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Note: Blog posts entitled "Legislative Report" have been published in The Charlotte News, and those entitled "The Word in the House" have been published in The Citizen.



Legislative Report 2/25/2015 - Background Checks

Whenever legislation regulating firearms is proposed, no matter how sensible, it never fails to elicit a strong negative reaction from gun rights groups. A couple of weeks ago, the Vermont Senate Judiciary Committee held a hearing on S.31, the bill relating to possession and transfer of firearms. The hearing was packed by both supporters and opponents, each distinguished by the colors they wore: green for supporters and hunter orange for opponents. It was clear that opponents outnumbered supporters by a large margin. Witnesses were called pretty much in alternating order of pro and con, and more than 30 people testified.

The objections to the legislation fell into 3 categories: 1) a misunderstanding of what is in the bill, 2) the contention that it violates the 2nd Amendment, and 3) that the background check provision would be unenforceable. So, here is what the bill does and does not do.

There are three provisions. The first makes it a crime in Vermont for a person convicted of a violent crime to possess a firearm. This is currently federal law. However, without this provision, the crime would have to be prosecuted in federal court by a federal prosecutor. This provision would allow prosecution by a States Attorney in the Vermont court system.

The second provision requires reporting to the National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS) persons who are judged in a court of law to be a danger to themselves or others, or who were found not responsible for a crime by reason of insanity or incompetent to stand trial due to a mental illness and are a danger to themselves or others.

The third provision requires a background check to be conducted on a buyer of a firearm before it could be sold to that person. There is an exemption if the firearm is transferred or sold to a family member or a law enforcement agency, or to an police officer or a member of the Armed Forces acting within the course of their official duties. It does not prohibit loaning a firearm to a friend for an afternoon of shooting or hunting as some opponents claimed. This is the most controversial provision, although most opponents see every part of the bill as an infringement on their constitutional rights. On the contrary, courts have upheld the constitutionality of background checks passed by 16 other states. Moreover, background checks are required when a gun is purchased through any federally licensed firearms dealer like a sporting goods store or gun shop. This bill merely extends the requirement to online and person-to-person sales and also closes the so-called "gun show loophole", where a private seller would not require a background check while a licensed dealer in the next booth would.

We all know of the increased prevalence of heroin trafficking. Studies have shown that guns obtained in Vermont are part of the currency of the drug trade coming from New York, Boston, Albany and other places with strong gun laws. According to the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, in 2013 alone 165 guns recovered in crimes in other states were traced back to Vermont. This may not seem like a lot, but it is significant considering the size of our population.

I do not object to guns or to the traditions of hunting and sport shooting. However, as a gun owner myself I support this legislation because it is necessary to help prevent firearms from getting into the hands of criminals and dangerously mentally ill persons. I have talked to many other gun owners who support this legislation as well because it makes common sense. As the NRA is fond of saying, "Guns don't kill people; people do." So, we have to take whatever steps we can to keep guns out of the hands of the wrong people. Persons who can pass a background check when purchasing a gun from a dealer have nothing to fear from this legislation. As for enforceability, while there will always be an opportunity for a prohibited person to skirt the law by buying from an unscrupulous individual, responsible, law abiding gun owners will be helping to protect their fellow citizens when selling their unwanted guns with a background check as required by law.

I am a cosponsor of H.250, a companion bill to S.31 in the House.

I continue to welcome your thoughts and questions and can be reached by phone (802-233-5238) or by email (myantachka.dfa@gmail.com).

The Word in the House 2/18/2015 - Vermont's New Renewable Energy Policy


Q. What would lead to a 6% increase in Vermont's electric utility rates? A. Doing nothing.
 
For the last 10 years, Vermont has grown its renewable energy industry under a program called SPEED (Sustainably Priced Energy Enterprise Development). Under that program Vermont became a leader not only of utility based Renewable Energy (RE) development, but of distributed generation with net metering. Distributed generation means that the energy is generated close to where it is consumed. Set to expire in 2017, the SPEED program is in need of retirement now, however. As our neighboring states in the New England regional grid have set their own renewable energy standards, Vermont's SPEED program has come under criticism because we allow the Renewable Energy Credits (RECs) to be sold to utilities outside of Vermont while the energy that is produced is counted toward our in-state RE requirements. This “double-dipping” has become unacceptable to Connecticut and Massachusetts who claim that selling VT RECs to their utilities suppresses RE development in their states. 
 
The REC market operates much like a stock market with RECs associated with different types of RE generation having different values. Thus, a utility generating power with high-value RECs can sell those and buy back lower value RECs as long as that type of energy is considered renewable in the state the utility operates in. Utilities with excess RECs can sell them to reduce their operating costs.
 
