.By Linda Waite-Simpson
It is hard to believe that we are nearly halfway through the legislative session. The deadline for bills to be voted out of policy committees is March 14 — meaning frenzied committee schedules next week. The House Judiciary Committee completed work on a number of bills that are due on the floor next week for debate, including a drugged driving bill (H.501) that aligns charges and penalties for driving under the influence of alcohol, drugs or a combination of alcohol and drugs.My committee also passed out a bill that addresses a gap in our legal system that has allowed people with traumatic brain injury from being prosecuted for serious crimes (H.555). This issue came to our attention due to a heinous sexual assault on a minor in Addison County where the defendant was released because he was incompetent to stand trial due to a traumatic brain injury (TBI). Because TBI is neither a mental illness nor a developmental disability, we were unable to commit this person to supervision of any kind. It was extremely tricky to find a narrow window to address the public safety issue without putting more pressure on a very tight budget, but our priorities were to ensure public safety and to protect our constitutional right to due process under the law.Other bills passed earlier in the session are H.62 — banning use of hand held electronic devices while driving — and updates to our minor guardianship statutes (H.581) that have not been updated since the 1920’s.Bills moving over from the Senate that House Judiciary will take up after crossover include: revision to our mental health commitment and involuntary medication policies (S.287); a bill that proposes significant amendments to perpetual conservation easements (S.119); eyewitness identification policies (S.184 and S.297); expanding pre-trial services in criminal cases where there is need for drug addiction treatment (S.295); and civil forfeiture in animal abuse cases (S.237).Other happenings in House committees include work on the “Big Bill” — appropriations. The governor’s proposal was for a budget that increases spending by about 5 percent. We have seen a reduction in federal funds (about one third of our spending) due to sequestration and other cuts, and that puts additional pressure on a tight budget. We have shifted the budgeting process to results-based accountability and are asking every agency to produce outcome-based evidence as part of their budget request.We hope to see movement on the Lyme Disease bill (H.123) that will broaden treatment guidelines to include recommendations from the CDC, Prevention and Infectious Disease Society of America, and the International Lyme and Associated Diseases Society. Another bill due out of committee soon is H.762 — Adverse Childhood Experiences — a bill that sets up pilot programs in the Blueprint for Health as well as in elementary school to address high-risk health issues resulting from abuse, neglect and family dysfunction.The Ways and Means Committee is also finalizing their work on the education tax along with the House Education Committee that is working on policies that will impact our education system. We are facing about $50 million in new spending this year with fewer students. We need to update our system with a focus on quality outcomes and efficiencies. The proposal under consideration at this time is to eliminate the supervisory union model in favor of creating Pre-K-12 districts with one elected board. If we want to find efficiencies and maintain quality outcomes, we need to be flexible in deployment of our resources. Along with these policy proposals, the current tax proposals under consideration are: limiting annual education spending per pupil to the rate of inflation; extending income sensitivity for middle-income taxpayers; phasing out small school grants (about 20 percent of Vermont schools have fewer than nine students in a classroom; we are the only state considering minimum class sizes); modifying the renter rebate program and funding it through low-income housing grants; and replacing the Common Level of Appraisal with rolling reappraisals.Stay tuned — this will be a bumpy ride as there are winners and losers in all of these proposals.Water quality is an issue for Essex in particular because we will have additional demands for reducing phosphorus discharged from our wastewater treatment plants if we are unable to pass legislation that adequately addresses phosphorus pollution from farms and rural roads in addition to storm water runoff from developed areas of the state. H.586 sets standards for phosphorus discharge for all farms where there are animals in close proximity to unprotected waters, including large ponds and streams. The bill also addresses stream erosion, runoff from unpaved rural roads and standards for runoff from paved roads and bridges.Other House-passed bills of note are updates to our open meeting laws (H.497) that address electronic communications and participation in meetings via electronic means. We also passed H.275, a bill that allows military spouses to collect unemployment compensation due to military transfer. Vermont is the 45th state to provide this benefit. H.589 allows our disabled veterans access to free hunting licenses where the disability is 60 percent or greater (changed from 100 percent disability in current statute.) We will be considering the Raw Milk bill – S.70 – that allows farmers’ markets to sell raw milk under certain circumstances. This is a bill that our local farmers’ market group might be interested in following.As always, please feel free to contact me if you have any questions or concerns. I can be reached on my cell phone at 881-8528 while we are in session or you can leave a message on my home phone – 872-0499; or send me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org or email@example.com.
Linda Waite-Simpson represents Essex Junction in the Vermont House of Representatives.