Marijuana amendment gets smoked
By Neal P. Goswami
VERMONT PRESS BUREAU | March 29,2014
MONTPELIER — A parliamentary procedure in the House killed consideration of an amendment to study the revenue impacts of legalizing marijuana that was supported by more than a third of the chamber.
Rep. Kristina Michelsen, D-Hardwick, and more than 50 co-sponsors offered an amendment to the miscellaneous tax bill Friday seeking the marijuana study. It would have required the Joint Fiscal Office to report back to the House Ways and Means Committee and the Senate Finance Committee on specific revenue projections should the state move to legalize the drug.
But it was found to be not germane to the underlying bill by House Speaker Shap Smith after an inquiry by Rep. Thomas Koch, R/D-Barre. Smith’s ruling came on the heels of another amendment by Rep. Cynthia Browning, D-Arlington, that was also found to be not germane.
Browning’s amendment sought to require Gov. Peter Shumlin to disclose a financing plan for his proposed publicly funded health plan, as required in Act 48. Her amendment also sought subpoena power for the Legislature if he did not comply by April 30.
Smith issued his ruling before conferring with Michelsen and Koch. He then called them to the podium for a discussion before clarifying his ruling, which prevented consideration of the amendment. The tax bill was then passed on a voice vote.
Smith said he supported the amendment but found it to be not germane, and consistency required the same ruling as on Browning’s amendment. His own view on legalizing marijuana was also not a factor, according to Smith.
“I’m not a supporter of legalizing marijuana, but that had nothing to do with the ruling on the amendment,” he said.
Michelsen said she strongly disagreed with the ruling because it was related to taxes contained in the tax bill.
“The speaker decided it was not germane before we got to the podium, so somehow he had decided that he had to be consistent with whatever his ruling was with Rep. Browning’s amendment,” she said. “I don’t agree with that decision. It was about income and sales taxes. It was a miscellaneous tax bill that had income and sales taxes in it, so to me it was germane and the speaker decided he didn’t want to deal with it, I guess.”
Smith’s afternoon ruling on the marijuana amendment came on the heels of broad support expressed in the morning by the House Ways and Means Committee, which supported the amendment in a 9-3 straw poll. Still, skeptical committee members queried Michelsen before the vote.
Rep. Jeff Wilson, a Manchester Democrat, admitted previous marijuana use but said he was not yet ready to move toward legalization, even with just the revenue study.
“Unlike Bill Clinton, I did inhale,” Wilson said. “Maybe in a year or two I’d be more comfortable, but I’m not ready today.”
And Rep. Allison Clarkson, D-Woodstock, posited that the study did not seem right when the state is trying to combat opiate abuse.
“I’m not sure in the same year to do that and this is the right time,” Clarkson said.
Michelsen, pushing back, said lawmakers should at least determine how much potential revenue is out there.
“To not know what’s there and not even investigate what’s there is irresponsible. I just think it’s so important,” she said.
Others expressed strong support.
Rep. David Sharpe, D-Bristol, said that trying to eradicate marijuana use over the last four decades has failed. The revenue impact study would be an appropriate step in determining if the state should change course, he said.
“I’ve often said if I was fighting a war for 40 years, I’d change tactics,” he said. “I support this because it doesn’t legalize it. It’s a first step. It’s maybe not the best first step, but it’s a first step.”
And House Ways and Means Committee Chairwoman Janet Ancel, D-Calais, said lawmakers will need significantly more information but that the revenue study is appropriate.
“This seems like a reasonable question for us to be asking,” Ancel said. “I can think of lots of other questions we’ll want to ask that are clearly not in here.”
Chief Fiscal Analyst Steve Klein said his Joint Fiscal Office would be able to cull preliminary information that also included costs associated with legalizing marijuana.
The amendment is likely to reappear in some other piece of legislation, according to Michelsen, in further attempts to secure the study.
“There will be more opportunities to put it on a bill, not as an amendment, but get it on a bill. It’s probably going to have something to do with dispensaries. I think there is something going on in (Senate) Health and Welfare with dispensaries, so we’ll see if it will fit there,” she said.
Support in the House remains strong for the continued effort, according to Michelsen.
“We had a number of committee chairs” on board, she said. “We had a number of co-sponsors and a lot of powerful support.”