By Guy Page
A bill that could affect marijuana legalization and school property taxes is scheduled to be discussed this Wednesday in the House Government Operations Committee. H.418 would allow 16- and 17-year-olds to vote in municipal elections.
H.418 is not a “local option” bill. It would not merely let some municipalities — as did Brattleboro at Town Meeting last week — decide whether to allow teenagers to vote. Instead, it would give all 16- and 17-year-olds who register to vote in their towns and cities the right to vote in all municipal elections.
Under Vermont Law, “municipal” covers not only town government but school districts, fire departments, and other arms of local government. That means 16- and 17-year-olds would vote at town meetings, they would vote on school budgets, and they would elect school board and town or city government leaders.
H.418 is part of a national state initiative active now in at least seven states, a Brattleboro youth vote activist said. The U.S. House last Thursday turned down a bill led by new Rep. Ayanna Presley, D-Mass., to allow 16-year-old voting nationwide in federal elections. During debate, Pressley said Congress should lower the voting age so “young people can have a say in federal elections. … From gun violence to climate change, our young people are organizing, mobilizing and calling us to action,” the Washington Examiner reported Pressley said on the House floor. “They are at the forefront of social and legislative movement and have earned inclusion in our Democracy.”
Rep. Peter Welch, D-Vt., voted in favor of Pressley’s amendment, which was defeated 126-305. Most of the other “yes” votes came from the liberal wing of the Democratic party, including high-profile Reps. like Occasio-Cortez, Waters, Wasserman-Schultz, Tlaib, Schiff, and Omar.
It may be no coincidence that Senate Bill 54, the marijuana legalization bill now in the Vermont House, says municipalities may only prohibit marijuana cultivation and sales if a majority of voters agree at a publicly-warned town meeting. The marijuana industry is understandably threatened by the possibility that voters will rise up and say “no” to any legal cultivation/sales in their town.
Under S.54, retail licenses would not be issued until 2021, due to the length of time needed to set up the state regulatory apparatus. By then, H.418 would have created a large, new, motivated, voting bloc of teenagers, who are the target market for the marijuana industry. It is unrealistic to think that teenagers would vote en masse against marijuana legalization.
S.54 sets the legal consumption age at 21. But it also fails to prohibit marijuana stores from targeting teens, by not explicitly establishing set distances from schools and by giving few specific guidelines to prevent youth-oriented marketing. In practice, H.418 would in practice go a step further: It would invite the target market to legally sanction and promote the very industry that is targeting them for addiction and substance abuse.
It’s possible that no strategic connection exists between legal pot and the push for 16- and 17-year-old voting. However, it is a fact that all eight sponsors of H.418 — Reps. Donovan of Burlington, Anthony of Barre City, Beck of St. Johnsbury, Cina of Burlington, Colburn of Burlington, Gonzalez of Winooski, Sullivan of Burlington, and Troiano of Stannard — also are co-sponsors H.196, the House “tax and regulate” version of S.54.
This same voting bloc of teenagers also could drive up the cost of school budgets. High school students are uniquely sensitive to the potential loss of extra-curricular programs due to lack of funding. When there is a budget battle, what is the first thing the budget supporters say — “Well, I guess we’ll have to cut out the sports programs.” And as a general rule, teenagers have not yet developed an awareness of the impact of increasing property taxes.
Maybe giving 16- and 17-year-olds the vote would stimulate some children to think deeply and seriously about drug prevention and the cost of education. It’s also possible that by giving the vote to children at a developmental stage in which peers, teachers, coaches and political figures are deemed more credible than parents, H.418 will erode the abilities of parents to nurture in the present and provide the best opportunities for success in the future.
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; the Vermont Alliance for Ethical Healthcare; and Physicians, Families and Friends for a Better Vermont.