Sometimes the differences between House and Senate versions are so great that a small joint Committee of Conference is appointed to resolve the differences. In such conference committees all kinds of things can happen, and bills that were thought to be dead can suddenly be brought back to life and added to different legislation.
In this column I will provide an update on the status of legislation that I believe is of interest to many. By the time that this column appears the fate of some of the bills may have been decided one way or the other.
The bill S. 295 attempts to address the growing heroin problem in the state by developing a more effective criminal justice response that includes better opportunities for treatment for those arrested on drug crimes. A program of screening and support would be established to divert those arrested for low level offenses into treatment for drug addiction or assistance with other problems. Successful completion of treatment or compliance with other conditions could mean that such folks would not move further through the judicial system or into prison. The bill also increases penalties for importing heroin into Vermont and for burglary.
This bill seems pretty minimal to me given all the coverage of the opiate abuse problem earlier in the year. There is little funding for the diversion and counseling, and no funding for more drug addiction treatment facilities - so where will these folks get the help? I am not sure that this bill achieves a good balance of the needs of individuals with community safety. Drug treatment for those addicted should be made available, but we must also hold them responsible for criminal behavior that damages our communities. Some version of this bill will likely pass.
Lyme Disease Treatment
The Senate has passed back to the House a version of the bill H. 123 and it is under consideration by the House Health Care Committee. This bill is in tended to insure that Vermonters with Lyme disease can get the treatment that their doctors believe is best, even when it involves long term use of antibiotics or other unusual treatments. I support this bill and I believe that it will ultimately pass.
Genetically Modified Organisms
The Senate has also passed back to the House a version of the bill H. 112 requiring labeling food items for retail sale containing genetically engineered ingredients. The Senate version requires this labeling by July 2016. The justification is that consumers have the right to know what they are eating. Such labeling is already done in Europe, and we should be able to get the same information, since this is important to some Vermonters. Since there is a good chance that Vermont might be sued about this by large GMO seed corporations, a fund for defending against such legal action is established in the bill.
The bill H. 62 to ban cell phone use while driving has stalled in the Senate. This bill was motivated by the difficulty of enforcing the existing ban on texting while driving since it can be hard to tell whether someone is talking or texting. Senator Sears has said that we should ban all kinds of distracted driving -- eating, drinking, and so forth. Governor Shumlin has said that you cannot legislate common sense. I agree that when we are driving we should just drive, and that this is common sense. But I think that it is imperative that people who engage in using a cell phone or texting while driving should be held to account for undertaking such unique mental and physical distractions that put others in danger on our roads. The fate of this bill is uncertain.
The House Commerce and Economic Development Committee has been working on a bill S. 220. Provisions include better information for businesses about regulation, assistance, and resources, and improved workforce development policies. There is also the Vermont Entrepreneurial Lending Program to provide state loans to new or growing companies that have trouble getting bank loans - this would be operated by the Vermont Economic Development Authority.
And there is a new Vermont Enterprise Fund that will be controlled by the Governor and a small number of Legislative leaders on the Joint Fiscal Committee. This fund appears to be intended to protect Vermont jobs and businesses. The Administration can provide financial assistance for companies coming to Vermont, to stop companies leaving Vermont, and for companies facing various other challenges. This emergency enterprise investment fund will by financed with up to $4.5 million from an expected surplus of revenue over spending at the end of the 2014 Fiscal Year. Since the announcement of this fund it has emerged that the $4.5 million is actually targeted at either keeping IBM in Vermont or ensuring that if Global Foundries buys the IBM computer chip manufacturing facility in Essex they keep it operating. While I understand the importance of retaining and increasing the number of good jobs in Vermont, it is not clear to me that such a fund is the most effective or most accountable way to do this. First of all, any $4.5 million surplus had been intended to be split between reserves and reduction of property tax rates.
Secondly, to have the allocation of such taxpayer dollars to private for profit companies under the narrow control of the Governor and four legislative committee chairs doesn't seem like good government to me. It is not even clear that the proceedings of the meeting and the details of any proposal for fund allocation will be made public. Doesn't this approach give corporations an incentive to threaten to leave? Or for corporations considering locating in Vermont an incentive to ask for large subsidies? Is this sustainable? Will it even work? Is this fair to companies already committed to Vermont? I would think that a good approach to fostering healthy economic development would be to reduce the high levels of uncertainty that face all businesses in Vermont. This could be begun by first undertaking comprehensive tax reform to achieve lower tax rates through reduction of special subsidies, and by second either revealing the financing plan for the future publicly funded health insurance program or admitting that it is not fiscally or politically feasible.
Cynthia Browning represents the towns of Arlington, Manchester, Sunderland and Sandgate in the state Legislature.