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News roundup: Vt.'s pandemic death toll keeps rising as six more people die from COVID-19

An orange background with vermont news round up written, with a small green graphic of vermot on the "R" of roundup
Elodie Reed

Vermont reporters provide a roundup of top news takeaways about the coronavirus and more for Tuesday, Feb. 1.

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While Vermont's pandemic state of emergency has ended, the omicron variant is now circulating around the state.Click here for the latest on new cases, and findthe latest vaccination data online any time.

1. Six more Vermonters have died from COVID-19

Six more Vermonters have died from COVID-19, according to health officials.

State data show 60 people died in January alone. The pandemic has now claimed the lives of 542 people in Vermont.

While the death toll continues to rise, COVID case counts and hospitalizations are going down.

Vermont’s COVID dashboard shows 354 new COVID cases today, and 94 people are currently hospitalized. Twenty-six of those people are in the ICU.

Vermont’s seven-day positivity rate remains at 9.3%.

- Elodie Reed

2. Statehouse expansion advances in the Legislature

A proposal for a $25 million expansion of the Statehouse is moving forward in the Senate.

The Senate Institutions Committee recently approved a $1.5 million plan to study whether it's even feasible to add an additional floor above the Statehouse cafeteria.

Backers of the proposal say the expansion is needed because many House committee rooms are too small. They say larger spaces are needed to accommodate the public.

Institutions Chairman Joe Benning says it's critical to find out if this plan can work.

"Can this actually be done – put a third floor on the cafeteria ? We're not at a point yet where we're making those decisions about how we're actually going to build. We're still in the planning stages,” he said.

The plan will now be reviewed by the Senate Appropriations Committee.

- Bob Kinzel

State lawmakers mull diaper study

Vermont lawmakers want to know what it would cost to continue providing diapers to low-income families on a regular basis.

The state used COVID-relief funds to help buy diapers for those who had trouble purchasing them during the pandemic.

The Senate Health and Welfare Committee this week will consider setting up a Diaper Need Working Group that would issue a report by the end of this year.

Most child care facilities require parents to provide diapers for their child, and about a quarter of the kids 3 years old and younger in the state come from low-income families.

- Howard Weiss-Tisman

Lawmakers considering changes to Current Use Program

Legislation advanced last week in Vermont's House that proposes major changes to Vermont's Current Use Program.

The bill, headed now for the committee that focuses on tax revenues, would support landowners in managing their forest for old growth characteristics.

Since 1980, the current use program has allowed Vermonters who use their land for timber or agriculture to pay a lower tax rate. The program does allow enrolled landowners not to log in ecologically sensitive areas – but this bill would expand that.

About 30% of parcels currently under the program would be eligible for this.

But members of the Wild Forests Vermont coalition say the requirements should be broadened so that any parcel that qualifies could enroll.

The current use program cost the state about $66 million last year in foregone taxes. The fiscal impacts of the proposed change are not yet known.

- Abagael Giles

3. Burlington City Council votes down appointment of Jon Murad as next police chief

Burlington's City Council has voted down the appointment of Jon Murad as the city's next police chief.

Murad was appointed to the position by Mayor Miro Weinberger, but rejected by a 6-6 council vote on Monday.

According to the mayor, Murad will "continue serving indefinitely" as the city's acting police chief.

Burlington has been without a permanent police chief since December 2019.

- Lydia Brown

4. Essex Town Select Board chair skeptical GlobalFoundries committed to Vermont plant long-term

As it tries to keep up with a spike in demand, computer chip maker GlobalFoundries says it has hired 500 new employees in Essex Junction over the past year.

But Andy Watts, the chair of the Essex Town Select Board, is skeptical that GlobalFoundries is committed to the plant in the long-term. He points to the company’s sale of another plant in East Fishkill, New York back in 2019, which was also formerly owned by IBM.

"The fact that they've sold the Fishkill plant already gives a strong indication that …they're not dedicated to Vermont at all, to former IBM assets,” Watts said. “Now, they wanted the people, I think, more than the plant."

Company officials say GlobalFoundries is committed to Vermont. They highlight the $750 million invested in the Essex Junction facility since 2015.

Read/hear the full story.

- Henry Epp

5. Ranked choice voting backers launch public awareness campaign

Backers of the ranked choice voting election system have launched a $50,000 media campaign to raise public awareness about this issue.

Under this system, voters are allowed to list candidates by preference. It's used only when no candidate receives 50% of the vote and there are at least three candidates in a race.

If this happens, the candidate with the fewest votes is eliminated, and their second choice votes are then added to the overall total.

This process is repeated until one candidate receives a majority.

Paul Burns is executive director of Vermont Public Interest Research Group. He's urging lawmakers to use this system for federal elections in Vermont beginning in 2024.

"It's one of the fundamental tenets of democracy, that elections are supposed to be about representing the will of the majority of people,” Burns said.

Alaska and Maine currently use ranked choice voting for congressional and presidential elections.

- Bob Kinzel

Elodie Reed and Kevin Trevellyan compiled and edited this post.

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