Category Archives: Bill Tracker

GMO labeling bill signed into law

Jeb Wallace-Brodeur / Staff Photo  A large crowd of legislators and supporters cheers after Gov. Peter Shumlin signed a bill into law on Thursday outside the State House that requires the labelling of GMO ingredients in food. It is the first law of its kind in the nation to pass without so-called trigger clauses.

Jeb Wallace-Brodeur / Staff Photo
A large crowd of legislators and supporters cheers after Gov. Peter Shumlin signed a bill into law on Thursday outside the State House that requires the labelling of GMO ingredients in food. It is the first law of its kind in the nation to pass without so-called trigger clauses.

By JOSH O’GORMAN
MONTPELIER – Before a cheering crowd of hundreds, Gov. Peter Shumlin signed a first-in-the-nation food labeling bill into law, even as food producers continue to voice their opposition.
The front lawn of the Statehouse was filled with families and consumer advocates as Shumlin signed a law that will require the packaging of some foods to indicate if they contain genetically modified organisms, or GMOs.
“We will sign the first bill in America, joining 60 other countries, where Vermonters will have the right to know what’s in their food,” said Shumlin, who compared the law to Vermont begin the first state to abolish slavery and allow civil unions. Continue reading

Bills dealing with campaign finance, privacy rights, land use hit House, Senate calendars

The first of what should be a spate of campaign-finance reform bills hit the Senate calendar last week. Introduced by Sen. Tim Ashe, S.17 aims to improve an elections database that currently makes it difficult and time-consuming to figure out who gave what to whom.

The legislation would require candidates for office to submit their lists of campaign contributions and expenditures in electronic form, and stipulates that the secretary of state must maintain those submissions in a searchable online database.

Another Senate bill responds to privacy concerns raised by the growing use of “automated license plate recognition systems” by law enforcement. The Vermont chapter of the ACLU sounded the alarm last year about the ways in which this technology can be used to track the movements of residents against whom police hold no evidence of wrongdoing.

The bill, S.18, calls for study to establish limitations on the use, dissemination and retention of information gained through the license detection systems.

Sen. Dick Sears has a bill that would increase the statute of limitations for a number of crimes, including sexual offenses against a minor. For the crimes of sexual assault on a minor, lewd and lascivious conduct and sexual exploitation of a minor, Sears’ proposed legislation would allow prosecutors to file charges anytime before the alleged victim turns 40. Under current law, the window to file charges closes when the victim turns 25.

Sears’ bill removes the statute of limitations altogether for sexual assault, human trafficking, murder, arson causing death and kidnapping.

Over in the House, a wide-ranging land-use proposal that generated some headlines before the opening of the session has been introduced in bill form. Rep Tony Klein says H9 would serve as companion legislation to Act 250, establishing a statewide planning process separate from the regulatory framework. The bill would direct the Natural Resources Board to prepare a statewide plan, replete with maps delineating lands suitable for things energy projects, housing or commercial activity.

Klein says deciding in advance what types of development belong where will streamline the regulatory process for developers while giving residents more say over development in their communities.

Rep. Ann Mook has introduced legislation that would require health insurers to pay for hearing aids; her bill also would require the Green Mountain Care Board “to consider” including hearing aids in any single-payer benefits plan plan Vermont adopts in the future.

Reps. Ann Donohue and Patty Lewis, Republicans from Northfield and Berlin, respectively, want to exempt from state income taxes the first $5,000 of military retirement pay. The legislation would benefit only residents making less than $50,000 per year.

Senator wants sway over Public Service Board, and more from the first bills of 2013

Forget about broad-based taxes, death with dignity, marijuana decriminalization and probitions on mountaintop wind: the first House bill of the new biennium aims to simplify judicial bookkeeping.

In a sure sign that the new session is nearly upon us, legislative staff have unveiled the texts of bills that are ready for introduction.

H1 is a gripping bit of statute that would repeal a provision requiring superior court clerks to “keep a book of judgments separate from the originals.”

Like most of the 1,000 or so bills introduced in a given biennium, H1 won’t generate much talk outside the committee to which it’s assigned. But in addition to the mundane work of legal bookkeeping, lawmakers will consider scores of bills this year that could have a real impact on the lives of the Vermonters they represent.

Take H6, introduced by Rep. Paul Poirier, the Barre City Independent who late last month dropped his insurgent candidacy for Speaker of the House. Poirier’s legislation would add “mental injury” to the list of job-related afflictions for which employees are entitled to workers’ compensation.

