MONTPELIER, Vt. — A state resolution that would let municipal charter changes bypass committee and go straight to the House floor has gun rights groups on high alert about charter changes passed in Burlington.
When Burlington Mayor Miro Weinberger and city officials appeared before the House Committee on Government Operations on Jan. 28 to urge approval of the city’s municipal gun control ordinances passed in 2014, a separate resolution was introduced and sent to the House Rules Committee for consideration.
The resolution, H.R.11, proposes amending House rules so municipal charter bills can go straight to the floor without first undergoing transparent vetting within the committee process. The move has alarmed pro-gun Vermonters committed to stopping Burlington’s charter changes and defending the state’s preemption statute, the Sportsmen’s Bill of Rights.
“One of the important elements of the Vermont Legislature is that legislation gets vetted through the committee process. This would allow that to not happen, so that’s what’s a concern to us,” said Evan Hughes, vice president of the Vermont Federation of Sportsmen’s Clubs.
Hughes says Vermont is one of 37 states where municipalities derive authority from state government. Three gun control measures passed in Burlington in March 2014 seek to overturn that pecking order, and H.R.11 stands to grease the skids for the measures.
“Obviously, there’s a lot of opposition to H.R.11 now, particularly with what’s going on with the Burlington gun control charter change bills. So, putting out H.R.11 the day you have the hearing on those three Burlington charter change bills, it’s just going to invoke a lot of questioning,” Hughes said.
Gun Owners of Vermont, a group opposed to any infringement of Second Amendment rights, quickly warned members about the suspicious resolution.
“This resolution would eliminate the democratic process and allow anti-gun politicians to enact gun control in Vermont without recourse! Coincidentally, the ONLY sponsor is Rep. Timothy Jerman (TOOK $1,700 OF Gun$en$e Money!),” the group wrote in a Feb. 1 email.
State Rep. Timothy Jerman, D-Essex, the resolution’s sponsor, said he didn’t intend to spark a controversy.
“(The goal was) to simplify the process for the Government Operations Committee to allow some noncontroversial municipal charters to be done by exception,” he said.
Jerman, who sat on that committee years ago, noticed municipal charters ate up time and kept lawmakers from what he considered more important work. He said local charters formerly handled by the Legislature’s local government committee moved to Gov Ops when the committee was disbanded.
The origin of H.R.11, according to Jerman, started with the Vermont League of Cities and Towns, a group that advocates more local control over public policy. The group’s policy director, Karen Horn, requested a bill to streamline the process for charter changes, and legislative counsel’s BetsyAnn Wrask suggested making it a resolution instead.
“The catch was that any single representative or the speaker could flag that and bring it to the committee. It only had to have one person out of 150 say, ‘No, let’s take this to committee,” Jerman said.
He added, “It was never intended as anything to do with any specific issue that was controversial in any way or that needed review by the committee. It was simply a way to potentially lessen the burden on the committee.”
Burlington’s charter changes have reignited tensions that engulfed the Statehouse last year when gun control group Gun Sense Vermont spent large sums of money to pass universal background check legislation. Gun owners and sportsmen blocked the initiative by organizing petition drives, phone calls and large protests at the Capitol.
Eddie Garcia, founder of the Vermont Citizens Defense League, said while any attack on citizens’ right to bear arms is unacceptable to him, Burlington’s push to undo Vermont’s Sportsmen’s Bill of Rights is equally troubling.
“The overarching issue, at least in my mind, is that this is an attack on Vermont’s preemption statute,” Garcia said. “These charter changes declare themselves to be exempt from a state law that says municipalities may not regulate the possession of firearms.”
Hughes said removing state control over policy would have negative consequences for Vermont. “If they open this door, you’re going to have municipalities dragging every issue in the world into the Statehouse, and the Legislature is going to have to deal with them.”
Hughes said since the Sportsmen’s Bill of Rights covers fishing, hunting and trapping, letting towns create a patchwork of conflicting local ordinances would create problems for law enforcement and the Fish and Wildlife Department, which manages wildlife in the state.
“Wildlife don’t recognize town boundaries — they’re going to move wherever they move. … So if you have no trapping, now you have a problem with beavers, which results in flooding and damaged trees. Same thing with coyotes eating people’s pets,” he said.
Jerman said he understands why H.R.11 might have stoked suspicion among some Vermonters.
“A whole bunch of bills went in toward the end of the deadline, right before bills were due. Some people thought it was somehow related to either Burlington’s charter changes or some kind of anti-Second Amendment amendment. It had nothing to do with that,” he said. “But I talked to people who represent those groups and I understand why they oppose it.”
Asked if his resolution could be used to fast-track the Burlington charter changes to the full House, Jerman offered a qualified yes.
“I suppose in some world it could, (except) that there now isn’t a single bill or resolution that ever goes anywhere without immediately getting many groups to look at it from outside. I think the odds of that would be infinitesimal, but certainly they exist.”
H.R.11 currently sits in the House Rules Committee, a seven-member panel led by House Speaker Shap Smith, D-Morrisville, and House Majority Leader Sarah Copeland Hanzas, D-Bradford.
Contact Bruce Parker at [email protected]