Tag Archives: Claire Ayer

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

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

Gun bill set for State House showdown

MONTPELIER — More than 100 gun control advocates packed a State House room Wednesday in support of pending legislation that would expand criminal background checks to gun shows and online gun sales in Vermont.

The legislation is in the process of being drafted and will be co-sponsored by Sens. Philip Baruth, D-Chittenden, John Campbell, D-Windsor, and Claire Ayer, D-Addison — all members of Senate leadership. Gun Sense Vermont, a gun control advocacy group, held a press conference Wednesday to highlight the legislation and encourage lawmakers to support it.

“In Vermont our laws are leftover from an age gone by, from before there was Internet, before there was an interstate. And because of that, a dangerous loophole exists that allows criminals, domestic abusers and the seriously mentally ill to buy guns with no questions asked,” said Gun Sense cofounder Ann Braden. “It’s absolutely ridiculous that we are allowing domestic abusers and felons easy access to weapons.”

At issue for Gun Sense is what they consider a loophole in the state’s gun laws that only require criminal background checks for gun buyers when they purchase from a federally licensed dealer. Buying a gun at a gun show or online requires no such background check.

“Criminals know about these loopholes. It’s up to us to close them so they can’t keep slipping through,” Braden said.

Passing any gun control laws has been difficult, both in Vermont and Washington. In Vermont, Baruth introduced a bill two years ago that would have banned assault weapons and high-capacity gun magazines.

But it failed spectacularly. Baruth withdrew the legislation just five days after introduction because it lacked support from his colleagues and riled gun rights activists, including Gun Owners of Vermont, a pro-gun organization that is “committed to a no-compromise position on firearms ownership rights,” according to its website.

This bill is entirely different, according to Baruth.

“I think of this as a very narrow, targeted, moderate bill. It’s a very restrained approach to the problem,” he said. “A lot of times gun rights people say, ‘Let’s strengthen the laws we have.’ That’s the way I look at this, it strengthens the law we have.”

Gun Sense supporters filled the Cedar Creek room inside the State House Wednesday for a press conference on expanding background checks for gun purchases.

Gun Sense supporters filled the Cedar Creek room inside the State House Wednesday for a press conference on expanding background checks for gun purchases.

Braden and other Gun Sense supporters said closing loopholes is necessary to protect women and children in abusive situations. She said in the 16 states that have passed similar legislation there are 38 percent fewer women who are shot to death by an intimate partner. Non-firearm homicides rates remained the same, she said.

“Guns are for hunting and sport, they are not for intimidating and killing women and children,” Braden said. “It is simple to close this loophole and it is effective.”

The group plans to pressure lawmakers into action. It delivered over 1,000 letters from Vermonters and more than 12,000 signatures to the governor’s office Wednesday. Braden also touted widespread support for expanding background checks, including:

— 81 percent of likely Vermont voters
— 77 percent of Vermont gun owners
— 68 percent of Republicans
— 93 percent of Democrats
— 79 percent of independents

“Vermonters are counting on our lawmakers here in Montpelier to stand with the vast majority of us who support closing this dangerous loophole,” she said.

Campbell said he believes lawmakers will be able to advance the bill this session.

“I think the difficult place is going to be in the Senate Judiciary Committee,” he said. “I think that we have a good shot.”

Part of the legislation, which Campbell said he hopes will be introduced by the end of the week, would ensure that people found to be incompetent by a judge would be prevented from purchasing guns at a gun show or online. Campbell, who also works as a prosecutor, said that component is as important as preventing criminals and abusers from obtaining guns.

“I’m not sure I can understand what the objection is to saying, ‘We don’t want somebody who’s been declared mentally incompetent by a court from actually possessing a firearm,’” Campbell said.

The bill will not target responsible hunters and sportsmen, he said.

“We have a tremendous number of men and women in the state who own guns, who are responsible gun owners, and I think they have an absolute right to. I own several guns myself,” Campbell said.

The bill’s first test is likely to come in the Senate Judiciary Committee, whose chairman, Sen. Dick Sears, D-Bennington, says he is skeptical.

“There are parts of the bill I like and parts of the bill I don’t like,” he said.

Sears said he is supportive of the mental health component, which would allow reporting to federal databases of those with serious mental illness. But expanding background checks may not be appropriate in Vermont, he said.

“We’ll certainly take testimony on background checks,” he said. “I have serious questions about whether background checks will solve any problems in Vermont.”

Baruth said he is confident the legislation will receive fair consideration in the committee, but is likely to see changes before it will pass the Senate.

“I have great respect for their judgment. I have no doubt when they get the bill they’ll give it a fair hearing and if it’s something they think makes sense and can live with, they’ll vote it out of committee,” Baruth said. “I can’t think of a bill that has remained in its original form when the governor signed in, so, yes, in order to get out of the Senate it will no doubt wind up in a different form and then the House will work its will, in turn.”

Should the bill reach the House, Speaker Shap Smith said it will also get fair consideration.

“I think that we’ve got to figure out the problem that we’re trying to solve and then figure out the correct way to solve it. That’s what I’ll want the committee to do,” he said.

Smith said lawmakers will take a close look at how the bill will help in Vermont.

“There are some statistics out there that are troubling, particular around domestic violence. I think that we need to take a look at the statistics and the incidents of violence and domestic violence and then we’ve got to identify the ways that we can most effectively address them,” he said.

neal.goswami@timesargus.com

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.

Six lawmakers to settle long-running debate over mental health

Three lawmakers from the House and three from the Senate will sit across the table from each other and attempt to resolve a mental health debate that has thus far split the two chambers.

Leaders in the House and Senate today named their conferees. Representing the House: Alice Emmons (Democratic chairwoman of the institutions), Anne Pugh (Democratic chairwoman of human services), and Sandy Haas (Prog/Dem vice-chairwoman of human services). Continue reading

Senate candidate worries Vt. becoming an ‘Indian reservation’

MONTPELIER — A 48-year-old Ripton resident told the Vermont Press Bureau on Tuesday he’s running for the Vermont Senate this year in Addison County and will be specifically targeting Sen. Claire Ayer’s seat.

Robert Wagner, who said he’s a business consultant for the IT company Oracle, hasn’t filed his paperwork yet, but has a campaign website up at www.senatorwagner.com. Continue reading