Saturday, March 21, 2015

Legislative Update, March 21, 2015

It was good news this week when the administration reported to our committee that it has finally agreed to consider using a federal health insurance exchange if Vermont Health Connect does not become fully functional by this May. Next week, we will begin looking at proposed bill language that would establish a clear time line for this decision-making process.

This follows a week after agreeing, under growing pressure, to allow individuals to enroll in Health Connect plans directly with carriers next fall. So there may be light at the end of the tunnel. These are both “fixes” that I have been fighting for.

Important news for Berlin and Northfield: the House Fish, Wildlife and Water Resources Committee has decided that it will not take up a bill that would have allowed towns to prohibit fishing, swimming and boating on their drinking water sources that are located in other towns.

This bill was brought by Montpelier representatives to gain control over the use of Berlin Pond. The committee determined that these decisions require the consistency of state, not local oversight, since water is a public trust.

Meanwhile, a number of policy bills occupied House floor time in the week after the crossover deadline for House bills heading to the Senate. Next week is the deadline for money bills. Most House Committees will now spend the rest of this session reviewing bills sent over by the Senate.

Here is a sampling of House bills passed and sent to the Senate:

Revenge Use of Sexually Explicit Photos

Taking photos of someone who is nude or involved in sexual activities in places where they have an expectation of privacy is already illegal. But what if one consents to pictures being taken (“just having fun,” or because it’s within a trusting relationship, “just between us,”) and when a relationship turns sour, the pictures get posted on Facebook in revenge – or worse yet, for profit?

The point of this bill is to make that a crime, ranging from misdemeanor to felony depending on the level of harmful intent of the person doing the posting. When technology changes, and a new means of people harming other people emerges, we need new laws to address it.

There is always a balance required by the First Amendment. What you do in the town square (that is, with no reasonable expectation of privacy), can’t be blocked from being filmed as it happens or from being transmitted later. I introduced an amendment to help clarify this in order to protect the integrity of the new law, and it was adopted on the floor.

Accessible Roads for Trailer Parks

There is a good amount of law on the books to protect the rights of mobile home park tenants to have safe premises, but concerns arose after Irene about the failure of some owners to maintain safe road access for emergency vehicles. This bill automatically deems it a safety hazard if there is not reasonable access, and allows for withholding of rent or for fines up to $10,000 for a single violation.

“Reasonable” (to the tenant) was the sticking point for me: that isn’t a very clear standard. As any of us living on dirt roads know, that there can be times, whether in mud season or in the middle of a snowstorm, that roads are impassible. It is the town that determines what is reasonable to maintain safe access, not any one of us as an individual – and we can’t withhold property taxes if we disagree with the town.

Thus despite supporting the intent of this bill, I but voted no on the first vote; it passed on a 95-47 roll call.

The next day, we received additional information about the mechanisms within existing law that enables the owners to resolve problems, and that provide eternal review. Based on this, I was, along with others, able to shift to support the bill on its second vote; the roll call was 117-24. Details can matter!

When Do Kids Become Adults?

Vermont is only one of two states in the country that allows the start of the prosecution of any level of crime by a 16- or 17-years-old to be in adult court. Most state systems require serious crimes to go to adult court, and allow a Family Court to send other felony charges to adult court, but Vermont allows total discretion by prosecutors on that decision including for misdemeanors.

Among other things, it means that if the court later decides that the situation is more appropriate for Family Court, it’s already too late in terms of the public record. A 16-year-old making a youthful mistake may already have his or her name in the paper as an arrested criminal.

This bill requires the initial charge filed by law enforcement to be cited as a juvenile offense (other than in serious crimes); then the prosecutor can file it in the court he or she deemes appropriate. This is still far less protective than 48 other states, since the prosecutor, not the court, makes that decision. But it is a step forward. I voted yes.

This went hand-in-hand with a bill the week prior that banned a sentence of life without the chance for parole for crimes committed before age 18. It doesn’t mean that an offender cannot be held for life imprisonment, but it means that there must at least be the opportunity for a parole board to eventually consider whether a release is appropriate. I also supported this.

