Vermont Laws Regulating Firearms: Next Steps

This past summer, while driving to my granddaughter’s softball tournament in Connecticut, I had the occasion to drive through Newtown past the Sandy Hook Elementary School. The access to the school was still barricaded, a testament to the terrible crime that took place only nine months before when 20 children and six faculty members were gunned down. It was a stark reminder of what can happen when highly lethal weapons are misused by unstable people and criminals. Last month Gun Sense Vermont invited me to participate in a forum on gun violence in Vermont. Gun Sense Vermont is a statewide organization that promotes gun safety laws that respect the Second Amendment and protect children and communities by keeping guns out of the wrong hands. 

I spoke about existing Vermont laws pertaining to firearms and efforts to enact other sensible regulations designed to keep guns out of the hands of criminals and people who pose a danger to themselves or others. The forum was well attended by both supporters of these efforts and people who advocate for the rights of gun owners. Vermonters have a long and strong tradition of hunting and sport shooting, which are honorable and beneficial sports in which firearms play an essential role. Many families own multiple rifles, shotguns and pistols and use them responsibly. 

However, there is also a dark side to the prevalence of firearms. From the thoughtless misuse that can result in a bystander getting killed by a stray bullet or the killing of other people’s cows and horses, to purposeful murders during domestic or neighbor disputes and the all-too-many suicides by young people who choose a permanent solution to a temporary problem, Vermont is not immune to gun violence. Compared to the rest of the country, gun violence incidents in Vermont may be few—but tell that to someone who lost a loved one due to gun violence under any of those circumstances.

We know that we can never prevent every tragedy from happening, but we have to ask if there is something we can do to reduce the likelihood that they’ll occur. According to the Vermont Agency of Human Services, Vermont’s suicide rate is above the national average, and suicide is the second leading cause of death among Vermonters between the ages of ten and 24—about nine per year on average. Also, since 25 percent of Vermont’s youth suffered serious depression in 2011, this population is at greater risk of attempted suicide.

But it’s not just about the suicide rate. It is easier for criminals to obtain guns in Vermont  than in neighboring states because transfers of firearms between individuals are not controlled, whether the transactions take place privately or at gun shows.  Straw purchases, in which an individual eligible to buy a firearm does so with the intent of providing it to an ineligible person, are also easier in Vermont than in New York or any other New England state except New Hampshire. 

Our goals should be to 
• keep guns out of the hands of known criminals,
• keep guns out of the hands of persons with a history of domestic abuse,
• keep guns out of the hands of persons who, as a result of mental illness, are judged to be a danger to themselves or others and 
• keep guns stored safely to prevent unsupervised access to them by our young people.

A need for better control
Early in the 2013 legislative session I joined with several of my colleagues in the Vermont House to co-sponsor bills that would seek to address these goals.

Why is legislation needed?  Let’s look at the laws that currently exist in Title 10 and Title 13 of Vermont Statutes. Title 10 prohibits a person from hunting with a machine gun of any kind or description or an auto-loading rifle with a magazine capacity of more than six cartridges. 
Title 13 prohibits possessing firearms on school property or in courthouses as well as selling or providing firearms to individuals under the age of 16 by anyone other than a parent or guardian. Nor can anyone under the age of 16 possess a handgun without the consent of a parent or guardian. Furthermore, Title 13 subjects the purchase of firearms by residents and non-residents to the provisions of the federal Gun Control Act of 1968. 

So, other than restrictions on persons younger than 16, Vermont law does not regulate at all who can obtain a firearm in Vermont. This creates a disconnect between Vermont law and federal law. 
The federal Gun Control Act of 1968 prohibits the sale of firearms to convicted felons, domestic abusers, those determined by a court of law to be a danger to themselves or others as a result of mental illness, and other types of dangerous people; the Brady Handgun Violence Prevention Act of 1993 requires a federal background check on anyone purchasing a firearm from a federally licensed firearms dealer. These federal acts are enforced primarily by the federal Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms agency, or ATF, and only peripherally by local or state police if they apprehend a prohibited person during the commission of a crime. Furthermore, there is a well-known loophole in the federal law that permits sales between private individuals at gun shows and between residents of the same state without a background check.
Next steps
The NRA is fond of saying, “Guns don’t kill people; people do.” Well, I agree! Then let’s plug those loopholes that allow prohibited persons to obtain guns. How do we do that?
First, a background check should be required for every transaction, retail or private, where gun ownership changes hands. Putting this into Vermont law will allow violations to be enforced and can be implemented using local and state police resources. While federal law prohibits private sales between residents of two different states without going through a licensed dealer, this has been extremely difficult to enforce. 

Furthermore, there is no limit to how many firearms can be purchased at one time. This makes it possible for persons from New York, Connecticut or Massachusetts, states with strict gun laws, to come to Vermont to stock up on guns that can then be transported to Boston or New York City or elsewhere and resold privately. New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg has stated that 85 percent of weapons recovered from crime scenes in the city are from out-of-state sources.

