A Long Week in the House

As the legislative session winds down (about two weeks left), long hours and controversial bills have been the norm in the House.

This past Wednesday and Thursday, the House took up a bill related to the Patient Choice at End of Life law, also known as the Death With Dignity Act. That law, which was passed in the last biennium, provides immunity for doctors who prescribe medication for the purpose of hastening a patient’s death. The law provides a number of protections, among which are the requirements that the patient must make two oral requests for medication to be self-administered for the purpose of hastening the patient’s death; the patient must make a written request for such medication in the presence of two witnesses who are not interested persons (e.g., family members, acquaintances); a physician must determine that the patient is, in fact, terminally ill, is capable, and is making an informed and voluntary decision; and the physician must inform the patient of the patient’s diagnosis, prognosis, range of treatment options, availability of palliative or hospice care, and the probable result of taking the prescribed medicine. The law also provides that these protections would sunset on July 1, 2016. After these protections sunset, physicians would still be immune from prosecution for prescribing medications that would hasten death. Apparently, to get this law passed, this sunset provision was included to get the votes of certain lawmakers who did not want the state involved in the matter.

The bill before the House would repeal the sunset provision and thus would keep the protections in place. Before voting on whether the repeal should go to a third reading the House considered an amendment that would have repealed the law in its entirety. After long debate, this amendment was defeated by a 60 to 83 vote, and the bill then was passed to a third reading.

The next day several amendments were offered at third reading to modify certain requirements of the law and to impose additional reporting requirements. Most were defeated except for one directing the Department of Health to adopt rules to facilitate the collection of certain information. The bill then passed, thus the protections of the Act will be retained.

I did vote for the bill, as I think having some control over one’s end-of-life choice is important, so long as protections are in place that ensure the choice is appropriate and informed. Representative Komline summed it up well when she said at the close of debate that “They take this medication when the time for hope is over. They’re not choosing death. They’re just choosing the way they die.”

On Thursday, the House next took up S.9, a Child Protection Bill. I have provided a description of this bill in a previous post. When the bill was first introduced in the Senate, it included a provision that would have created a felony for failure to protect a child. This provision sparked significant controversy primarily because it could act as a disincentive for people to get involved in trying to protect children. The bill that passed excluded any new or enhanced crimes and overwhelmingly passed the House.

Also on Thursday, the House started its consideration of a health care bill. My next article for The Other Paper, which I will post on Thursday, will address the main aspects of this bill. Here, I will mention three aspects of the bill that The Other Paper article will not address.

First, the bill was amended to include tobacco substitutes (electronic cigarettes) in current law regulating the display, sale, and use of tobacco products. In addition, it imposed a tax on the sale of tobacco substitutes.

Second, the bill relies on revenues generated through expanding the sales tax to include sales of candy and soft drinks, increasing taxes on tobacco products, and imposing a meals tax on items purchased from vending machines. These taxes, and the tax on tobacco substitutes, are appropriate sources for funding health care reform. The prices of these products do not fully reflect their costs to society, namely in the increased costs of health care due to obesity and tobacco use. Taxing these products internalizes some of the external societal costs that they impose – it makes the price of the product more accurately reflect their true cost. In addition, by increasing their prices, their consumption and use should decrease, with the resulting decrease in health care costs.

Finally, the bill includes provisions establishing performance milestones for Vermont Health Connect (“the Exchange”). Among these milestones will be the delivery of functioning technology by May 31, 2015 that addresses change of circumstances, and delivery of a fully automated system by October 1, 2015 that allows for 2016 plan enrollment. The bill provides for the independent review of the Exchange by the Joint Fiscal Office and requires the Agency of Administration to explore alternatives to the Exchange in the event the General Assembly decides to seek an alternate path to Vermont Health Connect.

Fortunately, it was not all controversy and work this past week. On Wednesday morning, I sang the devotional with the Statehouse Singers (see prior post). And on Thursday evening, after 10 hours on the House Floor, I participated in the annual Cabaret. This fund raising event features skits, jokes and songs performed by representatives, senators, and Statehouse staff, poking fun at each other and our work. I played guitar and sang a solo, the Gun Bill Blues, sang to the tune of Fulsome Prison Blues, and accompanied Judiciary Committee members in a tune about gaining weight over the course of the Session because of eating too many snacks in the Committee room. After a long, tiring day, the event was a welcome respite.

Judiciary Committee Update

Over the past two weeks, Judiciary has heard testimony related to the Child Protection Bill, S.9. We have focused on adjusting language related to the responsibilities of Mandated Reporters to report to the Department of Children and Families. On one hand, we want to require timely reporting of suspicions of abuse and neglect of a child, but on the other, we want to avoid requirements that are too far-reaching. If the language requiring reporting is too broad, Mandated Reporters could flood DCF with calls to avoid potential prosecution or penalties for failing to report. Such a result would make it far more difficult for DCF to focus on those cases that present clear risks of harm to children. In the end, Judiciary and most witnesses concluded that getting the balance correct will depend less on the precision of the language crafted for the law than on appropriate and continued training of Mandated Reporters.