In the Senate’s first piece of new legislation, Sen. Tim Ashe, a Chittenden County Democrat/Progressive, wants to require judges “to consider the approximate financial cost” of a sentence before handing down a ruling.

It won’t the first go-round in Montpelier for many of the bills under consideration in 2013. Already on the calendar in the Senate is a bill relating to concussions in youth sports. Lawmakers failed to reach consensus on a proposal last year; S.4, introduced by Ashe, Sen. Dick Sears and Senate President John Campbell, would, among other things, prohibit a coach from letting a child reenter a game after suffering a concussion.

Sen. Robert Hartwell, a Bennington Democrat and vocal critic of the Public Service Board, promises to spark a lively debate with his first piece of legislation of the biennium. Hartwell, an opponent of ridgeline wind development and wireless “smart meters,” want to give the Senate more influence over the composition of the three-person panel responsible for regulating those technologies.

Hartwell’s S16 would require the governor’s appointments to the Public Service Board to first win consent from the Senate.

You can scroll through the first 24 bills of the session yourself at

http://www.leg.state.vt.us/docs/serviceMain.cfm, and expect to see many more added in the coming days.

Pot decrim and death with dignity? According to Shumlin, “we’re going to get them done.”

From death with dignity to marijuana decriminalization, Gov. Peter Shumlin on Tuesday said he aims to seal the deal on several notable pieces of unfinished business from the last legislative biennium.

Shumlin in his first term was unable to deliver on some of his highest-profile legislative initiatives, including union rights for child care workers. At a morning press conference Tuesday, Shumlin said he’s confident lawmakers will send those bills to his desk in 2013.

“I’m confident that regardless of who leads the various bodies in the Legislature, that we can pass decriminalization of marijuana, death with dignity and the (unionization) bill for childcare workers,” Shumlin said. “We’re going to get them done.”

Key lawmakers aren’t so sure.

Sen. John Campbell, the Windsor County Democrat aiming for a second term as Senate president later this afternoon, was the Statehouse’s most prominent opponent to the death with dignity and childcare unionization bills. He said Tuesday his positions on those issues have not evolved in recent months, and that he’s not convinced either has the support needed to make it through the Legislature.

Campbell, however, said he won’t try to squelch a vote on any death with dignity legislation. In fact he said the topic in 2013 will receive more attention from Senate committees than it did in either of the last two sessions.

“I recognize that this issue is not going to go away, and if the majority of people want to have a debate, then that debate should happen,” Campbell said.

Campbell said he envisions joint hearings between Senate committees on  judiciary and health and welfare. He said the hearings come in response to requests for additional debate from people on both sides of the issue.

“If it passes it passes. If it doesn’t it doesn’t,” Campbell said. “But I think everyone involved in this conversation agrees there are issues that need to be vetted, so I think it’s worth taking the time to vet them.”

Look for more on the governor’s wishlist for 2013, and what lawmakes have to say about it, in tomorrow’s editions of The Times Argus and Rutland Herald.

In ceremonial office, Shumlin repents for his sins

MONTPELIER – When Gov. Peter Shumlin was president pro tem of the Senate, Gov. Jim Douglas occupied the fifth floor, and the two clashed over numerous issues.

Now that he is governor, Shumlin told Douglas on Thursday, he sees how frustrating it can be when you’re on the other end of the deal, trying to get the unwieldy House and Senate to do what you want.

As an example, Shumlin pointed to his ongoing effort to pass a “simple little bill” through the Legislature that would let Vermonters have “Vermont Strong” license plates on their cars. The license plates are designed raise money for Irene victims.

“They can’t move the thing along,” said Shumlin, referring to the Legislature.

During a light-hearted meeting in the governor’s ceremonial office with Douglas on Thursday, Shumlin admitted he may have been guilty of causing the gears of government to grind when he was in the Senate, and said he repented for his sins.

“Funny how your perspective has changed,” said Douglas.

Shumlin played host at the Statehouse to Douglas and the Middlebury College political science class Douglas is teaching.

Shumlin riffed on his top agenda items, and answered questions from students.

The two former rivals kept it light, offering jokes when the opportunity arose.

In comedy, timing is…everything. And timing matters when rising to the governor’s office, too, said Shumlin, noting that in his first year in office Vermont was hit with a record blizzard, record rain and record flooding – including Irene.

“The governor knew when to get out,” said Shumlin.

