Saturday, May 3, 2014

Legislative Update May 3, 2014

This week I’ll give a summary of votes I’ve cast on some of the significant bills that have come through in the past two weeks. For others of particular interest to you, please get in touch to ask me directly.


I voted to support this bill, which would require labeling of foods with ingredients from genetically modified sources, despite the near certainty of a lawsuit on constitutional grounds by GMO companies. My rationale is summed up in the vote explanation I placed on the record:

“I have always supported the consumer right to have information on the content of the food they buy. My better judgment would go against supporting a bill with such potential for a high financial liability. My constituents, however, strongly endorse it despite that potential cost, so I cede to that judgment and choice.”

School Consolidation

I think we need to move in the direction of larger districts so that our students have access to more opportunities and we gain from economies of scale and more consistent planning. I was therefore tempted to support this bill to get that conversation going.

We have the smallest districts in the country at 299 students per district. New Hampshire has average districts of 1,200 students and Maine 818. We know we have one of the highest per pupil costs, rising at an unsustainable level.

However, this bill does not address the fundamental problems of the dynamics of cost and of the property tax burden, and I fear that if it passes (having “done something”) we will lose focus and pressure on addressing these more critical underlying issues.

I voted no; the bill passed on a relatively close 75-62 vote, and it is now up to the Senate to react in the short time remaining this session.

Toxic Chemicals

The Senate sent over a broad bill covering all consumer products, and the House narrowed it to focus on chemicals that are of particular concern for exposure to children under age 12. An example: there are some very toxic ingredients in play cosmetics marketed for little girls.

These will be listed on a Department of Health web site, and there can be additions to the list if new ones are identified. My committee has spent a great deal of time in past years addressing chemicals on a case-by-case basis, and this bill will allow regulation without repeat legislative action. I voted to support it.

Raw Milk

The bill to permit delivery and pick up at farmer’s markets for customers who are already signed up and have visited the farm was a minimal expansion of current law. I voted yes, but regretted that it did not go farther.

Health Care

This bill adds detail to the information that needs to be gathered before the viability of a universal access health care system can be determined. It also gave the governor a new, January 2015, deadline for sharing a plan for financing it. He already is in violation of a 2013 legislative directive, and of his own promise to provide it a year late this spring.

The good news in this bill was the upfront acknowledgement that the plan cannot go forward without full fiscal analysis and that 2017 is not a target deadline of the legislature, regardless of what the governor may say.

The down side of dropping an artificial start date is extending the uncertainty about the outcome of this entire reform effort.

We are still a long way from even asking the right questions. For example, regulations for a federal waiver of the Affordable Care Act, which would have to be received before Green Mountain Care could get underway, include the required submission of a 10-year budget to show sustainability.

Our current law only requires a 5-year budget, and this new bill did not change anything in identifying what we mean by “sustainable.”

Most startling is the requirement in the bill for the administration to submit a “conceptual waiver application” to the federal government by this November 15 (two months before the new due date for a financing plan.)

I looked up the federal law and regulations and found no reference anywhere to anything resembling a “conceptual waiver application,” and under my questioning on the floor, the Health Care Committee chair acknowledged that no such application exists!

I asked for a vote to remove that part of the bill – suggesting it was an embarrassment to be directing the administration to pursue an impossible action – but the committee did not back down so the vote failed along party lines. I voted against the full bill as well.

Involuntary Medication

I co-presented the bill changing some of the procedures for when persons in a psychiatric crisis can be subjected to a court order for medication over their opposition if they do not have the capacity to make a medical decision.

This relates to persons who have already been involuntarily hospitalized because it is believed they are a danger to themselves or others. The medications are themselves controversial because of questions about whether long term risks outweigh the short term benefit of stabilizing an illness.

It is a terrible affront to human dignity to forcibly medicate someone. Both my Human Services Committee and the Judiciary Committee worked very hard to maintain the delicate balance between allowing as much time as possible for a doctor-patient relationship to result in a collaborative treatment plan, yet allowing for informed consent to medication to be decided by a judge when there is no other option. 

Our bill, which passed on a 132-6 vote, was narrower than the Senate version, so it will be going to a conference committee to resolve the difference.


My committee worked on a Senate bill making judicious revisions to our law protecting people from prosecution if using marijuana to relieve symptoms of specific severe illnesses. Our bill was hijacked on the House floor through an amendment adding a tax study on legalization of marijuana.

I don’t mind the idea of the study nearly as much as I minded mixing these two very different issues, and I voted against the bill that I had supported in my own committee. The Senate accepted our changes so the bill is headed to the governor for signature.

Coming from the Senate

I was pleased to see my Taser bill pass the Senate. It will require statewide standards for safe and appropriate use of Tasers, along with required training in mental health interventions for all police officers in the state.

The Reach Up work incentive bill from my committee is being sent back by the Senate with radical alterations. Instead of an internal, cost neutral budget by taking a small amount (less than $5 a week) from current public assistance grants, the bill would take the funding from caseload reduction savings. Since those savings would normally be used elsewhere in the budget, this is no longer a neutral shift.

It also uses the funds to supplement child care grants instead of permitting families to keep a higher amount of work income. This is clearly much less of a return on the investment in work, and eviscerates the bill. It was a bright star of this session, and hopefully will make it into law through another route.

Contact me with a message about any of the issues that will be coming rapid-fire through the legislature in these final days. You can call me at home at 485-6431or at the legislature at 828-2228, or by email at





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