Second, Vermont law should require that persons who have been determined by an authoritative legal process to be dangerous or incompetent to manage their own affairs due to mental illness, or who have been committed to a mental institution, or who have been found incompetent to stand trial by reason of insanity should be entered into the National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS) database.  The same should be required for persons under restraining orders or who have been convicted of domestic violence.

Third, Vermont police should be given explicit authority to enforce any federal firearms laws. This would allow violators to be prosecuted under Vermont law instead of having to refer them to the federal court system. A related issue is what to do with weapons confiscated during commission of a crime. Today, most Vermont police departments do not have adequate or proper storage facilities for confiscated weapons. The State of Vermont should provide for one or more facilities that can be used for this purpose.

Fourth, we have to make it more difficult for teenagers who may be coping with school, friendship, bullying or depression issues from getting their hands on guns and taking their own lives. It should not be considered a burdensome requirement for guns to be stored safely—with trigger locks installed—in homes with children or where children are likely to visit. Most Vermont gun owners are responsible, but we hear all too often of such tragedies.

So, I’m convinced that we need to tighten up regulations on the sale of guns in Vermont and that we can do so without violating the second amendment of the Constitution, without infringing on the time-honored traditions of hunting and sport shooting, and in a way that will reduce the incidence of gun violence in Vermont.  Any legislation that has been or will be proposed will be thoroughly discussed by the appropriate committees in the Legislature. All sides will have the opportunity to provide input before a decision is made. We should not, however, be afraid to discuss any issue that involves making our communities safer.

Interview with VT Secretary of State Jim Condos

Rep. Mike Yantachka of Charlotte hosted Secretary of State Jim Condos on the Chittenden County Democrats Show on October 7th, 2013.  Condos talked about the responsibilities of his office with respect to elections oversight, the Office of Professional Responsibility which regulates professions, and the state archives.  The discussion also included developments in voter ID laws across the country and voting in Vermont.  A video of the interview can be seen here.

Who are they kidding? Obamacare IS good for America!

Sen. Ted Cruz and the Republicans in Congress keep saying that the majority of Americans don't want Obamacare.  In the states that are working to implement the health care exchanges themselves, people are overwhelmingly for it.  It's in the states whose governors and legislatures rejected Obamacare and let the federal government create the exchanges that support is lacking.  And why not?  If people only hear their leaders bad-mouthing it and spouting misleading and false information about it, no wonder they say they don't like it.
Would someone please tell me how it can be bad for the American people when it will help 30 million more who are uninsured or underinsured obtain health insurance at a reasonable cost?

Legislative Report 9/12/2013 - Navigating the New Vermont Health Insurance Marketplace

Vermont will embark on a new era in health care on October 1, 2013, as the health insurance marketplace, called Vermont Health Connect, opens for enrollment.  Vermont is one of several states that set up its own marketplace under the Affordable Care Act (ACA), a.k.a. “Obamacare”.   Vermont Health Connect is designed to make it easier for eligible Vermonters to have access to and choose the level of coverage and cost for their health insurance as well as provide Vermonters access to federal subsidies based on their income level.  Only insurance purchased through Vermont Health Connect is eligible for federal subsidies that can lower premiums, and for many, out-of-pocket expenses.  The Vermont Health Connect website,, already has detailed information available.  As implemented in Vermont, Vermont Health Connect will be used by Vermonters purchasing individual or family plans and employers and employees of small businesses.  It is easiest to address these categories separately for clarity. 

Coverage for Individuals and Families

So, who is eligible to participate?  Simply put, any Vermonter who does not have insurance through their employer or through a government program like Medicare, Medicaid, Veterans Administration benefits, or Dr. Dynasaur for children, is eligible.  Even if an employer offers health insurance, but the premiums cost more than 9.5% of the employee’s household income, the employee is eligible to purchase insurance through Vermont Health Connect and receive federal subsidies.  The open enrollment period starts on October 1, 2013, and ends on March 31, 2014.  After the open enrollment period, only “life changes”, such as marriage, loss of job, change in family size, etc., will be acceptable reasons to initiate or change insurance options.

Vermont Health Connect offers a list of approved health insurance options that provide standardized health care coverage at various levels of cost.  The standard plans have four benefit levels:

·         Bronze – 50% payment of covered medical expenses

·         Silver – 60% payment of covered medical expenses

·         Gold – 80% payment of covered medical expenses

·         Platinum – 90% payment of covered medical expenses.

Each level has different deductible and maximum out-of-pocket amounts.  Insurance premiums will vary by insurance provider, amount of deductibles and co-pays, benefit level, and amount of subsidy an individual or family is eligible for.  There are two insurance providers for Vermont, Blue Cross Blue Shield of Vermont and MVP, each of whom offers the same coverage in the standard plans.  In addition to the four standard plans, there are non-standard plans offered by BCBS and MVP as well.  Catastrophic health plans are also available to individuals under 30 years old who meet certain income eligibility standards.

