Lawmakers praise GMO, wage, education votes
BRATTLEBORO -- On the penultimate day of the 2014 legislative session, toward the end of a frantic final week of debate, the Vermont House voted 132-3 to raise the state's minimum wage.
The wage issue -- how fast it should rise, and by how much -- had attracted many opinions and proposals since January. But Rep. Mollie Burke, P/D-Brattleboro, marveled at the near-unanimity on a final vote to incrementally raise the minimum wage to $10.50 by 2018.
"This bill in particular represents the spirit of compromise and collegiality that I believe we in the Legislature pride ourselves on," Burke said. "We all work together. Obviously, we don't all agree all the time. But there is a spirit of cooperation underneath. That is what makes me so proud to be a member of the Vermont Legislature."
Days after the 2014 session and the 2013-14 biennium wrapped up, Windham County's lawmakers found much to like as they looked back. The minimum-wage hike was one example, as proposals in the House and Senate and from the governor's office had differed greatly.
Rep. John Moran, D-Wardsboro, had made raising the wage a priority.
"Economic inequality is the primary crisis facing our state and our nation," said Moran, who is vice chairman of the House General, Housing and Military Affairs Committee. "As a modest start toward creating a livable wage, we will put more money into the hands of working Vermonters, thus creating a business- and worker-friendly boost to our economy."
Windham County Sen. Peter Galbraith, a Townshend Democrat, earlier had pushed for a $12 hourly minimum wage.
"But what was enacted is a step forward. Someone working full-time should make enough money so that they don't need food stamps, (earned-income tax credits) and LIHEAP," Galbraith said. "I see the minimum wage not just as a matter of fairness to low-paid workers, but also to taxpayers who shouldn't be asked to subsidize the labor costs of low-wage employers."
Local lawmakers also commented a number of other bills and initiatives from their four months of work in Montpelier:
-- GMO labeling:
Windham County Sen. Jeanette White, a Putney Democrat, said mandatory labeling of genetically modified foods by the middle of 2016 was the session's "big deal." She also noted that there is no "trigger," meaning Vermont's law takes effect regardless of what other states do or don't do.
There likely will be legal challenges from the food or biotech industries, as Vermont is the first state to require such labels. But Rep. Valerie Stuart, D-Brattleboro, said the bill "responds to a demand by an overwhelming number of Vermonters to know what's in our food; almost 90 percent of processed food on our store shelves contains genetically engineered ingredients."
"With two years before the labeling requirement goes into effect, food manufacturers will have ample time to prepare for the new law and adjust their labels or ingredients accordingly," Stuart said.
-- Educational governance:
A controversial bill mandating school-district consolidation statewide did not pass before session's end, and that was a good thing for many local lawmakers including Rep. Ann Manwaring, D-Wilmington.
Like others who had opposed the bill, Manwaring wondered whether consolidation alone could improve educational outcomes in Vermont.
"It promised lots of things, but as far as I could see, there was no path that could lead us any further down the road (toward those goals)," Manwaring said.
Rep. Tim Goodwin, an independent serving the Windham-Bennington-Windsor House District, noted that the original consolidation bill "died a solemn (or maybe not so) death in the Senate" and then "re-emerged in part" as a House bill in the session's final hours. That bill also went nowhere.
"It could be that these bills had served their purpose," Goodwin said.
Moran added that "school governance and funding are immediate problems that call for local input so that the 2015 Legislature can take thoughtful and responsive action."
-- Water quality:
"The water-quality work we did is a huge necessity to ensure clean water for us and generations to come," said Rep. Mike Mrowicki, D-Putney.
Rep. David Deen, D-Westminster and chairman of the House Fish, Wildlife and Water Resources Committee, said those regulatory changes include "further protecting flood plains to keep them undeveloped and able to store floodwaters during high-flow events."
There also is assistance for towns to perform flow sampling in areas with "storm-water impaired streams"; protection for lake shore lands by limiting development and preserving vegetation; and a ban on throwing trash in the state's waters.
"Bet you didn't know that was legal!" Deen said of the latter measure.
