Representative Anne Donahue
May 1, 2016
Perhaps the best way of demonstrating the chaos of the final week of the legislature is to share the calendar for Monday, May 2, even though those issues will be wrapped up by the time the Northfield News version of this column appears.
We are still, for now, mostly on the schedule that allows for three days of review of a bill. It is on notice for a day, is presented and debated at “second reading” the next day, and has a “third reading” the following day to give a chance for thorough consideration, plus any final amendments.
However we did expedite one day by having a “mock session” on Saturday. That means no one needed to be there, but the calendar moved ahead a day because bills on notice for Saturday will now be up for second reading on Monday. In addition, Monday is an added day to the schedule since we usually meet only Tuesday through Friday to allow time for those catching up on maintaining their full-time job responsibilities.
The big bills that need to pass will come at the end of the week, and will determine the actual closing day. They must pass because they include the general fund (operating budget) and the capital budget, plus the new tax and fee bills to pay for budget increases.
Anything else, including these Monday calendar items, will die if they are not finished when the money bills reach the finish line.
From Friday’s calendar:
Bills up for third reading:
Montpelier charter change: no controversy (the Berlin Pond section was struck), but it is a House bill, so it will still need to complete the Senate process. Because of the late date, we will likely “message our actions” to the Senate so that another day will not be lost.
Estate tax revisions: changes in the law that the Senate made that will generally reduce estate taxes, but includes the increase to the telecommunications fee that the House already passed but was not taken up by the Senate. The fee increase was controversial, but opposition was voted down (again) on Friday. It was added to the estate tax bill that the Senate sent over and wants, in order to force the Senate to address it, since the Senate will have to either accept the change or ask for a conference committee to resolve differences with the House. This is a common tactic.
Standardizing of some parts of environmental permits: no controversy, but it came from the Senate and the House made changes; the Senate will have to decide whether to accept the changes.
Permanency for children: no controversy, but from the Senate, and some changes made which will need Senate consideration. In addition, I have a proposed amendment. For long term guardianships, the bill permits a successor guardian to be appointed at the same time as the guardian, and an automatic change in custody then occurs if the guardian dies. I think that at that future time, there should be a new review by the court in case there are any changes in circumstances. (That kind of court review always happens in case of death of natural parents, even if they appointed a guardian in their wills.)
Approved absences from home detention: no controversy, Senate will need to approve House revisions.
Alcoholic beverage license changes: no controversy, Senate will need to approve House revisions.
Rental agreements if there is an unauthorized sub-lessee: no controversy, Senate will need to approve House revisions.
Bills up for second reading:
Bridport charter changes: no controversy, but will still need to complete the Senate process. Because of the late date, we will likely “suspend the rules” to move immediately to third reading and to “message our actions” to the Senate.
Drones, cell phones and license plate readers: this is a very big one, and rewritten from the Senate version. There will be lots of debate and potential amendments about the balance between citizen privacy protections and law enforcement needs. The Senate will undoubtedly want a conference committee, and if there is no agreement before the money bills finish their process, it will die.
Farm to school program: not likely to be controversial, Senate will need to approve House revisions.
Winooski charter changes: no controversy, but will need Senate action.
Barton charter changes: no controversy, but will need Senate action.
Government accountability committee revisions: no controversy and House is accepting the Senate bill without changes, so it will go straight to the governor.
Changes to the law defining independent contractors compared to employees. A major House bill that is coming to the House floor under a rarely used procedure. The Commerce Committee voted on it unanimously in March but it was sent back to the committee to hold pending input from a second committee. Others had major objections, and it stalled and was proclaimed “dead.” The unusual procedure was a motion and vote on the floor to “relieve the committee” of the bill and bring it to the House floor to proceed with second reading. It will be fiercely debated and may or may not pass. If it passes, it is highly unlikely that it will be taken up by the Senate since it is well beyond deadline with no time for Senate committee review. Nonetheless, many members felt it was important to hold a House vote.
Consideration of Senate changes to a House-passed bill:
Miscellaneous changes to criminal laws: no controversy or significant changes to the underlying House bill, and likely would have been accepted by the House. But! The Senate attached a bill that was stalled in the House (see process, estate bill, above) – the marijuana legalization bill, which sets up a major infrastructure for state oversight of sales. This will force the House to debate and vote on the Senate bill (or vote as a whole to send it to a House committee). Yes, expect a very extended debate, with an uncertain outcome. Most pundits believe it is highly unlikely to pass, in particular with no changes from this original Senate version. If a changed version does pass the House at some point, the Senate will have to decide whether to accept it as sent, or to ask for a conference committee where there are good chances it would die – if for no other reason than running out of time.
From Saturday’s Calendar:
Bills Up for Second Reading:
Pay Act for State Employees: likely to engender controversy, since fully funding the newly established contract would either require a further budget increase or – as the bill proposes -- partial cuts (through attrition) of the state workforce. The Senate had the contract information in time to include it in its version of the budget; the budget is currently back under House review.
Revisions to existing law for labelling of marijuana used for medical symptom relief: possibly some controversy, and the Senate will need to approve House revisions.
Combatting opiod abuse: a major bill that will likely raise questions and discussion, the Senate will need to review significant House revisions and it will likely request a conference committee.
Notifying patients about doctor office changes: no controversy, but Senate will need to accept House changes.
Consideration of Senate changes to a House-passed bill:
Hunting, fishing and trapping law revisions: no controversy, but House committee may ask for time to review Senate changes.
Transportation construction budget: House committee will ask for conference committee on multiple Senate changes.
Capital budget: House committee will ask for conference committee on multiple Senate changes.
Conference Committee Report:
Police body camera rules: Senate and House disagreed on differences in bills passed, so a conference committee was appointed and has come to agreement. Both bodies must approve the agreement, but these are usually always approved.
The Rest of the Week
There will be more and more pressure to suspend the usual rules of process to speed bills through. That will happen for anything non-controversial.
It used to also happen for major bills that the majority party (the Democrats) wanted passed, even extremely lengthy bills, including the budget itself. There was often no time to even actually read a bill before it was voted on.
Eight years ago I provoke a rebellion over this process, which does a serious disservice to our constituents. Thus was born the unofficial “24 hour rule.”
It requires a three-quarter vote to suspend the rules, so a minority party (the Republicans, though not the Progressives) can block a rules suspension. At the start of that next session, Republican leadership notified the Speaker that we would no longer go along with suspending rules without at least 24 hours to review any controversial bill, unless there we had internal consensus that we had had enough time to read and understand it. We extend that courtesy on behalf of the Progressives and any Independent if they feel they needed the full 24 hours.
It has spawned its own new opportunity for political gamesmanship. The Democrats will tell the press that Republicans are the cause of delaying adjournment. The Republicans, in turn, sometimes use the rule to its benefit by negotiating the timeline in exchange for a bill it wants to see pass.
But there is a bottom line: we should never be passing bills before legislators have enough time to read and understand them, and 24 hours is a reasonable standard to insist upon.
Thanks for the honor of representing you! You can contact me or Rep. Patti Lewis by email (firstname.lastname@example.org for me; email@example.com for Patti) or by leaving a message at the statehouse at 828-2228. We welcome your feedback and input.