Legislative Report 4/19/2017 - Three Executive Orders, Three Results

Our new President's use of executive orders to try to fulfill some of his campaign promises, particularly regarding immigration, quickly ran into trouble. Executive orders are a way to bypass Congress to establish rules and policies by edict. The President can usually make the order stick if Congress does not have a veto-proof majority, as was the case for President Obama. But if the order is made late in the President's term, a new administration can more easily reverse the order than it can for those made years before. This is why President Trump has been able to reverse several of President Obama's orders issued within the last year.

In Vermont the Governor can also issue executive orders An order will take effect unless the legislature disapproves it within 90 days of issuance. Disapproval by either body of the legislature, either the House or the Senate, will invalidate an executive order. Governor Scott issued three executive orders in January to expedite a reorganization of the executive branch of government. One would move the Department of Labor (DoL) into the Agency of Commerce and Community Development (ACCD). A second order would merge the Department of Liquor Control and the Lottery Commission. A third order would create a new Agency of Digital Services which would have responsibility for all IT services in the executive branch.

The Senate took action to disapprove the first order several weeks ago based on the different missions of the two organizations and the possibility of conflicts of interest that might arise if the order took effect. The ACCD is a business-oriented agency that promotes commerce and business interests. It focuses on broad economic development issues. The DoL on the other hand uses a case management system focusing on individuals and provides job search and job training opportunities for employees, administers Vermont OSHA rules, and advocates employee claims against unfair labor practices. The latter two responsibilities can be in conflict with the mission of ACCD since the final appeal of cases would transfer from the Commissioner of Labor to the Secretary of ACCD.

The second executive order merging liquor and lottery was considered by the House Committee on General, Housing and Military Affairs. The committee was unable to adequately assess the consequences of such a merger because the Scott Administration failed to demonstrate how the merger would result in significant savings or improvement in customer service. The committee found the order to be vague and broad and had questions about how it would affect jobs and revenue. Because the committee was unable to get adequate testimony from the Administration, it felt required to reject the order and instead has introduced a bill, H.525, that would establish a working group to fully explore the advantages of merging these departments. The resolution passed after considerable debate and over the objections of the Governor, and the order will not take effect.

Finally, the third order creating the Agency of Digital Services (ADS) was assigned to the House Energy and Technology Committee. During our consideration of the order, we were able to work collaboratively with the Administration as both entities reviewed past successes and failures in the creation and administration of the state's IT resources and services. Since most of the IT is currently distributed throughout the various agencies of government, an inventory is being taken of all of the state's technology programs, personnel, and equipment. To avoid disruption of the current work environment and maintain continuity of service, the personnel will report to ADS while remaining embedded within the agencies they support. Our committee has asked the Administration to provide a timeline of the fiscal impact, when and how savings will occur, and to be kept updated regularly on progress throughout the year. The members of our committee were unanimously satisfied that the Administration is on the right track with this plan and believe that it will lead to improved cross-agency collaboration and more efficient, effective and successful administration of the state's IT resources. By not taking action, we have allowed this executive order to go into effect as of April 17, 2017.

I encourage you to let me know your concerns and opinions. I can be reached by phone (802-233-5238) or by email (myantachka.dfa@gmail.com).

State Senate Pro Tem Tim Ashe Discusses Budget

Vermont State Senate Pro Tem Tim Ashe (D-Chittenden County) appeared on the Chittenden County Democrats Show on April 5, 2017, with co-hosts Bob Hooper and State Representative Mike Yantachka (D-Charlotte-Hinesburg). The trio discussed the state budget recently passed by the Vermont House on a 143 - 1 vote. Ashe gave his perspective on what changes if any might be made by the Senate and the potential effects the Trump administration in Washington might have on Vermont's fiscal situation.  Vermont's spending is significantly funded by federal dollars.  See the program here.

Legislative Report 4/5/2017 - Marijuana Legalization

Any issue under consideration by the legislature that is controversial will generate a lot of emails and phone calls from constituents and from advocates, both pro and con. Marijuana legalization is the controversial issue of this session, and I heard from many of you as well as from organizations advocating for and against legalization. I have taken the time to read the emails and listen to the phone calls, and I have tried to answer most of them. I also discussed the issue with fellow legislators, with doctors, police, attorneys, and teens. I found people in all those categories on both sides of the issue.

My two major concerns about marijuana have to do with driving under the influence and its use by youth. Anything that alters perceptions and slows reactions is dangerous when combined with driving. This is true of marijuana and equally true of alcohol. Young people, whose brains continue to develop well into their twenties, risk their futures with heavy use of marijuana which dulls ambition as addiction takes over. And while tobacco is more of a stimulant, it can do considerable damage to a person's physical health. All of these have greater effects on young people than on adults.

