Legislative Report 5/22/2014 - End of Session Report

The 2014 legislative session is finally over, and I am fairly pleased with what we accomplished over the last four months.  Here is a recap of what was accomplished and what opportunities I believe we missed.  I wrote about some of this legislation in previous articles in more detail, and I provide links to those articles in the text below.

The Economy

The $655M Transportation bill marks a heavy investment in Vermont’s transportation infrastructure with support for better roads, safer bridges, and expanded rail without tax increases.  Downtown development was encouraged by loosening Act 250 regulations in designated development centers while discouraging sprawl.  A comprehensive Economic Development bill, S.220, was passed to encourage businesses to be established, to grow, or to stay in Vermont in the face of economic adversity.  It provides up to $3M in lending for entrepreneurial and agricultural investment, establishes a “Made in Vermont” program to increase exports, improves intellectual property safeguards for business, and improves consumer protection from unauthorized lenders.

Working Vermonters

The Minimum Wage bill, H.552, raises the minimum wage in Vermont from $8.73 today in four steps from $9.15 in 2015, to $10.50 in 2018.  Low-earning Vermonters looking to get ahead will be helped by H.790, which addresses the so-called benefits cliff, i.e. the disincentive that occurs when people receiving public benefits go to work and have their benefits reduced by more than their increased earnings. H.790 increases the amount of earned income that will be disregarded from $200/month to $250 for families in Reach Up.  Reach Ahead is the program that provides a continued food benefit to help families sustain themselves after getting off Reach Up. This bill makes the benefit amount in Reach Ahead somewhat smaller but continues it for a longer period of time keeping a family eligible for a full child care subsidy for an additional year, a very important factor in being able to hold a job.  On the other hand, the House failed to pass the Paid Sick Days bill, H.208, which would have guaranteed up to 6 paid sick days or the equivalent time off for all employees. 

Energy and Conservation

The renewable energy sector was given a boost with the expansion of net metering limits.  Vermont is a leader in green jobs per capita and this bill, H.702, insures that the sector will continue to grow at least until 2017 when the federal tax credits end.  In the meantime, the cost of solar generation continues to decline making systems more affordable for the average homeowner.  S.202 made air-to-air and geothermal heat pumps eligible for efficiency credits, recognizing that thermal energy savings will result in reduced green house gas emissions while saving money for homeowners.  It also provided incentives to recycle construction and demolition debris in order to divert these materials from our landfills. A first in the nation battery recycling stewardship program was established by H.695 with the cooperation of the battery industry, and when it takes effect in 2016 it will help keep some of the 10 million batteries sold in Vermont each year out of our landfills.

Water Quality

The value of our lakes and streams to Vermont’s economy, health and quality of life was the subject of two major bills, the Shorelands Protection bill, H.526, which passed and goes into effect on July 1, and the Water Quality bill, H.586, which died in the Senate.  The Shorelands bill seeks to regulate development along the shores of our smaller lakes as well as Lake Champlain to reduce runoff which fosters algae growth and to create more robust fish habitat.  The Water Quality bill addressed issues related to factors throughout watersheds that contribute to phosphorous levels in Lake Champlain and the Connecticut River.  Although H.586 did not pass this year, these problems will have to be addressed next year to comply with EPA Clean Water standards.


With overwhelming support from most Vermonters the GMO Labeling bill, H.112, was passed and signed into law.  This bill supports the right of consumers to know what is in their food.  Local farmers who produce and sell raw milk will now be able to deliver it to their customers at Farmers’ Markets.  There are still strict regulations to ensure that quality, safety and a direct relationship to the customer are maintained.

