Sen. Dick Sears (D-Bennington) and Sen. Peg Flory (R-Rutland) negotiate with Rep. Chip Conquest (D-Newbury), with his back to the camera, on driver’s license-suspension legislation.
With dozens of bills still in play Thursday and the deadline for a Saturday adjournment looming, talks on some priority legislation turned testy, as lawmakers abandoned pleasantries and pressed their positions.
In morning talks on the transportation project bill, negotiators went back and forth over the new restrictions that the House wanted to add to improve safety for bicycle riders. “That is a huge issue for the House side,” Rep. Tim Corcoran (D-Bennington) told the senators across the table.
Senators countered that bikers and motorists need to share the road. “I’m reluctant to put all the responsibility on the motorists,” said Sen. Peg Flory (R-Rutland).
Neither side was ready to budge at this stage in their talks.
The morning meeting of negotiators on the bill reforming the rules governing suspension of drivers’ licenses also showcased more differences than agreement. It began with the two sides staking out conflicting positions on one of the most significant provisions in the bill — the proposed license restoration program.
The exchange between chief Senate negotiator Dick Sears (D-Bennington) and House lead Chip Conquest (D-Newbury) quickly turned prickly, with Sears proposing to jettison the entire license restoration section.
The two sides took a break, returning to their squabble in the early afternoon.
The context: Chittenden and Windsor counties have held amnesty days when residents with suspended licenses resulting from unpaid fines could make reduced payments and get their licenses back. Gov. Peter Shumlin urged lawmakers to offer this same option to all Vermonters. He and other supporters argued that suspending licenses because of unpaid fines forced many individuals to drive illegally when they needed to work or transport family members to critical appointments.
Lawmakers agreed on the concept, but passed different bills. Negotiators were quarreling Thursday over a date that would establish those who would be eligible to pay discounted fines. The House wanted more people to be eligible than the Senate.
Sen. Peg Flory (R-Rutland) didn’t want to penalize people “who really worked hard to make those payments” by allowing others who had not made their payments to be able to pay less.
“The vast majority of those people aren’t able to pay,” countered Conquest.
The senate’s starting position had been that the restoration program would apply only to unpaid fines assessed between 1990 and 2006. As of Thursday, senate negotiators offered to extend the date to 2011.
The House wanted the program to extend to 2015. Conquest offered to accept every other change that the Senate made to the House bill, if senators would accept the 2015 date.
“I can’t do that. I just can’t do that. Sorry,” Sears said.
Conquest tried again, offering July 1, 2012 because fines from before that date were unlikely to be paid. This offer would require senators to accept some of the House positions, he said.
Sears told the House to come back with the new proposal on paper.
At the appointed time — 2:30 p.m. — Sears and Flory had other obligations. Sen. Alice Nitka (D-Windsor) whispered to Sears, as he ran off, that she had a problem with one item in the House offer.
Conquest wanted to talk to her about her concern, but she brushed him off. “Tell it to all of us. Don’t tell me now.”
When Sears returned, Nitka explained her wish to keep license suspension as a possible penalty for young people. She argued that for kids from wealthy families, “a fine doesn’t have impact. Losing a license does.”
Conquest argued that keeping the suspension option would hurt poorer youth, who might need their licenses to travel to jobs.
Sears offered a compromise — suspension for a first offense could be 30 days instead of 90, and for a second offense, 90 instead of 180.
With that, the negotiators had a deal. They scheduled the official signing for 5:30 p.m.
As for the transportation talks, House Transportation Chair Pat Brennan (R-Colchester) said the two sides had been exchanging ideas via courier. At 5:30 p.m. he and his team sat in their third-floor House committee room waiting to hear a time for the next face-to-face meeting.