Limited Liability Corporations

This bill rewrote the law on the licensing and functioning of a type of corporate entity. It was 80 pages long in the calendar, and is a good example of a type of bill that a representative cannot fully understand – either by reading it or listening to the floor presentation – without having been part of the detailed committee consideration. How does one decide how to vote? There is reliance on the committee process and the reassurance of an 11-0 vote by the members of that committee. It passed on a unanimous floor vote.

Emergency Involuntary Procedures

Last year, we addressed the difficult balance between individual rights and involuntary treatment when a person with a mental illness is objecting to the use of medication. This year, we looked at a similar issue when a court is not involved, because there is an immediate emergency regarding self-harm or harm to others by a person within a hospital.

Vermont sets a “best practices” standard that is above the “floor” set by federal rules, and this bill clarified certain parts of requirements under state rules. I was concerned that we were not including children under these protections, and offered an amendment that included them while also allowing variation where the best practice standard might differ for children. This amendment was accepted unanimously on the floor.

Town and School Budget Reports

The week before town meeting, there was a Front Porch Forum exchange on the subject of our state law regarding the distribution of town reports. The Government Operations Committee took a look at the issue this week, and concluded that the law is clear: a town can either individually mail or deliver the reports within 10 days in advance, or it can – by vote of the residents – give notice of where it is available, within 30 days prior to town meeting.

It appears that many towns, like Northfield, have recognized that individual delivery is too costly and making it easily available in public locations makes more sense. But they haven’t necessarily held the required vote to do so, and don’t have it available 30 days in advance.

It seems that the state should either expect the existing law to be followed, or change the law to follow the change in standard practice; the committee will continue to consider this issue.

Major Bills Pending

There are major bills getting media attention because they were voted on by committees, but that will not actually reach the House floor until next week or later because they have a secondary or third committee that must review them, most often based upon taxes or spending. These include the education funding reform bill (with proposed spending cap), the transportation funding bill, the water quality bill, and the ban on teacher strikes. Underlying all of them is the general fund budget, which is projected to be up for debate on the floor this Thursday and Friday.

Please keep sending me your thoughts and concerns – they are important to me. Contact me any time via messages at the state house (828-2228), home (485-6431) or by email: You can read my past updates on my blog site,


Saturday, March 14, 2015

Special Health Care Bill Update, March 14, 2015

My committee (House Health Care) passed a major bill this week, so this is a bonus week update for those interested in reading a very in-depth report on this multi-piece bill.

We also passed a bill that represents a change in policy and very good news for individuals who have been forced to enroll for health insurance on the dysfunctional Vermont Health Connect system even when they were not applying for subsidies.

The big bill included the sugar-added beverage tax. I received a number of responses to my request for feedback on that issue, and not surprisingly, there were a wide range of opinions. All of them, however, had productive thoughts or insights that helped broaden how the issue might affect Vermonters – whether positively or negatively.

I did not support the bill, but it is also important to know that the context included other parts of the bill and alternatives that were discussed.

The New Spending

First, the bill is focused on $47 million annually in new spending for a list of specific health care initiatives. When combined with federal matching funds, this brings the total budget of new expenditures to $91 million, annualized. The governor’s health care proposal this year was to impose a .7 percent payroll tax for a list of similar initiatives. Our bill includes two revenue sources: the two-cent-per-ounce sugar tax, and a .3 percent payroll tax. In effect, our committee bill substituted part of the payroll tax for the sugar tax.

There are two other changes from the original budget proposal from the governor. The committee bill repeals the current “employer assessment” levied against employers who do not provide health insurance.

Some people have felt that the payroll tax would mean “double dipping” from these employers. This is because, at least in theory, the payroll tax on employers who do currently offer insurance will be returned to them through lower health insurance premiums because Medicaid will be reimbursed at a higher level, reducing the amount private insurance carries part of Medicaid costs (the “cost shift.”) They will be “held harmless” from the impact of the new tax. The payroll tax on employers who do not currently offer insurance will not benefit them through lower insurance rates (since they don’t offer insurance.) Thus, also maintaining the assessment would doubly penalize them for not providing coverage.

Repealing the payroll tax, which would have raised $18.3 million, means that the addition of $47.2 million in new spending over a full year requires raising at least $65.5 million in total revenue to create a balanced package. The new payroll tax would raise $39.7 million, and the beverage tax is projected to raise $30.9 million.

