The Word in the House 3/25/2018 - Pursuing Common Sense Gun Regulations

Very few issues have generated as much emotion on both sides as the issue of gun regulation. After 10 hours of debate last Friday, the House amended Senate bill S.55 dealing with firearms regulations. S.55 passed the Senate with
  • a provision related to the disposition of firearms that have been seized by law enforcement, and
  • an expanded background check requirement for unlicensed (private) firearm sales, with exceptions for law enforcement, military and immediate family members.

The House Judiciary Committee after weeks of testimony voted 6 to 5 to include
  • a 21-year old age requirement for purchase of long guns (the purchase of handguns to those under 21 is already barred by federal law), with an exception for law enforcement, military and 18 to 20 yearolds who have taken a hunter safety course,
  • a ban on bump stocks, and
  • a ban on high-capacity magazines (more than 10 shot capacity).

The provisions of S.55 help protect the safety of the general public. Expanding background checks makes sense because it is too easy for criminals to get their hands on guns if they can bypass the background check system in place for federally licensed firearms dealers. Responsible gun owners who want to sell one of their guns now have the backup to ask the purchaser to go through a background check. Transfers of firearms between immediate family members are not affected.

The rationale for prohibiting sales to under-21-year-olds is based on data showing that almost all completed teen suicides involve the use of guns. Teens are more likely to be impulsive when dealing with adversity. There have been many instances of Vermont teens taking their own lives that way including a Charlotte teen, a classmate of one of my daughters, who committed suicide by handgun. If we at least require the consent of a parent or the taking of a safety course, we can reduce the impulsivity factor in cases like these.

The bill does not ban any types of firearms, but does address accessories that can make semi-automatic firearms, like the AR-15 used so notoriously in the mass shootings we have become too familiar with since the Columbine High School massacre, more lethal. One of the most notorious was the Las Vegas massacre where a bump stock device was used to effectively turn a semi-automatic rifle into a virtual automatic rifle. In combination with high capacity magazines, hundreds of rounds were able to be fired into the crowd of concert-goers, killing 52 and wounding hundreds of others. If such weapons are to be available, then we have to move the odds of survival in favor of potential victims. The ban of bump stocks and limiting magazines to 10 shots does this. The bill prohibits the sale, purchase, import and transfer of these items going forward. The primary goal of this bill is to save lives. Will it prevent all future shootings? No, but it will put a few more barriers in place and provide a few more opportunities to short-circuit attempts.

None of these provisions violate the Second Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. These provisions have been in place in other states for years and have withstood challenges all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court. I recognize the right of citizens to own firearms for legitimate purposes like hunting, sport shooting, and self-defense. However, some opponents of S.55 that I spoke to feel they need the ability to resist a future dictatorship by our national government. When the Second Amendment was passed, our country did not have a standing army and the defense of our country relied on every able-bodied man being “all-in”, ready to be called up to form “well regulated” citizen militias. Today we have our armed forces and a national guard of citizen soldiers, all sworn to uphold the Constitution. We have the ballot box which is and has been the most effective bulwark of our democracy. I am much more inclined to put my trust in our democratic institutions than in the idea that we need to rely on guns to protect ourselves from a rogue government. While some may differ with this philosophy, it is the one that I choose to embrace.

Legislative Report 3/21/2018 - Workforce Development through Education

At the CVSD (Champlain Valley School District) budget presentation the evening before Town Meeting, Board member Lynne Jaunich was describing the district's intent to help students connect with employers through internships for skill development. Moe Harvey, who owns Patterson Fuels, stated that he had positions in his company, well-paying jobs with benefits, that he had a hard time filling because he could not find people with the skills or the willingness to learn. He was unaware of programs matching students with employers, which to me sounded like a communications problem between our educational system and our business communities.

Growing Vermont's economy is a goal we can all agree on. It is a key to affordability, to maintaining a sustainable tax base, and to keeping Vermont an attractive place to live and work. A skilled and productive workforce is critical for the economic vitality of Vermont, which has one of the lowest unemployment rates in the country. However, our state currently faces several key labor market challenges.

Employers throughout our state have been telling the legislature that it is difficult to fill job openings due to the lack of qualified workers even though there is a wide range of job openings across multiple sectors. At the same time many Vermonters are underemployed and require training to update their skills and find job opportunities that match their interests. A lack of skills presents a significant barrier to those who would like to improve their work situation but are not qualified for the available jobs.

Vermont's educational system can play an important role in addressing this problem. While Vermont has an excellent high school graduation rate, we have the lowest rate in New England of youth accessing post-secondary education including college and technical education. By focusing on aligning learning opportunities with workforce needs, we can maximize the potential of every Vermonter to participate in a robust labor market.

The Vermont House last week passed H.919, a workforce development bill, to do just that. It commits the state to a redesign of Vermont’s workforce development and training system through a concerted three-year effort led by the Commissioner of Labor in collaboration with key administration partners, the education and training communities, and others from business and government. This system will allow all Vermonters who want to work and all employers who want workers to connect, through education and training, allowing both business and individuals to thrive. It will seek to promote employer-driven workforce education and training opportunities and equitable access to employment and training opportunities for women and underrepresented populations in Vermont. The bill will require the Agency of Education, in partnership with the Workforce Development Board, to set up a pilot program called Career Pathways. This program will promote collaboration among middle schools and regional technical education centers that, in partnership with business and industry, will integrate the academic and technical skills required for post-secondary success. The bill now moves to the Senate for further consideration.

