Windham District Sen. Jeanette White, who serves on the Committee on Judiciary and as the chair of the Committee on Government Operations, worked closely on the Death with Dignity bill, though not as a member of the committee that introduced it. “It consumed a lot of everybody’s time,” she said. The Vermont law, which goes into effect on September 1, uses a similar law passed in Oregon in 1998 as its springboard. The Vermont law allows for a terminally ill patient to request a specific lethal prescription so long as he or she is in good mental health and adheres to a request process which includes the participation of two witnesses.
“My position is that this bill is giving rights to some people but not taking rights away from anyone else,” she said.
White—as well as the act itself—acknowledges that the Oregon law upon which the Vermont law is based has resulted in limited use by patients. According to the act, since 1998 only 673 patients in Oregon have requested and been given the lethal medication.
“Very few people use it,” says White. “If people know they are going to die and don’t want to linger, they can take it. It is for people who have always had control of their lives and want to continue to have that control.”
The act has generated considerable nationwide attention. Other headline-grabbing bills passed by the Legislature this year include the marijuana decriminalization bill and the transportation bill. The decriminalization bill changes the manner in which marijuana possession is handled in the state, making the possession of up to one ounce of marijuana or five grams of hashish a civil, rather than a criminal, offense. Practically speaking, according to White and a report by the Vermont League of Cities and Towns, the change makes the punishment for this level of possession more like a traffic ticket than a criminal charge.
“Marijuana is still illegal,” stresses White, but the new rules will allow fines collected from citations to move into prevention programs. “I think that’s a good thing.”
The transportation bill raises the state tax on gasoline in order to spare Vermont from losing millions in federal transportation dollars. The new law will result in a 6 1/2% increase on gas taxes over the course of two years. In addition, the tax on diesel will rise 3 cents over the same course of time. The law also provides for significant cuts to state highway spending but not to the budgets of local highway authorities.
White cites the law as critical to raising necessary revenue for maintaining Vermont’s infrastructure, especially after Irene. “I’m sorry that it’s going to negatively affect people, and I am sensitive to that,” she says, adding that gas prices themselves are much more volatile than changes in taxation and that drivers passing through Vermont will also be expected to shoulder the cost burden.
The anti-patent-trolling law has also generated nationwide attention. The law is the first of its kind in the United States and targets companies known as “patent trollers,” which engage in “bad faith assertions of patent infringement”—that is, assertions based on shaky legal ground and intended to raise money through aggressive lawsuits. Such assertions consist of letters sent to companies (usually IT companies) informing them that they are in violation of existing patent law. Upon receiving such letters, companies often find themselves facing years of litigation and tens of thousands of dollars in legal expenses. “Patent trollers” have been the subject of national attention and are widely considered as intended to undermine IT startups in the United States. The Vermont law cites “patent troller” companies as harmful to attracting a strong IT sector in the state and lays out the framework for ensuring legitimate claims of patent infringement, thereby protecting IT startups from the threat of frivolous lawsuits.