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Vermont Legislature Begins Second Half Of Biennium

The Vermont Legislature begins the second half of the 2015-2016 biennium today.  There are a number of issues up for debate, including recreational marijuana legalization and the possible suspension of a senator.  But the focus according to legislative leaders must remain on fiscal issues.
The Vermont House began its session just after 10:00 this morning.   “Would the house please come to order. Members kindly take their seats.”

Following brief formalities Speaker Shap Smith got the 150 House members to work.  “We have a number of bills for introduction today. House Bill 516 introduced by Representative Ansel of Calais. An act relating to the transfer of assets and debt belonging to merging school districts.”  (Audio fades)

The key debates expected during the second half of the 2015-2016 session include marijuana legalization, the possible suspension of a senator and closing budget gaps.  Lawmakers must close a gap in the current year budget of about $28 million, then adjust a larger shortfall in projected revenues versus expenditures for fiscal 2017.  The overall gap is projected to be $58.5 million. The total could rise in a few weeks when the legislature takes up the budget adjustment bill.  While Medicaid is driving much of the shortfall,  House Speaker Democrat Shap Smith is optimistic that the gap will be closed.   “I certainly am optimistic that we are going to have a balanced budget when we leave here in May. And I do expect that we will look at the Medicaid budget to try to moderate the growth trend.  And I expect us to look in other places as well to see where we can save some money.  Now I think it’s important to remember that even with the projected budget gap it does look like there’ll be a growth in revenues and a growth in spending in the fiscal year for 2017.”  

Some advocacy groups are pushing to enact a carbon tax this session. Others want the state to legalize recreational marijuana.   Speaker Smith indicates passage of those two high profile issues may not happen.   “There is no way that I see a carbon tax moving through the legislature this year. With regard to recreational marijuana and its legalization I will support that if issues around highway safety and access to marijuana for young Vermonters are dealt with.  There’s a lot of work to do.  I’m not saying it’s not going to happen.  I’m saying that it doesn’t feel like all the work that’s necessary to get it all the way through has been done yet.”

The budget process begins in the house so many of the issue driven bills begin in the Senate.  Pro tem John Campbell says there are several high-profile bills expected or pending in committees.   “We have a major comprehensive privacy bill.  We also have the legalization of marijuana.  I have a couple of issues. One, some of the proponents believe it will bring in a tremendous amount of tax revenue. I feel that it is a sad commentary if we want to balance our budget on making an illegal substance legal.”

House Minority Leader, Republican Don Turner says there are numerous issues that people want legislators to take up, but he plans to focus on state finances.   “Yeah, there’s a lot of other issues that people want to deal with. I have a real hard time with the marijuana issue because we going to consider legalizing marijuana on one hand but we have a huge opiate problem on the other hand. I don’t think we need to create other problems for the state.  But I’m going to really stay focused on finances this session.  There has to be more people like me saying we don’t need to add more stuff.  We need to deal with the stuff we’re doing before we move forward with anything else.”

Audio from the Vermont House is courtesy of the live stream provided by Vermont Public Radio.

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