MIKE FAHER , Brattleboro Reformer

BRATTLEBORO -- Kay Curtis has been running a Brattleboro child-care program since 2001, and she didn’t get into it for the money.

"You have to do it because you love it," she said.

But the owner of a business dubbed Happy Hands -- A School for Little People also believes that members of her profession deserve the right to collectively bargain for better financial position.

That’s why Friday was a big day for Curtis, as the state Senate approved a bill allowing some child-care workers to unionize. Curtis has been at the forefront of lobbying for such legislation in Vermont.

"As a profession, we’re very isolated," she said. "We work long hours with children, and it’s very difficult to get a voice in matters that concern how our businesses run. This gives us a voice in the Statehouse."

The idea of child-care unionization previously has garnered support in the House, and Gov. Peter Shumlin reportedly backs the measure. The Senate bill covers those who operate smaller, home-based child-care businesses.

While those are independent operators, Curtis explained that state subsidies play an important role in the business.

"This union would allow us to bargain with the state for our subsidy rates and for professional development," she said, adding that she has been involved in the unionization effort for four years.

"We’ve become very empowered doing this early work," she said of herself and fellow providers. "This is our first real victory."

In roll-call votes on both Thursday and Friday, Windham County Sens. Peter Galbraith and Jeanette White both supported the bill, labeled S.316.

Some worry that every care provider could be saddled with union dues. But Galbraith, a Townshend-based Democrat, says that should not be a concern.

"Science shows that what children learn in their earliest years has the biggest impact on their later lives. Yet, those who look after our children are some of the most poorly paid people in the state," Galbraith said.

"I supported the bill after being satisfied that the bill is unlikely to affect the rights of child-care providers who don’t want to join the union. The opponents’ main concern is that they might be forced to pay an agency fee to the union even if they don’t join," Galbraith said. "This is unlikely because the (U.S.) Supreme Court seems poised to rule that these fees are unconstitutional for these kinds of unions and the state is unlikely to agree to such fees while the legal uncertainty remains. No one will be forced to join the union, and higher subsidies will not necessarily mean higher fees for parents who don’t get subsidies."

The legislation now goes to the House. Curtis noted that, even if the bill becomes law, it does not automatically establish a union: Child-care workers would have to vote on the matter.

Other business

In other legislative business related to Windham County and its lawmakers:

* White has been deeply involved with a bill, S.287, regarding involuntary treatment and medication for the mentally ill.

The measure was approved by the Senate Thursday after much debate, with supporters saying the current treatment process often moves too slowly while others worry about intrusion on patients’ rights.

White, a Putney Democrat and a member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, said the legislation "does not weigh in on whether or not medication is good.

"And it does not assume that this is the solution to our mental-health care issues. There are many issues we must deal with, but this is just one very narrow issue," she said.

According to White, the bill makes several judicial-process changes. Within 72 hours of an order of involuntary treatment, she said, there must be a judicial review to determine whether or not a patient should be held for further proceedings.

"Then there is an ability to ask for an expedited hearing under two situations," White said. "Currently, there are no guidelines. The first is when someone has been involuntarily medicated in the past two years and has shown significant improvement using the medication. The second circumstance is if the person shows a risk of inflicting serious bodily injury to self or others, and other clinical interventions have not worked."

Another proposed change would allow a judge to combine hearings for involuntary treatment and involuntary medication, White said.

"The judge is still in charge, the burden of proof has not changed, the patient still has representation (and) due process is preserved both for those who will benefit by the medication and those who will not," White said.

"This was a controversial issue," she added, "and we feel we have protected the rights of all while allowing expedited hearings in some cases."

* Another controversial topic has been a proposed boost in the state’s minimum wage, which currently stands at $8.73 per hour.

Rep. John Moran, D-Wardsboro, said the House General, Housing and Military Affairs Committee -- of which he is vice chairman -- has begun holding hearings on the issue.

"We have received preliminary data from our Joint Fiscal Office and our legislative economist, looking at possible minimum-wage increases from the current $8.73 to $10, $12.50 or $15 per hour," he said. "Consideration is being given to the net effect upon workers, employers and the economy. As the singular cause of poverty and a deteriorating middle class is low income, raising the minimum wage is gaining momentum in Vermont, New England and across the country."

Moran said the debate is complicated by "myths," which he said includes the idea that a higher minimum wage will result in large-scale job loss. That "assumes employers engage in excessive staffing," he said.

"Studies support the contrary -- that more income increases spending, which creates more jobs," Moran said. "Raising the minimum wage to the livable wage honors the dignity of all employment and will invigorate the economy in a worker-friendly Vermont."

* The House on Friday approved a bill that also might be considered "worker-friendly" by imposing new restrictions on smoking.

Rep. Mike Mrowicki, D-Putney and a member of the House Human Services Committee that initially approved the bill, said the legislation "extends the limits on smoking in the workplace."

The bill, H.217, reportedly eliminates smoking rooms in Vermont’s hotels and motels. It also bans tobacco use within 25 feet of a state building, among other measures.

"Smoking costs Vermonters over $340 million a year, and $70 million is direct Vermont taxes in Medicaid costs," Mrowicki said. "We included a ban on smoking with small children in the car in recognition of the harmful effects of second-hand smoke."

* In the House Natural Resources and Energy Committee, Rep. Mike Hebert, R-Vernon, said talk has centered around "town centers."

"H.809, the bill further defining new town centers as growth centers, easily passed out of our committee two weeks ago. Representatives from the building industry, Realtors, (the Vermont) League of Cities & Towns and many other organizations supported this bill," Hebert said.

"However, H.823, the sister bill to H.809, is not going as smoothly. This is the bill to incentivize developers to look to new town centers and growth centers for development. It also addresses some issues with Act 250 and addresses issues of ‘strip development,’" Hebert added. "This has sparked some controversy."

Hebert said officials had hoped to complete work on the bill before the Legislature’s break for Town Meeting.

"It is obvious that we will be taking more testimony and debating the bill in committee when we return to Montpelier after the break," Hebert said.

* Rep. Valerie Stuart, a Brattleboro Democrat who sits on the House Education Committee, said legislators are working on a bill that "proposes to take Act 156, which provided incentives to assist with the voluntary consolidation of school districts and supervisory unions, several steps further."

"Those of us on the Education Committee believe that, by engaging Vermonters from a broad swath of socioeconomic and professional sectors, we will be able to build even broader support for this legislation whose time has come," Stuart said.

On Thursday, Stuart said, committee members "spent a very full day in Rutland on a field trip that included stops at their schools spanning from the elementary to high school. We also toured their Tech Center."

A three-hour public hearing followed.

"We did so because we want to give the public ample opportunity to comment on this bill, which would restructure education," Stuart said. "We plan to hold additional public hearings in other parts of the state to ensure the public has additional opportunities to give us their feedback."

* In another educational matter, Rep. Tim Goodwin, a Weston Independent whose district covers several Windham County towns, said he continues to push a bill that would give schools a financial break.

"I, together with Rep. Carolyn Partridge (D-Windham) and others, have sponsored a bill that would return school district audit frequency to every three years, as it was prior to the 2011-12 session," Goodwin said, noting that the bill has not yet been approved by the Education Committee.

"The Education Committee is more concerned with restructuring than it is this simple little matter that would save several million dollars across the state and make a significant difference in small schools’ education spending per equalized pupil, which is what tax rates are all about," Goodwin said.

"It does not make sense for small school districts to have annual audits when the fact is that the municipality in which they rest collects the Education Fund tax and sends more (in some cases, much more) directly to the state than the school district spends," he added. "I do not need to tell you that it is a tough nut to swallow."