Friday, March 24, 2017

March 25, 2017 Legislative Update

Legislative Update
Rep. Anne Donahue
March 25, 2017

We are hitting the meat of the session in the coming week, as we take up the House version of the state budget.
It appears that for the first time in many years, it will match our actual revenues instead of requiring new taxes to support it. That is thanks to our Appropriations Committee acting under the threat of a governor’s veto.
A good example of how it is possible to address urgent needs without increasing overall spending is the proposal developed by my Health Care Committee to address the psychiatric care crisis that is backing up our emergency rooms. I described that in detail in my last regular report.
A long debate on the House floor this week will be on the marijuana legalization bill.
In contrast to the Senate’s “tax and regulate” sales bill that failed a year ago, this bill is about legalizing the possession of an ounce or less, and the growing of a few plants.
I’m not interested in seeing the state go after personal use or cultivation of small amounts of marijuana, so in theory I could support the approach. But there are a number of key caveats for me, and the bill does not include many of them.
Unless floor amendments address those concerns – and there will be plenty of amendments offered and debated – I would be hard pressed to support it.
First, kids: the bill does include some aggressive prohibitions against persons allowing access to anyone under age 21. Does enabling “consumption” include prohibiting parents from exposing their kids to inhaling second-hand smoke? Not clear.
Does the bill include an assumption of child abuse or neglect if children are exposed? No.
The bill also promotes an attitude that marijuana isn’t all that bad a thing for young people, despite all the medical evidence that it is particularly harmful to developing brains, because it establishes possession of up to two ounces by youth as exactly equivalent to possession of alcohol.
Second, safety on our roads. We can’t test for “under the influence” in the same way we can for alcohol. Those who say that is no change from what exists today are kidding themselves if they don’t think there will be more use – and thus more driving while impaired – if use is legalized.
We could, however, enact stringent prohibitions on any use (by a passenger or driver) or even presence of marijuana in a motor vehicle. The bill does not do even that.
Third, public use. My view about personal use doesn’t extend to subjecting me to use by other persons. There are minor fines for public use; I think it needs to be illegal.
That was a flaw in decriminalization several years ago. An amendment I offered then to have a higher fine for public use, failed.
Even “private property” creates issues, because it includes apartments. Unlike alcohol, marijuana intoxicants are carried in the air. Don’t apartment dwellers have the right to be free from exposure to their neighbors’ use of pot?
Yet to make that distinction would create a fundamental inequity between wealthier (home owning) and less wealthy (apartment dwelling) users.
It’s a good demonstration of how difficult it becomes to draw clear lines among levels of how legal marijuana could be restricted to “personal use only.”
I’m not sure why leaving it all at our decriminalization approach (just a fine for small amounts) does not remain workable. There are enough others who feel the same way that a close vote is expected.
School Finance
Also coming up is a bill to restructure how we set tax rates within our statewide education property tax. It would create a clear connection that would benefit districts that spend less than the statewide average per student, and create a disadvantage for those that spend more.
This makes sense, BUT… it would be retroactive to the current budget year, with budgets already voted on. I have always fought retroactive bills, and will oppose this.
Regretfully, it appears that – having already rejected the Governor’s proposal – we will again do nothing this year to actually address the escalation of education costs.
It sounds reasonable on the surface to say that a person who commits domestic assault should have his or her guns removed from the home; that was the premise of the gun bill last week.
But there is a total illogic to say that a person who is an immediate threat to another person, and has been charged with an assault, should be left there with the victim -- just take any guns away and the victim will be safe?
If the person presents that kind of danger, he/she should be kept in custody until a bail hearing, and at that hearing, a judge can decide whether to order that weapons be confiscated. That way, both safety and due process rights are protected.
To merely confiscate all guns in a home, with no court review and only an allegation of abuse, violates a person’s right to their own property without the “due process of law” that is guaranteed by our constitution. It also violates the presumption of innocence when we act based only on charges being filed, without even immediate judicial review. I voted no; the bill passed on a 78-67 vote, very much closer than the often party line divisions on controversial issues.
Another seemingly good proposal: require reasonable accommodations (you don’t have to wear the otherwise-required staff uniform; you can have a stool to sit on) so that pregnant employees can continue to maintain their jobs.
Unfortunately, it wasn’t written that way. It includes unlimited amounts of unpaid leave beyond existing family leave laws and “job restructuring” without the employee necessarily being able to perform even the core functions of the job.
We were assured on the floor that the requirement that the accommodation not present “undue hardship” to employers means “they can say no” if, after a discussion with the employee, they feel the request creates an undue hardship.
That turned out to not be accurate. It is a mandate. The Attorney General or Human Rights Commission that would resolve disputes.
If put into practice as written, it could cost the state (as an employer) a great deal of money, so I moved (unsuccessfully) to have it sent for review by the Appropriations Committee.
I hope the Senate addresses some of the overly-broad language, so that I can support this bill when it returns to the House.
Mental Health
I reported two bills on the House floor. The first creates a review committee for interactions between police and persons who appear to be having a mental health crisis when it results in the use of force with death or serious injury.
The genesis of the bill was the death of Phil Grenon in Burlington last year. Consensus among all parties emerged that we need a way to review such incidents without trying to assess blame (the State’s Attorney review for wrongdoing already addresses that).
So the commission would do an in-depth analysis, determine if there were ways that could have resulted in a better outcome, and make recommendations for the future.
The second bill was part of our effort to address Vermont’s high rate of suicide. (It is the second leading cause of death for young people in Vermont; overall annual deaths exceed those from motor vehicle accidents, murder, and drowning combined.)
One group of teens has six times the rate of suicide attempts of the rest of our kids. These are the kids who identify under the Youth Risk Behavior Survey as “lesbian, gay, bisexual or questioning.”
Some of them, knowing that parents must consent to counselling, will not ask for help in addressing their confusion or mental health crises – even if that support is specifically to enable them to feel able to talk to their parents.
This bill allows minors to get counselling on these issues without parental consent.
It is certainly not an easy thing to allow parents to be excluded in this process, but the need is obvious and urgent. I was gratified by the House support of my report with a 125-12 roll call vote.
I’ve recent a flurry of constituent messages about the bill to create a Racial Justice Oversight Board in Vermont. Most have urged support, a few have said we don’t need it. Sometimes the fact that we think we don’t need something (we’re Vermonters, after all; we can’t have any prejudices!)  is precisely the evidence that we do. I support this bill.
Thank you for the honor of representing you. Please contact me with your questions and your opinions. You can reach me by message at home at 485-6431, at the statehouse at 828-2228, or at this email at

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