-- Medical marijuana:
White said changes in the state's marijuana-dispensary law were "not especially a big deal" but were nonetheless important.
"It removes the cap from the number of people who can register at the dispensaries. This is good, because we want every patient to eventually buy from the registries rather than the illegal market," White said. "It also eases some of the regulations for those with terminal illnesses, allows for home delivery to homebound patients, allows a patient under 18 to have two caregivers (presumably parents) and a few more things."
-- Election law:
White said House action in this session followed a Senate effort in 2013 to "clean up" the state's election regulations.
"Among other things, it changes the primary election to the second Tuesday in August starting in 2016," White said. "No one wanted to do this, but the state has been sued twice because we had recounts after the primary, and this delayed getting the ballots out to overseas voters. The federal Department of Justice said they wouldn't file another suit if we changed (the primary date). If we did nothing, they could change it for us as they did in New York -- and there they changed it to June."
-- Transportation funding:
"There was unanimous support for the largest (transportation) appropriation in the state's history," said Burke, a member of the House Transportation Committee. "It represents a $665 million investment in our roads, bridges, rail, airports, bicycle/pedestrian program and public transportation. This funding will have direct impact on job creation in the construction industry. It will also support other important economic sectors such as tourism, agriculture and manufacturing."
Burke also noted that the bill included special, one-time funding to address problems caused by the severe winter including pervasive potholes on Western Avenue in Brattleboro.
"I want to give public acknowledgment to VTrans," Burke said. "Far from being a bureaucratic organization, VTrans is, in fact, staffed with responsive and thoughtful department heads who understand the needs of the towns and know-how to problem-solve to address them."
-- Health care:
"We made good progress on health insurance reform (Green Mountain Care) and health care reform (Blueprint for Health) as well as affirming how the status quo in private health insurance is unsustainable, and our move toward single-payer is the right direction for both short- and long-term," said Mrowicki, a member of the House Human Services Committee. "Even with the bumps in the Green Mountain Care website, many more Vermonters now have coverage, and costs are being contained."
Stuart said "affordable, high-quality health care is essential for Vermonters' well-being and our economy's long-term strength."
"We implemented a series of reforms that increase access to universal health care while containing its cost and improving its quality," she said. "We made progress toward an integrated health-care delivery system with a budget regulated by the new Green Mountain Care Board. Next year, we will work on next steps that ensure the new system is fair to patients and doctors and is paid for in a sustainable way."
-- Early education:
"Young children were served well with universal pre-kindergarten passing and the child-care subsidy getting a boost, but not to the extent originally proposed," Mrowicki said. "Allowing (child-care) workers the right to organize, though, will give them a larger voice in how best to proceed."
-- Involuntary medication:
White said the "personal and emotional" issue of when mental-health medication can be administered to patients against their will no longer could be avoided.
As a bill she had co-sponsored progressed through committees, "it had input from many, many people with different opinions," White said. "In the end, I believe it is a good bill that will serve Vermonters well. It balances the rights of those who choose not to be medicated and those who would benefit by medication."
"To be clear, it is almost always better to not use medication," White added. "But there are times when it is necessary, and we need to acknowledge that. This bill will provide for an earlier review by the courts for those who are in the hospital. This is a good thing, because it means the person will not be sitting in the hospital for days without a review. Our hope is that this will serve Vermonters in crisis in a more humane and just manner."
-- Tobacco regulations:
A bill passed by the Legislature bans smoking in a vehicle when a young child is present and implements other new regulations, Stuart said.
"Smoking is currently not allowed at a child-care facility when children are present. This bill requires that, if smoking occurs on the premises during other times, a family child-care home shall notify prospective families, prior to enrolling a child, that their child will be exposed to an environment in which tobacco products are used," Stuart said. "With the advent of e-cigarettes comes an added danger to children, with the possibility of a child ingesting the liquid or gel that is sold to refill an e-cigarette. H.217 makes it illegal to sell such a product in Vermont unless it is in child-resistant packaging."
The bill also mandates that smokers must stay "at least 25 feet away from any state-owned buildings and offices," 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.
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