Legislative Updates

Updates from the Vermont Statehouse

Prescription Drug Monitoring

One of the many controversial bills still moving through the process is H.745, which makes some changes to the prescription drug monitoring system (VPMS) that began in 2009 (based on legislation passed in 2006). VPMS allows a pharmacist or treating physician to search the database and find out whether a patient is obtaining controlled substances from more than one pharmacy or more than one doctor. It also allows the Department of Health to flag doctors who may be over-prescribing controlled substances for a patient and reach out to them regarding best practices. VPMS was intended to assist doctors and pharmacists in determining whether a patient was at risk of becoming addicted to prescription drugs to facilitate treatment and recovery. The language of the act was carefully chosen to focus on health care, not law enforcement.

This year, as part of its effort to address the increase in prescription drug abuse, the administration is pushing to expand access to that database. After hearing extensive testimony, the House Human Services committee recommended its own version of H.745, which continues to require a warrant for police access to the database. We learned that the State Police have never even requested a warrant to search the database. A warrant requires only probable cause and that seems a reasonable standard for access to otherwise private medical records. The House bill passed on a voice vote.

Now the Senate is considering the bill, and the pressure for warrantless access to VPMS continues. This week it is included in a proposed amendment from Sen. Sears that includes provisions decriminalizing possession of one ounce of marijuana. We expect a wild ride in the Senate and a lively conference committee debate if the Sears amendment is adopted.

Energy Mergers and Protecting Ratepayers

As you know, Green Mountain Power (GMP) is trying to buy Central Vermont Public Service (CVPS). Or should I say GazMetro, who owns GMP wants to merge with CVPS. I have to wonder if it’s a good idea to have a Canadian firm owning 75% of our electric distribution and 100% of our piped-in natural gas distribution (GazMetro owns VT Gas). I suspect it’s not.

Many in the Legislature are uncomfortable with this merger. And when that happens around a big issue like this we tend to galvanize to whatever piece presents itself that vaguely represents the conflict. Think of it like a geyser popping up where everyone flocks to the pressure point.

In this case we have latched onto the windfall provision of the CVPS bailout. In 2001 the Public Service Board (PSB) gave CVPS a rate increase but made it clear this was actually a bailout from ratepayers.  The PSB then stipulated that if/when CVPS sold at a profit at least $21 million ($16 million in 2001 dollars) would be shared with ratepayers. So far, the agreement from GMP is to put $21 million into efficiency investments. They will then build this expense into future rates. Lovely huh?

So, not only will CVPS customers have to accept repayment in the form of some of their neighbors getting help with weatherization, they will also have to actually pay for this program. And, GMP customers will also be charged for some of this $21 million payback since it will be reflected in the new GMP rates. Goofy all around.

I am one of the lead sponsors on an amendment that directs the PSB to have the money go directly back to CVPS customers and prohibits bill back for the repayment. The amendment has 72 sponsors and at least 8 other supporters. Thing is, in order to actually have a vote on this amendment, it may require a procedural vote against the speaker. We will see if enough democrats are willing to stand up to their leadership in order to direct this minimal protection for the 135,000 CVPS customers.

Labor Bills Stuck on the Wall

For me, a threat to the basic right to organize in any state is a threat to the right to bargain everywhere. After Governor Scott Walkers assault on public employees,  I stood in solidarity with my brothers and sisters in Wisconsin, in Vermont and with all public employees- state, school, municipal and universities. I spoke out at several rallies with a strong message that we are not willing to give up our right to bargain. As co-chair of the Legislative Working Vermonter’s Caucus I helped author and pushed for support of a House resolution resolving that workers in all states, regardless of economic sector and job title or responsibility, must have the basic right to organize and bargain collectively for fair and just outcome. 

At the AFL-CIO convention last fall, Senate President pro tem John Campbell (along with majority leader, Representative Lucy Leriche) presented Wisconsin AFL-CIO President Emeritus David Newby with the senate version of the Legislative Working Vermonter’s Caucus HR0007 resolution supporting bargaining rights for Wisconsin workers.  

Now with Governor Scott Walker and others facing a recall, the Legislative Working Vermonter’s Caucus last week on Wednesday, unanimously supported a resolution urging the state of Wisconsin to enact Senate Bill 233, or similar legislation, restoring the full collective bargaining rights of Wisconsin public employees.

Following the workers caucus on Wednesday, the resolution was introduced on the floor and sent to the House General and Military Affairs committee,  where it joins J.R.H. 23 a Joint resolution expressing deep concern over the growing inequality in wealth and income in Vermont and J.R.S. 47 a Joint resolution urging the United States Postal Service not to implement its proposed major reductions and urging Congress to enact the Postal Service Protection Act on the wall along with other pro labor bills.

Lets hope the senate picks up HR0018 (and others) before the end of the session.

Working Vermonters Caucus Supports Striking Teachers

At our last Legislative Working Vermonter’s Caucus (which I co-chair) a joint resolution in support of striking teachers in the Rutland Southwest Supervisory Union was read and unanimously supported by members.

