Category Archives: State Senate

Election-day voter registration moves forward

MONTPELIER — Lawmakers are taking a step that could increase voter participation.

By a vote of 20 to 7 Thursday afternoon, the Senate gave preliminary approval to a bill that would allow residents to register to vote on the day of an election. Currently, an individual who wishes to cast a vote on a Tuesday must have registered to vote by the previous Wednesday.

“Those of us in this building spend a lot of time thinking about elections, but most people don’t,” said Sen. Jeanette White, D-Windham. “People move or go into long-term care facilities in a town where they were not originally registered to vote and didn’t get engaged until the last moment. That doesn’t mean they’re uninformed.”

Under the terms of the bill, an individual could show up at a polling place the day of an election and present documentation of residency as required by federal law, such as photo identification or a utility bill. Either the town clerk or members of the municipality’s board of civil authority would review the documentation, and if approved, the individual would be a allowed to vote that day.

Currently, 13 states, and the District of Columbia, allow election-day voter registration.

“This is a voter-rights issue,” said Sec. Of State James Condos, following the vote. “This is for the benefit of the voter, for the benefit of the citizens to exercise their constitutional right to cast a ballot.”

According to Condos, places that have election-day voter registration have seen their rates of participation rise 10-12 percent since implementation.

Several senators expressed concern that election-day voter registration could lead to voter fraud, including Kevin Mullin, R-Rutland — who voted for the bill — and Dustin Degree, R-Franklin, who did not.

“There are lots of problems with elections with the system we have now,” Degree said. “I think the integrity of our elections is more important than increased participation.”

White disagreed that the bill could open up the door to more voter fraud.

“There is no more potential for voter fraud than there is under the current system we use now,” White said. “If someone wants to commit fraud now, all they have to do is say they registered when they renewed their driver’s license.”

Condos downplayed the idea that voter fraud is much of an issue at all.
“We have a hard enough time getting people to vote once, never mind voting twice” Condos said “Voter fraud is really nonexistent in this country. There have been many, many accusations, but they usually filter out and there will be a logical reason for what happened.”

The bill is expected to come before the Senate for final approval Friday.

Senate advances gun bill

MONTPELIER — The Vermont Senate on Wednesday gave preliminary approval to new gun restrictions by a 20 to 8 vote that will make it a state-level crime for some convicts to possess firearms and require that people determined by a court to be in need of mental health treatment be reported to a federal database.

Wednesday’s vote followed months of behind the scenes political machinations and some public spats as advocates and opponents of the new gun measures tried to gain the upper hand. Advocates, including Gun Sense Vermont, which strongly backed the bill, claimed success Wednesday.

“I think any time there is a vocal minority it can be a little tricky, but what’s so exciting is how vast, aggressive grassroots support has really changed the landscape. It’s meaningful because, finally, common sense gun legislation is getting passed,” Gun Sense Executive Director Ann Braden said.

But opponents, including the Vermont Federation of Sportsmen’s clubs and the National Rifle Association, also claimed victory because they were able to kill off earlier versions of proposed legislation that included expanded background checks.

“At the end of the day, from the bill that was originally proposed to this, the other side, I think that their agenda has been rejected. On that note we’re happy,” said NRA lobbyist Darin Goens. “If the question was asked on the original bill I think the vote would have been very different.”

Braden said her group will not be looking to restore the background check provision in the House.

“We’re focused just on this bill, not adding on,” she said.

The scaled-back bill passed Wednesday was the result of proposals from the Senate Judiciary Committee and the Health and Welfare Committee. Judiciary Committee Chairman Dick Sears, D-Bennington, told his colleagues on the Senate floor Wednesday that the bill looked to clarify a simple point — who should possess a firearm under Vermont state law.

Sears noted that that all of the other states have a similar state-level law that excludes some convicts from possessing firearms, as does the federal government.

“We are the outlier in this particular area. There are no other states at this point,” he said.

A agent with the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives and a federal prosecutor provided testimony to the Judiciary Committee that federal prosecutors “don’t have the time or the resources to prosecute these offenses in federal court,” Sears said.

Under the law, people convicted of so-called “listed crimes,” the most serious crimes in the state, will be restricted from possessing a firearm. The law makes some exceptions for lewd and lascivious behavior, as well as reckless endangerment and other motor vehicle-related crimes. The law also includes crimes involving the selling or trafficking of drugs that carry prison terms of at least 10 years.

The legislation will also require those found by a court to be “in need of treatment” for mental health reasons to be reported to the National Instant Criminal Background Check System. Sears said 38 states require such reporting.

Sears noted that the state of Virginia passed a law requiring such reporting following a mass shooting at Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University in 2007.

“I would hate for Vermont to wait for such a tragedy,” he said.

Much of the debate on the Senate floor Wednesday centered on how and when a person could have their right to possess a firearm restored after being reported to the database. The Senate approved an amendment that would allow a person to seek restoration of their right after 18 months, if they were found by a court to no longer be in need of treatment.

Sen. Joe Benning, R-Caledonia, sought passage of an amendment that would have eliminated a waiting period altogether, but it was defeated on a voice vote.

“This is a constitutionally delineated right,” Benning said. “My concern is that once you have had a constitutional right removed it should not be your problem to try and get it back.”

Sen. John Rodgers, D-Essex-Orleans, voiced opposition to the bill, fearing that it will be altered as it makes its way through the House. He asked why an existing state law that makes it a crime for people to possess a firearm while committing a crime is not enough.

“The key word is “while committing another crime,” Sears said, noting that state prosecutors, under the provisions of the bill, would be allowed to prosecute some convicts just for possessing the firearm.

“If you believe that convicted violent felons and drug traffickers …. ought not to have firearms, then I guess that’s how your vote would be. To me, this is a pretty simple policy choice that we’re faced with,” Sears said.

Rodgers also expressed a believe that many gun rights groups have expressed throughout the legislative process, that outside groups were influencing the legislation and encouraging lawmakers to act.

“This is largely driven from outside forces and I believe the Judiciary Committee had some evidence of that in testimony recently,” he said.

Rodgers said the state has a long heritage and tradition of gun ownership and those that disagree with it “may want to seek another place that has a culture that they like.” He made a motion to delay the bill by having it committed to the Appropriations Committee but that effort failed on a voice vote.

The bill is up for a final vote in the Senate Thursday before heading to the House.