– Thatcher Moats

Senate backs up nurses

The Senate today gave preliminary approval to legislation that would ramp up criminal penalties on people convicted of assaulting nurses or other health-care workers.

Violence in hospitals is apparently a big problem – hospital workers, according to national statistics, are four times more likely to be assaulted than the general population.

“We heard very disturbing testimony about people being hit, punched, kicked, choked, threatened, stabbed with hypodermic needles,” said Ann Cummings, a Washington County Democrat and member of the Senate Judiciary Committee.

The legislation creates “enhanced” penalties for someone accused of assault on a health-care professional in a hospital setting. Instead of the six-month maximum prison term for simple assault, convicts could face up to one year. The bill also increases fines for the offense.

The special protections are already in place for police, firefighters and other emergency responders.

The bill won unanimous approval in a voice vote.

Another job for the Secretary of State

One of the sticking points on H.73, the open government bill that is currently before the House Government Operations committee, is whether or not to create a 'Government Transparency Office' within the Secretary of State's purview, where appeals on denied requests for public documents would be adjudicated and processed.The sticking point comes from both questions about funding the office when money is tight, and whether giving that office this kind of centralized function would be wise.

On the other hand, why not give the SoS responsibility for spaying and neutering dogs and other pets? That's what a new bill, S.74, proposes to do by transferring the responsibility for the state's spay and neuter program for dogs, cats and wolf hybrids from the Agency of Agriculture to the Secretary of State.

This also transfers a revenue stream to the Secretary of state: $2 of the $3 surcharge from every pet license processed in Vermont.

-Rob Mitchell

Senate committee approves pre-K bill

Given that all five members of the Senate Committee on Education sponsored the bill that would "lift the cap" on pre-Kindergarten in Vermont, it’s not surprising the legislation made it past that committee. 

Still, advocates for early education were thrilled Thursday after the committee took its vote, calling it an endorsement of the plan and a step in the right direction.

"They really believe pre-K is a good thing and that towns should be able to decide to use it as an educational strategy or not,” said Mary Schwartz, the director of Pre-K Vermont, a coalition of advocates, businesses and public education leaders who support early education.

The bill, S.53, would erase a state-imposed limit that allows only 50 percent of 3- and 4-year-olds in Vermont school districts to enroll in pre-K.

The limit was part of a 2007 law and was a compromise between proponents of pre-K and those who feared unlimited enrollment would increase property taxes and hurt private day cares.

Proponents say that early education can save on education costs by avoiding the need for expensive special education. Some lawmakers, however, worry that lifting the cap will burden the state education fund.

The pre-K bill still has a long way to go before it becomes law. On Friday, the bill was referred to the Senate Committee on Finance.

Health Care, day 2

We are reading through the Hsiao report today, after getting a preliminary look at it last night. I keep getting questions on how it will affect certain groups or certain people, and the answer is, if the Legislature goes with option 3, the Public-Private Single Payer plan, each group will be impacted differently.

A few key questions that we'll be trying to answer over the next few days: How will it work? Will Medicare remain the same? What about malpractice reform? Can they really reduce administrative costs that much? Who pays? Will we really be able to get waivers for everything from the federal government?

Also, lest you thought we weren't paying attention, a bill that would set up a single payer system (called "Ethan Allen Health") was introduced by Susan Davis today. H.80 would set up what looks like Hsiao's Option 1, but would not be exactly equivalent.

Transparency – S16 & H22

While many of Vermont's journalists were in Grafton for a conference on government transparency last Friday, Gov. Shumlin held a press conference on a new effort to increase transparency in Vermont's government. There were very promising signs in what the governor said, but in general we have a 'wait-and-see' attitude.

The issues with transparency seem to boil down to a few things: the state employee time it takes to process public records requests; what is or isn't exempted from Vermont's public records law; and who pays the legal bills when a dispute over what is public and what is not goes to court.

Meanwhile, S.16, introduced by Sens. Dick Sears (D-Bennington) and Joe Benning (R-Caledonia), proposes to add another exception to the public record law, by making any adult case accepted by a diversion program confidential.The way this bill is written, it looks as if the arrest would still be public information, but anything related to how the police came to arrest a given person would be private.

And H.22, introduced by 22 House members, would, upon petition, expunge all records related to misdemeanor crimes after five years, upon petition. This might apply for people who are caught with a joint in their pocket, or other minor crimes, but anyone convicted of a serious felony would not be able to petition for expungement.

