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Washington-Chittenden: Waterbury, Bolton, Huntington & Buels Gore

Wait, What? A Coffee Tax?

February 20, 2017

reptomstevens

On Thursday morning, I received a couple of phone calls and emails asking about a proposed wholesale coffee tax that would be used to help defray the costs of fulfilling the Clean Water Act. Coming from one meeting and heading to a vote on the floor of the House, I had no idea what the tax was, how it was going to be administered and where the idea came from. As I took my seat, I clicked on a link in my email to Vermont Digger, the online news source, and to an article that, indeed, reported that there was a proposal to tax coffee on a wholesale level. I also learned that caffeine seems to be a small problem in the lake, along with phosphorus and the many other chemicals that find their way through the watershed. I also heard that if the tax was proposed, our large coffee and beverage company — based in Waterbury, Williston and Essex, as well as number of other states and Canada — would announce they would leave Vermont.

It’s news like this that lights a fire quickly, and Rep. Wood and I responded by immediately asking our leadership if this was true. Within minutes, we learned that there was no such official proposal for this tax, and that the news report was only accurate in that it was discussed in committee. In one parlance, there was no there there, but it became a story, if only for a couple of hours. How did it happen?

From what I gathered from the representatives in the room, it went like this: Vermont needs to find A LOT of money to fund the federally mandated order to finally clean the chemical pollution in our state’s waterways. It is not solely about Lake Champlain, but the shorthand used limits it to the lake alone. The order will force many changes in how runoff is handled from farms and roads and other sources, and the controversy around the cost and how that money will be raised for our share of the clean up is, perhaps, the most emotional part of the discussion. On Wednesday, the committee had a wide ranging conversation about the dilemma, and “taxing coffee” was suggested in passing, and justifications for the tax was discussed, but it was never seriously proposed. The reporter heard the conversation and reported on it, and, in my opinion, did not capture the nuance of the conversation. We do this a lot in committee — many times the work is about problem solving, and I’m confident that the discussion was in this vein. Cleaning our water will be expensive, and everything is in play. Suggesting an idea, good or bad, is part of the process, but it doesn’t morph into policy until it is vetted pretty deeply, especially a tax like this.

Neither Rep. Wood nor I would have entertained voting for a wholesale coffee tax — we have at least three coffee roasters in town. The potential for upheaval is far too great, which this article didn’t contemplate. I don’t blame the reporter or the news site for publishing such an article, but I do wish it had been vetted and checked a bit better. Responding to phone calls and emails is a big part of our job, as is trying to put out a brush fire like this.

So, no coffee tax is on the table at this time, and if it finds its way into the conversation, we’ll make sure the ways and means committee knows that it is weak tea, and should be defeated.

The Point of the Holocaust was to Kill Jews

January 31, 2017

reptomstevens

I read these comments on the floor of the House today. I cannot bear Holocaust denial and it breaks my heart that our White House retains some of the loudest deniers in the land. 

