Legislative Update, April 6, 2014

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Public Hearing on Education on School Governance Bill:

House Ways and Means Committee and the House Education Committee will host a joint hearing on Wednesday, from 5:00 – 7:00 pm in Room 11 at the Statehouse. This will be the third public hearing held this session to ensure the public has ample opportunity to share its ideas and concerns regarding H.883.

National Guard:

I attended a proclamation making April National Guard Sexual Assault Awareness And Prevention Month.  I am encouraged by the work Vermont’s National Guard is doing to create a culture where all service members feel responsible for preventing sexual violence and survivors feel empowered to report crimes against them.  Since 2010, the Vermont National Guard has made tremendous and meaningful progress toward addressing sexual assault and has established and built a sexual violence prevention and response program that empowers survivors of sexual violence to speak out and receive help.

My Committee Work:

I appreciate the Valley Reporter’s recent editorial on Vermont’s opiate problem.  In the editorial, Lisa Loomis stated: “Because, ultimately, heroin addiction reaches into all of our lives whether it is via increased crime, social costs, family members, friends, increased costs to try to help addicts and myriad other ways.”

I will spend much of my remaining time in the session on ways to address this issue. Our work will build on work we did last session that included the law that grants Good Samaritan immunity for someone who calls 911 when an overdose is expected and the availability of family members and others to have a prescription for Narcan, an opiate antidote-thus saving lives.  I was glad to learn from the Howard Center that since February they have had 10 reported reversals of overdoses.

S.295: An act relating to pretrial services, risk assessments, and criminal justice programs.  The House Judiciary continued its consideration of this important bill to address our opiate problem.   As part of our deliberations, we attended a presentation by Dr. Doug Marlowe on his theory on why it is necessary to re-think our current criminal justice drug policies.

Dr. Marlowe presented a very nuanced and complex continuum theory of people who intersect with the criminal justice system.  He believes that there are both criminogenic risks (likely to cause criminal behavior) and clinical needs that should be assessed.  As we look at specific ways to intercept (interrupt) the interaction with the criminal justice system, the combination of criminogenic risk and clinical needs should direct both the volume of resources invested as well as where these resources are invested.  Resources consist of everything from community supervision (day programs, recovery centers and community justice centers) to psycho-education (non-therapeutic interventions like drug education and anger management) to incarceration with intense re-entry supports.

Most of the tools we are using today over diagnose clinical needs and under diagnose criminogenic risk, which then leads us to make decisions to put scarce resources in to the populations that need it the least.  Dr. Marlowe’s theory is that we have been investing our limited resources on the easiest targets – those with both low risk of repeating their criminal behavior and with low need for clinical intervention.  He believes that we will get better results in dealing with recidivism if we invest our resources in the high risk, high need groups or the high risk, low need and low risk, high need groups.

For example, we have been putting intense resources into drug addicts by ensuring their access to treatment and although this group certainly needs access to treatment, it is the substance abuser with behavior that is higher on the criminogenic scale (anti-social behavior, disregard for consequences) who is more likely to reoffend.  Community supervision with consequences that are swift and tailored to prevent reoffending is the appropriate response, not short jail terms where they are interacting with very high-risk offenders (corroborates the anecdote that “if you aren’t a criminal when you go to jail, you’ll be one when you get out.)


Floor Action:

Ways and Means Property Tax bill H.889

This bill had many provisions and proposed amendments. Two amendments received a lot of attention.  One attempted to delete the provision of the bill that phased out the small school grants, thus preserving the grants.  I voted in favor of the amendment as Moretown and Fayston have small schools.  The second one was to repeal Act 68 and give the Legislature time to come up with a financing scheme.  I voted in favor of that as I have heard from many of you the concern that the current formula isn’t working and needs to change.

While the repeal amendment didn’t pass, Section 23 of H.889 puts in statute the intent of the House Ways and Means Committee to simplify our education financing system and to shift away from over-reliance on the homestead property tax. The concept we will look at includes creation of a significantly lower and flat property tax rate for homesteads, complemented by a progressive education income tax.

Additionally, the Appropriations Committee offered an amendment to the bill that I think will respond to concerns I have heard about inconsistency in Agency of Education’s data on school spending. It calls for a unified chart of accounts.

The purpose of the unified chart of accounts, and the associated funding, is to establish consistency across how various school expenses are documented.  The work has already started by a group of SU business managers with the Agency of Education. The amendment passed includes money to compile this information, develop a handbook (for lack of a better word) and train business managers around the state.

As we lean more on more on local school data for education policy decisions, we need to know that the data is reliable. Right now, it is difficult to aggregate school budgets into consistent, reliable information. Some schools count training money in salaries, some in benefits, some in another line item. Should nurses, music teachers, permanent substitutes be accounted for as teachers? Staff? Something else? Many individual decisions like these are made in each of our hundreds of school districts that make sense for them, but add up, state wide, to muddy data.

The bill passed. It does include provisions that will lower property taxes.  It now goes to the Senate for review.

Other Updates:

Senate Update: Drugged Driving: H.501

This is a bill that came from my committee and is now in Senate Judiciary.  It is a very important bill that helps address the impacts of Vermont’s addiction and abuse problem.

The House-passed version of this bill acts as a ‘true-up’ mechanism to align treatment under the law for driving under the influence of alcohol and driving under the influence of drugs.  VT’s current statutes treat alcohol and drugs in a different manner that has made it very difficult and costly to prosecute people for driving under the influence of drugs.  This bill will require the utilization of Drug Recognition Experts to produce probable cause that a person is impaired.  The final step of the process requires a blood test to confirm the presence of drugs.

House Judiciary Committee members struggled with the potential issue of people who are under physician’s care and are taking a legitimate prescription who might be charged with impaired driving, even though they are quite capable of driving safely.  Referring back to the definition of ‘drug’ in 18 VSA, 4201 (29) helped us understand that only specific regulated drugs will trigger an investigation and charge.  It is our understanding that the Senate Judiciary Committee is expressing similar concerns and we hope that they are able to come to similar understanding of the limits of the proposed statute and pass the bill as we did.

S.119: Conservation Easements: House Judiciary Committee is in receipt of communication from the Vermont Land Trust asking us not to move forward with S.119, the Senate bill regarding amending perpetual conservation easements.   Therefore, the House will not take up the bill.