Education, wages, cellphones headlined session
Vermont Press Bureau
and Vermont Public Radio | May 15,2014
Lawmakers addressed a variety of issues in the second half of the 2013-14 legislative biennium that adjourned Saturday. Today, we finish a two-part series recapping many of the major bills and issues lawmakers considered and acted upon.
The Bill: An Act Relating to Prohibiting the Handheld Use of a Portable Electronic Device While Driving (H.62)
Who It Affects: Anyone driving on Vermont’s roads.
What It Does: Makes it illegal for anyone to talk on a cellphone while driving; the use of hands-free devices will still be allowed.
In 2010, Vermont lawmakers approved a ban on texting while driving. But there was a major problem when it came to enforcement, according to police, who said they had no way of telling whether a motorist was texting — illegal — or simply dialing up a phone number, which remained permissible under Vermont law. The fix, public safety officials said, was to ban the use of handheld devices outright while driving.
Police testimony had the effect of dislodging some of the long-standing opposition that had blocked previous efforts to ban talking on a cellphone while driving. And it changed the views of two people in particular — the chairmen of the House and Senate transportation committees.
The House gave overwhelming approval to the cellphone ban early in the session. However, opponents, including Gov. Peter Shumlin, helped block its movement through the Senate. The bill looked doomed to fail yet again, until a late-session compromise cleared the way for a bill that Shumlin said he will not veto.
The bill creates civil fines for people caught driving while using a handheld device. But it won’t add points to the licenses of people cited for committing the infraction.
The Bill: An Act Relating To Raising The Minimum Wage
Who It Affects: Approximately 50,000 Vermont workers earning less than $10 per hour, as well as their employers.
What It Does: Ratchets up the minimum wage to $10.50 per hour by 2018.
The big fight about worker rights this year was originally focused squarely on an effort to ensure paid sick days for all employees. But when President Barack Obama stepped up his push to lift the federal minimum wage to $10.10 by 2017, it had serious political implications for Vermont.
Gov. Peter Shumlin suddenly made the issue his own, and said Vermont would lead by example by raising the wage here. While lawmakers were generally receptive to the concept, however, many felt the governor’s plan didn’t go far enough.
The House passed legislation that would move the minimum wage to $10.10 beginning in 2015, drawing the ire of business groups in the process. The Senate, meanwhile, decided that $10.50 by 2018 — with lower increases in 2015 and 2016 — was more appropriate.
The debate in the end came down to a late-session battle on the House floor, where Republicans, who preferred the more modest increases in the early years, banded together with Progressives, who favored the higher wages in the out years. The House passed the Senate version. Shumlin has said he will sign the bill.
The Bill: An Act Relating To Financing For Green Mountain Care (S.252)
Who It Affects: The Shumlin administration, Green Mountain Care Board, and other entities involved in creating a single-payer health care system.
What It Does: The legislation was stripped of most of its single-payer financing mandates, but now includes mandates on some for-profit medical businesses.
Three years after passing the law that set Vermont on a course toward single-payer health care, Gov. Peter Shumlin said the 2014 session would see the arrival of “concepts” for a public financing plan. But not long into the session, Shumlin said he’d moved back the deadline. And in the face of inaction from the administration, lawmakers began to take matters into their own hands.
The bill at various stages in its progression included new timelines for establishing a third-party administrator for single-payer, as well as a new deadline — Feb. 3, 2015 — for the administration to deliver a financing proposal. Those mandates fell by the wayside, however, replaced largely by calls for new studies and reports about how the new system will work.
The legislation has some policy items also, including one that aims to bring transparency to aspects of the pharmaceutical sales industry by requiring “Pharmacy Benefits Managers” to disclose how much money they’re making by acting as a sort of middleman between insurance carriers and pharmacies.
The bill also prohibits private, for profit urgent care clinics from turning away patients for lack of insurance. The clinics can continue to refuse care if the patient doesn’t have money to pay for services.
