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3/10/20 Legislative Report

Dear Readers, 

First off, I wanted to include the link to the Vermont Department of Health guidance on the Covid-19 virus. Please reach out with questions on the State's response to the virus, or with local questions or concerns. This is a fast-moving and evolving situation! Communication is key to optimizing public health.  

I wanted to use this issue to catch up on some bills that were voted out of the House Education Committee the week before Town Meeting. Additionally, I will share some of my thoughts on S. 54 which passed the House the week before our break. S. 54 is the Cannabis Tax and Regulate bill that has been under discussion and revision for the past year. 

Education Committee Bills:

We passed three bills out of House Ed. committee just before the Town Meeting break. This was very important to do, since "crossover" takes place at the end of this current week. If a bill does not pass one chamber before crossover, then it cannot be taken up by the other chamber for consideration. These bills were:

H. 935 - A bill relating to pre-K. This bill went back and forth for some time, but ended up bifurcating regulation in public school Pre-K programs so that only the AOE will oversee those programs. Private center programs will still be jointly regulated by both AHS and AOE. Additionally this bill funds a new grant program for Districts to employ regional pre-K coordinators, since we received compelling testimony about the benefit of these positions where they've been implemented. Locally, MAUSD already jointly employs a regional Pre-L coordinator along with ANWSD and ACSD. 

H. 209 - A bill relating to School Construction. This bill has been in the works since last year, but we were able to pass out a version that won the blessing of the House Institutions and Corrections Committee. The version our Committee passed would do three things:

  1. Task the Agency of Education and the State Board of Education with compiling a set of modern school construction standards and a school construction funding formula. These standards are due by 1/15/2021. 
  2. Send out a Request for Proposals, requesting a conditions analysis for all public school buildings in Vermont. This task will be undertaken by the Agency of Education as well as the Department of Building and General Services.
  3. The Conditions Assessment report will be due back to the AOE by 12/15/2023. Presumably a new school construction financing plan would be working on in the 2024 legislative session. 

H. 668 - A bill related to implementing Act 173 - This bill has a focus on helping schools to prepare for the implementation of Special Ed. census block grant funding under Act 173. Act 173 will give Districts a fixed amount per year based on a census of special ed. students in the District. That funding must be used to administer student Individual Education Plans, but also can be used to implement multi-tiered systems of support for students who are not on IEPs. These supports can include the work of coaches, interventionists and also early screening for learning disabilities. This bill includes grant funding for Districts to bring in consultants to assist in setting up effective screening for learning disabilities, such as dyslexia, starting in grades K-3. 

House Vote of S. 54, Tax and Regulate:

Just prior to the Town Meeting break, S. 54 returned to the House Floor for a vote. The bill had been sent over from the Senate a year ago, and since then has been amended by the House Government Operations Committee, House Ways and Means Committee and the Appropriations Committee. The House voted out the amended version to send back to Senate. I anticipate that the Senate will not accept all the House amendments, and that the bill will end up in a Committee of Conference. The Governor has promised to veto the bill if it does not have a provision to allow for roadside saliva testing. Neither chamber has been willing to include such a provision, so I believe a veto is likely. 

Despite the fact that I had mixed feelings about this bill, I decided to vote against it. I was in the minority on this issue, but I would like to take this opportunity to explain my reasoning. I had 5 major problems with the bill:

  1. This bill would create a new enforcement environment for cannabis users who also drive. There is no equivalent to the blood alcohol test used for alcohol since THC is not water soluble. That means there is enormous discretion by police officers to determine whether they think a driver is under the influence. If they believe that someone is under the influence, they can obtain a warrant and take the individual to a station for mandatory saliva or blood testing. Any individual who uses cannabis regularly or even occasionally could test positive, even if they had not used cannabis that day. I have serious social and racial justice concerns surrounding the rollout of this new enforcement environment. I had seen no data to suggest that issues around driving safety and cannabis are in any way equivalent to the risks associated with driving under the influence of alcohol. Moreover, legal prosecution for cannabis has been skewed against communities of color and the economically disadvantaged in the past. 
  2. This bill characterizes all unregulated cannabis as a "black market" even though Vermonters are currently allowed by state law to cultivate their own cannabis and to gift that produce to friends. I believe that this right is important, but the reality of people who "grow your own" undeniably hurts the market value of regulated cannabis. I'm afraid that Vermonters who are currently in possession of cannabis that they have grown will be put at greater legal risk, in an attempt to drive everyone into the regulated market. 
  3. This bill would not resolve the Federal prohibition on cannabis, which would result in a very challenged business environment. Since businesses have to pay all state and federal taxes, but cannot write off most expenses, it will be very difficult for small scale producers to stay afloat in this market. Additionally, options for banking are extremely limited. For this reason, I am not confident that this bill will be open to any but the largest corporations. 
  4. This bill was opposed by Rural Vermont and the Northern Organic Farming Association due to the perception that the law as written does not afford enough opportunities for small farmers to participate in the new marketplace.
  5. This bill was opposed by the Vermont Racial Justice Alliance, and given the historically disproportionate impact on communities of color stemming from cannabis enforcement, I take their concerns very seriously. 

I'm confident that a new version of the bill will emerge from a Committee of Conference, and I will evaluate that version on its merits at that time. Please contact me in the meantime with any thoughts on this bill. It's a complex topic!