In its considerations of S.9, Judiciary also has sought the correct balance between reliance on the criminal justice and the child protection systems. The question that has hung over this bill from its introduction in the Senate is whether the legislature should emphasize punishing and deterring behavior that harms children, or emphasize education, treatment, and other services to avoid the harm in the first place. The bill as passed by the Senate emphasized the former, creating a 10-year felony for failure to protect a child. House Health and Human Services shifted the emphasis to the child protection system, eliminating the failure-to-protect felony from the bill and instead increasing the penalties of certain existing crimes. Judiciary has continued the shift away from reliance on punishing caregivers when something goes wrong. It is currently considering eliminating from the bill some or all of the increased criminal penalties that Health and Human Services added. Judiciary anticipates having a vote on the bill early in the coming week.

Judiciary has also taken testimony on S.102, which provides for forfeiture of property associated with certain regulated drug possession, sale, and trafficking violations and with dog fighting. The bill provides two avenues for the State to seek forfeiture of such property, one allowing forfeiture post-conviction and the second allowing pre-conviction forfeiture in certain limited circumstances. Testimony seems to be building to the conclusion that Judiciary should strike from the bill the second avenue that permits forfeiture without requiring a conviction. In addition, the Committee is considering whether the proceeds from forfeiture should, in part, go to law enforcement or whether all proceeds should go to the General Fund. We have heard testimony that allowing proceeds from forfeiture to go to law enforcement would act as an incentive for law enforcement to focus too many resources on those crimes that allow for forfeiture.

In the coming week, House Judiciary will also address amendments from the Senate to two House bills: H.120, which creates a state False Claims Act, and H.105, which criminalizes the nonconsensual distribution of explicit photos or videos.

Judiciary Committee Update

In the past week, the House passed a variety of bills that had been voted out of the Judiciary Committee. One such bill would ensure that States Attorneys file cases involving juveniles in the Family Division of state court, where certain confidentiality and other procedural protections are in place, rather than in adult criminal court, which lacks such protections (H.95). Another bill would make it a crime to disseminate sexually explicit photographs or videos of individuals online without their consent, even if the subject had consented to the taking of the photograph or video (H.105 as amended). A third bill would make it easier to prosecute home improvement fraud (H.483).

The Judiciary Committee took testimony on a bill passed out of the Senate that would modify procedures related to placement on the Sex Offender Registry (S.13). Currently, the Department of Public Safety administers the Registry, making decisions as to the posting of an offender’s information to the Registry before his release from incarceration. The bill would instead have the court make determinations related to an offender’s inclusion on the Registry at the time of sentencing, deciding whether the offender should be placed on the Registry and, if so, for how long. In addition, the bill provides a procedure to allow individuals to challenge the information on, or to request removal from, the Registry. These changes were prompted by audits of Registry’s error-rate, which were performed to determine whether address information would be included on the Internet version of the Registry. The Committee is considering what Registry error rates would be acceptable to allow an individual’s address information to be placed on the Internet Registry, which would be widely available to the public.

In addition, the Committee has taken up a bill relating to criminal justice reform (H.221). This bill would, among other changes, reduce the number of crimes punishable as felonies; eliminate jail time for non-violent offenders; prevent people from being kept in jail at the end of their sentence due to lack of housing; expand parole eligibility for individuals who have serious medical conditions, were sentenced for an offense committed as a juvenile, or are 65 years of age or older; and eliminate incarceration for violations of parole conditions that are not new crimes. The overall aim of the bill is to reduce unnecessary incarceration and thus reduce Vermont’s prison population and its associated costs. It represents a start in updating the 19th and 20th century solutions in Vermont’s criminal code that are currently used to address our 21st century problems.

Judiciary also took testimony on the enforcement provisions of the water bill (H.35). It has made recommendations to the Committee on Fish, Wildlife, and Water Resources suggesting changes to those provisions of the bill. In addition, Judiciary started its consideration of the Child Protection Bill, (S.9), participating in a joint hearing with the Human Services Committee.

Judiciary took testimony from and worked with the State Court Administrator and Chief Superior Judge to evaluate efficiencies that could lead to savings in the Justice System. For example, the state courts are considering an initiative to start conducting arraignments by video conferencing, which would produce savings from decreased need to transport defendants and for Court security. The Committee provided its various proposals related to Court savings to the Committees on Ways and Means and Appropriations.

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.