Tag Archives: Dick Sears

Shumlin signs new law aimed at sex offenders

MONTPELIER – Gov. Peter Shumlin signed into law on Wednesday legislation that enhances reporting requirements for sex offenders when they are released from prison.

The new law, introduced by House Judiciary Committee Chairwoman Rep. Maxine Grad, D-Moretown, requires sex offenders to report to the Department of Public Safety Sex Offender Registry before they are released from prison. Offenders previously had up to three days after their release to report information about their intended residence. The Department of Corrections could not compel an offender to provide such information before release.

The law also requires sex offenders to report to the Sex Offender Registry within 24 hours of being released from probation, parole, furlough or a supervised community sentence.

Gov. Peter Shumlin signs H.16 in to law.

Gov. Peter Shumlin signs H.16 in to law.

“This is common sense legislation that will make our communities and state a safer place for everyone,” Shumlin said. “I want to thank Rep. Grad and Sen. [Dick] Sears [D-Bennington] as well as the House and Senate Judiciary Committees for their hard work on this legislation.”

Grad said the law will ease concerns for communities and victims when sex offenders are released.

“This law makes offenders accountable and provides communities with vital information about where an offender intends to live prior to his or her release,” Grad said. “This change from the three days given for notification is significant. Those can be three very long days for a victim and her community.”

The law took effect immediately and applies to offenders currently sentenced for qualifying crimes and those sentenced after enactment.

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

Major changes to Vets Home on table to help balance budget

MONTPELIER — Major changes to the Vermont Veterans Home are once again being considered as the state looks to address a large budget gap in the 2016 fiscal year state budget.

Shumlin administration officials say privatizing the state-run facility in Bennington, or even possibly closing it, are on the table with many other ideas to trim state spending. But those ideas are only concepts at the moment and not serious proposals.

The 2016 fiscal year budget gap has ballooned from $94 million in early January to at least $112 million following a revenue downgrade late last month. The Veterans Home relies on several million dollars from the state’s general fund to operate.

The Vermont Veterans Home in Bennington.

The Vermont Veterans Home in Bennington.

Shumlin administration officials and legislative leaders both acknowledge that making changes to the Veterans Home has not advanced to a point where budget writers have explored what kind of savings could be achieved by privatizing or closing the home. However, those ideas that were once ruled out last year by former Secretary of Administration Jeb Spaulding are back.

Current Secretary of Administration Justin Johnson said this week that the administration and lawmakers are considering a range of ideas.

“In a sense, everything is on the table,” Johnson said. “The first thing for me is, does it get you any closer to the goal? I’m actually not sure that it does.”

Justin Johnson

Justin Johnson

“I’d say it’s no more or less on the table than any other idea that I don’t know if it gets you what you need,” he added.

Johnson cautioned that making any major changes to the way the Veterans Home is run remains a remote possibility.

“I don’t know enough to rule anything in or out. We still have this challenge of meeting the budget,” he said. “I would want to see the numbers. I would want to see the impact. I haven’t looked at any of those things. It’s not an idea that I’ve spent any time on.”

Gov. Peter Shumlin, in an interview with the Vermont Press Bureau, also did not rule out the possibility of major changes to the home.

“I would say that our record shows that we don’t want to close the Veterans Home. We’ve been supportive of the Veterans Home. We want to keep the Veterans Home going. They deserve us. I do think that everything in state government has to be more efficient in order to balance this budget,” the governor said.

Shumlin said his administration has included funding for the home in the budgets that he has presented to lawmakers. But the state will need to find ways to reduce the impact of the home on the general fund.

“I have a record. My record as governor has been that despite the fact that the Veterans Home continues to need more and more money from the general fund, millions of dollars every year, we have supported the Veterans Home throughout my administration. We have done that throughout my administration and we have not supported privatization. We have done that because our veterans deserve that kind of treatment from us,” he said. “Having said that, we have also supported any plan … to try to figure out ways to ensure that we’re not constantly always losing money on the Veterans Home because the state can’t afford to do this forever.”

Sen. Dick Sears, D-Bennington, said he will oppose any effort to privatize or close the Veterans Home. He said the jobs it provides are important to the region.

Sen. Dick Sears

Sen. Dick Sears

“My job, amongst other things, is to represent Bennington County and Wilmington and one of those ways is keeping excellent state employee jobs in Bennington County,” Sears said. “I’ll do everything I can to prevent the privatization of the Veterans Home.”

Plasan North America, a Bennington-based defense contractor, announced last week that it will close its Vermont facility and move it to Michigan. Sears said the area cannot absorb the loss of jobs at the Veterans Home, too.

