Statehouse Headliners: Gov. Scott hangs tough on taxes, spending; Senate sends new pot bill to House

Guy Page

The Legislature will return Wednesday and Thursday to pass the 2017-18 Budget and, perhaps, legalize marijuana in a big way.
Budget: Gov. Phil Scott wants to save $26 million in the 2017-18 budget by enrolling public school teachers in the State of Vermont employee health insurance plan. The Senate says those savings can happen through school board-union contract negotiations. The Governor, skeptical, wants the Senate budget to make those savings a sure thing, giving Vermonters the level-funded budget and no new taxes he promised.
Making the savings plan more urgent is a report of state revenues down $11 million in April. The less you earn, the tighter the budget – unless you want to pass the hat for more taxes. The Senate would, but the governor won’t. Will this game of legislative/gubernatorial Chicken end with a veto? If so, would legislative leadership try to saddle taxpayers with a $26 million veto override? We’ll see.
Marijuana: also in play is a heavily-amended S22, a last-minute effort by Sen. Judiciary Chair Richard Sears (Bennington) to legalize unregulated marijuana possession and cultivation (the active ingredients of H.170) AND create a study commission for regulated commercial cultivation and sale of marijuana (H167as amended by Senate on 4/21).
The Senate approved S22, votes were 20-9 Friday May 5. Voting yes: Ashe, Ayer, Balint, Baruth, Benning, Bray, Brooks, Campion, Clarkson, Cummings, Lyons, MacDonald, McCormack, Pearson, Pollina, Rodgers, Sears, Sirotkin, Westman, and White. Voting no: Branagan, Collamore, Degree, Flory, Ingram, Mazza, Mullin, Nitka, and Starr. Absent: Kitchel.
Sen. Sears calls S22 a “compromise” bill because it would legalize both regulation/commerce and non-regulated private use. Legalization opponents call it the worst of both worlds. Even some House supporters of non-regulation say they don’t like the Senate tacking on regulation/commerce. 
S22 will come before the House this week. To contact your representative, leave a message at the Vermont Sgt. Of Arms office during business hours at 828-2228.
The Senate also approved a S16, expanding the possible number of “medical marijuana” dispensaries from four to 12, and empowering licensees to convert from non-profit to for-profit operations.
WHEW, THAT WAS A CLOSE ONE: As the House considers cutting $2 million from the Community High School of Vermont (the state prison high school) to shore up the ailing teachers’ pension fund, there’s frustration by advocates for prisoners, and a general sigh of relief that the Legislature did NOT divest fossil fuel stocks from the state pension fund last year. Divestment would have cost the pension fund an estimated $10 million while, according to a March, 2017 report issued in March by Treasurer Beth Pearce’s office, doing nothing to reduce carbon emissions. “Whew!” also for lesser-known prudent decisions by the University of Vermont and Middlebury College in 2013 to decline fossil fuel divestment from their endowment portfolios. According to a new study by Prof. Hendrik Bessembinder, professor of finance at the Arizona State University’s Carey School of Business, fossil fuel divestment at universities would raise the average tuition bill by about $1043 to $3265, depending on how much the school relies on its endowment.
NRC COMING TO VERMONT – Representatives of the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission will attend a meeting of the Vermont Nuclear Decommissioning Citizens Advisory Panel 6-9 pm May 25 at Brattleboro Middle School to hear Vermonters’ questions, comments and concerns about the proposed NorthStar decommissioning of Vermont Yankee. The plan will bring about $781 million into the Vermont economy and release the site for redevelopment as soon as 2026. For more information on the NorthStar plan, see my February 23 op-ed in True North Reports.
GOOD NEWS FOR YOUR POWER BILL – Efficiency Vermont, the state’s energy efficiency utility, is seeking a 5% rate DECREASE for 2018 and a flat rate for 2019 and 2020, according to Vermont Business Magazine.

Statehouse Headliners is intended primarily to educate, not advocate. It is e-mailed to an ever-growing list of interested Vermonters, public officials, and media. Guy Page is affiliated with the Vermont Energy Partnership, Divestment Facts, the Vermont Alliance for Ethical Healthcare and the Church at Prison.