MONTPELIER — Lt. Gov. Phil Scott cast a rare vote in the Senate Thursday to break a tie and kill off proposed changes to legislation passed last year that allows the state to regulate “chemicals of concern to children.”
Scott, a Republican, said he has cast fewer than six votes in the Senate since taking office in 2010. The state’s constitution requires the lieutenant governor, the presiding officer of the Senate, to vote when there is a tie.
The Senate Health and Welfare Committee was proposing to make changes to Act 188, which passed last year. The law created a reporting mechanism for manufacturers that use certain chemicals in children’s products.
Beginning in July of next year, manufacturers that use chemicals designated by the state as “chemicals of high concern to children” must disclose information about those chemicals to the Department of Health. The law also created a working group that would make recommendations to the health commissioner about regulating designated chemicals.
Language in the law states that the commissioner of Health can move to add a chemical to an existing list of 66 chemicals of high concern to children “upon the recommendation of the working group.” The committee’s amendment sought to amend the law to state that such action could be taken “after consultation” with the group.
Other changes sought in the amendment would require that there be a “reasonable risk of exposure” rather than “children will be exposed” to such chemicals. It also added language that there must be “one or more safer and technically and economically feasible alternatives to the chemical” before it can be added to the list.
The Senate voted to approve those changes to the existing law before considering an amendment from Sen. Peg Flory, R-Rutland, to kill that section of S.139. The changes sought to Act 188 were attached to the legislation, a miscellaneous health bill.
Flory said she heard from members of the business community that were concerned about the proposed changes.
“They were not thrilled with the bill passed last year,” she said. “With this they were really concerned.”
The vote on Flory’s amendment to eliminate the changes was first taken by voice. Flory then called for “division,” which requires members of the Senate to stand to show how they voted. That resulted in a 15 to 15 tie, requiring Scott to fulfill his constitutional duty.
“I will be voting yes, so the motion passes,” Scott said from the Senate dais.
The lieutenant governor said he sided with the business community, which opposed the changes, so as not to create uncertainty for them.
“I’ve talked a lot over the last couple of years about certainty in the business environment. I remember some of the debate last year and I think there was some exceptions made in the business community, and others came together on this bill. So, I thought, ‘Why not give it a chance to work and see what happens?’” Scott said after the vote.
The Health and Welfare Committee took testimony on the proposed changes to Act 188 last month and heard from several representatives of the business community who were opposed to the changes. Those arguments proved to be enough to scuttle the changes Thursday.
Sen. Anthony Pollina, a member of the committee who presented the proposal to his colleagues on the Senate floor, said the changes would bring the language in the law more in line with the language used by the federal Environmental Protection Agency and other regulatory authorities.
“We are talking about chemicals that we know are dangerous. I want to make that very clear,” Pollina said. “What we’re trying to do is bring … our law in line with accepted practices.”
Paul Burns, executive director of VPIRG, a public advocacy group that pushed heavily for the proposed changes to Act 188, said the law’s current language could “invite legal action” if a commissioner were to add new chemicals to the list. He said he was disappointed with Thursday’s developments.
“We want the law to be able to work in order to protect children’s health,” he said. “It’s more difficult, for sure, and some of the language in the current law presents a very high bar for the commissioner to meet if he or she is ever going to take action to regulate a toxic chemical.”
Burns said VPIRG would look at ways to change the outcome before a third and final vote on the underlying bill is taken Friday.
William Driscoll, vice president of the Associated Industries of Vermont, said he and others opposed to the changes would look to preserve Thursday’s outcome.
“Frankly, at some point, if people go overboard trying to undo something, it doesn’t look very good for them. At some point some sort of sense of seemliness and appropriate behavior has to prevail,” Driscoll said. “It would be kind of analogous to that they’re trying to undue what the did last year, and then they try to undue what they did just the next day. I guess they need to decide what kind of people they want to be.”