Week 16 : April 30th to May 3rd

Speeches on the Floor

Last week I decided it was time for me to begin speaking while in session on the floor of the House. I've done this several times in the past when presenting portions of the capital bill. And last session there was a bill from our committee that I reported to the assembled House. But I have never asked a question during debate, or commented before a vote or explained a vote.

Last week I took courage in hand and stood up.

Lead in the drinking water of Vermont's schools.

I've mentioned this issue before. It's a bill (S.40) that will test all the drinking fountains where Vermont students are taught. That means public schools, day care centers and registered home day care centers. There's about 53,000 taps. The bill also proposes a way to pay a portion of the cost for remediation if the lead content in the water is above 5 parts per billion (ppb).

For some reason I've been pretty worked up about this bill. It's interesting to me because there is a bunch of science involved, some math, some practical hands on questions about the best way to fix a drinking fountain, and a bunch of emotion involving the kids of Vermont. All that makes it messy.

The politics of it is that the Governor (a Republican) first mentioned the idea (I believe) in his budget address at the beginning of the session. So it starts as a broad political statement about the dangers of lead to Vermont's school children. I don't know if much research was done prior to that speech. The Senate then took it up.

The Senate is only 30 individuals, each serving on two committees. They like to think of themselves as big picture people, above the real details of implementation. They take some testimony and do due diligence, but they don't really investigate the issue completely. They wrote the bill, passed it easily and sent it to us. We have been bouncing it around committees. Being on the Colchester School Board I took an early interest because I was concerned about any impact on our local budget as well as any work Colchester School District personnel would have to do.

One of the group of legislators that I have dinner with once a week is on the Education committee so I asked him numerous questions. Over the course of the last month or so I learned a lot about lead testing and remediation. The result was/is that I am opposed to the bill.

A question from the floor

Much of the floor debate on a bill is done during second reading. That's when the bill is out of committee. By the end of the debate and the vote on second reading the fate of the bill and the size of the votes for and against are pretty well know. Not much will change.

In the past, if I had a question on a bill, I asked individual legislators instead of waiting for the debate. During debate you cannot ask a question the answer to which you already know so I have not engaged in the questioning that goes on when we are on the floor. This time I had one question hanging to which I had not received an adequate reply. Vowing to overcome my fears I stood up at the appropriate time and was recognized by the Speaker. "Madame Speaker, may I interrogate the representative from Shelburne?", The Speaker replied "The representative from Shelburne is interrogated." And Kate Webb, the chair of the Education committee and principal presenter of the bill stood up.

I then proceeded to ask a rather obtuse question about the funding of the remediation. I did not handle it really well but managed to not make a fool of myself. I really had not read the bill carefully enough. But when I asked others later if my question made sense, they said "yes." I survived. When the second reading vote was taken it was by voice and only I and one other person voted "Nay." That was Wednesday.

A speech from the floor

I thought about that bill a lot during the evening and toyed with the idea of commenting on the bill before the vote for third reading coming up the next day. I decided to write up a speech and wait and see if I really wanted to deliver it.

There are two opportunities to remark on a bill: before the vote in hopes of swaying the vote and after as an explanation of one's own vote. The explanation is included in the House Journal and is a written record for posterity (and voters). Those explanations are supposed to be very short, maybe two or three sentences. The speeches before a vote, during debate, can be endless. I knew mine would be long.

I worked on that speech when I first arrived in the morning. We had nothing really going on in Committee and in a fit of impatience I asked the Chair if we were done. She replied, "Why, do you have anything else to do?" "Yes, I'm working on a floor speech." That made it public and so I couldn't back out. That's not a rule or anything, it just that she mentioned it in other remarks, so it became expected. No problem really, I'd pretty much decided the time had come.

The Speech

So when the bill came up for third reading consideration I stood up and read my speech. Here it is. It's long, but fascinating.

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Madame Speaker

This bill will probably pass with a strong voice vote. That’s what happened on second reading yesterday. I heard two “nays”, one of those was mine. Before I vote “nay” again I would like to take a few minutes to explain the several reasons why I oppose this bill.

1) It sets a precedent

2) The cost to the school districts is not really known

3) We must set priorities

First let me make it clear that I understand that lead is a poison. Once consumed, it does not dissipate. Every small amount of lead that a child consumes stays with that child through adulthood. I also understand that there can be, an often is, severe implications to consuming lead. A cousin of mine’s brain function was altered (not severely impaired, but altered) because he was stripping paint with a heat gun up under the eves of his house and breathed in the smoke from the burning paint. I do not deny the seriousness of lead poisoning, particularly for Vermont’s children.

Essential to understanding my objections to this bill is to understand what a “billion” is. The lead content in water is measured in Parts Per Billion. What does that mean? You Madame Speaker, because you were on appropriations, understand the meaning of a Billion, because the state spends Billions of dollars. But how many of us have a feel for what a billion is?

As a computer science teacher, I taught university students what a nano-second is. Computers calculations are often measured in nano-seconds. A billionth of a second. To illustrate what a Billion is I asked my students to imagine a billion seconds. How long would that be, in minutes, hours, weeks, whatever. I ask the chamber to do that now. How long is a billion seconds? What is your feel for how long that would be?

