Vermont Legislature wraps up business for the year
MONTPELIER -- Vermont lawmakers legalized sampler flights of beer, outlawed powdered alcohol, killed a school consolidation effort and passed tax and budget bills Saturday while wrapping up their business for 2014.
Gov. Peter Shumlin thanked first the Senate, where the final gavel fell at 6:01 p.m., and then the House, where it fell a little over an hour later, for legislation to address the state's growing heroin problem.
"We stopped averting our eyes to rising tide of opiate addiction in Vermont," Shumlin said as he praised passage of a bill designed to divert addicts from the criminal justice system into treatment.
He also praised lawmakers for putting Vermont on a path to be the first state to require labeling of genetically modified food. Maine and Connecticut passed legislation earlier, but, unlike Vermont, said other states would have to follow suit before their laws went into effect. Shumlin signed the GMO law on Thursday.
Shumlin spoke to a Senate and House dominated by his fellow Democrats and listed a series of liberal initiatives the Legislature tackled this year. It raised the minimum wage from its current $8.73 in stages to $10.50 by 2018.
"We raised the minimum wage to ensure that Vermonters who work hard don't live in poverty," Shumlin said to applause from the House.
House Speaker Shap Smith, D-Morristown, offered similar thanks. On the minimum wage, he spoke of Friday night's "almost unanimous vote (132 to 3) to make sure that working Vermonters at the lowest end of the income scale would have more money in their pockets."
Saturday's adjournment completed a flurry of bills passing in recent days; Smith likened lawmakers' work in the final two weeks to "drinking out of a fire hose."
One item that didn't pass, despite a last-ditch effort by the House Education Committee's majority to save it, was a bill designed to push Vermont school districts to consolidate for better administrative efficiency and expanded course offerings.
After a 6 to 4 vote in the committee to pass a bill creating incentives for districts to join one another, backers of the bill were not able to get the three-fourths majority they needed on the House floor to speed the bill to passage before adjournment.
"I think that conversation was worth having, and we are going to need to have the conversation in the future because we need to do better by our kids," Smith said in his farewell remarks.
Shumlin, Smith and Senate President Pro Tem John Campbell listed several accomplishments. Among them:
-- An economic development package including $5 million for a program to promote business development.
-- A "net-metering" bill to encourage people to make solar and other renewable energy installations by nearly quadrupling the amount of power utilities can take from home-grown generators.
"Since 2011, we have quadrupled the number of solar installations we have in the state of Vermont, leading the nation in per capita solar job creation," Shumlin said.
-- A bill to speed up the process for committing mentally ill patients to treatment and getting court orders to require them to be medicated against their will.
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