Op/Ed

Editorial: High fives, and thumbs down, for legislative work this session

ANGELO LYNN

Last week and this are crucial weeks in the state’s legislative session; it’s when bills either cross over from the House to the Senate or vice-versa — or die. The crossover date for money-bills is this Friday, March 22; last Friday was the deadline for all other bills. Brief commentary of those notable bills that made crossover, or are dead for this session, largely based on reporting by VtDigger, follows: 

• We’re heartened to see the misguided effort to kneecap the Green Mountain Care Board failed. Both S.211, which would have shifted some of the GMCB’s powers to Agency of Human Services, and S.151, which would have altered how the GMCB operated, were essentially attempts to reduce oversight of the state’s hospitals and associated costs. The GMCB acts as the citizens’ advocate for health care costs, with its primary focus to contain costs where possible. Vermont’s hospitals are often on the other side of the coin, pressing for higher budgets, which in turn push up health insurance costs. 

It’s a very complicated issue with many points of contention, but in general, the GMCB should, if anything, be strengthened in its role to monitor and contain health care costs of behalf of all Vermonters. That does at times work against hospitals and their efforts to remain viable, but it’s a healthy tension and it does not serve the public well to diminish the GMCB’s effectiveness. Meanwhile, S.98, which would give the GMCB oversight over drug prices to help make them more affordable, is still alive.

• In a sign the Legislature has some sensibility to the public mood, Senate bill S.224, which was an attempt to raise legislators’ pay, never received a committee vote, nor did another bill, S.221, which was to slash the governor’s salary. DOA is a fitting end for both.

• H.719, the bill to address the lack of affordable housing that was initially backed by Democrats, Republicans and Progressives, and had the governor’s support, is all but dead. That’s unfortunate. It will be one of the legislature’s biggest failures if they don’t pass effective legislation that addresses the state’s affordable housing crisis. Another bill, H.687, is a compromise between developers and conservationists on Act 250 reform and remains alive, but whether it has the punch it needs is dubious. 

• It’s good news the legislature has paused what are over-the-top measures to limit PCBs in schools. The state-imposed threshold for PCB presence in schools was multiple times higher than any federal standard, and was not based on solid science. In a perfect world, eliminating all PCBs would be grand, but the costs are prohibitive and there’s no need to reach levels far below what federal standards consider safe. H.873 will pause PCB testing when the funding for testing and remediation hits a certain threshold. For now that’s a reasonable compromise. Hopefully, the Legislature will adopt the federal standards for safety in the next biennium, and the state will then be able to focus on the worst cases for remediation.

• In an attempt to address some of the school funding woes, H.871 directs a group of lawmakers to “hash out the details of a future state school construction program.” Look for that measure to be debated in the next biennium, followed by much hang wringing over how to pay for it.

• A measure supported by Sen. Ruth Hardy, D-Addison, aimed at establishing some accountability over county employees, specifically sheriffs and state’s attorneys, has been declared all but dead. That’s a shame. Recent cases of county sheriffs in Franklin and Addison counties, to name but two, have exposed the need to have some way to oust an officeholder who has proven inept or a detriment to the public he or she serves. The measure was proposed in the form of a state constitutional amendment to set qualifications and removal procedures. Called Proposal 1, it was sent back to Senate Government Operations Committee instead of being put it to a vote as had been scheduled. The measure needed two-thirds of the chamber, or 20 votes, to move forward, and the votes just weren’t there to pass it. 

What happened was an effective lobbying campaign by the Vermont Sheriffs Association, which put enough pressure on just enough senators to kill the initiative. A reasonable option remains for future consideration: to create mechanisms in state law to exercise oversight and accountability, rather than trying to change the state’s constitution. 

Whatever approach is taken, something must be done soon: the idea that a county sheriff, state’s attorney, a county judge or any other county official can exercise what is clearly poor judgment (sometimes resulting in their arrest), or they are negligent in their official duties, or even abusive to others and still remain in office is an offense to the public good. Sen. Hardy and her committee were right to press the case; we hope they are more effective in the next biennium.

• Ending on a positive note, the Vermont House finally passed S.18, the measure that would ban the sale of flavored nicotine products and tobacco substitutes. The Senate had passed the bill earlier. The bill now goes to the governor’s desk for his potential signature.

One might think this bill was a no-brainer. It’s beyond doubt that flavored e-cigarettes appeal to school-age youth and are creating nicotine addictions among them at an alarming rate. We all know tobacco, when smoked, kills and that nicotine’s addiction is hard to shake. Good public policy is to limit access.

But, in politics, legislators can get confused over relatively petty concerns. Consider numerous legislators changed their opposition to flavored tobacco when they learned the loss of sales tax revenue from those sales — anywhere from $7 million to $14 million — would be too much of a burden on the state’s $2.9 billion general fund budget. That, of course, is near-sighted math, not counting the cost of addiction, lung cancer, hospitalizations, and on and on. Yet, it was significant enough that legislators moved the effective date of the law from 2025 to 2026. An even weaker argument is the idea among some Democrats and Progressives that banning menthol-flavored cigarettes was somehow displaying inequitable treatment to Blacks and LGBTQ+ people, because, supposedly, they were more disposed to smoke menthol-flavored cigarettes. Gov. Scott picked up on the sentiment, suggesting that the state allowed the sale of flavored alcohol and cannabis products. “So it seems we’re not being fair about this in some respects.”

Good grief. Forget the sideshows, people, and stick to the main act. Flavored cigarettes and e-cigarettes are terrible for public health. Children are being addicted to nicotine via flavored e-cigarettes. That’s the problem this legislation addresses. 

Kudos to the Legislature for finally passing it. Gov. Scott should sign it without hesitation. 

Angelo Lynn

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