A full story will appear in Thursday’s editions of the Barre-Montpelier Times Argus and the Rutland Herald.

Roll call vote results:

Yes
Sen. Tim Ashe, D/P-Chittenden
Sen. Becca Balint, D-Windham
Sen. Philip Baruth, D-Chittenden
Sen. Joe Benning, R-Caledonia
Sen. Chris Bray, D-Addison
Sen. John Campbell, D-Windsor
Sen. Brian Campion, D-Bennington
Sen. Ann Cummings, D-Washington
Sen. Jane Kitchel, D-Caledonia
Sen. Ginny Lyons, D-Chittenden
Sen. Mark MacDonald, D-Orange
Sen. Dick McCormack, D-Windsor
Sen. Alice Nitka, D-Windsor
Sen. Anthony Pollina, D-Washington
Sen. Dick Sears, D-Bennington
Sen. Michael Sirotkin, D-Chittenden
Sen. Barbara Snelling, R-Chittenden
Sen. Rich Westman, R-Lamoille
Sen. Jeanette White, D-Windham
Sen. David Zuckerman, P/D-Chittenden

No
Sen. Brian Colamore, R-Rutland
Sen. Dustin Degree, R-Franklin
Sen. Peg Flory, R-Rutland
Sen. Dick Mazza, D-Grand Isle
Sen. Norm McAllister, R-Franklin
Sen. Kevin Mullin, R-Rutland
Sen. John Rodgers, D-Essex-Orleans
Sen. Bobby Starr, D-Essex-Orleans

NRA lobbyist says he represents Vermont interests

MONTPELIER — A National Rifle Association lobbyist is on hand at the State House for today’s Senate debate and vote on a gun bill, just days after gun rights advocates accused Gun Sense Vermont of being a front for a national group.

Gun Sense maintains that it is a Vermont-based, grassroots organization. The two-year-old group is seeking passage of a bill, S.141, that would make it a state-level crime for some convicts to possess firearms. It would also require the names of people found to be mentally ill by a court to be reported to a national database.

Earlier versions of legislation before the Senate included an expansion of background checks to private gun sales, but that has since been shelved.

On Monday, the Vermont Second Amendment Coalition blasted Gun Sense for being a front for former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s group Everytown For Gun Safety. A lobbyist from the Necrason Group, testifying on behalf of Gun Sense, told the Senate Judiciary Committee that Gun Sense needed “to get national expertise” before signing off on a proposed amendment.

NRA lobbyist Darin Goens, right, sits in  the State House cafeteria Wednesday with Evan Hughes of the Vermont Federation of Sportsmen's Clubs.

NRA lobbyist Darin Goens, right, sits in the State House cafeteria Wednesday with Evan Hughes of the Vermont Federation of Sportsmen’s Clubs.

On Wednesday, just hours before the Senate was due to debate the bill, NRA lobbyist Darin Goens denied being a national interest on the other side of the debate.

“We’re a grassroots organization. I represent Vermonters. I’m not sure they represent Vermont citizens. They’re a national group who has funded a lobbyist,” Goens said, while sitting and chatting with Evan Hughes of the Vermont Federation of Sportsmen’s Clubs.

Goes said he has worked with Hughes’ group in opposed S.141.

“We’ve worked hand-in-hand with the Federation of Sportsmens Clubs,” he said. “They’re our state association so we’ve worked with them for the last several years,” Goens said. “On this particular issue we’ve met with legislators jointly. We’ve discussed amendments. We’ve organized events to make sure that our membership turns up at the capitol to make sure they’re voice is heard.”

Toxins debate reignited in Senate

MONTPELIER — A host of industry representatives are pushing back against language inserted into a Senate health care bill late last week that would alter a 1-year-old law that looks to regulate toxic products in commercial products.

The Senate Health and Welfare Committee heard testimony from several people Wednesday looking to scrap the language added to S.139 on Friday. It would make changes to Act 188, which was signed into law last year by Gov. Peter Shumlin following an arduous back-and-forth process that was finalized in the waning hours of the previous biennium.

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.

It also created the Chemicals of High Concern to Children Working Group that would make recommendations to the commissioner of health about regulating designated chemicals.

But an amendment to S.139 approved by the committee Friday would make significant changes to the law. It would allow the commissioner of health to add chemicals to the list through rule making based on “credible, scientific evidence,” removing language in the law that calls for “the weight of” such evidence to be considered.

Opponents of the change say it could allow a single study to form the basis for regulating a chemical.

It would also change the authority of the working group. Instead of allowing the commissioner of health to adopt rules regulating the sale or distribution of children’s products containing such chemicals “upon the recommendation” of the working group, the commissioner could act “after consultation” with the group. It diminishes the oversight and purpose of the group, which includes members with varying viewpoints.

The amendment would loosen the standard for allowing the commissioner of health to act by changing the threshold from “children will be exposed” to “there is potential for exposure.”

And it also removes language calling for “a probability” that exposure or frequency of exposure to such chemicals could cause or contribute to adverse health impacts before the commission of health could act.

Several industry representatives, including William Driscoll, vice president of Associated Industries of Vermont, testified Wednesday against the changes.

“We are very concerned about the proposed amendments to that statute, even as it is being implemented,” Driscoll said. “We feel that however well-intentioned, the amendments … are unwarranted and actually undermine the statute.”

Allison Crowley DeMag, a lobbyist representing the American Chemistry Council, said the language undermines the process undertaken last year to craft Act 188. The law that was eventually enacted represented a deal, she said, and the amendment seeking to change it would “undue what was a very collaborative effort last session.”

Allison Crowley DeMag

Allison Crowley DeMag

“At the end of the day, everyone in this room, as far as I know, we all gave some, we all won some, but we all came to a deal. Part of that deal was implementing this working group that represented all different types of interests,” she said.

Crowley DeMag urged the committee and others supporting changes to the law to allow the law to be enacted as passed last year.

“The working group hasn’t even been appointed yet and here we are undoing what I thought was a very collaborative effort last session. I’m just really disappointed in the process,” she said. “If the chemical industry had come out and done something like this I know people would be very, very concerned about it. I think that we should just go forward with what we did last session, whether we liked it or not, and just move ahead with the process as it was outlined last session.”

