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,


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