By Rep. Jim Harrison
Entering the fifth week of the 2019 session the pace is picking up. Committees have had a chance to review and dissect some of the proposals before them and are starting to push bills out to the House or Senate floors for action. Early bills in the House seeing action thus far have been non-controversial and passed by wide margins, if not unanimously.
The House has already approved the annual budget adjustment act, which might be considered a true-up between various department line items as actuals come in for the first six months. It also took $22 million of surplus revenues to pay down a loan for teacher retiree health care benefits.
A new tax on e-cigarettes (vape products) passed easily, in contrast to last year when it never made it to the governor. The House also passed the following:
A bill to rein in the growing number of boards and commissions (from our committee)
A new ethnic and social equity studies standards for public schools advisory group
Making it a crime to sexually exploitat of a person in law enforcement officer custody (currently a conduct violation)
Now for some controversy. First up this week will be a vote on a proposal to extend the Act 46 merger deadline. A cross section of lawmakers representing towns that were mandated to merge their school district, have proposed a one-year delay so that proper budgets can be put together and operational issues with the schools can be coordinated. A number of these towns are also fighting Act 46, the school district consolidation law, in court. However, the House Education Committee voted 7-4 against such an extension, with some members indicating we cannot just keep kicking the can. Many towns and schools made the difficult merger decisions two or more years ago.
On Wednesday, Feb. 6, there will be a public hearing in the House chamber from 4:30 to 6:30 p.m. on H.57, a bill that would codify in state law a woman’s right to choose whether to have an abortion. The hearing is expected to be packed with busloads coming from various areas of the state. While the bill looked like it might pass easily with 90 co-sponsors (76 needed for House passage), the momentum has definitely changed as more Vermonters learned about the legislation and started to get engaged in the conversation.
Critics of the bill point to its language, “Every individual who becomes pregnant has the fundamental right to choose to carry a pregnancy to term, give birth to a child, or to have an abortion” which has been interpreted to indicate abortions are allowed up until delivery. Opponents also take issue with the statement, “A fertilized egg, embryo, or fetus shall not have independent rights under Vermont law.” The governor, who considers himself prochoice, indicated he did not support the bill in its present form.
As if there isn’t enough controversy this week, supporters of stricter gun laws will be unveiling a proposal for a 72- hour waiting period for all firearm sales. The measure, is in response to a plea by the parents of 23-year-old Andrew Black, who died in December of a self-inflicted gunshot wound.
And finally, the Senate Judiciary Committee is preparing to advance a tax and regulate bill for marijuana. While the measure is expected to pass the Senate easily, its prospects in the House and with Governor Scott are less clear. Both House Speaker Johnson and the Governor, have concerns about public safety and support saliva testing for drivers, which is not in the Senate bill. Also absent is a public education piece on cannabis use.
You may reach me at JHarrison@leg.state.vt.us or my cell, 802-236-3001. Messages may also be left at the State House during the legislative session at 802-828-2228. If you are visiting the Capitol, I am happy to meet up.
Jim Harrison is the state representative for Bridgewater, Chittenden, Killington & Mendon.