Saturday, April 19, 2014

Legislative Update, April 19, 2014

Legislative Update

Rep. Anne Donahue

April 18, 2014


The betting pool has closed for the end date and time for this session. (Don’t panic about the gambling; it’s only $2 per guess and half goes to a local charity.) Most bets were clustered around Saturday, May 10.

The legislature is budgeted for 18 weeks, which would make it May 16, but leadership aims each year to save some money with an earlier finish.

Is that a good thing?

Like students and most other humans, we tend to use early time inefficiently and then cram at the end. That would probably be true no matter what the deadline, but it seems to be more so when we try to cut the session short.

This year, the end of the two-year session, all bills that do not pass die, no matter how much work has been invested in them. That puts more pressure on finishing bills that have already passed one body and sit in the other. Pressure can thwart efforts at careful work.

I often hear from constituents that the less time we spend in Montpelier, the better: it keeps us from gumming up the works with new laws. The longer that I am here, the more I see the volume of necessary work to revise laws that are not working as they should, or that address new problems. Doing a good job on any one of these issues can take weeks.

My committee is rushing to finish two Senate bills. One addresses the increasing opiate addiction crisis by reshaping the criminal justice system to get individuals into treatment as rapidly as possible. It will create opportunities for fewer criminal prosecutions for persons who fully engage in treatment.

The other addresses the most severely mentally ill patients in our hospitals, and how to respond to individuals who lack the capacity to make informed medical decisions, but are objecting to treatment with psychiatric medication.

The risk-benefit profile of these drugs can be unclear, so some advocates want them used rarely, if at all. Forcing someone to take a drug involuntarily is – as a Legal Aid attorney testified – a very big deal.

Care givers, on the other hand, believe that the current judicial process for weighing interests is far too slow and needs to change. The hospital association has been leading the push for a more expedited process. In rare circumstances a patient’s symptoms may even lead to assaults on other patients and staff, and a six- to eight- or more weeks’ process for a court decision is irrational.

Both these topics need review by at least two committees because of their subject matter (my Human Services Committee and the Judiciary Committee), and both need a good deal of time for adequate testimony. We are a lay legislature and need to gain from the expertise of others.

There are many more issues that need attention than we can get to in any one session, so many get deferred. Obviously, the level of priority varies based upon individual legislator’s priorities, and choosing among them is a part of the functioning of the democratic process and of who is in control of that process.

But I have seen first-hand how going too fast results in bad law. And while we rely upon the in-depth work of committees to learn the working of, for example, a complex commerce regulation, it is often on the floor with the full House that errors are caught. Until a bill reaches that point, only the members of the committee of jurisdiction have seen and reviewed it.

When a bill is on the calendar for notice for a day and then goes through two days of opportunity for debate, there is time to identify unforeseen consequences, ask questions, and offer amendments.

When it is a major policy matter, those days also provides the time for greater public awareness, and the opportunity for constituents to share their opinions with their representatives.

In the last week of the session, when there is a push to skip all the process and get work finished, there is a way to shift into hyper-speed. By a vote to suspend the rules of the House, all the “extra” days can vanish.

Seven years ago, this expedited process had become so extreme that we were receiving bills that were still warm from the printer, and final votes were being held within hours. I rebelled, and began making motions to refer bills back to committee and then asking for roll call votes on the motions.

It was mostly symbolic, since the majority was controlling the process and none of the motions had a chance of victory. Some of my colleagues got pretty annoyed at the several-hours delay it caused for adjournment that night. But others acknowledged as we left, “You are right about it.”

The outcome was a strengthening of resolve the following session to push back. Despite a significant minority, the Republican caucus retains enough members to win votes that require a two-thirds margin. A vote to suspend rules requires a two-thirds majority.

Thus at the start of that session, we gave notice that we were going to hold to a schedule of requiring at least 24 hours to review bills before voting them out. That practice has now stood up for three sessions. Our caucus agrees to waive the 24 hours only if the bill is a brief and non-controversial one.

Politics still emerge. The majority party has sometimes put pressure back on by twisting perspective and accusing the minority of playing politics to delay the end of the session by refusing to agree to suspend rules on a bill!

The court of public opinion can easily be swayed when all the facts aren’t clear. That’s why I thought I’d lay the facts out in advance this year. If you hear claims that Republicans are “delaying adjournment,” it means that we are insisting on having 24 hours to read bills before voting.

A lot of laws move very quickly in the last few days of the session. Bills that never had committee review get tacked onto other bills in order to get them passed. Whether you think the bill itself is good or bad, the fact that these are added without public notice, testimony, or committee discussion is not good.

Completely new language pops up in bills that come from a conference committee of six House and Senate members. Wordsmithing takes place in hallways instead of in committee rooms. It is not a very transparent process.

So regardless of any accusations of causing delay, I will continue to insist on the right – on your right – to be able to read and understand a bill before a vote.

I welcome your questions on any of the issues we address as we move into the “end game” of this biennium. You can leave a message with the Sergeant-at-Arms (828-2228) or at my home (485-6431) or contact me by email at  

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