Representatives of IBM and the Personal Care Products Council also testified against the amendment, while representatives from Seventh Generation and Vermont Conservation Voters testified in favor of the changes.

Sen. Ginny Lyons, D-Chittenden, vice chairwoman of the committee, said she is looking to make changes because of potential legislation in Washington that might undercut the state’s ability to regulate chemicals. Changes under consideration to the federal Toxic Substances Control Act could prevent the state from strengthening its law in the future, she said.

“We heard that the Congress is acting on TSCA to make changes which would hold states exactly where they are with respect to chemical regulation, or preempt us altogether, which I hope wouldn’t happen,” she said.

Lyons also said she is looking to enact language the Senate passed last year that was removed by the House before it became law. Because the session was ending, the two chambers did not go to a conference committee and the Senate had to settle for the House version, she said.

“We wanted to approve the language that was passed in the bill last year to ensure that our department of health can do its work,” she said. “This opens a conversation that we were unable to have last year because the bill went right up to the end.”

Driscoll said the there is no need for the state to rush because the changes being considered to the federal law would preempt state actions taken after Jan. 1 of this year. And the federal legislation is not focused on the “procedural matters” addressed in the committee’s new language, he said.

“Arguments that these amendments must be rushed into enactment to avoid federal preemption are without factual basis,” he said.

Others see the issue differently, including VPIRG. Executive Director Paul Burns said there was never a deal in place to pass the law.

Paul Burns

Paul Burns

“Right up until the end the industry lobbyists were opposing it and were opposing the Senate for suspending the rules to take it up. This notion that there was a deal, and certainly a deal that included an understanding that nobody would ever come back to try to change the law, that just doesn’t exist. That’s just a fantasy,” Burns said.

He said the “modest changes” added to S.139 are intended “to make a law that is designed to protect kids from toxic chemicals a little more effective.”

If changes are made to the federal law the state would be prevented from taking any action against chemicals that the federal Environmental Protection Agency considers regulating for a seven year period, Burns said.

“It puts it on list, so seven years later they may decide to regulate or they made decide not to. In all that time we would be prevented from taking any action,” he said.

By acting now, the state may be allowed to continue to regulate chemicals at the state level, depending on what Congress passes, according to Burns.

“That could be grandfathered in … if we could make it happen soon enough,” he said.

There are differences of opinion within the committee’s 5-member ranks. Sen. Dick McCormack, D-Windsor, said he believes the committee’s amendment is “superior to the language that’s in the law.”

However, McCormack also said he believes “a deal is a deal,” and making changes now could hinder future efforts to craft collaborative policy in the future.

“If a deal was made I’m reluctant to just say, ‘Well, it was a bad deal so now we’re going to make a new deal,’” he said. “I’ve got to roll this one around in my mind for a little while.”

Lyons challenged his position.

“So we’d never change a law again? I’m going to push you on that one,” she said.

Lyons said the Senate’s position last year was abandoned because of the time crunch.

“The deal, as it left the Senate, was all consumer products were being regulated. That was a deal I felt very firm about,” she said. “Some of the changes that were made in the House, I think, have been identified here as being problematic.”

First-term Sen. Brian Collamore, R-Rutland, indicated he supports keeping the existing law as is.

“I do think that you had disparate parties brought together. There was concession on both sides, an agreement was reached and Act 188 was passed,” he said. “You haven’t allowed the process to work yet.”

Meanwhile, Sen. Anthony Pollina, P-Washington, indicated his willingness to amend the law. Committee Chairwoman Claire Ayer, D-Addison, was absent Wednesday due to a family emergency.

The committee is expected to make a final decision on whether to seek changes to Act 188 this week.

neal.goswami@timesargus.com

Gun bill advances in Senate

MONTPELIER — The Senate Judiciary Committee advanced a bill ahead of the Legislature’s Friday evening deadline for non-money bills on a 5-0 vote, ensuring the full Senate will consider a scaled back-gun bill this year.

The legislation, supported unanimously in the committee Friday, seeks to ban some convicted criminals from possessing weapons and will require people found by a court to be a danger to themselves or others to be reported to the federal National Instant Criminal Background Check System. It would take effect on Oct. 1.

The legislation is a scaled back version of another bill, S.31, that Judiciary Committee Chairman Dick Sears, D-Bennington, declared “dead,” because it included an expansion of background checks for private gun sales, something that was vehemently opposed by gun rights activists.

Sears, who wrote the original draft of the revised bill that looks to keep guns out of the hands of some convicts, said he supports the idea because Vermont is the only state in the nation without such a statute. The federal government also has a similar law, but federal prosecutors often do not prosecute because of limited resources, advocates argued.

The committee voted unanimously Friday to merge the Sears-crafted language with the mental health reporting component, which came as a proposal from the Senate Health and Welfare Committee. That committee’s chairwoman, Claire Ayer, D-Addison, urged the Judiciary Committee to include it in its provision earlier this week. It was also part of S.31.

Those found by a court to be a danger to themselves will, if the bill is signed in to law, be reported to the federal database beginning Oct. 1. Anyone reported to the database could be removed from the database after three years if a court rules they are no longer a danger.

The committee labored over which crimes to include in the ban Friday morning before voting on the measure. Most major crimes in Vermont are included, but the committee agreed Friday to remove lewd and lascivious conduct, several motor vehicle crimes and all misdemeanors except domestic violence.

The committee’s action Friday was hailed by Gun Sense President Ann Braden, who helped launch the effort for new gun laws in January. She called the vote “an historic victory.”

“This is a gun violence prevention bill that’s going forward despite the opposition of the gun lobby. It shows that second amendment rights [and] respect for the 16th amendment in the Vermont Constitution goes hand-in-hand with gun violence prevention,” Braden said.

Although Sears declared Friday that S.31 — and expanded background checks for private gun sales — is dead for this year and next year, Braden said her group will continue to push for it.

Sen. Dick Sears

Sen. Dick Sears

“I think these are really important measures that are definitely going to keep guns out of the wrong hands. In terms of background checks, we still want that to happen. We knew that this was going to take a long time,” she said.

Evan Hughs, legislative liaison for the Vermont Federation of Sportsmen’s Clubs, said his group will also continue its effort to ensure that gun rights are not infringed upon.

“It’s one more step in an evolving process of legislation. As the federation we’re concerned about the interests of the hunting and shooting community in the state of Vermont,” he said following Friday’s vote. “At this point we still have things that concern us but we’re willing to participate in getting the bill right.”

