May 6th, 2013
There are no issues more moving than those tied to deeply held personal values. The debate on spending and taxes is decidedly different from debate as personal as our wishes on how our lives draw to a close. Last week, the House passed S.77, an act relating to patient choices and control at end of life. As of this writing on Monday, May 6th, it is in the Senate where its future lies in the hands of one or two senators and the use of senate rules to either move it into law or stop action. My hope is that it has moved forward.
Modern medicine is good at staving off death with aggressive interventions—and not always so good at listening to the patient and knowing when to focus, instead, on improving the days that terminal patients have left. This does seem to be improving with advances in palliative and hospice care, and I was proud to vote for increasing access to these services in 2010. Without hospice and palliative care in place, any discussion on S.77 would have been premature.
I have long been a supporter of “Death with Dignity” and have listened to many people, both for and against this end of life option. Everyone knows someone who has died and most of us have stories that describe peaceful deaths as well as tortured ones; families brought together and families torn apart. While death itself is no surprise, the timing and uncertainty around it is, requiring us to …
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April 25th, 2013
Here are updates on two of the approximately 75 out of 700 bills that are actively being considered in the remaining weeks before adjournment.
WIND ENERGY: The siting of wind projects remains a topic of heated debate in Vermont. Most everyone seems to agree that developing renewable energy is necessary. All sides also recognize that the siting of projects is important. As the topic moves toward implementation and impact, the advocates diverge. To address this, the Governor convened a siting policy commission. The Commission was tasked to examine these issues to help inform potential changes to the regulatory and planning process. A report is due at the end of April.
A bill introduced into the Senate in January started as a three-year moratorium on wind turbine development. This proved untenable for a number of reasons already presented in the press. Instead, the committee replaced a moratorium with a study; however it also set a course that got ahead of the work imminently due from the Siting Commission. In addition, it appeared to require more rigorous standards be applied to wind energy than to energy from coal, nuclear, large hydro, natural gas and other technologies.
This bill is now under review in the House Natural Resources and Energy committee. They have heard from more than 30 witnesses, including utilities, concerned citizens, scientists, physicians, state agencies, regional planning commissions, the Siting Commission, and many others. The current iteration of the bill has been reworked to convene a group to meet up to …
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April 11th, 2013
With the money bills now in the Senate, this seemed a good time to review a few bills you have asked about. The pros and cons of the following have been fairly well presented in the media. Here is an update on their status:
DECRIMINALIZATION OF MARIJUANA: This bill does not legalize marijuana, but reduces the consequences and makes them consistent across counties. An offense would be treated much like a traffic ticket – still illegal and subject to a fine similar to speeding, but would not have the life-altering criminal penalties. It is currently in the House Judiciary Committee and I expect it to be voted out of committee this week.
Should the bill pass as is, adults over the age of 21 possessing up to once ounce of marijuana would face a fine of up to $300. Those under 21 could have civil penalties waived upon successful completion of the Teen Alcohol Safety Program. The biggest incentive for teens to complete the program is avoidance of lost driving privileges. Additional offenses trigger bigger fines and intervention. The bill calls for a task force to report back to the legislature next January as to how to address the issue of driving under the influence. I expect to vote for this bill.
HEMP: Hemp is an unusually versatile commodity and specialty crop with significant economic development potential for Vermont. Unfortunately, hemp is still on the federal List of Schedule I Controlled Substances as a “drug or substance having a high …
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March 28th, 2013
“Grandma Kate,” said my 5½-year-old grandson, “are you making some laws?”
My grandson has become very interested in the environment and his mom has told him about the work I do in the legislature. He loves to explore the LaPlatte River near his house. He loves the show Nature on PBS and he and I share a special relationship observing the night sky. He is also a big fan of “The Lorax,” by Dr. Seuss, in part because his grandfather is a sort of Lorax who “speaks for the trees.” The narrator of the story is the Onceler, who tells his own sad tale of using up all the resources in a beautiful area resulting in such wanton waste that at the end, there is nothing left but pollution and destruction. The Onceler tells his regretful tale, but also signals that there may be hope.
