BRATTLEBORO -- Vermont is another step closer to enacting strict new protections for the state's shorelines.
The state Senate on Friday approved so-called lake shore land protection standards, and officials say this version of the bill takes a stronger regulatory stance on waterfront development than a measure approved last year in the House.
It now will fall to lawmakers to work out those differences. But Rep. David Deen, a Westminster Democrat and a long-term backer of the measure, was already looking forward to the bill becoming law.
"This bill has had two full years of intense work from the House and Senate and is a vast improvement in our law on lake shore protection," Deen said.
The Senate on Friday gave final approval to the bill (H.526) in a 22-6 vote. Locally, Windham County Sen. Peter Galbraith, D-Townshend, voted in the affirmative; Windham County Sen. Jeanette White, D-Putney, was listed as absent.
Galbraith has said the bill creates a protected shoreline area within which there are limits on construction and the amount of land that can be cleared.
Deen said the legislation now will return to the House committee he chairs -- Fish, Wildlife and Water Resources -- where lawmakers will "review the changes in-depth and decide if we should concur or not."
If Deen's committee does not agree with those changes, it will fall to a specially appointed conference committee to hash out the differences.
Deen said he believes the spirit of the bill remains the same in both versions.
"The Senate version is more prescriptive than the House version but at its heart offers the same protections to the naturally vegetated zone on the lake shore that the House-passed version does," Deen said.
"Protecting that zone offers protection to lakes from overland runoff," he added. "It provides shade to the near-shore area that is the most productive area in a lake for aquatic organisms. And the litter that falls into the lake from the trees and bushes close to the water provides the energy that feeds the bottom of the food chain, making it stronger and thereby making the entire food chain -- including fish -- healthier."
In other business related to Windham County and its lawmakers:
-- Rep. Mollie Burke, P/D-Brattleboro, said a bill banning hand-held use of cell phones while driving is moving forward.
The bill (H.62) has been approved by the House Judiciary Committee and now is in the House Transportation Committee, on which Burke sits.
"We are most-likely going to vote it out on Tuesday. I think the majority of the committee is in favor of the bill," Burke said.
She added that "it is something that people have been trying to make happen for a long time."
The bill eventually may include provisions for a warning before a fine is imposed, Burke said. It also may call for a study of the role of cell phones in car crashes in Vermont.
-- A bill that had origins in Brattleboro Union High School also is advancing.
H.88, which denies parental rights to perpetrators of sexual assault when that assault results in a pregnancy, received a 135-0 nod of approval Friday in a preliminary House vote. A final vote in the House is expected next week.
The legislation came about last year after BUHS students Stacy Blackadar and Shannakay Nichols researched the idea at the urging of teacher Tim Kipp, who has since retired.
Blackadar worked with Rep. Ann Manwaring, D-Wilmington, to get the bill drafted and introduced.
On Friday, all of Windham County's representatives were present for the affirmative vote in the House.
"Many other states already curtail parental rights when a sexual assault takes place, and Vermont is poised to update its laws in this regard," said state Rep. Mike Mrowicki, D-Putney. "Here's another example of students participating in the process and shining light on an injustice that needs attention."
-- Mrowicki also noted that his committee, House Human Services, approved a bill relating to the Lifeline telephone program.
"This provides assistance so low-income Vermonters can have a basic level of telephone service in case an emergency call needs to be placed," Mrowicki said. "The bill makes it easier to access the program and to be approved (for program benefits) by changing jurisdiction from the Tax Department to the Agency of Human Services/Economic Services Division."
-- The House Agriculture and Forest Products Committee went on the road Thursday, holding hearings in Bridport and St. Albans "to hear from the farming community about potential changes being considered in a draft water-quality bill," Rep. Tristan Toleno said.
The Brattleboro Democrat and Agriculture Committee member said the bill (H.586) proposes including "a much larger pool of small farms" in mandatory water-quality management practices.
"The threshold for what constitutes a small farm is still under consideration and will be the subject of testimony when the bill comes before the House Agriculture Committee," Toleno said.
-- Toleno also was thinking about economic issues in the past week.
Testimony began on H.852, which aims to improve workforce education and training. Toleno is a co-sponsor of the bill and said he will be working with the House Commerce Committee on the matter.
"The primary purpose is to propose a shift in focus within the workforce education and training system to be more job-driven as the primary outcome," Toleno said. "Also proposed is a process to realign the governance structure of the Workforce Development Council to support the state's Workforce Development Strategic Plan and clarify the role of the Commissioner of Labor."
The full text of the workforce bill -- and all of the Vermont Legislature's introduced bills and resolutions -- can be found by searching via bill number, title, keyword or sponsor at www.leg.state.vt.us/ResearchMain.cfm.
-- State Rep. Valerie Stuart, D-Brattleboro, said there is widespread recognition that Vermont must "tackle the challenge of fixing the most fundamentally flawed aspects of our educational system."
Stuart, a member of the House Education Committee, said the state relies on a "19th century education-delivery system" that is "based on an agricultural and industrial model that is now ill-equipped to prepare students for success in the 21st century workplace."
She cited declining school enrollment coupled with rising educational costs, saying Vermont's per-pupil spending average is the nation's highest.
Stuart also pointed to issues including high turnover rates among superintendents and principals; a failure to address the needs of students not performing at grade level; below-par rates of college entrance and completion; and a funding system that creates what she calls "special education ‘magnet centers' that fuel the burgeoning tax burdens of municipalities whose schools do an excellent job of addressing special-needs students in an unsustainable manner."
There is also is a nagging academic-achievement gap that separates lower-income students from their classmates.
That is "a key cost driver within the system as the ranks of poor in America and Vermont continue to swell (amid) the breakdown of the American family, which makes it necessary for schools to provide many of the necessities families used to provide," Stuart said.
Those necessities include "food, clothing, a supportive home environment and, in some cases, even a roof over a child's head," she added.
Mike Faher is the political beat writer at the Reformer. He can be reached at email@example.com or 802-254-2311, ext. 275. Follow him on Twitter @MikeReformer.