Medical marijuana back in Statehouse

S.17 An act relating to medical marijuana dispensaries

Introduced by Sen. Jeannette White (D-Windham County), this legislation would allow the creation of so-called “compassion centers” at which eligible patients could procure their medical marijuana.

The bill first surfaced in Vermont last year after medical-marijuana patients reported an inability to access the drug in a safe and legal way. While the state’s medical-marijuana law eliminates criminal sanctions for eligible patients, it never provided a mechanism for those patients to actually obtain the cannabis.

White’s legislation would create two medical-marijuana cooperatives, supplied by a state-sanctioned growing operation, where patients could go to get the drug. The legislation never made it to a floor vote in the Senate last year. But White says this year is different.

Education of the health and law-enforcement communities, she says, has tempered opposition. And the state’s new governor happens to be a supporter of the initiative, meaning his commissioner of public safety is also likely to give the bill his blessing.

  

A couple interesting bills…

H.23 An act relating to benefits for survivors of emergency personnel

Introduced by Rep. Will Stevens, (D-Shoreham), and others, this legislation looks to avert the kind of financial hardship suffered by the family of a firefighter who was killed while aiding the victim of a car accident.

Peter Coe, a Shoreham firefighter, was driving home with his family shortly after Christmas in 2009 when he saw a vehicle off the road and stopped to render aid. He was killed when a separate car slid off the road and struck him.

The family’s insurance company failed to provide immediate financial assistance, and because Coe was killed in an off-duty incident, the family was unable to access a state-subsidized “survivors fund” created to help the families of killed emergency workers.

Shoreham says the bill would avoid similar situations in the future by making the fund available to the families of emergency killed while “rendering aid … in accordance with the standard operating procedures or guidelines of a department, even if not called by the department.”

H.16 An act relating to harassment and disturbing the peace through false and defamatory Internet website postings

Introduced by Rep. Carolyn Partridge (D-Windham), this legislation would create new criminal sanctions for people who attempt to “terrify, intimidate … or annoy another person” by posting “false and defamatory” messages on the websites.

The bill responds to concerns among some of Partridge’s constituents about the use of one newspaper’s online websites as a forum for accusations and slander.

Under the guise of anonymity, Partridge says, people are free to publicize hurtful and often baseless claims without revealing their identities. The practice, she says, has had social consequences.

“There have been some resignations on the selectboard because people just didn’t want to be harassed anymore,” she says.

Partridge says she’s mindful of protecting people’s First Amendment rights, but that lawmakers need to have a conversation about the questionable use of new technologies to air defamatory language. She says she’s hoping to start a conversation about the issue and thinks lawmakers could find a way to address some of the problems without resorting to actual legislation.

 

Bill Tracker: H8, H9, H10, H11, H12, H13 and S8

H9 – An act relating to providing that commercial composting on farms is an accepted agricultural practice

This bill is basically a clarification bill, says sponsor David L. Deen, to clear up some misinterpretation of the legislature's intentions about composting. The bill is matched by S8, sponsored by Sen. Sara Kittell. Basically, the rules need to be rewritten to be clear that commercial farming operations are allowed to expand into commercial composting, as long as they follow standard practices.

"We've been dealing with (this) for two years, and as with many things you just have to tinker," Deen said. "It's to try and clarify what size compost with post consumer waste can operate with or without a local permit."

H10 – Permitting for sport shooting ranges

In 2008 a man was shot and killed in his home in Essex by a stray bullet from a nearby shooting range; last year another man was hit in the head but survived in a separate incident in Addison County. Deen's bill would mandate that all shooting ranges adhere to standards at least as stringent as the NRA manual's, and be inspected and certified by an official from the Dept. of Fish and Wildlife. "All I'm looking to do is to establish some standards of safety," he said.

H11 – Prevention of discharge of pharmaceutical waste

This basically would make it illegal to dump pharmaceuticals into state waters unless permitted by the Agency of Natural Resources. It would also task the ANR with researching and putting together a plan for safe collection and disposal of unused pills and drugs. "This is the start of what I expect to be an extended conversation," Deen said.  "More and more evidence is showing that drugs of all kinds are having a disruptive effect on aquatic organisms." 

By that he means mutated cell growth and hormonal abnormalities in animals that are downstream from pharmaceutical waste streams. Investigations by the Associated Press and others have found that there are high levels of drugs in drinking water in many cities, often from excess dumped by hospitals and long-term care homes. Other states, including our neighbor New York have cracked down on this.