Those are the figures when rolled out for a full year. Since it most pieces would not begin until next January, covering the half year in the upcoming budget requires $29.8 million in new state spending ($56.6 in new initiatives, with the federal funds added.) The tax projections are $17.8 million from the payroll tax and $17.8 from the beverage tax, minus $4.4 million from the elimination of the employee assessment in the fourth quarter.

Moving the Medicaid Cost Increases

The other change from the governor’s original proposal with the .7 percent payroll tax is that our committee bill does not include the cost of the $16 million increase in existing increased Medicaid expenses, which really does belong in the existing budget, not a budget for new initiatives. The administration now agrees with that perspective.

However it is important to realize that this $16 million increases the amount of new revenue or cuts that other committees will have to identify beyond the governor’s proposed cuts and revenues, since it was originally proposed to be funded as part of the payroll tax. The other addition to the gap beyond the governor’s original proposal is the $18 million in revenue shortfall reported in January, thus $34 million in total.

On to the vote:

Our chair allowed for recognizing committee members’ positions on the significant separate issues through straw polls.

We first voted on the policy directions of initiatives in the bill. It further supports the Blueprint for Health costs for coordinating care for chronic health conditions; reduces the price disparities between state payments for health care (Medicaid) and private insurance payments; increases subsidies for low income individuals buying insurance on the Exchange; focuses on specific support for enhancing universal access to primary care; provides the resources for increased oversight responsibilities of the Green Mountain Care Board; and provides an inflationary increase to health care service providers not covered by the Medicaid increase.

Some of these initiatives do not have consensus support, in part because they would help support a future single payer financing structure for health care. They are initiatives that I do support – they are investments in better health care and less spending over time -- and to the question, “if resources were not an issue, how would you vote?” I voted, “yes.”

We then voted on the use of the two-cent-per-ounce sugared beverage tax as a revenue source for the bill. Note that this did not use any of the revenue to fund other programs that have been suggested as linking to the tax purpose, such as making fruits and vegetables more affordable. It also includes no funding for a public education campaign.

I told the committee that I would be ready to seriously consider this tax if it was proposed after first having an aggressive education campaign about the health risks of significant added sugars. It’s what we did, for example, with nicotine – and still do, as a combined education and tax effort. To spring it on consumers without doing that first, I think, is unfair and counterproductive. Given our budget shortfall, I would even support a small beverage tax in order to fund such a campaign. That approach did not receive committee support.

The other issue of particular concern is the impact of any really major tax differential between Vermont and our surrounding states. That is counterproductive to our critical need for economic development – something essential to addressing our structural budget deficit. So I voted “no” on this straw vote.

The same issue rings true if we were to become the first state to impose a state payroll tax, regardless of good motives or policy efforts. We do not stand in isolation, and what might be otherwise argued as good policy is bad policy if it puts us in a significant economic disadvantage compared to other states. I voted no on that component as well, and thus no in the formal vote on the bill as a whole as well.

Many More Steps to Go

Note that this is only a first step in a long process. I think our committee has set itself up to have wasted all of the time we spent in developing this bill, given the realities of our bigger budget picture.

This bill will next travel to the House Ways and Means Committee to assess the tax proposals. Will some survive? There is a question as to whether there is much support there for either the sugar tax or the payroll tax. At the same time, that committee will without doubt be assessing some new revenue sources as a part of the existing $34 million gap (or $112 million, if you do not start by assuming the governor’s revenue proposals will be accepted.)

Ways and Means will also have to look at sustainability. The sugared-beverage tax revenue amount is only a rough estimate, and will raise less over time if it succeeds in its purpose of reducing consumption. So we will have started new programs that will grow in cost, and they will require other, additional sources of new revenue to keep them going in the future.

After Ways and Means, it goes to House Appropriations. That’s the committee already “spilling blood” (in one committee member’s words) in terms of cuts to balance the budget even assuming some new tax revenues.

Will Appropriations embrace the $30 million in additional state budget spending for the half year that would be covered in the fy 2016 budget? (And then a commitment to $47 million to continue in the following year?)

Every penny of that $30 million, along with the existing $34 million gap, must be filled by other, even deeper cuts, or through proposed additional new taxes, or both, just to get through the current year. I think that my committee was irresponsible to even suggest to our colleagues that a $30 million combined spend and tax-to-pay-for-it package be added to the current fiscal crisis.