The calculations are easy: take a billion, divide it by 60 to get minutes, 60 again to get hours, 24 to get days, 7 to get weeks, 52 to get years. You should come up with about 32 years. One billion seconds equal 31.79 years. When we talk about parts per billion, we are taking about seconds out of 32 years. The difference between 3 part per billion, 5 parts per billion or 15 parts per billion is similar to the difference between 3 second out of 32 years or 5 seconds out of 32 years or 15 seconds out of 32 years. That difference is also the difference in hundreds of thousands of dollars (perhaps millions) in costs to the state of Vermont.

I have enough respect for science and medicine to know that these numbers can make a difference to human health. But I also know that even science gets sloppy. The people taking water samples in each school will not be scientist in lab coats. We could never afford that. They will be local personnel trained by perhaps watching a video or a powerpoint presentation. That’s not bad. In fact, the sampling procedure is pretty easy: two samples in containers provided by the state, one, first thing in the morning after the system has been dormant for more than 8 hours, the second after the fixture has been run for 30 seconds. A reasonably careful person should be able to accomplish this. My understanding is that 53,000 samples will be taken. There is considerable opportunity for any number of minor slipups that will make the difference between 5 and 15 parts per billion.

It is important to understand why I mention 15 parts per billion instead of just the 3 from the other body or the 5 in this bill.

The federal government has acknowledged that lead is a dangerous poison. The EPA heavily regulates lead in water supplies. Public water supplies must sample below 15 parts per billion of lead in the water. Most, if not ALL, schools are, by definition, using public water supplies. If the water coming from a drinking fountain in your school is above 15 parts per billion the supplier of the water must work with you to reduce that to below 15.

This bill requires the lead content in school drinking fountains be less than 5 parts per billion. At first I was concerned that a public water supply producing water at say 10 parts per billion could result in water at the drinking fountain that would need remediation. Champlain Water District, the water supply for the Colchester School District has measured parts billion ranging from 0 to 13. They are within the EPA requirements. If that water comes out of a Colchester School District drinking fountain at 10 parts per billion under this bill, the school will have to remediate. My concern about this descrepancy is answered by the ability to remediate drinking fountains with filters on the taps that will reduce the led content to an acceptable level. From a discussion with the General Manager of the Champlain Water District I am convinced that the amount of lead coming to the schools in my district is below 5 parts per billion. If it is not, we can use filters to remediate. It should not cost much. But just the same, the difference between actions levels of 15 at the water supply and 5 at the drinking fountain shift some of the responsibility and perhaps cost of remediation from the water supplier to the school district. If the lead content is over 15 then the supplier may well be responsible, if it’s less than that, but over 5 then it’s the school’s. (reimbursed by the state). Parts per billion are important, seconds over 32 years make a difference.

My other concern with this bill is that it opens up a can of worm. The state is committing to a testing and remediation program without knowing the complete cost. I was happy to see that the bill has a cap on what it will pay for each tap fixture and I was glad to see that the state is paying the full percentage of that cap. However, there may be costs above that fixture replacement amount and we are insisting, by law, that those remediations be made and paid for by the school. The reimbursement we do pay is based on a pilot study and expert witnesses. That’s good. But it does leaves unknowns.

As a Colchester school board member I appreciate that the state is bringing this issue to the public’s attention. And that’s exactly what I think the state should do: bring it to the attention of school boards and the public and then let them decide. I would rather a third of the money we are spending on this be used for public awareness. Then the school boards and their constituents can decide if the difference between 15 and 5 parts per billion matters enough to test and remediate their drinking fountains.

I have heard two objections to my thoughts on this.

One is that I am advocating that school boards and the public bury their heads in the sand. And yes, many school boards would really rather not know what the lead content of their drinking fountains are, because then they would have to do something about it, spend money and perhaps face some public outrage. But keep in mind that most school boards can be fairly confident that the water at their drinking fountains is below 15 parts per billion, and if it is not below that, they should install filters or work with their water supplier to reduce it.

The second argument I hear is that schools in property-rich towns will be willing to pay for the testing and remediation of their drinking fountains while property-poor districts would not. I fully admit that my rebuttal to that argument is on shaky ground. But, unless I am mistaken, our education funding formula adjusts for that problem. Testing and remediation would influence the Per Pupil Spending (and therefor the tax rate) of a town. But the number of drinking fountains in a school has at least some relationship to the number of students. On a per pupil basis the cost of remediation may well be the same for each school district. The increase in PPS for the rich and the poor town would be roughly the same. So also would be the increase in their property tax rate.

Finally, I am worried about precedent. I see radon testing and on the horizon and P-FAS (measured in parts per trillion) behind that. There will be arguments that each of these are public health issues and should be addressed by the state.

When many of us came to this chamber we said we were willing to make the hard decisions needed to address the many important issues facing this state: clean water funding, mental health care and facilities, declining infrastructure, property taxes, special ed funding and lots more. I believe the considerable amount of state funds used to make up the difference between 15 seconds in 32 years and 5 seconds in 32 years can be better spent on other issues.

Thank you for your attention.

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I sat down. The chair of the Education Committee stood up and said something about how any amount of lead is bad. She also requested a roll-call vote.

The vote results were 138 in favor and 3 opposed. One was me. Over the course of the next several days a couple people said they liked my speech, some said they would have voted with me but politics kept them back. I always replied that it was an explanation and not an attempt to convince, though I would have felt great if I had been able to change more than one vote.

Aside from all that personal drama, not much happened. Controversial bills are churning through committees.

Next Week

With two, maybe three, weeks lefty in the session speculation is rampant. The marijuana bill should come out this coming week. We will be assembled for an unusual Monday session the week after and dates for a day-long veto session in June are being talked about,

The end is in sight.