News

DLS amnesty program expands to Windsor County

Drivers with suspended licenses in Windsor County have a one-time chance to square things with the state.

When asked at Monday's announcement if  all fines should be reduced for everyone, Shumlin's answer was direct. "I think people who can afford to pay higher fines should, because fines do work as a deterrent," he said.

"A deterrent, but not a permanent economic disability, and so what the fine system does today is trap people in a cycle of poverty from which they really can't escape," said Vermont Legal Aid's Christopher Curtis.

Windsor County ‘Driver Restoration Day’ announced

The 1,400 Windsor County residents who have a suspended driving license will have a chance next month to become legal under a special amnesty program announced Monday by Gov. Peter Shumlin.

Christopher Curtis, staff attorney for Vermont Legal Aid, and chairman of the Governor’s Pathways from Poverty Council, said the issue was really one of economic justice.

Curtis said low-income people have to choose between paying traffic fines and feeding their children. Transportation is key to low-income people trying to maintain jobs, he said.

“Affordability is the key,” said Curtis, who said well-to-do Vermonters can easily pay speeding fines and protect their right to drive.

When you receive $640 a month with three children on Reach Up, he said, a $200 ticket is unthinkable, Curtis said.

This article was also published in the Times Argus.

Increased eligibility, low projections help widen the Medicaid gap

The Legislature’s budget managers say high caseload, growing pharmaceutical prices, and payments for shared savings programs are driving up the cost of Medicaid in Vermont....

Trinka Kerr, the chief health care advocate at Vermont Legal Aid, said she’s concerned the low projections that created the gap could lead lawmakers to cut services for people on Medicaid.

“It is really unfortunate that the estimates were so off and now people could be hurt,” she said.

National Chain Applies to Buy Five Vermont Nursing Homes

A national nursing home chain that is facing U.S. Justice Department charges of fraud and inadequate staffing is seeking regulators’ approval to purchase five Vermont nursing homes. The acquisition would make it the largest nursing home operator in Vermont and New Hampshire.

Vermont Legal Aid attorney Jackie Majoros is Vermont's long-term care ombudsman, which represents the interests of nursing home residents. In this Valley News article, Jackie says that her main concern is the quality of care and availability of services to nursing home patients. “Some of the facilities that Genesis (currently owns) are below average or much below average, and some of the facilities” involved in the current deal have even lower ratings, she said.

She plans to submit formal questions about the deal prior to a Thursday deadline and to monitor the proceedings.

More money needed to solve affordable housing crisis, advocates say

In the Pathways from Poverty Council’s annual report to the governor, delivered Thursday, advocates recommended imposing a $2 per night fee on hotel rooms that would go to supporting efforts to reduce homelessness.

“One of the challenges for advocates historically has been pointing out where there are problems and not always coming up with a funding solutions,” [Vermont Legal Aid attorney] Chris Curtis, co-chair of the council, said Thursday.

The state has “an affordable housing crisis on its hands,” Curtis said, and the fee could make a big difference for the state in addressing that, including by moving away from the emergency housing motel voucher program.

Federal court upholds cuts to Reach Up benefit

A federal judge has dismissed a Vermont Legal Aid lawsuit that challenged the legality of a reduction to a state benefit program for certain families.

Chris Curtis of Legal Aid has characterized the cuts as a “poor tax” on low-income families. Legal Aid challenged the cuts arguing that they are discriminatory and unconstitutional, as well as in violation of Social Security laws.

In a statement issued Tuesday evening, Curtis said Legal Aid learned “that the new law is not unconstitutional; it is merely unconscionable.”

“While we always knew it would be an uphill battle, it’s a battle we are proud to have joined on behalf of families in need,” Curtis told VTDigger on Wednesday. Curtis called the plaintiffs in the case earlier this week to tell them the news, and said they were some “tough conversations.”

“People confronted with a significant loss in their monthly income are going to struggle to make ends meet,” Curtis said.

Judge upholds cuts to Reach Up program

Vermont Legal Aid sued the Agency of Human Services, asserting the plan to reduce benefits for households that include a disabled adult who also receives Supplemental Security Income was unconstitutional. Attorney Christopher Curtis filed the suit in U.S. District Court in Burlington, saying the cut amounted to discrimination and a “poor tax.”

Judge William K. Sessions III dismissed the suit Monday, allowing the cuts that the Legislature passed and Gov. Peter Shumlin signed earlier this year. As a result, some families will see a reduction of up to $125 per month in benefits beginning as early as Dec. 1.

Sessions, in his written decision, acknowledged the impact it would have on families.

