- Associated Press - Friday, May 9, 2014

MONTPELIER, Vt. (AP) - The Vermont House agreed with the Senate Friday evening to raise the state’s minimum wage to $10.50 by 2018, as lawmakers headed toward what leaders said would be adjournment for the year by early Sunday.

The current state minimum wage is $8.73 per hour.

“Any time we can put money in the hands of Vermonters who need it most, it’s a win,” said Rep. Tom Stevens, D-Waterbury, as he presented the bill to his colleagues. “Is it enough? It’s a start.”

Gov. Peter Shumlin issued a statement praising the bill. “I will be proud to sign it,” he said.

The Statehouse was filled with frenetic activity, as conference committees met on budget and tax packages for fiscal 2015, and reached deals on several other bills, including one streamlining the process for medicating mentally ill patients against their will.

House Speaker Shap Smith announced at about 8 p.m. that there had been agreement on a general fund budget for fiscal 2015; negotiators on a tax bill were very close. Those are considered the two “must-pass” bills in any legislative session before lawmakers wrap up their business for the year.

Majority Democrats in the House in March had passed a minimum wage increase to $10.10 an hour to take effect in January, but the Senate called for a slower approach. The House was ready to pass a compromise Thursday evening, but a printer’s error - the wrong bill on the matter had been placed in the legislative calendar - caused it to be delayed.

That put House Republicans in the driver’s seat, because their consent was needed to suspend rules and get a bill passed before Saturday’s adjournment.

A strange alchemy of lawmakers’ competing desires and strategy based in legislative rules usually comes to a boil in the final days of a legislative session, and this year was shaping up to be no different.

The fate of school governance reform is a case in point. The House passed a bill mandating that school districts consolidate with their neighbors within the next six years, cutting the number of districts from more than 270 to about 50. The Senate balked at the mandates, and as of early Friday evening, it was expected a conference committee would be appointed to try to work out the differences.

But also at about 8 p.m., Minority Leader Don Turner told The Associated Press in an interview that it was unlikely House Republicans would agree to suspend the rules to pass the education bill before lawmakers go home.

The House and Senate concurred and sent to Shumlin a bill calling for speeded-up processes for courts to order a mentally ill patient committed to a psychiatric hospital and, if requested by mental health professionals, to force the person to be medicated.

After heated debate Friday, the Senate went along with a conference committee agreement on a measure addressing storage of firearms when a person accused of domestic abuse is required to give them up while the case is pending. Police in Vermont have complained for years about a lack of space to store weapons seized in such cases. Language in a bill on executive branch fees would allow a third party - a friend or family member of the accused - to hold the weapon, as long as it is kept secure.

The House later concurred with the Senate on the gun-storage measure.

Also being sent to Shumlin is a bill calling for the state health commissioner to require labeling - or even ban - toxic chemicals in products designed for children. Chemicals of concern would be recommended by a special advisory group. Backers argued that the federal government was lagging in such regulation, and that Vermont should join the handful of states that have been stepping in.

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