The meticulous attention the committee paid to the bill Friday illustrates the delicate process — and political challenges — involved in passing gun legislation. Sears said he felt “extreme pressure from all sides.”

“When I announced that I wasn’t supporting the background portion of the bill that pissed off most of the more liberal members of my caucus as well as the leadership of my caucus as well as many of my constituents back home,” he said.

Senate President Pro Tem John Campbell, D-Windsor, an original sponsor of S.31, pushed Sears hard to advance a bill. He spent considerable time in the Judiciary Committee, often seated near Sears, monitoring its progress.

“I think his behavior has been fascinating,” Sears said.

His attention was bothersome to Sears, and prompted the veteran lawmaker, who is known to express his displeasure at times, to offer Campbell total control earlier this week.

“There was one point where I asked him if he really wanted to chair the committee,” Sears said.

Campbell, a deputy state’s attorney in Windsor County and a former police officer, said he was pleased with Friday’s vote, but noted it is only “one small battle won.” The extra attention, he said, was a result of its importance.

“When you see the effect that heroin and other drugs have had on our families here in Vermont, I was willing to do anything I needed to do to try to come up with an answer,” he said. “In addition to being the pro tem I am also one of the senators. This is a bill that I actually sponsored, and as such, it was one where I felt I had not only a duty but an obligation to shepherd it in any way I could.”

The Senate Judiciary Committee, and Senate President Pro Tem John Campbell, D-Windsor, listen to testimony on a gun bill.

The Senate Judiciary Committee, and Senate President Pro Tem John Campbell, D-Windsor, listen to testimony on a gun bill.

Campbell said he was aware of Gov. Peter Shumlin’s discussions with members of the committee and was trying to counter that force.

“The governor made it very clear how he feels about this bill. He doesn’t support it,” Campbell said. “The governor is very powerful and the administration is very powerful. As such, I guess I had to step up my involvement.”

Shumlin, who strongly opposes any new gun laws, was pushing his message. Sears said he had conversations with Shumlin, including a call Thursday night from the governor to inquire about the bill’s status.

“He asked me what I was expecting to have happen,” Sears said. “He never said, ‘Don’t do it,’ but he’s been pretty clear publicly.”

The governor has adopted a wait-and-see stance. He acknowledged in an interview Friday that he has been speaking with committee members “over the last weeks,” but will not declare if he intends to veto the legislation if it clears both chambers and reaches his desk.

“If a bill comes to my desk, I will look at it when it gets to me. These bills have a long way to go. My feelings I’ve made clear. We’ll see what happens,” he said. “Let’s give them the latitude to do what they think is right and the governor will do what I think is right.”

Sears said the bill, as crafted, is narrow and could end up with the governor’s support.

“If we can get it through without adding something on in either the Senate or the House, I suspect he’s going to be comfortable with the idea that there’s certainly people that probably shouldn’t possess firearms,” Sears said. “It’s up to him. He’ll do what he wants.”

Shumlin, however, is far from offering his support.

“These are tough bills. (Sears is) trying to come out with one that he thinks is sensible, but we may well agree to disagree,” Shumlin said.

Campbell, despite warnings from some opponents of the bill that his efforts would cause him political harm, said he decided to push away.

“The price that I will end up paying for this is one that won’t be known for a couple years. I’ve had people tell me, quite frankly, that my political career is over for pushing this bill. As I’ve said before, that’s fine, I’m ready to deal with that.”

neal.goswami@timesargus.com

Read the legislation below:

Senate fends off effort to repeal aid-in-dying law

MONTPELIER — The Senate gave preliminary approval Wednesday to legislation that prevents safeguards in the state’s aid-in-dying law from expiring after fending off a spirited attempt to repeal the 2013 law that allows terminal patients to obtain lethal medication to end their lives.

Under the current law, patients who want to obtain lethal medication must be a Vermont resident and have a terminal diagnosis with a prognosis, according to two doctors, of less than six months to live. A doctor must also find that the patient has the capacity to make the decision to obtain the medication voluntarily. And, the patient must make two oral requests at least 15 days apart followed by a written request with two witnesses attesting that the request was made voluntarily.

But those steps, based on a landmark Oregon law, are set to expire in July 2016 if the law is not amended. That’s because two former senators who did not seek re-election last year — Peter Galbraith of Windham County and Bob Hartwell of Bennington County — insisted those safeguards sunset in exchange for supporting the law.

Sen. Claire Ayer

Sen. Claire Ayer

Senate Health and Welfare Committee Chairwoman Claire Ayer, D-Addison, is spearheading the effort to amend the law to ensure those provisions remain. Legislation to do that hit the Senate floor Wednesday and was approved on a voice vote.

“It was our opinion, based on testimony, that safeguards need to be in place,” she said.

Ayer said Attorney General William Sorrell informed her committee that there have been no investigations of abuse or coercion, which the safeguards aim to prevent, because of the law. And the Department of Health reported that the law is working as intended, she said.

Ayer also said family members of patients who have utilized the law — six patients have initiated the process and at least three have taken the lethal medication — support retaining the safeguards.

The safeguards do not expire until next year, but Ayer said she wants the Senate to act now.

“We don’t want to risk it getting caught up … in the end of the biennium swirl next year,” she said.

Voting in favor of keeping the safeguards is not a vote in favor of the law, but “a vote to protect the interests of your constituents.”

Sen. Kevin Mullin, R-Rutland, made a motion to postpone action on the bill until January 2016 to allow lawmakers more time to consider the law’s impact. That motion was rejected on a voice vote.

“This is a painful issue,” Senate Majority Leader Philip Baruth, D-Chittenden, said. “The pain is not eased in any way by delaying what we’ve set out to do.”

The debate Wednesday was much shorter than the debate in 2013 when the underlying law passed by a thin margin. But there was still passionate debate.

Sen. Norm McAllister, R-Franklin, who sponsored an amendment Wednesday to repeal the 2013 law, said his wife died a year-and-a-half ago of a painful disease that “eats you alive.” But his wife relied on available palliative care, McAllister said.

“There were days that were very bad, but we worked through those,” he said. “I had to deal with that.”

His amendment failed by a 12 to 18 roll call vote.

McAllister said government should not be involved in how and when people die.

