The government shutdown has given public access stations some extra time to rally their supporters against a proposed federal rule they fear would impact their funding.
The Cable Communications Policy Act of 1984 requires cable companies to divert some of the profit they make from subscribers to public-access stations such as Onion River Community Access Media in Montpelier, and PEG-TV in Rutland. A rule proposed by the Federal Communications Commission would let cable companies set the value for in-kind services they provide to these stations. The fear for many in public access television is that the cable companies might set these values so high it would hurt the stations’ operations.
Kevin Christopher, president of Vermont Access Network, an umbrella organization for Vermont’s public access stations, said Thursday that while the official public-comment period for the rule change ended in the middle of December, residents are free to contact the agency with their concerns.
He said a decision on the rule wasn’t expected until late spring or summer, but the partial government shutdown, which entered its 20th day Thursday, may well delay the rule change.
“Last Thursday, the FCC went dark, so nonessential functions, which this falls into, have been suspended,” Christopher said.
At the top of the FCC’s webpage is a red banner bearing the message “Due to the partial government shutdown, the FCC suspended most operations at midday Thursday, Jan. 3, 2019. For details, see https://go.usa.gov/xEg6R."
The government shutdown began after President Donald Trump decided not to sign a spending bill approved by Congress because it didn’t contain funds for a southern border wall.
Christopher said there are few silver linings to the shutdown, which has hundreds of thousands of federal workers wondering when they’ll be paid next, but he and public access television advocates won’t sit idle.
Christopher said he met with the Vermont Library Association on Thursday and plans to meet with the Chittenden County Library Association soon. Libraries, he said, often work with public access stations.
He said VAN is also planning a legislative day set for Feb. 20 when VAN, local public access stations and the Alliance for Community Media — a national public access television advocacy group — will be at the State House in Montpelier to meet with and inform legislators about what’s happening.
He’s reached out to state Rep. Laura Sibilia, I-Dover, and Windham County Sen. Becca Balint, to see if there’s a role the Legislature can play. He’s had contact with U.S. Rep. Peter Welch, D-Vt., as well.
“(The) short answer is things are changing rapidly and we are working to learn and adjust as quickly as possible,” Sibilia said in an email Thursday.
She said Balint plans to take testimony at some point in the session from public access television groups.
“I’m interested in understanding how we can support, protect and expand public access programming and access in this time of disruption to the entire telecommunications industry, but have not yet introduced any legislation,” Sibilia said. “We were invited to participate in a meeting with multiple press outlets including (Brattleboro Community TV) in Brattleboro to talk about the changing and consolidating landscape on media outlets and what is possible. There was discussion about forming a local press association.”
Rob Chapman, director of ORCA Media, said his group is taking its cues from VAN.
Tom Leypoldt, executive director of PEG-TV, said the level of uncertainty, from the proposed rule change and now the question of when the decision will be made, has been hard on his organization. He said the level of support from people in the Rutland community has been quite high and his people are doing their best to keep folks informed.
Leypoldt said he plans to be in Montpelier for the legislative day in February to show support and help spread information.
He hopes the FCC is simply looking to update its rules for the modern age, and if this one does go through, cable companies will be reasonable in their pricing. He said he’s heard from some that the only reason they subscribe to a cable provider is to see what’s on PEG-TV.
MONTPELIER — It was not the usual mandate from a governor at an inaugural.
On Thursday, Phil Scott, the re-elected Republican incumbent, called on lawmakers in the Democrat-controlled Legislature to find common ground with him in seeking out answers to the challenges the state is facing and to inspire a renewed faith in government.
Scott made the comments at the State House after he took the oath of office for his second two-year term. He said Vermont can show the rest of the nation that it is possible to debate difficult issues and still remain civil.
“We must look for common ground instead of highlighting or exploiting our differences, view consensus and compromise not as a weakness, but as a strength,” he said during his 32-minute speech.
Scott laid out some broad policy goals designed to reverse the state’s demographic challenge, which he said has seen Vermont’s school population drop by 30,000 in the last 22 years while, in the last decade, the state’s workforce has shrunk by 15,000.
“Our stagnant population is threatening every service we deliver, every program we administer and every investment we hope to make,” he said.
During his first term as governor, the Republican Party had enough members in the Legislature to support the governor’s vetoes. In the November election though, the party lost ground, giving Democrats at least a theoretical veto-proof majority.
There were several areas toward that progress highlighted in the speech.
The governor said he wanted to work together with Democratic leaders to develop solutions to the key issues of the session.
“The good is in our hearts, it’s in our minds and it’s who we’ve always been,” said Scott. “Today, more than ever, it’s who America needs us to be. And to meet the challenges ahead, to best serve Vermonters, it’s who we have to be.”
Scott said all sides need to be flexible as they work together on programs to properly fund education and to create a long-term clean water fund.
The governor said the challenges affect virtually every aspect of life in Vermont. Both the governor and legislative leaders say they hope to find ways to work together.
“These trends not only mean fewer in our workforce and schools,” Scott said, “but fewer customers at businesses, ratepayers for utilities. ... And fewer to share the costs of state government, with ongoing needs in areas like transportation, building maintenance, public safety and human services.”
To help reverse this trend, Scott said he’ll propose a new affordable health care program for young people, back the construction of additional affordable housing units and support more money for early education programs.
He said all of this can be done without raising broad-based taxes.
“Vermonters elected me, and many of you, to ensure we don’t ask them to shoulder any more of the tax burden,” said Scott. “They’re doing their part. And it’s time for us to do ours.”
