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Send Lawyers, Guns and Money

February 8, 2013

reptomstevens

Detail, Senatorial Shoes, Vermont State House

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With the release of the Governor’s budget proposals, the Legislature has been parsing out the dichotomies found in policy choices and funding mechanisms. The Governor laid out some ambitious ideas, most of which are in line with his core principles, but suggested funding from sources that, quite frankly, cannot be cut without a negative impact on those folks who currently benefit from them, such as the Earned Income Tax Credit. While the bulk of testimony surrounding money issues will be handled in the Appropriations and Ways & Means committees, the policy choices will be debated in the relevant committees. And that is where the fireworks will be found.

The Earned Income Tax Credit, for example, is, in the opinions of many, one of the most successful tools created in recent memory to help low income Vermonters climb out of poverty (and reliance on Reach Up or other government programs) by providing a credit to help them climb over the benefit cliff that exists between Reach Up and a newly found self-reliance. The credit is only giving to individuals who have found work, and work that falls under a certain level. This credit is both state and federal, and the Governor’s proposal is to cut the state contribution by 75% percent (equalling 16% overall) and use those savings to fund increased child care subsidies for families in lower income brackets. The goal is laudable, but the funding mechanism, on the face of it, seems to penalize the folks who need it most — those just getting their heads above water. The House Human Services committee is investigating exactly who will benefit and who will not in the coming weeks and make recommendations to the Appropriations and Ways & Means committees.

In another policy choice, the Governor is seeking to increase funding for renewable energy and thermal efficiency programs. You will have probably received literature in your oil or propane bills denouncing proposals outlined in a thermal efficiency report. These proposals have not found their way into legislation (yet), and the one the Governor chose to highlight is the taxation of “break open” or “rip off” tickets. Not many people knew what they were on the day of the Governor’s address, but some of us did. These tickets are sold in service organizations, or at bingo nights, or sometimes in bars. The premise is that the tickets, designed to have winning combinations of symbols look like a slot machine (three lemons or cherries, for instance), would be taxed at 10%, and the estimated proceeds would reach $17 million. As I have sat on the committee that deals with both liquor control and the lottery, I can say that we have no idea how many tickets are sold, and all numbers are only anecdotal. The tickets are not managed by either the Department of Liquor Control or the Lottery Commission, but by the Tax Department, and their records on the wholesale receipts of these tickets are incomplete. A cursory study of the numbers that do exist show that these mostly unregulated tickets, the profits of which are supposed to benefit nonprofit organizations or help the service organizations provide scholarships, are sold at many places they shouldn’t, and the sales total will come nowhere close to be enough to net $17 million.

As the weeks of the new biennium pass, new bills are introduced at a quick pace. By the end of February there should be over 700 new bills for us to consider (or not) during the next two years. One of the most controversial will be H.124, which contemplates several gun safety issues.

I co-sponsored the bill because it is primarily focused on firearms safety – making sure that we do criminal background checks on firearms purchases, prohibiting felons and domestic violence offenders from possessing firearms (and giving our state and local law enforcement the ability to hold and charge these offenders under state law), requiring Vermont to report for the purposes of background checks those adjudicated mentally ill and a danger to themselves or others. These are, to me, common sense measures that address some of the inadequacies of our current law and do not threaten legal gun ownership in Vermont.

The section of the bill that has generated the most debate is the prohibition on large capacity magazines.  Many people believe that these large capacity magazines are a public safety hazard and we will thoroughly explore the proposal with law enforcement and ask Vermonters to weigh in, especially responsible gun owners. The bill sponsors are not opposed to removing this section if we decide that it is unnecessary but the remainder of the bill is focused on making sure that firearms do not get in to the hands of people who are a danger to our citizens. By introducing the bill, we are giving a voice to all Vermonters, and it is my belief that we should not dismiss the entire bill because of concerns about one section.

And finally, on a different note, I recommend the movie “Lincoln.” If you are at all interested in how bills become law, and how difficult it is at times, especially with a controversial effort like the 13th Amendment abolishing slavery, you should see this film. Concentrating on the effort to pass the 13th Amendment in January 1865, “Lincoln” shows the efforts, deals and compromises legislators have to make in order to see legislation pass. Daniel Day-Lewis’s portrayal is definitive and makes Lincoln human in a way I’ve not seen previously on film.

(This post is a slightly edited version of the column that appeared in the February 7, 2013 Waterbury Record.)

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