2018-03-29 / News

Legislative Update

Anne Donahue
Representative Northfield/Berlin

We passed a $6.8 billion state budget last week that increased from last year by only 1.1 percent. It shifted a few spending priorities from the governor’s proposals but kept under his limit on growth in spending.
One priority area was the crisis in emergency rooms, where Vermonters are sometimes waiting for weeks for an inpatient psychiatric bed to open up.
The governor’s budget added some outreach workers, and I suggested two other measures that were also funded in the House budget.
One was expanding the toll-free Vermont Support Line (833-VT TALKS) to 24/7. It has shown huge success in peer support for individuals in crisis who might have otherwise gone to the emergency room because they didn’t know where to turn for help.
Indeed, that funding will likely do more to help prevent suicide than any gun bill we pass.
The second was expanding supported housing for homeless individuals being discharged from the hospital.
It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out that if someone was at the level of psychiatric crisis to need to be in the hospital, and is discharged to homelessness, they will relapse and be back in the emergency room in short order.
The budget was not completely squeaky clean in terms of the “no new taxes or fees” pledge, though it came close.
In separate tax bills, we held back some of the money that was to be returned to Vermonters by a restructuring of state income taxes. (Without the restructuring, the new federal tax law would have resulted in an increased state tax.)
Of the $30 million, about $2 million went instead to fund the Social Security tax exemption that had been built into the governor’s budget through other cuts in spending.
We also added a tax on e-cigarettes – similar to the way we tax other nicotine products.
If, in the same way as the others, it went into the health care fund, I would have supported it. Instead, it went to help fund added budget items that the governor had paid for through other spending cuts.
The tax bills included the new education funding proposal that shifts $60 million from property taxes to an income tax surcharge. There are pros and cons to the change, but I had a more basic objection.
The income tax would be retroactive to this past January 1. The property tax reduction would not be effective until next year’s taxes (July 1.)
It may be a simplistic perspective – it didn’t seem to bother most people – but I simply cannot support retroactive taxation. I voted against both tax bills.
All of these measures now go to the Senate, where we can expect changes before final bills go to the governor.
***
A few key environmental initiatives were also addressed recently.
It’s a pretty sad thought that we need to have a “lake in crisis” designation, but our water quality issues are getting that serious.
So I supported a bill despite some trepidation over the extent of the delegated enforcement power it gives the Secretary of Natural Resources to act beyond existing regulations if a lake has been deemed to be at that stage of pollution.
I also supported a bill that will establish a “stewardship” program for household hazardous waste, to go into effect in 2021 if a working group does not identify better ways to improve access to safe disposal.
A stewardship program puts the cost of disposal up front, as part of the purchase price, instead of charging at the time of disposal. We do it now for batteries, paint, and CFL bulbs.
Last November, my siblings and I cleared out my Mom’s house for putting it on the market. We ended up with a batch of hazardous waste, but no access to disposal until this coming May. So it still sits there while the house is being shown to prospective buyers.
It’s easy to see why folks get tempted to hide these items in their regular landfill trash – polluting groundwaters as a result.
The other area I would support a stewardship program is for tires, which could significantly impact that blight on our landscape.
The pending bill on tires did not make it out of committee in time for this year.
***
I am loathe to delve into the emotional topic of the gun safety bill debate, simply because there were more complexities to the various proposed restrictions than what can be explained in a brief written update.
I’m happy to discuss them in more detail with any individual.
I maintained a consistent position in support of any safety measure that was actually workable and that did not place burdens on law-abiding citizens disproportionate to actual safety benefits.
In brief summary that meant “yes” votes on removal of firearms from persons shown to be at extreme risk of violence (even though they have not committed a crime); temporary removal of firearms from a domestic violence scene; the weapons disposal process for law enforcement; and the ban on “bump stocks” that turn semi-automatic firearms into illegal automatic firing guns.
I voted “no” on requiring individuals to go through a gun shop for sales to friends (so-called “universal background checks”).
Individuals already face a 10-year federal prison term for selling to a prohibited person, which is likely why such sales have never been the source of weapons for mass shooters.