“Given what happened … with the announcement of Plasan, I think putting on top of that losing those good jobs would be a critical damage to Bennington’s economy and to the economy of the region,” he said.

Johnson said the administration is exploring options to bring veterans from Massachusetts, were there is a waiting list for space at state-run homes, to Vermont. Massachusetts has resisted in the past, however.

The administration is not yet exploring how much money could be saved by privatizing or closing the home. It is not yet clear if they will be among the ideas that are further explored to determine savings, according to Johnson.

“What I expect to happen, after we have more conversations with the Legislature around options and concepts and ideas, is that the next step would be to start running numbers. I don’t want to just start running numbers on everything that anyone dreams up because we’ll have people have work on all this stuff that perhaps goes nowhere,” he said. “If we’re able to narrow down where we’re going to go then we can do some number crunching.”

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:

Labor costs, guns and organs: Capitol Beat, Feb. 16, 2015

Play

Vermont Press Bureau chief Neal Goswami and VPB reporter Josh O’Gorman chat about the showdown between the Shumlin administration and the Vermont State Employee’s Association over labor costs, the state of gun legislation in the State House and a bill that would make organ donation the default option in Vermont. Also, Barre-Montpelier Times Argus Editor Steve Pappas talks about a few stories he’s worked on in the past couple of weeks, including a profile of Rep. Janet Ancel and Sen. Tim Ashe, the lawmakers that chair the taxing committees in the State House. He also updates on a potential second bid for governor by Republican Scott Milne. Lots going on in this episode — have a listen.

Check out recent episodes of City Room with Steve Pappas, which are discussed in today’s podcast episode:

Scott Milne episode

Paul Costello and Ted Brady episode

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 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

Proposed law would expand DNA collection

MONTPELIER — A pair of senators are looking to pass legislation that would require the collection of DNA samples from people convicted of misdemeanor crimes that carry prison terms after the Vermont Supreme Court found a previous law unconstitutional.

Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Sen. Dick Sears, D-Bennington, and Senate President Pro Tem John Campbell, D-Windsor, released the bill, S.10, this week, but it has not yet been introduced. The legislation would even require DNA samples from defendants who strike a plea deal for a lesser crime that does not carry a prison term if there was probably cause found for the original charge that qualified for DNA collection.

Sen. Dick Sears

Sen. Dick Sears

Sears said the state previously passed a law that required DNA collection from defendants charged with felonies and some misdemeanor crimes that are considered violent. The bill mimicked a Maryland law that was found constitutional by that state’s Supreme Court.

But the Vermont Supreme Court struck down part of the law here that required DNA samples from defendants in violent misdemeanor cases, even after probable cause was found by a judge. Sears said his new legislation will address that.

Under the legislation, DNA samples would be required “whenever there is jail time associated and you’ve been convicted of that crime,” according to Sears.

“So obviously traffic tickets, even possession of marijuana, small amounts, would not come under it,” he said.

Sears said he agreed with the minority on the Supreme Court. The Supreme Court allowed fingerprinting of defendants but ruled against DNA collection.

“They’re basically saying finger prints are OK, but DNA isn’t. Quite frankly, DNA helps to eliminate suspects as much as it helps to convict people of crimes,” he said. “Making the case that finger prints are less obtrusive than a cotton swab of DNA, is where I was coming down on this.”

The legislation greatly expands the number of crimes that would require submitting a DNA sample by including all misdemeanors that carry prison terms, not just violent misdemeanors and felonies. Sears said he believes expanding the law is appropriate.

“I’m comfortable with that expansion given the fact that you would have to provide finger prints anyway,” he said.

Newly appointed House Judiciary Committee Chairwoman Maxine Grad, D-Moretown, said she Tuesday she had not yet reviewed the bill and declined to comment.

neal.goswami@timesargus.com

Lawmakers look to protect online privacy of job applicants

Sen. Dick Sears, D-Bennington

Sen. Dick Sears, D-Bennington

That mortifying Facebook photo you were tagged in last week? May not be such a deal-breaker after all.

Vermont lawmakers want to shield the social media profiles of job applicants from the prying eyes of their would-be employers.

For the second year in a row, Sen. Dick Sears is pushing a legislation that would make it illegal for employers to request from job seekers their passwords to Facebook, Twitter and other social network accounts.

Sears said he’s unaware of any instances of Vermiont employers demanding access to applicants’ online profiles as a condition of employment. He said reports of the trend nationally, however, merit some proactive steps in the Green Mountains.

“It’s sort of like saying, when you come in for your interview, bring your diary with you, and we’re goig to read your diary,” Sears said Tuesday. “Something was amiss here.”