Federal subsidies for the premiums are based on household income and are paid directly to the provider to offset the premiums.  While the estimated subsidy for 2014 is based on the household income shown in the 2012 tax return filed this year, the subsidy will be adjusted when the 2013 tax return is filed; so, those who have had a major change in income can potentially see a change in the amount of the subsidy they are eligible for.  Adjustments for changes in a household’s financial circumstances can be made on a monthly basis.

Besides the health insurance plans, Vermont Health Connect also provides access to dental plans through Delta Dental for both adults, as a supplemental plan, and children, as dental is embedded in all medical plans for those up to 21.  Catastrophic dental care is integrated with the health insurance plans through BCBS and MVP. 

There is help every step of the way for individuals to learn more now and to enroll after October 1st:

  • Online –
  • Phone – 1-855-899-9600 (toll-free)
  • In-person – Use our website or call center to find a Navigator near you.  (Navigators are trained partner organizations or individuals who can guide you through the process.  A list can be found under the tab “Assisters & Partners” at the website.)

Starting in 2014, there is a federal penalty for not carrying health insurance. The penalty will be assessed on tax returns starting in 2014 and increasing each year through 2016.  For 2014 the penalty is the larger of 1% of household income or $95 per individual household member without coverage up to a maximum of $285. 

Small Business Participation

Small businesses, with 50 or fewer full-time employees will offer health insurance through Vermont Health Connect starting in 2014. There is no federal penalty for small businesses that do not offer health insurance to their employees.  Businesses will select a contribution level and the plans available to their employees (either all plans under one carrier or the full range of options).  The employee would then enroll in the plan of their choice through Vermont Health Connect.  If the employer offers health insurance to its employees, however, the employee would not be eligible for a federal insurance subsidy unless the cost to the employee exceeded 9.5% of the employee’s household income. 

Employers are eligible for federal tax credits if
  • they have fewer than 25 full-time-equivalent employees (FTEs),
  • the average annual wage per FTE is less than $50,000, and
  • they contribute at least 50% of the health insurance premium per FTE. 
While there is no federal penalty for small employers that do not offer health insurance, the Vermont Employer Assessment remains.  This Vermont penalty is $40/month/employee for the 5th through the 49th employee.  (The first 4 employees are exempt.)  Therefore, each employer should analyze the effect on both their business bottom line and their employees before making a decision on whether or not to offer health insurance. The Small Employer Estimator, available now on, is designed to help employers with health coverage decision-making for 2014.
Employers who choose to enroll must select their coverage options by October 1st; employees should then enroll by November 30th.  Additional tools and resources are available specifically for small businesses and can be accessed at or by calling 1-855-499-9800 (toll-free).


MAY 20, 2013
Maine Rep. Sharon Treat, 
Iowa Rep. Charles Isenhart
563-557-1261 (in district); 515-281-3221
South Dakota Rep. Frank Kloucek, retired
Vermont Rep. Mike Yantachka 

May 20, 2013
WASHINGTON DC -- Today, more than 50 state legislators from 24 states sent a letter to the Acting US Trade Representative, Ambassador Demetrios Marantis, expressing deep concerns about how the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) would impact the environment, energy, and natural resources in their states and in other countries in agreement. The letter comes as the US is in the midst of the 17th round of TPP negotiations in Lima, Peru.   
In the letter, the state legislators wrote, "While we understand and appreciate that the United States is advocating for an ambitious and legally binding environment chapter of the TPP, we are deeply concerned that other parts of the agreement, including provisions on or related to investment and energy exports, threaten the environment and our responsibility, as legislators, to serve and protect our constituents." 
The concerns addressed in the letter include:
1. The need for an ambitious and binding environment chapter of the TPP that protects the environment, natural resources, and U.S. jobs, including a ban on the trade of illegally harvested timber, a ban on trade in illegally taken wildlife, and binding provisions on sustainable fisheries management.

2. Provisions in the TPP allowing investor-state dispute settlement, which would undermine the ability of local elected officials to enact and enforce fair, non-discriminatory rules that protect communities, workers, and the environment.
3. Language in the TPP that would increase exports of liquid natural gas by requiring the Department of Energy (DOE) to approve all US gas exports to TPP countries -- even if exports are not in the best interest of the public -- essentially overriding the DOE's ability to manage natural gas exports so as to protect the interests of communities and the environment.  

