(This story is by Mark Johnson, Elizabeth Hewitt, Mike Polhamus, Erin Mansfield and Tiffany Danitz Pache.)
Proposals for paid family leave, temporary confiscation of firearms in domestic abuse cases and tougher penalties for the distribution of fentanyl are among the bills that have made it past a key legislative deadline.
A bill that would have allowed adult Vermonters to legally possess an ounce of marijuana and another to require presidential candidates to disclose their tax returns were among those that did not make Friday’s crossover deadline. That is when most bills have to come out of committee in order to have time, if passed by the full body, to be considered by the other chamber.
There are, however, many procedural ways lawmakers can revive a bill after crossover, including adding proposals to the state budget, which is not usually settled until the final days of the legislative session. Waivers can also be granted. For example, on the pot bill, Senate Judiciary Committee Chair Dick Sears, D-Bennington, agreed to look at the bill if it clears the House committee it’s in by the end of this week.
In addition, proposals that involve the budget or any tax bills have a week beyond the regular crossover deadline to come out of committee.
Last week, Senate President Tim Ashe, D/P-Chittenden, said an increase in the minimum wage to $15 an hour would not be pursued but would be a top agenda item next year.
On the state budget, the House Appropriations Committee has an estimated $8 million gap to close to balance its spending proposal. The Senate is working on its own proposal.
Legislative leaders and Gov. Phil Scott are each waiting for the other to present new ideas after a key part of Scott’s original budget — a call to level-fund school budgets to increase funding for child care and higher education — was rejected, leaving a deficit.
Among the more controversial measures the House Judiciary Committee tackled last week is a bill, H.422, that would allow police to temporarily confiscate firearms from homes when arresting someone on allegations of domestic abuse. Championed by victims’ advocates, the bill has come under fire from pro-gun groups.
The bill passed out of committee on a vote of 7 to 4. If it passes the House, it could face a tough reception in the Senate. Sears has said he has concerns about the bill.
The House committee also moved forward a pared-down version of H.167, a bill that as introduced would have lessened penalties for possession of small amounts of some drugs, including heroin. After review, the committee revised the bill to call for a study on drug possession penalties.
The Senate Judiciary Committee, however, did move forward with a separate measure that would increase certain drug penalties. The panel approved S.22, which would create steep criminal penalties for the distribution of fentanyl, a potent synthetic opioid often mixed into heroin that has been linked to accidental drug overdoses in Vermont and around the country.
Meanwhile, H.213, a bill on access to drug treatment courts, will go down the hall to the House Ways and Means Committee. The measure would impose an additional $20 fee on criminal history record searches; revenue would go to a fund to support treatment courts, including paying for a mobile treatment court model that would move among several counties.
Senate Judiciary completed work on a bill that would change aspects of the state’s pretrial services system. The program, launched by legislation in 2014, has been troubled in the early phases of its implementation, prompting the review by lawmakers.
The committee also passed out S.61, a bill that makes changes to how inmates with serious mental illness are treated in Vermont prisons. The legislation looks at prisoners’ access to treatment and the use of segregation, and calls for further scrutiny of the system.
The Senate Government Operations Committee passed out a bill, S.96, that would protect journalists from having to reveal confidential sources and unpublished material.
The House Education Committee approved legislation making changes to the way homestead property tax rates are calculated, which it would phase in over four years beginning with budgets local voters have passed for fiscal 2018.
Three members of the committee voted against the bill, H.509.
A miscellaneous bill that passed out of House Education unanimously includes some technical changes to bring Vermont law in line with language in the Every Student Succeeds Act, the federal government’s elementary and secondary education law that replaced No Child Left Behind.
No number has been assigned that bill yet. Lawmakers struck a fingerprinting section and dual enrollment; both may be revived on amendment or with a Senate bill.
The House Education panel also unanimously passed H.504, which creates a Career and Technical Education Innovation Grant pilot program for one year. It supports career and technical ed programming for seventh-graders using $1.6 million from education fund special education dollars.
