Two major bills passed the House this week: Redistricting the legislative districts and reforming Vermont’s mental health system. Both bills passed with strong multi-partisan support.
The House Government Operations Committee worked very hard to create a fair, non-partisan redistricting bill and, in fact, the only amendment offered came from two Democrats who were displeased with the results. The bill passed with a strong 138-4 vote.
In Windham County, many of the districts will remain the same. These include the Guilford/ Vernon; Dummerston/Putney/Westminster; Halifax/Whitingham/Wilmington; and Athens/ Brookline/Grafton/Rockingham/Windham with a slice of North Westminster districts. Brattleboro will continue to be a three-member district but will require internal line changes that will be made by the local Board of Civil Authority.
The Marlboro/Newfane/Townshend district is much the same except that 54 people from the southwestern section of Townshend will become a part of the Dover/Readsboro/Searsburg/ Somerset/Stamford/Wardsboro district. The new Jamaica/Londonderry/Weston/Winhall district is the same except that the town of Stratton becomes part of another district with Arlington/ Sandgate/Sunderland/Shaftsbury/Glastenbury and a small portion of Rupert.
I feel fortunate that the Windham-4 district is not proposed to change except that it will become known as Windham-3. After ten years of working with constituents, a relationship has developed that would be hard to end. People know who to call when they have problems, questions, or concerns and they know they will get a response.
However, Rep. Eldred French of Shrewsbury, whose district will change significantly, explained his vote by in part saying. ”My yes vote reflects the reality that it isn’t about me. It’s about the citizens of Vermont getting the opportunity for fair and equal representation. The system works, and the manner in which it was conducted should make Vermonter’s proud.” Rep. French is right.
The reform of our mental health system centers on the future of the Vermont State Hospital, which exists for our most acutely ill citizens with mental health needs. Since 2005, conversation has been actively ongoing regarding what to do about the State Hospital in Waterbury. Several years ago, it lost accreditation and, as a result, the state lost the payment from the federal government, which amounted to $9 million a year. This all came to a head when Tropical Storm Irene hit us at the end of August and patients had to be evacuated due to flooding.
After Irene, patients were placed in a variety of facilities including the Brattleboro Retreat, the Springfield Correctional Center, as well as regular medical hospitals and centers, which were not necessarily well-suited to care for people with severe mental illness. It became imperative for us to solve this problem once and for all – a replacement is absolutely necessary. The House Human Services and Corrections and Institutions Committees have done a thoughtful, expedient job. It was important to include the concept of community-based care, as well as a centralized facility that will accommodate more patients.
The final plan includes 14 beds at the Brattleboro Retreat, five at the Windsor Correctional facility, and six at the Rutland Regional Medical Center. The centralized facility will have 25 beds and be located in Berlin in proximity to an existing hospital. It will be on the fast track method to complete and is anticipated to take 2½ years to construct.
The good news is that insurance money will cover the whole Waterbury complex and the hospital’s share will be spent on the new state hospital. Money from the Federal Emergency Management Agency will also help.
The other good news concerns our very dedicated state employees who worked at the State Hospital. Since there will be a period of time before the new facility is ready, consideration has been provided for their re-employment on completion.
We also passed a bill that will allow the sale of “I am Vermont Strong” commemorative license plates. In response to Tropical Storm Irene, “I am Vermont Strong” t-shirts were produced and sold to benefit charitable causes that helped with flood relief and disaster recovery. “I am Vermont Strong” license plates will be sold for $25 – $18 will go to the Vermont Disaster Relief Fund, $2 will go to the Vermont Food Bank, and $5 will go to the production of the plates.
The plates will be sold by Vermont Life and the Department of Motor Vehicles. Eventually, they will also be for sale at ski areas and grocery stores. The goal is to sell as many as possible to benefit Tropical Storm Irene and flood victims. One of my favorite Christmas gifts this year was an “I am Vermont Strong” t-shirt – I can’t wait to buy the plate!