Legislative Report 5/3/2019 - Constitutional Questions

I’ve heard the last two weeks of the legislative session described as a log-jam of bills just waiting for the dam to burst.  While House committees continue to work on bills already passed by the Senate, one significant bill came a step closer to final approval. After years of attempts to raise the legal age for purchasing tobacco and related products to 21, the House passed the Senate’s “Tobacco 21” bill (S.86) on a vote of 124 to 14. The only change the House made to the Senate version was to move the effective date from July 1, 2019, to September 1, 2019. The Senate should quickly approve this minor change and send the bill to the Governor. (On April 30th the Senate approved the House amendment and passed S.86.) 

While it is unusual for proposals to amend Vermont’s Constitution to be considered, several have been proposed since 2010.  Five were introduced in the 2011-2012 biennium and six in the 2015-2016 biennium, none of which actually made it to a vote. This year six proposals of amendment have been introduced, and two were passed by the Senate. Proposal 2 would amend the Constitution to prohibit slavery and indentured servitude, and Proposal 5 would guarantee personal reproductive liberty. Without going into detail on these proposals which have surmounted the first hurdle in the Senate, here is an explanation of what is required to amend our Vermont Constitution.

All amendments must originate in the Senate and can be proposed only in every other biennium, which explains the lack of proposals in 2013 and 2017. A proposal must be adopted by both chambers during the biennium in which it is proposed, and then again in the next biennium. The chamber vote requirements are higher in the proposing biennium than in the subsequent one. In the first biennium the Senate must approve the proposal by a 2/3 vote of all the members, i.e. 20 Senators. If approved, the proposal is sent to the House, where it is referred to the appropriate committee of jurisdiction. If the committee decides to consider the proposal, it must hold a public hearing prior to voting on it. No amendments are allowed. If it is voted out of committee, the proposal must pass in the House by a majority of all the members of the House, i.e. 76 Representatives. Then within 90 days of approval by the House, the Secretary of State must publish the proposal in at least two newspapers having general circulation in the state.

In the following biennium (2021-2022 for these proposals), the Senate must again approve the proposal, but only by a majority of the members this time, i.e. 16 Senators. If the Senate approves the proposal for a second time, the House committee of jurisdiction is once again required to hold a public hearing before it can vote the proposal out of committee for consideration by the whole House. Then, at least 76 members of the House must be present to vote on the proposal. Of those present, a simple majority is required to pass it.

If the proposal passes both chambers in both biennia, the Governor provides public notice by proclamation and the Secretary of State must publish the proposal in two major newspapers once a week for three weeks. The proposal is then submitted to the voters of the state in the general election for ratification. If a majority of the voters approve, the Constitution is amended.

Readers can view Proposals 2 and 5 and track their status by going to https://legislature.vermont.gov/ and entering “PR2” or “PR5” in the Search for Bills and Resolutions.

I welcome your emails (myantachka.dfa@gmail.com), phone calls (802-233-5238), or in-person contacts.