Adverse weather does little to slow local legislators

Posted

Saturday, February 9
BRATTLEBORO -- Windham County lawmakers tackled a flurry of legislation under a thick blanket of snow this week.

Committees approved several key bills, including a version of a long-discussed energy bill, a campaign finance reform measure and a modification of marijuana possession rules. Meanwhile, one half of the county's Republican caucus, Rep. Rick Hube, R-Londonderry, put forward an ambitious but controversial education funding plan, and the House voted by a wide margin to allow the cultivation of industrial hemp.

The following is a brief sample of county legislators' activities:

Campaign Finance: The House Government Operations committee voted 9-0 Friday in favor of a bill that would restrict the amount individuals and parties can contribute to political campaigns. Part of a long-running effort to set strict campaign finance rules, the Legislature has been working to craft a bill that would withstand Constitutional scrutiny, unlike a 1997 law that was overturned by the U.S. Supreme Court.

Rep. Ann Manwaring, D-Wilmington, a member of the committee, said she believes the current version of the bill accomplishes the goal of reducing the influence of money in politics and would be upheld if challenged.

The House committee tweaked the bill slightly in order to accommodate one of two requests made by Gov. Jim Douglas. After vetoing a similar version last year, Douglas hoped to equalize the contribution limits for all statewide offices; he also argued against capping the amount of money political parties can contribute to candidates. While the committee accepted the first change, it retained a cap on party spending.

"We felt the original version was quite defensible, and I would have been perfectly happy to do it," Manwaring said. "While I would have preferred not to (change the bill), I did it in the spirit of compromise."

One legislator who takes issue with it was Rep. Daryl Pillsbury, I-Brattleboro, who plans to officially announce he is running for state senate after Town Meeting Day.

"Although it's better than nothing and I admit that, this new bill takes the legs out of an independent candidate," he said. "They say they leveled the playing field, but only for the parties. It's typical up here and in Washington too."

While the legislation caps party contributions to candidates at $1,000 for state representative races and $30,000 for gubernatorial offices, Pillsbury argues that provision cripples the fundraising abilities of independent candidates.

"I'm very disappointed that they say how they make it equal and when I got to talk to most of the folks around here to tell them my concerns, they say, 'join a party,'" he said.

In response to Pillsbury's concerns, according to Manwaring, the committee doubled the amount of money independent candidates can accept from an individual. Initially the bill allowed supporters to contribute a certain amount of money -- $500, for example, in a state senate race -- during both a primary and general election, but because independents do not have primary campaigns, they would have been disadvantaged by that language. The new version would allow an independent candidate to accept twice the original amounts.

"(Pillsbury) is right, because it does. The entire election process in the whole country sets up parties as having a special role in our electoral process," Manwaring said. "However, we did, in response to Daryl coming to us, allow independent candidates to double the amounts."

Riparian Buffer Zones: A bill that would protect what Rep. David Deen, D-Westminster, calls "Mother Nature's protection for waters in the state," is almost ready for prime time.

Riparian zones -- undisturbed, natural vegetative growth next to surface waters -- filter our pollutants and nutrients, according to Deen, who chairs the House Fish, Wildlife and Water Resources committee

"Everybody just thinks Act 250 protects everything. The fact is that Act 250 affects only 20 percent of the development in Vermont," Deen said. "We're coming closer to getting a bill out of here that will establish a minimum standard for protecting riparian zones."

Deen's bill would set up a default minimum-protected area of 50 feet around a body of water, though municipalities could increase or decrease that amount.

"As development pressures increase along the shores of our lakes and rivers, this will keep them high quality waters," he said.

Education Finance: At a press conference on Wednesday, Hube unveiled a proposal with two fellow House Republicans that would radically change the education finance system. While some appeared interested in discussing the issue, several top Democrats signaled immediate resistance to scrapping Acts 60 and 68.

"My understanding is that some of the elements are extremely problematic," said House Majority Leader Carolyn Partridge, D-Windham.

The proposal would essentially eliminate the statewide residential property tax and fund school spending with block grants distributed by the state on a per-pupil basis. Towns could choose to raise additional funds with a local property tax, while the block grants would be funded by the nonresidential property tax and other unnamed revenue sources.

Partridge and other Democrats contend that Hube's idea would not comply with the Vermont Supreme Court decision, Brigham vs. Vermont, which requires equity between districts and which led to the current set of laws.

"This really does not meet the test of Brigham. You can't raise money for just your local school," Partridge said. "There's also this little problem of $158 million needed to lower the residential property tax rate, and they haven't offered any plans to do that."

Hube, however, is undeterred.

"I think it was very predictable. There are a lot of people up here and the speaker is very reluctant to any change. We could've predicted the argument from the start: it's over equity. But what is equity?" he said. "People seem to think this is equitable what we have now, and I think even that is debatable, but I think we should have that discussion now."

As to whether the proposal would withstand constitutional scrutiny, Hube said, "I think on one level I'm not sure that anybody is permitted to be a Supreme Court justice and serve in the Statehouse at the same time."

Hemp: Many Windham County legislators were pleased that a bill permitting the cultivation of industrial hemp in the state was overwhelmingly approved this week.

"It's certainly something I think would be very beneficial to the agricultural sector in our state if we can make it happen," said Rep. Virginia Milkey, D-Brattleboro.

The measure is largely symbolic, as the federal government bans the cultivation of hemp, because it is a cousin of the plant that produces marijuana. Hemp advocates argue, however, that it is impossible to get high on hemp.

"I think it's an economic opportunity for farmers. It's also a great opportunity for fuels that can be used for energy, food products, fiber and cloth," Partridge said. "I think it would be a really good crop for farmers who may have transitioned out of dairy farming but have fields open and want to keep those fields open and raise a crop."

Supporters of the bill hope that if the federal government reverses its ban, Vermont will be first in line to take advantage of hemp cultivation.

"When you look at this without the blinders that the feds seem to have about this issue, it makes a lot of sense. We've got a local business that sells hemp products. Wouldn't it be nice if Vermont farmers and entrepreneurs could make this stuff and sell it in Vermont?" Milkey said. "Maybe they'll get some new folks in there and be persuaded this is so not a drug."

Paul Heintz can be reached at pheintz@reformer.com or 802-254-2311, ext. 275.


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