Lawmakers praise medical leave bill, budget resolution in low-key legislature

MIDDLEBURY — The 2016 session of the Vermont Legislature could be remembered just as much for what lawmakers didn’t do, as for what they accomplished, according to a sampling of Addison  County legislators.
The 2016 session officially ended during the wee hours this past Saturday, May 7. It is a session that produced, among other things, a new law requiring employers to offer paid medical leave to workers, new rules on how prescription painkillers can be prescribed, a law that affords more input from communities in the state’s review of solar energy projects, and what Gov. Peter Shumlin called a “balanced budget that for the first time in nearly a decade does not rely on any one-time funds for ongoing state expenses.”
At the same time, lawmakers expressed frustration at not having more to show for their four months of work.
“It was sort of a ‘maintenance year,’ unfortunately,” said Sen. Claire Ayer, D-Addison, who again served as the Senate Majority Whip. “There were not a lot of major new initiatives.”
For example, after many hours of debate, the General Assembly could not agree on a plan to legalize possession of small amounts of recreational marijuana — though that impasse was hailed by some local legislators who opposed the controversial measure.
“I think it had a lot of problems,” Rep. Betty Nuovo, D-Middlebury, said of the pot legalization bill that passed the Senate but failed in the House. “And it’s not like the whole state wants it.”
Nuovo — who is retiring this year after three decades of service in the House (See story, Page 18) — said Vermont should not consider recreational marijuana until states like Colorado and Washington report findings on how the legalization of pot has affected their respective populations.
Opposition in the House to the recreational marijuana bill crossed party lines. Rep. Harvey Smith, R-New Haven, also listed defeat of the marijuana bill as one of the Legislature’s top accomplishments of 2016.
“It was moving way too fast to understand all the implications of it,” Smith said of the bill. Like Nuovo, he believes Vermont should take some time and learn from the experiences of states in which pot has already been legalized.
Nuovo was also pleased that she and her colleagues approved the medical leave bill, solar siting legislation and new regulations aimed at reducing patients’ dependency on opioids. Nuovo also hailed successful bills that clarify the ground rules for homeowners seeking to raise small flocks of chickens in back yards, and a measure that requires pharmaceutical companies to be more transparent on drug pricing increases.
The new sick leave law made the top of many local lawmakers’ “best of 2016” lists.
Beginning Jan. 1, 2017, Vermont employers must allow their employees to accrue and use at least 24 hours of earned sick time in a 12-month period. That ramps up to 40 hours of earned sick time per year beginning Jan. 1, 2019.
“That was very important,” Nuovo said of the bill.
The state’s new solar siting law, spearheaded by Sen. Chris Bray, D-New Haven, also earned some kudos from county lawmakers. It calls on communities to develop energy plans as part of their town planning process. Those local plans should address renewable energy — such as solar arrays — and advise where such projects would be most appropriately located. The Vermont Department of Public Service will be asked to approve those energy plans and determine if they are compatible with the state’s broad renewable energy goals. The Vermont Public Service Board (PSB) will give “substantial deference” to the solar siting priorities outlined in these approved energy plans, while reviewing specific applications.
The state’s current Section 248 review process for permitting renewable energy projects gives the PSB unilateral power in deciding solar project applications.
“We brought municipal and regional planning together with land use,” said Bray. “There is now an orderly, fair and transparent mechanism for the orderly development of energy projects on the landscape.
“I really think we have changed the balance of power,” he added.
Bray also noted a compromise in the solar siting bill that calls for the PSB to draft new, temporary sound standards for wind turbine projects. The PSB will adopt permanent sound standards to take effect by July of next year, according to Bray.
“It was a struggle down to the last,” he acknowledged of the bill.
Bray was also pleased with the work that the committee he chairs — Natural Resources and Energy — did on advancing clean water initiatives and forestry issues. And he was also pleased with the latest state budget trends.
“A concern of mine has been we should always live within our budget,” Bray said. “The consensus forecast is that the state economy will grow at 5 percent (per year). Our budget is growing at 3 percent. It is important that we pace ourselves in an affordable way.”
The Legislature approved a fiscal year 2017 state budget of $2.46 billion, a figure that includes general fund, transportation, education and other special expenses. This amounts to a 2.4 percent increase, according to Rep. Diane Lanpher, D-Vergennes, and member of the House Appropriation Committee.
“I really believe we’ve got the budget on the right track,” Lanpher said. “There are no major new initiatives.”
Lanpher believes the approved budget restores state spending to a sustainable level, after several years of fiscal turmoil brought on by a major recession. This current budget does not include one-time funding sources for state programs and does not require an increase in broad-based taxes. It should be noted, however, that the budget calls for some major increases, according to Rep. Fred Baser, R-Bristol, who serves on the House Commerce & Economic Development Committee.
And Baser noted the fiscal year 2017 General Fund budget is up 4.8 percent compared to this year, to a total of $1.4 billion.
It’s too much, he believes.
