Legislators facing efforts to repeal laws passed last year
By LOUIS PORTER Vermont Press Bureau | January 29,2008
MONTPELIER Lawmakers are spending a lot of time on issues they thought they were done dealing with last session.
Besides two vetoed bills now being resurrected one on campaign finance and another on energy legislators are also grappling with efforts to repeal portions of four laws passed less than a year ago. It is not clear yet if any of those will succeed. But it will take some time to consider them in any case.
Take, for example, the bill made into law last year to limit the ability of companies to research doctors' prescription-writing patterns and target drug marketing.
Lawmakers were concerned that allowing specialized firms to "mine" data and find which doctors are writing what kind of prescriptions was leading to intense marketing and the prescribing of more expensive drugs when cheaper alternatives would work. Even after seeing a similar law knocked down in federal court in New Hampshire, legislators passed the bill, and Gov. James Douglas did not veto it despite his reservations about the idea.
Now the law, the subject of a lawsuit against the state of Vermont, will likely be tweaked even if it isn't repealed altogether as executives in the data mining companies would like.
In addition to the New Hampshire case now on appeal a judge also tossed out a law in Maine that had similar goals.
"We don't understand why they passed this law in the first place," said Randy Frankel, vice president for external affairs for IMS Health, one of a few companies that specialize in gathering and selling prescription-writing data. "They hastily wrote a bad bill that is now a bad law."
IMS and other firms are now suing over the Vermont law and Attorney General William Sorrell's office has requested $117,000 to cover the costs of the early stages of that lawsuit in this year's budget.
Frankel said the amount the lawsuit will cost Vermont will greatly increase before the matter is settled, so lawmakers should repeal the law altogether.
Assistant Attorney General Julie Brill would like to see legislators tweak the existing law instead.
By adjusting some language in the bill and removing a section requiring drug makers to provide certain information and delaying the implementation until July 2009, the Legislature can help make the law easier to defend, Brill said. But the attorney general's office is not asking for a repeal of the law, Brill said.
"It is the Legislature's decision if they want this fight," she said. "We do have an uphill battle."
"Our law is different" from New Hampshire's, Brill said.
Not different enough, Frankel said.
"This is going to cost the state millions of dollars," he said.
Meanwhile, the Agency of Natural Resources is asking lawmakers to repeal part of a water protection law that was passed last year and would lead to tougher standards for many wastewater plants in the state at a cost of nearly $60 million.
Environmental groups have opposed the requested repeal, saying that lowering the amount of phosphorous going into Lake Champlain from sewage plants is an important part of improving the lake's health.
And those two laws are not alone on the list of would-be repeals.
The "two vote" provision would require residents in school districts that have budgets increasing higher than inflation plus one percent, and already spend more per pupil than the statewide average, to vote twice on a split school budget. The law, part of Act 82, was one of the most controversial measures passed last year, and the Vermont School Boards Association, the Vermont National Education Association as well as educators and others around the state are asking lawmakers to consider doing away with it.
The "two-vote" provision does too much to limit local control of budgets and may be confusing to voters, opponents of the measure believe.
Many in her party don't like the idea, a compromise reached with the Douglas administration, Speaker of the House Gaye Symington, D-Jericho, said.
"I know the majority of Democrats don't support that legislation, and didn't support it last year," she said.
But Symington has also said the two-vote provision is unlikely, given rising school costs.
Finally, Republican lawmakers are trying to convince their colleagues to undue changes to the property tax "prebate/rebate" system that are causing privacy concerns and problems with real estate closings.
The property tax prebate system was changed last year in an effort to make the connection between those checks and Vermonters' property tax bills clearer, supporters said. Instead of mailing prebate or rebate checks directly to taxpayers, the changes resulted in the money being sent to the towns, which then lower the tax bill for property owners.
But several Republican members of the House, led by Rep. Joyce Errecart, R-Shelburne, Assistant Minority Leader Patti Komline, R-Dorset, and Rep. Peg Flory, R-Pittsford, last week called for undoing that system and instead sending checks directly to taxpayers again.
That is not only because it is possible to roughly calculate taxpayer's incomes by looking at the rebates, but because it has also held up transfers of property as sellers and buyers try to work out who gets the money and when.
"Despite objections we raised, the Legislature chose to
move forward with eyes wide open," Flory said.
Although lawmakers have proposed several different solutions, including making the prebate information private and other adjustments, the easiest and best solution is to go back to the old system and send taxpayers their checks directly.
"That is what we used to do, and people didn't make the connection," Symington said. "It is much more straightforward (now) people are getting billed on what they owe."
The change is also in its first year and once the new method settles in other problems like having to hold prebate money in escrow accounts will improve, Symington said.
As for the rest of the requested repeals of last year's laws, Symington said she does not believe their chances of success are very high.
"I don't think many of them, if any, will move," she said.
But even if they are ultimately unsuccessful the repeal efforts have, and are likely to continue to, require some time by legislative committees.
Contact Louis Porter at firstname.lastname@example.org.