Category Archives: State Senate

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.

Continue reading

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

Mistakes may have contributed to 2-year-old’s death, committee finds

By Neal Goswami
MONTPELIER — A special Senate panel will seek subpoena power to obtain records and documents from the Rutland County Criminal Court and the Department of Children and Families in the course of its review of the Dezirae Sheldon case.
The Senate Review Panel on Child Protection was created following the February death of the 2-year-old Sheldon from severe head trauma, allegedly at the hands of her stepfather, Dennis Duby. Members said Wednesday they want to know if mistakes made more than five years ago — and revealed in recent days — could have contributed to Sheldon remaining in an unsafe environment.
Committee co-chairs Sens. Dick Sears, D-Bennington, and Claire Ayer, D-Addison, learned over the weekend of discrepancies in a previous criminal case involving Sheldon’s mother, 31-year-old Sandra Eastman. Sears, the chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, said it is possible that the errors may have influenced decisions made by DCF that allowed Eastman to keep custody of Sheldon despite convictions. Continue reading

GOP leaders seek federal investigation into exchange

MONTPELIER — Republican leaders in the Legislature are seeking a federal investigation into Vermont Health Connect based on an anonymous tip that a state contractor duped state officials last year.

House Minority Leader Don Turner of Milton and Senate Minority Leader Joe Benning of Caledonia County sent a letter Wednesday to Tristram Coffin, the U.S. Attorney for the District of Vermont, requesting the investigation. The request is based on “whistleblower allegations alleging a fraudulent software demonstration on July 26, 2013 by CGI Technologies & Solutions.”

Newsweek published an article earlier this month in which an anonymous source said a demonstration by CGI last July designed to show connectivity with the state’s online insurance marketplace with a federal data hub was faked.

The exchange site, for which CGI has an $84 million contract to build, is still not fully functional, the GOP leaders wrote in their letter.

“We believe the unexplained and extensive delay, coupled with evidence suggesting the company in charge of designing the system may have duped Vermont officials into incorrectly thinking that the software system was working and on schedule, constitutes sufficient legal and factual predicate to begin a federal investigation,” they wrote. “If true, such a fraud prevented state officials from performing proper contractual oversight, prevented corrective measures, and helped CGI retain its multi-million dollar contract with the state.”

Mark Larson, commissioner of the Department of Vermont Health Access, has maintained that the July demonstration did feature a live connection with the federal data hub.

Linda F. Odorisio, vice president of communications for CGI, said in an emailed statement Wednesday evening that the demonstration did connect the state site to the federal hub.

“CGI confirms that the demonstration conducted on July 26, 2013 included a live interface to the Federal Data Services Hub, with the real time sending and receiving of data,” she wrote.

Sen. Sally Fox loses battle with cancer

MONTPELIER — Chittenden County Sen. Sally Fox died early Friday morning after a prolonged battled with lung cancer.

Fox, 62, a Democrat from South Burlington, was in her second term in the Senate. She was serving on the Senate Health and Welfare and Appropriations Committees.

House Speaker Shap Smith announced her death Friday morning in the House chamber, saying she died peacefully, surrounded by family, around 3:15 a.m. Services will be held Sunday in South Burlington at Temple Sinai, according to Smith.

Later in the morning, Lt. Gov. Phil Scott gaveled the Senate to order by noting that Fox’s death was “bringing the first week of the session to a tragic close.” Fox’s desk was clear except for a single, white rose.

Senate President Pro Tem John Campbell said the recent news of Fox’s death made it “very difficult to compose our thoughts.” He said a resolution honoring Fox will be prepared for Tuesday, when senators will be able to provide their own remarks in her honor.

Fox’s colleagues in the Legislature said Friday that she was deeply respected for her work advocating for the poor and disabled through her work as an attorney with Vermont Legal Aid.

Fox was elected to the House in 1986 and served in that chamber for 14 years. She served as chairwoman of the House Appropriation and Judiciary Committees, and as House Assistant Majority Leader.

Sen. Sally Fox

Sen. Sally Fox

According to her Senate campaign website, Fox was most proud of her role in creating the Vermont Family Court system, which consolidated all family and child-related issues into a single venue.

Sen. Claire Ayer, chairwoman of the Senate Health and Welfare Committee, said a was placed outside the committee room to allow people to leave messages for Fox’s family.

“A lot of people who work in this building — lobbyists, students, pages, whatever — are grieving about Sen. Fox and … it’s surprising the number of constituents who come here … who are grieving and would like to say something to her family, so we have put some paper out there and a pen,” she said. said.

Gov. Peter Shumlin, who served on the House Judiciary Committee when first appointed to the House, said Fox served as a mentor to him, and will be remembered for her role as an advocate.

