In this column I will review a few of the legislative issues that may be of interest to the community. I have more information about these and many other topics. Feel free to contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org or 802.375.9019. I continue to have legislative office hours over breakfast at Chauncey's Restaurant on Rte 7A in Arlington every Saturday from 8 to 9:30 am.
S.241 legalizing the cultivation, sale, and possession of marijuana has passed the Senate. It is not clear whether it can pass the House. The bill sets a tax rate on retail sale, does not allow home growing, delegates decisions about edible forms of marijuana to a new commission, and allocates tax revenue to law enforcement, prevention, and treatment.
I cannot support this legislation. First of all, marijuana is an illegal drug at the Federal level. Secondly, we have no good tests for driving under the influence of marijuana. Thirdly, the rates of use by young people of marijuana, alcohol, and tobacco are already too high -- we should prove that we can reduce those rates of use to protect them before legalizing another mind altering substance. Fourthly, law enforcement and the medical community generally oppose this bill.
There are very few people incarcerated in Vermont for possession of small amounts of marijuana, and we are not spending a lot on enforcement concerning this drug. Possession of a small amount is already decriminalized, so that there is just a fine. We already have medical marijuana for those who need this for treatment.
MANDATED PAID LEAVE.
I could not support the bill H.187 that mandates paid leave for workers. It goes too far in imposing the costs of situations in a worker's family on the employer. Small businesses are not exempted, and I think that this new required benefit will be a burden for some, on top of many other burdens, and they may cut back on employee hours, delay raises, and be slow to hire new workers. I will be working to make this requirement better for both businesses and workers.
Employers will eventually have to provide five days of paid leave under this legislation. This means that businesses will need to pay both the employee on leave AND their replacement, who might have to be paid over time, or not replace the absent employee and have their work not done. Employees will have to work for a certain period of time before they are eligible for this benefit. Temporary and seasonal employees are not covered, nor are part time workers with less than 18 hours a week.
These paid leave days can be used when an employee is sick or to care for a sick child – I would likely have been able to support that. But they can also be used for reasons that go too far: if any other relative is sick or to take a relative to a routine medical appointment. They can also be used if the employee wishes to accompany a relative who is a victim of domestic abuse to court, or if the employee wishes to help that relative move to escape that situation. The costs of paid leave for such unfortunate situations should not be the responsibility of the worker's employer.
HEALTH CARE REFORM.
The Vermont Health Connect website continues to have difficulties, and the Legislature is currently considering the best way to go forward. We will need to have independent advice, as the Administration has no credibility on this, having failed to fulfill so many promises.
Vermont may be going to put in place a system in which health care is provided under what is called an "All Payer Waiver". Under this structure there is a total health care budget for covering most Vermonters, and doctors provide care within that, while still meeting standards for quality.
I have grave reservations about this, and I will be working to ensure that patient rights are protected and that independent doctors continue to be able to practice and provide care as they see fit.
Act 46 required all districts to consolidate and set penalties for excess spending growth, along with other requirements. The penalties have now been adjusted so that school districts will not be punished for spending growth that is beyond their control. So far it looks as if spending growth is moderate, so property tax rates may not go up much this year.
I have introduced a bill H.717 that would make consolidation VOLUNTARY and require the state to take responsibility for the unfunded mandates and costs that have been imposed on the Education Fund and driven up property tax rates.
BUDGET & TAX ISSUES.
The House Appropriations Committee is struggling to make structural changes that can bring the level and growth rate of state spending in line with available revenue. I honor that work, although I doubt that they will go far enough. However, House Ways & Means is NOT undertaking structural tax reform that could create a simple, effective, and equitable tax code.
There will be a number of increases in fees and taxes to balance this year's budget. I am unlikely to vote for them because of the lack of progress on tax reform. The tax on independent doctors and dentists proposed by the Governor is unlikely to go forward.