- Associated Press - Saturday, May 16, 2015

MONTPELIER, Vt. (AP) - The 2015 legislative session in Vermont saw lawmakers curtail personal liberty on vaccines but not so much on guns, launch new school governance reform and water cleanup efforts and decide to wait until next year to debate marijuana legalization.

The session neared its end Saturday with a decision for state government to take a $30 million bigger tax bite out of Vermonters by limiting some income tax deductions, applying the 6 percent sales tax for the first time to soft drinks and other measures.

The new money will go mainly to address rising health care costs and reductions in federal funding; beneficiaries of some state programs will see cuts even with the new revenue coming in.

Here are some of the highlights, and some of the things left for further work when lawmakers return for the second year of their two-year term in January:


- Lawmakers passed a measure eliminating the philosophical exemption that has been used by parents who don’t want to get their kids fully vaccinated. The Senate first passed the measure in 2012 but the House rejected it; this time the House went along. Religious and medical exemptions will remain. The debate pitted those arguing that vaccines are a key public health measure and work best when nearly everyone gets them, versus those worried about possible negative reactions and arguing that the decision should be left to parents.

- They rejected a push to require background checks for private gun sales after heavy lobbying by gun-rights groups. The ended up passing a bill calling for reporting to the federal background check registry when a court deems someone dangerously mentally ill, and making possession of firearms by most convicted felons a state crime parallel to the already existing federal one.

- They passed legislation calling on school districts to merge with their neighbors in hopes of trimming administrative costs and expanding student offerings. Merging schools would get reductions statewide property taxes - the sooner they merge the larger the incentive. Those slow to come around could eventually be required to do so by the state Board of Education.

- Under pressure from the federal Environmental Protection Agency, the Legislature agreed with a request Gov. Peter Shumlin made in his inaugural address in January for about $7.5 million worth of programs to clean up Lake Champlain and other waters of the state. Most of the money will come from a surcharge on the state’s property transfer tax. The lake has been plagued in recent years with toxic blue-green algae blooms during the summer months, tied to phosphorus flowing down rivers emptying into the lake. About 40 percent of the phosphorous is tied to farm runoff, and a focus of the new programs will be helping farmers reduce manure-laden runoff.

- Lawmakers honored another request from Shumlin by passing a bill on renewable energy. It fixes a complaint from critics who had charged double-counting in that Vermont currently allowed utilities to sell “renewable energy credits” to power companies out of state, helping them meet their states’ requirements that they use renewable energy, while using the wind-powered and other plants that generated those credits to meet in-state renewable energy goals. Vermont will create its own renewable energy standard, which must be met before credits can be sold out of state. The bill also creates incentives for utilities to help consumers save on home-heating costs.


Some items were left for next year. Among them:

- Marijuana legalization. A Senate committee held study sessions on Friday afternoons throughout the 2015 session and is likely to draft legislation when lawmakers return next year.

- Banning ivory sales. Advocates have been going state-by-state trying to shut down a market they say is leading to the slaughter of African elephants by poachers who are using some of the proceeds to fund terrorism. The proposed ban ran into opposition from antiques and piano dealers who worried it could halt the sale of old furniture with ivory inlays and pianos with ivory keys.

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