Legislators tackle tough issues at forum

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MANCHESTER — A large crowd turned out for a forum on the legislative issues Monday evening at the Manchester Community Library and they were treated to an in-depth discussion of local and state issues. Reps. Cynthia Browning, Kathleen James and Linda Joy Sullivan spent two hours updating the crowd of about 40 on a variety of topics.

Some of the highlights included discussions on gun control, the taxation-and-regulation of cannabis, abortion and pre-K education, among many others.

The pre-K education topic has been of particular interest lately after the local Taconic & Green Regional School District announced a change to the way it will handle pre-K in the coming year.

Since the changes were announced parents have been expressing their frustration over how they're going to handle the switch from a five-day pre-K program to a four-day program at Manchester Elementary Middle School.

That prompted a question for the three legislators from Andrew McKeever, news director at Greater Northshire Access Television, who served as the evening's moderator.

The three lawmakers agreed the issue is complicated by a variety of factors but one of the problems came from the state law that requires schools to provide educational services to pre-K students.

"Act 166 had the best of intentions, but it has been problematic," James said, after explaining that she was a co-sponsor of a proposal that would improve pre-K education in the state. "Universal pre-K has been a big issue in the T&G. Not everybody is happy with the proposed changes."

James also said the issue of pre-K education has led to a plan to have a commission study the issue with a report due in July so that a working group can begin looking for solutions in time to have legislation ready by next session.

James said local residents with an interest are invited to testify in Montpelier.

On marijuana, the idea of taxation and regulation of cannabis got mixed reviews from lawmakers.

Browning said she needed to have the assurance that there would be a way to deal with people driving under the influence and finding ways to protect young people from using it. She also said she was unconvinced there would be as big a windfall as some expect.

"I think people overestimate how much revenue we're going to get," Browning said.

She wants it kept out of the hands of big tobacco companies.

"I want to see it done in a way that makes sense for Vermonters," Browning said. "I haven't seen a bill that really does that yet."

James said she worried more about the illegal pot on the street that may be laced with fentanyl or other substances.

"The kids are not having any problem getting their hands on it," James said. "But they're buying it on the black market and they don't know what they're getting. That scares me a lot more."

She said Vermont is in a strange spot between Canada and Massachusetts, where it is legal, and New York and New Hampshire, which are contemplating legalization. Plus. in Vermont, you can grow, possess, and use marijuana, but you can't legally buy it.

"I just think that's weird and unsustainable," she said. "I would hope they would set the tax rate so the regulated market would similar to the black market."

Sullivan with James' concern about the black market concerns and wanted to see it priced to undersell the black market so people would buy regulated weed, even to the point that making money is less important than securing the safety of what people are smoking.

"The consumer needs to understand what they're buying," Sullivan said.

The three agreed that Act 250 offers important protections, but that the landmark law needs tweaks to better accommodate smart growth.

I'm all for the foundation of Act 250, we've put a lot of work into it over the years," Sullivan said. "It has a lot of good points."

But she said there are some issues with the structure that needs to be improved.

Browning suggested Act 250 be modified to allow it to fit the different communities in the state. She said it was odd for the state to want towns to create their own zoning ordinances than try to tell those towns how to do it.

"I'm concerned about the reach into communities," Browning said. "Allowing towns to have self-determination is messy."

James said Act 250 is both burdensome and landmark.

"I'm all in favor of any revision that keeps, at its core, the protection of those resources," James said. "(There has to be) balance, making sure development can move forward as long as we're keeping in mind what really matters."

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On gun control, James gave statistics about how a gun in the home makes that a home less safe and other statistics to back up why she sponsored a 72-hour waiting period bill that makes a gun purchaser wait 72 hours after clearing a background check.

James stressed that she's not anti-gun, noting she grew up in a hunting family and Vermont is a rural state with a tradition of guns in the home.

But, she said guns play a big role in Vermont's suicide problems.

"Suicides with guns are uniquely fatal," James said. "They're much more fatal than taking pills. A waiting period offers a really important cooling off period. It gives people a chance to seek help or to change their mind."

Browning said she wanted to be very careful that any laws passed will actually do what they say they will.

"I'm willing to consider anything," Browning said. "I have an open mind about this but I"m not in a hurry. I think we should let the laws put in place work."

Sullivan agreed, saying there is a rush do something. She supports the waiting period.

"I agree we should have a waiting period, it's not going to hurt anyone," Sullivan said. "There's a passion to do something in Montpelier."

A question from the audience asked the trio where they stood on potentially banning single-use plastic bags.

Browning pointed out that the recycling system isn't working well for a variety of reasons, but one thing is clear: there is a plastic problem.

She said there were plans to add water bottles, tea bottles and others that are not currently part of the redemption program to get more of those back into recycling and out of the waste stream.

Plastic bags are another issue. She said she didn't want to cause a problem in stores, but something needed to be accomplished statewide rather than on a town-by-town basis.

James said she would definitely vote for a plastic bag ban and would support whatever comes out of committee.

"I think we need to take action," James said. "It's not a huge burden to get rid of it."

One of the most intense moments of the evening came when the three address House Bill 57, which would protect the right to an abortion if anything changes at the federal level. Many are concerned about the status of Roe vs. Wade with a conservative U.S. Supreme Court.

Browning made clear, however, that nothing has changed other than what is already in place.

"This bill put into statute what is current practice in Vermont," Browning said.

She added that partial-birth abortion is illegal under federal law and that is true in Vermont.

"In practice, in Vermont, almost all abortions occur in the first trimester," Browning said, adding that only in the case of severe fetal abnormalities or a risk to the life of the mother is an abortion performed in the third trimester.

"No one gets an elective abortion in the last trimester," Browning said.

Sullivan confirmed Browning's point that this bill didn't change anything.

"It neither enhances nor restricts the current status of abortion in Vermont," Sullivan said. "It's important to codify what we have. I think H.57 is very important and I did support it."

James spoke about the challenges she faced in balancing the conviction of her belief with the emotional correspondence she received from constituents asking her to vote against the bill.

She talked about not being able to sleep before the debate and vote, and hopes voters understand how seriously she took it.

"This was tough for me, I didn't sleep at all the night before the debate," James said. "I hope that all the people who disagreed with how I voted know I didn't do it lightly."

Sullivan and Browning agreed it was an emotional vote for them as well.

"We take it very, very seriously," Browning said. "It's part of Vermont being so small. It's part of what makes us strong. We were elected to make these hard decisions."

Contact Darren Marcy at dmarcy@manchesterjournal.com or by cell at 802-681-6534.


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