I told my grandson that, yes, I was working on laws to help lakes and ponds. He then whispered to me, “I’m making laws too. And it’s so easy! Now with two of us making laws, the Onceler will have to listen.”
So with the voice of a child, and with the knowledge that we adults have so very many constraints that keep us from doing the right thing by the environment, we bring forth a lake shorelands bill – a compromise between the complex adult world of competing interests, and the truth of the child who knows that we must be stewards of the lakes …
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February 28th, 2013
Last week, the House debated the Education Property Tax bill. Spirited discussion ensued regarding the value of quality education, the burden on taxpayers and finally the complexity of education funding. The end result satisfied the middle ground, but not those who wanted a complete overhaul in education funding right away. We were faced with a choice. Option 1 offered a bold repeal of Act 60 and 68, with a new “to be determined” funding system in place by 2015. Option 2 kept current funding in place for now, but required a recommendation for a new plan for 2015 due next year. I voted for Option 2.
Most all agreed (including the presenter of Option 1) that the Brigham Decision of 1997 was correct: Vermont children should have equal access to education and not be penalized for living in a town with a small tax base. Most also agreed that there are big questions as to the sustainability of the current system, and struggle to respond to frustrated Vermonters watching yearly increases in spending in the face of yearly declining statewide enrollment.
To clarify, school budgets are determined at the local level. How we divvy up these costs is determined at the state level. The anticipated cost of public education is derived from budgets passed by school boards and slated for a vote across the state on Town Meeting Day. With 90% of the towns reporting, the anticipated 2013-14 budget is calculated at $1.444 billion, up from $1.392 billion last year. …
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February 14th, 2013
What is the difference between a fee for a driver’s license and a tax on a refrigerator? Revenue is revenue, right? Not exactly and as the “Fee Bill” is up for debate on the floor of the House this week, I thought this a good time to address this question. How does a fee differ from a tax?
A fee is designed to cover the cost of a specific service to be paid by users. In contrast, a tax is designed to raise general funds to support services and programs for the common good, although the “common good” is often in the eyes of the beholder. We raise a tax, as our Vermont Constitution says, when it “ought to appear evident to the Legislature to be of more service to community than the money would be if not collected.”
A fee is tied to the cost of regulation or supervision of the service, thus the primary purpose of a fee is not to raise revenues, but to cover the expense of regulation, and although it does not need to be exact, the courts have said it needs to be reasonably related to the cost of providing the service.
Simply put, regulation of the Shelburne Fishing Access, for example, is covered through fees, based on the belief that those who use it should pay for it. The users of this area, the fishermen and more recently motorboat users, cover this cost through fishing licenses and a portion of boat registration fees. …
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January 28th, 2013
The Governor’s budget is now open to the public for view and comment. Thus begins the Legislature’s yearly task of evaluating the meaning and implication of the plan the Governor is putting forward, with each of us 180 legislators comparing this to the wishes of the constituents we represent.
The budget reflects the Governor’s values and priorities in how we address current conditions while shaping the future of our state. Over the coming weeks, the Legislature will carefully consider and test those ideas through a process of investigation and the taking of testimony from experts, advocates and citizens.
Although the Governor, the House and the Senate all hail from the same political party, there still exists an inherent tension between us as designed by our founding fathers. We are likely to find areas of agreement as well as disagreement and it can appear messy and divisive. In the end, it is my hope that the deliberative process, our rules of engagement, and the care, effort and thought we invest give the end product strength and validity.