"The Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement is NAFTA on steroids.  If provisions allow corporations to sue state and national governments over laws and regulations that negatively impact their profits, it won't matter what laws we pass to protect our citizens and our environment," stated Vermont Rep. Mike Yantachka, who sponsored a resolution on the TPP and the environment which recently was enacted by the Vermont House and Senate (J.R.H. 12; details of the resolution are posted here). 
"This is too important and far reaching not to get exactly right. The environmental chapter can't just be the "10 Suggestions".  Binding understandings are necessary to protect the quality of our own, our children's and our grand children's lives," said Maine Representative Ann Peoples.
"Based on legal challenges that have been made under other international agreements, questions could be raised about many other state and federal programs, Iowa Representative Charles Isenhart said. "Food safety laws, country-of-origin meat
labeling, government procurement and renewable energy incentive programs could be at stake."
Maine Representative Sharon Treat, Co-chair of the Maine Citizen Trade Advisory Commission, stated: "It is critical that environmental regulations not be undermined by provisions in the TPP that seek to 'harmonize' standards and allow foreign corporations to challenge domestic laws in binding arbitration panels.  State legislators have a particular interest in how the TPP will operate. In our federalist system, U.S. state governments share environmental regulatory authority with the federal government, and must have the flexibility to develop more ambitious environmental policies in the future."
The Trans-Pacific Partnership is a trade pact currently being negotiated by the United States and 10 other countries across the Pacific Rim. Because the TPP is intended as a "docking agreement," other countries can join over time, and Japan has already announced its intention to join the talks. It is similar to the North American Free Trade Agreement, or NAFTA, only the scale and scope of the TPP could make its impacts much more severe.  Governments want to conclude this trade pact by October 2013. 
Read the full letter, which remains open for additional signatures, here.


Legislative Report 5/23/2013 - End of Session

The final weeks of the 2013 session of the Vermont Legislature were, as expected, a constant state of flux.  Bills that had passed the House were taken apart and put back together again by the Senate, sometimes with minor changes and sometimes as complete rewrites.  Bills that had originated in the Senate often suffered the same fate in the House.  Some bounced back and forth between the House and the Senate as amendments were made to amendments. When amendments made by one body were not acceptable to the other, a Committee of Conference consisting of three members of the House and three from the Senate was appointed.  Their task was to resolve the differences in a way that would be acceptable to both chambers.  If they couldn’t come to an agreement, the bill would be dead for the remainder of the session with the possibility of being revived in January.

I did my best to keep track of the bills I considered most important and was glad for the “committee process” that helped me do so.  No legislator can be an expert on everything.  Belonging to one committee allows us to get an in-depth understanding of the issues we deal with in committee.  We then become a resource of information for our colleagues who return the favor when we need to understand the legislation they have worked on.  While dozens of bills were explained, debated and voted on during the final weeks of the session, here are a few that stand out for me.

The Budget.  For the seventh year in a row, the Legislature began the 2014 budget process with a projected gap between estimated revenues and expenditures. Each year, the Legislature has struggled to find the right balance between maintaining necessary services while making investments for the future. As in previous years, the Legislature balanced the state budget and made difficult choices.  The Governor’s budget proposal anticipated raising $34M in new revenues from a variety of non-broad-base sources. The budget originally passed by the House would have raised $23M of new revenue, including $8M to be put in reserve for any federal aid shortfall.  The Senate chose to make further cuts and remove the reserve so that only $10M needed to be raised.  In April we learned that revenues were far above forecast; thus the need for reserves would be filled when the end of the year closeout happened. Given this revised forecast, the House, the Senate and the Governor came together and agreed to build a final version of the $5B budget without raising any new revenue. 

Genetically Engineered Foods. Our food supply has been increasingly infiltrated by genetically engineered (GE) ingredients over the past 25 years. An estimated 80% of all food sold in super markets today contain some GE components.  According to a UVM poll, more than 90% of Vermonters are in favor of labeling foods produced using genetic engineering, and they want this labeling for health, religious, moral, economic opportunity and environmental reasons. On a strong vote, the Vermont House passed H.112 to provide this right to know, moving it on to the Senate for action next year.  Because Vermont faces potential litigation from the biotech industry, the bill was carefully crafted to be legally defensible and have a reasonable possibility of prevailing in court. Should the bill pass the Senate and be signed by the Governor next year, it would go into effect 18 months later as long as two other states passed similar legislation. At that time, Vermont would join 64 countries that already have such labeling requirements in place.

Education Funding.  The Education Committee has made a commitment to review how public education is funded. As a "down payment" on this commitment, the House and Senate passed H.538 that will save $5M in the coming year by restructuring some elements of education policy including excess spending caps, student-teacher ratios, and small schools grants.  We also passed S.130 to provide funding for a dual enrollment program which will enable seniors in high school to take college courses for college and high school credit.  The cost of tuition for the dual enrollment program varies from $99 to $609 for a 3 credit course depending on the college.

This will be the last of my weekly articles, but I expect to write intermittently between now and the end of the year.  I continue to welcome your thoughts and questions and can be reached by phone (425-3960) or by email (

Legislative Report 5/9/2013 - End of Life Choices

I have heard from constituents for and against S.77, Choices at the End of Life.  It has been one bill that I have been very conflicted about, and I have put a lot of thought into it.  I listened to testimony from both perspectives during the Senate hearing a couple of months ago.  I have read the emails, the editorials and the handouts on both sides of the issue.  Before coming to a final decision on whether to support it or not, I wanted to wait until the House Human Services Committee completed its work.  That time arrived last week.

