Tag Archives: Philip Baruth

Senate defeats bill to protect workers’ use of sick time

MONTPELIER — Legislation to prevent employers from retaliating against workers who utilize earned time off benefits failed on the Senate floor Tuesday as Democrats split their votes.

In a rare defeat for a bill that makes it to the Senate floor, the body voted 12 to 14 to scuttle it after a late push Tuesday morning from pro-business groups. Democrats, who control the chamber with a veto-proof majority, split their votes — seven in favor and seven opposed.

For Sen. David Zuckerman, P/D-Chittenden, it was a failure of Democratic leadership that led to the bill’s defeat.

Sen. David Zuckerman

Sen. David Zuckerman

“The real question is, in my mind, if Democrats are supportive of workers’ rights, what happened to those seven legislators and why wasn’t there some leadership to make sure they were on board?” he said. “My understanding is usually a bill doesn’t come to the floor unless you think it’s going to pass.”

The Senate agreed to amend the bill, S.133, to clarify its language on a 15 to 11 vote. The language approved states that “an employer, employment agency, or labor organization shall not discharge or penalize an employee because the employee has used, or attempted to use, accrued employer-provided sick leave or other employer-provided benefits.”

The Legislature in recent years has been unable to advance legislation mandating that employers provide earned sick leave. Zuckerman said the legislation defeated Tuesday did not require any employer to provide sick time.

“This bill was not forcing any employer to create any policy. This was simply to say, if, as an employee, you have a sick leave policy then you can’t then retaliate against an employee for utilizing the sick leave policy. Just don’t offer it or don’t retaliate,” he said. “It seemed like a pretty straight-forward bill.”

Sen. Philip Baruth, D-Chittenden, the Senate Majority Leader and a co-sponsor of the bill, said bills routinely make it to the floor when the outcome is not entirely clear.

“There are lots of bill where you don’t have it wired beforehand — you think it’s the right thing to do, there’s some disagreement in your caucus and you use the debate to see what the issues are and what can move forward,” Baruth said. “On this one we knew it was relatively close and we were, I think, plagued by some absences.”

Sens. Claire Ayer, D-Addison, and Dick Sears, D-Bennington, were absent from Tuesday’s floor session. And Senate President Pro Tem John Campbell, D-Windsor, was presiding at the podium with Republican Lt. Gov. Phil Scott absent from the chamber.

Baruth said he was “disappointed in where the Senate ended up” rather than solely with his own caucus. The bipartisan legislation was co-sponsored by Sen. Kevin Mullin, R-Rutland, who serves as chairman of the Economic Development, Housing and General Affairs Committee.

Sen. Philip Baruth

Sen. Philip Baruth

“We had a near-unanimous voice vote on this language last time and obviously a large number of people switched their vote from then to now, even though the bill was less objectionable. We bent over backwards and we removed some language that people had a worry about last year. So, disappointed in the direction of the body as a whole,” he said.

The state’s largest business groups distributed a letter Tuesday morning to members of the Senate urging them to reject the bill. The letter, signed by the Vermont Retail & Grocers Association, Vermont Chamber of Commerce, Associated Industries of Vermont and 12 other organizations, claimed the legislation would increase employers’ exposure to litigation.

“This legislation elevates receipt and use of all these benefits to the kind of protected class status heretofore reserved for race, gender, age or disability,” they wrote. “If enacted, the provision could serve as a disincentive for employers to provide benefits to employees because it would not only preclude the employer from taking disciplinary action when appropriate, but it would also increase the employer’s exposure to future litigation.”

Bennington County Sen. Brian Campion, a Democrat, who voted against the measure, cited some of the very same reasons.

“In part, I feel like it’s bad for employers and employees. I could see some employers stepping back and not giving certain benefits in fear that it might be setting them up for a legal situation,” Campion said.

The legislation stems from allegations that Sodexo, a food service and facility management company, retaliated against some workers who used paid sick time. Campion said he has not heard of other situations in Vermont where similar practices have been alleged.

“I just struggle when legislation is built around one situation, and from what I’ve heard, this really is a [single] situation. I’d be much more interested to dig in broadly if this is happening statewide,” he said.

