MONTPELIER — A House panel decided Tuesday against considering legislation to regulate massage therapists, introduced in response to criminal investigations last year into several spas that police believed offered sexual contact.
A trio of lawmakers introduced a bill seeking oversight of massage therapists across the state by the secretary of state’s Office of Professional Regulation. It calls for the licensing of massage therapists and lays out prohibitions against certain actions, including engaging in sexual activity with clients.
However, a majority of the House Government Operations Committee members said they did not favor taking up the bill this year.
Investigations took place in Bennington, Essex and Williston last year into massage parlors where local police and federal authorities believed prostitution and human trafficking were taking place. The investigations in Bennington did not result in charges, but authorities prosecuted a landlord in Williston on charges of allowing “prohibited acts” on his property.
The Senate Judiciary Committee is considering changes to the state’s prostitution laws after a Bennington County prosecutor testified this year that current law does not prohibit so-called happy endings at massage parlors.
Rep. Tim Jerman, an Essex Junction Democrat and sponsor of the bill, told the committee Tuesday that the legislation would help officials keep an eye on illicit activity that is taking place at some spas.
“My interest in this bill … comes from a local problem we’ve had in Essex Junction, a problem that’s been in Chittenden County and Rutland County and other places. We have some illegal businesses, illicit businesses, and what I would characterize as sex trafficking going on,” he said.
Essex Junction is considering instituting a local ordinance to prevent illicit activity in spas, Jerman said. However, that may not be the right approach, he said, for a problem that has sprouted up in several locations across the state.
“I question whether this should be a town-by-town or village-by-village effort,” he said. “I hope that this committee, in addition to the Judiciary Committee, will be willing to talk about this.”
Democratic Rep. Alison Clarkson, of Woodstock, another bill sponsor, said massage therapists in her district are interested in being regulated because they “want to be differentiated from people who are not as professional.”
“It adds distinction and heightened professional profile,” she said.
Clarkson said clients would be better served knowing that a massage therapist is licensed.
“I would assume anyone who is licensed was vetted, was better, than somebody who wasn’t. I would just assume that. I would never go to an unlicensed doctor,” she said.
Still, she noted that “the profession is divided,” and not all massage therapists are eager to be regulated.
Chris Winters, director of the Office of Professional Regulation, said a study by his office in 2010 found no need to regulate the profession. However, that was before human trafficking and prostitution allegations became more widespread, he acknowledged.
“The conclusion was there was not a need to protect the public from the unlicensed practice of massage therapy,” Winters said. “We could not find any public protection issue.”
Secretary of State Jim Condos said the issues Jerman and others are looking to curb should be addressed, but not through his office.
“Prostitution and human trafficking are serious criminal issues that need to be addressed by strengthening our laws and supporting our law enforcement officials,” Condos said. “Licensure should not be used to solve a criminal issue and would not fix the underlying problem.”
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