In thinking about this concept, I believe that the patient is the highest priority to be considered.  I know that palliative care and hospice are good alternatives as one approaches an end to life under potentially painful, drawn-out circumstances.  I believe that each person has a right to approach death in a manner that they feel best suits their belief system and circumstances.  I believe that patients must be able to make such decisions free of overt or subtle coercion.  I believe that participation in administration of the treatment proposed by S.77 must not be required of physicians or institutions that have philosophical objections or policies prohibiting such treatment. 

It is with these criteria that I evaluated S.77 and made my decision to support its passage.  The House Human Services Committee carefully constructed the bill to take into consideration these same criteria.  S.77 places heavy emphasis and requirements for the protection of the rights of the patient, much more so than Oregon's law and more than what were originally proposed in the Senate.  It requires that the patient have a terminal illness with a prognosis of life expectancy of less than 6 months as diagnosed by a physician and be informed that the prognosis is just an estimate.  It requires a second opinion on the prognosis from another physician who must also determine that the patient is capable of acting voluntarily. It provides strict requirements to ensure that the patient is making the request multiple times of their own free will, and it requires waiting periods between the two oral and one written request by the patient to participate before the drugs can be dispensed to the patient.  Rather than exclude the patient's family from the process, the patient must be encouraged to notify a next of kin or someone with whom the patient has a significant relationship after they make their initial decision.  And, importantly, it requires the physician to inform the patient of all feasible alternatives for end of life care, including palliative care and hospice.  Furthermore, it allows the patient to rescind their request at any time should they change their mind.

Under the status quo a patient with a terminal illness who has concerns about pain, cost of care, burdens on their family members, etc., can decide to end their lives without this bill by any number of methods.  They may not have taken the opportunity to find out what alternatives to taking their life are available, or to talk to family members out of fear of upsetting them or being talked out of what they are doing, and they may not be fully aware of what could go wrong with their plans and the consequences.  But if they are determined to do so, they may go ahead with their plans.

S.77 lays out a process that would provide an opportunity to make the same plans, but with the advantage of a second opinion, counseling on hospice and palliative care alternatives, requirements for multiple requests requiring multiple reconsiderations of their decision, and the considered involvement of loved ones who might also have the opportunity to let the patient know that they are still loved and valued. If they decide to go ahead anyway, they will have the assurance that it will be effective based on medical knowledge. 

S.77 does not encourage suicide.  On the contrary, it involves the state in the patient's decision only to insure that the decision they are making is well informed and well thought out.  To this extent it is, in my opinion, an improvement over the status quo.  And that is why I voted for its passage.

Note: While I supported the version of S.77, I was disappointed that the House-Senate conference committee changed the bill  by inserting a section that repeals the House version in 2016 and replaces it with the Senate language that deleted most of the safeguards I described above.  For this reason I did not support the conference committee report and declined to vote on the final measure.

The Word in the House 5/2/2013 - Siting of Electric Generation Facilities

The Legislature is in the final weeks of the session, and the number of bills coming to the floor for a vote each week number in the dozens.  Many are technical and non-controversial in nature and are passed after an explanation of their provisions by a member of the committee that had primary responsibility for the bill.  Some bills, previously passed by the House that came back with changes made by the Senate, have been voted on again, either to concur with the changes and to send them on to the Governor, or to disagree with the changes and to commit them to a conference committee.  Conference committees consist of three members of the House and three members of the Senate.  If a compromise is agreed to in conference, the bill comes back to the floor of each body and is voted up or down with no other amendments allowed.

Last week one of the Senate bills that were voted on by the House was S.30, which deals with the siting of electric generation plants.  S.30 started as a call for a three year moratorium on wind generation projects along Vermont ridgelines.  By the time it was voted out of the Senate, it had been reduced to requiring a study of environmental, health and economic effects of wind projects to be conducted by the Department of Public Service with the assistance of the Agency of Natural Resources, the Department of Health, the Department of Taxes, the Agency of Commerce and Economic Development, the Public Service Board, and several other entities.  It was not clear whether this was to be a study of studies or would consist of original research.  Furthermore, only $75,000 was allocated for the study and it had to be completed by November 15, 2013. 

The bill was assigned to the House Natural Resources and Energy Committee on which I serve.  We took two weeks of testimony, hearing 50 witnesses including property owners near the Lowell and Sheffield wind farms, health experts, and representatives from the affected state agencies and departments, from environmental organizations, and from regional and local planning commissions. Several witnesses reviewed with us studies dealing with many of the topics included in the bill.  We also heard from the Governor’s Energy Generation Siting Policy Commission, which had been established to study exactly the issues raised by the Senate and which was about to issue its report.  The common threads we heard throughout included:

·         Keep the conversation going.  All the concerns need to be considered and addressed.

·         Use the recommendations of the Governor’s Siting Commission.  Many experts have done a lot of work to examine the problems and propose solutions.

·         Maintain a balanced approach.  Make sure the legislative process is not weighted toward a pro- or anti-wind bias.

