Progressives make ‘Hail Mary’ move to vote on marijuana regulation

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This legislative session began with a major victory for proponents of marijuana legalization. They are hoping it ends that way, too.

Rep. Diana Gonzalez, P-Winooski, moved on Thursday to vote on a bill to tax and regulate recreational marijuana, explaining that the state’s tight finances called out for a bill that would generate new revenue.

“We have legalized marijuana and are just leaving money on the table,” Gonzalez said in an interview. She said the governor’s policy to ban new taxes and fees meant Vermont was starved of government funds.

“Part of why we need this bill is because there’s been such a crunch on no new taxes no new fees that we have this gaping need for revenue,” she said.

Rep. Diana Gonzalez, P/D-Winooski. Photo by Tom Brown/VTDigger

A similar bill was proposed last year in the House by Rep. Sam Young, D-Glover, but the issue was expected to be put on hold until next year. Gonzalez said she hoped the bill could avoid the committee process and go straight to the House floor where she believed there were enough votes to pass it.

Speaker of the House Mitzi Johnson, D-South Hero, said she did not intend to allow that to happen.

“I think any kind of bill like that, because it’s such a major change in policy, would really need to go through the committee process, there would be lots of groups of Vermonters who would need to weigh in on something like that,” Johnson said.

“I see it more as an end of session game than somebody who’s serious about making sure that we’re crafting policy that works for Vermont,” she said.

In order to move the bill to committee, Johnson will need a majority vote in the House. Gonzalez said she intended to bring the bill up for consideration next week and hoped to get support from fellow Progressives, along with Democrats and some Republicans, in making sure it stayed on the floor.

The House GOP opposed the legalization of small amounts marijuana when the bill passed earlier this session. Now that Republicans have lost that fight, many Democrats and Progressives believe the Legislature should move ahead with tax and regulatory structure for retail sales of pot.

“Ultimately what we need are the votes, and in our conversations, it looks like we have them,” she said, “never can tell until the last minute.”

Lt. Gov. David Zuckerman, a Progressive/Democrat, called the move, which he said he helped orchestrate, “a bit of a Hail Mary,” but said he hoped public pressure would build in the coming days.

David Zuckerman
Lt. Gov. David Zuckerman, a Progressive/Democrat. Photo by Erin Mansfield/VTDigger.

Among Democratic legislators who support the idea of the bill, he said, the question would be “how many will feel enough pressure from constituents to keep the conversation going versus the pressure they’ll get from leadership to help stop the conversation.”

Zuckerman called the initiative to create a regulated marijuana market “probably the biggest economic development bill that this state can pass that we’ve seen in the last 20 years,” pointing to a Rand Corporation study conducted a few years ago.

That study estimated that Vermonters consumed between 15 and 25 metric tons of marijuana in 2014 and spent from $125 million to $225 million on purchases. It estimated that tax revenue from legal marijuana sales could reach $20 million to $75 million.

Gov. Phil Scott has been firm in his opposition to new taxes and fees, but has also signaled his support for the eventual full legalization of marijuana in Vermont.

Ahead of the passage of a bill in January that legalizes limited possession and cultivation of marijuana, effective July 1, the governor created a marijuana advisory commission tasked with, among other things, “finding a responsible approach to the sale and taxation of marijuana for recreational use.”

Upon launching that commission, Scott said Vermont would only be doing what other states had already done, but that he wanted to “do it right” and “address health and safety concerns.”

Zuckerman said the commission was expected to release a report on the feasibility of taxing and regulating marijuana this winter, and said those findings would be integrated in the proposed law before it goes into effect at the start of 2020.

But first, House members have to overrule Johnson’s move to send it to committees, where it would almost certainly be left for next year, given the end of the session crush already facing lawmakers.

“That vote is going to be a vote that determines whether we are going to be able to continue this conversation,” Zuckerman said.

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