Health and Safety

 Highway safety will be enhanced with the passage of H.62, which bans the use of hand-held electronic devices while driving except under certain circumstances.  Victims of Lyme disease now have expanded opportunities for treatment with the authorization through H.123 for physicians to use additional treatment protocols.  S.234 provides for reimbursement of the use of telecommunications for remote monitoring of Medicaid patients’ health, helping to reduce Medicaid costs.  Children’s safety and health were improved through two bills. The Child Safety Act, S.239, which requires manufacturers of products sold to or used by children to notify the Department of Health if their product contains chemicals that can harm children.  H.217 bans smoking in a vehicle when a young child is in the vehicle and requires that if smoking occurs on the premises of a child care facility during times children are not present that the provider notifies families that their child will be exposed to an environment in which tobacco products are used.  It also makes it illegal to sell products containing liquid nicotine (e-cigarettes) in Vermont unless it is in child-resistant packaging.  Noticeably absent this session was the report from the Shumlin administration providing detailed information about plans to fund Green Mountain Care. If details cannot be provided early in the 2015 session, the implementation of GMC by the target date of 2017 will be in jeopardy.  And finally, I had introduced a bill four years ago to license precious metal dealers and require them to keep good records of their transactions for the purpose of shutting down avenues for the fencing of stolen goods.  After passing a weaker bill two years ago, and with the help of legislators in both the House and Senate as well as law enforcement, we passed S.308 this year, which puts those requirements firmly in place and authorizes the Department of Public Safety to enforce them.


Educational issues consumed a significant amount of energy during this session with mixed results. On the positive side, opportunities were expanded at both ends of the age spectrum.  The Universal Pre-K Education bill, H.270, provides up to ten hours of pre-Kindergarten education to every 3 or 4 year old who enrolls in a qualified program, creates a simplified payment system, and clarifies oversight in order to give the best chance for success to every child. Research has shown that children who aren’t able to access high-quality early education for whatever reason are more likely to challenge the resources of our education system throughout their K-12 experience.  At the other end of the spectrum Vermont’s great high school graduation rate is not reflected in the number of students that go on to post-secondary education.   The Economic Development bill, S.220, provides for up to two semesters of free college education in the state college system for Vermont students who satisfy certain academic and post-graduation residency criteria.  The legislature was less successful in addressing the costs of K-12 education.  The Education Governance bill, H.883, which would reduce the number of school districts statewide through consolidation, stalled in the Senate.  The financing formula passed by the House was further modified by the Senate which resulted in a higher property tax rate than anyone wanted.   The discussion of the financing issue along with the large number of school budgets that were voted down has increased the importance of revising the financing system next year to reduce the burden on property taxes. 

Now that the session is over, I will begin my campaign for re-election.  I have enjoyed serving you in the legislature and hope you will support me for another term.  I intend to again conduct a person-to-person campaign and look forward to meeting you on the campaign trail.

The Word in the House 5/15/2014 - Constitutional Matters

The debates on the floor during the last two weeks of the session take on a new sense of urgency and can go on for hours on a single bill.  It is an honored tradition to continue the debate until everyone who has a question about a bill or has something to say about it has done so.  That scenario unfolded late one evening, not on a bill, but on a joint resolution of the House and Senate.

You may recall that in 2010, the U.S. Supreme Court, on a 5-4 vote, struck down the McCain-Feingold campaign financing bill in a case that became known as the Citizens United decision.  Citizens United was/is a political action committee (PAC) that sued to remove the limits a PAC could spend in elections.  The court ruled that not only was money equivalent to speech, but that putting a limit on such “speech” violated the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.  The Supreme Court extended that concept in a ruling on April 2nd of this year in the McCutcheon vs. Federal Election Commission, which effectively equated corporations to people and struck down any limits on corporate campaign contributions.  (It was like a terrible April Fool’s joke on democracy!) 

If we were to try and reverse these decisions – and I believe we should – we would have two options.  First, the U.S. Congress, by 2/3 vote of each of the House and the Senate, could pass a Constitutional Amendment.  Alternatively, 2/3 of the state legislatures could call for a Constitutional Convention for the purpose of proposing amendments to the Constitution.  Any amendment would then require ratification by ¾ of the states, i.e. 38 states, to take effect.  Both options are established in Article V of the U.S. Constitution.