“Sally Fox was a relentless champion for kids and vulnerable Vermonters. Those who often lack a voice always had an advocate with Sally in the State House,” Shumlin said in a statement. “Sally took me under her wing and taught me a great deal about how to effectively serve Vermonters in the State House. She was a great friend, and I will miss her tremendously.”

Fox is survived by her husband and two adult sons.

Services will take place Sunday at Temple Sinai in South Burlington on Sunday, followed by a private burial.

Vermont’s state of the state address makes the New York Times

In the nightly news budget they send out the New York Times had the Vermont State of the State address listed as one story in consideration for the front page for today's paper. Instead of A1, Gov. Shumlin's single-minded focus on addiction landed on A12, but still, a nice write up from Katharine Q. Seelye from the State House yesterday:

In Annual Speech, Vermont Governor Shifts Focus to Drug Abuse

MONTPELIER, Vt. – In a sign of how drastic the epidemic of drug addiction here has become, Gov. Peter Shumlin on Wednesday devoted his entire State of the State Message to what he said was a “full-blown heroin crisis” gripping Vermont.

 

Joint committee meeting to review energy projects

MONTPELIER — Suggestions for a new process for how to permit and site wind turbines and other electrical generation projects will be the topic when the House and Senate committees on natural resources and energy hold a joint hearing in Montpelier on Sept. 25.
The hearing is part of a review of how the state’s permit process balances state, local and other interests when it comes to wind, solar and other power projects. That review began with a siting policy commission report stemming from an executive order by Gov. Peter Shumlin last fall.
The joint committees will hear from several parties, including the siting commission’s director and several representatives of state agencies involved in the permit process. The meeting will start at 9:30 a.m. in Room 10 of the Statehouse. Time for public comment is scheduled for 11:15 a.m. For more information go to http://bit.ly/19b0EvY.

Dramatic vote in Senate proves game-changer for “death with dignity”

Stefan Hard / Staff Photo Stefan Hard / Staff Photo Sen. Claire Ayer, D-Addison, introduces end-of-life bill S. 77 Tuesday in the Senate Chamber of the Statehouse in Montpelier. Ayer is flanked  on her right by Sen. Christopher Bray, D-Addison, and Sen. Peter Galbraith, D-Windham. Sen. Robert Hartwell, D-Bennington, is in the foreground right.

Stefan Hard / Staff Photo
Sen. Claire Ayer, D-Addison, introduces end-of-life bill S. 77 Tuesday in the Senate Chamber of the Statehouse in Montpelier. Ayer is flanked on her right by Sen. Christopher Bray, D-Addison, and Sen. Peter Galbraith, D-Windham. Sen. Robert Hartwell, D-Bennington, is in the foreground right.

The Legislature may have 180 members, but the biggest votes in Vermont’s history often come down to a single individual. And in the Senate Wednesday evening, Sen. Peter Galbraith used his turn at the wheel to derail a decade-old push for a state-sanctioned process by which doctors could hasten the death of their terminally ill patients.

As one of four senators refusing to say publicly whether he supported “death with dignity,” the Windham County Democrat has been at the center of the intrigue since last month. On Tuesday, he broke his silence by voting in favor the bill. His support would prove fleeting.

The controversial legislation outlined a process by which physicians could prescribe lethal doses of medication to mentally competent, terminally ill patients with less than six months to live. Galbraith said he supports the intent of the bill – to allow suffering individuals to bow out on their own terms, surrounded by friends and family. But he said the “state-sponsored process” constituted undue government intervention in what should be a sacred exchange between doctor and patient.

Peter Galbraith

Peter Galbraith

Instead of a defining a lengthy and highly regulated procedure by which patients of sound mind can seek a fatal dose of barbituates from their consenting doctors, Galbraith said, the state ought to simply indemnify any physician who agrees to prescribe the medication.

Under normal circumstances, Galbraith’s proposal wouldn’t have stood a chance. But Wednesday wasn’t a normal day.

The vote on the bill Tuesday passed by a 17-13 margin, and Galbraith wasn’t the only ‘aye’ to register  concerns with the bill. Sen. Bob Hartwell, a Bennington County Democrat, also dislikes the legislation, and said his ‘yes’ vote Tuesday was only to give its supporters a chance to make it more palatable before a final vote Thursday.

Galbraith’s amendment sought to strike entirely the underlying bill, which was modeled after a 15-year-old statute in Oregon and has been years in the making here. He then replaced the 22-page bill with a five-paragraph amendment that insulates from civil and criminal liability a doctor who prescribes a “lethal dosage” to a terminally ill person. The amendment also protects from liability any friend or family member who is in the presence of the person when they ingest the medication.