“Seeing what the palliative care is in this state and the comfort they give you and the support they give the families, I don’t think this bill is necessary and I think it sends a real bad message that we’re letting government involved in decisions that need to be personal,” he said.

McAllister also said many doctors in his district are opposed to the law.

Ayer conceded that some doctors are opposed to the law, but they are not forced to write prescriptions if they are opposed, she said.

“A lot of health care providers have a problem with it, that’s why it’s completely voluntary,” Ayer said.

Sen. Dick McCormack, D-Windsor, said the 2013 law created a right for Vermonters and repealing the law would be “an extreme act and it ought to be done with the utmost caution.”

“The amendment to repeal the bill undoes an existing right. That is a weighty and unusual step for the Legislature,” he said. “It’s done, but it’s done in extreme circumstances.”

Rutland County Republican Sen. Peg Flory said the state should not be sending a message to residents that it is OK to end your own life.

Sen. Peg Flory

Sen. Peg Flory

“I think it’s bad policy when the state tells people that it should be a viable alternative, that some lives you ought to consider ending,” she said.

Flory sponsored another amendment that would prevent doctors who prescribe medications to patients for symptom relief of terminal illness that are then used by a patient to end their lives from facing any criminal or civil liability or professional disciplinary action. It also sought to repeal the aid-in-dying law. It failed on a 10 to 20 roll call vote.

Lynne Cleveland Vitzthum, who represents the Vermont Center for Independent Living, has played a leading role in the effort to repeal the law. Vitzthum, who has a son with disabilities, said Wednesday following the votes that she expects future challenges to the law.

“It’s certainly not settled for the future. As I’ve said before, this issue is never going to go away,” she said.

The legislation is up for final approval in the Senate Thursday before heading to the House.

neal.goswami@timesargus.com

Race on to advance gun legislation

MONTPELIER — Lawmakers are making a final effort to push gun legislation through the committee process ahead of Friday’s crossover deadline, but significant hurdles remain.

The Judiciary Committee began considering new legislation Wednesday that would prohibit a person convicted of a violent crime from possessing a firearm. Crimes in the proposal include the state’s so-called listed crimes — more than 30 serious offenses with hefty prison terms and fines. The proposal also includes any offense involving sexual exploitation of a minor and trafficking of certain drugs.

Judiciary Committee Chairman Dick Sears, D-Bennington, said 49 other states have a similar law on the books.

Some crimes could be removed from the list, however, after concern was raised that not all should disqualify a person from owning a firearm.

“I have issues with some of the things that are on the list of crimes,” said Sen. Alice Nitka, D-Windsor.

Gone from the discussion is the most controversial component of a previous bill considered by the committee — background checks for private gun sales. Instead, the Senate Judiciary Committee is considering new language — and a new bill — that focuses on making it a violation of state law for felons to possess firearms.

The effort to reframe the debate without the background check provision is being lead by Senate President Pro Tem John Campbell, D-Windsor, and Senate Health and Welfare Committee Chairwoman Claire Ayer, D-Addison.

The Senate Judiciary Committee reviews a new proposal Wednesday that would make it a violation of state law for some felons to possess firearms.

The Senate Judiciary Committee reviews a new proposal Wednesday that would make it a violation of state law for some felons to possess firearms.

Both lawmakers were cosponsors of S.31 earlier this. That bill has been abandoned following extreme opposition from gun rights advocates who were furious about the proposed expansion of background checks.

Meanwhile, the Senate Health and Welfare Committee has crafted language that would require Vermont courts to report to the National Instant Criminal Background Check System when someone is determined by a court to be a danger to themselves or others. That, too, was a component of S.31.

Ayer presented the proposal to the Judiciary Committee Wednesday and asked that it be added to the bill it is now considering.

“We hope that you’ll include it in the bill rather than have us amend it from the floor like it’s an afterthought,” she said.

Through testimony, Ayer said her committee found that reporting in other states to a federal mental health database has “reduced gun violence somewhat.” She said reporting would be limited to those who are determined to be a danger by a court, those who are found not responsible for a crime by reason of insanity, and those who are incompetent to stand trial due to a mental illness and are committed to the Department of Mental Health.

“We agree that those specific people should be on the database because the evidence suggests that they are more likely to commit gun violence,” she said.

The proposal, Ayer said, also creates a system that would allow for people to be removed from the database. They could petition the court to order their name be removed after five years if the court finds they are no longer a danger, she said.

“We thought that we should have a process here in Vermont. People get better. They’re not mentally ill for life,” Ayer said.

But questions about whether the law would be retroactive went unanswered Wednesday. Sen. Joe Benning, R-Caledonia, said the Judiciary Committee will need to clarify the intent of the law and clearly state if people already adjudicated by a court and found to be a danger to themselves or others must be reported. Not doing so will create legal problems, he warned.

“That’s where legal problems will start,” he said. “You’re going to cause litigation.”

Sears had hoped to take testimony from a U.S. attorney in Vermont and a Federal ATF agent on the proposal Wednesday, but was told that they are unlikely to provide testimony. He said it was “disappointing” they were unwilling to answer questions for lawmakers about the federal law that bans felons from possessing weapons.

“I guess they’re afraid of the question, ‘Why aren’t you prosecuting these cases?’” Sears said.

Whether the the proposals taken up Wednesday by the committee will clear Friday’s legislative deadline remains unknown. Sears said he plans to take more testimony Thursday, particularly on the mental health component, which appeared to anger Campbell, who said he wants to ensure the bill to moves forward.

But Sears, whose opposition to the background checks in S.31 helped scuttle it, offered two choices — the committee can take testimony and then consider adding the Health and Welfare Committee’s language, or skip testimony and force Ayer and other supports to try and add it to the legislation on the Senate floor if it makes it that far.

Sears told Campbell it remains possible the legislation will not meet the Friday deadline.

“There are bills that probably aren’t going to make it. This one is a high priority, but I can’t promise you that we have three votes,” Sears said.

neal.goswami@timesargus.com

Capitol Beat: Press Bureau talks education with Jill Remick

Capitol Beat

Neal Goswami and Josh O’Gorman talk education with Jill Remick of the Agency Education. The legislature is considering several aspects of education reform, primarily changes to educational districts, and Remick, the agency’s  director of communications and legislative affairs, speaks about existing local consolidation efforts, potential changes to the law, and the goals of the Agency of Education.