Several amendments have been proposed in the U.S. Senate since Citizens United to overturn the decision.  However, since the present partisan dysfunction of Congress makes it unlikely that any amendment would get traction, Dr. Lawrence Lessig, the Roy L. Furman Professor of Law and Leadership at Harvard Law School, has been advocating the second approach.  Dr. Lessig has visited Vermont several times, including giving a seminar at UVM two years ago.  Most recently, he visited the statehouse last month to support JRS27, a joint resolution sponsored by Senator Ginny Lyons and others, requesting Congress to call a convention for proposing amendments to the U.S. Constitution “that would limit the corrupting influence of money in our electoral process, including … by overturning the Citizens United decision.”

After the resolution passed the Senate on a vote of 25-2, the House took it up on Thursday, May 1st, in the evening after a dinner recess.  During a two hour debate that centered on the wisdom of convening a Constitutional Convention, no one disagreed that the infusion of unlimited sums of money into election campaigns is a threat to our democracy.  If anyone did disagree, they didn’t say it out loud.  The critics of the resolution held that a Constitutional Convention would not be limited to a single issue and could turn into a runaway convention to displace the entire Constitution.  Proponents argued that such a result would not be possible, because any proposal of amendment coming out of the convention would have to be ratified by ¾ of the states.  Many amendments have been proposed under Article V which have never succeeded in gaining the support of enough states to convene a Constitutional Convention.  Since the threshold of passage is so high, one may ask if the resolution merely makes a statement of our discontent with the Supreme Court’s decision.  While it is such a statement, our hope is that either other states over time will pass similar resolutions, or that it will generate enough public support nationwide to encourage Congress to pass an amendment, and Vermont is willing to take the lead in this effort.  By 9:30 PM debate had not yet ended and the Speaker asked for adjournment until the following day.  After the resolution was again taken up and debated briefly, it passed on a vote of 95-43, making Vermont the first state to call for a Constitutional Convention for this purpose.

Chittenden County Democrats Show Focuses on GMO Labeling and Toxic Chemical Legislation

The Chittenden County Democrats Show on CCTV Channel 17, hosted by Bob Hooper and Rep. Mike Yantachka, featured guests Matthew Ennis, RuralVermont.org, and Lauren Heurl, VermontConservationVoters.org, on legislation regarding Genetically Modified Organizms (GMO's) H.112, and Toxic Chemicals (Bill S.239).   Watch the interview here.

The Word in the House 5/1/2014 - GMOs, Raw Milk, Medical Mj, Telemedicine

The pressure is on in the legislature to tie up loose ends and move bills to the floor for final passage before we adjourn.  Bills that originated in the Senate are now reaching the House floor for a vote.  Some House bills have been sent back from the Senate with changes that have to be approved by the House before proceeding to the Governor’s desk.  Several significant bills were passed last week, and these are a few of them.

The bill that got the most media coverage was H.112, which requires foods that contain genetically engineered ingredients (also known as GMOs), to be labeled as such by producers.  As reported in the 4/27/14 issue of the Burlington Free Press, the U.S. Department of Agriculture reports that 93% of soybeans and 88% of corn grown in the U.S. are genetically modified and are ingredients in more than 70% of food products on store shelves today.  The biotechnology industry as well as the Grocery Manufacturers Association opposed the bill, but the Vermont public, including 76% of Charlotte respondents to the Doyle Poll, overwhelmingly supports the right to know what is in their food.  The bill passed overwhelmingly in both the Senate and House.

The House also passed the Raw Milk bill, S.70, which will allow farmers producing up to 280 gallons per week to deliver their product to existing customers at farmers' markets. The raw milk regulations that have been in place for five years are rigorous and prescribe the good practices that producers must follow to ensure public health and safety.  Vermont raw milk dairies have consistently produced a high quality and safe product. The provisions in this bill will ensure that consumers can pick up fresh, safe milk from farmers with whom they have an established relationship at more convenient times and locations.

Changes were also made to the regulations for medical marijuana dispensaries with the passage of S.247 by the House.  The bill eliminates the 6 month waiting period for patients with a terminal illness, with cancer which has metastasized, or with AIDS.  It also adds naturopathic physicians with a special license to prescribe, dispense, and administer prescriptions to the list of medical professionals who can provide a medical verification form to a patient for marijuana therapy.  Recent news reports have profiled children that suffer from intractable seizures and their successful treatment in Colorado with a special marijuana extract called "Charlotte's Web".  Unfortunately, federal law prohibits the extract from being transported outside of Colorado, so another provision in S.247 allows the development of such a product in Vermont to treat these young patients. 

