Every year, hundreds of bills are introduced in the Vermont House of Representatives. Each is assigned to one of the 15 standing committees for consideration. Relatively few are actually voted out of committee and brought to the floor for consideration by the full House. Those that are must be voted out of committee by “crossover,” which fell on March 17 this year, so that the Senate has time to consider them. The same crossover date holds for Senate bills as well.
Dozens of bills were voted on and passed by the House without major opposition during the week following crossover. However, two bills engendered considerable debate. One dealt with domestic violence and guns, and the other addressed accommodations in the workplace for pregnant women.
Domestic violence continues to be a problem in Vermont. In 2015, six of Vermont’s 16 homicides were domestic violence-related, and all six were committed with a firearm. Between 1994 and 2015, 131 domestic violence-related homicides were committed, and 77 of them (59%) were committed with firearms.
While current law allows for the confiscation of firearms when the court orders the removal at the point of a final relief from abuse order or following a conviction for a violent crime, more protection of victims is needed when police first respond to an incident. Statistics show that the most dangerous time for a victim is when they reach out for help. After two days of debate, the House passed H.422, which provides that after an individual has been arrested or cited for domestic assault, law enforcement can remove any firearms in the perpetrator’s possession or in plain view.
It is important to note that these provisions would only apply when probable cause has been found to arrest or cite someone for domestic assault. If there is no further court order, the guns would be returned within five days. The concern was raised that this legislation is about gun control. It is not. It is a precautionary measure to protect the lives of victims of domestic assault.
The second bill, H.136, which requires an employer to provide a reasonable accommodation in the workplace that might be needed by a pregnant woman, was passed after several hours of debate. A Supreme Court decision from 2006 segregated pregnancy from portions of the existing discrimination law and determined that simply being pregnant, or having an issue with one’s pregnancy, isn’t enough to ask for different tasks that accommodate that pregnancy.
H.136 will make it possible for a pregnant woman to ask for a temporary accommodation such as a restriction on heavy lifting, or exposure to certain chemicals, or standing for prolonged periods. The bill makes it unlawful for an employer to refuse to provide an accommodation at the request of a pregnant employee unless it proves to be an undue hardship for the business. “Undue hardship” means an action requiring significant difficulty or expense to the employer and can depend on the employer’s size. This bill encourages communication between the employer and the employee and should help to provide a safe workplace environment for everyone.
A word on the budget is in order. At the time of this writing, the House Appropriations Committee has moved from a $70M shortfall in the governor’s proposed budget to around $4M. The committee members are still working to resolve that difference, hopefully with cooperation from Governor Scott’s administration. The committee is trying to squeeze every dollar out of the budget while maintaining the necessary programs and service that keep Vermonters safe, healthy and productive, and the economy working for all.
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