Friday, March 21, 2014

Legislative Update, March 22, 2014

Legislative Update 

Rep. Anne Donahue

March 22, 2014


The House version of the state budget for fiscal year 2015, the tax proposals to pay for it, and the education tax rate are all due out for votes at the end of this week before heading to the Senate for its review.

It appears that the Ways and Means Committee will be proposing tax increases in the realm of $4 million, less than the governor’s $14 million proposal and thus turning down some of his budget proposals.

One item that is likely to not make the cut is the reimbursement to families that were billed for repayment for our processing errors for Food Stamps. Our Human Services Committee bill making the state responsible was presented to the Appropriations Committee last week, and it ended up low on the Committee’s wish list.

The Pay Act, which came out of committee on a 6-5 vote Friday, supports the 4.2 percent COLA and step increases for state employees negotiated by the administration.

Addressing Poverty

My committee succeeded with a bill that may prove to be the most significant action in years in helping families out of poverty.

The bill was attempting to address the obstacle for families on public assistance when they start earning wages. Different benefits – child care, housing, and so forth – drop off more quickly than the income one begins to earn. It’s called the benefits cliff. It punishes work.

By not counting initial wages earned against Reach Up income limits, we can help get over that hump. The bill will increase that “earnings disregard” from the first $200 to $300 of income, and from 25 percent to 50 percent of wages earned. It will also allow savings up to $5,000 before becoming ineligible for assistance, instead of $2,000.

These two measures are recognized nationally as optimal ways to help families succeed in getting off of public support. So the public policy for doing this has always been sound, but the cost to do it climbs well above $1 million.

A young, business-minded representative from Bellows Falls, Matt Treiber, set out this year to find a way to do it from within the existing resources in the Reach Up program, and he discovered that a shift of less than $20 per month from the cash assistance grant would pay for the proposed work incentives in the bill.

He worked to convince his Democratic colleagues that the benefit of the change outweighed the burden of the reduction in the basic grants. Friday, the House voted 141-4 in support.

Medical Consent by Proxy

If you have not completed an advance directive and have a car accident or stroke and end up in a coma, who makes medical decisions for you?

A court can appoint a guardian, but Vermont law provides no other “proxy” consent. Hospitals muddle along with policies that do not have backing in statute. Worse yet, Medicare has started warning providers that it will not accept a proxy that is not authorized under state law for admission to hospice care, and could stop paying in situations where the patient cannot consent for themselves.

I presented a committee bill last week that creates a legal proxy (family member or known close friend) and requires decisions that reflect what the patient would have wanted, if known, and it passed the House easily.

Unfortunately, two other parts of the bill I introduced were not addressed. Under current Vermont law, consent for a “do not resuscitate” order can come from an agent, a guardian, or an “other individual” who signs. No definition of who that must be; no requirement on how that decision is made.

My committee decided we did not have time this year to correct this. I was able to convince the others to extend rather than eliminate a “due date” for addressing it for two more years, so that a reminder of the need stays in place.

The final part of my bill sought to clarify that an agent or guardian may not consent to a physician-prescribed lethal medication for end of life. This protection was one of those stripped in last minute changes to the physician aid-in-dying bill last spring. On a straw poll, 7-4, the committee chose to not act on that part of my bill.

Police and Tasers

Last year, I introduced a bill to require statewide standards and training for the use of electronic control devices by police (typically known by the brand name Taser.) I think they are a vital tool to avoid the use of lethal force, but they are sometimes mistaken as being a non-lethal alternative.

Deaths have resulted, including one in Vermont two years ago. The victim in that case had called for help with a mental health crisis.

The issue of distinguishing symptoms of mental illness with intentionally disobeying police orders is intertwined with potential Taser misuse. One of the standards in the bill requires that, when safe to do so, police attempt to de-escalate a crisis before using a Taser.

Verbal de-escalation in a mental health crisis is a learned skill. In 2006, funding was provided to develop new training for police for these interventions, and since then, it has become a component of training for all new recruits. I am a member of the ongoing Attorney General’s Task Force on this training.

Thirty-two percent of officers in the state have still never taken the course.  I proposed a floor amendment to require that all police receive it within the next three years. (According to the 2014 report, 8 of Northfield’s 10 officers and 11 of Berlin’s 12 officers have completed this training.)

Both the bill and my amendment passed easily.

More on Police

An issue that has irked Northfield for years will finally get some serious review from a committee appointed to study state and local police coverage this summer. The issue is taxpayer inequity when some towns rely on state police coverage, while others pay for local police.

Earlier this year I heard a compelling example from a constituent. Tourists from England heading for Stowe slid off I-89 into a snowbank in the middle of a bitterly cold night.

State police were not available, and Northfield police spent several hours bringing the family to warm shelter and arranging assistance with the car. They later received a letter of gratitude from the tourists they rescued.

A heart-warming story, but it didn’t occur in Northfield.

“I am paying for Northfield police to provide service on the interstate and for state police to provide services to other towns,” the constituent wrote. “The transfer of Northfield property and income taxes to the communities that receive state police services at bargain costs should cease.” 

If the bill passes the Senate, this issue would be one of several that the study committee would review in order to propose legislative options next year.

Health Care Reform

I attended my first meeting as a new member of the Advisory Committee to the Green Mountain Care Board this past week. We were asked for recommendations on how the Board should meet its responsibility to review financial sustainability into the future before a single payer health system may be launched.

The seriousness with which the Board is taking its many obligations is gratifying to see. On the philosophical level, I continue to believe that in its broad strokes, our plans for reforming the system are the right direction to go to create more equitable payment for health care. I also believe that an attempt to do it as a single, small state will prove to not be feasible, and that we stand to lose a great deal in the course of trying.

I am honored to have been asked to contribute to the decision making process of the Green Mountain Care Board.


Please be in touch about issues that concern you, or if you have questions about the topics in this column. You can reach me at 485-6431, at, or via message at the state house at 828-2228. You can review earlier updates on my blog at



























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