If CT and MA stop buying Vermont RECs, a significant revenue stream for our utilities that has helped to keep our rates among the lowest in New England will disappear. The immediate impact would be a 6% increase in our average electric rates. To prevent this the House Natural Resources and Energy Committee with the help of the Department of Public Service has written legislation to replace the SPEED program with what is known as a Renewable Portfolio Standard. It would set the goals for RE generation for our utilities and require the RECs to be retained, thereby bringing our policies in line with those of our neighbors. Already the potential for passage of this legislation has led CT to hold off on legislation preventing its utilities from buying VT RECs.

Our bill, H.40, establishes the Renewable Energy Standard and Energy Transformation (RESET) Progam. It is designed to grow the share of Vermont's electricity consumption that comes from RE sources, to support new community-scale distributed generation, and to promote innovative projects that reduce fossil fuel use and save Vermonters money. There are three tiers:

  1. Total Renewable Electric Requirement – 55% of sales by an electric utility in 2017 rising to 75% by 2032 will be from renewable sources. These goals are already in law, but will now require REC retention. Utilities may still sell RECs in excess of the mandated requirement.
  2. Distributed Generation – 1% of sales in 2017, rising to 10% in 2032, will come from distributed generation including net metered solar, wind, hydro, and bio-fuels as long as the RECs attributed to that generation are retired by the utilities benefiting from them.
  3. Energy Innovation Projects – 2% of sales in 2017 rising to 12% in 2032 would come from energy transformation projects. This tier sets targets for utility-led or partnered projects that save fossil fuels for heating or transportation and save money for consumers. Measured in BTU-equivalents (thermal units of energy), projects which save fossil fuels by either conservation or transformation can be counted toward this RE requirement. Examples include weatherization, cold-climate heat pumps, geothermal heat pumps, electric vehicles, and biomass heating. These projects would count only if they are in addition to those already happening through existing regulatory programs or state funding.
 
By proactively adopting the RESET Program, rate increases are projected to rise by less than 0.5% by 2017, more than 1000 new jobs will be created in the industry, more than 400 megawatts of new distributed generation will be added, and by 2032 about 15 million metric tons of greenhouse gases emissions will be avoided and $275M will be saved on Vermonters' energy bills.
 
I continue to welcome your thoughts and questions and can be reached by phone (802-233-5238) or by email (myantachka.dfa@gmail.com)

Legislative Report 2/11/2015 - Green Burials and Dead Nickels


One of the first jobs a legislature has in January is to make adjustments to the current year's budget to balance any gap between expected revenues and actual revenues. While budgets are normally the focus of partisan disagreements, this year's Budget Adjustment Act, dealing with a $19M revenue shortfall, was a pleasant exception. By the end of January the House realigned spending to end the current fiscal year with a balanced, responsible budget and passed the bill on a 135-5 vote. With that important vote out of the way, I decided to devote this report to two bills I introduced.

The first is a bill to allow the establishment of “natural burial grounds”. I introduced H.25, after talking with Lisa Carlson, a Hinesburg resident and the author, along with Joshua Slocum, of "Final Rights: Reclaiming the American Way of Death". I had been aware of only two ways of laying the dead to rest: embalming and cremation. It hadn't occurred to me that embalming is a relatively recent phenomenon that arose in the U.S. funerary industry in the 20th century. Lisa pointed out that the downsides include the use of toxic chemicals as well as expensive caskets and the concrete burial vaults to hold them, and that cremation requires very high temperatures generated by burning fossil fuels. On the other hand, the practice termed "green burial" requires neither and allows us to "return to dust" in the natural way that all other living beings do. This burial method is already allowed by state law, but must take place in specially reserved areas of existing cemeteries. Orthodox Jews as well as Muslims practice this type of burial as a religious practice. H.25 will expand the allowable use of the green burial method in an even more natural way. It establishes the right of a landowner to set aside a section of land where such burials can be performed with the additional characteristic that would not require a grave marker, but would allow the land, a field or forest, to return to its natural state. It would require the land to be registered as a natural burial ground and the grave site(s) to be “platted” or mapped for future reference. While most people may still prefer to be buried or to bury their relatives in the usual manner in a traditional cemetery, H.25 will provide an alternative for those who wish their bodies to simply "return to nature".

The second bill, H.104, will reclaim the deposits on unredeemed beverage containers for the state. Under current law, the sale of a soft drink or other deposit beverage includes passing the deposit from the final customer to the distributor. If the beverage container is never redeemed for the deposit, but instead is diverted into regular recycling or the trash, the beverage distributor keeps the deposit. It is estimated that between one and two million dollars in Vermonters' deposits are abandoned every year. Since we have paid these deposits for the purpose of maintaining a clean environment, my bill will reclaim 80% of them to help pay for Vermont's recycling efforts. The beverage industry will keep the remaining 20% for handling costs. Three states – VT, IA and OR – currently allow the distributors to keep all of the unclaimed deposits, while five – CT, NY, MA, ME and MI – reclaim some or all of them. In these tight budget times, finding an extra million or two without raising taxes makes sense to me.
 
I continue to welcome your thoughts and questions and can be reached by phone (802-233-5238) or by email (myantachka.dfa@gmail.com).