MONTPELIER — From “death with dignity” to marijuana decriminalization, Gov. Peter Shumlin on Tuesday said he aims to seal the deal on several notable pieces of unfinished business from the last legislative biennium.
Shumlin in his first term was unable to deliver on some of his highest-profile initiatives, including union rights for child care workers. At a morning news conference Tuesday, Shumlin said he expects those bills to reach his desk in 2013.
“I’m confident that regardless of who leads the various bodies in the Legislature, that we can pass decriminalization of marijuana, death with dignity and the (unionization) bill for child care workers,” he said. “We’re going to get them done.”
Key lawmakers aren’t so sure.
Sen. John Campbell, the Windsor County Democrat nominated to a second term as Senate president by his party colleagues Tuesday afternoon, was the Statehouse’s most prominent opponent of the child care unionization bill and legislation that would let terminally ill patients get a prescription that would end their lives. He said Tuesday his positions on those issues have not evolved in recent months, and that he’s not convinced either has the support needed to make it through the Legislature.
Campbell, however, said he won’t try to squelch a vote on any end-of-life legislation. In fact, he said the topic in 2013 will receive more attention from Senate committees than it did in either of the last two sessions.
“I recognize that this issue is not going to go away, and if the majority of people want to have a debate, then that debate should happen,” he said.
Campbell said he envisions joint hearings of Senate committees on the judiciary and health and welfare. He said the hearings come in response to requests for additional debate from people on both sides of the issue.
“If it passes, it passes. If it doesn’t, it doesn’t,” Campbell said. “But I think everyone involved in this conversation agrees there are issues that need to be vetted, so I think it’s worth taking the time to vet them.”
House Speaker Shap Smith, meanwhile, had been the primary voice of opposition to a marijuana decriminalization bill believed to have wide support in both bodies. Smith has since agreed to hearings on the matter in 2013.
Smith wrote to Commissioner of Public Safety Keith Flynn recently seeking answers to some of his chief questions, including how much money Vermont might save by not prosecuting small-time marijuana possession cases.
Smith said Tuesday he still doesn’t support decriminalization but that he’s “willing to listen.”
“I do have concerns about the message that marijuana decriminalization sends to young Vermonters,” Smith said.
Shumlin said he’ll continue to press lawmakers for a bill that would authorize the Health Department to share with police officers the prescription drug data of Vermonters whose behaviors might signal criminal narcotics activity.
Civil libertarians last year convinced House lawmakers that the bill would breach Vermonters’ privacy rights. Shumlin argues the legislation is necessary to fight a prescription drug “epidemic” fueled in part by “doctor shopping” and other forms of prescription fraud.
Shumlin also gave a preview of other legislative initiatives for 2013, including what he said will be a push for some form of driver’s licenses for immigrant dairy farm workers.
Shumlin said he also plans to win unionization rights for home care workers as well as child care workers. Two unions in Vermont are working to organize some of the approximately 5,000 home care workers providing services to elderly, sick or vulnerable clients. Workers would need enabling legislation to join either of those unions, and Shumlin said he plans to introduce a single, two-part bill that would grant unionization rights to both sectors of the workforce.
Campbell said he isn’t opposed in concept to organizing rights for home care workers. But giving union rights to child care workers, he said, could impose new costs on the education system and drive up property taxes.
“If the governor has a plan for how to cover those increases, I’m sure we’ll see it in his budget,” Campbell said.
Shumlin said he doesn’t anticipate any financial impacts from the union bill in fiscal year 2014 — the period for which lawmakers will be passing a budget during the next session. He said he wants to give child care workers organizing rights now, so that when Vermont does “turn the corner” fiscally, it can invest additional resources in the people delivering those services.
Shumlin said the state will suffer consequences if it continues to pay child care workers less than their counterparts in public schools.
“We’re not taking a really important goal of early childhood education and putting it on par with the rest of the system,” Shumlin said. “And that would be my goal.”
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