To bring this back to the local level, it was satisfying to hear that our small group discussion at the CVSD school budget presentation led to contacts between Patterson Fuels and CVU's Nexus program, a flexible learning program that allows interested students to partner with business to apply academic learning to the world beyond school. These types of programs have the potential to benefit both employers and students and, hopefully, all of Vermont.

As always, I can be reached by phone (802-233-5238) or by email (

The Word in the House 3/1/2018 - Proposed Education Funding Changes

As we approach Town Meeting Day the issue of how to fund our K-12 education system is once again in the news. The fact that we continue to have the discussion from one year to the next indicates that it is not easy to address all the concerns regarding property taxes, budgets and services that are needed. Moreover, the current funding system is nearly impossible for the average Vermonter to understand and for most legislators to explain. At a briefing I attended, the remark was made that the system could be simple or fair, but not both. This year the House Ways & Means Committee decided to take a fresh look at how we fund education with an eye toward making it easier to understand while maintaining fairness in application.

Before describing the proposed changes, it is important to review the roles of the municipalities and school districts, the voters and taxpayers, and the state. School districts decide what is needed to educate their children and put together a budget, with taxpayer input, to meet those needs. The budget is presented to the taxpayers who then either approve or disapprove it. The state, on the other hand, is responsible for raising the money to fund all the budgets passed across the state. Today, that funding consist of 36% of the sales tax revenues, 100% of the lottery revenues, a transfer from the General Fund, federal dollars, and a statewide property tax. The burden on taxpayers is reduced by adjustments to the property tax assessments based on household income, and a fixed rate is assessed on all non-residential property.

The new proposal, which has not yet been finalized, would keep the non-residential rate the same, but would change the other allocations significantly. The General Fund transfer would be eliminated, but 100% of the sales and use tax revenue as well as 25% of the rooms and meals tax would go to the Education Fund. The income sensitivity adjustment would be eliminated and be replaced by a direct school income tax based on adjusted gross income. Low income residents and property owners would continue to be assisted by creating a homestead exemption, by exempting the first $47,000 of income from the school income tax, and by retaining the renter rebate program. Also, responsibility for several programs that do not go directly to K-12 education will be moved to the General Fund. Together, these changes would reduce reliance on the residential property tax by moving to a tax that is more closely related to ability to pay and would more closely link decisions on school budgets to the actual homestead tax paid.

Finally, while the Common Level of Appraisal (CLA) adjustment would continue to be a factor on the local level, the per-pupil property tax yield would be reduced from $13,000 to about $5,000. Since the base statewide property tax would be reduced from $1.00 to $0.25, the Champlain Valley School District, which spends about $15,000 per pupil, would see an effective tax rate of $0.75, three times the base rate.

Final details remain to be worked out, as well as a decision as to whether the new funding system will go into effect this year or next. The legislature will continue to look for a fair, easy to understand funding formula that provides a quality education for all the children of Vermont. I can be reached by phone (802-233-5238) or by email (

The Word in the House 2/22/2018 - Gun Violence Op-ed

It was only after the senseless massacre of 17 students and teachers in Lakeland, Florida, last week that I learned that 17 other school shootings had occurred in just the first seven weeks of 2018. How could I have not known that there were so many? Has it become so common that we don't even notice?

Once again we hear public officials offer condolences, thoughts and prayers, sincerely I'm sure, for the victims and their families and their friends. Yet these expressions of empathy are just platitudes without a commitment to act to prevent these tragedies. Over and over and over again, even after the worst mass killing last Fall in Las Vegas, no action at all on any federal or state level has been taken to do anything about this cancer affecting our country.

We're told that it's “too soon” to talk about solutions. We're told that we “shouldn't politicize tragedy.” So, what happens? Nothing!

The Second Amendment gives us the right to bear arms. But with rights come responsibilities. What kinds of arms are appropriate for private ownership? In this gun-worshipping culture we have, it seems that no one at the federal or state level is willing to take the responsibility to keep weapons designed for military use in war out of the public domain. The AR-15, the weapon of choice for mass murder in the U.S., is one such weapon.

Since the massacre at the Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, CT, in 2012 more than 400 people have been shot in more than 200 school shootings. Since that time more than 150,000 people lost their lives in the U.S. due to gun violence. (Google “gun violence in the U.S.”) Since Sandy Hook, 14 bills were introduced in the Vermont legislature to set reasonable regulations for firearms. With the least restrictive gun laws in the country, only minor changes have been made in the last six years in Vermont. Last year the House passed a Domestic Violence bill that would allow police to temporarily confiscate guns from a household when responding to a domestic violence incident. This would offer some protection for domestic violence victims during a critical period in a bad situation. That bill sits in the Senate waiting for action. As usual, a very vocal minority of gun owners turned out in force at a Senate hearing to oppose it.

I am willing to acknowledge that we have a lower level of gun violence in Vermont than elsewhere. However, looking at the characteristics of mass shootings, it can happen here. It's only a matter of time. We are fortunate that a potential school shooting in Vermont was thwarted just days ago due to swift law enforcement action as a result of a report by a concerned citizen of the threat seen on social media.

It's time we took action in Vermont on the bills currently under consideration to protect domestic violence victims (H.422), to ban “bump stocks” (H.876), and to require background checks for the sale or transfer of firearms (H.151, S.6). This will only happen, however, if good people demand it by calling their legislators in the House and Senate with the same sense of purpose as those who oppose regulation. Failure to speak up equals complicity when a similar tragedy occurs in the future on Vermont soil.