A productive legislative session rumbled toward adjournment over the weekend after completing work on an eclectic mix of bills that addressed an array of troublesome problems.
The usual end-of-session rush was the occasion for a variety of compromises and urgent action required to overcome unexpected snags. But, when all is complete, there will be several accomplishments worthy of note.
A higher minimum wage was one of the most significant achievements of the session.
Differences between the House and Senate threatened passage of the bill as adjournment approached. The House wanted to move quickly to raise the minimum wage — from $8.73 to $10.10 on Jan. 1, 2015. The Senate wanted to raise the wage in steps, ending at a higher wage, $10.50, in 2018. Gov. Peter Shumlin was in the middle, favoring a plan to raise the wage in steps to $10.10 by Jan. 1, 2017.
As adjournment loomed Friday night, the Senate plan gained House approval and Shumlin said he will sign the bill into law. House Speaker Shap Smith was disappointed the state could not have moved faster to raise the wage, but Shumlin and the Senate were sensitive to the desire of the business community to be allowed to phase the higher wage in year by year.
By raising the minimum wage, Vermont joins a growing list of states recognizing that paralysis by the federal government on the issue leaves it up to states to take action to improve the working conditions at the lower end of the income scale.
One of the emotional high points of the session came with the signing of the bill to require labeling of genetically modified organisms (GMOs) in food sold in Vermont. A gathering of supporters watched Shumlin sign the bill on the steps of the State House last week. All parties now are girding for a fight; a food industry group has already announced that it would sue the state to get the requirement tossed out.
In many ways, the value of the bill is symbolic, a statement by Vermont that it takes a dim view of industrial agriculture and the business of GMOs in particular. The bill will not ban GMOs, or alter the business substantially. If it survives court challenge, the law would lead to the proliferation of GMO labels throughout the supermarket. Beyond the symbolic and informational value, the bill could be an opening wedge in the campaign by states to challenge the overweening power of Big Food.
The Legislature took a positive step in passing a bill to institute a state policy and training for the use of Tasers. The death of Macadam Mason in 2012 from the effects of a Taser in an incident with police precipitated the push to end the state’s Wild West approach to stun-gun use. Police will receive training in the use of Tasers, training in how to deal with mentally disturbed people, and techniques to de-escalate situations that might lead to Taser use. The successful push to bring Taser use under reasonable control was a victory for all parties, including the American Civil Liberties Union of Vermont.
One of the big bills of the session appeared to be entering deep slumber at the end of the week. This was the bill to dissolve most of the school boards in Vermont in favor of large regional boards. The Senate was reluctant to take up the bill, instead toying at the end of the session with a bill that lacked a mandate for consolidation of school districts.
What may emerge is a statewide discussion of school governance, which would likely be educational for members of the House who appeared woefully out of touch with the thinking of Vermonters who value the role that local school boards play as a focus of local self-government.
One of the arguments in favor of consolidation is that too many of the small school boards scattered among the small towns of the state are not competent, are intrusive and unconstructive in relation to the schools they govern. Indeed, it is true that local boards of all types are sometimes peopled by members who believe it is their mandate to interfere and micromanage to the detriment of their institution. But to abolish those boards is an anti-democratic solution.
Still, administrators and educators sometimes find that the large number of boards that exist in Vermont’s 250+ towns is an inconvenience and that the pros could do it better. That is an argument that ought to be stated plainly to determine if voters agree. If the Legislature launches a study of the issue, it is likely to get an earful.