Sick-time bill ailing in House
BRATTLEBORO -- Just before returning to Montpelier for the 2014 legislative session, state Rep. John Moran predicted that a push for mandatory sick time for nearly all Vermont workers "will cause a lot of pain and suffering on the floor of the House."
But it now appears that the initiative -- a big priority for the Wardsboro Democrat -- won't even make it to the floor due to what House Speaker Shap Smith says is a lack of support.
Moran, vice chairman of the House General, Housing and Military Affairs Committee, acknowledges that guaranteed paid time off for sick employees won't happen this year. But he's hopeful that the debate is not over.
"The bill now is in the Appropriations Committee and, given its insufficient support on the House floor, time is running out," Moran said. "However, other actions in the House and Senate this year indicate a positive sign for this legislation in the future."
Moran is co-chairman of the Working Vermonters Legislative Caucus, and he has advocated for a greater focus on "bread-and-butter" issues such as a higher minimum wage and paid sick days for employees.
Raising the minimum wage -- which now stands at $8.73 per hour in Vermont -- still has many supporters including Gov. Peter Shumlin, who has proposed boosting the state's rate to $10.10 hourly by 2017.
On Thursday night, Moran's committee heard hours of testimony on that issue.
"Raising the minimum wage is of great interest in Vermont and nationally and the topic of a number of bills in the General Committee," Moran said.
The committee is focusing on a bill -- "though not at the exclusion of others," Moran said -- that raises the minimum wage to $12.50 hourly.
"We have received preliminary data from our Joint Fiscal Office and our legislative economist, looking at possible minimum wage increases from the current $8.73 to $10, $12.50 or $15 per hour," he said. "Consideration is being given to the net effect upon workers, employers and the economy."
Among those lobbying for both a minimum-wage increase and paid sick time are Ben Cohen and Jerry Greenfield of Ben & Jerry's ice cream fame. The two scooped ice cream in the Statehouse cafeteria Tuesday in an effort to call attention to the issue.
Former Vermont Gov. Madeleine Kunin -- who was the state's first female governor -- also has made an appearance to push for higher wages and guaranteed sick time.
But the sick-day issue has stalled. Smith recently told Vermont Public Radio that "there really isn't enough support to pass the bill," and, therefore, "we don't want to bring it to the floor."
There have been concerns about the mandate's possible effect on small businesses. But Moran still believes in the bill, noting that his committee had approved it on a 6-1 vote.
"Up to 60,000 Vermonters are estimated to be employed without any paid time off, and they usually work in the lower-paying, customer-contact industries," Moran said. "As offered, the bill proposes that an employee earns sick days at a rate of one hour for every 30 hours worked up to a maximum of 56 hours a year."
Moran said small businesses with up to four employees are exempt, and there is a waiting period before new hires can access time off.
"If employers already provide equivalent time off (often known as combined time off or a combination of vacation, personal, and sick days), conditions of the bill are generally met," Moran said.
Asked whether he is frustrated at the sick-time measure's lack of progress, Moran noted the bill's "good start" near the beginning of the session.
"However, a usual strategy of opponents of legislation is to wait to see if a particular bill gains momentum," he said. "And if it does, then (they) mount an offensive as late as possible to either kill the bill or drag it out past most peoples' patience."
In other legislative news related to Windham County and its lawmakers:
-- Windham County Sen. Peter Galbraith expressed frustration at the fate of S.100, a bill to prevent forest fragmentation.
"Vermont has the greatest number of bird species of any state in the continental United States, as well as sizable populations of large mammals," said Galbraith, a Townshend-based Democrat. "Large connected forests are essential to the well-being of all these species. The (state) Agency of Natural Resources defined fragmentation by development as the greatest threat to Vermont's forests."
The Senate bill, as it was approved by Galbraith's Natural Resources and Energy Committee, "included forest fragmentation as one criteria that should be examined by District Commissions when doing a review for Act 250," Galbraith said. "The bill only applied to projects that already came under Act 250 -- that is to say, only to the large projects most likely to fragment forests. It did not apply the kind of development most landowners would undertake."
