Liquor-Lottery merger shelved

MONTPELIER — The House sidelined a bill Tuesday that would have created a working group to study a merger of the Department of Liquor Control and the state’s Lottery Commission.

The Democrat-led House was set to debate and vote on legislation Tuesday to create a group to study the merger sought by Republican Gov. Phil Scott.

The governor signed an executive order in January to merge the two entities, but the House passed a resolution last week that nullified it.

House Speaker Mitzi Johnson

House Speaker Mitzi Johnson, D-South Hero, said the House is also interested in a merger, but wants more details on what it would look like. The legislation up for debate Tuesday, H. 525, was a compromise, she said, that would have continued the conversation with potential action by the Legislature next year.

“The bill was an olive branch to say, ‘Hey, we’re interested in moving forward,’ and it became clear that people were not interested in an olive branch,” Johnson said.

“ So we said, ‘ OK, if folks are not interested in working together over the summer and move towards this, then we can walk away and see if (the House Government Operations Committee) wants to take something up at a later time or see if a more detailed proposal can be put forward later,’” the speaker said.

Two House members, Rep. Jim Harrison, R-Chittenden, and Rep. Jim Condon, D-Colchester, were preparing to offer an amendment to the legislation that would have merged the Department of Liquor Control and the Lottery Commission in January — with no further legislative action required.

But House leaders, after an hourlong recess, opted to send the legislation to the House Government Operations Committee rather than debate the bill or the amendment. Such a move typically indicates that leadership does not have enough votes to pass the legislation it wants.

But Johnson and Rep. Helen Head, D-South Burlington, chairwoman of the House General, Housing and Military Affairs Committee, insisted that was not the case.

“I believe there was tremendous support on the floor for what the committee did last week to move forward with a compromise bill reflected in H.525,” Head told reporters. “I think that we would have rejected that amendment, but did not see the point of a protracted discussion.”

Johnson said the Government Operations Committee “does have an interest and an important role to play” in a merger.

House Leaders say they have not received enough information from the Scott administration about how it intends to handle the merger and what the impacts would be.

“My committee would be very interested in seeing a more detailed proposal of what a merger could look like, what it would achieve, its costs, its benefits and what the specifics are,” Head said. “We have not seen that.”

Rep. Helen Head

A memo sent to some House members indicated the administration would look to add more lottery games and would look to privatize the warehousing of liquor — ideas House leaders do not support.

Johnson said the memo from the administration “really had nothing to do with savings or efficiencies,” which the administration has said is the goal behind the merger.

“It was about expanding lottery games, which the House has voted against a number of times,” the speaker said. “I think that’s where the detailed proposal really is important. That’s what we’ve been asking for for quite a while. Now they’ll have a chance to come forward with a more detailed proposal.”

The Senate has been more supportive of the governor’s proposal. It is considering its own language that would legislate a merger, so the issue may not be dead for this legislative session, which is slated to end in early May.

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