VT Daily Chronicle

“Right to clean air and water” latest proposed change to VT Constitution

At least two of nine proposed amendments – “reproductive rights” and ban on slavery – likely to appear on Election Day 2022 ballot. Photo credit Pat Bradley WAMC.org.

by Mary Daly and Guy Page

Feb. 18, 2020 – A bill introduced into the Vermont Senate last week would amend the Vermont Constitution to establish clean air and water and state conservation as a protected right. 

PR9 would enshrine in the Vermont Constitution the “right to clean air and water and the preservation of the natural, scenic, and cultural values of the environment. The State of Vermont’s natural resources are the common property of all the people. The State shall conserve and maintain the natural resources of Vermont for the benefit of all people.”

PR9 is sponsored by Sen. Chris Bray (D-Addison) and co-sponsored by Sens. Rebecca Balint, Philip Baruth, Brian Campion, Alison Clarkson, Ruth Hardy, Cheryl Hooker, Deborah Ingram, Virginia Lyons, Richard McCormack, Corey Parent, Christopher Pearson, Andrew Perchlik, Anthony Pollina and John Rodgers. It was introduced Feb. 14 and referred to the committee Bray chairs, Natural Resources and Energy.

As with all constitutional amendments, the interpretation and application of PR9 would ultimately be decided by the Legislature’s other two co-equal branches of government, the executive and the judicial. The executive could initiate action (new programs and regulations) based on the newly-established right of preservation and conservation, and the courts would decide if asked whether the action passes constitutional muster. Would PR9 further protect natural resources against development? Would the “common property” phrase be understood to further limit private ownership? Questions such as these will be asked if Senate Natural Resources chooses to pursue the bill. 

In the 2019-20 biennium, nine proposed Amendments to the Vermont Constitution have been introduced. As a result, Election Day voters on November 3, 2022 may be asked to ratify at least two constitutional amendments, one controversial (unrestricted right to reproductive freedom, including abortion) and one not (elimination of any form of slavery). 

The Vermont Constitution requires that any proposed amendment begin in the Senate, with approval requiring a ‘yes’ vote by two-thirds of the Senate.  The State House of Representatives must then concur by a majority of votes. The proposed amendment is then referred to the next biennial session of the General Assembly for approval. Amendments approved by the two successive General Assemblies then face one final hurdle: statewide voter ratification on Election Day, November 3, 2022. If voters say yes, the amendment is adopted.     

In addition to PR9, the following amendments have been introduced in 2019-20:

Proposed Amendment #1 (PR.1”), introduced by a tri-partisan group of 10 senators Jan. 17, 2019, would provide the Governor with a four-year term of office, beginning in the year 2024; and would also amend Chapter II, Section 43 of the Vermont Constitution to clarify that Assistant Judges, Sheriffs, States Attorneys, and Judges of Probate—who already have a four-year term of office—are elected every four years. No further action has been recorded.

PR.2, introduced Jan. 23, 2019 and co-sponsored by 27 senators, would clarify that slavery and indentured servitude are prohibited. Last month, the House concurred.

PR. 3, introduced Jan. 17, 2019 by Sens. Joe Benning (R-Caledonia) and Dick McCormack (D-Windsor), would provide that each individual has a right to privacy, including the 10 right to keep personal information private; to communicate with others privately; and to make decisions concerning his or her body. No further action has been recorded. Sen. Benning said this proposal is unlikely to proceed this biennium. 

PR.4, introduced Feb. 17, 2019 and co-sponsored by 27 senators, would ensure that every Vermonter enjoys equal treatment and respect under the law. This amendment is in keeping with the values espoused by the current Vermont Constitution. Chapter I, Article 1 declares “That all persons are born equally free and independent, and have certain natural, inherent, and unalienable rights.” In particular PR.4 would enshrine equal rights for historically marginalized groups of people: “The State shall not deny equal treatment and respect under the law on account of a person’s race, ethnicity, sex, religion, disability, sexual orientation, gender identity, or national origin.” No further action has been recorded. 

PR.5, introduced Feb. 12, 2019 by Sens. Tim Ashe (D/P – Chittenden, Becca Balint (D-Windham), Virginia Lyons (D-Chittenden), and Richard Sears (D-Bennington), would ensure that every Vermonter is afforded personal reproductive liberty. Although the word “abortion” does not appear, PR.5 was understood in testimony in both House and Senate as protecting the unrestricted right to an abortion up to the moment of birth. The Statement of Purpose says, “Enshrining this right in the Constitution is critical to ensuring equal protection and treatment under the law and upholding the right of all people to health, dignity, independence, and freedom.” The House concurred with the amendment last May. 

A November, 2019 Vermont Water Cooler poll showed 19% of Vermonters oppose any legal abortion, 29% support unrestricted abortion, and the rest favor legalization with some restrictions. 

PR.6, introduced Feb. 14, 2019 by Sen. Richard Westman (R-Lamoille) and Robert Starr (R/D – Orleans/Essex), would provide Vermont state senators with a four-year term of office, beginning in 2024. It also clarifies four-year terms of office for Assistant Judges, Sheriffs, States Attorneys, and Judges of Probate. No further action recorded. 

PR.7, introduced Jan. 7, 2020 by Sen. Sears, would allow a court to hold a person accused of a violent misdemeanor or violent felony without bail when the evidence of guilt is great, the court finds that the person’s release poses a substantial threat of physical violence to any person, and that no conditions of release will reasonably prevent the violence. No further action recorded. 

PR.8, introduced Jan. 10, 2020 by Sens. Deb Ingram (D-Chittenden), Ruth Hardy (D-Addison), and Lyons, would use gender-neutral terminology to refer to voters. For example, a subchapter entitled “Qualifications of Freemen and Freewomen” would be changed to “Voter Qualifications.” No further action recorded.

 PR.8 is a follow-up to the last constitutional amendment, adopted in 1994. In 1991 and again in 1993, the Vermont General Assembly approved a constitutional amendment authorizing the justices of the Vermont Supreme Court to revise the Constitution in “gender-inclusive” language, replacing gender-specific terms. (Examples: “men” and “women” were replaced by “persons” and the “Freeman’s Oath,” required of all newly registered voters in the state, was renamed the “Voters’ Oath“). The revision was ratified by the voters in the general election of November 8, 1994.

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