The legislative process begins in this manner: the 4 Republicans and 7 Democrats who make up the House Appropriations Committee have each been assigned specific parts of the budget to evaluate. For example, the Governor recommends changes in human services, including tightening up the rules for Reach Up and using the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) to fund expansion in child care services. What does this mean? Who is affected? Does it hurt or …
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January 17th, 2013
THE SESSION BEGINS
The start of the 2013-14 legislative session began quietly with limited pomp and circumstance. In place of the expensive governor’s inaugural ball, the State House opened modestly to visitors to travel the halls, admire the recent renovations and partake in conversation and Vermont cheeses and desserts.
On Wednesday, House Speaker Shap Smith challenged House members to address complex issues related to education, health care, climate change and infrastructure. In contrast, the Governor was silent on most of these issues, focusing his entire speech on education to develop a workforce for the future.
As much as I applaud the Governor’s support for education, his specific proposals present us with some provocative challenges, which we will confront over the coming weeks and months. Our first task is to use our committees of Education, Ways and Means and Human Services to fully explore the details of these proposals and the opportunities they may present. I would anticipate lively debate and extensive testimony from educators, employers, agencies and advocates to help identify real life impact on the near and long term for Vermont and Vermonters. In this column, I’ll keep you up to date on these issues as they are discussed.
A variety of summer study committees or reports commissioned in the last biennium are now coming in. Here are a few issues up for discussion this week:
APPROPRIATIONS: The committee has begun to review the Budget Adjustment Act (BAA) for the current year. This is …
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May 17th, 2012
On the 100th anniversary of the sinking of the Titanic, civil engineer and Duke professor, Henry Petroski spoke of the intersection of design, failure and learning. Success does not teach us nearly as much as failure, Petroski notes. When something is working correctly, it doesn’t teach us much. Not until something happens to overwhelm it, are the weaknesses revealed. Such was the case with the Titanic and Tropical Storm Irene.
Thomas Andrews preferred design of the unsinkable Titanic called for bigger bulkheads to handle more challenging situations and more lifeboats. Owner White Star declined. They wanted more passenger space, and lifeboat numbers were within regulation and besides, more lifeboats would have ruined the view. Loss of this argument cost Thomas Andrews and 1500 passengers and crew their lives. It also provided a necessary wake up call changing a trend in steamship design, overhauling maritime and safety regulation and the establishment of the International Ice Petrol. Safety was improved by tragedy.
On August 28, 2011,Tropical Storm Irene touched down in Vermont. Major floodwaters and debris poured through our riverways and communities affecting 225 cities and towns. Six lives would be lost. Transportation infrastructure would suffer damage to over 2500 road segments, 530 bridges, 900 culverts and 200 miles of rail. The Waterbury complex would displace 1500 state employees and require emergency evacuation and relocation of patients at the Vermont State Hospital. 73,000 customers would be without power and 20,000 community water users would be given boil notices. Hazardous spills from …
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May 10th, 2012
As we head toward the closure of this session a flurry of bills are passing back and forth between the House and the Senate with many now in Committees of Conference. Here is an update on a few of interest:
BUDGET: By statute, the budget begins with a recommendation from the governor and is first reviewed and developed by the House and then sent to the Senate. The Senate version made 125 changes and returned it to the House. To reconcile these differences, the Speaker and Senate Pro Tem appointed a committee of conference. While many of these changes are technical, others are significantly different. Among the casualties: a stripped down funding the Working Landscapes bill, rendering it as nothing more than policy with little ability to implement. The bill also contained a variety of amendments unrelated to the budget such as the right for childcare workers to unionize, and a direction to the Public Service Board to refund money to ratepayers should the CVPS-GMP merger proceed.
GMO LABELING: In February, I introduced the “Vermont Right to Know Genetically Engineered Food Act.” If passed, this bill would require food producers to label foods produced through genetic engineering and genetically engineered foods labeled as “natural” would be misbranded. We have received an outpouring of support from around the state and the country. The biotech industry testified that as soon as such a bill became law, they would proceed with a lawsuit stating that the state violated the federal pre-emption food labeling …
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