The Senate Judiciary Committee did it again Friday morning. After having put up a royal fuss about a bill that passed easily in the House, members quickly folded their tents and moved the bill along with maybe a change or two.
This time it was H.225, the bill to decriminalize possession of small amounts of buprenorphine. The House had passed it overwhelmingly, but its fate in the Senate seemed uncertain. Now, suddenly, it looks like clear sailing.
The committee didn’t take a formal vote, because technically the bill is in the purview of the Rules Committee. But all five Judiciary members indicated support for H.225 with the addition of a two-year sunset provision. The bill would take effect upon passage and expire on July 1, 2023. Sens. Dick Sears and Joe Benning insisted on the sunset, because they have concerns about how the bill would work in real life.
Which is a bit absurd. The Legislature is always free to revisit any law that isn’t working as intended.
Two Senate committees, Judiciary and Health & Welfare, held a joint hearing Thursday morning about H.225, the “bupe bill.” It would legalize small quantities of buprenorphine, an opioid that’s often used as a substitute for, or a path away from, more dangerous street opiates. It passed the House by a lopsided 126-to-19 margin.
The fact that the hearing happened at all was a positive development. Last we heard, the bill was stuck in Senate purgatory with leadership wondering if they had time to properly consider it. The shape and substance of the hearing seems to indicate that the Senate will act on the bill. (The two-part hearing can be viewed here and here on YouTube.)
For one thing, the two committees met jointly. That’s not something they do very often. For another, they heard from a broad spectrum of witnesses — and Judiciary has set aside time Friday morning for committee discussion. By legislative committee standards, this is warp speed. (Also, Judiciary seems to be offended, but effectively chastened, by unfavorable media coverage of its obstreperousness, including multiplerantsin thisspace. Suddenly the committee is expediting a number of bills that passed the House by huge margins.)
The witness list leaned heavily toward representatives of the justice system. Otherwise there was one UVM doctor, two Scott administration officials, two people who deal professionally with substance use disorder treatment; and former candidate for governor and lieutenant governor Brenda Siegel, the only witness on the docket without some sort of official imprimatur.
To me, there were two striking things about this hearing. First, the witness list was short on people with actual experience with substance use disorder and recovery. Second, there was a nearly complete lack of “real people,” i.e. non-credentialed members of the public.
This is standard operating procedure for legislative hearings. They tend to feature a relative handful of lobbyists, advocates, public officials and the like. And I think this is a serious problem for the lawmaking process.
Funny thing happened when H.225, the bill to decriminalize possession of single doses of buprenorphine, moved over to the Senate after passing the House by a lopsided 126-19 margin. For those just tuning in, buprenorphine is a prescription opioid that can be used instead of riskier street drugs. Vermont’s death toll from overdoses has been climbing for years, and the decrim bill could save a lot of lives.
The bill reached the Senate on April 14. It was referred, not to the Health Care or Judiciary committees, but to the Rules Committee. It has languished there ever since, as the days in this session dwindle down to a precious few. (Legislative leaders are aiming for adjournment in mid-May which, despite the snow, is only three weeks away.)
And the Rules Committee has no meetings on its schedule.
This looks for all the world like a stalling tactic, as if leadership has decided (for whatever reason) to prevent the bill from reaching the Senate floor. And maybe that’s what it is, although Senate President Pro Tem Becca Balint says otherwise. Sort of.
“I’ve been meeting with the Chairs of Judiciary and Health & Welfare to try to find a path forward for this bill given the late date that it came over from the House. We did not want to vote it out of Rules until we had a sense of how long testimony and due diligence would take. Health & Welfare and Judiciary are planning a joint hearing on the bill this coming week. We know we are in the midst of a horrible surge in opioid-related deaths and we want to take all measures to help address this emergency. The Chairs want to be certain that this bill will have that impact.”
That’s a written statement received Thursday afternoon in response to my inquiry. Let’s take a closer look, and then invite an expert to make the case for immediate passage of H.225.