Notes from Montpelier: Last-minute amendments create Wild West frenzy

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The atmosphere at the State House was once again fraught with intrigue and intensity as we worked through the final week of the 2016 Legislative Session, adjourning on Friday. It seems like this year, in particular, there has been an air of the Wild West with amendments that have received little or no review being attached to bills that have undergone extensive scrutiny. The hope is to ram them through, but it is bad process that will end with unintended consequences.

A good example of this is an amendment that creates an Animal Cruelty Investigation Advisory Board and includes several other provisions. It had been attached to H.512, an act relating to adequate shelter for dogs and cats, (and two other unrelated bills as well). H.512 went through a comprehensive review process with stakeholders from different perspectives on the issue including the Vermont Veterinary Medical Association, the Humane Society of the United States, and the Vermont Federation of Dog Clubs facilitated by a House Agriculture and Forest Products Committee (HAFPC) member. It then came to the HAFPC where we made some changes, all of which were vetted and approved by the stakeholders, which was the original agreement.

What came back to us from the Senate on April 21 had the aforementioned Animal Cruelty Investigation Advisory Board with another provision that creates an Animal Care Pilot Program in the Department of Corrections. The language directs the Commissioner of Corrections to "implement a pilot program in at least one correctional facility that would permit qualified inmates to provide temporary care, on-site, for animals on a weekly or more frequent basis. The program shall be established on or before January 1, 2017, and the Commissioner shall report on this program, with recommendations as to whether it could be expanded to care for animals that have been seized or relinquished in cruelty or neglect investigations, to the Joint Committee on Justice Oversight on or before November 1, 2017."

On the face of it, this sounds like it has some possibilities. I actually have a pen pal housed at a prison in Marysville, Ohio, who takes care of the warden's dog occasionally. It gives her great pleasure and a taste of non-prison life.

What concerned us is that when one of my committee members spoke with the Commissioner of Corrections. Lisa Menard, it was the first she had heard of it – she had never been asked to testify. She said that when a similar project, promoted by the Blue Star Mothers of Vermont, had been attempted to provide service dogs for veterans, it met with serious problems. The prison environment can be noisy and chaotic and not conducive for dog comfort and ease. As a result, people were bitten including one staff member who required stitches. Setting up a program like this would require a change in the staff work contracts so the likelihood of a program being in place by January 1, 2017 was highly unlikely.

Had the HAFPC had the time to take testimony, the first thing we would have done would have been to ask the Commissioner of Corrections to testify as to the feasibility of such a program and how much it would cost. There was nothing included in the FY 2017 budget to fund this pilot program.

I mentioned that the Animal Cruelty Investigation Advisory Board had been attached to two other bills. They were H.533, an act relating to victim notification, and H.130, an act relating to the Agency of Public Safety. One could question how germane this Board is to either of those two bills, but it is the end of the Session so germaneness seems to fly out the window. Ultimately, the egregious language made it through the process attached to H.533 on a close vote of 74 – 67 because folks didn't want the victim notification bill to die. This was definitely not a shining moment for the legislative process.

Ironically, H.512, the bill that had been thoroughly vetted and agreed to by all of the stakeholders including the Humane Society of the United States died, it seems, because of the objections of one Windsor County animal rights activist.

Another issue that was causing some concern was the opening up of language regarding our law on the labeling of food produced with genetic engineering. In what might have been a last ditch effort to scuttle our law, an attempt was made to open up language around delicatessen labeling requirements. The Attorney General's office strongly advised against that – we are, after all, in the middle of a lawsuit with the National Grocery Manufacturer's Association, the Snack Food Association, the International Dairy Foods Association, and the National Association of Manufacturers. Thankfully, cooler heads prevailed and we did not open up that part of the law.

What we did do was to prohibit people from bringing a private right or cause of action until July 1, 2017. This gives some comfort to manufacturers as we move forward with implementation of the law. Passing this language gives added assurance that private individuals will not be able to bring a lawsuit until there is ample time to remove products that are not properly labeled from the shelves.

We must continue to remain vigilant regarding the situation in Washington, DC, pertaining to our labeling legislation. We continue to hear that Sen. Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., is attempting to develop compromise language that would pre-empt our law. We understand that QR (quick response) codes would be used to indicate genetic engineering in food, but as many of us know, QR codes are not widely used, frequently don't work, and require possession of advanced mobile phones, which sometimes don't work in large grocery stores – not a universally accessible solution like a simple label on a package.

State Rep. Carolyn Partridge , D-Windham, welcomes emails at cpartridge@leg.state.vt.us.


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