positivity rate
Vermont reporters provide a roundup of top news takeaways about the coronavirus and more for Tuesday, Jan. 4.
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While Vermont's pandemic state of emergency has ended, the delta and omicron variants are now circulating around the state. Click here for the latest on new cases, and find the latest vaccination data online any time.
1. Vermont officials report record-breaking 1,727 COVID cases, 12.4% positivity rate
Vermont health officials reported another record-breaking number of COVID cases today, with 1,727 new cases added.
The state positivity rate jumped up to 12.4%.
Some 83 people are hospitalized with the virus in the state, with 19 in ICU.
No new COVID deaths were reported today. The number of fatalities remains at 480.
- Karen Anderson
2. 2022 legislative session opens Tuesday morning
Lawmakers rang in the 2022 legislative session Tuesday morning.
Prior to the session’s opening, Senate President Pro Tem Becca Balint said committees would begin work almost immediately on bills dealing with housing, workforce and child care.
“We know that Vermont working families are really having a tough time right now as this pandemic continues, so we’re really going to be focused on shoring up the supports for working families,” Balint said. “That’s going to be the lens through which we do our work.”
Lawmakers have some other major policy dilemmas to resolve as well this year, including a long-term deficit in the public pension system.
The House and Senate will conduct their work remotely for at least the first few weeks of the session due to rising COVID case counts.
- Peter Hirschfeld
Lawmakers to convene remotely until at least Jan. 18
With growing concerns about the spread of the omicron variant of COVID-19, members of the Vermont House and Senate voted Tuesday to meet remotely for the first two weeks of the session.
During this time period, House Speaker Jill Krowinski says the Joint Rules committee will develop specific criteria, including hospitalization rates, to evaluate when it will be safe for lawmakers to return to work in person.
"We will continue to monitor the spread of COVID-19 in Vermont and hear from health and science experts on how we can best return to the Statehouse safely,” Krowinski said.
Lawmakers are scheduled to return to the Statehouse on Jan. 18 unless the Joint Rules Committee recommends a longer remote period.
- Bob Kinzel
3. Woodstock lawmaker running for lieutenant governor
A three-term Democratic lawmaker from Woodstock wants to be Vermont’s next lieutenant governor.
Rep. Charlie Kimbell is vice chair of the House Committee on Commerce and Economic Development.
Kimbell says the lieutenant governor’s office doesn’t have a direct role in policymaking in Vermont.
“But the lieutenant governor does have a bully pulpit and a megaphone – and the power to convene different people that are around a certain issue. An example is workforce development,” he said.
Kimbell says he plans to introduce new proposals for growing the labor force in Vermont, including a jobs program for new high school graduates.
Kimbell hopes to replace outgoing Lt. Gov. Molly Gray, who’s running for an open seat in the U.S. House of Representatives.
- Peter Hirschfeld
4. Gov. Scott wants to boost hospital staffing using state budget
Gov. Phil Scott will present lawmakers with a plan later this week to address a labor shortage in the health care system.
Scott says he’s already asked lawmakers for nearly $20 million to shore up staffing at hospitals and mental health agencies.
“I’ll also propose an additional investment of $15 million in the second budget adjustment for retention bonuses, grants to support employers in training and retaining new nurse graduates,” he said.
Scott says he’ll unveil even more workforce development proposals during his budget address later this month.
Earlier this year, Vermont’s labor force shrank to its smallest size in almost 30 years.
- Peter Hirschfeld
5. Rep. Peter Welch says he and his wife will stop trading individual company stocks
Democratic Congressman Peter Welch says he and his wife will stop trading individual company stocks. That's after Welch missed a deadline this fall to report the sale of ExxonMobil shares.
In September, Margaret Cheney, who's married to Congressman Welch, sold shares of the oil company ExxonMobil that she inherited from her mother. But Welch's office did not report that sale until a week after a deadline required by the STOCK Act – a measure that Welch co-sponsored in 2012.
As Business Insider first reported, Welch and Cheney have now vowed to no longer trade stocks in individual companies. Last month, Welch reported selling off his remaining shares in companies including General Electric, IBM, and Unilever, the owner of Ben & Jerry's.
In a statement to VPR, Welch pointed to his support for new legislation that bans individual stock trading by Congressional members, and said though the bill isn't law, he's "committed to abiding by its provisions."
- Henry Epp
6. Cannabis regulators championing social equity in Vermont’s new cannabis law
The Vermont Cannabis Control Board will ask lawmakers this winter to include a number of social equity provisions in the state's new cannabis law.
Board chairman James Pepper says the goal is to provide financial incentives for retailers and growers who qualify for this program.
Pepper says it's designed "for people of color or anyone who can demonstrate that they are from a community that has been disproportionately impacted by cannabis prohibition."
"This issue is front and center of the kind of new wave of cannabis reform,” he said. “A major motivating factor for a lot of legislators that agreed to this bill that they otherwise wouldn't was they felt the need to end prohibition and the war on drugs and start to mitigate some of the harms that have been perpetuated over the last 80 years."
Pepper says his plan includes providing startup grant money for eligible applicants.
- Bob Kinzel
7. Minimum wage hikes taking effect in New England
Minimum wages are increasing in five of six New England states this year, the result of legislation laying out incremental hikes that continue into the future.
Under current state laws, Massachusetts will be the first in New England to hit $15 an hour a year from now. That’s a level activists have pushed for across the country.
Connecticut will reach the mark five months later. Rhode Island's minimum wage is scheduled to reach $15 an hour in 2025.
Maine and Vermont's wages, now at $12.75 and $12.55 respectively, will also keep going up gradually, although the consumer price index will influence by how much.
The minimum wages in each of those states far exceeds the federal rate of $7.25 an hour, which is what New Hampshire still follows.
- New England News Collaborative
8. New Hampshire secretary of state says he will step down after holding office since 1976
The nation's longest-serving secretary of state who built a reputation for fiercely defending New Hampshire's position at the front of the presidential primary calendar, says he will be stepping down.
Bill Gardner, 73, was first elected by the New Hampshire state Legislature in 1976. He was reelected to his 23rd two-year term in 2020 with no challengers.
Gardner said he will transfer power to Deputy Secretary of State David Scanlan.
In recent years, Gardner came under fire from Democrats for his participation in former President Donald Trump's baseless investigation into voter fraud and for backing GOP legislation to tighten voter registration rules.
- Associated Press
Elodie Reed and Kevin Trevellyan compiled and edited this post.