However, Galbraith on Friday said the bill's main provisions had been defeated in a floor amendment.
"Now the bill is a study, which is the Legislature's way of pretending to care about an issue when it doesn't actually want to do something," Galbraith said. "The bill had 19 co-sponsors, but it received only eight votes. It was opposed by a large developer and by several large landowners. The defeat was, in my view, another example of the particular interest trumping the public interest, which is all too common in Montpelier."
-- Galbraith also found himself involved in a debate over the U.S. Supreme Court's 2010 Citizens United decision, which allowed greater corporate spending in political campaigns.
The state Senate on Thursday approved a resolution supporting a constitutional convention to reverse the decision. Prior to the vote, Galbraith successfully proposed an amendment stating that "this petition shall not be considered by the U.S. Congress until 33 other states submit petitions for the same purpose as proposed by Vermont" and also stipulating that such a convention should be limited only to the Citizens United matter.
The latter change was necessary, Galbraith argued, because a constitutional convention otherwise could be used for all manner of proposals such as abortion bans or implementation of a conservative definition of marriage.
In comments recorded in the official Senate journal, however, Galbraith also declared that there is "no chance" that 33 other states will call for a convention to overturn Citizens United.
-- Rep. David Deen, D-Westminster, said the House Fish, Wildlife and Water Resources Committee -- which he chairs -- has been busy on issues related to dam safety, water quality and hunting.
For instance, the committee has approved a bill that addresses farm sources of pollution. Another bill " establishes a safety inspection requirement for all dams, not just high-hazard dams," Deen said.
The Senate Natural Resources Committee has taken up two other bills approved by the House, Deen said. One restricts land use in flood plains, while this year's fish and wildlife bill takes on issues such as road hunting, control of captive-hunt facilities and "giving the Fish and Wildlife Board control of the deer-rifle season," Deen said.
The latter bill also designates "the Governor Aiken bucktail streamer fly as the official Vermont state fishing fly," he added.
-- Rep. Mollie Burke, P/D-Brattleboro, said the state transportation bill -- which includes funding for all transportation projects -- passed the House unanimously and now goes to the Senate.
Burke also said the House Transportation Committee approved a bill "that attempts to fairly assess fees for impacts to the transportation system caused by a housing or business development."
"As things now stand, the last developer in a development zone often winds up paying for upgrades to transportation infrastructure that have been (made necessary) by the cumulative impact of a number of prior projects," Burke said. "This bill addresses this issue by setting up Transportation Improvement Districts and spreading out the costs of any needed transportation upgrades among a number of developers. The bill addresses fairness (and) tries to incentivize development in clusters and town centers, as opposed to strip development and sprawl."
-- Rep. Tim Goodwin, I-Weston, also had transportation issues in mind, though the Windham-Bennington-Windsor representative was focused on poor road conditions.
"In Jamaica it is Route 30 (shared with Winhall and probably Stratton, as well), and in Weston it is Route 155," Goodwin said.
"I have followed up with the Agency of Transportation, and the only thing I have learned is that Route 30 is scheduled well before Route 155, and neither is scheduled anywhere near soon enough," he added. "Route 30 is scheduled for 2015. Route 155 is not yet scheduled for repaving at all. I am going to see if pursuing this further, with more legislators on board, can make a difference."
-- Windham County Sen. Jeanette White, a Putney Democrat, said the Senate Finance Committee has reviewed all tax credits, sales and property tax exemptions along with "other forgone tax revenue."
"Now we can look at whether or not those exemptions should continue," White said. "But that will probably not happen this year."
She said the Senate also worked on some municipal changes, including giving municipalities condemnation rights after a disaster.
"This is a response to (Tropical Storm) Irene, and it will make it easier for residents to receive full amounts they are entitled to under FEMA," White said.
Mike Faher is the political beat writer at the Reformer. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 802-254-2311, ext. 275.
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