Vt. Legislature taking up bills all over the spectrum
Vermont Press Bureau | January 14,2013
Forget about broad-based taxes, death with dignity, marijuana decriminalization and prohibitions on mountaintop wind: The first House bill of the new biennium aims to simplify judicial bookkeeping.
In a sure sign that the new session was upon us, legislative staff last week began unveiling the texts of bills as they became ready for introduction.
H.1 is a gripping bit of statute that would repeal a provision requiring superior court clerks to “keep a book of judgments separate from the originals.”
Like most of the 1,000 or so bills introduced in a given biennium, H.1 won’t generate much talk outside the committee to which it’s assigned. But in addition to the mundane work of legal bookkeeping, lawmakers will consider scores of bills this year that could have a real impact on the lives of the Vermonters they represent.
Take H.6, introduced by Rep. Paul Poirier, the Barre City independent who late last month dropped his insurgent candidacy for Speaker of the House. Poirier’s legislation would add “mental injury” to the list of job-related afflictions for which employees are entitled to workers’ compensation.
In the Senate’s first piece of new legislation, Sen. Tim Ashe, a Chittenden County Democrat/Progressive, wants to require judges “to consider the approximate financial cost” of a sentence before handing down a ruling.
It won’t be the first go-round in Montpelier for many of the bills under consideration in 2013.
Already on the calendar in the Senate is a bill relating to concussions in youth sports. Lawmakers failed to reach consensus on a proposal last year. S.4, introduced by Ashe, Sen. Dick Sears and Senate President John Campbell, would, among other things, prohibit a coach from letting a child re-enter a game after suffering a concussion.
Sen. Robert Hartwell, a Bennington Democrat and vocal critic of the Public Service Board, promises to spark a lively debate with his first piece of legislation of the biennium. Hartwell, an opponent of ridgeline wind development and wireless “smart meters,” wants to give the Senate more influence over the composition of the three-person panel responsible for regulating those technologies.
Hartwell’s S.16 would require the governor’s appointments to the Public Service Board to first win consent from the Senate.
The first of what should be a spate of campaign-finance reform bills hit the Senate calendar Thursday. Introduced by Ashe, S.17 aims to improve an elections database that currently makes it difficult and time-consuming to figure out who gave what to whom.
The legislation would require candidates for office to submit their lists of campaign contributions and expenditures in electronic form, and stipulates that the secretary of state must maintain those submissions in a searchable online database.
Another Senate bill responds to privacy concerns raised by the growing use of “automated license plate recognition systems” by law enforcement.
The Vermont chapter of the ACLU sounded the alarm last year about the ways in which this technology can be used to track the movements of residents against whom police hold no evidence of wrongdoing.
The bill, S.18, calls for study to establish limitations on the use, dissemination and retention of information gained through the license detection systems.
Sen. Dick Sears has a bill that would increase the statute of limitations for a number of crimes, including sexual offenses against a minor.
For the crimes of sexual assault on a minor, lewd and lascivious conduct and sexual exploitation of a minor, Sears’ proposed legislation would allow prosecutors to file charges anytime before the alleged victim turns 40. Under current law, the window to file charges closes when the victim turns 25.
Sears’ bill removes the statute of limitations altogether for sexual assault, human trafficking, murder, arson causing death and kidnapping.
Over in the House, a wide-ranging land-use proposal that generated some headlines before the opening of the session has been introduced in bill form. Rep Tony Klein says H.9 would serve as companion legislation to Act 250, establishing a statewide planning process separate from the regulatory framework.
The bill would direct the Natural Resources Board to prepare a statewide plan, replete with maps delineating lands suitable for energy projects, housing or commercial activity.
Klein says deciding in advance what types of development belong where will streamline the regulatory process for developers while giving residents more say over development in their communities.
Rep. Ann Mook has introduced legislation that would require health insurers to pay for hearing aids; her bill also would require the Green Mountain Care Board “to consider” including hearing aids in any single-payer benefits plan Vermont adopts in the future.
Reps. Ann Donahue and Patty Lewis, Republicans from Northfield and Berlin, respectively, want to exempt from state income taxes the first $5,000 of military retirement pay. The legislation would benefit only residents making less than $50,000 per year.
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The lone Republican elected to statewide office in November took his oath of office in the Senate last Thursday. Lt. Gov. Phil Scott, the Barre-born race car driver now in his second term, lamented a brain drain that has, according to the U.S. Census, seen the population of people ages 25-44 in Vermont shrink by 30 percent over the past decade.
“That’s 28,000 Vermonters who left our state and took with them their buying power, their innovation and their children,” Scott said. “Many of our classrooms echo with their absence.”
Scott said the loss of people in their prime earning years contributed to a fiscal erosion that saw state revenues suffer year-over-year declines between 2008 and 2011.
“We can reduce expenses by cutting staff and programs, and we can increase revenues by raising taxes and fees,” Scott said. “And for better or worse, we’ve already done a lot of both.”
But like the state’s Democratic governor, Scott said, he believes Vermonters are “tapped out and taxed out.”
Scott said Vermont needs to grow its way out of the problem, thereby solving “both sides of the balance sheet at the same time.”
He offered no specific plans for sparking the number of jobs or the wages they pay.
“If we can work with businesses both small and large, progress and prosperity will come,” he said. “If we can entice young professionals to move here, our classrooms will fill up again and so will our vacant storefronts and government coffers.”