Legislative Report 1/3/2014 - A Legislative Session Preview

While the legislature is out of session from June through December, some members still have work to do as members of oversight committees or of special study committees.  These committees review the work of various departments or agencies of the state or research via hearings certain issues that the legislature will have to deal with in the second half of the legislative term.  Here’s a brief account of some of that work.

Energy Generation Siting Policy Committee

Act 38 of 2013 required the House and Senate Committees on Natural Resources and Energy to meet jointly during adjournment to review the report submitted in April 2013 by the Governor’s Energy Generation Siting Policy Commission.    In two joint hearings held in the fall, the Committees heard from the director of the siting commission, the secretary of the agency of natural resources, the commissioner of the public service department, and over 20 members of the public.  The siting commission’s twenty-eight recommendations fell in three broad categories: (1) planning, (2) improved public process, and (3) greater protections for the environment, agriculture and health in the energy siting process.  Many of the commission’s recommendations sought to improve transparency and efficiency of the Public Service Board, including an improved PSB website, a new case manager position to provide a point of contact with the general public, and a tiered permitting process which would set requirements based on the complexity of a project.  The commission’s planning suggestions focused on the role of regional and municipal planning commissions in energy siting.  And finally, the commission sought greater weight for environmental, agricultural and health considerations in the PSB permitting process.  By unanimous consent, the committees deferred action on the reports to the legislative session.

Lake Shoreland Protection Commission

The Lake Shoreland Protection Commission was created by the 2013 Appropriations Bill (Act 50). The Commission was comprised of the Senate Natural Resources Committee and 5 Representatives from the House Fish, Wildlife and Water Resources committee. Six public meetings were held in Newport, Fairlee, Bomoseen, Middlebury, North Hero and Burlington, and included collaboration with regional and municipal planning commissions and the Vermont Agency of Natural Resources.  The creation of the commission was in part due to the passage of H.526 in the House, a bill crafted to establish shoreland protection standards for Vermont lakes and ponds in excess of 10 acres. The Senate needed additional time to collect more input from the public, including lakeshore owners and businesses, and to provide more outreach and education regarding the current health and vitality of Vermont’s lakes. There was also a demonstrated need to summarize current regulations, to investigate the need for additional regulation, and to revisit anti-degradation policies with regard to Lake Champlain.  More than 300 public comments from more than 700 attendees were received, logged and categorized. The final commission report is due to the legislature on January 15th. The draft report and public comments can be found here: https://leg2.vermont.gov/sites/legislature/LSP/default.aspx. Work will continue on this subject in the Senate in this session.

Mental Health Oversight Committee

The Mental Health Oversight Committee’s principal focus was in monitoring the on-going creation of the mental health system of care, which continues to be in crisis.  This system relies on three facilities, Green Mountain Psychiatric Care in Morrisville, Rutland Regional Hospital and the Brattleboro Retreat, to provide “level one care” with other hospitals, Fletcher Allen in particular, providing back up.  Level one care is acute or emergency/crisis care.  The result is occasional long waits for some patients in hospital emergency rooms with a negative cascading effect on the delivery of care throughout the system.

While the Oversight Committee and the Joint Health Care Committee strongly recommend that the State Psychiatric Care Hospital in Berlin opens all 25 beds as soon as possible and no later than July 1, the Administration currently plans to open only 16 beds in the facility when it moves patients currently in the temporary facility in Morrisville at the end of June, resulting in a net gain of one bed.  Until all 25 beds are opened, currently planned for mid-August, the burden on patients and the hospitals will persist.  Ongoing issues within the system include: management of a decentralized system to ensure that seclusion and restraint policies meet state standards; maintaining sufficient facilities and well trained staff and sufficient funding of designated agencies; and returning focus to the needs of children within the mental health system of care. The Committee's report will be released in January.