So, any of these substances can be abused with terrible consequences. Prohibition did not work for alcohol and, so far, hasn't worked for marijuana, either. However, education and regulation can minimize abuse even if it doesn't eliminate use. The fact is, marijuana has been easy to get whether we want to recognize it or not. Ask a high school student and they'll probably tell you that it is easier to obtain marijuana than alcohol. Those that want to use it will use it with or without legalization, and those that recognize the danger will avoid it. There will be irresponsible people who get behind a wheel while high just as there are irresponsible people who get behind a wheel after drinking. We should not tolerate either behavior, whether or not the substances are legal.

Another concern is whether marijuana is a gateway drug, leading a user to try more dangerous drugs. Data does not substantiate that, and we are now seeing that over-prescription of pain killer drugs to treat injuries or pain after surgery has been a much greater precursor to opiate addiction.

H.170 eliminates all penalties for the possession of one ounce or less of marijuana for a person 21 years old or older while retaining civil and criminal penalties for possession of larger amounts and criminal penalties for unauthorized dispensing or sale of marijuana. It also allows up to two mature marijuana plants to be cultivated by a person 21 or older with a limit of two plants per dwelling. The bill retains civil penalties for possession of marijuana by a person under 21, the same as for alcohol, and exacts heavy penalties on anyone who furnishes marijuana to a person under 21 and on anyone, regardless of age, who drives under the influence. Consumption of marijuana in public places is also forbidden. The bill was presented on the floor of the House, but before much debate took place, the body voted to send the bill to the Human Resources Committee for further consideration.

As one doctor told me, “accepting that there are potential dangers associated with the use of marijuana should not automatically lead one to favor continued criminalization. The policy of criminalization also has serious adverse effects for individuals and for society. These include impacts on the criminal justice system, how citizens view the law, and high rates of incarceration. Criminalization will not stop people from using marijuana. … It may even be beneficial to go further and legalize sale so that marijuana users could be protected from illegal dealers who may adulterate marijuana with dangerous substances.” I agree with this assessment and will vote for H.170 when it comes to the floor again.

I encourage you to let me know your concerns and opinions. I can be reached by phone (802-233-5238) or by email (myantachka.dfa@gmail.com).

The Word in the House 3/29/2017 - Safety and Accommodation

Every year hundreds of bills are introduced in the Vermont House of Representatives. Each is assigned to one of the 15 standing committees for consideration. Relatively few are actually voted out of committee and brought to the floor for consideration by the full House. Those that are must be voted out of committee by “crossover”, which fell on March 17th this year, so that the Senate has time to consider them. The same crossover date holds for Senate bills as well.

Dozens of bills were voted on and passed by the House without major opposition during the week following crossover. However, two bills engendered considerable debate. One dealt with domestic violence and guns and the other addressed accommodations in the workplace for pregnant women.

Domestic violence continues to be a problem in Vermont. In 2015, six of Vermont’s 16 homicides were domestic violence related, and all six were committed with a firearm. Between 1994 and 2015, 131 domestic violence-related homicides were committed, and 77 of them (59%) were committed with firearms. While current law allows for the confiscation of firearms when the court orders the removal at the point of a final relief from abuse order or following a conviction for a violent crime, more protection of victims is needed when police first respond to an incident. Statistics show that the most dangerous time for a victim is when they reach out for help. After two days of debate, the House passed H.422, which provides that after an individual has been arrested or cited for domestic assault, law enforcement can remove any firearms in the perpetrator's possession or in plain view. It is important to note that these provisions would only apply when probable cause has been found to arrest or cite someone for domestic assault. If there is no further court order, the guns would be returned within 5 days. The concern was raised that this legislation is about gun control. It is not. It is a precautionary measure to protect the lives of victims of domestic assault.

The second bill, H.136, which requires an employer to provide a reasonable accommodation in the workplace that might be needed by a pregnant woman, was passed after several hours of debate. A Supreme Court decision from 2006 segregated pregnancy from portions of the existing discrimination law and determined that simply being pregnant, or having an issue with one’s pregnancy, isn’t enough to ask for different tasks that accommodate that pregnancy. H.136 will make it possible for a pregnant woman to ask for a temporary accommodation such as a restriction on heavy lifting, or exposure to certain chemicals, or standing for prolonged periods. The bill makes it unlawful for an employer to refuse to provide an accommodation at the request of a pregnant employee unless it proves to be an undue hardship for the business.“Undue hardship” means an action requiring significant difficulty or
expense to the employer and can depend on the employer's size. This bill encourages communication between the employer and the employee and should help to provide a safe workplace environment for everyone.

A word on the budget is in order. At the time of this writing, the House Appropriations Committee has moved from a $70M shortfall in the Governor's proposed budget to around $4M. The committee members are still working to resolve that difference, hopefully with cooperation from Governor Scott's administration. The committee is trying to squeeze every dollar out of the budget while maintaining the necessary programs and service that keep Vermonters safe, healthy and productive, and the economy working for all.

I encourage you to let me know your concerns and opinions. I can be reached by phone (802-233-5238) or by email (myantachka.dfa@gmail.com).