BRATTLEBORO -- Texting while driving is getting more costly in Vermont. Also, new legislation penalizes drivers who use a handheld phone while traveling through a construction zone and those who leave their engines idling for too long.
It's all part of a miscellaneous motor-vehicle bill that moved through the legislature during the just-ended 2013 session. State Rep. Mollie Burke, a Brattleboro Progressive Democrat, is particularly pleased with new idling rules that she believes will save gasoline and promote public health.
"We were the only New England state that had no restrictions on idling," she said.
Burke was one of nine Windham County lawmakers who spoke Thursday morning at Brattleboro Retreat during a legislative breakfast organized by Brattleboro Area Chamber of Commerce.
A member of the House Transportation Committee, Burke opened the event by defending the legislature's decision to increase the state's gasoline tax. That levy rose by about 6 cents per gallon on May 1 and is scheduled to rise again next year.
She pointed out that the state's transportation budget was short by about $36 million before the gas-tax hike was instituted. Burke also said state officials must work to find new ways to fund road and bridge maintenance as drivers continue to use less gas.
"I think that this was a very thoughtful budget," Burke said. "But in the long term, this is only going to buy us a few years."
While the gas-tax hike has gotten a lot of attention, a few less-publicized changes also will have an impact on many drivers.
Sending text messages while driving already was prohibited in Vermont. But after Gov. Peter Shumlin signs the motor-vehicle law, the penalties for texting will range from to $100 to $200 for a first offense and $250 to $500 for any subsequent violations that happen within two years.
Also, all texting offenses will result in a five-point assessment on a driver's license. Previously, first offenses resulted in a two-point assessment.
Vermont licenses can be suspended if a driver accumulates at least 10 points in a two-year period. So that means two texting violations could lead to a suspended license.
Unlike some other states, Vermont has not passed a law prohibiting use of a hand-held cell phone while driving. However, new state law does prohibit handheld use of portable electronic devices in construction zones.
The statute does not apply to "hands-free" phone setups or to any call that is "necessary to communicate with law enforcement or emergency-service personnel under emergency circumstances."
Violations carry a $100 to $200 fine and a two-point assessment for first offenses. There is a $250 to $500 fine and a five-point assessment for subsequent offenses within a two-year period.
Burke had favored those changes and also had been pushing for a new anti-idling law. It appeared that the latter effort may have been in vain until idling regulations were reinstated in the motor-vehicle bill at the end of the session.
It helped that the American Lung Association had been lobbying the Vermont Agency of Natural Resources for engine-idling regulations, Burke said.
"We have a culture that does not recognize how damaging vehicle emissions are to public health," Burke said.
The law says a driver "shall not cause or permit operation of the primary propulsion engine of a motor vehicle for more than five minutes in any 60-minute period while the vehicle is stationary."
It carries penalties ranging from $10 for a first offense to $100 for a third or subsequent violation.
Burke pointed out that "there are a lot of exceptions in this bill for necessary idling." For example, it exempts military and emergency vehicles as well as school buses idling on school grounds.
The law also includes an educational component, requiring driver-education courses to offer instruction about "the adverse environmental, health, economic and other effects of unnecessary idling."
The idling rules won't go into effect until May 2014, Burke said.
Local lawmakers provided updates on a number of other topics at Thursday's breakfast, including:
-- Rep. Mike Hebert, R-Vernon, said lawmakers will continue to study the controversial questions of how Vermont should generate electricity and where such facilities should be located.
Hebert said he is part of a joint committee that will meet several times this year to discuss energy policy. One goal is to develop legislation that would implement some recommendations of Shumlin's Energy Generation Siting Policy Commission, which issued its final report April 30.
Hebert noted that, in particular, there remains a "lot of controversy" over construction of commercial wind turbines on ridge tops.
"Is this what we've saved our mountaintops for?" he asked.
-- Rep. Ann Manwaring, D-Wilmington and a member of the House Appropriations Committee, said lawmakers carefully match and adjust the state's general-funding spending with available revenues.
But she is much less happy with how Vermont's education money is handled. Manwaring called for greater focus on outcomes and results when officials decide how to spend money on education.
"We have $1.4 billion to educate our kids," Manwaring said. "Every kid in this state should have a world-class education for $1.4 billion."
With the legislature having approved a hike in the statewide education-property tax this year, Manwaring said residents should expect more of the same in 2014 as local school boards continue to increase spending.
"We're going to have to do it again next year," she said. "That's the result of decisions that are made out here."
-- Rep. Valerie Stuart, D-Brattleboro and a member of the House Education Committee, disagreed with Manwaring's characterization.
Stuart said she and her fellow committee members are "very cognizant" of outcomes from educational investments.
But Stuart also said her committee, while in charge of crafting educational policy, does not control the purse strings for the state's education budget.
"We have little to no say over how that money is spent," Stuart said.
-- Rep. John Moran, D-Wardsboro, said he chairs a Working Vermonters Legislative Caucus and wants to ensure that workers' rights are protected.
"Not only do we need a business-friendly Vermont, we need a worker-friendly Vermont," Moran said.
-- Rep. Mike Mrowicki, D-Putney, said he believes the state's new end-of-life law - which allows doctors to prescribe lethal medication to terminally ill patients who request it - is a "narrow" statute that will be used by only a few people.
While he believes government's role in such matters is limited, Mrowicki said the law "opens the way for people to have choices in this."
-- Rep. Carolyn Partridge, D-Windham and chairwoman of the House Agriculture and Forest Products Committee, said the state will allocate more than $1.4 million toward "working lands" grants in the coming fiscal year.
The program, which supports agricultural and forestry businesses, was popular in its first year: Partridge said there were $12 million in requests for about $1 million in available funding.
"This is really an economic-development and job-creation program," Partridge said.
Partridge also noted that the legislature passed a bill authorizing hemp cultivation. She said hemp is too often confused with marijuana.
"It's not marijuana," Partridge said. "It's a crop that is cultivated all over the world."
However, Partridge said Vermont farmers who choose to invest in hemp cultivation need to remember that growing the plant still is illegal under federal law.
-- Rep. Tristan Toleno, D-Brattleboro, also served on the Agriculture Committee during his first term in the legislature. So he was involved in the high-profile GMO-labeling bill that was approved by the House and awaits action in the Senate.
In spite of concerns about potential legal challenges from the bio-technology and/or food industries, Toleno said he believes mandatory labeling of foods containing genetically modified ingredients is constitutional.
And he said there is widespread public support for GMO labeling.
"Vermonters as a whole are very enthusiastic about this bill," Toleno said.
-- Windham County Sen. Jeanette White, D-Putney, said she supported the legislature's votes to decriminalize small amounts of marijuana because such cases are unnecessarily "clogging up our criminal-justice system."
Shumlin is expected to sign the bill, which institutes civil fines rather than criminal penalties for possession of up to an ounce of marijuana.
White also touted approval of a bill that cracks down on "patent trolling." Shumlin on Wednesday signed that legislation, which aims to protect Vermont companies from false or frivolous claims of patent infringement.
"If people do this in bad faith, they're going to pay," White said.
"There are going to be fines and criminal penalties."
The county's senior senator also said her push for campaign-finance reform -- despite several setbacks -- is "not dead" and may be resolved when the next session begins in January.
Mike Faher can be reached at email@example.com or 802-254-2311, ext. 275.