Madam Speaker:
The news of the immediate closure of America to vetted refugees and immigrants with visas and green cards from seven countries last Friday is serious news, but I would like to take a moment to acknowledge the statement made earlier in the day commemorating International Holocaust Remembrance Day. In it, the president pledged to ensure that the powers of evil never again defeat the power of good. Which, in and of itself, is worthy. But in his remarks, the President never once mentioned that the Holocaust was a planned genocide of the Jews in Europe, and never once did he mention the others that were caught in that net — gays, gypsies, dissidents, pacifists, and other so-called social deviants. The administration issued a statement saying they chose to be inclusive, as nearly 5 million other people died during the Holocaust and it was important to signify their deaths as well.
This isn’t revisionism, Madam Speaker. This is technique. We, as legislators, are well aware of the power of words. We argue for hours over the force of law inherent in words like “may” and “shall.” We wield these words as swords, and it is right, because we know arguing over words is safer than using swords against our neighbors.
In the case of the Holocaust, it is wrong to downplay the motivation behind the plan. Saying that neglecting the use of the word “Jew” or the word “antisemitism” is a way to be more inclusive is, in fact, a way to diminish what the Nazi terror was: Jews were targeted, boycotted, stereotyped into animals, hunted, abused, tortured and killed. The leader of the Nazi party, in the beginning of his cleansing campaign, told Germans not to hurt a hair on a Jew’s head. But once they were in a camp, their hair was removed. This plan, scoped out in the few years before the rise to power of the National Socialists, used simple words to fan the flames of hatred, fear and nationalism. And those who opposed those words and those tactics were arrested also, or were forced into exile.
And so, Madam Speaker, I remember the Jews who were murdered in work camps across Europe. I remember the antisemitism that drove it. I remember the xenophobia that existed in this country, when it rejected boats with Jews on them and forced them to return to certain deaths. I remember the gays, and the pacifists, and the gypsies and the others who were murdered in the name of ethnic cleansing. Just as I remember the other genocides that occurred in the 20th century, including in the Soviet Union during and after the war, when Stalin killed 20 million of his own citizens. And just as I remember the rejection of Jews from Britain and Europe and North America immediately after the war.
By diminishing what happened in Germany during the war, Madam Speaker, we allow the planting of the seeds of forgetfulness, and of denial, and of normalization. The Holocaust was a specific campaign against the Jewish people of Europe. When we allow the horror and specificity of that to be “smoothed over”, we begin to know how other atrocities can be normalized.
I cannot let this lapse by the president go unnoticed and unacknowledged, because it is tied directly to the executive order barring legal immigrants entry into our country by fiat. We must notice, we must call it by its name, and we must never accept it.

First Thoughts on the Close of the Biennium

May 9, 2016

reptomstevens

State House in the Gloaming

The 2016 Legislative Session ended late on Friday, May 6 — the earliest end during the time I’ve served. How do I know? My anniversary with Liz is May 8, and except for when it has fallen on a Sunday, like this year, I’ve spent my anniversary in the State House. Very romantic!

As ends of sessions go, this one was fairly benign in that the big bills — the budget and the revenue bills — were relatively close in conception and execution upon passage from each body, and so the conference committees were fairly amicable. A contentious issue that was rectified was the expansion of the lottery and, in another bill, fantasy sports. In each case, the Senate proposed a great expansion of gambling in Vermont and we fought to make sure it did not happen without a lot of public input. Think of all the public comment on marijuana, multiply it by zero, and you would have the sum of the time spent discussing gambling in the State House. To many of us, gambling is far more insidious than legalizing marijuana. If we need more revenue from that source, or from alcohol, we need to have a larger and louder conversation. It was amazing to me that two important bills, the budget and one on consumer protection, were put at risk because these detrimental bills were inserted during the rush at the end of the year.

Another reason for an amicable end to the session (which, by the way, will not be reflected in the upcoming campaigns) was the decision made by each body to train our vision and work on policies already in place, and to avoid taking on new and controversial policies. Many of the money and policy committees rejected the governor’s suggestions from January and concentrated on funding our government without “one-time” monies, and on making sure our funding sources were strengthened. This plain jane governing did not prevent us from passing some important bills — which we will explain in our end of session reports — but it did create a welcome caution to some issues.

One issue that got caught in that caution was the legalization of marijuana. To be straightforward, I support the legalization of cannabis for homegrown and commercial purposes, but I do not support “just passing something” and fixing it later. We have asked Vermonters to take a leap of faith on a number of key issues and while we have succeeded at times, we have also not finished fixing things like the software for Vermont Health Connect and we have taken on an important stance against opioid abuse. For marijuana, I will continue to advocate for a strong control and education system, followed by a legal and available banking system and vigorous enforcement. I don’t believe the Senate version of S.241 approached those standards. The House considered legalization and then decriminalization of a small amount of homegrown. These proposals did not pass.

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