Johnson realigns oversight of mental health, tech and more

Mitzi Johnson
Mitzi Johnson stands on the podium before addressing the Vermont House as the new speaker Wednesday. Photo by Andrew Kutches/VTDigger
In a move she said would bring “true parity” to legislative oversight of the state’s medical system, the new House speaker has moved jurisdiction over mental health care issues to the Health Care Committee.

House Speaker Mitzi Johnson, D-South Hero, made the shift as part of several sweeping committee changes that will affect how Vermont makes laws regarding health care, business, information technology, energy and agriculture.

The newly sworn in House approved the changes overwhelmingly in a voice vote Wednesday as part of H.R.4.

The House Human Services Committee previously had jurisdiction over mental health services. Now the House Health Care Committee, which has traditionally dealt with health care financing, will oversee mental health.

“We’ve been talking about what parity is for a long time, and the Legislature itself doesn’t model parity by considering physical health in a different committee than it considers mental health,” Johnson said.

Leaders on the House Health Care Committee said the change was a long time coming. Rep. Bill Lippert, D-Hinesburg, who will remain chair, is a former community mental health worker who said the decision is “an excellent choice.”

Rep. Anne Donahue, R-Northfield
Rep. Anne Donahue, R-Northfield, a prominent mental health advocate who has advocated for the change for many years, will be promoted from ranking member of the committee to vice chair, replacing Chris Pearson, a Progressive/Democrat from Burlington who is now a senator.

“It’s a long overdue, very positive recognition finally by the House, following the lead of its own prior (mental health parity) legislation, that recognizes that mental health is a part of health care,” Donahue said.

Rep. Sarah Copeland Hanzas, D-Bradford, a former vice chair of House Health Care who dropped her bid to be House speaker, will sit on the committee again. She said addressing mental illness the same as physical illness is “very important” to her.

Committee on Energy and Technology

The former House Natural Resources and Energy Committee will be eliminated and its duties split among two existing committees and a new one.

The natural resources duties, such as land use and air quality issues, will be combined with the portfolio of the former Fish and Wildlife Committee to create the Natural Resources, Fish and Wildlife Committee.

Issues related to forestry, state parks and lands will move to the Agriculture and Forestry Committee, formerly called Agriculture and Forest Products. Previously, three different committees had jurisdiction over forestry practices.

Oversight of energy regulation will move to the new eight-member Energy and Technology Committee. It will also handle telecommunications and be the new committee of jurisdiction for information technology projects, an area lawmakers have previously struggled to make a priority.

That means utility issues for both electric and telephone customers will be placed under one committee. Johnson said now the Public Service Department and Public Service Board will have one committee to answer to during the session.

Rep. Stephen Carr, D-Brandon, a longtime member of the House Commerce and Economic Development Committee, will chair the new panel. It will include former members of Commerce and Economic Development.

Rep. Laura Sibilia, I-Dover, will sit on the new Energy and Technology Committee. Sibilia said many lawmakers were seeking to have a designated committee for information technology.

The previously seven-member House Committee on General, Housing and Military Affairs will become a full 11-member committee. Johnson said the additional membership would allow it to spend more time for considering affordable housing, which she says is one of her top priorities as speaker.

The Commerce and Economic Development Committee, which previously oversaw telecommunications, will be charged with workforce development. That means the Education Committee will no longer be handling workforce development.

“It’s a big win,” said Rep. Bill Botzow, D-Pownal, who will continue to chair Commerce and Economic Development. “This is a smart move she made.”

Most of Botzow’s committee members from the last biennium have been sent to Energy and Technology, Appropriations, or General, Housing and Military Affairs. New lawmakers will fill the ranks of his committee.

Botzow said he chaired a rural development working group years ago under former Speaker Gaye Symington. He said the working group wanted two things: to have forestry and agriculture completely linked, and to elevate telecommunications.

The new setup achieves both those major goals, he said.

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  • stephen whitaker

    Applause for the improvement, BUT…

    IT and Telecommunications can consume the entire ‘bandwidth’ of a committee’s workload as the learning curve is steep and the multitude of projects, problems, and problem projects is long.

    Similarly Energy is an enormously complex jurisdiction with the Energy Plan, closing of Vermont Yankee, conservation potential, solar, wind, gas pipeline, etc. Too big.

    The speaker and committee on committees to also consider convening a Joint Information Technology and Telecommunications Oversight Committee. This was extremely productive in 1992, co-chaired by Obie and Sen Mary Just Shinner, and many of that committees recommendations have still not been incorporated into law, despite the 1994 bill introduced to accomplish this by one Senator Shumlin.

    Immediate priority should be on consolidated governance over E911, FirstNet, VComm, VIT, VITL, VHC, DII and the Connectivity Advisory Board. Each of these is off track requiring study and correction.

  • Ethan Rogati

    I very much appreciate the committee realignment on mental health parity. Hopefully it will turn into something substantially positive.

  • Mary Ezenwa

    Realignment on oversight of mental health is a major victory for Vermont that will bring about many more positive changes with regards to the implementation of mental health services and mental health reforms. I am grateful to all involved that transformed this promise into a reality. Thank you for making it better.

  • Kathy Leonard

    Land use, natural resources and energy are inextricably connected. Where will these convergences be discussed and considered?

  • Patti Swift

    I most sincerely hope that the House Health Care Committee will have enough education and or experience related to mental health issues to positively change the treatment system in Vermont and improve patient outcomes without stigmatizing those in need.