H12 – Requiring a certified copy of charter changes

This is a small change to be sure that a mixup doesn't repeat itself. Last year, the village of North Westminster was dissolved through a charter change (Act 14 of the last legislative session, for those keeping track) and merged into Westminster. But because the town did not get official notification, it missed a deadline for some insurance changes. If this bill becomes law, the Secretary of State will have to send a town or city a certified copy of any charter changes.

H8 is a proposal for charter change to the town of Jamaica, incidentally.

Finally, H13, which would make it legal to take up to 10 nuisance deer to prevent them damaging forest or other crops. This bill was worked out and passed in the House last year, but the Senate never had time to take it up, Deen said, and so it was unfinished business.

Bill tracker

H.5 An act relating to returning monies to the Clean Energy Development Fund to support solar tax credits

Introduced by Rep. Tony Klein (D-East Montpelier), this legislation would use $2 million in state funds to support a solar-energy project in Springfield.

IVEK Corporation, which manufacturers “fluid-dispensing systems,” was “inadvertently omitted,” Klein’s bill says, from a solar tax-credit program designed to encourage renewable energy development.

Klein says $2 million was wrongly diverted from the Clean Energy Development Fund last year to support a geothermal project for which lawmakers had instead appropriated federal stimulus money. Klein says his bill would restore that money to the Clean Energy Development Fund so that IVEK could benefit from the program.  

H.6 An act relating to powers and immunities of the liquor control investigators

Introduced by Rep. Ron Hubert (R-Milton), and others, this legislation would grant liquor-control officers full police authority. Hubert says most liquor-control officers are experienced law-enforcement personnel with prior careers in state and local police agencies. But though they’re fully trained and accredited, he says, their employment with the Department of Liquor Control means that “constables have more arrest powers.”

Hubert attributes the problem to “an oversight” in previous legislation, and says granting liquor-control officers full police authority could allow them to provide some auxiliary services to state and local police forces.

H.7 An act relating to appointments on the Mental Health Oversight Committee

Introduced by Rep. Anne Donahue (R-Northfield), and others, this legislation would loosen regulations over the composition of the Mental Health Oversight Committee. Donahue says current rules mandate legislative representatives from certain House and Senate committees. But the guidelines, Donahue says, hamper lawmakers’ ability to select the most appropriate legislators for the job.

S.7 An act relating to the Uniform Limited Cooperative Association Act

Introduced by Sen. Harold Giard (D-Addison County), this legislation would allow outside investment in cooperatives, provided the investing entity has no more than a 48-percent ownership in the operation.

Under current law, Giard says, cooperatives’ options for capital infusions are limited to member-generated expenditures and bank loans. Alterations to the Uniform Limited Cooperative Association Act, he says, would provide a “new way of getting money to flow to cooperatives so they could grow and prosper.”

“In this economy, I think anything we can do to encourage investment in these kinds of enterprises is a step in the right direction,” Giard says.

More bills

S.5 An act relating to prescription drug co-payments

Introduced by Sen. Dick Sears (D-Bennington County), this legislation would put limits of the amount of the co-payments that insurance companies can charge policy holders for pharmaceuticals. 

Sears said the legislation pertains specifically to the 90-day prescriptions customarily sold by mail-order pharmacies. Though the 90-day prescription involves only a single transaction, Sears says health-insurance companies, accustomed to the more conventional 30-day supply sold in bricks-and-mortar pharmacies, have in some cases begin charging patients additional co-payments for the extra supply.

“People are able to get significant mark-downs on these 90-day supplies, but insurance companies have been jacking up co-payments on people who want to take advantage of these savings,” Sears said.

S.6 An act relating to caffeinated and stimulant-enhanced malt beverages

Introduced by Sens. John Campbell (D-Windsor County) and Bill Doyle (R-Washington County), this legislation would ban the sale of a class of alcoholic drinks fortified with caffeine and other legal stimulants.

Campbell says the often inexpensive drinks have increased in popularity among younger drinkers and, according to national media reports, have been connected with severe cases of alcohol poisoning, and even death, around the country.

Late last year, the Vermont Department of Liquor Control asked retailers to voluntarily pull the products from store shelves. This legislation would make that request mandatory.

“The beverage is clearly manufactured to enhance an intoxicated state and it seems to me they’ve been targeted toward a younger population who may not have developed responsible drinking habits,” Campbell says.