Dick Sears

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Gun Sense renews push for universal background checks

Sen. Phil Baruth, D-Chittenden, speaks at a news conference about his legislation for universal background checks on all gun sales in Vermont. (VPB/Neal Goswami)

MONTPELIER — Proponents of a law to require background checks on all gun sales in Vermont launched a renewed effort Tuesday to achieve their goal, but roadblocks in their way in previous legislative sessions remain. Gun Sense Vermont, a group pushing for universal background checks, hosted a State House news conference Tuesday to rally supporters. They promised to keep pushing for such a law despite stiff opposition from guns rights groups and even Republican Gov. Phil Scott. Sen. Phil Baruth, D-Chittenden, introduced S.6, a bill that again calls for universal background checks and has several co-sponsors. Baruth submitted similar legislation in recent years but has been rebuffed. Continue Reading →

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Sears backs Shumlin in Supreme Court legal battle

Sen. Dick Sears

Editor’s note: This story was updated at 4:30 p.m. to include comments from Gov.-elect Phil Scott. MONTPELIER — The chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee has filed a friend of the court brief with the Supreme Court defending Gov. Peter Shumlin’s authority to appoint a Supreme Court justice before he leaves office on Thursday. Sen. Dick Sears, D-Bennington, a close friend and political ally of Shumlin, submitted the legal argument ahead of a Tuesday hearing scheduled by the state’s highest court to determine if Shumlin can make the appointment. Sears is asking the court to dismiss or deny the petition filed by two lawmakers challenging Shumlin’s authority. “Once the vice chair of the committee got involved I thought the chairman ought to get involved,” Sears told the Vermont Press Bureau. Continue Reading →

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Senate tries to spur House into action on marijuana legalization

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MONTPELIER — The Senate on Wednesday attached the language it passed earlier this year creating a legal, regulated marijuana market to a House-passed bill dealing with criminal procedures, a move designed to spur the House into action on legalizing pot. The House has not considered S.241, the Senate’s marijuana legalization bill passed earlier this year, on the floor. After being scaled back by the House Judiciary Committee to only include a commission to examine the issue, the House Ways and Means Committee amended it again to legalize up to 1 ounce of pot and the cultivation of two marijuana plants. The legislation has been stalled in the House Appropriations Committee for nearly two weeks, however. Without the votes to advance it, the committee has opted to let the clock tick down on the legislative biennium. Continue Reading →

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House Judiciary passes stripped down pot bill

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MONTPELIER — The House Judiciary Committee scaled back a marijuana bill even further Friday in order to squeak it through the committee and keep the bill alive, setting the stage for a possible showdown with the Senate over legalization. By a 6 to 5 vote, the House passed a revamped S.241, which came from the Senate approving legalization for possessing up to one ounce of marijuana. But support for the Senate version never materialized in the House committee. A first attempt to pass the bill Friday that sought to decriminalize the possession of up to two marijuana plants failed on a 5 to 6 vote. After stripping out the expanded decriminalization of the drug, the committee turned Rep. Bill Frank, D-Underhill, who helped it advance on the second vote. Continue Reading →

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Senate approves marijuana legalization

MONTPELIER — Senators made it easier for the little guy to break into the cultivation business when they gave their final approval to marijuana legalization. By a vote of 17 to 12 Thursday afternoon, the Senate approved what has been arguably been the most debated bill of this legislative session, and in doing so, sends it on to House for further discussion. “It’s a relief for me to have it out of the Senate,” said Sen. Dick Sears, D-Bennington, chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee and someone who became an unlikely advocate for legalization. Sears thanked his fellow lawmakers, including colleagues such as Sens. Jane Kitchel, D-Caledonia, and Diane Snelling, R-Chittenden, both of whom voted for the bill while in committee despite their opposition, which allowed the bill to come to the Senate floor for debate. Continue Reading →

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State officials are investigating water contamination in North Bennington

Gov. Peter Shumlin announces that six wells in North Bennington have tested positive for Perfluorooctanoic, or PFOA, a potential carcinogen. His administration is now working to determine the responsible party and assist impacted residents. (VPB/Neal Goswami)

