Ediorial: Session’s end, public gains
As the legislative session wrapped up this past Saturday, the governor’s scorecard was mixed: he failed to get his two signature initiatives of this session signed into law (legalizing marijuana and divesting from coal-related industries), but several other initiatives passed that he also championed.
Some of those initiatives included passing a sick-leave bill; passing a bill authorizing automatic voter registry when applying for a driver’s license; passing a bill to eliminate outdated traffic fines, which have become an economic hardship for “tens of thousands of lower income Vermonters;” approving money to help fund a new opiate addiction treatment hub in St. Albans, as well as adding money to more employees in the fight against heroine addiction; and passing a energy bill that continues to promote renewable energy over fossil fuels, while sorting out how to allow towns to have a greater voice in the siting of solar and wind projects; plus many others. All-in-all, it is a fairly progressive list of accomplishments, while not busting the bank or taxpayers’ wallets.
Lesser initiatives supported by the governor were also passed this year as important add-ons that complemented or fixed major bills passed in the first year of the biennium.
Rep. Diane Lanpher, D-Vergennes, helped spearhead the passage of one such bill: H.674 requires immediate public notice after sewage overflows from municipal treatment facilities. The bill’s intent is to alert citizens when the millions of gallons of overflow of untreated wastewater empties into rivers, streams and lakes — often finding its way into Lake Champlain and other lakes throughout the state. Statewide there are 68 municipal systems that are vulnerable to sewage overflows because of stormwater, according to Environmental Conservation Commissioner Alyssa Schuren.
The thrust behind H.674 is two-fold: first, it will serve to better inform swimmers and other users of the creeks, rivers and lakes within an hour of the overflow, not up to 24 hours later as the current system allows. Secondly, it brings the issue more to the fore of public attention.
“The state is supposed to require (municipalities) to come up with a plan to eliminate (sewage discharges), and they’ve basically been getting a free pass because this is not a new issue,” said Lake Champlain International Executive Director James Ehlers earlier this session,” adding that the discharges violate the federal Clean Water Act and that no amount of raw sewage discharge is authorized.
The state’s goal is to help towns and cities phase out the combined sewage overflows, says Schuren, and is doing so by rewriting rules that will require towns to write long-range plans showing how they intend to make necessary upgrades to their facilities, recognizing that making those upgrades will be expensive.
“This is not an intractable problem, it is an expensive problem,” said Rep. David Deen, D-Westminster, chairman of the Fish, Wildlife and Water Resources Committee where the bill originated. “And the higher the knowledge level is in the electorate, the more willing that the Legislature down the road is going to be willing to put forth the resources to be able to solve this problem once and for all.”
Shumlin congratulated the Legislature for passing this year’s bill, and for last year’s passage of Act 64, know as the Vermont Clean Water Act. “This Legislature has done more in this biennium for clean water than I believe has been done in 50 or more years,” he said, adding that passage of H.674 was “yet another step that is critical to ensuring that we finally take clean water seriously.”
Another measure passed within the first couple of weeks of the session was repealing the caps on Act. 46, the school governance bill that has encouraged school districts to unify. Shumlin called the caps “the enemy of a very good bill that is working better than most expected.”
Both legislative fixes are representative of Shumlin’s eight years in office in that he did not shy away from the state’s toughest problems, or issues that were controversial, including: moving the state toward universal health care coverage and the creation of the Green Mountain Care Board; investing in the state’s crumbling infrastructure, including approving funds for the western corridor; investing in renewable energy and creating thousands of jobs in the process; decriminalizing possession of small amounts of marijuana and launching an all-out assault on the state’s heroine crisis; making the department of education an agency and appointing a secretary of education, who also became a member of the governor’s cabinet, and becoming the first state in the nation to guarantee universal Pre-K for all three- and four-year-olds; raising the minimum wage; passing a law giving terminally ill patients the dignity to make end-of-life choices; and many others.
While the results did not always match the promised outcome, particularly with Vermont Health Connect, he advanced the important issues facing the state with proposed solutions, rather than hiding from them with the excuse that a lack of funding meant others in future years would have to deal with even greater problems. Much work remains for those who follow in his footsteps, but he pushed forward on many important fronts, and no doubt his efforts at divestment and legalizing marijuana will make certain passage all that easier in due course.
Angelo S. Lynn
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