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Vermont legislators look forward to new session

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The Vermont legislature's 2013 session is getting underway. The legislature will likely address some hot-button issues, possibly including some the state has considered for years, including the legalization of medical marijuana, and assisted suicide.

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Sarah Harris
Reporter and Producer

Diane Snelling is a Republican Senator from Chittenden County. For her, one of the biggest issues is physician-assisted suicide. It generated a lot of debate last session, but didn't make it past the Senate floor.

"Patient choices, or death with dignity. Which I hope will come up and again have appropriate hearings and testimony and have a vote. I am a big supporter of that," Snelling said.

Philip Baruth, Senate majority leader, also represents Chittenden County. He says marijuana decriminalization may happen this session. Medical marijuana has been legal in Vermont since 2004. And now, legislators are poised to take another step towards legalizing the substance.

"So medical marijuana 10 years ago was absolutely a poisoned pill to a piece of legislation. Then I think it got to the point to where we were clear eyed about how we applied that legislation. I think now what we're involved in is now a very hard-eyed discussion of the numbers involved with how much we spend on the criminalization of marijuana."

Baruth and Snelling hope to see legislation strengthening Vermont's mental health system.

The Vermont State Hospital, a mental health facility in Waterbury, was flooded by Tropical Storm Irene in 2011 and has been shut down ever since. Now the state is working to get reimbursements from FEMA and start building new facilities.

"So making sure the mental health system is stable, number one," Baruth said. "And number two, if you throw in the issue of school violence, I think many people are tracing that back to mental health issues, people who are crying out for help, not getting it, and winding up on the evening news. So I think we need to make sure we have enough money going into that and that we're not sharpening our budget pencil at the expense of mental health."

Both senators also predict new legislation on granting drivers licenses to migrant workers. Last year the legislature established a study committee to look into the issue. Snelling says she's concerned that some Vermont farmers are treating migrant workers badly.

"That they take advantage of somebody being an undocumented worker and keep them restricted to the farm. But we don't have that many farms -- it seems to me we could be enforcing better worker environments."

Last week Baruth introduced a bill into the senate that would ban possession and manufacture of semiautomatic assault weapons.

He withdrew the bill Sunday night, writing in a statement that "it is painfully clear to me now that little support exists in the Vermont Statehouse for this sort of bill."

The withdrawal came a day after hundreds of Vermonters gathered at the capitol to protest the bill.

The Senate judiciary committee will decide today on whether they'll still hold a public hearing on gun control in early February.

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