 

Consideration of child protection law delayed a day

MONTPELIER — Legislation aimed at boosting the state’s child protection laws was pulled from the Senate floor Tuesday to allow senators more time to understand the bill.

Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Dick Sears, D-Bennington, requested the one-day delay in order answer persistent questions from constituents about the bill’s contents. It’s undergone several changes since the Legislature reconvened in early January.

A special legislative panel, the Committee on Child Protection, was formed last year after the deaths of 2-year-old Dezirae Sheldon, of Poultney, in February 2014, and 15-month-old Peighton Geraw, of Winooski, in April 2014. Both were ruled homicides, and murder charges have been filed against family members.

The panel spent the summer and fall holding hearings and ultimately drafted S.9, a comprehensive bill to address issues in Vermont that were identified after hearing from dozens of witnesses. The legislation has been changed throughout the course of the legislative session to address concerns with the original proposal.

Sen. Dick Sears

Sen. Dick Sears

But those changes have not been made clear to the public, or have been misconstrued, Sears, who serves as co-chairman of the special legislative panel, said at a caucus Tuesday. He said he pulled the bill Tuesday to address those questions at the caucus. The bill is now expected to be up for preliminary approval on Wednesday.

“Somehow, in this building, frequently, things are misconstrued,” he told fellow lawmakers.

At issue is the creation of a felony crime that carries a 10-year prison term. The “failure to protect” proposal would make it a felony if a parent or caregiver failed to protect a child. Sears said it would enhance a similar misdemeanor crime already on the books in Vermont.

The new law would apply to people if a person “knows or reasonably should have known” that a child was in danger of suffering death, serious bodily injury or sexual abuse. People could be held criminally liable if they fail to take action to prevent such danger or if their failure to act was a cause of harm to child.

The proposed felony law was included at the behest of Attorney General William Sorrell.

“A lot of testimony, particularly from the attorney general in the summer and fall, focused on Vermont’s lack of a law called failure to protect. Twenty-nine other states have failure to protect statutes,” Sears said. “As introduced, admittedly, the section of failure to protect a child was very broad. The new crime would only apply to a carefully limited range of conduct.”

Sears said Tuesday that his committee has “substantially narrowed the scope of the crime and added affirmative defenses.” The law is modeled after one in place in Hawaii, and the affirmative defenses against the law were added to help prevent abuse of the law.

The legislation originally included references to illness and pain in the section pertaining to the proposed felony. That language caused blowback from a range of people, included those who thought it might create criminal liability for parents who opt to skip vaccinations for their children under existing exemptions in Vermont law.

Sears said the legislation now provides for situations where a parent or caregiver “makes a reasonable decision not to provide medical care or treatment.”

“That’s an affirmative defense. Some want a specific statement against vaccinations in there that the failure to vaccinate would not result in a conviction,” he said.

Sears said the language included in the bill protects the rights of parents who do not want to vaccinate their children.

“Could a state’s attorney charge somebody? I suppose anything is possible, but pretty highly unlikely,” he said. “It’s certainly not the intent here to have somebody who fails to vaccinate their child and then gets measles to be charged with a felony.”

Sen. Claire Ayer, D-Addison, the chairwoman of the Senate Health and Welfare Committee and co-chairwoman of the Committee on Child Protection, said her committee recommended removing the references to illness and pain after receiving messages from constituents concerned that the bill would take away their rights.

Sen. Claire Ayer

Sen. Claire Ayer

“People saw the word illness and thought that they would be liable if they didn’t vaccinate their kids. We took out the word two or three weeks ago. They’re just late getting their emails out, I guess,” Ayer said. “We also took out the word pain because people want to be able to use corporal punishment on their children. So, we took that out as a standard.”

Sen. Ginny Lyons, D-Chittenden, vice chairwoman of the Senate Health and Welfare Committee, which also reviewed the bill, said the legislation represents a first step in improving the state’s child protection laws. Additional work will be needed, she said.

“This bill does not accomplish everything and I think that as you hear from constituents and as you begin to understand what is in the bill and what it does do, that it is not a comprehensive response to everything that does need to be done,” Lyons said.

The final version of the Senate bill also stripped out language that could have led to felony charges for exposing a child to the possession, manufacturing, sale or cultivation of drugs. New language was added calling for a 30-year prison sentence and up to a $1.5 million fine if a child is present where methamphetamine is being made.

Included in the legislation is language that would shift the emphasis in child protection cases away from reunification of a child with a family to one that focuses instead on the best interests of the child. The Department of Children and Families came under fire after the deaths of Sheldon and Geraw for over-emphasizing reunification.

Sears said he expects the legislation to receive widespread support in the Senate before it heads to the House for that chamber’s consideration.

neal.goswami@timesargus.com

Marijuana bill revealed but not expected to move this year

MONTPELIER — Legislation to legalize marijuana in Vermont was unveiled at the State House Tuesday, but a key lawmaker said it will not be taken up this year.

Chittenden County Sen. David Zuckerman, a Progressive and Democrat, has drafted a bill that would allow Vermont residents 21 and older to possess up to one ounce of marijuana, two mature plants, seven immature plants and any additional marijuana produced by the plants. Growing would only be allowed indoors.

Under the legislation, nonresidents could possess one-quarter of an ounce of marijuana. Criminal penalties would remain in place for anyone possessing more than the amount allowed under. Penalties would also remain in place for anyone possessing marijuana that is under the age of 21.

Edible marijuana products would be allowed, but those products would not be allowed to appeal to people under the age of 21. It would also prohibit edible marijuana products from mimicking similar products that do not contain marijuana.

Sen. David Zuckerman

Sen. David Zuckerman

The bill has been anticipated for some time following a RAND study released last month that showed the state could reap significant revenue if it legalizes marijuana.

A delegation, including Public Safety Commissioner Keith Flynn, recently traveled to Colorado to learn about that state’s legalization efforts. Upon returning, however, Flynn noted that officials in Colorado believed the state moved too quickly to legalize. They were forced by a ballot initiative. In Vermont, some hope to legalize the drug through legislation.

Any significant progress this year was ruled out Tuesday by Sen. Dick Sears, the Bennington County Democrat who chairs the Senate Judiciary Committee. The bill would need to make its way through his committee, but Sears said Tuesday that he will not take it up this year.