After reviewing the testimony, our committee decided unanimously to alter S.30, limiting it to a review of the Siting Commission’s recommendations with the goal of developing appropriate legislation on the siting of any electrical generation facilities taking into consideration Act 250 and the PSB’s Section 248 process, regional and local plans, setbacks from residences, and other concerns. This work will be done by the Natural Resource Committees of the House and Senate meeting together up to six times between now and December.  The bill passed the House on a vote of 140-3 and now goes back to the Senate which is expected to concur.  I look forward to being part of this effort later this year.

The past week and a half also saw legislation passed that requires public employees’ unions to assess a “fair share” fee on non-union members for the benefits they receive through the bargaining process and for grievance representation which unions are required to do.  A supplemental education finance bill, H.538, was also passed which is expected to save about $5.5M of education spending if implemented.  The various provisions of H.538 have different levels of support from different constituencies.  While everyone seemed to find something they didn’t like in the bill, overall it received overwhelming support and passed on a vote of 110-24.

I have heard from many of you on a variety of topics and continue to welcome your input.  You can email me at or call me at 425-3960.

Legislative Report 4/25/2013 - Decriminalizing Marijuana

It’s a weed and goes by that name.  Its scientific name is Cannabis but is more commonly known as marijuana. Last year 2 states, Oregon and Colorado, legalized marijuana.  Vermont and several other states have legalized its use for medicinal purposes.  However, federal law still prohibits its use for any purpose.  Marijuana policy is always controversial with advocates for and against legalization, and trying to find a reasonable approach to controlling a substance that is prevalent despite its prohibition is a challenge. 

Last week the Vermont House passed H.200 decriminalizing possession of less than one ounce of marijuana.  However, possession of marijuana in any amount without a doctor’s written statement of need for a recognized illness is still illegal in Vermont.  The bill is now under consideration by the Vermont Senate.  It is important to understand exactly what H.200 does as well as the rationale for its purpose.

Teenagers will often push the limits of their freedom and sometimes make bad decisions. Parents often don’t know that their teen is smoking, drinking or using marijuana until their child gets in trouble. The important thing is to find a way to intervene and get them back on the right path. A teenager who gets caught in Vermont with marijuana can face consequences which can have lasting negative effects on their future. 

Under present law anyone caught in possession of marijuana regardless of the amount is subject to criminal prosecution.  The charges are felony possession of a controlled substance.  A person convicted of this violation is subject to prison time as well as a fine, although a judge may assign the offender to a court diversion program if it is a first offense.  Penalties increase for subsequent instances of possession and as the amount possessed increases.  Additional consequences include ineligibility for federal college loans and college tuition tax credits.  Ironically, because of these serious consequences and the stricter requirements for prosecution, arresting officers who catch a teenager smoking marijuana will sometimes just confiscate the substance, warn the individual, and let them go.  This treatment is unlikely to change the attitude of the teen.

H.200 retains the current penalties for amounts greater than one ounce.  Furthermore, a person over 21 years of age caught smoking marijuana on a school bus transporting minors or within 100 feet of a school building is subject to charges of felony possession.

Possession of less than one ounce of marijuana becomes a civil violation under H.200, similar to a motor vehicle violation.  This means that it is subject to a fine, but it does not carry a criminal charge.  In addition to a $300 fine, the individual will have their driver’s license suspended for a period of time and be required to participate in the court diversion program.  Since there will be no excuse for not charging a teenager with possession if criminal charges are not involved,  more consistent enforcement of the civil penalty will increase the chances for intervention.  The necessity of coming up with $300 and attending court diversion is more likely to bring this bad decision to the parents’ attention and provide a much needed opportunity for a life-changing conversation.
You can reach me by phone (425-3960) or by email (

The Word in the House 4/18/2013 - Protecting Our Shorelands

Charlotte residents have had a wonderful opportunity to learn about the nature of our local streams and habitats through the monthly WatershED events organized by Joanna Cummings.  Lake Champlain is a priceless resource for Charlotte, and we need to protect its waters as well as recognize the challenges of doing so.  I’ve received several inquiries about the Shoreland Protection Bill, H.526, and its implications for Charlotte, so I will explain why the bill is important and what it does.

Lake Champlain is, of course, the largest of Vermont’s lakes.  However, there are hundreds of smaller lakes and ponds in Vermont whose water quality is equally important.  Many of these bodies feed streams and rivers that empty into Lake Champlain, Lake Memphremagog, or the Connecticut River.  Vermont has fallen behind in shoreland protection, not only in the northeastern states but in the nation as well. Only 17% of Vermont shoreland is in good condition compared to 42% regionally and 35% nationally. While New Hampshire, Maine, Massachusetts, Rhode Island and Connecticut all have shoreland protection standards, Vermont does not. Vermont did put shoreland standards in the statutes in 1971 but these were repealed in 1976. Maine and New Hampshire borrowed our statute language to create their own in 1971 and now boast lakes and ponds of significantly better health than ours. 

