Legislative preview: Let the bill swaps (between House and Senate) begin

It’s bill swap time in the Legislature. All those legislative proposals that passed out of the House are now going to the Senate, and vice versa.

And as per usual this time of the session, the House is way ahead of the ball game. That’s because representatives are obliged to tackle the big stuff first — the budget, the miscellaneous tax bill, the capital adjustment expenditures and the transportation budget — and then move on to the smaller bills.

That tsunami of money proposals will now hit the Senate with some force and for the next three and a half weeks the Green Room will play catch-up.

There appear to be few differences so far on the big items, in large part because of one-party rule in the House, the Senate and governor’s office. Democrats, working in sync with Gov. Peter Shumlin, have efficiently advanced legislation, in some cases tweaking bills in compromises with the minority parties in committee, and sometimes not.

With a few notable exceptions, bills that originated with the Fifth Floor have gone through the process unscathed by legislative meddling. Disagreements driven by Republicans and Progressives tend to be over tweaks to legislation instead of the big issues. But because the minority parties don’t have the votes in either body, there is little dissenters can do except raise questions about legislation.

Consequently, there has been very little debate on the floor of either body, even on the money bills. The House, for example, passed the $65 million capital adjustment bill on a voice vote last week, while the Senate passed or stalled a handful of potentially controversial bills that apparently didn’t warrant much public discussion.

So far, the biggest conflicts that have emerged have been between the two bodies, with the Senate most often siding with the Shumlin administration proposals. Speaker Shap Smith wanted more office space for state workers in Waterbury; Senate President Pro Tem John Campbell saw a return to the flood-damaged buildings as a potential health hazard for state employees. The House wanted a 25-bed psychiatric facility; the Senate stuck with the governor’s proposal of 16. The House would pass a “patient-directed death” bill; the Senate has bottled up the “death with dignity” legislation in committee.

Here’s a rundown of key legislation in play this week:

Senate committees will begin to take up the money bills this week, and the budget, tax, capital and transportation bills likely won’t re-emerge until the end of the session.

The health care reform legislation, H.559 — which sets up insurance exchanges for consumers — will come out of Senate Health and Welfare and then move to Senate Finance. It isn’t expected to change radically from the House version, because the governor struck a deal with lawmakers and business interests over the most unpalatable parts of the original legislation. The House originally proposed that only low-deductible plans be allowed in the exchange, the governor OK’d “bronze” or high-deductible health insurance plans. In addition, Shumlin exempted businesses with more than 50 workers from the exchange.

The Senate will take up the House energy bill in committee this week as well. Campbell says he’ll listen to business complaints about high electricity rates, but he is committed to moving forward with Shumlin’s plans to aggressively pursue renewable power.

The House Health Care Committee will vote on a Senate bill that takes away the philosophical exemption for parents who don’t want their children to be immunized. The governor opposes the plan and has suggested that parents be required to obtain permission for an exemption from physicians. Sources say representatives are divided on the issue, but are leaning toward the governor’s position.

It’s likely that a Senate proposal to study whether the state should give migrant workers access to Vermont driver’s licenses will survive the House.

A bill addressing search and rescue response protocols will likely come out of House Government Operations this week. Rep. Donna Sweaney, chair of the committee, said the bill will include a study and a directive to the Vermont State Police regarding the inclusion of other groups in missing person searches in recreational areas. “I didn’t want to make it just a legislative study committee,” Sweaney said. “There’s some things we know we can move forward on.”

A look back at last week:

The House last week overwhelmingly approved the miscellaneous tax bill after GOP and Progressive members leveled questions at Democrats about a $6 million tax on Vermont Yankee and the renter rebate program. A call to recommit the bill to committee before the program was reauthorized for another five years failed. Other attempts by minority parties to amend the bill were also abortive.

The American Federation of Teachers tried to pressure Campbell into reconsidering his stance on the child-care workers unionization bill last week. (He blocked the legislation last month.) They sent a flier to lawmakers referring to a Green Mountain Daily post that accused the senator of falling prey to “bunched knickers syndrome” on the issue. The effort backfired: Campbell hasn’t changed his mind. “I find it unfathomable that they would resort to these types of tactics,” he said. “It certainly doesn’t help the cause of organized labor.” The House passed the bill last year, and union organizers hoped to get H.97 through the Senate this session.

The Senate approved a proposal that calls for voluntary testing of residential wells for arsenic and other chemicals. The governor vetoed the original measure last year, which called for mandatory testing. Instead of overriding the veto, senators changed the bill to satisfy the governor.

CORRECTION: We originally reported that a promised study of the Vermont Employment Growth Incentive from the administration didn’t materialize. Though Rep. Chris Pearson, P-Burlington, made this the point of his proposed amendment to recommit the Miscellaneous Tax Bill to committee, the Shumlin administration says the study was completed.

Read the VEGI report.

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Anne Galloway

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  • Al Salzman

    Can we discover how many members of our legislature are members of the right-wing American Legislature Exchange council?