Because the bill was defeated it cannot be considered again by the Senate during the current biennium. There will be other efforts aimed at protecting workers, though, Baruth said.

“Are we done with trying to protect workers? No. We’re all trying to come out of the Great Recession still and I think part of the thinking was we have to help business, the economy is still fragile, etc,” he said. “I subscribe to that notion very strongly, I would just add to it that all those businesses have workers who are also coming out of the recession and getting fired for using earned sick leave that you were promised, earned and took according to the policy seems to me an unconscionable way to run a business.”

Roll call vote results:

Yes

Sen. Tim Ashe, D-Chittenden

Sen. Rebecca Balint, D-Windham

Sen. Philip Baruth, D-Chittenden

Sen. Anne Cummings, D-Washington

Sen. Ginny Lyons, D-Chittenden

Sen. Mark MacDonald, D-Orange

Sen. Dick McCormack, D-Windsor

Sen. Kevin Mullin, R-Rutland

Sen. Anthony Pollina, D-Washington

Sen. Michael Sirotkin, D-Chittenden

Sen. Jeanette White, D-Windham

Sen. David Zuckerman, P/D-Chittenden

No

Sen. Joe Benning, R-Caledonia

Sen. Chris Bray, D-Addison

Sen. Brian Campion, D-Bennington

Sen. Brian Collamore, R-Rutland

Sen. Dustin Degree, R-Franklin

Sen. Peg Flory, R-Rutland

Sen. Jane Kitchel, D-Caledonia

Sen. Dick Mazza, D-Grand Isle

Sen. Norm McAllister, R-Franklin

Sen. Alice Nitka, D-Windsor

Sen. John Rodgers, D-Essex-Orleans

Sen. Diane Snelling, R-Chittenden

Sen. Bobby Starr, D-Essex-Orleans

Sen. Rich Westman, R-Lamoille

Read the business groups’ letter to members of the Senate:

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

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

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.

Continue reading

Dems pick Philip Baruth as next Senate Majority Leader

One of the more vocal critics of Senate leadership over the past two years was elected by his Democratic peers Saturday to help fix it.

Sen. Philip Baruth, a second-term Chittenden County Democrat, will serve as his 23-member caucus’ next majority leader. During his first two years in office, Baruth often chided Senate President John Campbell for a top-down leadership style he said was used to subvert the will of the majority.

Baruth on Sunday said he thinks he and Campbell are primed to improve the dynamic.

“A lot of problems were caused by bills that had lot of support in the caucus but then didn’t have quite enough support to get out of committee,” Baruth said. “We have had very good discussion about that at (the Senate Democratic caucus Saturday) and talked about ways to massage that situation so we wouldn’t have quite so much pressure build up around certain issues.”

Baruth named the childcare unionization bill specifically as one of piece of legislation blocked from seeing a floor vote last year. Does that mean the controversial legislation, opposed by Campbell, is headed for an up-or-down vote on the floor in 2013?

“I wouldn’t want to say anything definitive on any specific bill, but it certainly seems as though discussions are moving in that way,” Baruth said.

A professor of English at the University of Vermont, Baruth said even Republican lawmakers will have a voice in the Democratic caucus. Sen. Diane Snelling, a Chittenden County Republican, is running against Campbell for a Senate presidency that will be decided this week.

“I know John Campbell is not taking anything for granted, and I am very sure he’s talking on a regular basis with Republicans that have been in the body for awhile, as well as those just coming in,” Baruth said. “In the Senate, it’s less about R’s versus D’s and it’s more about wrangling over the vision for ideal government, and then how you pay for that ideal government.”

Baruth, who won the post in a unanimous voice vote, had voiced interest last fall in being a member of the leadership team, but said he’d cede the top spot to a more senior member of the body. No one else emerged to take the job.

Sen. Claire Ayer, an Addison County Democrat and chairwoman of the Senate Committee on Health and Welfare, will serve as assistant majority leader.

From his more experienced No. 2, Baruth said he’ll seek “advice and guidance.”

“Claire is an extremely experienced and savvy person,” Baruth said. “And what I need from her is mostly her advice.”

Lawmakers will convene in Montpelier on Wednesday for the opening of the 2013 session. Gov. Peter Shumlin delivers his State of the State address on Thursday.