H.526 seeks to provide standards for shoreland development to provide adequate vegetative cover to filter out the effects of nutrients, phosphorus, sediment, organic matter, pesticides and other pollutants.  Setbacks for buildings and impervious surfaces are an important part of the equation.  A 100’ vegetative buffer absorbs 73% of run off; a lawn only 18%.  When a shoreline is cleared, it opens the floodgates to 18x more sediment, 5x more runoff and 7x more phosphorus.  Furthermore, overhanging branches help to keep the water cool and prevent algae and plant growth that thrive in warm sunny places. They provide critical habitat for aquatic life, an early signal of a lake’s deterioration. A natural shoreline is necessary for species such as loons, kingfishers and otters.  The deep and diverse roots of trees and shrubs also promote bank stability and flood resilience by protecting banks from erosion.  Better lake quality also improves and maintains better property values.

To accomplish these goals, H.526 does the following:

  • Requires after January 1, 2015, a permit from the Agency of Natural Resources (ANR) for the creation or expansion of more than 500 square feet of impervious surface (buildings or clearings) within 250 feet of the mean water level of a lake that is greater than 10 acres in surface area.
  • Requires ANR to adopt standards for the construction of impervious surface in a protected shoreland area by January 1, 2015, with public participation by affected stakeholders and other interested persons through hearings and other forms of communication.
  • Delegates permitting authority to municipalities provided that the municipal standards are at least as stringent as those adopted by ANR.
  • Requires municipalities without shoreland development standards to adopt standards in conformance with ANR standards by January 1, 2015.
  • Grandfathers shoreland development existing before January 1, 2015.
Exceptions to shoreland development standards were allowed for certain emergency repairs to adjacent roads or property and for areas of the state where mosquito populations create a public health hazard provided that Vermont wetland rules are followed.  Charlotte already has a 100 foot setback requirement for shoreland development.  Regulations regarding thinning and pruning will need to be developed, but Charlotte will likely be a allowed to administer its own regulations.  ANR has provided an excellent FAQ (frequently asked questions) document to which I have provided a link at my website.

Much of the quality issues surrounding Lake Champlain are due to the tremendous amounts of nutrients flowing into the lake from rivers and streams.  H.526 has been criticized for not addressing those sources of pollution.  As Representative David Mears Dean* (Chair of the House Fish, Wildlife and Water Resources Committee) stated, we have only a limited amount of time in the legislative session, and this piece of the water quality issue was all the committee had time to work on this year.  The committee intends to work on a corresponding rivers and streams bill in 2014.

I have heard from many of you on a variety of topics and continue to welcome your input. I will be at the Charlotte Library on Saturday, April 20, from 10 AM until noon if you would like to meet with me. You can email me at or call me at 425-3960.

* Note: I mistakenly used the name of the Commissioner of the Vermont Dept of Environmental Conservation in my article published in the April 18, 2013, issue of The Citizen.

Legislative Report 4/11/2013 - Painting Vermont Green

April is the month when we feel like we’re taking a ride on Mother Nature’s yo-yo.  We get a string of balmy weather followed by a dip back into winter’s grip.  With the lengthening days, the trend is definitely moving to warm, however, and we are beginning to see the tulips peek out from the mulch and the buds beginning to appear on the trees.  The cold nights and warm days have been good for sugaring, too.

It’s time to clean up the yard and start planning to spruce up the house inside and out as well.  Some folks will soon be thinking of throwing a coat of paint on the siding or brightening up a couple of rooms with a fresh coat of color.  Chances are, after the painting is done, they’ll have quite a bit left over that will either get stored in the basement for touch-ups later on or else be disposed of, and how it gets disposed of is a growing concern.

It is estimated that about 1.6 million gallons of paint are purchased each year in Vermont, and ten percent, or 160,000 gallons, goes unused.  In Chittenden County the Solid Waste District (CSWD) has a recycling program for leftover paint that gets blended and resold as its “Local Color” product.  It is not only an environmentally friendly way of disposing of a hazardous waste product, but it keeps this toxic material out of precious landfill space and helps reduce the cost of recycling for the district. 

Not all areas of Vermont have access to such a program, however.  At present Vermont recycling programs recover about a third of this unused paint at a cost to taxpayers of about $230,000. The House Natural Resources and Energy Committee worked with the American Coatings Association and CSWD to introduce a paint recycling bill, H.262, that will be voted on this week.  If this bill is adopted into law, Vermont will become the 5th state to pass a paint product stewardship law, following the lead of Oregon, California, Connecticut and Rhode Island.

Under the proposed bill, manufacturers would add a recycling assessment to the wholesale price of each gallon of paint. Manufacturers would collect this assessment from distributors and pay it to a paint steward. In California and Oregon, manufacturers pay the assessment to a non-profit paint steward called “PaintCare”. The recycling assessment would be embedded in the wholesale cost of paint and would be passed down to consumers.  PaintCare assessments are $.75/gallon and $1.60/5-gallons in California and Oregon.

