Our Top Stories Of 2016: A Look Back At The News Of The Year
It's been quite a year. In the final days of 2016, we're reflecting on some of the biggest news stories of the year and looking toward what's next in 2017.
When it came time to look back at the news of the year, there was a lot to consider.
As the year began there were major political campaigns underway, nationally and here in Vermont.
Over the course of the year multiple issues arose affecting Vermonters but there were a few stories that simply could not be forgotten when it came time for a year-end review.
A presidential race, a gubernatorial campaign, a debate over refugee resettlement, water contamination and a Ponzi-like scheme to defraud investors.
We talked to the VPR reporters who spent 2016 covering these stories about how they developed and about what next is in store.
Sen. Bernie Sanders' Presidential Bid
In 2016, Sen. Bernie Sanders' candidacy took off across the country, sparking a movement.
In February, that movement got a big boost when Sanders won the New Hampshire presidential primary, winning the state by 23 points over rival Hillary Clinton.
VPR's political reporter Peter Hirschfeld spent much of 2016 covering the presidential and gubernatorial campaigns.
"It was this moment," says Hirschfeld, "when all of a sudden pundit class and the national media — that had in some ways written this guy off as a socialist curiosity — realized Sanders is for real."
"For a lot of Sanders supporters, the Democratic National Convention in July was a pretty bitter end to his candidacy," Hirschfeld says. "But to listen to Hillary Clinton's acceptance speech was to appreciate how big an impression that Bernie Sanders had made. There was Hillary Clinton talking unabashedly about raising taxes on wealthy individuals in large corporations to pay for things like free public college tuition for working-class Americans."
"No matter your politics there's no denying that Bernie Sanders' candidacy galvanized a huge segment of the electorate and in many ways reshaped a lot of the political boundaries in this country."
Looking ahead to 2017...
Though Sanders did not win the Democratic primary, his run has put him in a place to shape the party’s policy in the coming year. In November, Sanders (an Independent) was named the Senate Democratic Caucus's "Director of Outreach."
Sanders has emerged as a one of the more prominent critics of President-elect Donald Trump, however he's indicated a desire to reach out to the American voters that were responsible for electing Trump president.
To dismiss those individuals as racist, xenophobic or bigoted, Sanders says, is to misunderstand the economic desperation that he believes resulted in Trump's victory.
The 2016 Presidential Election
In November, the biggest news story of the year came to a head with the election of Donald Trump as president of the United States.
"There are people here who were thrilled to see Donald Trump elected president and they think he's the kind of change maker this country needs right now," says Hirschfeld. "There are far more people living in Vermont who were disappointed at best in his win and were, in some cases, I think it's fair to say pretty traumatized by it."
"What's interesting now is to see how anti-Trump Vermonters are beginning to organize in the wake of his election," Hirschfeld explains. "You're starting to see a lot of activist groups across the state ... They think that Donald Trump's win has the potential to be a watershed event for some of the progressive movements that they've been trying to jumpstart. And we'll see over the next couple of years what sort of traction they can get in the wake of what they see is a common enemy."
Looking ahead to 2017...
Trump will be sworn in as president on Jan. 20, and Vermont lawmakers, Governor-elect Phil Scott and executive-branch officials here will be closely following his first moves in office.
Trump has vowed to enact policy reforms that could drastically reduce the amount of federal money flowing into Vermont. And if the Republican-controlled Congress votes to defund the Affordable Care Act, for instance, Vermont could suddenly have to contend with the loss of tens of millions of dollars in federal money.
Vermont's Next Governor: Phil Scott
In 2015, Gov. Peter Shumlin announced he would not seek another term and so the race for governor this year was wide open.
In November, after a long campaign, Republican Lt. Gov. Phil Scott won the gubernatorial race, beating former transportation secretary and Democratic nominee Sue Minter by a wider margin than many were expecting.
The day after the election Scott said that his runaway victory amounted to a mandate from Vermont voters.
"They want some action on the economy," Scott said. "They don't want to have to struggle, they don't want to have to work two and three jobs to make ends meet."
"I think this was an election that featured two candidates with some starkly different views about the role of state government in Vermonters' lives," Hirschfeld says. "Sue Minter wanted to raise the minimum wage. She wanted to institute a mandatory paid family leave policy. She wanted to tax banks and use the money to pay for free community and technical college for any Vermonter, regardless of income."
"Phil Scott meanwhile argued that it was time to stop elected officials from using government as a way to intervene in private economic activity," says Hirschfeld. "He wants to lower the growth rate in state spending. He wants to make targeted tax cuts that he thinks are going to benefit certain industries."
"And now, we get to watch the incoming Republican governor try to implement his agenda with a Legislature that's controlled overwhelmingly by Democrats," Hirschfeld says. "Now the partisan dynamic might seem to lend itself to gridlock and strife, but there are some key Democratic lawmakers, like presumptive House Speaker Mitzi Johnson and incoming Senate President Tim Ashe who sound like they actually share Phil Scott's concerns about the sustainability of state spending levels. And it's possible, especially in the face of so much uncertainty at the federal level, that we might see a more copacetic budget process."
