BRATTLEBORO -- Local lawmakers are taking new steps to protect one of Vermont's most-precious resources -- the state's (reputedly) pristine streams, rivers, ponds and lakes.
In the state Senate, the Natural Resources Committee is working on a version of a bill designed to protect shorelines. And in the House, the Fish, Wildlife and Water Resources Committee took a step toward plugging an obvious hole in the state's environmental regulations.
"Right now, it is not illegal to throw trash into the waters of the state," said Rep. David Deen, a Westminster Democrat who chairs the House committee. "(This is a) problematic oversight in our laws that we want to correct."
Deen's committee has unanimously approved H.
"The provisions of the bill are directly tied to the existing provisions of our highway-littering law. The penalties are the same as for roadway littering," Deen said.
"So if the bill becomes law, littering from the shore or from a boat into the waters of the state will be punishable by a fine (and) possible court-assigned community service cleaning up the waterways of Vermont," he added. "And if you do not pay your fine, you would face the suspension of your driver's license or boater's certification for a period of 10 days."
The proposed fine, according to the most-recent version of the bill posted online, is a civil penalty up to $500.
Deen said committee members were told there had been 143 citations for littering issued last year. Such enforcement "helps stop the problem," he said.
"We hope that, when this becomes law, we will reduce the amount of trash in the Connecticut River and its tributaries that the Connecticut River Watershed Council and our co-volunteer groups pull out of the watershed every year," Deen said.
Deen also has been instrumental in trying to pass a lake-shoreland protection bill. Windham County Sen. Peter Galbraith, a Townshend-based Democrat, said his Natural Resources and Energy Committee has finished work on the Senate's version of that measure.
"Most Vermonters will be surprised to know that our green state has the poorest water quality of any New England state, and not just in Lake Champlain," Galbraith said. "Unlike the other New England states, we have no legislation regulating construction and clearing close to a lake. Vermont's lakes are public resource, but their ecological values are diminished by runoff from poor construction and too much cleared land along the lake shore."
That would change if the bill, which was introduced last year, is approved by both legislative bodies and signed by the governor.
"The lake-shore protection bill (H. 526) creates a protected shoreline area of 250 feet from the mean water line. Construction may take place in this protected shoreline area, but property owners may clear no more than 40 percent of their land, and buildings may occupy no more than 20 (percent) of the lot," Galbraith said.
Also, he said, new construction is prohibited within 100 feet of the shore, and property owners "must maintain a well-distributed stand of trees" as a buffer.
"There are exceptions that allow people with small lots close to the lake to build closer to the shore. And existing structures, driveways and clearing are grandfathered," Galbraith said. "The Senate committee bill strengthens the protections as compared to the House-passed version."
In other legislative business with Windham County connections:
-- Environmental matters also were on the mind of Rep. Mike Hebert, R-Vernon. Hebert said his House Natural Resources and Energy Committee has unanimously approved an expansion of the state's net-metering law.
The law allows small, renewable energy projects to send power to the grid while receiving credit on their utility bills for that power.
At this point, net metering is capped at 4 percent of a utility's peak capacity, and most of the state's utilities have reached that limit. The bill proposes raising that cap to 15 percent.
"It carries us to 2017, when the current net metering program will sunset," Hebert said.
The bill includes a mechanism for monitoring and regulating the possible "cost shift" of net metering onto a utility's customers, Hebert said.
Hebert said debate also has begun on a bill (H. 557) that would transform the state's "goals" for limiting greenhouse-gas emissions into mandates.
The idea is to force reductions in such emissions, but the bill also "changes the playing field significantly," Hebert said.
"I want to hear from the business community: What does this bill do to you and for you?" he said, adding that, "it's going to be really interesting."
-- Rep. John Moran, D-Wardsboro, has predicted an interesting debate on a proposal that would mandate paid sick leave for all employees in Vermont.
The bills, marked as H. 208 in the House and S. 255 in the Senate, propose that employees earn sick time at a rate of one hour for every 30 hours worked up to a maximum of 56 hours annually.
"As a public-health concern, we do not want sick employees going to work or sending their sick children to school because they can not afford to take the day off from work," said Moran, vice chairman of the House General, Housing and Military Affairs Committee.
Moran added that, "if employers already provide (sick) time off, conditions of the bill are generally met."
Next week, Moran's committee will take testimony on the bill and will hold a public hearing.
"We're certainly looking to move forward with this expeditiously," he said.
-- Rep. Valerie Stuart, D-Brattleboro, said the House and Senate Education Committees held a joint hearing on bullying and harassment in schools. Lawmakers received a briefing from an advisory council that has examined the issue.
"During its initial meeting in August of 2012, the council generated a list of 15 key issues," Stuart said. "Three of them rose to the top and were the basis for the formation of work groups that focused on data collection; student leadership; and pre-service and in-service staff development."