Whatever the House ultimately passes, all goes to the Senate for scrutiny.

So you have not heard the last word on the spending or the taxes – sugar and otherwise – that left my committee on Friday afternoon.


Direct Enrollment

I referenced some good news at the very start of this update: last week we also passed a bill that will permit individuals to enroll for health insurance directly from the insurance carriers, instead of from the broken “Vermont Health Connect,” as long as they are not applying for subsidies. (Federal law requires that enrollment for subsidies go through the computer exchanges.)

The insurance products will the same as those on the Exchange. This will take effect beginning with the next open enrollment period next fall. This is the same process that we allowed for small business last year, but we were forcing individual purchasers to continue to enroll through the Exchange.

This is a reversal of a policy the state and legislature had insisted upon from the beginning of the Exchange.

Just a few weeks ago, my committee debated this issue. The governor’s office opposed it, insisting the Exchange would be working soon. The three Republicans tried to push back, but the best we could get at that time was agreement to allow direct enrollment for this fall only, and only if the system was still not working by mid-summer.

Under the onslaught of bad publicity and pressure over the ongoing level of dysfunction, the administration had a change of heart, and our committee chair and other committee members immediately followed suit. 


Sunday, March 8, 2015

Legislative Update, March 8, 2015

Rep. Anne Donahue

Legislative Update

March 8, 2015


Having a week away from the legislature at about the halfway point of the session gives a window to look at issues not immediately in front of one’s own committee. We will soon begin to spend more time voting on bills on the House floor, and less time deeply submerged in our committee specialty areas.

The biggest task – always our most significant responsibility – is establishing the state’s budget, and it remains hard to predict how this year’s $112 million deficit will be addressed.

I do want to correct myself from my last update. I passed along misinformation stating that there was an added hole of $16 million due to increased Medicaid enrollment. That hole is, in fact, part of the $112 million. It was confusing because it is a hole that the Governor’s budget proposes to fill as part of a .7 percent payroll tax in a separate package that also adds new health care spending.

Beyond that, however, are dozens of other issues and challenges: the education fund and property taxes, addressing child protection services, gun control proposals, and the sugar-added beverage tax, to pick only a few.


Education. Just before the break, the House Education Committee put forward its reform bill. It does not propose radical change to our current combination property tax-income tax funding mechanism. It does put more pressure towards creating larger school districts, although the debate continues over whether this is important to either quality or cost containment or both.

The key language is the requirement that towns develop “integrated education systems” that include an average daily membership of at least 1,100 students in prekindergarten through 12th grade by 2019 unless granted a waiver by the State Board of Education.

To put those numbers in perspective for our area, the current Washington South Supervisory Union (Northfield and Roxbury) has about 650 students: too small. Washington Central (Berlin, East Montpelier, Worcester, Calais and Middlesex) has 1,490: just fine.

Who might Northfield be able to partner with? Montpelier is growing and expects to reach about 1,000 students by 2019. Williamstown currently has about 550 students.

This is not a proposal that would mean closing schools, but a single governance structure would be making those decisions. Are Northfield or Williamstown students best served by their current high schools that may be more limited in what they offer based on size? If these discussions move to real-life, there will be a lot to consider.

As far as budgets go, the state legislature likes to point to local town decisions, but your school boards – your neighbors – are the ones trying to keep those numbers as low as possible. There aren’t a lot of people willing to take on that tough job, as board vacancies attest. Changing the funding system to make voters “see the connection” between their vote and their taxes won’t necessarily reduce costs.

That’s partly because local taxes can get driven up because other town budgets increase. That is a part of the system that has to be built in in some way because of the need for equity in education: poorer towns can’t be left with inadequate budgets, so we must have a statewide component.

Yet unless budgets change, reducing property taxes only means increasing other taxes, and most Vermonters are already paying based upon income.

The House bill shows no real appetite for a radical revision to the current system. So that’s my not-very-optimistic, but trying-to-be-honest, appraisal of the prospects for any major changes in education funding this year.


Child Protection. There has been a great deal of legitimate concern over the deaths of two toddlers last year whose families already had involvement in our state child protection services. A special legislative committee took testimony last summer and fall, and came back armed with proposals to improve our laws.

