Clippings: Not all legislative bills made news

We know about the $5.5 billion state budget, GMO labeling law, minimum wage hike and the opiate abuse legislation that the Vermont General Assembly passed during the 2014 session (see my news story on Page 1A). Those were some of the high-profile actions that made many lawmakers’ “top accomplishments” lists.
But the 2014 Legislature also saw passage of many other bills — more than 100 in all — that drew much less attention and debate in the House and Senate. Some of them were rather bland and perfunctory, such as minor tweaks to various town charters (including Panton’s) and changing the name of the Vermont Criminal Information Center to the Vermont Crime Information Center.
The list of passed bills — some of them still awaiting Gov. Peter Shumlin’s signature — also include such less ballyhooed bills as:
•  S.247. This would, among other things, eliminate the current 1,000-patient limit for those who can obtain medical marijuana through one of the state’s licensed dispensaries. The law also adds post-traumatic stress disorder to the list of chronic illness diagnoses that patients must have in order to qualify for medical marijuana. So while the Legislature continues to clamp down on opiate-related crime and abuse, it is also making marijuana more accessible for medicinal purposes after having passed a decriminalization bill last year.
•  S.227. Proposes to replace, with “respectful” language, “offensive” language currently present in state statutes that is used to describe individuals with disabilities. For example, people heretofore described in some statutes as “insane” will now be described as having a “major psychiatric disability.”
•  H.875. Would eliminate a defendant’s right to a trial by jury in traffic appeals; would allow the Judicial Bureau to extend time periods for paying civil penalties for traffic violations; and would cap at 120 days the amount of time a license could be suspended for failing to pay a traffic ticket.
•  H.758. Would require employers to give notice to the Department of Labor in the case of a mass layoff, or be subject to civil penalties. A mass layoff is defined in the bill as involving at least 50 workers being laid off during any 90-day period. The bill was clearly crafted with IBM in mind, the computer giant that has been notoriously private about its layoffs.
•  H.799. Requires the Commissioner of Forests, Parks and Recreation to adopt rules governing the importation and regulation of untreated firewood in Vermont. It’s a measure intended to prevent non-native plant pests from taking root and spreading in Vermont via firewood. One of the sponsors is Rep. Paul Ralston, D-Middlebury, and founder of Vermont Sweet Maple Kindling.
•  H.740. Would allow the various District Environmental Commissions and the Agency of Transportation to assess fees to fund improvements to address the transportation impacts of development projects. This would replace the current “last one in” rule through which the final entity moving into a development project often has to bear a disproportionately large burden for traffic mitigation and related transportation infrastructure. The new measure would spread those expenses out more evenly among all stakeholders in the project.
•  H.631. Would allow stores that sell winning lottery tickets to keep their commission for selling such tickets (involving prizes of $10,000 or more), even if no one steps forward to claim their prize.
•  H.612. Proposes to increase the civil penalties for violations of the Gas Pipeline Safety Program. The current penalty is up to $100,000 per violation. The new bill would raise it to up to $200,000 for each day the violation exists. We of course know there could be a lot of natural gas pipeline infrastructure buried in Addison County during the next few years.
•  H.497. A measure that would amend the state’s open meeting law in a manner that would allow, among other things, members of a public board to attend meetings remotely under some circumstances and clarify when a board can go into executive session.
But Vermont media have some serious concerns about other aspects of the proposed law, including its allowance for state and local boards to interview candidates for board vacancies in private. We in the media believe candidates for public office should face public scrutiny with a transparent application process. The bill also keeps private any discussions board members might have about setting agendas for meetings. We’ve asked Shumlin to veto the bill, as it ironically, in some respects, makes the state’s open meeting law less open.
These are just a few examples of some of the bills that didn’t make a lot of headlines this past session but were still part of the sausage making process we’ve come to know as lawmaking. And if that sausage doesn’t meet most voters’ taste, they have the option of voting in some new cooks.

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