First Four Weeks in the Legislature

My first four weeks in the Vermont House of Representatives have been illuminating, engaging, and energizing. I am quickly learning the protocols and procedures of Vermont lawmaking and familiarizing myself with the many challenges facing the legislature this session.

The Vermont General Assembly is considering a number of complex and potentially divisive issues, including child protection, education governance and funding, health care reform, production of a balanced budget for the next fiscal year, Lake Champlain cleanup, job growth, marijuana legalization, and mandated universal background checks for gun purchases. I am trying to keep tabs on these and other issues. Nearly seven hundred bills will likely be introduced during this session, though only a small percentage of those will actually become law.

I have jumped right into my duties on the House Judiciary Committee, co-sponsoring two pieces of legislation related to child support. One bill, H.85, would allow the Office of Child Support (“OCS”) to notify individuals electronically of administrative actions regarding enforcement of support orders. This bill is currently stalled as OCS reconsiders its approach after the Committee expressed a number of concerns at a hearing on the bill earlier this week. The second bill, H.86, would extend the Uniform Interstate Family Support Act to other countries that are members of a convention signed in 2007. The Committee will hear further testimony on that bill next week and may vote to send it to the House floor. I expect that it will pass the House, then move to the Senate for consideration. The bills I sponsor appear on my House Legislative web page here.

The Judiciary Committee has broad jurisdiction and deals with myriad issues. Bills already before the Committee involve adverse possession, transfers of property to minors, prohibition of life sentences without parole for minors, and jurisdiction over delinquency proceedings in the family court. My legal background has proved to be invaluable in understanding the issues before the Committee and in interpreting the language of proposed legislation.

With eight out of eleven members new to the Committee, we spent time during the first weeks of the session familiarizing ourselves with the issues, laws, and governmental and other organizations that come before it. Among others, we heard introductory testimony from Vermont’s Attorney General and Defender General, the Chief Justice of the Vermont Supreme Court, the Executive Director of the Vermont Bar Association, the Commissioner of the Department of Children and Families, the State’s Attorneys’ Office, several legislative liaisons from law enforcement, and a number of nongovernmental organizations. Here is a link to the Committee’s web page and its daily agendas.

One presentation before the Committee was particularly surprising and disturbing. Yesterday, we heard from officers of the Department of Homeland Security, the U.S. Border Patrol, and the Vermont State Police on matters related to human trafficking; here is a link to a news story on the topic. We learned that trafficking of women for prostitution is a growing problem in Vermont and is frequently linked to the drug trade and addiction. We are not likely to see any bills on the issue this session; the State Police Officer specifically said that law enforcement does not want to see any changes to the law, as it currently provides the correct framework for their efforts. He did, however, emphasize that the legislature needs to continue to provide resources for addiction treatment to help the victims of human trafficking.

Last week the House passed the first bill, H.16, that was voted out of the Judiciary Committee this session. H.16 requires certain inmates to report to the Sex Offender Registry before their release from a correctional facility. It specifically addresses a small number of offenders who are “maxing out,” or leaving a corrections facility without any further supervision or contact with the Department of Corrections (“DOC”). This was what is called a technical correction bill because it merely codified current practice, though the DOC and others testified that it is best to have it clear in the law.

A bill to which the Committee will likely give significant attention started in the Senate and should arrive on House Judiciary’s doorstep in mid-February. S.9 is a multifaceted bill addressing child protection matters. The bill came out of a joint committee that met before the session started following the deaths last year of two young children in families that the Department of Children and Families were working with. The House Judiciary Committee participated in joint hearings with the House Human Services, Senate Health & Welfare, and Senate Judiciary committees to receive background information on S.9.

Besides my duties on the Judiciary Committee, I have been working on a bill related to collective bargaining between school boards and teacher associations. I worked with the Office of Legislative Council to put my ideas related to the fact finding process and arbitration into a draft bill and then lobbied other legislators to co-sponsor the bill with me. It will be introduced next Tuesday and I am to present the concepts behind the bill to the General, Housing & Military Affairs Committee, which takes up bills related to labor laws. I will discuss this bill in more depth in a future post. In the meantime, here is a link to a newscast where I am briefly discussing the idea behind it.

Because Chittenden District 7-1 abuts Lake Champlain, I am also keeping track of how the legislature is addressing the cleanup of Vermont’s waters. I have been attending weekly information meetings of the Water Caucus, a group of House and Senate legislators who are interested in this particular problem and solutions, and I have been following introduced bills related to the issue.

It’s not all toil in the Vermont Capital. I have joined the Statehouse Singers, a group of legislators and statehouse staff who meet for short rehearsals during the session. Yesterday, for the devotional (a daily poem, homily, or music), the Statehouse Singers sang Vermont’s State Song, These Green Mountains. The acoustics in the chamber are fabulous and I have to say we sounded great.