Other bills deserving mention that passed include S.234, which authorizes Medicaid coverage for remote monitoring of data via the internet related to a patient’s health in conjunction with a home health plan of care, and H.356 which prohibits littering on the waters of the state.  The latter bill also establishes September as River Green Up Month, similar to Green Up Day which we are celebrating this weekend. 

Legislative Report 4/24/2014 - Focusing on Water Quality

For more than two decades Vermont has worked to clean up its lakes, streams and rivers with various degrees of success.  Gone are the days when sewage and industrial effluents were discharged directly into streams and rivers.  Yet we still have much further to go to prevent conditions that lead to toxic algae blooms in lakes and ponds and to high nitrogen levels in the Connecticut River that result in oxygen depleted dead zones in Long Island Sound. 

One measure of water quality is the amount of nutrients, i.e. phosphates and nitrogen compounds, in a body of water that contribute to algae growth.  Limits on these nutrients are set by the Environmental Protection Agency to ensure that water quality is maintained at an acceptable level.  This limit is called the total maximum daily load, or TMDL. Despite the state’s reaching one-third of the TMDL goal in less than 10 years, the EPA revoked approval of the initial TMDL plan for Lake Champlain in 2011 because of ongoing problems such as the algae blooms.  Vermont had until the end of March this year to submit a new plan, and the Vermont Department of Environmental Conservation did so. 

The VDEC issued a report documenting the sources of the nutrients flowing into Lake Champlain.  The report showed that about 3% of the nutrients are coming from municipal sewage treatment facilities, about 10% from impervious surfaces such as roads and parking lots, another 10% from developed land, about 20% from river and streambank erosion during significant storm events, and about 40% from agricultural operations.  VDEC proposed a 20 year implementation plan with an estimated cost of $150M.  In order to accomplish these goals, legislative action is also needed.

Last week the House passed H.586 to address improving the quality of the state’s waters in a comprehensive manner.  Much of the responsibility and cost for meeting the new EPA TMDL may fall on Vermont’s farmers, who likely will be subject to additional requirements under the accepted agricultural practices (AAPs) and other agricultural water quality rules.  Although the AAP rules were adopted in 1995, the legislature found a general lack of awareness in the “small farm” community about the AAPs.  The bill directs the Vermont Agency of Agriculture, Food and Markets to educate small farm operators in the State about the requirements of the AAPs.  This will include identifying cost-effective strategies, best management practices and conservation practices of cover cropping, grassed waterways, manure drag lines and injection, no-till production, and contour plowing.  It also establishes a small farm certification program to ensure compliance with AAPs.

While additional state and federal assistance is necessary to help bring farms into compliance, including technical and financial assistance to encourage small farms to adopt and implement nutrient management plans, funding mechanisms were removed from the bill by amendments proposed by the Ways and Means committee.  A quarter percent increase in the Rooms and Meals tax and a one percent increase on the automobile rental tax were stripped from the bill that came out of the Fish Wildlife and Water Resources committee.  The bill now recommends establishing financing mechanisms between now and January 15, 2015, to implement the provisions of the bill.

The bill is now in the hands of the Senate.  Like the Shorelands Protection bill, H.526, which passed the House last year, was modified by the Senate and sent to a conference committee to work out the differences, H.586 is likely to be amended before final passage.  If differences cannot be worked out before the end of the session in May, the bill will die and will have to be reintroduced next year as a new bill.  In the meantime, nutrients will continue to flow into Lake Champlain and we will continue to see toxic algae blooms.

On a lighter note, the Charlotte Whale has a new companion.  The Charlotte Whale was designated as the State Fossil in 1993 and is housed at the Perkins Geology Museum at UVM.  A bill passed last week redesignated the Charlotte Whale as the State “Marine” Fossil and named the Mount Holly Wooly Mammoth as the State “Terrestrial” Fossil.  The Mammoth is on display at the Mount Holly Historical Society Museum.