Shumlin signs end-of-life bill after 'successful' session
BRATTLEBORO -- On Monday, Gov. Peter Shumlin became the first governor in the nation to sign a bill authorizing doctors to prescribe lethal doses of medication to terminally ill patients.
The bill -- signed less than a week after its passage as lawmakers wound up their 2013 business -- is just one product of what Shumlin termed an "extremely successful" legislative session.
Shumlin said he hopes the new law gives Vermonters struggling with grave illness "some peace of mind that they have this option."
The bill was subject to lengthy, emotional debate in the legislature. Its first affirmative vote came in February in the Senate, where a majority stripped the bill of multiple patient "safeguards" and simply granted immunity to doctors who write lethal prescriptions for the terminally ill.
Proponents of that approach -- including Windham County Sen. Peter Galbraith -- argued that the legislature should allow for patient choice without setting up a state-sanctioned system for assisted suicide.
But a majority in the House later restored many safeguards, with supporters saying such measures -- including a mandate that the terminally ill make multiple requests for lethal medication -- were important to protect patients and doctors.
The eventual legislative compromise included those safeguards along with the provision that they will expire in 2016.
Just before signing the bill in a ceremony Monday at the Statehouse, Shumlin told the Reformer that he supports giving terminally ill patients "a choice on how they want to spend the last six or seven days of their lives."
But Shumlin also said he expects that the legislature will vote to keep patient safeguards in place beyond the expected 2016 sunset for those measures.
"My guess is, the sunset will be repealed," Shumlin said. "I hope it will."
He noted that the Vermont Legislature was the first to approve an end-of-life bill. Similar laws in Oregon and Washington passed via voter referendum.
Also on Monday, Shumlin weighed in on several other initiatives that received approval -- and some that did not -- during the first legislative session of his second term in office:
-- Shumlin had pushed for more investment in education, and he praised lawmakers for tackling an ambitious educational agenda this year.
Specifically, Shumlin mentioned the Legislature's vote to expand dual-enrollment and early college programs designed to ease the transition between high school and post-secondary education.
Shumlin also said he was happy that all low-income Vermont students now will receive free lunches.
"We're the first state in the country that's going to offer free lunches to everybody who qualifies for a subsidized meal," Shumlin said.
He noted, however, that an expanded, publicly funded pre-kindergarten initiative did not win legislative approval.
-- Though state lawmakers voted to approve a 6.8-percent increase in the education tax on primary residences, Shumlin said Montpelier cannot take the blame for that tax hike.
Instead, Shumlin contends that legislators simply are responding to spending decisions made by local school boards and local voters.
"I have been asking school boards to hold the line on spending so that taxes don't go up," the governor said. "Let's not forget that school budgets are decided on at every town meeting."
-- However, Shumlin argues that a new tax on gasoline -- prices rose about 6 cents per gallon on May 1 and are scheduled to go up again next year -- was unavoidable.
"That one made sense," Shumlin said.
Supporters of the tax said Vermonters are driving less and driving vehicles that are more fuel-efficient. That has led to the state's gas-tax revenues declining, leaving less money for roads and bridges.
"We have a leaking bucket in terms of transportation revenue," Shumlin said. "We're taking in less than we were."
He also said Vermont would have lost $60 million in federal funding in fiscal 2014 if officials had not plugged a hole in the state transportation budget with more gas-tax revenue.
"For every 20 cents that we raise in Vermont, we're matched with 80 cents of federal transportation money," Shumlin said.
-- The governor had lobbied strongly against any new "broad-based" taxes in the general-fund budget.
In fact, after the House in March approved several new levies including an expanded sales tax and an increased meals and rooms tax, Shumlin went so far as to say that he would "go for the highest building that I could find to jump to make sure that I wasn't here to see that tax package become law."
In the end, the state's fiscal 2014 budget includes none of those tax hikes.
"I felt very strongly that it is a big mistake to raise sales taxes, income taxes and meals and rooms taxes on Vermonters," Shumlin said Monday.
For example, Shumlin argues that Brattleboro businesses would suffer if -- as had been proposed by a majority in the state House -- the state sales tax was expanded to include some clothing purchases.
"There is no faster way to drive downtown (Brattleboro) business to New Hampshire," Shumlin said.
The governor said Vermont's economic recovery is too fragile to withstand large-scale tax hikes.
"We now have the third-lowest unemployment rate in America," Shumlin said. "We're down to 4 percent as of last week."
-- In his January budget address, Shumlin had called for limits on how much time Vermonters can spend on the state's welfare program, called Reach Up.
Lawmakers responded by approving a 60-month cap on the program with multiple exceptions to protect more vulnerable segments of the population.
"Vermont was the only state left in America where welfare benefits were timeless, not temporary," Shumlin said, praising the legislature for giving his administration "tools" to get more welfare recipients into the workforce.
-- Shumlin had repeatedly expressed concerns that legislation requiring labeling of food with genetically modified ingredients would push the state into a court battle with the commercial food industry.
A majority in the House approved the GMO-labeling bill earlier this month, but the Senate took no action. Further deliberation is expected in the 2014 legislative session.
On Monday, Shumlin praised state Rep. Carolyn Partridge, D-Windham, and the House Agriculture and Forest Committee she chairs for crafting a GMO bill that is as "legally tight as possible."
But he also stopped short of fully endorsing that bill.
"I think that they did the best job they could do," Shumlin said.
Mike Faher can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 802-254-2311, ext. 275.
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