Sen. Dick Sears

Sen. Dick Sears

Zuckerman’s bill would create the Board of Marijuana Control within the Department of Public Safety to adopt rules governing the cultivation and sale of pot. It would also be responsible for administering a registration program for places that sell the drug. Zuckerman has proposed that the board consist of five members appointed by the governor, and that a director be hired to oversee operations.

The board would also create the regulatory structure for cultivation, production, testing and sale of marijuana.

Only nonprofit dispensaries or benefit corporations would be allowed to register with the board as a cultivator, product manufacturer, testing laboratory retailer or lounge, under the legislation. Registration of such groups would begin no later than Sept. 15, 2016.

The legalization of marijuana, under the legislation, would provide revenue to the state through a series of excise taxes and fees. Zuckerman proposed a $2,000 application fee for marijuana establishments and an annual registration fee ranging from $1,000 to $50,000. Those fees would be used to implement, administer and enforce the new law.

An excise tax of $40 per ounce would be charged for marijuana flowers. A $15 per ounce excise tax would be levied on any other marijuana, and $25 for each immature marijuana plant sold by a cultivator.

The bill earmarks 40 percent of the revenue raised through the excise taxes for public education about the risks of alcohol, tobacco and marijuana consumption, and for criminal justice programs and substance abuse treatment. Also funded by the taxes would be law enforcement and academic and medical research on marijuana.

The remaining revenue would go to the state’s general fund.

The bill includes several other provisions, including:

— Maintain criminal penalties for driving under the influence of marijuana
— Smoking marijuana in public would remain prohibited
— Smoking marijuana within 1,000 feet of a public or private school or regulated child care facility would be prohibited
— Allows municipalities to prohibit or regulate marijuana establishments
— Allows landlords and innkeepers to prohibit cultivation on their property

Gov. Peter Shumlin has said he favors legalization, but believes Vermont must learn more from the efforts in Colorado and Washington before acting. His office reiterated that sentiment Tuesday after Zuckerman’s bill was revealed.

“The governor’s bias is towards legalization but he wants to learn from the experiences of Washington state and Colorado. This is ultimately a conversation that the Legislature and Vermonters will have to have, and the governor is pleased that the conversation is underway,” spokesman Scott Coriell said.

Read the proposed legislation below:

Senator’s letter to resorts rankles ski industry, fellow lawmakers

MONTPELIER — A state senator has sent a letter to each of the seven ski resorts utilizing state land asking them to renegotiate leases, but the closing paragraph he included has some lawmakers concerned he has issued a thinly-veiled threat to raise their taxes if they do not agree.

Chittenden County Sen. Tim Ashe, a Democrat and the chairman of the powerful Senate Finance Committee, sent the letters on Senate letterhead last week to Bromley, Okemo, Killington, Stowe, Smuggler’s Notch, Burke and Jay Peak. He signed each letter as chairman of Senate Finance.

Ashe’s letters follow the release of a report by State Auditor Doug Hoffer last month that found the resorts’ lease payments to the state have not kept pace with the resorts’ economic growth.

Sen. Tim Ashe

Sen. Tim Ashe

The long-term leases with the resorts range between 50 and 100 years. Bromley was the first resort to strike a deal with the state in 1942.

Over the last 50 years, resorts that once had just a handful of lifts and few facilities have become year-round enterprises. Many are now owned by large out-of-state corporations, according to Hoffer’s report. The resorts now feature new lodges, hotels, condominiums, retail stores, golf courses, waterparks and other amenities that generate significantly more revenue than the fledgling days of Vermont’s ski industry.

Between 2003 and 2013, development at the seven resorts led to increases in sales of goods and services, property values and revenues from excise taxes, all of contributed to more state revenue.

But lease payments for the 8,500 acres of public lands used by resorts have not kept the same pace of growth this decade as other tax revenues generated from the resorts. The leases were designed to capture a percentage of lift tickets, typically 5 percent of lift ticket sales. Lift ticket sales became a secondary source of revenue as the resorts evolved, however, according to the report, and the leases only generate about $3 million a year for the state.

Ashe’s letters ask the resorts to willingly open negotiations, even though most do not expire for several more decades. Bromley’s lease, for example, expires in 2032. Ashe pointed out in his letter, as Hoffer’s report did, that renegotiating makes sense because “the ski world of the lease’s origins would be unrecognizable today.”

“It is for that reason I ask you to renegotiate voluntarily your lease terms or agree to amend your lease to have it expire on December 31, 2016. Either of these options would allow for thoughtful, unhurried negotiations between the State and you to arrive at modern lease terms reflecting the great changes in the ski industry and in the revenue streams it features,” Ashe wrote.

It is the closing paragraph that has drawn the ire of some fellow lawmakers, however.

“From time to time, the Legislature considers various proposals that would have an impact on various classes of taxpayers. In terms of the ski industry, I have heard Legislators propose eliminating the property tax exemption on snowmaking equipment and other assets, and suggest creating a special non-homestead tax rate for ski areas. It seems to me that voluntary renegotiation of your lease with the State is a far superior method of striking the right balance of proceeds for the right to use public land,” Ashe wrote.

Rep. Patti Komline, R-Dorset, whose district includes Bromley Mountain, said Ashe’s letter is a clear threat to try to eliminate tax exemptions currently enjoyed by ski resorts if they refuse to scrap their current leases.

“It is very concerning when those in power look to interfere in contractual agreements using overt threats. This is an overreach and I hope it doesn’t create a precedent that will affect the credibility of our state’s reputation,” she said.

Komline said she learned about the letters Wednesday and planned to reach out to officials at Bromley and work with the Vermont Ski Areas Association to help ease any concerns the resorts have.

Rep. Heidi Scheuermann

Rep. Heidi Scheuermann

Rep. Heidi Scheuermann, R-Stowe, said she, too, found out about the letters on Wednesday after officials at Stowe Mountain Resort sent her a copy. Stowe’s lease is good until 2057, Scheuermann said.

“I think it’s inappropriate. That said, he can do it. I’m sure Stowe will have a response for him. They have a legal lease that is extremely beneficial to the state of Vermont and I expect they are going to maintain that lease,” she said.

Ashe said Wednesday his letters are not a threat and should not be seen as one.

“It’s reading the auditor’s report and saying that even though they are under no obligation to open their leases … it seems to be maybe appropriate that they do so,” he said. “It’s not about a threat. It’s hoping they’ll just do it.”

