We’ll get the bills

We're trying something new over at the Press Bureau this year. Lawmakers will introduce somewhere on the order of 1,000 pieces of legislation during the 2011 session. We're going to tell you about every single one of them.
These won't be in-depth analyses, of course. But they will give you a general sense of what the bill would do, who's sponsoring it, and why they think it matters.
Some of these bills will generate hours of committee discussion, fuel intense debates on the floor and go on to become law. The bulk of them will sit idle on the walls of committee rooms.
On Monday, the first eight bills of the year – four from the House, four from the Senate – hit the printers. You can track their progress over the course of the session by visiting the Legislature's website at www.leg.state.vt.us . Check back here daily for the latest bills off the leg council presses.

H.1 An act relating to Challenges for Change outcomes for persons with disabilities

Introduced by Rep. Anne Donahue (R-Northfield), this legislation looks to rectify what she calls a technical error in the Challenges for Change legislation passed during the last legislative session.
As a means of measuring the success of state programs, a provision in that law called for clients of the Agency of Human Services, including children, the poor and the elderly, to be “engaged in and contribute to their communities’ decisions and activities.”
Donahue’s legislation would ensure that the provision also included people with disabilities, mental-health needs or substance-abuse issues.
“It was an accident of the rush to adjourn that it got left out,” Donohue says. “For principle and value purposes, it’s important to correct the record. I think it will serve as a powerful symbolic gesture.”
Contact the sponsor of this bill by e-mail at adonahue@leg.state.vt.us.

H.2 An act relating to a ban on discretionary clauses in health-insurance contracts

Introduced by Rep. Paul Poirer (I-Barre City), this legislation would broaden the rights of consumers who want to challenge insurance providers’ decisions on which services are covered and which are not.
Modeled after a law already on the books in Michigan, the legislation would free consumers from some of the legal restrictions written into most insurance-policy contracts.
“In the contract that individuals sign when they buy an insurance policy, there’s a clause in there and it’s got a legal phrase and it essentially makes the insurance company the judge and jury as to whether or not something is covered,” Poirier says. “This bill says
you cannot sell an insurance contract in Vermont that has that language.”
Poirier says extracting the clause from health-insurance contracts would enable consumers to appeal a company’s decision either through a hearing at the Department of Banking, Insurance, Securities and Healthcare Administration, or, “depending on how serious it is, it could be taken directly to superior court,” Poirier says.
“Insurance companies are notorious for saying ‘oh, this isn’t covered,’” Poirier says. “Striking this language offers greater consumer protections against that sort of practice.”
Contact the sponsor of this bill by e-mail at ppoirier@leg.state.vt.us.

H.3 An act prohibiting the use of Tasers by law-enforcement officers who have not completed training for interacting with people experiencing a mental-health crisis

Introduced by Rep. Anne Donahue (R-Northfield), this legislation would ban the use of Tasers by police officers who have not been trained on how to deescalate situations with people experiencing mental-health related issues.
As part of their initial training, all new police officers receive guidance on how to handle such situations. But some of the more veteran officers in the state have not undergone the training, and Donahue’s legislation would prevent them from wielding incapacitating stun guns until they do.
“There’s a huge concern on the part of the disability community that Tasers will be substituted for primary first efforts at deescalating a situation with a person with a mental illness,” Donahue says. “This isn’t legislation saying police can’t have Tasers, or that they’re not part of what law-enforcement needs as a tool, but it is important they be used by people who do have knowledge about other alternatives to try first.”
Contact the sponsor of this bill by e-mail at adonahue@leg.state.vt.us.