I also voted against making magazines holding more than 10 rounds illegal (these are standard for shooting competitions and have no date stamps that would enable it to be determined whether someone was in violation or not); and on age discrimination among legal adults for purchase of firearms.
All of these passed in the House.
How very much I wish we were not delivering false promises to Vermonters that these measures will actually improve safety.
***
The Vermont legislature has never, in the past, been appropriately compared to the ugly partisanship that occurs in Washington, D.C.
How do I define “ugly partisanship”?
It is when actions have nothing to do with honest or even passionate political disagreements over policy. It comes when a majority party deliberately uses its control over rules of procedure to block debate or squelch the voice of the minority.
That happened last week in Montpelier.
Our work on the House floor – the presentation of bills by committees so that we can understand what we are voting for, the debate when there are concerns, and the votes themselves – was declared as being merely a “show” by the Democratic minority assistant leader.
The context was an unprecedented vote to authorize a policy committee to meet and work on bills at the same time that the floor is in session.
The significance is that members of a committee are forced to choose: participate in hearing witnesses, analyzing pros and cons of a bill, and taking part in the committee’s decision to recommend a bill to the full body versus participating in hearing the presentation of bills on the floor, listening to and participating in debate, and voting.
On an individual basis, members do sometimes make their personal choice to not be on the floor when addressing another priority matter. I have done it myself for brief periods when consensus bills are under review.
At times near the end of the session, there are enough members rushing around getting final work done that there needs to be a quorum call on the House floor.
One major embarrassment to the body occurs every time there is a roll call vote on a major bill. A warning bell rings, and legislators who were absent during debate flock to the floor to cast their votes.
It means that those members felt they had no need to hear what their colleagues had to say before voting.
In another sad commentary on how we address our responsibilities, I have a reputation in the House as someone who “actually reads all the bills.” In other words, that’s a rarity.
But all of those are individual decisions by members as they juggle how they meet their obligations. They are accountable to their constituents for how they balance these priorities.
The difference in what occurred last week is that the Judiciary Committee was authorized by a vote of the House to meet as a whole and take formal action on bills while the rest of the body is on the floor.
The reason: the chair’s desire to continue moving as rapidly as possible on the gun bills it was considering.
We were not without adequate time to address those bills through the normal process, but the effort was being made to rush them, without even the typical public hearing that occurs for controversial new proposals.
Those committee members were thereby forced to choose to miss votes in one setting or the other, or to cast votes in one setting or the other without the information for an educated decision.
They were being involuntarily compelled to abdicate their responsibilities either to being present on the floor or present in their committees.
There is a reason that House rules say that committee chairs are not permitted to call their committees to meet without the permission of the full body. It is to prevent that conflict.
That is why a House vote was required on whether to grant permission to the Judiciary Committee to meet.
The outcome was directly along political party lines, which meant an 82-52 vote that placed minority members in that untenable position, in the interests of the majority to move those bills forward.
It was raw political partisanship.
In explaining my “no” vote in a formal statement, I pointed out that our processes are intended to protect the voice of the minority.
“That voice has been trampled on today, through an unconscionable and unprecedented vote by this body. The significance cannot be understated.”
The assistant majority leader then provided her explanation: “It has been said the committees do the work of the people; the floor is the show. Enough said.”
It was a staggeringly arrogant acknowledgement that majority membership feels its presence on the House floor is unnecessary.
Its members can control the outcome of every vote. There is no need to listen to other perspectives.
Although I am a member of the minority party, I would feel the exact same way if the roles were reversed.
I believe the outcome was a sad day for Vermonters and their right to be represented in the people’s House.
***
Please stay in touch as you hear about issues affecting you and to keep me informed about your views. You can reach me at adonahue@leg.state.vt.us. Thank you for the honor of representing you.

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