By Guy Page
The Vermont Legislature reconvened Tuesday with a stated priority to pass a budget for the final nine months (October-June) of the 2020-21 fiscal year, overcoming a $170 million General Fund deficit. But legislative leaders also want to deliver on their promises for action on several high-profile issues, including commercial cannabis, the Global Warming Solutions Act, and Act 250 reform.
Commercial cannabis bill hung up on seat belts
Seat belts are still a sticking point in House and Senate negotiations over S.54, the commercial cannabis bill. But the two bodies are moving towards conciliating social justice advocates’ objections about adverse impacts of legal pot on black Vermonters.
Both the Senate and the House have approved S.54, which would set up a legal, taxed and regulated market for growing, producing and selling marijuana. But the House and Senate versions differ in the details. In particular, the House added a provision the Senate finds unacceptable: giving police the right to pull over drivers not wearing seat belts. The House says it promotes public safety, one of Gov. Phil Scott’s requirements for passing a commercial cannabis law. The Senate says the provision has nothing to do with marijuana, would increase the number of minority drivers being pulled over, and would never pass a floor vote in the Senate. The disagreement remained at a Monday, August 24 House-Senate “conference committee” on S.54.
However, leaders in both bodies reportedly are willing to address some concerns raised last week by Justice for All, a minority-rights organization. They may expunge many marijuana-related convictions and decriminalize pot possession of up to 2 ounces. But there’s no agreement yet on the legislative framework for these changes, and the work may not happen during the “budget” session that began today. Also, several other demands by Justice for All — notably marijuana “reparations” to black Vermonters who (Justice for All says) have been treated more harshly by the Vermont criminal justice system — have not yet been addressed.
Global Warming Solutions Act faces GOP, anti-wind power challenges
H.688, the Global Warming Solutions Act, has been approved by both House and Senate. Leaders for both House and Senate say it will reach agreement between the two versions. The challenge, for H.688 supporters, comes from the unified front of the House GOP caucus and Gov. Scott. In particular, they oppose the establishment of a “Climate Council” to oversee widespread carbon emissions, and the controversial granting of a right to sue the state for missing its carbon emission goals. It’s unclear if H.688, which passed the House 105-37 in February with some GOP support, would have the 100 votes necessary to override the veto Gov. Scott has promised if the Climate Council and power to sue remain in H.688.
H.688 also took heat Monday from an environmental group opposing ridgeline wind power in Vermont. “The real effect of the bill will be to provide statutory justification for the environmentally-damaging energy projects that a majority of Vermonters oppose,” Mark Whitworth, president of Energize Vermont, said in an op-ed yesterday. “These high-impact projects provide meager emissions reductions (GMP says its Lowell Mountain turbines avoid the emission of 74,000 tons of CO2 each year — that’s less CO2 than pre-pandemic Metro NYC traffic produced in half a day). More importantly, these projects degrade the natural resources that defend Vermont from climate impacts like extinctions, increased vulnerability of our infrastructure to storms, and the loss of food and water security.”
Act 250 reform stinks, water quality advocates say
H.926, the Act 250 reform bill, often has been criticized by developers for making Vermont’s landmark planning and development law even more restrictive than ever, especially in rural areas. But recently, it’s been under fire from water quality advocates who warn it would allow continued dumping of sewage into Vermont rivers and lakes.
Two of Vermont’s most implacable protectors of clean water are James Ehlers, founder of Vermont Environmental Advocacy, and Annette Smith, executive director of Vermonters for a Clean Environment. In a recent press release, they describe supposedly “green” lawmakers selling out water quality:
“As of this writing, the governor, with the blessings of legislative leaders, has authorized, 139 times, the diversion of untreated and partially treated human feces, urine, and everything else that goes down a drain or toilet. It then mixes with untreated gutter contaminants before spilling into our public waters. The same waters we rely on for our drinking water supply. The same waters we rely on for swimming and fishing. The same waters that quite literally all life, all creatures big and small, depend on for life itself.
“In 2019 politicians and Agency of Natural Resources bureaucrats authorized 212 such diversions within the Lake Champlain Basin alone. Now, Sens. Tim Ashe, Chris Bray, and Brian Campion — with the support of Lt. Gov. David Zuckerman, Speaker of the House Mitzi Johnson, and Rep. Amy Sheldon — want to exempt developers from Act 250 oversight.”
The problem raised by Smith and Ehlers is a direct result of the push to move Vermonters out of the countryside and into Vermont’s downtowns. To compensate for the need for housing, jobs and services lost in the countryside, regs for building up downtown areas must be “streamlined.” According to Ehlers and Smith, H.926 gives developers exemption from Act 250 oversight. The bill allows municipalities to authorize developers’ connections to water and sewer mains without requirements for water and sewage capacity and compliance.
It remains to be seen whether H.926 will be pushed through the “budget” session of the 2020 Legislature, or be reintroduced for further review in 2021.
Public hearing on Guv’s no-new-taxes budget Aug. 27
The Vermont House and Senate Committees on Appropriations are seeking public input on the governor’s Recommended FY 2021 State Budget and will hold public hearings on 5-6 p.m. Thursday, Aug. 27 and 1-2 p.m. Friday, Aug. 28 via videoconferencing.
The Committees will take testimony on the governor’s recommended state budget at the above dates and times. Anyone interested in testifying should sign up in advance of the hearing through the following online form: https://legislature.vermont.gov/links/public-hearing-happ, no later than Aug. 26.
Gov. Scott’s budget includes no new taxes nor any major program cuts, despite the expected $170 million General Fund deficit. As described in the Lake Champlain Chamber’s newsletter: “Despite our state’s dire financial situation, Governor Scott was able to present a budget that represented no cuts to essential services and no new taxes. How? A combination of better than expected revenues from last fiscal year (a trend from the previous four fiscal years) and cost-saving measures across almost every government sector from both changes in operation during the pandemic and changes moving forward.”
Large spending items and their revenue sources are described in a table prepared by the Chamber. The governor’s budget is merely a proposal to the Legislature, which will prepare its own spending bill for the governor’s approval or veto.
Read more of Guy Page’s reports. Vermont Daily is sponsored by True North Media.