H.4 An act relating to mental-health hospital admissions

Introduced by Rep. Anne Donahue (R-Northfield), this legislation seeks to ensure that anyone involuntarily committed to an institution for mental-health related reasons is afforded adequate legal protections while under treatment.
State and federal guidelines attach strict legal guidelines to the treatment of people forced into involuntary hospitalization. The Department of Mental Health, according to Donahue, recently overhauled the definitions it uses to determine what constitutes involuntary hospitalization.
Under the new definitions, according to Donahue, people committed to “residential programs,” like the ones that might replace the Vermont State Hospital, wouldn’t enjoy the same legal protections as people committed to “inpatient” programs in a hospital setting.
“It allows the creation of a program that evades all of the hospital regulations for that type of involuntary treatment,” Donahue says. “What this bill does is say no, you can’t evade the oversight that occurs in an inpatient facility just because you’re now calling it a residential program.”
Contact the sponsor of this bill by e-mail at adonahue@leg.state.vt.us.

S.1 An act relating to technical amendments to the judicial restructuring act of 2010

Introduced by Sen. Dick Sears (D-Bennington County), this legislation would undo technical errors written into a voluminous law passed last year that restructured the state’s court system.
The chief error, according to Sears, related to the appeals process in probate courts. The legislation would ensure that appeals in probate cases can be heard by the civil division of the county courthouse in which the probate case was decided.
Sears said he intends to act quickly on the bill, which would take effect Feb. 1, to avert any problems with probate appeals.
Contact the sponsor of this bill by e-mail at rsears@leg.state.vt.us.

S.2 An act relating to sexual exploitation of a minor and the sex offense registry

Introduced by Sen. Dick Sears (D-Bennington County), this legislation offers clarifying language on what sorts of crimes will land someone on the state’s Internet sex-offender registry.
Under the existing statute, Sears says, it’s unclear when people convicted of sexual exploitation of a minor are subject to inclusion on the statewide Internet registry. The legislation says that people convicted of felony exploitation crimes will be listed on the online registry. People convicted of misdemeanor exploitation crimes will not.
Contact the sponsor of this bill by e-mail at rsears@leg.state.vt.us.

S.3 An act relating to establishing that traffic tickets and video recordings of roadside DUI stops are public records

Introduced by Sen. Dick Sears (D-Bennington County), this legislation makes explicit that police recordings of roadside traffic stops for speeding or driving under the influence are subject to public scrutiny.
The legislation follows a civil case last fall in which a Burlington lawyer sought access to police footage of State Auditor Thomas Salmon’s arrest for drunken driving. Attorney General Bill Sorrell unsuccessfully fought the tape’s release, saying the material was exempt from the public-records act because it related to the investigation of a crime.
The superior court judge in that case rejected Sorrell’s argument. Sears says this legislation will offer government agencies a clearer standard for what types of material are subject to Vermont’s open-records law.
“The attorney general at the time was concerned about where does it stop and what is permissible and what isn’t, and what else might be subject to open-records requests if people had access to these kinds of videos,” Sears says. “This limits it to DUI videos, and not necessarily another type of video that shows other types of investigative activities going on.”
More importantly, Sears says, the legislation will spur a debate over what other kinds of police records should be open to the public.
Contact the sponsor of this bill by e-mail at rsears@leg.state.vt.us.

S.4 An act relating to expanding the review power of the secretary of human services

Introduced by Sen. Dick Sears (D-Bennington County), this legislation grants human-services secretaries the power to modify or reverse decisions made by the state’s Human Services Board.
The Human Services Board, a seven-member panel made up of gubernatorial appointees, reviews benefits decisions made by the agency, and determines whether grievances over those decisions have merit or not. Sears says outgoing human-services secretary Robert Hofmann had requested greater statutory influence over the board’s decisions, which have in some cases been appealed in court and overturned.
“This certainly is not designed to say the Human Services Board has not been doing their job or has overstepped their bounds or that the secretary just wants more power,” Sears says. “It’s about starting a discussion for how to deal with some of these problems, and since we have a new secretary coming in, it’s probably a good time to talk about it.”
Contact the sponsor of this bill by e-mail at rsears@leg.state.vt.us.

– Peter Hirschfeld

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One Response to We’ll get the bills

  1. Craig Fuller

    This is very helpful. Thanks!
    Ambitious, maybe but helpful. Good luck!