Just before leaving Montpelier on March 2 a number of things got done. Government Operations did pass out the bill that would create a panel to review systemic racism in all three branches of state government, S.281. We took a turn and ended up creating a cabinet level position in the administration that would be independent but with authority to oversee the best process for reviewing the system changes that might be necessary. An independent advisory panel would work with the person. Of course it still has to pass the full Senate, pass the House, and be signed by the governor. We have been working with the administration so we hope to continue to have his support.
Our committee, and the full Senate, also passed legislation that would prohibit corporate contributions to candidates and political parties. It became clear that trying to define corporations was difficult. There are over 100,000 registered with the secretary of state, from LLCs to LLPs to sole proprietorships to nonprofits to for-profits. And looking at the federal guidelines was no help: their guidelines are 134 pages long.
So we went in the other direction, rather than prohibiting any entity we defined the entities that can contribute: an individual (including individual trusts and unincorporated sole proprietorships); a PAC (political action committee); and a political party.
This impacts corporations and unions alike (many felt it was important they be treated equally). This is not to say that corporations will not find a way around this - they can form PACs and give that way. Some have suggested that PACs also be prohibited but PACs are merely a gathering of like minded people or groups that pool their money in order to help elect candidates or promote issues. Some are big and some may be simply neighbors who form a PAC to support a candidate who will work to help clean up their street.
Of course the most publicized debates and votes were around guns. This is a very emotional issue and one that was difficult to work on in a reasoned way. In Judiciary, where I spend every morning, we took testimony from many sides of the issues: - and there are not just two sides even though many would have us believe that this is simply a “do it” or “don’t do it” issue. We heard from victims, gun owners, emergency room pediatricians, law enforcement, state’s attorneys, psychiatrists, virtually from anyone who wanted to testify. In the end our committee passed two bills.
One, S.221, is referred to as “extreme risk” or “red flag” legislation. It would allow weapons (firearms and explosives) to be taken from someone for up to 14 days based on probable cause and an emergency order from a judge. We believe that this will be valuable in many instances. While not everyone loved it, it did have support from many sides - and it passed the Senate on a roll call vote, 30-0.
We also passed legislation to deal with our firearms storage issue. We currently have about 2,000 firearms in storage at various agencies across the state. This would allow a federally-licensed firearms dealer to purchase them for resale or destruction. Many are old and unsafe. Attached to this on the Senate floor was an amendment to require background checks for all ownership transfers of firearms and one to prohibit sales to anyone under 21.
These both passed. I did vote for both. It is true that neither will solve the issue but I believe that each reasonable move will make a difference. When we return we will take up H.422, which would allow law enforcement to confiscate all firearms at a domestic disturbance call. There are issues with this: search and seizure; how extensive would a search have to be - the whole house, out buildings, vehicles, etc.; and other questions. Since we have not taken the testimony I will reserve judgment until after we have a chance to hear and discuss.
Some interesting statistics emerged (VPR did great research and it can be found on their website). From 2011 to 2016, Vermont had 420 deaths by guns, 373 of those were suicides, and most of those were white men. Of the remaining 47, five were by law enforcement and half of the remaining (21) were domestics. It does seem that the bill we spent the most time on, extreme risk, might be able to have an impact on the many suicides and perhaps on the domestics. We hope it helps. In the meantime we need to be able to offer better services to those who feel that life has lost all meaning for them.
It is also important to say that those with mental health diagnoses are much more likely to be victims of violence than perpetrators. Only about 5% of gun violence is attributable to serious mental health issues. You might say that those who perpetrate violence have mental health issues - they may have anger, sadness, loneliness but not serious mental health issues.
So we now go back to Montpelier and finish out the second half of this year. Again, please reach out. I do read letters, it often takes months to respond but I listen to you. And while I don’t always do what you would have me do, I need to balance your positions with that of others, and then take into account what would be best for Vermont, and then throw in my own values. Hopefully I agree with most people on at least one issue.
All emails for legislators are the same: (first name initial last name)@leg.state.vt.us. For me it’s email@example.com. And if you want to come up to the Statehouse, let us know and we will try our hardest to meet with you.