Accomplishments so far include "listening tours," Stuart said, wherein officials "gathered information and feedback from students from around the state about subjects ranging from what is happening in schools to what is working and what is not working in terms of current strategies targeted to address this issue."
Bullying and harassment, she added, "makes it difficult for every child in our state to receive an equal education in a safe environment."
-- Opiate abuse, including rampant heroin addiction, has been a hot topic recently among Gov. Peter Shumlin and other state officials.
Rep. Mike Mrowicki, D-Putney and a member of the House Human Services Committee, said he agrees with Shumlin's assessment that "we can't arrest our way out of the drug problem Vermont is facing."
"House Human Services, with the (Shumlin) administration and several other committees, is pulling together a comprehensive plan to address the current opioid crisis that includes prevention; pre-trial interventions (offering treatment as an option rather than trial and possible jail time); as well as more treatment options to include inpatient residential, outpatient treatment and ongoing recovery programs," Mrowicki said.
"House Human Services also heard from witnesses that included Mark Ames of the Vermont Recovery Network," Mrowicki said. "He shared how the best outcomes are not just giving addicts other drugs to substitute for the drugs that got them in trouble. Ongoing recovery help -- such as, locally, through Turning Point Recovery Center -- is essential to success and keeping people clean, sober and (on a path toward) being productive citizens again."
Rep. Tim Goodwin, a Weston Independent whose district includes Jamaica, Londonderry and Stratton, said he recently joined other lawmakers in watching "The Hungry Heart," a documentary about treating addiction in Vermont.
"It is a production that I think every Vermonter could benefit from watching," Goodwin said. "The movie was a moving experience with direct ties to the work of the House Judiciary Committee, on which I sit."
-- The issues of substance abuse and mental health often are intertwined.
Windham County Sen. Jeanette White, a Putney Democrat and a member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, expanded on Mrowicki's theme by saying senators are "looking at a system that would try to divert people with substance-abuse and mental-health issues from jails and into treatment by using pre-trial risk assessments and needs screening."
Lawmakers also are "looking at how to avoid long waiting times for people in mental-health crisis from getting necessary treatment," White said. "It is often referred to as the ‘forced-medication bill,' but it isn't. Its main purpose is to get timely access to judicial review."
White added that "folks need to remember that bills almost always change after testimony, and we are receiving a lot of testimony that is causing us all to think in different ways. I don't know where we will end up."
-- No one can yet say where the government's spending on winter road maintenance will end up. Rep. Mollie Burke, a Brattleboro Progressive Democrat, said her House Transportation Committee has been scrutinizing the VTrans budget.
"This week, we heard testimony from the Operations Division, which includes all the maintenance for state roads," Burke said. "Not surprisingly, given the Christmas ice storm in the northern part of the state and other ice storms, the sand and salt budget is way up this year. More than half of the appropriation has been spent already. Fortunately, in the adjustment to the (current year's) budget, we were able to find a bit of extra money to put into this fund."
Burke also gave a nod to Vermont's busy plow-truck drivers.
"As an aside, we also heard testimony from a number of state plow drivers who are perhaps some of the most dedicated state workers," she said. "They are often reluctant to leave their shifts, so intent are they on creating safe conditions for the traveling public on the interstate and on state roads."
-- The Senate Government Operations Committee, which White chairs, is giving a nod toward the dental profession by debating creation of a new job class.
A "dental practitioner" would be "a step between dentist and hygienist (and) would hopefully ease some of the dental-coverage shortages," White said.
Also, in the 2014 session's second full week, local House members signed onto a wide variety of new legislation, including:
* H. 637: Regulating precious metal dealers (Goodwin; Rep. Dick Marek, D-Newfane).
* H. 647: Requiring the removal of snow and ice from vehicles operated on public highways (Burke; Hebert).
* H. 648: Setbacks, screening and siting of solar-generation plants (Deen).
* H. 649: Isolation distances for potable water supplies and wastewater systems (Deen).
* H. 650: Establishing the Ecosystem Restoration and Water Quality Improvement Special Fund (Deen).
* H. 661: Exhumation requirements and notice (Moran).
* H. 676: Regulation of land uses within flood-hazard areas (Deen).
* H. 677: Application fees for energy-siting review (Deen).
* H. 681: Professional regulation for veterans, military service members and military spouses and credit for military service in retirement (Goodwin; Hebert; Moran; Rep. Matt Trieber, D-Rockingham).
* H. 682: Sanctions for technical violations of probation (Burke; Moran; Rep. Tristan Toleno, D-Brattleboro).
* H. 683: Income tax checkoff for Vermont Green Up (Marek; Stuart; Rep. Carolyn Partridge, D-Windham).
The full text of all of the Vermont Legislature's introduced bills can be found by searching via bill number, title, keyword or sponsor at www.leg.state.vt.us/ResearchMain.cfm.
Mike Faher is the political beat writer at the Reformer. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 802-254-2311, ext. 275.