I am always a bit fearful of “reactionary” bills: those we pass after something bad happens. They run the risk of over-responding to a narrow issue, and creating unanticipated new problems. We do not live in a perfect world, and sometimes bad things do happen that, when we try to fix them, we make worse.

A frequent comment last year was that Vermont had gotten “out of balance” in the challenge of weighing parent’s rights against what is in a child’s best interests. The data don’t necessarily bear that up: our rate of termination of parental rights of children ages 0-3 is in the top five states in the nation.

The Senate has now passed S. 9, and the House Judiciary and Human Services Committees will be taking it up. Most of the bill includes solid, practical steps to increase the sharing of information and the ability to intervene appropriately.

I do have concern with some changes in language, and hope the House will scrutinize it carefully.  Physical injury has been redefined to mean “any impairment of physical condition by other than accidental means.” (Any? What does that mean?)

Risk of harm now includes “leaving a child without developmentally appropriate supervision.” (“Developmentally appropriate”? How is a parent supposed to interpret that?)

“Sexual abuse” has been clarified to be identified as behavior defined in our criminal laws, but includes behavior that “constitutes a potential violation” of those laws. (What is a “potential violation”?)

In our important desire to protect children, I fear that we sometimes forget that removing a child from his or her home can itself be extremely traumatic to a child. I am not weighing parents’ rights in looking at this balancing. I am weighing the right of a child to be protected from over-zealous interference from the state.

It also matters what we offer a child as the alternative. We know it is damaging to children to bounce them from one home to another. In Vermont, 24 percent of children are moved three or more times in the first 12 months of foster care, compared to an average of 14 percent among other New England states.

So this bill needs careful monitoring.


Gun Control Proposals. The very controversial universal background check provision that would have affected private sales has been declared dead in the Senate, but two other provisions in the bill remain under consideration.

One creates a parallel state crime to federal law for gun possession by a person with a violent felony record (federal law is for any felony). The other requires reporting the names of persons who are court-committed for mental health treatment (outpatient or inpatient) to the federal data base. (Under federal law, such persons may not possess or be sold guns.)

Both of these, on the surface, sound completely reasonable; both require digging deeper. Do we actually have a problem?

On average, among all deaths from gun violence in the state (about 50 per year), three percent are accidental, seven percent are homicide, and ninety percent are from suicide. The suicide data is not new to me. Counting all means of suicide, we lose almost 100 Vermonters every year. This far more than motor vehicle deaths and includes many young Vermonters, and yet with much less effort invested in prevention.

Providing names to the data base doesn’t address that; it addresses only the fear of a higher risk of violence to others, which is actually almost statistically nil. It also only addresses persons who have received treatment, rather than those who may be at higher risk because they have not.

Most solutions that appear simple, are not.


The Sugar-Added Beverage Tax. Not diet soda, but yes, sports drinks. (Remember the old days, when we were being warned about the dangers of artificial sweeteners in diet beverages?)

What is the motivation here? It depends on who you ask: a “sin tax” (like alcohol) that raises revenue by taxing something that you don’t need and is bad for you; or public health initiative that aims to promote healthy behavior (like cigarette taxes) and raises money as a side benefit.

From a health perspective, there is little doubt that we take in far too much sugar and it is hurting our health, which hurts all of us by helping to drive up health care costs. Drinks are hardly the only source of sugar. It’s hard to find a loaf of bread to buy that doesn’t have added sugar. But they are the most visible and concentrated part of the sugar-added market.

This is a big tax: two cents per ounce is 64 cents for a 32 ounce bottle of soda. It really is intended to try to change behavior. And no one has to pay the tax if they don’t want to: just don’t buy the stuff. If there are going to be new taxes of some sort voted in as part of filling the budget gap, that may make this one less offensive than others.

Is this an appropriate role for government, to not just educate, but try to force us to be healthier? Is mandatory exercise next? (Except that I gave up my prime source of physical activity, downhill skiing, because I was running up health care system costs with my propensity for injuries.)

I’m actually somewhat split on this one, and would welcome constituent feedback.


Please always feel free to share your opinions on this or other topics before the legislature. You can leave a message at any time by email ( or phone (485-6431) or at the state house (828-2228.) My updates can be found at