Saturday April 27, 2013

BRATTLEBORO -- As the clock ticks down on the 2013 legislative session lawmakers were busy this week working on some of the thorniest and most controversial issues to try and get the laws passed before heading home for good some time in early May.

And the "money" committees had their hands full with the proposals that were advancing to help pay for it all.

Bills dealing with genetically engineered foods, wind power and end of life all were moved out of committees this week.

Rep. Dick Marek, D-Newfane, and a member of the Judiciary Committee, said the committee worked overtime this week to complete work on the GMO and end of life bills which have both been moving back and forth between the House and Senate as they head toward final votes.

"We were definitely in the middle of the fray this week," Marek said.

For most of this week the Judiciary Committee worked on the end of life bill, which would allow Vermont physicians to prescribe drugs to terminally ill patients to help them take their own lives.

A Senate version of the bill that passed last month was criticized by supporters because it took out many of the safeguards included in the original House version.

The House Human Service Committee replaced many of those safeguards this week before handing it over to Judiciary.

Marek said his committee made minor changes but largely left the Human Service Committee amendments in tact and he said he expected the full Legislature to finally pass the bill, after about five years of on-again, off-again debate.


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He said a full vote could happen next week.

"People on both sides raised a lot of good questions but this comes down to an individual's right to control his or her own life," Marek said. "Human Services did a very good job and the bill is carefully crafted and very thoughtful. I supported it then, and I support it now."

Rep. Mike Mrowicki, D-Putney, and a member of the Human Service Committee said he was not surprised that the bill took so long to finish.

There was emotional testimony throughout the session and Mrowicki said no one was happy with the watered down Senate version.

The Human Service Committee included many of the provisions from a similar Oregon law which protect the physicians from legal challenges while making sure the patients have support and guidance when requesting the medication

"This is the time of the session when everyone has to check their egos at the door and look to the common good to get things passed," said Mrowicki. "This is about choice. It does not force anything on anybody. I think we did a lot of good work on this, and built on what they sent over from the Senate, and I hope the Senate will concur and approve it."

House Judiciary this week also worked on the bill that would require the labeling of genetically engineered foods sold in Vermont.

That bill faces a tougher fight, Marek said, because opponents say it will likely lead to costly legal challenges if it passes into law.

The public supports the bill and Marek said even though the state could likely face challenges in the court, it was no reason not to move ahead.

"The question of whether this will pass Constitutional muster is a legitimate one, and there are good arguments on both sides," Marek said. "But to me, the question is does the public have a right to know what is in their food, and my answer is absolutely they do. Anytime we take up a controversial issue we might be sued, and we might lose, but that is no reason not to take up these issues. If we are held hostage to that threat, then we might as well close the door and go home."

The bill that the Judiciary Committee is looking at would put off a GMO labeling law until at least two other state pass a similar law, or until 2015.

Rep. Mollie Burke, D-Brattleboro, said a transportation bill the House approved this week was a reasonable compromise with the Senate version that was sent back over to the House this week.

The bill, which is going to raise the gas tax by 5.9 cents on May 1, will allow the state to raise the money needed to match federal transportation funding which could have been left on the table without the increase.

"We were able to work out our differences with the Senate," Burke said. "We had a $36 million hole to fill and if we did nothing we would have lost that federal money. Vermont is using less gas, and that is good, but we had to find a way to raise that money and pay for our transportation system."

Another controversial and hotly contested bill which would have placed a moratorium on wind power development was passed by the full House Friday by a 140-to-3 vote.

Originally the bill would have stopped all wind development for three years, and then, in a stripped down version, supporters wanted to have those projects face increased regulatory scrutiny.

In the end the House approved the bill Friday that only sets up a summer committee to study how Vermont approved renewable energy projects.

Rep. Mike Hebert, R-Vernon, is a member of the Natural Resources and Energy Committee which worked on the bill this week.