After the address, Democratic House Speaker Mitzi Johnson said she welcomed the governor’s call for civility and agreed with him about many of the challenges Vermont is facing.
“The fact that he’s come to the table saying (that) ‘providing security for Vermont families is a good thing and we should all be working toward it’ — I’ll view as a positive step right now,” Johnson said.
Senate President Pro Tem Tim Ashe, a Democrat and progressive, had a similar message.
“I certainly appreciated the call for us to work together to solve problems,” Ashe said. “He did acknowledge areas where we did work well together in the last session.”
While short on specifics, Scott said he wanted to make sure Vermont has the best educational system in the country, and build on the state’s healthy and safe environment.
He said his administration would outline plans to bring more people to Vermont, increase the stock of affordable housing, make health insurance more affordable for young people and improve the state’s child-care system.
During his budget address, scheduled for later this month, Scott said he would propose a long-term funding source for water quality initiatives using existing revenues.
He also proposed updating Vermont’s land-use planning system, known as Act 250. Proponents say the system helped ensure orderly development in the state, but critics call it needlessly restrictive and a drag on economic development.
He said his proposal would encourage growth in Vermont’s struggling downtowns.
Vermont Public Radio and the Associated Press contributed to this report.
A Poultney man was sentenced on Thursday to serve 10 to 20 years in prison for providing the gun that was used to accidentally kill another man in 2016.
Jonathan Testa, 23, was sentenced in Rutland criminal court on Thursday after pleading no contest to a felony count of assault and robbery resulting in an injury and pleading guilty to a felony count of false personation and one misdemeanor count each of reckless endangerment, possession of stolen property and petty larceny.
The charges stem from a series of events that resulted in William Edward Bailey, 21, of Granville, New York, fatally shooting Daniel Hein, 19, of Poultney.
Bailey told police he didn’t know the gun was loaded. He said Testa had encouraged him to point the gun at Hein and pull the trigger to prove the gun wasn’t loaded, but Testa has denied that.
Bailey was charged with a felony count of manslaughter. He pleaded no contest to the charge in January 2018 and received a sentence of two years in June.
Testa was also charged with manslaughter but entered a plea agreement in August under which the charge was amended to reckless endangerment.
On Thursday, Rutland County State’s Attorney Rose Kennedy asked Judge Thomas Zonay to sentence Testa to 12 to 20 years. Under the plea agreement, it was the longest sentence the state could request.
Attorney Mark Furlan asked for a sentence of 3½ to four years.
Zonay’s sentence was cumulative, with the longest piece, 8 to 17 years, attached to the reckless endangerment charge.
In a statement, Kennedy supported the sentence.
“I think (Zonay) thoughtfully took into consideration (Testa’s) reckless actions that led to Daniel Hein’s death and his willful actions of hitting Ryan Lowell over the head with a crowbar and stealing from Deanna Fifield. (Testa) chose his behaviors and the sentence handed down (Thursday) is an appropriate response to those bad decisions. The State believes it is a necessary sentence to deter similar bad choices and to protect the community from (Testa,)” Kennedy said.
Furlan declined to comment after the sentencing.
Zonay made it clear that he was sentencing Testa not just for the individual charges but the “series of bad choices” that resulted not only in Hein’s death but other criminal acts.
On Nov. 28, 2016, Hein, Testa and a third man, Andrew McCrea, 23, of Poultney, began a burglary at Lowell’s Fair Haven home. Lowell grabbed a gun when he heard the men attempting to enter his home and Hein ran off when he saw Lowell had a .40 caliber Taurus PT-140.
But McCrea and Testa continued the burglary. McCrea hit Lowell with the handle of a hammer and Testa hit him with a crowbar. They took Lowell’s gun, which was unloaded, and a safe, which had money, and a loaded clip, police said.
The men took the safe to a local dump and pried it open. They took the cash but left the gun until later, when Testa and Hein retrieved it.
On Dec. 20, 2016, Hein, Testa and Bailey were in Bailey’s car in the Poultney driveway of Hein’s brother, Jeremy Fifield. The men in the car had been drinking alcohol and smoking marijuana.
Bailey shot and killed Hein with the gun he had thought was unloaded.
“After the shot, Bailey immediately dropped the firearm and yelled, ‘Oh, my God, what do I do?’” a police affidavit said.
Testa fled the car with the gun and hid it in a tree near Fifield’s home. Testa went into the Fifield home to wash off the blood and change his clothes.
Testa told police in 2016 that he was upset about the incident and started to cry. He spoke to Fifield but didn’t tell Fifield about Hein’s death.
When a Vermont State Police cruiser came to Fifield’s home to notify Fifield about Hein’s death, Testa climbed out the back window with Fifield’s cellphone and a bank debit card belonging to Deanna Fifield.
Zonay said Testa used the card to buy clothes and food and withdrew $700.
Testa was arrested in December 2016 by Detective Sgt. Tyson Kinney, of the Vermont State Police, who was in Rutland looking for Testa when he saw Testa walking along Route 7.
Testa told police at the time he had been walking to a site where he expected to meet a taxi driver who had agreed to take him to Rhode Island.
Zonay said during Testa’s sentencing that Testa had a pending charge for child abuse in Rhode Island.
Testa has already served more than 2 years in jail.
“So we’re either going to have a win, make a compromise ... or I will declare a national emergency.”
President Donald Trump, in McAllen, Texas, on Thursday, responding to a reporter’s question about a national emergency declaration. — A6
The Grove Street art gallery will bring back artist residencies this year in an expanded program providing studio space for artists and outreach into the community. A2