‘Just a Bill,’ give or take several hundred A quick look at what's up with proposed laws in Montpelier

By Shawn Cunningham
© 2024 Telegraph Publishing LLC

Covering each year’s legislative session is nearly impossible for a small, local newspaper. To begin with, hundreds of bills are introduced even in a small state like Vermont.

In the first three days of this year’s session, 203 would-be laws began a journey that most will never finish. And don’t forget that Vermont’s legislature works as a biennium, so there are still bills hanging around from 2023.

The Vermont Statehouse. <small>Photo from The State of Vermont.

The Vermont Statehouse. Photo from The State of Vermont.

It’s a lot to take in. A local representative — now retired — once quipped that the job entailed reading War and Peace every week. But many bills will impact all of us and we thought it might be beneficial to see what’s coming before it hits. This isn’t to report on every bill, but to clue readers in on what’s being considered so you can weigh in on those topics of importance to you with your elected representatives.

We also hope to point out some bills that may mean well, but may be ineffective at best, such as those that create regulations that will require some sort of inspection or investigation for compliance, but lack the funding for monitoring and enforcement necessary to make it function.

There are a couple of good examples in recent news. In Chester, a quarry continued to operate for more than a decade after its Act 250 permit had expired. Why? Insufficient state staff to follow up on permits. By the same token, towns that have looked into regulating short-term rentals have heard that there are long lead times on getting state fire inspections, which are required for rentals advertising for more than eight guests. 

Here are a few of the bills that propose regulations or requirements without adding anybody to check that they are being followed and a couple that add state employees without saying what those employees will do.

Sen. Richard Westman of Lamoille.

S. 218 – Dam Safety: This bill gives the Department of Environmental Conservation dam safety division $350,000 to add three new positions – but does not say what they will do. On Monday, The Telegraph emailed its main sponsor, Sen. Richard Westman of the Lamoille District, asking, “What will the three new employees referred to in the bills be doing? Do they monitor or inspect dams, help towns navigate dam issues or some other functions?” As of publication time on Wednesday we have not heard from Westman. We’ll update this if we do.

S. 213 Dam Safety and Wetlands: This 26-page bill puts the regulation of non-federal dams under Department of Environmental Conservation,  adds a number of of regulations regarding inspections of dams and liability for damages caused by breaches of dams and changes the name of the Unsafe Dam Revolving Fund to the Dam Safety Revolving Fund. The bill calls on the Department to implement a “net gain” policy for managing wetlands and appropriates $500,000 to map wetlands and $500,000 to work on the requirements of the policy but does not say how many or what they will do. It does not appear to put any additional funds toward dam inspection.

Rep. Chea Waters Evans of Chittenden 5.

H. 626 Centralizing Animal Welfare: Introduced by state Rep. Chea Waters Evans of Chittenden 5,  the bill “Proposes to establish the Division of Animal Welfare at the Department of Public Safety to develop, implement, and administer a centralized program for investigating and enforcing animal welfare requirements in the State.  The bill would also amend or establish standards for the operation of animal shelters and animal rescue.”  After saying that the current enforcement of animal welfare laws is disjointed and fragmented across many agencies and municipalities, the 62-page bill creates an office with a director who will rely on the cooperation of local law enforcement in a state where most towns don’t have a police force and many have trouble finding someone to take on the volunteer jobs of Animal Control Officer or constable.

The bill lays out many regulations and penalties with the amounts of fees, fines and surcharges, but it does not appear that any appropriation for the hiring of the director and other employees and the running of the division is suggested.

Rep. Brian Minier of Chittenden 11

H. 533 Food safety officers in restaurants:  Rep. Brian Minier of Chittenden 11 wants to be sure that people with food allergies are protected from harm in restaurants. This bill would make it mandatory for food safety officers to be trained from among restaurant staff and to be on duty – both in the kitchen and in the front of the house whenever the restaurant is open. Employees who would act as safety officers would be trained via video, then give a certificate attesting to that training to the employer who would keep it available for Health Department personnel to see during their regular inspections. Minier told The Telegraph that he did keep smaller restaurants in mind while putting the bill forward and all the employees would have to do is watch a video on preventing cross contamination with allergens. Minier added that the lack of a safety officer would mean the eatery must close.

Rep. Kate Nugent of Chittenden 10.

H. 726 Biennial Alcohol Compliance Checks: This bill would mandate that there be alcohol compliance checks at least once every two years of every licensee who serves or sells alcohol. According to Charles Martin of the Department of Liquor Control, 14 sworn officers currently do inspections and compliance.

He noted that there are three types of work done by the enforcement officers and one of those is “youth access” compliance. The DLC says there are roughly 5,000 of those licensees and the department’s 2022 annual report states that 2,520 inspections of licensees were conducted. It does not say what portion of those were specifically “youth access” checks.

The bill’s sponsor, Rep. Kate Nugent of Chittenden 10, told The Telegraph that a $200,000 appropriation was intended to pay for one new full-time inspector with the remaining funds going to support the other inspectors.

Next time: Nibbling around the Edges of Transparency: Proposed changes to Vermont’s Open Meeting and Public Records laws

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  1. Absent the resources to enforce regulatory laws, such laws can be ignored with impunity. And this is also true at the local level. Absent enforcement, ordinances are often ignored. Or local boards are unable to enforce them because they have no budget to do so.

    Of course, there are also laws, particularly in education, that hit the taxpayers wallets.