“The opportunity this session was to keep the focus on the kitchen table issues facing Vermonters after a painful recession. I’m proud we met the challenge and continue to work to grow jobs and to grow prosperity,” said Shumlin.
In a busy and productive session, Sens. Richard Sears and Robert Hartwell, who represent the Bennington District, voted on a slew of heavy plate topics, ranging from decriminalization of marijuana possession to a hike in the gasoline and diesel tax.
While they voted along the same lines on a majority of the issues, where Sears and Hartwell differed was on a right-to-die bill that would make Vermont the fourth state to allow doctors to provide lethal medication to terminally ill patients seeking to end their own lives. The bill, S.77, passed with a 17-13 vote. One of those who led the charge against the controversial bill was Sears, who believes the bill is bad public policy, and leaves open the possibility of abuse. “I joined the disabled community in strongly opposing this bill,” said Sears. “It was written on the fly to get to vote. It doesn’t protect anybody. The protections the proponents claim are there protect doctors, but so many doctors in my community oppose it.”
After consulting the disabled and health professional communities, Sears also determined that it would interfere with current practices such as the rule of dual effect. “The rule of dual effect says that a doctor that prescribes medicine to alleviate pain, if that prescription results in death, it’s the rule of dual effect. The intent was to alleviate.”
Sears believes the measure only passed due to a better lobbying job by its proponents, who he said have been pushing the idea for 10 years and have spent $100,000.
According to Sen. Hartwell, who recently became a full-time resident of Wilmington, the decision to give his “yea” vote to the bill did not come easily. “It was a long and arduous process,” said Hartwell. “I didn’t like the way the bill was originally written and I had a moral struggle, but I have come to think it is balanced better, and equaled out to give these people control and choice.”
Hartwell believes that this is a choice that people need to have, and he was satisfied that the safeguards were in place to protect against abuse of the law. Hartwell said that one part of his decision that worries him is the ability of the state to ensure that no Vermonter is the victim of neglect. “This is something the state has to be aggressive about,” said Hartwell. “Neglect must be addressed so they’re not shepherded into it.”
Hartwell said he came to his conclusion after hearing personal stories directly affecting families in his district.
Vermont became the 17th state to decriminalize marijuana possession. Possesion of up to an ounce of marijuana will now be a civil penalty that incurs a citation. The bill does not exempt anyone from arrest for operating a vehicle under the influence of marijuana.
As a member of the Senate Judiciary Committee that approved the bill with a 4-1 vote, Sen. Sears voted for the bill, though he had hoped that the threshold for possession would equal half an ounce of marijuana. Sears also said he would rather see the federal government tackle the issue of the plant’s legality, and was pleased that those in possession of marijuana under the age of 21 would face the same consequences as those found in possession of alcohol. “The argument is the behavior, whether it should be criminal or not,” said Sears. “Do we want to make a lot of people criminals?”
Sen. Hartwell said he had no qualms about voting for the bill, citing the unfortunate circumstance where a teenager might be convicted as a criminal under current laws, a conviction that could haunt them. “I was really all for decriminalization.”
But he did voice concern over how the Legislature should view the influence of marijuana on a driver. “Part of the conversation relates to driving under the influence, how do you know about the influence of marijuana on driving.” Hartwell said lawmakers in Vermont may have to wait and see how states that have legalized marijuana, like Colorado, deal with the issue, which raises issues of its own. “They need to deal with highway safety issues, and we do too, but that suggests it’s legal,” said Hartwell.
Keeping with reform to drug policy, Hartwell and Sears both voted for a Good Samaritan law which “focuses on developing a comprehensive approach to combating opiate abuse.”
The Good Samaritan law provides legal protection for an individual who reports an overdose. The judiciary committee also worked on this bill, and Sears, who introduced the bill, says it was long overdue.
Hartwell agreed, citing the bill’s humanitarian value. “It’s the proper thing to do,” said Hartwell. “If someone has a drug problem it is a complex issue, but the fact remains, someone who has overdone it, we can’t just say let them go. As a society that can’t and doesn’t work.”
The law is part of a broad effort to combat heavy drug use in the state. Sears cited testimony from Rutland police chief Jim Baker, who explained to the Senate that the average heroin addiction costs between $80,000 and $97,000 a year to maintain. Sears says this leads to crime in the form of theft that is sometimes violent. Another part of the bill allows relatives of addicts and EMTs to carry the overdose medication Narcolone in an effort to save more lives.
Both senators voted to allow migrant workers to be allowed to get driver’s licenses.. “I felt the important evidence was that there are between 1,500 and 2,000 migrant workers in Vermont, working mostly on farms and duties most of us won’t do. It’s only equitable they be able to get around as long as we’re clear they’re subject to the same laws and rules,” said Hartwell.
Hartwell believes this legislation was in tune with Sen. Patrick Leahy’s work on a federal immigration bill that creates pathways for citizenship for 11 million people.
This legislative session also saw Sears and Hartwell vote “yes” on the transportation bill, which included a tax on gasoline and diesel, while voting “no” on the education property tax.
Act 12 of the transportation bill increases the total of state taxes and assessments on gasoline by 6 1/2 cents per gallon by 2016. The act also raises the diesel tax by three cents per gallon over two years. Both senators voted for the measure to avoid losing about $60 million in federal transportation funding.
“The choices were damned if you do, damned if you don’t,” said Sears. “We need that money to fix roads and bridges. No one likes to vote for taxes, but this was something we had to do since revenue from gas tax was down so far.”
“I don’t like tax increases,” agreed Hartwell, “but we had to do this. We had to do something, to not lose that $61 million on the table.”
The Senate voted 17-10 to raise the state education property tax rates by 5.62 % from 89 cents to 94 cents and the state uniform nonresidential property tax rate by 4.35% from $1.38 to $1.44. Two of the dissenting votes came from the Bennington District. “This was the year to do something about it,” said Sears. “I felt it was unfortunate we raised it because it really shows what local voting on school budgets does. There are certain things we could have done to set goals on reforming how we fund education.”
Hartwell said he will be leading an effort to get the raise overturned during future legislative sessions. In past years, Hartwell said he has worked closely with other legislators to make sure the property tax was voted on separately, and not buried in a broader tax bill. “The fact 12 voted against it is good,” said Hartwell. “We need 15 votes to defeat it. A 6.8% increase going into next year is bad for the average Vermonter as well as economic development. We need to do something about controlling costs.”
Sears and Hartwell agree that the state taking action on drug issues should be a point of pride for the Legislature, but work on environmental issues such as shore-land protection and wind power need to be addressed when the Senate reconvenes.