MONTPELIER, Vt. (AP) — Vermont House and Senate negotiators agreed Thursday on a budget for fiscal 2013, likely clearing the way to wrap up their business for the year by Saturday.
"It must be a sign it's almost time to go home," Sen. Jane Kitchel, chair of the Senate Appropriations Committee, said after she and other House and Senate conferees shook hands on the $5 billion budget.
The two chambers' spending plans were not far apart when negotiations began, but the Senate side had to jettison two policy amendments that body had tried to attach to the budget bill: a measure allowing child care workers to unionize and another directing the Public Service Board on how to handle ratepayer repayments connected with a merger of Vermont's two largest power companies.
House Majority Leader Lucy Lariche told her House colleagues on Thursday evening that they would have 24 hours to review the conference committee agreement before taking final action on the budget late Friday.
With agreement reached on the budget and apparently close on Thursday evening on a must-pass tax bill, the biggest drama of the day concerned an effort led by Gov. Peter Shumlin to allow police to use information from a state Health Department database that tracks the prescriptions Vermont doctors write for their patients. Backers say the move is needed to combat an epidemic of prescription drug abuse and associated crime.
The House has insisted police should not be able to get any information from the database without a search warrant; the Senate and Shumlin both say warrants should not be required, in part because just four specially trained Vermont State Police drug investigators would be able to see information from the database.
"It's imperative that the House accept the Senate's good work in ensuring that we give our four law enforcement officers in Vermont the ability to have the information they need when addicts are pharmaceutical shopping," the governor said at a news conference. "If we lose this battle, more Vermonters die, we will see more break-ins to our homes, convenience stores, gas stations; we will see our crime rates go up."
The governor's comments came a day after The Associated Press, citing data from the state Health Department, reported that prescription drug abuse in Vermont appeared to be level or declining in recent years, and that deaths tied to overdoses had been reduced by nearly half since 2006.
The governor's comments were followed by two contentious meetings between House and Senate conferees on the prescription drug bill in which the lead negotiators, Rep. Ann Pugh and Sen. Richard Sears read from dueling Vermont Supreme Court decisions from the early 1990s.
Pugh cited one that said Vermont's constitutional protections against warrantless searches were stronger than those offered by the Fourth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. Sears countered later with a Supreme Court order saying that warrants were not required to search records in pharmacies because prescription drugs are "a pervasively regulated industry."
Pugh urged the Senate negotiators to accept the bill without the provision on warrantless searches, saying it contained several other measures that would help Vermont combat prescription drug abuse.
Sears replied by saying, "I can't tell you how disappointed I am" that the House negotiators would not budge, adding that he might let the package die. "I'm not sure there's any point in having a bill," he said.
The two sides meet again Friday morning.
On other matters, lawmakers agreed on a school immunization bill that maintains a philosophical exemption for parents who don't want to have their kids vaccinated. The Senate had passed a bill eliminating the exemption after public health officials complained that Vermont's immunization rates were dropping. The House accepted the conference committee report maintaining the exemption and stepping up public health education efforts on vaccines on a 133-6 vote. The Senate has yet to act.
Lawmakers continued to negotiate over a tax bill in which a House plan to impose the state's sales and use tax on companies that use remotely located software for their processes.
Lawmakers completed work on a bill phasing in statewide mandatory recycling over the next several years.