House Speaker says May 11 adjournment for Vermont Legislature is in view

House Speaker Shap Smith says he’s optimistic the Legislature can finish its business by May 11 even with the cancellation of a Saturday, May 4, session. Lawmakers will be meeting on Monday, which is typically a day off from floor sessions in the House and Senate.

The Speaker, who leads an overwhelming majority of Democrats in the Vermont House of Representatives, says he believes differences on outstanding issues between the House, the Democratic majority in the Vermont Senate and the governor (also a Democrat) can be worked out by Saturday.

On paper, House and Senate officials appear to be far apart on the must-pass tax bill. The only points of agreement so far include a municipal tax exemption for blighted residential property and the removal of a $10,000 floor for the fuel gross receipts tax. Leading Democrats, however, downplayed the remaining sticking points.

House Speaker Shap Smith. VTD/Josh Larkin
House Speaker Shap Smith. VTD/Josh Larkin

Smith holds out hope that the House and Senate can reach agreement on a number of other controversial issues in the next seven days, including an end of life choice proposal, campaign finance reform, a pre-K funding proposal, a “flexible pathways” bill that would enable high school students to enroll in more college courses, an omnibus drug bill designed to tackle prescription drug and methamphetamine abuse and an energy efficiency bill that encourages electric car use and proposes loans for weatherization projects.

There are, of course, a number of bills that likely won’t make the adjournment deadline.

A bill labeling genetically engineered organisms in food may not make it through the legislative process. House Judiciary is concerned that Monsanto, a major manufacturer of GMOs, would sue the state over the labeling provision.

Smith said there isn’t enough time for the the child-care unionization bill to make it through the Senate and the House at this point. The controversial bill has been a lightning rod for bitter debate for the last three sessions.

The House and Senate are at loggerheads over the end of life legislation. The Senate rejected a version of the Death with Dignity bill earlier this session that was similar to the legislation the House passed last week. Sen. Bob Hartwell, D-Bennington, said he will present his colleagues a compromise end of life amendment this week that would give physicians some legal immunity and shorten the required terminal illness diagnosis from six months to three months.

In the House version, a person can request a lethal dose of prescription drugs with a six-month diagnosis of a terminal illness. Smith said the House bill includes important “safeguards” — patients must be advised of palliative and hospice care options — that lawmakers want to see in the compromise version of the bill. It looks like the legislation will not go to conference committee, but will be amended on the Senate floor and sent to the House for further amendment or approval.

The campaign finance reform bill is set to go to the House floor on Tuesday. The Speaker favors a $5,000 cap on donations from any single entity to Super PACs, even though the limitation could invite legal challenge, according to Cheryl Hanna, a constitutional law professor at Vermont Law School.

“I think our bill is very defensible,” Smith said. “I think any campaign finance bill under this current U.S. Supreme Court is going to be subject to legal challenge given the fact that this current Supreme Court doesn’t seem to believe there should be any restrictions on money in politics. My view of the world is that our constituents are sick of secret political action committees spending money to influence decisions we were sent here to address. If courts want to say we can’t do that then maybe we should change the Constitution or the membership of the court.”

Smith does not support a ban on corporate donations, which would limit the amount of money individuals could contribute through a limitless number of corporate entities. A prohibition on corporate money was proposed in the Senate and ultimately failed. It has gained no traction in the House.

The corporate ban, in his view, is unnecessary because he says the information is disclosed on the Secretary of State’s website. “At least they can see where that money is coming from,” Smith said. “It gets disclosed. When you have the money hidden in secret PACs that don’t actually have to disclose very often, I think that’s a very big problem.”

Smith says a ban on corporate giving would drive companies “deeper into secrecy.”

Lobbyists for corporations give money to representatives and senators for campaigns. They also sometimes “bundle” individual contributions to candidates. The information is available in PDF, nonsearchable spreadsheets on the Secretary of State’s Website and does not include employment information so it’s difficult to track the individuals’ associations with companies and other entities.

Lobbyists also organize advertising campaigns and devote weeks to pinning down lawmakers in the halls of the Statehouse. Recent lobbyist disclosure reports reveal that companies, unions and advocacy groups spent $8 million on Statehouse lobbying over the last year, and more than $500,000 alone on a successful bid to get lawmakers to drop a penny-per-ounce excise tax on sugar-sweetened beverages.

Smith said better reporting — including more timely access to electronic records — is a better way to address concerns about the influence of corporations on the Legislature. The Legislature, however, has not budgeted funds to update the campaign finance website. Smith says lawmakers haven’t been able to get “complete clarity on what the cost would be.”

“If we have clarity next week, maybe we can find the money,” Smith said.

Secretary of State Jim Condos has said the cost of developing a plan for a campaign finance database is $50,000, and implementation of the IT project would cost $600,000 to $1 million. Lawmakers have said the secretary ought to be able to find that sum in his budget.

CORRECTION: H.112 would require companies to label genetically engineered foodstuffs. We originally reported it was a ban on GMOs.

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Anne Galloway

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