“The law at issue in this case targets one of the most vulnerable populations in Vermont: disabled adults raising children in poverty. In an effort to achieve budgetary savings the Legislature has voted to decrease public aid to those families, resulting in what can only be further hardship for parents as they struggle to provide food and shelter for their children,” he wrote.

“These cuts act as a kind of ‘poor tax’ on those who can least afford it,” he said. “If lawmakers truly believe that Vermonters cannot afford any new taxes they should repeal this one.”

Court Upholds Benefit Cuts to Low-Income Disabled Families

Vermont Legal Aid says the judge found that a new law reducing public assistance to families with disabled parents receiving Supplemental Security Income is Constitutional and didn't violate federal law.

“We’re obviously disappointed with the decision because of the disastrous impact these cuts will have on very low-income Vermonters with disabilities and their families who rely on temporary public assistance,” said Christopher Curtis, of Vermont Legal Aid who brought the case on behalf of the plaintiffs.

VT 'poor tax' lawsuit dismissed

A budget cut that impacts about 860 low-income Vermont families can proceed as planned, a federal judge has ruled.

The state will reduce Reach Up assistance by up to $125 for families where an adult with a disability receives Supplemental Security Income - people such as Robin Wheeler, the Williamstown mother named as a plaintiff in the lawsuit.

Vermont Legal Aid attorney Christopher Curtis had called the cut a “poor tax” against vulnerable families, while lawmakers countered that the change was necessary and reasonable during a difficult budget year.

"While the Court is sensitive to the plight of these families, and acknowledges the efforts of Vermont Legal Aid on behalf of the plaintiff class," Sessions continued, "it finds no sound legal basis for maintaining the Plaintiffs' claims."

Court Upholds Benefit Cuts to Low-Income Disabled Families, Dismisses Lawsuit

“Poor Tax” Will Take Effect In December

A federal district court judge dismissed a class action lawsuit brought by low-income parents with disabilities late Monday afternoon. Judge Willliam K. Sessions III found that a new law reducing public assistance to families with disabled parents receiving Supplemental Security Income is constitutional and violated no federal law. The ruling means that affected families receiving Reach Up benefits will face monthly reductions up to $125 starting as soon as December 1. Vermont Legal Aid brought the lawsuit on behalf of affected families arguing the cuts violated their due process and equal protection rights and other federal laws. Legal Aid has widely criticized the new law calling it a “poor tax” targeting Vermonters who cannot afford a significant loss of monthly income.

Judge Sessions agreed with the plaintiffs that the law targets poor Vermonters. “The law at issue in this case targets one of the most vulnerable populations in Vermont: disabled adults raising children in poverty. In an effort to achieve budgetary savings the Legislature has voted to decrease public aid to those families, resulting in what can only be further hardship for parents as they struggle to provide food and shelter for their children,” he wrote in conclusion.

In the end, however, the court agreed with the state that notices sent to affected families were sufficient and that the legislative process provided all the process that was due. The court found no intent to discriminate against Vermonters with disabilities because the targeted reduction was for budgetary reasons and the state had a rational basis – budget savings – on which to change the law. As a result, the Judge dismissed the case.

Vermont Legal Aid had argued that because SSI recipients are excluded from the Reach Up program altogether their income should not be counted to reduce Reach Up grants. Other states that consider SSI include recipients as part of the assistance group. “We’re obviously disappointed with the decision because of the disastrous impact these cuts will have on very low-income Vermonters with disabilities and their families who rely on temporary public assistance,” said Christopher Curtis, of Vermont Legal Aid who brought the case on behalf of the plaintiffs. “What we learned is that the new law is not unconstitutional; it is merely unconscionable,” he said.

Curtis said that he hoped lawmakers would consider repealing the cuts when the legislature reconvenes in January. “These cuts act as a kind of ‘poor tax’ on those who can least afford it,” he said. “If lawmakers truly believe that Vermonters cannot afford any new taxes they should repeal this one,” said Curtis. “It’s an especially cruel irony that the state currently enjoys a $4 million surplus  - an amount that more than covers this cut targeting the most vulnerable Vermonters,” said Curtis. He said that families suffering from the effects of the benefit cut should contact their local legislators and ask them to repeal the cut to the Reach Up program.

Cuts to the Reach Up program were originally set to go into effect in August but were delayed by agreement of the parties to allow Judge Sessions time to consider the case. “We do want to acknowledge the Secretary (Cohen) and the Commissioner (Schatz) for their agreement to continue benefits while the case was pending,” said Curtis.

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