By Kate Webb
As we head toward the closure of this session a flurry of bills are passing back and forth between the House and the Senate with many now in Committees of Conference. Here is an update on a few of interest:
By statute, the budget begins with a recommendation from the governor and sent to the House where it is reviewed and developed. Once completed, the bill is sent to the Senate. The Senate made 125 changes and returned it to the House. To reconcile these differences, the Speaker and Senate Pro Tem appointed a committee of conference. While many of these changes are technical, others are significantly different. In addition to monetary changes, the bill contained a variety of amendments unrelated to the budget. A couple of amendments were the right for childcare workers to unionize, and a direction to the Public Service Board to refund money to ratepayers should the CVPS-GMP merger proceed.
In February, I introduced the “Vermont Right to Know Genetically Engineered Food Act.” This bill would require foods produced through genetic engineering to be so labeled. It also prohibits the use of the term “natural” in such foods. We received an outpouring of support from around the state and country. The biotech industry quickly testified that should the bill become law, they would sue on grounds that the state violated the federal pre-emption food labeling law. Although Vermont lost the right to label rBST milk in the 1990s and smarting from the recent loss against Entergy Nuclear, we still heard compelling testimony that recent case law indicated we could prevail. We are building a record demonstrating the State has a “legitimate interest” in such labeling – a direction more likely to withstand a suit. Expect to see this brought forward again next year.
The CVPS “payback to ratepayers” debate last week revolved around two points: (1) the widely held opinion that the $21 million “windfall sharing mechanism” should be in the form of a direct payback to CVPS ratepayers, and (2) the principle that the legislature should not interfere in the equivalent of a court proceeding by directing the Public Service Board (PSB) what to do. I voted not to interfere and do not necessarily see these two positions as mutually exclusive. The PSB may very well decide that the funds should be directly paid back as they continue through their deliberation process. My vote to leave the decision with the PSB reflected a serious concern that the legislature should not interfere in a formal process that has already involved months of technical hearings, formal briefs, and oral arguments. Last-minute interference on the part of the legislature would set a destabilizing precedent in a regulatory process that has been in place since 1962. The PSB is due to make a decision in June.
Committees of conference are currently working to reconcile difference between the House and Senate-passed versions of the vaccinations bill and the health care exchange bill. The House conferees have been firm in supporting increasing immunization rates through education and outreach, but will not consider an outright repeal of the philosophical exemption. Proposals bouncing around are mechanisms to allow the commissioner of health to eliminate this exemption when rates fall below 90% for certain immunizations. The exchange bill conference is looking to reconcile a variety of differences related to mental health oversight, malpractice, insurance brokers among others.
I expect these differences to be resolved by the end of the week. I will continue to work on issues after the legislative session ends. The best way to reach me: firstname.lastname@example.org or 802 233 7798.