Vermont isn’t the first jurisdiction to tackle the issue of undue invasions of online privacy by human-resources personnel hunting for skeletons in online closets. Continue reading

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

CVPS customers aren’t the only ones lawmakers are trying to get checks for

As procrastinating Vermonters rushed to meet IRS filing deadlines Tuesday, lawmakers mulled a plan that would give a whole new meaning to the term “tax refund.”

The Senate Committee on Appropriations is considering an unconventional approach to property-tax relief that could see checks for $30 or more sent to nearly 176,000 residential homeowners next year.

Under the terms of a still-developing provision in the annual budget bill, lawmakers would use 50 percent of any general-fund revenue surpluses in fiscal year 2013 to fund the giveback.

“If you want to take the grandchildren to McDonald’s, you can do that. If you want to use it to pay off some of your tax bill, then you can do that,” said Sen. Dick Sears, a Bennington County Democrat who sits on the appropriations committee. “The point is that it’sVermont taxpayers who paid the extra taxes, and so it’sVermont taxpayers that ought to get the money back.”

The Legislature has been abuzz this session with talk of whether rebate checks should be issued toVermont households. For once, however, the conversation has nothing to do with the proposed merger of Central Vermont Public Service and Green Mountain Power.

Check out the full story here: http://bit.ly/J9OawL

Final stand today for Death with Dignity

Reporters are counting down the minutes as the Senate readies for a floor session this afternoon in which lawmakers are expected to take up – wait for it – a bill that would prohibit minors from using tanning beds.

It isn’t the underlying bill of course that’s attracting so much attention, but the death-with-dignity amendment attached to it by the Senate Committee on Health and Welfare earlier this week.

The controversial legislation doesn’t stand much of a chance. Lt. Gov. Phil Scott, whose constitutional duties including serving as grand overseer of the Vermont Senate, will rule the amendment not germane to the tanning bill, and strip it from consideration.

In an open letter to Scott shipped to media outlets earlier this morning, the chairman of the Patient Choices Vermont – the state’s leading right-to-die advocacy group – urges the Republican to reconsider his ruling:

“In questions like this, that have been well discussed and bottled up for many, many years, and where opinions have crystallized, we would respectfully ask you to consider allowing the entire Senate to fully debate and vote – as opposed to yourself or 2 or 3 Senators (on either side of the issue) being the issue’s final arbiter.”

Don’t expect any shocking turnabouts though.

Peter Shumlin, who has long championed death with dignity, said yesterday that much as he supports the legislation, it would be inappropriate to tack it onto the tanning bill.

Though the Senate should be allowed to cast what he calls a “vote of conscience,” “I also believe it should be done in a way that meets the Senate rules,” Shumlin said. “I used all the very persuasive powers I had with Sen. Campbell, Sears and others to put it to a vote in the Senate. We lost that battle, but I don’t think putting the bill on a non-germane bill is going to get us a vote.”

Marijuana reform alive – kind of

Marijuana reform advocates have focused almost exclusively this year on the decriminalization bill stalled indefinitely in the Statehouse. But legislation that would increase four-fold the amount of cannabis Vermonters can sell without risking a felony conviction looks to have a far more promising path ahead.

Tucked into a Senate bill that would create a database for search warrants is a package of sentencing reforms that would, among other things, raise the threshold at which the sale of marijuana becomes a felony.

Currently, anyone caught selling a half-ounce or more is subject to a prison term of up to five years. The proposed legislation would increase that weight to two ounces, and relegate anything less than that to misdemeanor status.

“The guy selling that amount of marijuana isn’t guy I think we want to put in jail on felony charges,” Sears said Wednesday. “These aren’t the drug traffickers we want to be focusing on, so it makes sense I think to align our laws with our priorities from a criminal justice perspective.”

House Speaker Shap Smith has drawn sharp criticism this year from marijuana reform advocates for his opposition to the higher-profile decriminalization bill languishing in theMontpelier. But for Smith’s opposition, the bill, which has the support of both the Senate and Gov. Peter Shumlin, would face far rosier prospects for passage.

He seems to have fewer concerns, however, about tweaking the weight that triggers a felony for sale of marijuana.

“I still need to learn more about the proposal, but it sounds reasonable,” Smith said.

The legislation also changes some quirky laws, including one enacted in the mid-1800s that exposes people who serve alcohol to “habitual drinkers,” in their own homes no less, to felony charges.

Sears said the statute was originally intended to prevent enterprising Vermonters from transforming their living rooms into saloons.

The legislation additionally repeals a law that prohibits anyone from possessing more than a two-day supply of prescription drugs. Though it’s rarely, if ever, enforced, Sears said the law brands as criminals seniors who keep a seven-day supply in those little multi-chambered orange pillboxes.

Check out the full story on the bill in tomorrow’s Times Argus and Rutland Herald.