Marijuana bill limps out of committee

MONTPELIER — The Senate’s marijuana legalization bill limped out of its final committee and will come up for a full vote this week.

By a 4 to 3 vote Monday afternoon, The Senate Appropriations Committee gave its approval to S.241, which would permit the legal sale of marijuana in 2018.

Josh O'Gorman / VPB

Sen. Dick Sears listens to testimony Monday on the marijuana legalization bill. (VPB/Josh O’Gorman)

Vermont is looking at becoming the fifth state to legalize marijuana — following Alaska, Colorado, Oregon and Washington — and would be the first state to do so through the legislative process rather than though a ballot initiative.

To even get out of the committee — the third Senate Committee to review the bill since the start of the legislative session — required the affirmative vote of a Senator who said she will oppose the bill when it comes to the floor Wednesday.

“I will vote yes to bring it to the floor, with a clear vote of no on the floor,” said Sen. Diane Snelling, R-Chittenden.

The bill previously cleared the Senate committees dealing with judiciary and and finance.

One senator on the Appropriations Committee who supports legalization said he was not a big fan of the bill.

“I think this bill has become needlessly cumbersome, but it has the state backing off it’s policy of harassing people who smoke marijuana,” said Sen. Dick McCormack, D-Windsor.

Josh O'Gorman / VPB

Sen. Jane Kitchel discusses the marijuana legalization bill Monday at the State House. (VPB/ Josh O’Gorman)

While it was the task of the Finance Committee to determine how much money would be needed to get legalization up and running, it was the task of the Appropriations Committee to determine where the money would come from.

Rather appropriate money for the FY 2017 budget currently being debated in the State House, Senate lawmakers decided the state will spend money it does not have, in anticipation of future revenue that will come in during FY 2018.

Not actually having the money led some committee members to question some of the proposed expenditures, such as $720,000 to the state Department of Taxes to set up a computer system to collect excise taxes on marijuana sales.

“This is a form of loaning money to start up the program and the question becomes the extent to which the expenditures would advance the goal of spending in advance of receipts,” said Committee Chairwoman Jane Kitchel, D-Caledonia,

Greg Mousley, deputy commissioner for the Department of Taxes, said the cost was based on how much Colorado spent to set up their tax system, with the state planning to use the same vendor.

Josh O'Gorman / VPB

Sen. Bobby Starr discusses the marijuana legalization bill Monday at the State House. (VPB/Josh O’Gorman)

Sen. Robert Starr, D-Essex-Orleans — who voted against the bill — expressed skepticism such a large amount of money would be needed to collect taxes from the maximum of 15 retail establishments that will be allowed during the first year.

“I don’t know where we put all this money into computers. It don’t add up, the way I count,” Starr said.

In the end, the committee reduced the expenditure for the tax system to $500,000.

The bill is expected to come up for debate before the full Senate on Wednesday and Thursday, according to Senate Pro Tem John Campbell, D-Windsor, who also serves on the Appropriations Committee and who – like Starr and Sen. Alice Nitka, D-Windsor – voted against the bill.

Josh O'Gorman / VPB

Senate Pro Tem John Campbell listens to testimony Monday on the marijuana legalization bill. (VPB/Josh O’Gorman)

Joining Snelling and McCormack in voting in favor of the bill were Kitchel and Sen.Dick Sears, D-Bennington, who said if the bill doesn’t pass this year, it will probably be a few years before marijuana legalization comes up again.

“It’s a pretty heavy lift to push a bill like this through, and if it fails, I suspect — because you will have new governor next year no matter what — it’s probably not something they will put on their priority list,” Sears said.

josh.ogorman@timesargus.com

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