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First Thoughts on the Close of the Biennium

May 9, 2016


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.

I have received some passionate emails and phone calls on both sides of the legalization questions, and some polling has shown that a slight majority of Vermonters support some form of legalization. And while I am open to creating the strongest possible system, we have to face several realities for now: 1) we have no way of legal using our existing banking system to transfer purchases or other transactions; 2) the majority of the members of the House retain biases and prejudices against the usage and sales of marijiuana that did not change this year, and may not without a substantial education effort; and 3) because we do not use a referendum to decide these issues, we must be as deliberative and true as we can as your representatives while developing the market and control of cannabis. This process is not as simple as saying “just legalize it and we’ll fix it later.”

I am struck by the reluctance to move forward on cannabis. The original prohibition in the 1930’s had to do with race and commerce and the current classification of the drug as among the most dangerous is misguided and wrong. It is as if we had to say “well, we should prohibit something,” rather than treating it as a substance that can help some far more than it can harm, as a product. We will get there eventually, perhaps as soon as next year. To do so, we as legislators should be able to open our minds to the conversation, rather than shutting it down as we did this year. Law is the result of compromise, but on this issue I won’t be satisfied until we create a system that is strong and clear and avoids the loopholes that usually are formed with compromise. Getting it right is as important as getting it done.

The cannabis conversation took up a lot of time and energy throughout the second half of the biennium in the House, and quite a bit in the Senate in the first year-and-a-half of the biennium. The failure to pass any kind of legislation, while disappointing, should not take away from the important thinks were were able to get done, such as our “ban the box” legislation and paid sick days. We also became the fourth state to implement automatic voter registration at a time when many states are trying to limit voter access to the polls.

I will follow up this post with several more over the next few weeks with more information about the work we accomplished this year (and last). It is important to know that we succeeded on many issues, just as it is important to acknowledge that we have many miles to go on many others, and to know that nothing is static in this world and there will always be VERY important issues that pop up out of nowhere to be dealt with.

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