The manufacturers’ paint steward would be responsible for submitting a recycling plan to the Agency of Natural Resources. The steward’s plan would need to describe how used paint would be collected, transported and recycled; would need to include educational efforts to inform consumers about collection opportunities for used paint; and would need to establish a collection network for used paint. The collection network would need to be convenient, and would need to include Vermont’s existing household hazardous waste infrastructure as well as any Vermont retail paint store that wants to serve as a collection center at no cost to the retail store.

The plan would also be required to establish a funding mechanism, including a schedule of assessments, which would be paid by the manufacturers to the paint steward. The assessments would be allowed to cover, but not exceed, the costs of the recycling program.  The assessments would have to be approved by the Agency of Natural Resources which would report the proposed assessments back to the Legislature by March 2014.  Finally, the paint steward would be required to pay a fee to the State of Vermont of $15,000 a year to cover the Agency of Natural Resources’ costs of reviewing the recycling plan and assessments.
You can reach me by phone (425-3960) or by email (

The Word in the House 4/4/2013 - Improving a Law Enforcement Tool

In a previous article I wrote about a bill that passed the House, H.522, that addressed opiate addiction and methamphetamine abuse.  That same bill also addressed a problem connected to drug abuse, the problem of home break-ins targeting jewelry and other precious metals.  

Most of the break-ins and other property crimes that seem to have proliferated over the last few years are related to substance abuse.  Thieves will grab anything that looks valuable and try to get rid of it as quickly as possible for cash to score their next fix.  In a recent case in Alburgh, thieves stole more than $200,000 worth of gold coins from a vacant house and sold the coins to coin and jewelry dealers around Chittenden County.  Second-hand coin and jewelry dealers are one of the first places thieves go to try to cash in their booty. One dealer notified police after becoming concerned about the number of coins coming in.  Only $5000 worth of coins was recovered by police.

Two years ago I introduced a bill that would require better record-keeping by second-hand dealers, including photo ID information from the seller, a description of the items being sold, and a requirement to hold onto the items for at least 10 days before reselling them.  These provisions were added in 2012 to a bill seeking to address similar problems with stolen copper.  That bill passed and was signed into law.  Since then enforcing compliance has been a problem, and antiques dealers found reason to object to a provision that made it difficult to comply when they bought items in an estate sale. 

As a result, based on input from the Vermont State Police and the antique dealers association, a bill was co-sponsored by Representatives Diane Lanpher (D-Vergennes), Herb Russell (D-Rutland) and myself to improve the law.  VSP Trooper Ben Katz was instrumental in providing advice on beefing up the recording requirements and enforcement provisions.  The House Judiciary Committee held extensive hearings on our bill, H.287, and incorporated it into H.522, which passed the House and is now in the Senate Judiciary Committee.

The bill now requires all “precious metal dealers,” defined as someone who has a physical presence in Vermont, either temporary or permanent, and is engaged in buying and selling precious metal (excluding bullion or commodities, new metal, and medical and dental applications), and who purchases or sells more than $2000 worth of precious metal in a 12 month period, to obtain a license.  The annual fee for the license is $200.  A license cannot be approved or renewed if the licensee commits a felony or violates any of the provisions in the law after October 13, 2013.  The “temporary presence” provision is important to capture those dealers who come into Vermont and set up shop on a weekend at a hotel or mall and then leave the state in a few days.

Licensees will be required to keep more detailed records of their transactions.  Each item they take in must be assigned a unique item number.  If several items are purchased at the same time from the same person, they are assigned a lot number, and each item is assigned a sub-lot number.  For each item or lot, the following information needs to be kept:

  • the amount paid and the date and time of the transaction,
  • the name, current address, phone number and vehicle license number of the seller,
  • a legible description of each item including any identifying marks,
  • a digital photograph or video of the item,
  • a photocopy or image of a government-issued ID card of the seller or, if no ID is available, a digital photo of the seller’s face, and
  • documentation of ownership or an affidavit of ownership.

Any dealer doing more than $50,000 of precious metal business in a year must keep these records in a computerized format that can be accessed by law enforcement when requested.

Some additional provisions include requiring a dealer to use a certified scale when buying precious metals by weight, to make all payments by check, draft or money order, and to hold the item for at least 10 days before selling it or moving it out of state.  Also, a dealer can no longer buy from an individual under 18 years of age without written permission of a parent or guardian.  Finally, if a dealer suspects illegal activity, they are required to notify local law enforcement authorities and provide the record of the transaction.  Violations of these provisions will incur substantial penalties, including $10,000 for the first offense and $50,000 for subsequent violations, so licensees will now be required to be bonded up to $50,000. 

Between the controlled substances provisions and the provisions described in this article, H.522 should provide important law enforcement tools that will hopefully curb much of the property crimes that have proliferated throughout Vermont.

I have heard from many of you on a variety of topics and continue to welcome your input. You can email me at or call me at 425-3960.