The boards’ negotiators had adopted an attitude that was contrary to the core concept of collective bargaining and damaging to labor relations in public education in Vermont. If the boards’ position were to prevail, some other school boards might feel empowered to pursue a similar path and demand strict compliance with their version of work rules for members of the teaching profession without any fair and open negotiations or compromise. So, the resolution urged the school boards’ negotiating team to return to good faith bargaining as provided by 16 V.S.A. § 2001 both to establish fruitful relations with its teachers and to enable education to resume for the children of its communities.

The resolution was read and, in the Speaker’s discretions, treated as a bill and was referred to the committee on Education. Shortly after the resolution was introduced, the Rutland Southwest teachers announced that a tentative settlement had been reached, ending the strike after six days.

Autism Coverage Defies the Odds, Moves Forward

In January Sen. Pollina submitted a bill that would demand insurers cover treatments for kids on the autism spectrum. I signed on to the companion bill in the House. These bills were to expand coverage. In 2009 the legislature passed a law covering children up to age six - the theory being that early intervention is key and moving beyond the age of six is expensive.

In addition to the usual challenges bills like this have our efforts were immediately complicated when Gov. Shumlin postponed the coverage in Medicaid even just up to the age of six, suggesting it was necessary to delay because we didn't have $10 million to pay the bill.

And then we were visited by the fiscal fairies. After some pressing from advocates, parents caring for children with autism and a few of us legislators, our fiscal staff took a harder look at the numbers. Apparently the $10 million figure assumed every kid with autism needs all the treatments available. The fact is only a few kids really need the full battery of treatments, most kids on the spectrum need far less. Suddenly Doug Racine and others in the Agency of Human Services were proud to say they could cover these costs and even expand coverage up to age 21 with negligible cost.

My first reaction was this is too good to be true. But after careful discussions with advocates, people at DVHA (Medicaid) and our fiscal staff I'm ready to celebrate this miraculous turn. A few weeks ago the Senate passed Pollina's bill. Last Thursday, House Health Care passed it out unanimously. Look for a floor debate later this week. I am proud to play a little role in ending what can only be described as discrimination against families caring for kids on the autism spectrum. Beginning later this year they should finally be able to get insurance coverage for the treatment their kids need.

Redistricting – a small victory, for now

Every ten years, after the census, Montpelier gets bogged down redrawing legislative lines to accommodate shifts in population. It is typically a highly partisan process, but this year, despite one-party control, the process has been fair and even-handed. Well, almost.

State law sets out the rough process where the legislature passes a draft early in the year and hands decisions on internal lines over to local “Boards of Civil Authority” (BCA). In other words, for my city of Burlington, the legislature simply instructs the BCA that it has 10 legislative seats, and asks that they let Montpelier know how they should be divided up. Provided the BCAs meet statutory requirements around acceptable deviations, etc., the BCA maps typically get adopted.

Since January I have cautioned the Speaker of the House and others about a likely sticking point. While most representatives from Burlington are Democrats, and while the House, Senate and Governor are all controlled by Democrats, the Burlington BCA is not. In Burlington the BCA is comprised of the City Council and the Mayor with the mayor presiding. In our case it is a 15-member board: 7 members were Democrats, 3 Progressives, 3 Republicans and 2 independents.

Again and again I urged the speaker to get his members to compromise so we would avoid an ugly battle. Compromise wasn’t in the cards and push came to shove and the BCA voted 9-6 to support a map that all but 1 Democrat opposed. A week later Ed Adrian, a Democratic city councilor, came to Montpelier to try again. He made his case. I stood up for the BCA plan as did Kurt Wright (Republican member of the House and City Council) and the committee voted 8-3 to stick with the BCA plan. So far so good.

Last Thursday the House passed the new maps on second reading with only 9 votes against it – all the Burlington Democrats (except Suzi Wizowati) plus a handful of sympathizers. They were all being told the Burlington BCA process was highly partisan. I guess highly partisan is code for Democrats didn’t get what they wanted.

Friday morning, shortly before we were going to pass the bill over to the senate, we were greeted with the news that Democratic leadership was supporting an amendment to the Burlington BCA map. It was pretty much the exact same map that was rejected 8-3 a week earlier but it was now accepted by the committee 6-5. I was ready.

Anticipating this last-minute attack I had prepared an amendment that stripped the BCAs from the process all together. This is a bad idea and it was designed to get zero votes. Fortunately, I happened to get the amendment in first so members were going to have to vote on my amendment before considering the Burlington change. Presumably, moments after standing up for the important role of BCAs, members might be a tad uncomfortable casting the Burlington BCA’s map aside.

In the end my cheeky amendment wasn’t needed because the Democrats withdrew their map. Apparently a member of the Government Operations committee changed her mind, meaning the new map was no longer supported by the committee. As they withdrew the map supporters made it clear they would try and get the change made in the Senate. This is challenging because the tradition is that each chamber fiddles with its own map but doesn’t dabble into each other’s. Still, our victory could quickly turn and if the Senate makes a change it will be nearly impossible for us to counter it because any change will be fought over in a committee of conference.

But, so far, the process really has been fair and a model of non-partisan redistricting for the country. Let’s hope it stays that way right to the end.

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