Monday February 4, 2013

MIKE FAHER

Brattleboro Reformer

BRATTLEBORO -- Don’t call it a "gun bill," state Rep. Mike Mrowicki says.

Instead, the Putney Democrat refers to newly proposed firearms regulations as a "public-safety bill" designed to close gaps and address concerns in the wake of high-profile gun violence nationwide. The House bill would ban high-capacity magazines and require instant background checks at gun shows, among other measures. But Mrowicki expects plenty of debate on the legislation in the coming months.

"We know it’s a complex issue," he said. "We don’t pretend there’s an easy fix."

Mrowicki and state Rep. David Deen, a Westminster Democrat, were among the dozen House members who introduced the bill earlier in the week.

Officials held a press conference on Friday to discuss the legislation.

In addition to the magazine ban and the gun-show checks, the bill imposes other restrictions and requirements including:

* Bringing state law in line with federal law, which prohibits felons from possessing firearms.

* Mandating a "course on safe procedures for carrying a concealed firearm by any person who carries a concealed firearm."

* Requiring the state Department of Mental Health to report information to the national background-check system for gun buyers. That would happen "when a person is subject to a hospitalization order or nonhospitalization order as the result of a mental illness which causes the person to be a danger to him(self) or herself or others," the bill says.

It also would apply to those who have been "found not guilty of a crime by reason of insanity or incompetent to stand trial due to a mental illness."

Mrowicki called the legislation "comprehensive" and said it is based on public input.

"It’s the result of talking to hunters’ groups, police, prosecutors and citizens," he said.

Friday’s announcement came seven weeks after a shooter took 26 lives -- including 20 children -- at an elementary school in Newtown, Conn. Deen said he’s hoping there is "political will" to make regulatory changes in light of recent gun violence.

"It seems like some basic steps," he said. "It doesn’t take away anybody’s basic rights."

Deen, who chairs the House Fish, Wildlife and Water Resources Committee, said the background-check changes are an obvious and needed improvement.

"It’s a loosely woven basket of information about people who want guns," he said. "And we’re just making the weave tighter."

Mrowicki and Deen also signed onto separate legislation that would "establish a repository for the disposition of unlawful firearms."

The bill also would create "a firearm-safety training center and an indoor firing range for law-enforcement officials."

In other news this week from Windham County’s lawmakers:

* It may not be as controversial as gun regulation, but a new bill that seeks mandatory labeling of genetically engineered foods is expected to draw some attention.

The state legislature last year failed to pass a similar measure. No other state requires such labeling, and there are fears that there could be significant backlash from the food industry.

But that did not stop seven local lawmakers from signing onto the bill. Supporters include Carolyn Partridge of Windham, Mollie Burke of Brattleboro, Deen, Dick Marek of Newfane, Mrowicki, Valerie Stuart of Brattleboro and Tristan Toleno of Brattleboro.

Partridge is chairwoman of the House Agriculture Committee, to which the bill was referred. Also sitting on that committee is Toleno, who points out that the legislation does not ban genetically modified products.

However, "if you sell a product in Vermont that contains genetically modified food, that’s labeled," he said. "It will allow consumers to make their own choices."

The bill says the federal government has taken no steps to specifically regulate food produced from genetic engineering. It also cites "public uncertainty" and the lack of long-term studies of human consumption of such foods.

Nonetheless, the bill also asserts that "genetically engineered foods have an effect on health, safety, agriculture and the environment." Burke said she believes shoppers "have a right to know" about the ingredients in their food.

* While genetically modified food is a relatively new issue, equal pay for women is not. But state Rep. John Moran, a Wardsboro Democrat, said women still are not earning as much as their male counterparts.

"Fifty years after President Kennedy signed the Equal Pay Act, women in Vermont make 84 percent of what men make in comparable jobs," said Moran, who is vice chairman of the General, Housing and Military Affairs Committee.

"The culture has changed over time," he added. "But still, there’s a perception that women aren’t as valuable in the workforce as men."

A bill introduced by legislators including Burke and Moran says any salary difference between a man and a woman doing the same job cannot be based on gender. There are allowances, however, for unequal pay due to "legitimate business reasons" such as seniority, merit and quantity or quality of production.

The bill also mandates that employers must meet with employees who request "flexible working arrangements." And it says employees can share salary information with each other.

Any contractor doing business with the state would be covered by the law, Moran said.

* Environmental issues were a big topic in Montpelier throughout the week. On Wednesday, writer and activist Bill McKibben spoke to a joint legislative session to lobby for immediate action on climate change.

Mrowicki said McKibben "reminded us that climate change is here and real, and the devastating storms of the past two years are the tip of the iceberg. He encouraged us to continue our work in this area, and show the nation and the world what is possible."

McKibben also called for rejection of a proposed three-year moratorium on industrial wind power in Vermont.

But the following day, Windham Selectboard Chairwoman Mary Boyer traveled to Montpelier to speak in support of that same measure. Windham’s town plan bans industrial turbines, and town officials last year fought unsuccessfully against a plan to build meteorological-testing towers there. Those towers could be a precursor to Windham County’s first commercial wind farm. Boyer has questioned the efficacy of wind power, and she told the state Senate Natural Resources and Energy Committee that Vermont "already leads the country in carbon-free electrical generation."

Boyer said Vermonters should be far more concerned about carbon emissions from transportation and home heating.

"In view of these basic facts and the apparent inadequacy of our present regulations to lead to well-reasoned decisions, we badly need the time this moratorium would provide to make sure we are asking and answering the right questions about the future of energy in Vermont," Boyer told the committee.

Also in the legislature:

* Mrowicki said his House Human Services Committee began consideration of two proposals from Gov. Peter Shumlin: Limiting how long families can receive public assistance and using an earned-income tax credit to pay for additional child-care subsidies.

* Burke said there was no significant news on addressing a transportation-funding shortfall. Legislators are considering raising the gas tax, among other possible remedies.

Burke said the Transportation Committee, of which she is a member, has been "going through the budget and trying to figure out what’s what."

* Stuart said the Education Committee approved a bill that would expand Vermont’s free school-lunch program to more than 6,000 additional kids who currently receive reduced-price lunches. "I think it’s going to have broad support on the (House) floor, so we’re hopeful," she said.