Making a threat to strip away tax exemptions should the resorts decline to renegotiate leases would be bad policy for the state, according to Ashe.

“I would never threaten a taxpayer, because I don’t think that’s a very good tax policy. But rather, saying, in thinking about the use of public lands, it’s better to voluntarily step up because the proposals that are from time to time directed at them or any other industry are usually sort of inartful,” he said.

Still, lawmakers question the tax exemptions every year, and Ashe said he wanted to point out that some lawmakers could look to use it as leverage to ensure the leases are fair.

“People gravitate to that … and say, ‘Why do we do that?’ It raises this whole issue about why that equipment and stuff is exempt,” Ashe said. “And then, there’s always the discussion about, ‘Well, they do get a pretty sweet deal.’ People articulate it in different ways.”

Senate President Pro Tem John Campbell, D-Windsor, said he was not aware that Ashe was planning to send the letters. He said would discuss the matter with him.

“I have not had an opportunity to discuss this with Sen. Ashe, nor have I seen the letter,” he said Wednesday. “It’s certainly an issue that I will discuss with him.”

Bennington County Democratic Sens. Dick Sears and Brian Campion, whose districts include Bromley, both said they had concerns with Ashe’s approach.

“There has to be a balance here. I don’t want to do anything to jeopardize Bromley’s ability to attract people to Bennington County,” Campion said.

“Right now people are in a desperation mode. They’re looking (for revenue) in every corner,” Sears said. “I don’t think I want to force ski areas. I don’t want to do anything that impacts the tremendous relationship with our ski areas.”

Parker Riehle

Parker Riehle

Parker Riehle, president of the Vermont Ski Areas Association, said Wednesday the ski resorts were still crafting a response to Ashe. However, he said all are comfortable with the lease agreements in place.

“We certainly still stand by the leases and their terms as still a very good deal for both parties and a very favorable deal for the state of Vermont,” he said. “Overall it’s a really strong partnership.”

The federal government only gets 2.5 percent of lift ticket sales, on average, according to Riehle, and neighboring states get about 3 percent of lift ticket revenue.

“Vermont’s actually way ahead of the game and there’s been a couple of reports issue in that regard that back that up. We certainly are very comfortable and confident in the leases,” he said.

Additionally, the ski industry generates an estimated $100 million in various tax payments to the state, and provides about 12,000 jobs during the winter when other industries are typically laying workers off.

“You can’t just focus on the lease payments and think that they look too small,” he said.

Given the what the ski industry provides to the state, Riehle said the resorts should not be facing the threat of higher taxes.

“In light of the numerous revenue benefits to the state, we certainly don’t see a need to look for any additional tax burden on the ski areas. We certainly don’t want to see anything like that hanging over our heads,” he said.

neal.goswami@timesargus.com

Read Ashe’s letter to Bromley Mountain below:

Gun bill introduced in the Vermont Senate

MONTPELIER — Legislation to expand background checks for all gun purchases in Vermont was introduced in the Senate Thursday and sets the stage for vigorous debate.

Democratic Sens. John Campbell, D-Windsor, Claire Ayer, D-Addison and Philip Baruth, D-Chittenden, all members of Senate Democratic leadership, have sponsored the bill.

Current law requires background checks when purchasing a gun from a federally licensed dealer. But background checks are not required when purchasing firearms at a gun show or online. The bill introduced Thursday would expand background checks for those purchases.

The bill is strongly backed by Gun Sense, a gun control advocacy group. It is vigorously opposed by several pro-gun groups, including Gun Owners of Vermont.

Democratic Gov. Peter Shumlin said Thursday he remains opposed to new gun regulations in Vermont, preferring instead, for the federal government to enforce laws on the books. He said anyone breaking federal law to purchase a gun is also likely to break a state law.

“Vermont is currently well-served by the laws we have on the books. I want to keep what we have in place. Obviously, the Legislature is going to debate all kinds of issues. This will be one of them. We always welcome a robust debate. My feeling is the gun laws that we have in Vermont are the ones that we should keep,” he said. “Federal law precludes them from buying guns. I would hope that we would enforce the law.”

The governor refused to say Thursday if he would veto the legislation if it clears the House and Senate and reaches his desk.

“I never issue veto threats unless I am going to veto a bill. Let’s let the process work and have the debate,” he said.

Read the proposed legislation below:

House passes minimum wage bill, on way to gov’s desk

MONTPELIER — The Senate version of a minimum wage bill was passed by the House Friday night and will become law after it emerged as the only feasible option for boosting the incomes of the state’s lowest-paid workers.

Republicans agreed to suspend House rules Friday evening, allowing the bill to be taken up a day ahead of schedule. The plan — approved by the Senate on Monday — was passed by the House on a 132-3 vote and is now on its way to the governor’s desk after a bumpy few days.

The legislation will raise the minimum hourly rate to $10.50 in 2018. In the interim, the minimum wage will go from its current $8.73 per hour to $9.15 on Jan. 1. The wage would then go to $9.60, $10 and $10.50, respectively, over the next three years. Annual cost-of-living increases based on the consumer price index will occur each year thereafter.

The Senate version was reluctantly adopted by some Democrats and Progressives after all other options to raise the wage sooner were exhausted.

“We know we can do better. The House voted for what we thought was a better bill, but after a long process, this is the bill that we have. But, it accomplishes what we need to do,” Rep. Tom Stevens, D-Waterbury, said on the House floor Friday night, acknowledging the disappointment with the bill by some members.

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Scenes from the race to end the session

Technicality stalls minimum wage debate

MONTPELIER — A misprint in the House calendar discovered late Thursday night doomed consideration of a minimum wage bill until Saturday, just as Democratic leaders ramped up efforts to corral an unruly caucus.

House Minority Leader Don Turner, R-Milton, made a point of order around 10:30 p.m., hours after debate had begun. But House Speaker Shap Smith said minority Republicans were correct, and ruled that action must be postponed and placed back on the calendar, making Saturday the next day the bill will see action.

Democratic leaders were looking to pass a scaled back minimum wage bill from the more ambitious plan they previously passed. The new plan, hashed out following a day-long back-and-forth between the House, Senate and governor’s office, is much closer to one favored by Gov. Peter Shumlin. Continue reading