The 2011 session was a marked departure from the past eight years. There was a new energy in the legislature, a sense that new ideas could be explored and passed into law. Gone, for the most part, was the threat of a gubernatorial veto over a variety of bills. Consequently, bills that had been considered and passed before, and vetoed, were introduced again. Bills that previously no one wanted to spend time considering because of the threat of a possible veto, were introduced. And the change in administration meant that new initiatives advocated by Democratic Gov. Peter Shumlin were shaped into bills and, for the most part, passed by the Democratic legislature. Also gone was interminable wrangling over the budget, despite very deep cuts in sensitive areas such as schools and human services.
The removal of constant, partisan sparring between legislative leaders and the governor allowed political resources to be spent in other ways. The result was a productive session that led to at least one trail-blazing bill - health care - and a slew of other bills less dramatic but still notable. Many of these less dramatic bills had important civil liberties implications. Chief among them was a public records reform bill. Others included a medical marijuana dispensaries bill and a national popular vote bill.
Despite a last-minute effort by federal officials to derail establishment of a dispensaries system, the legislature finally addressed the glaring weakness of the state's medical marijuana program - a reliable way for certified patients who benefit from marijuana's therapeutic effects to obtain the drug legally. Federal officials threatened a number of states considering similar programs, and some backed down. But Vermont lawmakers saw this as an opportunity to help a small number of people in debilitating pain and who can't grow their own marijuana. Safeguards against the possible abuses raised by federal officials include oversight of the dispensaries by the state Department of Public Safety.
Key provisions of a bill (H. 412) that wasn't able to stand on its own were attached at the last minute to this year's miscellaneous education bill and won passage. For the first time, Vermont school officials will now have the authority to discipline students for bullying and harassment that takes place outside of school. Discipline of children is generally the responsibility of parents. But the new provisions take the approach that when there is a "nexus" between out-of-school misconduct and a bullied victim's ability to access school programs, school authorities may intervene, up to the point of expelling the alleged bully from school. We were successful in having the bar for discipline follow the standard in the U.S. Supreme Court's landmark Tinker v. Des Moines decision.
S. 78, a technology infrastructure bill, envisions big changes in the way Vermonters access the Internet, make calls, and use electricity. It's the build-out of a "smart grid" by electric utilities that raises significant privacy issues. In a smart grid, there are "smart meters" in everyone's home, to monitor and hopefully moderate electricity use. The meters record exactly how much electricity is being used by which appliances when -- and transmit the data to utility headquarters for monitoring and analysis. The ACLU is worried about the collection of energy use data, and who will have access to it. As we found with cell phone tracking data, police often want access to databases with information about individuals' whereabouts or activities. We want to make sure police have a warrant before any smart meter data is turned over. We will follow this issue through the utility regulatory process.