The Failed Bills: An Act Related to Pre-Kindergarten through Grade 12 Education Districts (H.883); An Act Related to Making Miscellaneous and Technical Corrections to Education Laws (H.876)
Who They Would Have Affected: School board members, superintendents and anyone else with a vested interest in education.
What They Would Have Done: The House Education Committee spent hundreds of hours taking testimony and deliberating on H.883, which proposed an ambitious, six-year plan that would have consolidated the state’s nearly 300 school districts into 45-55 “education districts” that would have offered pre-K-12 education and access to one of the state’s 17 career technical centers.
The bill would have created a single tax rate for multiple towns within the education district, as well as a single, district-wide budget for multiple schools.
The bill faced a fair amount of vocal opposition on two fronts: first, it would have eliminated the state’s approximately 300 school boards, in favor of one board for each district. This proposal led many to fear the bill would have resulted in a loss of control at the local level.
Another contentious facet of the plan was the creation of a state-appointed “design team,” would have created a consolidation plan for those districts that did not consolidate voluntarily within the first three years.
The bill narrowly passed out of the House on April 30, but lingered in the Senate Rules Committee for the remainder of the session.
In the waning days of the Legislative session, the Senate Education Committee took up a last-minute amendment to a miscellaneous education bill that would have increased the financial incentives for districts to consolidate voluntarily, while doing away with the involuntary consolidation component of the other bill.
Lacking the votes to take up the bill as amended by the Senate, the bill died on the floor of the House on the final day of the session.
The Bill: An act related to Lyme disease and other tick-borne illnesses (H123)
Who It Affects: Doctors who prescribe antibiotics to treat Lyme’s disease.
What it does: Lyme’s Disease — named after Lyme, Conn., where it was first discovered — is an illness that will sap a patient’s energy and can lead to neurological impairment. The disease is transmitted through the bite of a tick, and if diagnosed early, can be treated with short-term course of antibiotics.
However, because the symptoms are varied — fatigue, fever and headache — the disease often goes undiagnosed until it takes hold in a person’s system, making treatment more difficult.
The medical community is divided on what is the best course of treatment. While the International Lyme and Associated Diseases Society recommends long-term courses of antibiotics in some cases, the federal Center for Disease Control and Protection advises against such treatment, for the negative side effects on the patient and the potential to create an antibiotic-resistant strain of the bacteria.
At the state level, the bill was opposed by Dr. Harry Chen, commissioner for the Department of Health.
The bill provides immunity from charges of unprofessional conduct for any doctor who prescribes long-term courses of antibiotics. The bill also requires a doctor to obtain a patient’s informed consent in writing before prescribing long-term courses of antibiotics.
The Bill: An Act Relating to the Establishment of Lake Shoreland Protection Standards (H.526)
Who It Affects: Landowners and developers who are looking to build on lake-front parcels.
What It Does: Vermont has a host of regulatory programs to protect water quality in the state, from wastewater and stormwater discharge to agricultural runoff. Added to those regulations this Legislative session is one that governs construction along the state’s lake shores.
The bill requires developers to receive a permit from the Agency of Natural Resources (ANR) if they wish to build next to one of the state’s lakes or ponds, with exceptions for privately owned ponds, including those found on golf courses or built for fire suppression.
The bill creates a 100-foot “protection zone.” Within this zone, developers cannot on a slope greater than 20 percent. Developers are also prohibited from clearing more than 40 percent of the vegetation on the parcel.
Lastly, the parcel can contain no more than 20 percent of “impervious surfaces,” defined as when the ground won’t absorb water from runoff. The bill gives the ANR the ability to expand these permit requirements.
The bill also allows for municipalities that have their own shoreland protection laws to enforce them, as long as the regulations are comparable to those outlined in the bill.
A lake or pond with a surface area greater than 10 acres is located within 184 of the state’s 251 municipalities. As of the writing of the bill, only 48 of those municipalities had shoreland zoning laws that address vegetative cover.