Week 5 : February 5th to February 8th

Abortion Rights in Vermont

On Wednesday of this week the Committee on the Judiciary and the Committee on Human Services held a joint public hearing on H.57. That's the controversial abortion rights bill. There's more on that on my Controversial Bills page.

The Abortion Rights bill dominated the early part of the week. We had to cut our Wednesday floor session short as the hearing on H.57 was scheduled for 4:00 and we were still working our way through H.39.

H.39 and School Consolidation

H.39 is another controversial bill having to do with the forced consolidation of some Vermont school districts. Depending on how you count, there are about 230 school districts in the state. A few have VERY small schools, maybe a couple dozen kids. Because we have a statewide school financing formula the cost of those small schools is shared by everyone. That's one of the reasons public education in Vermont is expensive.

But . . . people love those small schools. They are the heart and soul of many communities. They are essential to the state's rural nature and closing them is a real threat to some long standing traditions. This controversy has been going on for hundreds of years and will continue. But right now the state is forcing some of those schools to merge, event though their school boards voted against it. This resulted in H.39.

The path of H.39 is interesting if you're want to know how laws are made. If you're not interested, skip down the page. I was, and am, fascinated.

The bill was originally an amendment to a must-pass bill that appears early in the session. That the Budget Adjustment Act that kinda trues up the states finances for the next six months. Representative Heidi Scheuermann of Stowe (one of the districts being forced to merge) proposed an amendment that would extend the deadline for the mergers (currently July 1st 2019) for another year.

Early in the session we battled this a bit and I had decided that when the Budget Adjustment bill came up for a vote I would probably agree to the amendment. The Democratic caucus did not really take a stand on the issue. It divides the House more along geographic lines than along party lines.

As it became obvious that this was going to be controversial and might hold up the Budget Adjustment, Representative Scheuermann agreed to withdraw the amendment and present it as a separate bill. That's H.39. It came to the floor this Wednesday for second reading. That means the Education Committee had considered it and made a recommendation. The recommendation, by 7 of the 11 members, was to vote it down.

The trouble was that Representative Scheuermann had now put together an amendment to her own bill that would be presented before the vote on the bill. That amendment was a strike-all amendment replacing the whole bill with something new. In addition there was another amendment by Representative Conlon coming that day that was also a strike-all and would change everything again.

So we had, coming before us, H.39 and two amendments that basically rewrote H.39. The two amendments were variations of ways to extend the forced merge deadline for specific districts. Debate ensued. There was some interesting parliamentary maneuvering as, according to the rules, you really can't argue against one amendment by going into the details of one that is coming up next. (I need to look into that rule a bit). In addition, if the first amendment passed, then the second one could not be considered because there is also a rule stating that once you consider an issue you cannot propose to wipe out ("substantially negate") what you just approved. That's what the Conlon amendment would do if the the Scheuermann amendment passed.

There was a bit of confusion about all this, but eventually there was role-call vote on the Scheuermann amendmentand it failed with a close vote of 69 yes and 74 no. I voted against it because I liked the Conlon amendment better. That was at about 3:50 in the afternoon with the H.57 hearing scheduled to use the well of the House at 4:00. We would all be replaced by anti-abortion, pro-life, pro-choice citizens making their cases.

The Speaker called the leadership from the other two parties (Republicans and Progressives) together and they decided to adjourn and take up the next amendment on Thursday.

On Thursday the Conlon Amendment passed on a roll-call vote of 134 to 10. The amended bill was then passed by a voice vote. Off to the Senate. Onward and upward.

My Frustrations

Though we claim that the Legislature can work on more than one issue at a time, I find that is not completely true. We have spent, and continue to spend, a lot of time with Abortion Rights and School Consolidation. I want to get down to making some important decisions about Corrections and Mental Health facilities. These are $10 million decisions about how to renovate or replace aging buildings. But in order for the building to be designed correctly we need input from the committees that determine the programs inside the buildings. That's the Committee on Human Services, tied up with Abortion Rights.

In fact, there's plenty for my committee to work on. We are not spinning our wheels.

Coming UP

  • Clean Water : Next week we start working on the Clean Water portion of the Capital Bill.
  • H.57: The Abortion Rights bill has been amended some by the Committee on Human Services and is now in Judiciary. It may come to the floor late in the week.

Some New Bills Introduced

  • H.196 - An act relating to the regulation of cannabis and cannabis products for commercial and medical purposes.
  • H.192 - An act relating to the appointment of the Adjutant General and creating a tax exemption for military retirement pay
  • S.88 - An act relating to paid family leave.
  • PR.5 - State Constitutional Amendment regarding the right to personal reproductive liberty.