Looking ahead to 2017...
Scott's inauguration comes on Jan. 5, and the public will soon find out what specific policy and spending reforms he has in mind for the state he'll govern.
Scott will present his administration's vision for the future in an inaugural address next week. He'll present his first budget proposal later in the month.
Refugee Resettlement In Rutland
In April, Rutland's Mayor Christopher Louras announced that the city would become a resettlement site for up to 100 Syrian refugees.
The debate between those who supported Mayor Louras' decision and those who did not continued for much of this year, with some saying that this was the shot in the arm that Rutland's economy needs to move forward and others deeming it a grievous overreach by the federal, state and local governments.
"If you follow social media platforms related to this topic," Hirschfeld explains, "it becomes abundantly clear that there are some people who simply don't want to share a community with non-white Muslim immigrants."
Looking ahead to 2017...
While the debate in Rutland has tempered somewhat, many local residents have big concerns as to how the newcomers will do, what kind of jobs they'll find and whether city schools will be able to handle their needs.
VPR reporter Nina Keck has been covering the story throughout 2016.
"Perhaps the biggest question has to do with what, if any, changes President-elect Trump will make to the current U.S. refugee policy once he takes office," says Keck. "During the presidential campaign, Trump pledged to ban the immigration of Muslims from countries like Syria — and no one is quite certain how that might impact the Syrians coming to Vermont in 2017."
In April, the Securities and Exchange Commission revealed a massive fraud, alleging Northeast Kingdom developers Ariel Quiros and William Stenger defrauded foreign investors in the federal EB-5 program out of $200 million.
"I can still remember first reading through that SEC complaint that was filed in federal court back in April and the scope of the allegations was overbroad," says Hirschfeld, "it was so severe and it was suddenly clear that this series of massive development projects in the Northeast Kingdom, projects that had been touted vigorously by some of the most prominent politicians in the state, was in fact nothing more than a Ponzi-like scheme to defraud foreign investors."
"One of the big questions still hanging over this episode is how did this massive fraud elude detection by the state regulators who were supposed to be overseeing the state EB-5 program," says Hirschfeld. "Now, regulatory oversight has changed drastically since all of this happened. But there are still a lot of unanswered questions about how government agencies could have remained blind to a crime of such epic proportions that was going on under their noses."
Looking ahead to 2017...
The SEC's case against Ariel Quiros got a major boost earlier in November when the federal judge overseeing the case said the former Jay Peak owner is, based on evidence presented so far, almost certainly guilty of masterminding the fraud.
The SEC has dropped its charges against Stenger, in exchange for his cooperation in the case against Quiros, but Stenger still faces state-level charges.
Water Contamination Across The State
In Feburary, VPR reported that state officials had found abnormally high levels of the potentially carcinogenic chemical Perfluorooctanoic, or PFOA, in water supplies in the town of North Bennington.
In March, officials found PFOA in nearby Pownal. Subsequent state testing has shown PFOA cropping up around the state.
The episode has served as a sobering reminder for Vermonters of how vulnerable our drinking water is to chemical contamination. And it's been an especially trying time for the people who found out they'd been unknowingly consuming contaminated water, in some cases for years.
VPR reporter Howard Weiss-Tisman has been covering the contamination across the state this year.
"No one really understands the long-term health effects of PFOA, and the people in Bennington and Pownal must think about that every day when they go to their taps for clean water," says Weiss-Tisman. "Blood tests have shown levels of PFOA hundreds of times higher than the Department of Health says is safe, and unfortunately it might be years before some of the people in southwestern Vermont truly know the impact of this crisis."
The episode begs a lot of questions about what else is out there in the way of contamination.
The only reason that state officials have detected PFOA in all these locations is because they've launched a targeted effort to find it. There are a lot of other chemicals that have been used for industrial purposes over the years that we largely are not testing for. And it looks like this episode is going to put a bright new spotlight on issues of water safety in Vermont.
Governor-elect Phil Scott says he's going to take an aggressive approach to the contamination. He's appointed a secretary of natural resources who says this is going to be one of her big priorities. It's unclear precisely what sort of steps they're going to take.
Looking ahead to 2017...
Lawmakers have begun taking some small steps to improve detection protocols, for instance, to try to give residents in towns more tools to hold industries responsible for leaks that do affect water supplies.
The big unknown at this point is who will pay for an estimated $30 million water project to bring clean water to parts of Bennington.
Just this week the company that the state says is responsible for the contamination seemed to back away from taking responsibility for polluting the water. The state wants to start working on the water line extension this spring, but it might be forced to use taxpayer money to start the work if a settlement isn't reached with Saint-Gobain.