Legislative Update: Budget Gap, Domestic Violence, Drug Courts

Mar 16, 2017

There have been no snow days for elected officials this week, and that’s probably because they have some big legislative deadlines to hit in the next few days.

Vermont's budget

The House is under a tight deadline to have its version of the budget out of the appropriations committee by next Friday, and that leaves them only five or six days to figure out how to close what they say is a $70 million shortfall in next year’s budget.

Now they say they’ve found some creative ways to get that gap down to $18 million. But they say that getting the rest of the way, they need Gov. Phil Scott to offer up some solutions.

House Speaker Mitzi Johnson said the Republican governor has been unwilling to do that so far, despite repeated requests from her and other Democratic leaders to help them out. Johnson held a press conference yesterday to express her frustration publicly.

“He shirked his responsibility to put a balanced budget on the table,” Johnson said at the press conference. “He tried to steal local control of budgets and local bargaining from communities, and he proposed raising local property taxes by $50 million.”

In her press conference, Johnson also asked the governor to come back to the negotiating table for the budget.

“So we’re here to say, ‘It’s time for everybody to get back to the table, for everybody to cooperate and participate in closing that last final budget gap,” Johnson said.

The Scott administration put out a statement shortly after that press conference saying the governor stands by the principles outlines in his budget, and that lawmakers ought to start figuring out a way to accommodate those principles.

Gov. Scott’s budget relies on freezing K-12 education spending, and then using the resulting savings in the education fund to balance the rest of the budget.

Town meeting Day has come and gone and school budgets have been voted on, with 90 percent of them passing. Democrats argue that his school-spending ship has sailed.

Domestic violence legislation

The bill would allow police to remove a gun from the scene of a domestic violence incident, and it would allow them to do so without the court order that some say is currently needed to confiscate a weapon.

Auburn Watersong is the policy director at the Vermont Network Against Domestic and Sexual Violence, which is one of the organizations pushing hard for this bill.

“We must remember that the statistics are real,” Watersong explained to the House Judiciary Committee. “When a gun is present in a domestic violence situation, it increases the risk of homicide for women by 500 percent.”

The bill has drawn some vehement opposition from gun-rights advocates. They say depriving someone of their right to bear arms without due process is an incredibly dangerous road to go down and that the bill has some real constitutional problems.

They also say this is less about trying to protect victims of domestic violence, and more about notching a legislative win for gun-control advocates.

Marijuana

As of now, the legalization bill would allow for possession of up to an ounce of marijuana, and it would also legalize limited homegrown operations.

Gov. Phil Scott has indicated he won’t look favorably on that proposal.

Drug treatment courts

The judiciary committee is looking for new ways to help drug addicts charged with certain criminal offenses.

Drug treatment courts have been used for years to help non-violent offenders with substance abuse issues, but those courts are only available in some counties.

The judiciary committee is looking at legislation that would create a new board that would help make drug and DUI-treatment courts available across the state. Data suggests that drug courts reduce recidivism rates, and lower overall public safety costs.

Racial justice bill

Lawmakers are also working on what’s being called a racial justice bill. This legislation tries to get at some of the stark racial disparities in incarceration rates by enacting criminal justice reforms.

The bill would create a 12-person racial justice oversight board, with an eye toward reforming a law-enforcement apparatus in this state that, according to statistics, disproportionately targets people of color.

Senate bills

There are a number of bills that the Senate is looking to have out this week.

There’s an affordable housing bill that's based off a recommendation in the governor’s budget. The legislation would spark $35 million in affordable housing development with a revenue bond that would be paid off over 20 years. The one hitch is they still need to find some funding for that.

The Senate is also working on a mental health bill. There are still some glaring problems in the mental health system, and this legislation commissions a series of studies to analyze those problems. The idea is to have that information in hand by the end of this year, so lawmakers can move forward with reforms in 2018.

That bill also would raise the minimum wage for frontline community mental health workers to $15 an hour, to try to get at the issue of the massive employee turnover in that field, which is due in large part to low pay.

The Senate is also looking to ramp up penalties for possession or sale of fentanyl, and this is the powerful  and very cheap opiate that’s being put into heroin, and causing many of the overdose fatalities in Vermont.

The Senate will also be taking up some reforms to Act 46, the school governance law passed in 2015, to try to help districts that are having a tough time with the law.

There are also some bills from the Senate related to toxics substances, economic development, and some of the payment reform initiatives we’re seeing in health care.