MONTPELIER — A possible carcinogen found in a nearby New York town has also been found in several private wells in North Bennington, the Shumlin administration announced Thursday morning after receiving test results just hours earlier. The chemical, Perfluorooctanoic, or PFOA, is the same chemical that was found in the village of Hoosick Falls, N.Y., that has drawn national attention. It was that case that spurred a concerned citizen to reach out to members of the Vermont Legislature with concerns of potential contamination in North Bennington. One company, Saint-Gobain Performance Plastics, operated factories that made non-stick coatings in both towns under the Chemfab name in recent decades. The New York plant is still operating while the North Bennington facility, which was purchased by Saint-Gobain in 2000, was closed in 2002. Continue Reading →

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Senate pot vote came down to the wire

Sen. Becca Balint

MONTPELIER — An unknown outcome is a rare occurrence when debate begins in the Vermont Senate, but it remained unclear Wednesday afternoon as senators took to the floor to consider legalizing marijuana if they would, in fact, vote to advance it. “I honestly don’t know,” Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Dick Sears said ahead of the vote. “We’ve got a few squishy people.”

In the end, 16 senators prevailed over 13 members who opposed legalization. The preliminary vote Wednesday to advance the legislation to a final vote came after a flurry of activity in the State House by Democratic Gov. Peter Shumlin and others who were trying to win every potential vote. Shumlin hunkered down in his ceremonial office Wednesday morning just down the hallway from the Senate Chamber. Continue Reading →

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Senate gives preliminary approval to marijuana legalization

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MONTPELIER — The question of allowing anyone to grow marijuana dominated a discussion Wednesday in which the Senate gave preliminary approval to legalization. By a vote of 16 to 13, Senate lawmakers gave the initial go-ahead to a bill that would allow for commercial cultivation and the sale of marijuana, setting the possibility for full Senate approval Thursday. On the floor, the bill had the support of someone who, months ago, would have seemed an unlikely legalization advocate: Sen. Dick Sears, D-Bennington, who is the chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee. “If you had told me, even three months ago, that not only would I be voting yes, but speaking on the floor to defend the bill, I would have told you you were crazy,” said Sears, who said he was persuaded to support legalization following nearly a month of testimony and a series of public forums held around the state. Under the terms of the bill, starting in January 2018, it will be legal to grow and sell marijuana, provided you are licensed by the Department of Public Safety. Continue Reading →

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Marijuana bill limps out of committee

Sen. Jane Kitchel discusses the marijuana legalization bill Monday at the State House.

MONTPELIER — The Senate’s marijuana legalization bill limped out of its final committee and will come up for a full vote this week. By a 4 to 3 vote Monday afternoon, The Senate Appropriations Committee gave its approval to S.241, which would permit the legal sale of marijuana in 2018. Vermont is looking at becoming the fifth state to legalize marijuana — following Alaska, Colorado, Oregon and Washington — and would be the first state to do so through the legislative process rather than though a ballot initiative. To even get out of the committee — the third Senate Committee to review the bill since the start of the legislative session — required the affirmative vote of a Senator who said she will oppose the bill when it comes to the floor Wednesday. “I will vote yes to bring it to the floor, with a clear vote of no on the floor,” said Sen. Diane Snelling, R-Chittenden. Continue Reading →

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DCF protection bill clears committee

Sen. Dick Sears contemplates the DCF protection bill Wednesday morning.

MONTPELIER — A bill that offers enhanced penalties for assaulting mandated reporters and criminalizes the act of making a threat cleared a key legislative committee Wednesday. By a vote of 4 to 1, the Senate Judiciary Committee gave its go ahead to a proposed law that would offer stiffer penalties for assaulting a worker with the Department for Children and Families or anyone who is required to report suspected child abuse. The bill comes in response to the 2015 shooting death of DCF worker Lara Sobel, who was killed outside her office in downtown Barre in August, and is one of several recent initiatives to protect workers who sometimes find themselves in the middle contentious domestic situations. Under the terms of the bill, DCF workers and mandated reporters will join the ranks of police officers, first responders and medical providers; assaulting a member of any of these professions carries a stronger penalty than the assault of the average person on the street. The enhanced penalty for assaulting a mandated reporter would only be in effect if the assault is directly related to the act of making a DCF report. Continue Reading →

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