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2023 Legislative Update: Part Two

Hello friends -


In less than a week, we will return to the State House for the 2023 veto session. As has been his standard practice, Governor Scott ultimately vetoed 8 bills from the 2023 session. Several more bills passed without his signature. I continue to be frustrated with this approach to governing as it leaves little room for collaborative work between the legislature and administration. I anticipate an easy override for the policy bills the Governor vetoed given the vote count on each of those bills.


I spent the last several weeks co-leading a coalition of Progressive and Democratic House and Senate members to propose a humane transition for Vermonters housed in motels through the General Assistance (GA) Emergency Housing Program. This week Democratic legislative leaders presented a new proposal that includes very similar provisions to the policy proposal we prepared earlier in June. We are still evaluating the critical details, but consider this an important step forward that would not have happened without our work. This policy amendment will help advance the GA Emergency Housing Program solution while avoiding a prolonged budget veto debate.


As promised, please find the second part of a three part legislative session recap below. You can read the full version on my website.


OVERDOSE PREVENTION

The House Committee on Human Services passed H.72, a harm-reduction criminal justice response bill to drug use. H.72 will remove legal barriers and provide funding to open Vermont’s first overdose prevention site. After Vermont set another record for overdose deaths in 2023, we recognize the devastating effects the war on drugs has had on our communities and must prioritize the prevention of death. This bill currently resides in the House Committee on Appropriations and is expected to pass out of the House next year. Another overdose prevention bill is H.222 which includes funding for 7 drug checking sites (sanctioned locations for people to test drugs for potency and potentially harmful or lethal contaminants), decriminalizes buprenorphine, establishes a statewide syringe disposal program, increases equitable access to treatment, and removes barriers to recovery housing development. H.72 and H.222 are critical components of our strategies for addressing Vermont’s opioid use crisis and will undoubtedly help save lives.


HEALTH CARE

Two versions of health care “shield laws” passed the House and the Senate this session in the wake of the U.S. Supreme Court’s erosion of reproductive health care rights within the catastrophic Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health decision. These laws will directly respond to the increased nationwide attacks on transgender people, especially transgender youth. H.89 provides legal protection to healthcare providers and people seeking reproductive healthcare in Vermont, including abortion and gender affirming care. S.37 is a companion bill protecting health care providers’ licenses and certifications against injurious laws from other states. S.37 also ends the deceptive practices of some limited-service pregnancy centers - an issue I identified and advanced within H.254.


We also initiated additional investments in workforce development within the health care sector. You can read about these investments in the workforce development section of my legislative summary. The legislature also passed legislation to allow health care providers to join interstate licensure compacts. These compacts provide Vermont with additional pathways to address the workforce shortages for many essential health care positions. Licensure compacts allow professionals licensed in another compact member state to practice here in person or via telemedicine. The new compacts cover mental health counselors, physical therapists, speech-language pathologists/audiologists, and psychologists.


CRIMINAL JUSTICE REFORM CAPITAL AND RETHINKING PRISONS

Vermont is on track to build a brand new all womens’ correctional facility budgeted at $50 million. Meanwhile, our education system, mental health care system, and social services are woefully underfunded. Free Her VT proposed a moratorium on the new prison while pushing for investments in our schools and social services, alternatives to incarceration, and steps to reduce recidivism and build a public system of community support grounded in restorative justice principles that are available to all justice-involved individuals. These initiatives will begin with the development of a replacement for the terribly outdated Chittenden Regional Correctional Facility (CRCF). The capital bill included a requirement that any new investments in correctional facilities be trauma-informed. While this is a step forward, Vermont is still proceeding with the design steps to replace the CRCF by allocating resources in the FY23 budget. Construction of a new facility would not begin for a few more years, thereby allowing more time to propose alternative measures that must include the deliberate gathering of critical voices from people who are or have been justice-involved.


S.27 passed out of the Senate and would eliminate the use of cash bail for nonviolent misdemeanor offenses and tasks the sentencing commission to issue a report in January about what systems are needed to end the use of cash bail in its entirety. The constitution allows the use of bail to ensure that people show up for their court dates but it is unconstitutional to hold people because of a debt and because the cash bail system negatively impacts low income and people of color who disproportionately lack access to cash resources compared to wealthier white people it is unconstitutional. The study aspect of this bill was included in this year’s miscellaneous judiciary bill and the sentencing commission will give us the information we need to move forward next year with ending cash bail.


S.6, a bill initially intending to ban coercive or deceptive interrogation practices for people under 18, was strengthened to ban the practice for people under 22 and would be the most progressive interrogation policy in the country. The bill further tasks the Vermont Criminal Justice Council to develop a model interrogation policy for all police officers. S.6 passed this session and was vetoed by the Governor. This bill would make evidence collected under deceptive practices by law enforcement inadmissible. These practices are deemed by the International Police Training Association to be ineffective as well as abuses of human rights. Many countries have banned them across the board and many states have done so for people under the age of 18. Vermont will enact the most progressive policy in the country against these practices if the legislature overrides the veto.


FIREARM BILLS

I introduced H.98, a firearm regulation bill that includes five components:

  • requiring safe storage of firearms,

  • banning firearms where alcohol is served,

  • expanding red flag laws,

  • requiring a ten day mandatory waiting period before purchasing a firearm, and

  • prohibiting people from possessing a firearm if they committed a hate crime.

While H.98 did not pass, H.230 did. H.230 included several more moderate versions of H.98 including requiring safe storage, implementing a 72 hour waiting period before purchasing a firearm, and expanding red flag laws to allow family and household members to initiate the court process to remove a firearm from an individual’s possession who is a safety risk. The legislature also passed S.4 which includes a ban on defacing the serial number on firearms, prohibiting the purchase of a firearm for another individual who is disallowed from owning a firearm or who knowingly intends to use it in a felony, and prohibiting possession of a firearm by someone who is subject to a relief of abuse or stalking order.


ELECTIONS

The elections bill, H.429, originally intended to ban fusion candidacies (P/D, D/P, D/R, etc.), to increase the $10K limit on contributions to political parties from candidates, and to prevent candidates from running in a general election as an independent after losing a primary. After opposition in the House, I and several colleagues worked to amend the bill to address undemocratic provisions. The current version in the Senate includes a doubling of campaign contributions to political parties from any given candidate and still prevents candidates from running in a general election after losing a primary. I am still concerned about this legislation and will be watching it closely when it is up for a final vote likely in January.


Finally, I am excited to see initial progress towards moving towns and states towards ranked choice voting (RCV). The legislature approved a charter change request to expand the use of RCV in Burlington (H.509) for all local elections. Another bill (S.32) requires ranked choice voting (RCV) in presidential elections (effective in 2027) and allows towns to use RCV without needing to amend town charters (2024). This bill was amended to H.429, which creates a sour package in my mind, given the majority of undemocratic elements in H.429. I will continue to work to improve our election systems and push Vermont towards more democratic and accessible elections.


Look for my third and final legislative summary in the next few days.





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