Lawmakers trash waste amendments; corp. personhood resolution passed

Saturday April 21, 2012

MONTPELIER -- The Vermont Senate was treated to a show-and-tell of garbage on Friday during a nearly daylong debate on a recycling bill before deciding to call for studies on expanding the state's bottle deposit law and banning plastic grocery bags, rather than incorporating those ideas into the legislation.

Sen. Mark MacDonald, D-Orange, brought a large black plastic bag full of drink containers with him to the Senate floor, prompting a pause for a point of order while Lt. Gov. Phil Scott decided whether the prop comported with Senate rules. He decided it was OK.

Sen. Joseph Benning, R-Caledonia, then distributed to his colleagues dirty drink containers he had picked up from the side of a road to support his argument that the bottle deposit law should be expanded.

"We're wasting a lot of time," Sen. Claire Ayer, D-Addison, complained as the Senate prepared to adjourn for the day. "The work we don't do now we'll do in May."

Much of Friday's debate was a result of a last-minute decision by the Senate Natural Resources and Energy Committee a week earlier to add the bottle bill expansion and the plastic bag ban to a bill passed by the House aimed at getting Vermont to recycle nearly all its trash by 2020.

In the end, the 30-member Senate voted 22-7, with one member absent, not to expand the bottle deposit law to include plastic water, juice and energy drink bottles, but instead to have state Agency of Natural Resources study the issue.

Opponents said both the bottle deposit law expansion and the bag ban hadn't been thoroughly examined in committee.

"They just appeared, and we voted on them," Sen. Randy Brock, R-Franklin, a committee member. "We haven't done our homework on these issues."

Backers said the bottle bill expansion had been discussed off and on over the years, that the existing bottle law had been successful in cleaning up the environment, and that it needed to be expanded to cover beverages that had grown in popularity in recent years.

But some senators sympathetic to the bottle bill's intent said they worried that expanding it would interfere with the development of "zero-sort recycling," a system used in some parts of the state that is becoming more common because it is simple for consumers and comprehensive in the types of recyclable materials it can handle.

Waste processors rely on income from selling the water, juice and energy drink bottles as recycled plastic and diverting them to bottle redemption centers under an expanded bottle law could hurt the recycling industry, some senators said.

Backers of a study expressed hope that the state could address those issues.

House passes corporate
personhood resolution

The House on Thursday passed a resolution calling on the U.S. Congress to start the process of changing the federal Constitution to reverse a Supreme Court decision that expanded the rights of corporations to influence political campaigns.

The 92-40 vote reflected continuing opposition to the high court's Citizens United decision in 2010 that lifted limits on corporate funding of political action committees supporting candidates. The House vote followed a similar vote in the state Senate last week and like-minded resolutions passed in 64 cities and towns on Town Meeting Day in March.

The resolution calls for a constitutional amendment to clarify that corporations are not people and money is not speech. It makes clear Vermont is not calling for impinging on freedom of religion or the press. Similar measures have been approved in Hawaii and New Mexico and by at least one legislative chamber in California, Alaska and Iowa, according to the advocacy group Public Citizen.

"Constituents are aghast at the abuses of corporate power and floods of money polluting the political waters, and are asking for action," Rep.Mike Mrowicki, D-District 5, said during the debate. "We are listening."

Vermonters "do not want their voices drowned out by the voice of corporate wealth and influence," said Rep. David Sharpe, D-Bristol, summing up the views of several supporters who spoke during an impassioned debate on the measure.

Opponents said the constitutional amendment would be a dangerous assault on First Amendment free speech rights.

Rep. Tom Koch, R-Barre Town, described the House as "150 of us trying to decide who may engage in political speech and who may not." He said people need to spend money to get political messages before the public. That prompted Rep. Cynthia Browning, D-Arlington, to ask if that means people with more money enjoy more First Amendment freedom.

Koch acknowledged he did not have a good answer.

"I do not like all this money that gets dumped into campaigns," he said, adding that he had voted against former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney in Vermont's Republican presidential primary out of protest at the ads being bought by a super PAC.

"My vote will be different in the fall," the Republican lawmaker added to laughter from some of his House colleagues.

The House vote came after the defeat of two proposed amendments: One by Rep. Dustin Degree, R-St. Albans, to urge Congress to include labor unions in any new speech restrictions that might apply to corporations; another by Rep. Oliver Olsen, R-Jamaica, to restrict political activities by U.S.-based subsidiaries of foreign corporations.

Olsen is among a group of lawmakers critical of a utility merger in which Colchester-based Green Mountain Power Corp., which is owned by Montreal-based Gaz Metro, plans to absorb Rutland-based Central Vermont Public Service Corp.

New bill measures
state success

The House this week passed S.237, a bill that will expand how Vermont measures success as a state beyond simple economics. The motion will create and use a GPI -- Genuine Progress Index -- to replace gross domestic product as the sole indicator of progress in Vermont. It requires the state government to use these indicators in preparing the state budget. Measures will include environmental and societal well-being, as well as economic.

Session extended
at least a week

Vermont House Speaker Shap Smith is telling lawmakers to keep their calendars open for a week and a day past April 27, the date that had been set earlier for their adjournment for the year.

Smith says lawmakers should be prepared to be in Montpelier for an unusual Monday session on April 30, and that they should keep their calendars open in case the session does not wrap up until Saturday, May 5.

Even if the session goes for two more weeks, lawmakers will have a packed agenda. A Smith aide says must-pass bills include the annual state budget, a miscellaneous tax bill, the capital budget for state building projects, a measure to begin implementing health care legislation passed last year and legislative redistricting.

Reformer staffers contributed to this report.


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