“This is the seventh year in a row that the Legislature has increased the General Fund at a rate that exceeds personal income increases, growth in the state economy, and the projected rise in revenue made by the state’s economists,” Baser said. “This trend is totally unsustainable.”
He added, “The 2017 fiscal year is at least the seventh year in a row the state has had to raise revenue to pay for budget increases and shortfalls. Add to this rising property taxes, and it’s easy to understand Vermonters’ concerns about the cost of living in our state.”
New Haven’s Smith also gave a thumbs-down to the fiscal year 2017 spending plan. He credited his colleagues for working hard and making tough funding decisions to come up with a budget, but he believes the bottom line is too high.
“It’s growing too fast for me,” Smith said of the budget.
Lanpher pointed to inadequate reimbursements through the federal Medicaid health insurance program as the biggest impact on the fiscal year 2017 budget increase. It’s more than a $70 million problem, she said.
Still, she noted the Legislature was able to give what many lawmakers believed was a long-overdue increase of 2 percent in funding for the health care providers like the Counseling Service of Addison County and Addison County Home Health & Hospice.
The budget also provides for 35 more permanent employees — including social workers — for the Vermont Department for Children & Families. That agency has seen surging numbers of children in need of supervision, in part attributable to more parents struggling with drug addiction, according to Lanpher. The new state budget also includes more resources to battle drug addiction, particularly in Franklin County, Lanpher said.
Lawmakers also passed bill S.243, which calls on the state health commissioner to adopt rules governing the prescription of opioids for acute pain for major and minor procedures, as well as place limits on the number of pills that can be prescribed for certain procedures. The bill earned the unanimous endorsement of the Senate Health & Welfare Committee, chaired by Ayer.
“There are too many drugs out there,” Ayer said. “People steal them, divert them and save them in case they have that certain pain again.”
A group of health care providers will set up some guidelines for prescribing pain medicine. Also, medical professionals who dispense pain medicine will need to be drilled in prescribing such drugs and detecting signs of addiction in patients, according to Ayer.
“We wanted to have something that protects doctors in a lot of ways, and protects patients,” Ayer said.
She also hailed passage of bill H.812, which sets up a wide variety of protections for consumers navigating the health care industry.
While Baser wasn’t a fan of the state budget, he credited the Legislature with other accomplishments, including the solar siting bill, a capital fund allocation of $145,000 to help close the Bristol landfill, a “motor voter” bill that automatically registers eligible voters when they sign up for their driver’s license, and a “Ban the Box” law that removes questions about criminal records from the very first part of job applications for state employment.
Rep. Dave Sharpe, D-Bristol, spent much of the session focusing on school issues as chairman of the House Education Committee. The panel’s most high-profile undertaking this biennium was devising, and then tweaking, Act 46, a new law that calls for supervisory unions to consolidate their governance under a single board.
“Other than education legislation … perhaps the most significant piece of legislation we passed this year was the paid sick days bill,” he said in an emailed response to the Independent. “We also made it easier for Vermonters to register to vote. We funded the naloxone program for addicts overdosing on heroin. We limited prescription painkillers prescribed by hospitals and we passed a renewable siting bill that gives localities more input on where big wind and solar energy projects should be located.”
Sharpe also hailed the Legislature’s decision to ratchet up spending for weatherization programs to help homeowners and businesspeople make their buildings more green and fuel-efficient.
“We know that the cheapest, most effective way to reduce our dependence and cost of fossil fuels in order to heat our homes is to weatherize them,” Sharpe said.
Rep. Willem Jewett, D-Ripton, was able to immerse himself in House Judiciary Committee work this biennium after spending several terms in various House leadership positions. He was proud of his committee’s work this year in eliminating old (pre-1990) driving-with-suspended-license (DLS) citations that were  being carried by thousands of Vermonters. Also, during a three-month period later this year, Vermonters will be able to pay off outstanding traffic violations at a rate of $30 per ticket, according to Jewett.
The panel also ensured that, with few exceptions, 16- and 17-year-old defendants will have their cases adjudicated in juvenile court, as opposed to as adults in criminal court, Jewett said. There are 12 exceptions to this rule, including major crime categories such as murder.
“Several hundred juveniles per year won’t be subjected to having a lifetime criminal record,” Jewett said of the impact of the new law.
Smith applauded some other bills that were important in spite of generating few headlines during the session. They included:
•  Restrictions on the conditions that equipment manufacturers place on warranty contracts with dealers. This means that manufacturers will become more responsible for the expense of correcting any problems or defects in warrantied equipment. Some dealers have complained about having to absorb an unreasonable share of those expenses, Smith noted.
•  The creation of a “pollinator protection committee” that will work with the Agency of Natural Resources in identifying pesticides and other chemicals used in agriculture that might be reducing the populations of bees, birds, bats and other wildlife key in pollinating crops and producing honey.
•  A clarification of the specific agricultural products that are exempt from taxes. Smith said the Agency of Agriculture and the Department of Taxes reviewed the exemptions, some of which had been challenged by the Department of Taxes largely due to the recent retirement of some senior staff.
Reporter John Flowers is at [email protected].

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