From the Statehouse
By Linda Waite-Simpson
I was hoping by now to have adjourned so I could deliver a final report of the Legislature’s bills for 2013. Due to differences, however, between the Senate, House and Governor, we don’t yet have a budget or tax bill for the year, though we are very close.
Many of you will be happy to hear we are not considering the tax increases proposed earlier this year. Revenue forecasts for April and May show the state in much better fiscal position than predicted in January. We are closing a near $10 million budget deficit by reducing discretionary spending, but details are not yet agreed upon by the Appropriations Committee members. The Ways and Means Committee members are also working on changes to the tax code. I am told they will be revenue neutral.
A controversial bill still under consideration but likely to pass this year is S.77, a bill that allows a person under very defined circumstances to request a prescription for a lethal dose of medicine at the end stage of a terminal disease. I support giving Vermonters this choice as part of end of life care. Although hospice is a wonderful choice for many people, there are circumstances where palliative care is ineffective. I understand and respect concerns about this bill, but we have been very careful to scrutinize 15 years of data from Oregon and almost five years from Washington in order to build safeguards into the statute. Health care professionals are not required to participate if they so choose. Many people will find this statute on the wrong side of their religious convictions, but I know it is a bill that many Vermonters want.
A common theme with bills passed out of Legislature this year is that we are not waiting for the federal government to address issues important to many Vermonters. The House passed the GMO/GE labeling bill (H.112) last week and it is in the Senate for consideration next year. A complex bill, it is packed with findings we believe show a compelling state interest in requiring labeling on foods sold here after 2015. We can’t predict what the federal courts may consider when food manufacturers challenge Vermont, but we can’t wait for the FDA to do their job. We believe Vermonters have a right to know what is in their food and where and under what circumstances that food is produced. This issue is about making informed decisions about the foods we choose for our families.
Instead of waiting for Washington to reclassify prohibited drugs, Vermont is passing legislation that decriminalizes possession of small amounts of marijuana (under 1 oz.) so people will not have criminal records for simple possession of this drug (H.200.) Criminal records can stand in the way of getting student loans, applying for jobs and eligibility for licensure in some professions. Testimony from the Department of Public Safety and the Drug Task Force was compelling: Marijuana is not the problem, heroin, diverted oxycodone, methamphetamine and cocaine are. Both chambers also passed legislation (S.157) removing state prohibition from growing hemp (it is legal under federal law with a DEA license that requires substantial security measures even though hemp contains almost no THC, the active component of marijuana.) This bill passed the House with only four members voting ‘no’ and now goes to the Governor for signature.
The Legislature also decided not to wait for Washington to pass immigration reform. We have undocumented migrant workers here in Vermont. They have been here for many years and our dairy farms cannot survive without them. The Legislature passed S.38 that allows migrant workers to obtain driver privilege cards. This legislation does two very important things: it ensures drivers are licensed (they know the rules of the road) and it allows our migrant workers to drive to do simple things like go to the store or a doctor’s appointment. It does not translate to valid identification for any other state or federal purpose. Other states that have passed similar legislation are Washington, New Mexico and Utah.
Vermont is first in the country to pass a law that protects Vermont companies from patent trolling (S.39) under our consumer protection statutes. We are No. 1 in the nation (per capita) for patents granted, and many of these patents are for intellectual property. Vermont companies have been threatened with lawsuits from individuals or businesses that have purchased patents — often from bankrupt companies — and indiscriminately sent letters to software developers demanding payment for alleged patent infringement. The majority of the threatened suits are filed in federal district court in east Texas where judges are sympathetic to the individuals and companies that are claiming patent infringement (also known as trolls.) Our legislation will allow the target of the claim to file for protection in state court or our federal district court and will require the ‘troll’ to post a bond if there is little or no evidence of good faith effort to perform research and determine whether the target is infringing their patent.
Other small but important bills passed this year are S.148 where we adopt federal Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) standards for access to public records; S.31 reverses the SCOV Billings ruling and now prevents courts from considering revocable trusts in divorce proceedings; S.47 addresses some flaws in the process of serving relief from abuse protection orders; a good Samaritan statute (H.65) provides criminal immunity for someone calling ‘911’ during a drug overdose; the pension forfeiture statute (H.41) allows a court to order forfeiture of a public pension in cases where the public trust has been violated, i.e embezzlement; H.99, the equal pay act requires businesses to consider (but not grant) flexible work arrangements when employees request it.
If you have any questions about our work this session, I would be happy to discuss any of the bills we have passed. You can reach me at home at 872-0499 or on my cell at 881-8528 or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Linda Waite-Simpson represents Essex Junction in the House of Representatives.