It also sets up a committee to make recommendations for the criteria used to determine student counts in school districts. That could involve weighting formulas for students who are low-income or for whom English isn’t their native language.
Lawmakers also approved legislation that would set up a special committee to weigh in on controversial draft rules that affect private schools.
The Senate Education Committee has also been dealing with making changes to Act 46, the 2015 law that seeks to bring about larger school districts.
To address some issues, the bill S.122 would create three new regional education district merger options. Deadlines for mergers would be extended if proposals are voted down or if another district wants to join. The legislation also provides schools with transition grants and frees up grant requirements so money can be used for community engagement.
The bill also requires the State Board of Education to act more quickly when supervisory unions want to make adjustments.
ENERGY AND ENVIRONMENT
The House Committee on Energy and Technology approved a bill, H.411, that would uphold existing energy efficiency standards on appliances such as washing machines, dishwashers and lightbulbs if the federal government eliminates those standards. Those standards currently apply at the federal level alone.
Legislation in the Senate Natural Resources and Energy Committee would establish in law the goal to obtain 90 percent of the state’s total energy needs from renewable sources by the year 2050. This goal is in the state’s comprehensive energy plan and has received support from both the current and previous governors.
The bill, S.51, has not yet come out of committee. Chairman Chris Bray, D-Addison, is working to revise the bill and hopes to present the committee with a clean bill soon. Members hope to send it to the House Rules Committee this week for a waiver since the bill didn’t make Friday’s crossover deadline.
S.10 would require businesses or others that contaminate drinking water in wells with the suspected carcinogen perfluorooctanoic acid, or PFOA, to extend water lines from municipal systems to affected homes. This would affect Bennington most immediately, where PFOA contamination of wells is widespread. It would also likely affect the 14 other locations in three counties where PFOA pollution has been discovered.
The Senate Natural Resources and Energy Committee voted this bill out early in the session, and the full Senate approved it Feb. 14. The House Natural Resources, Fish and Wildlife Committee has been given the bill and is likely to begin taking testimony on it within two weeks.
The Senate natural resources panel also approved a bill, S.103, on Friday to establish a state database of all toxic substances and hazardous materials used by industries, businesses and individuals in the state. Proponents say such a database could have aided efforts to find and remediate PFOA contamination and would be helpful if other releases of toxics or hazardous materials occur. The bill also would provide state assistance to reduce the use of toxic substances and hazardous materials.
The original bill contained fees and appropriations, but as currently written it does not, so Bray said he believed two other Senate committees that must review it would push the bill through with little or no opposition.
The House Health Care Committee and the Senate Health and Welfare Committee have spearheaded a half-dozen bills dealing with mental health. They will also send each other bills increasing oversight of the state’s major accountable care organization, which is the health care governance model that underpins Vermont’s all-payer model.
The full Senate has endorsed S.4, which would require the board of directors for the state’s largest health care organization to hold open meetings whenever it is making a binding decision. The bill applies to accountable care organizations, which are administrative entities that represent doctors and agree to be financially at risk for the health of their patients.
OneCare Vermont — owned by the University of Vermont Medical Center and Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center — is the state’s largest. It dropped its initial opposition to the bill
A bill that seeks to find out more about why people take their own lives has passed the full House. H.184, requires the Agency of Human Services to collect information on suicides and submit a report to the Legislature each year. The bill seeks to find trends in suicide deaths, identify risk factors for suicide, look at gaps in systemic responses to people at risk of suicide, and inform suicide prevention work, among other things. There is currently no data at the state level that delves into why Vermonters take their own lives.
The leaders of the House and Senate have backed a bill that would require workers’ compensation to cover mental health disorders. H.197 would allow employees in Vermont to get treatment under workers’ compensation insurance for mental conditions linked to the nature of their occupation. The bill would also make it easier for first responders to get treatment specifically for post-traumatic stress disorder. It would essentially reverse a 2003 Vermont Supreme Court decision that prohibited first responders from getting workers’ comp for PTSD. The bill is scheduled to go to the House floor this week.
