Tensions are flaring under the golden dome as legislators race to finish business ahead of Saturday's adjournment deadline. Late last night, a Democratic state rep called the House GOP leader, Rep. Don Turner (R-Milton), a "terrorist" for issuing a set of last-minute demands. (She later issued an apology, which the hostage taker, er minority leader, graciously accepted).
Today, Sen. Kevin Mullin (R-Rutland, pictured at right in photo) stormed out at the end of a conference committee meeting after House and Senate negotiators failed to resolve key differences in a bill to fight prescription opiate abuse in Vermont. Lawmakers are deadlocked over whether police should have warrantless access to a database of Vermonters' prescription history as a way to fight abuse and crime.
Gov. Peter Shumlin and the Senate want to give police that power. The House does not. The conference committee convened to work out those differences remained at an impasse after three fruitless meetings Friday. At the end of the third one, Mullin lost his cool a little.
"I can see that there’s going to be some painting of blame here, and I'm not going to accept the painting of blame on the Senate," the Rutland senator said, noting that constituents have loudly complained to lawmakers about drug-fueled break-ins and burglaries.
"I'm not going to accept the blame when the Senate has said to law enforcement, 'What do you need?' and we gave it to them," he added, before walking out of the meeting.
The chief Senate negotiator, Sen. Dick Sears (D-Bennington), asked the House conferees to agree to a mulligan — to dissolve the conference committee, appoint new members and try again. The lead House negotiator, Rep. Ann Pugh (D-South Burlington), called that idea dead on arrival.
Vermont law already gives law enforcement warrantless access to patients' prescription records when a crime is suspected. But they have to travel to individual pharmacies — sometimes over long distances — to obtain them.
The Shumlin administration wants to make it easier for authorities to investigate potential doctor-shopping and other symptoms of what they call an "epidemic" of prescription opiate abuse. Under the bill, four state investigators would have access to the database maintained by the Vermont Department of Health if they had "reasonable suspicion" of a crime — a lower bar than the probable cause that's required for a search warrant.
The Senate negotiators — Sears, Mullin and Sen. Claire Ayer (D-Addison) — repeatedly ducked behind closed doors Friday to meet with Shumlin administration officials in the hope of finding an acceptable compromise, only to return to House members who would not budge.
With senators and reps facing off at a conference table, Pugh told Sears: "We wholeheartedly agree this is a serious epidemic affecting Vermonters. But we are unable to compromise on the existing rights of Vermonters."
For her part, Pugh asked senators to agree to the rest of the bill minus police access to the database — 15 sections that included establishing an unused drug disposal program, and requiring pharmacists to ask for photo ID before dispensing opiates to patients.
But Sears argued that all those things can be accomplished without legislation. The Bennington Sheriff's Department, for instance, is already running a successful prescription drug take-back program, he said. And nothing in state law prevents pharmacists from asking a patient for ID.
After three meetings Friday, prospects for a compromise appeared pretty dim. But both sides held out the option of meeting one more time — between 5 and 5:30 p.m. — in case a last-minute deal could be reached.
"Stranger things have happened," Sears said. "We're not adjourning until some time tomorrow."
Photo credit: Andy Bromage