Session Focused On Irene, Utility Merger, Union Issues

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Lawmakers wrapped up their work in Montpelier over the weekend on a legislative session that started with a focus on Tropical Storm Irene but then saw lengthy debates over a utility merger, union issues, and a new attempt to crack down on prescription drug abuse

Governor Peter Shumlin was sometimes a critic of this year’s Legislature, especially when lawmakers waded into a controversial merger between the state’s largest utilities.

But when he took the podium in the House as the session drew to a close, Shumlin was full of praise.

"There is no example like this," he said. "Democrats, Republicans, Progressives, Independents coming together to do what is best for Vermonters and for the Green Mountain State."

Shumlin noted that lawmakers had shaped the state’s strong response to Tropical Storm Irene. One major accomplishment, he said, was a decision to close the flooded state hospital in Waterbury and set the state on a new path to provide mental health services.

"Instead of just going back, delivering quality mental health in a facility that didn’t dignify the quality of care that our most vulnerable residents should get, you said: ‘No way, we’re not going back,’" he said. "Instead we’re going to build and deliver finally on the finest community based mental health system in the country."

But the governor did not get all he wanted from the Legislature, which is controlled by his fellow Democrats.

The House failed to go along with his proposal to allow four state police officers to gain access to a prescription drug database without a warrant. House members felt the bill undercut civil liberties.

Bennington Senator Dick Sears, who chairs the Judiciary Committee, was clearly frustrated that the provision was dropped.

"The idea that it is violating privacy and violating the constitution of the state of Vermont I think is a stretch," Sears said.

When he spoke to the Senate, Governor Shumlin faulted the House and vowed to try again with the prescription drug bill.

"I think those that didn’t pass that bill will regret it and will be back here next January perhaps more ready to do the right thing," he said.

The big fights of the session were over policy issues. These included the state’s mandatory childhood immunization law, the utility merger, and a proposed union for child care workers.

The path to adjournment was delayed for 24 hours because of another labor issue. The Vermont chapter of the National Education Association fought hard for a bill that requires non union teachers to pay union fees.

In the end, the language was dropped from an education bill. Rutland Senator Kevin Mullin chairs the Education Committee and supports the provision known as "fair share." Mullin said the issue will be back next year.

"Although there’s no guarantees any of us will be back, the three Senate conferees made a solemn commitment to the supporters of the fair share language that if we were back we would fight tenaciously for it," he said.

The Legislature also handled the once in a decade challenge of re-apportionment, needed to make sure legislative districts reflect the state’s changing population.

House Speaker Shap Smith praised his colleagues for re-drawing the district lines without much partisan division.

"Only in Vermont could this process, so partisan in other states, and at the national level be so inclusive," he said. "It is a testament to all of you that that occurred."  

Despite the celebratory mood at the end of the session, lawmakers also set a date later this month to return should Governor Shumlin veto any bills.

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