The amendment gave opponents of the original bill the opening they’d been looking for. By voting in favor of Galbraith’s bill – a measure most wouldn’t support generally – they could effectively kill off the legislation it sought to replace. Sure enough, all 13 people who voted against the bill Tuesday voted in favor of Galbraith’s amendment today. They were joined by Galbraith and Hartwell, which led to a 15-15 tie on the floor of the Senate. That left the tie-breaking vote to Lt. Gov. Phil Scott, an avowed opponent of “physician assisted suicide.” He voted ‘yes’ for Galbraith’s amendment.

It was a dramatic moment that took even jaded Statehouse veterans by surprise.

It isn’t the end of the road for the original bill. Sen. Claire Ayer, an Addison County Democrat, chairwoman of the Senate Committee on Health and Welfare, has spent the last six weeks shepherding the Oregon-style bill through the Senate. “As much as I detest” the Galbraith amendment, Ayer said, she encouraged her colleagues to vote in favor of it.

By getting it through the Senate and over to the House, she said, lawmakers can bring the bill back to its original form and get a second chance to pass it as-is. Sen. Dick McCormack agreed, saying there are procedural reasons to pass the bill, “even in its presently grotesque form.”

Galbraith said his amendment differs philosophically from the bill it replaces in only one area.

“And that is as to what safeguards are built in,” Galbraith said. “The other bill leaves it to the state to decide who can do what under what circumstances. I believe the best safeguard is the close relationship between a doctor and their patient.”

He seemed taken aback by the intensity of the hostility to his amendment.

“It’s not grotesque. It’s not a travesty,” he said. “It isn’t exactly what they wanted, but it delivers the result they were looking for.”

Ayer said the underlying legislation sought to end precisely the kind of ill-defined, poorly overseen, under-the-table process that Galbraith’s bill would legalize. She said the legislation sought to engender deeper conversations between doctors and patients about the dying process, and make sure terminally ill people understand the range of palliative care options available. Ayer said she worries the Galbraith amendment may also create some new legal loopholes ripe for exploitation by unscrupulous doctors or caregivers.

Dick Walters, head of Patient Choices Vermont, an advocacy group pushing the bill, said Galbraith’s amendment “strips all of the carefully crafted and well-tested safeguards from the bill and instead gives physicians full immunity when prescribing lethal doses of medication.”

The bill comes up for final reading Thursday, creating another potentially interesting vote. A number of senators who supported the underlying bill voted against Galbraith’s amendment today. The amendment carried only because of unanimous support from opponents of the underlying bill. But the original bill is dead now, in the Senate at least, and can’t be resuscitated regardless of the fate of the Galbraith amendment. That means the same people who wanted to see the bill killed off entirely can now vote against the Galbraith amendment without consequence. And if senators who supported the original version don’t come around to Galbraith’s language, the legislation, in all its forms, could die for good.

Walters said he hopes senators who support the underlying bill will hold their noses and vote ‘yes’ for the amendment.

Baruth withdraws proposed assault weapons ban, but gun-control debate lives on

Jeb Wallace-Brodeur / Staff  Photo                           Tim Griswold of Rutland wraps himself in a flag during a rally in support of gun rights at the Statehouse in Montpelier on Saturday afternoon.

Jeb Wallace-Brodeur / Staff Photo
Tim Griswold of Rutland wraps himself in a flag during a rally in support of gun rights at the Statehouse in Montpelier on Saturday afternoon.

Reported first by Green Mountain Daily’s Ed Garcia and confirmed first by Paul Heintz at Seven Days, Sen. Philip Baruth says he’ll withdraw a proposed ban on assault weapons.

Baruth’s proposal fueled a groundswell of opposition that erupted Saturday in Montpelier, when about 250 Vermonters rallied on the steps of the Statehouse in support of the Second Amendment. In a statement provided to Heintz, Baruth said “it is painfully clear to me now that little support exists in the Vermont Statehouse for this sort of bill.”

“It’s equally clear that focusing the debate on the banning of a certain class of weapons may already be overshadowing measures with greater consensus, like tightening background checks, stopping the exchange of guns for drugs, and closing gun show loopholes,” Baruth said.

Elected last month to serve as majority leader of the 23-member Senate Democratic caucus, Baruth also said “I owe it to my caucus to remove an issue that seems increasingly likely to complicate our shared agenda this biennium.”

Baruth’s decision to withdraw S32, however, won’t table the gun-control issue in Montpelier this year. Over in the House, Reps. Linda Waite-Simpson, an Essex Junction Democrat, and Adam Greshin, a Warren Independent, are dotting the i’s and crossing the t’s on a piece of legislation that will, most controversially, seek to ban ammunition clips containing more than 10 rounds.

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