Another bill, which does not yet have a number, seeks to raise the pay for mental health workers at designated mental health agencies — which are privately administered but largely publicly funded — by $30.2 million. The bill made it out of Senate Health and Welfare. Because there is an appropriation in it, has until Friday to be voted out of the Senate Appropriations Committee.
The bill would guarantee all front-line workers at least $15 an hour and salaried workers pay that is equal to 85 percent of what a state worker or hospital-employed worker would make in an identical position. The designated agencies say low pay is driving a high turnover rate, making it hard to care for patients with mental health issues and disabilities.
The Senate has passed a bill to effectively overturn a court case blamed for contributing to a backlog of psychiatric patients waiting in emergency rooms. S.3 would clarify the liability of mental health providers when discharging a patient who may be dangerous. The bill says providers need to break confidentiality and issue a warning only if the patient makes a threat against a specific identifiable person.
The legislation comes in response to the Vermont Supreme Court decision in Kuligoski v. Brattleboro Retreat and Northeast Kingdom Human Services. The court decided that case — which alleged that mental health providers did not sufficiently warn and train caretakers about a patient who was discharged and later assaulted a person — should be allowed to move forward in the lower courts. The Department of Mental Health says the case has made mental health providers more likely to seek emergency evaluations of patients and less likely to release patients.
Another bill set to go before the full House this week is H.145, which would establish a Mental Health Crisis Response Commission within the attorney general’s office to report on law enforcement interactions with people exhibiting symptoms of mental illness that result in bodily injuries or fatalities. The bill has been nicknamed the Grenon bill, after Ralph “Phil” Grenon, who was shot by police in Burlington while experiencing a psychiatric crisis.
H.230, which is designed to make it easier for minors to get therapy related to sexual orientation or gender identity, is also expected to hit the House floor soon.
Business and Labor
On the House side, labor rights bills are moving faster than commerce bills.
The House General, Housing and Military Affairs Committee has passed H.196, which would establish a paid family and medical leave insurance program in Vermont, and H.136, which would increase labor protections for pregnant workers. Both passed 7 to 4 along party lines and will be voted on by the full House this week.
Supporters of the family leave bill originally intended to provide all workers with up to 12 weeks’ paid leave and pay for it with a 0.93 percent payroll tax, split evenly between businesses and workers. The committee later decided to place the 0.93 percent payroll tax entirely on employees, drawing ire from the governor, who promised to veto the original bill on the day it was announced.
The House Commerce and Economic Development Committee passed a combination labor rights and consumer protection bill, H.462. It prohibits employers from forcing workers to hand over their personal social media information.
The committee continues its work on an independent contractor bill but did not meet the crossover deadline. Rep. Bill Botzow, D-Pownal, said he often works past the crossover deadline. He said he has already made arrangements regarding his bills with House Speaker Mitzi Johnson, D-South Hero, and Sen. Kevin Mullin, R-Rutland, the chair of the Senate Economic Development Committee.
Over on the Senate side, Mullin’s committee passed out a housing bill, S.100, which would allocate $35 million to affordable housing, as Scott requested in his original budget.
Senate Economic Development also passed its annual omnibus economic development bill, S.135, which will expand when it reaches the House, and a consumer protection bill, S.136, which will also expand on the House side.
Ashe, the Senate president, has also said S.99, which would allow the creation of additional tax increment financing districts, is a priority. That bill sits in Senate Finance and was not subject to Friday’s crossover deadline.
The Senate has already passed a number of bills, including a measure that would establish a state ethics board. They have all been sent over to the House.
Only one bill, S.79, has cleared both houses. It restricts the use of state and local law enforcement in federal immigration enforcement and prohibits state workers’ participation in the establishment of a registry for certain protected groups. That bill awaits the governor’s signature.