Education, Water, Infrastructure and More

In the past week, the House debated and passed a major education reform bill (H.361), a water clean-up bill (H.35), and the capital bill (H.492).

I voted yes on the education bill even though, as a school board member, I had some major concerns with aspects of it, particularly the inclusion of a cap on local school spending. In my next article in The Other Paper, which comes out this Thursday, I will be addressing this issue more fully (stay tuned). In the interim, a couple good articles about the cap can be found in VTDigger and the Burlington Free Press. Also, the Vermont School Board Association published an extensive analysis of the bill as passed. And take a look at the write-up of the Vermont League of City and Towns for an alternative view of the bill.

I also voted for the water bill, which was less controversial than the education bill. Its detractors were concerned about impacts to small farms and the funding mechanism for the cleanup, but the concerns could not turn back the momentum that was behind this important bill. The bill would raise $8 million in new revenue, including $2.3 million in fee increases to be paid by farms and others contributing to the pollution entering the State’s waters. It would also add a .2% surcharge on the property transfer tax. H.35 takes a large step on what will be a long journey to clean State waters, including Lake Champlain. For more information, see my prior blog posts about the water bill and this VTDigger article.

Finally, I also voted for the capital bill, which funds State infrastructure projects over the next two years through issuing long-term bonds. Among other priorities, the bill provides $7.6 million dollars over two years to the Vermont Housing Conservation Board, with at least $1.5 million of that amount to be used for statewide water quality improvements in FY16 and another $1 million in FY17. The Committee on Corrections and Institutions, which works on this bill, recognizes that it is essential that the State address the water quality issue before the EPA mandates a solution, which could mean a more expensive and less effective approach to the cleanup of the waters of the State.

The only controversial part of the bill was a provision that a fair wage be provided to Vermonters working on projects that the Department of Buildings and General Services (“BGS”) oversees. Payment of a fair wage, which is referred to as the Davis-Bacon Prevailing Wage after the federal law that established it, is already required when Vermont is paying for part of a project that also includes federal dollars. This new provision addresses all projects undertaken by BGS.
I, along with the rest of the House, spent most of the time over the past two weeks on the House floor taking up the budget and revenue bills last week and the bills discussed above this past week. Still, some work was accomplished in committees.

The House Judiciary Committee continued to take testimony on H.221, relating to criminal justice reform. Although supporting the general concept of seeking to decrease incarceration rates in Vermont, representatives from the Attorney General’s Office, the Court, and the Department of State’s Attorneys and Sheriffs’ Association expressed concerns over some of the ways the bill seeks to accomplish that end. The Vermonters for Criminal Justice Reform, headed by former House Representative Susan Wizowaty, is working with these agencies to offer language that addresses their concerns.

In addition, S.115, relating to expungement, should be on the House floor next week. This bill allows for wiping from the record convictions that were based on conduct that has been decriminalized, such as convictions for possession of marijuana in an amount that is no longer criminal. House Judiciary added a section to the bill that provides an alternative avenue for expungement of crimes committed by an individual who was 25 years old or younger at the time of the qualifying offense. Under this provision a person can petition for expungement 5 years (as opposed to 10 to 20 years) after satisfying the terms and conditions of his or her conviction and successfully completing a term of public service programming as approved by the Community Justice Network. In addition, the individual has to have paid any restitution order of the Court and cannot have been convicted of a later crime. The Court also must find that the expungement serves the interest of justice. This new language would help reduce the collateral consequences of conviction, which is one of the aims of H.221 discussed above.

In the coming week, Judiciary will be focusing on S.141, relating to possession of firearms, which just passed the Senate. After a thorough walk-through from Legislative Council Counsel, Judiciary started taking testimony during breaks from the floor over the past week. The bill would restrict gun ownership for violent felons and individuals with certain mental illnesses who are a danger to themselves and others. It also provides a procedure for individuals who had suffered a mental illness to regain the right to gun ownership. I have already been receiving many emails that weigh in on this bill.