Hebert said the wind development bill received broad support in the end and instead of forcing a moratorium lawmakers will study all of the issues around energy development including the health impacts of wind, the impact local zoning and planning regulations have on development, and the effects solar energy development has on agricultural land.

"It's a far reaching bill and it addresses a lot of issues," Hebert said. "We heard from anyone who wanted to talk about this and took a lot of time on it. There are a number of issues we have promised to discuss and the next time we look at this we will be able to address these serious issues in a serious way."

Sen. Peter Galbraith, D-Windham, supported the wind moratorium bill from the start and was sharply critical of the final version the House passed this week.

Even in acknowledging that there was no support for halting wind development, Galbraith said other provisions he introduced to protect forests and parks were stripped out in the end and should have been included.

"Many of the parts of S.30 that were not even controversial were removed," he said. "It makes no sense to eliminate everything and ask Vermont taxpayers to just fund a summer get together for the members of the two natural resource committees to discuss the issue.

A bill that was introduced by Rep. John Moran, D-Wardsboro, that requires teachers and municipal employees who are not members of a union to pay agency fees, passed the House by a 85-to-53 vote Friday.

Moran spent most of Thursday afternoon fighting for the bill.

"This is a bill about fairness," Moran said after Friday's vote. "It says when you have a union representing you, whether you join or not, you should have to pay."

As the session winds down to an end some of the last battles in Montpelier are fought over funding and this year is no different.

On Wednesday the House took up education funding and passed a bill that would force towns with high school budgets to pay more.

Under the bill, which still has to get Senate approval, the threshold would be lowered so that schools that exceed that spending level face a penalty.

And schools would also be forced to pay more if the teacher-student ratios exceed state-set benchmarks.

Even after trying similar but less financially rigid legislation, school budgets across the state jumped by more than 5 percent this year.

The Legislature debates Vermont's ever-rising education costs annually, but this is the first time in a number of years that lawmakers passed a bill that attempts to rein in those costs.

Still, House Education Committee member Valerie Stuart, D-Brattleboro, said the bill is only a temporary fix to a funding system that needs an overhaul.

"It's really too little, too late, but it's better than nothing," said Stuart. "The end of the session is not the time to look at this. There are a lot of problems with how we fund education and we have to fix at the whole system."

And in what will likely set up a stiff fight with the Shumlin Administration, the Senate Finance Committee passed a tax bill that would raise the taxes on some Vermonters.

Galbraith, a member of the Senate Finance Committee, said he was hopeful the administration would be able to work with legislators in finding a way to fund new and existing programs.

But Shumlin issued a press release Friday saying there was a wide gap between how lawmakers propose to fund state government and how he wants raise the funds.

"I remain disappointed that lawmakers think that this is the time to raise income and sales taxes on hardworking Vermonters," Shumlin wrote. "Our unemployment rate is the third lowest in the country and we are seeing a fragile recovery from a treacherous recession. Now is the wrong time to put the brakes on, just as our economy and our housing market begin to recover."

The bill the finance committee proposed this week would increase tax contributions on people with mortgages higher than $400,000 by reducing the mortgage interest reduction on some Vermonters, Galbraith said.

It also includes a minimum 3 percent tax rate for people who earn more than $125,000.

The bill also proposes to include bottled water under the state's 6 percent sales tax, and set a 3 percent excise tax on satellite television service.

Galbraith says he was against the satellite television provision because many homes in Windham County can not get cable and are forced to use satellites for service.

The Senate version would increase taxes by $10 million, compared with the $35 million in the House version of the tax bill, Galbraith points out.

"It's never pleasant to raise taxes on anyone but this is a modest package," Galbraith said. "I know the governor is opposed to raising taxes, but if there is no other way to raise these funds he will have to scale back his proposals. We did not raise the taxes on everybody. This is a way to promote more fairness in the tax code."

Howard Weiss-Tisman can be reached at 802-254-2311, ext. 279, or hwtisman@reformer.com. Follow Howard on Twitter @HowardReformer.