I’m sure I wasn’t the only one driving to Montpelier early this week wondering if it would be the last trip up for the 2019 Session. I’ll be writing this column over the period of the week so you can get an idea of what the process looks and feels like.
I would, however, like to start at the end of the week because I think clarity is important on an issue that concerns Windham. At Pizza Night at the West River Community Project (a wonderful event if you haven’t ever been), there were a number of people with questions about a vote that will be happening on June 11. The language in the warning, in part, states “Shall West River Modified Union Education District accept Windham Elementary School District as a full member of the West River Modified Union Education District Union School District”.
It is apparent that the word “accept” is misleading and confusing for some people because they mistakenly think the Windham Elementary School District wants to be accepted. To be clear, we do not, we consider it a hostile takeover, and are asking voters in Brookline, Jamaica, Newfane, Townshend, and Windham to please vote no on both articles included on the warning. Windham voted no to merger in March of 2017 and subsequent votes strongly indicate that we want to remain autonomous. We ask that fellow district members respect democracy and respect our vote.
Now on to Montpelier! It’s Tuesday and things are moving fast but there is a lot to complete before it’s all over. The weather has been rainy and cold, which doesn’t help the situation. I’ve noticed over the years that when it’s hot and sunny, people are much more interested in wrapping thing up and getting home. For me, shearing my sheep and goats and getting the garden in become high priorities.
On Wednesday, we spent many hours on the Floor of the House debating two bills – the minimum wage bill and one intended to prevent gun violence.
We all want to feel safe living our lives and are troubled by the incidents of violence that have occurred in schools, movie theaters, churches, and other places where we have an expectation of safety. Last year, we passed three laws that were intended to help prevent gun violence. One allows law enforcement to remove firearms, on a temporary basis, from the scene of an incident involving domestic violence. Another allows a judge to order that a person, who presents an extreme risk of harm to themselves or others, surrender any dangerous weapons they might own. That person may go through a process to get the weapons back when the risk has passed. The final bill passed in 2018 does four things: it bans bump stocks, limits the size of high-capacity magazines, expands the federal requirement for background checks to include private sales, and restricts the sale of firearms to people under the age of 21 with exceptions for those in law enforcement or the military or those who have taken a firearms safety course.
The bill we debated on Wednesday and Thursday would require a 24-hour waiting period for the purchase of handguns. It would, however, also clarify language that was included in the 2018 bill regarding high-capacity magazines so that organized shooting competitions held in Vermont can continue to take place. It would also allow people who own high capacity ammunition feeding devices to transfer them to immediate family members in a will, and it would broaden the definition of “immediate family members” who do not need to obtain a background check for private sales or transfers between those immediate family members.
S.169 is intended to be a compromise. The 24-hour waiting period was the result of the consciousness-raising of a family who tragically lost their son to suicide four hours after he purchased a gun. It also closes the “Charleston Loophole”, a gap in the background check system, that allowed a young man to purchase a gun and kill members of a church in Charleston, South Carolina. The goal is to keep guns out of the hands of dangerous people, not responsible gun owners. During debate, we heard about situations where drug dealers who are doing business in Vermont ask drug-addicted people to buy firearms for them in return for drugs. It is hoped that the waiting period will disrupt that practice.
And speaking of disruption, on Thursday a group of citizens, concerned about climate change, staged a protest in the Well of the House. Leaflets rained down on us and banners were displayed. People are always welcome at the State House, after all, it’s called the “People’s House”, but this sort of action violates the rules of the House and the Speaker asked us to vacate the chamber. It took a while for the Capitol Police to clear the space, but we took an early lunch and were back at work at 12:30 pm. The ironic thing about it was that at the time we were working on several bills that address climate change including S.160 that codifies the Vermont Environmental Stewardship Program (VESP), and creates the Vermont Forest Carbon Sequestration Working Group that will study how to create a Statewide program to facilitate the enrollment of Vermont forestlands in carbon sequestration markets.
Later on Thursday, the Vermont Corporate Cup Challenge and State Agency Race took place. The State House lawn was filled with runners and walkers in brightly colored tee shirts participating in the five-kilometer event that is meant to “promote physical fitness within the workplace and at home by bringing employees together to enjoy and experience the benefits of fitness”. The race is sponsored by and benefits the Vermont Governor’s Council on Physical Fitness and Sports and is open to businesses, government, and non-profit organizations. All of the roads around the State House were blocked off and the weather was lovely, so it was a delight to be “trapped” and get to spend a while on the steps of the State House enjoying the sunshine and the spectacle. I wonder how many other State Houses host an event of this kind?
On Friday, it became clear that we were not going to be able to finish up this week, even if we stayed on Saturday. There are just too many loose ends to tie up in order to do a good job. The good news is that by the end of the week, the weather was warming up so legislators will be thinking about getting home to do all the things we’ve put off during the legislative session. We’ll be back in Montpelier on Monday and Tuesday for Committees of Conference and on the Floor on Wednesday with the hopes of wrapping things up soon.