State News

Time for a second look

By Rep. Jim Harrison, R-Bridgewater, Chittenden, Killington & Mendon

Jim Harrison
Jim Harrison

It’s that time of the session, where the Senate committees are busy reviewing and amending House passed bills and the House is doing the same with Senate bills. While sometimes both bodies pass the same version of a bill, often there are differences, which will need to be reconciled through conference committees. All this is done in preparation for finishing the 2018 work by early May.

A sample of issues House committees are working on this week include:

  • simplifying government for small businesses
  • miscellaneous changes to education law
  • educational health care benefits
  • increasing the minimum wage
  • registration of short-term rentals
  • wholesale importation of prescription drugs into Vermont
  • funding the cleanup of state waters

In the House Government Operations Committee, in which I sit, we are reviewing several bills, including one on law enforcement and another on systemic racism.

On policing issues, the Senate passed over S.273, which was the result of a number of hearings around the state by a Senate Committee last fall. It includes changes to the makeup of the Vermont Criminal Justice Training Council and the Law Enforcement Advisory Boards, as well as alternate routes to certification aside from the training provided at the Vermont Police Academy. It also sets a requirement that each State Police barracks shall submit to the Select Board of each town within the barracks’ jurisdiction a report describing the nature of calls to the state police from residents in that town in the preceding quarter and asks the department of public safety and the Vermont Enhanced 911 Board to consult with the Vermont League of Cities and Towns as an equal partner, in order to propose a plan that would result in a comprehensive, efficient, and equitably funded public safety dispatch system to dispatch law enforcement, fire, and emergency medical services statewide.

With 105 towns currently getting free or low cost dispatch service from the state police, any recommendations from this group will likely undergo close scrutiny from the 2019 Legislature. The House committee is also looking at the retirement plans for the trainers at the Police Academy. Its director has recommended that because certain instructors are certified law enforcement officers (but not active duty), they should be in the Group C retirement plan (same group that state police are in as active duty law enforcement, with mandatory retirement at 55). State Treasurer Beth Pearce has indicated Group C is significantly more expensive for the state.

The systemic racism bill, S.281, passed by the Senate, was spearheaded by the group, Justice for All. It sets up a new independent panel within State Government comprised with a majority of its members being of color. The panel would hire a full time cabinet level Chief Civil Rights Officer that would have broad powers, including the ability to subpoena anyone in state government.

There is widespread support of the bill’s stated purpose, which is to work with the agencies and departments to implement a program of continuing coordination and improvement of activities in state government in order to combat systemic racial disparities and measure progress toward fair and impartial governance.

However, the Attorney General’s office raised several constitutional issues with the bill and the administration expressed skepticism that a new civil rights officer would not have to answer to the voters because it would be independent of the Governor or any other elected office.

Public hearing on paid family leave
On Tuesday, April 10, from 5-7 p.m. at State House there was a public hearing on paid family leave. H.196, which provides up to six weeks of paid leave for parental leave and serious illness to care for a family member, would be funded by a new payroll tax on employees. The Committee heard from witnesses in person and also by written testimony.

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