Vermont House Speaker squashes effort to study marijuana tax


MONTPELIER -- House Speaker Shap Smith on Friday spiked a proposal to study potential tax revenue the state could earn by legalizing marijuana.

The amendment would have asked the Joint Fiscal Office to study the revenue impact of legalizing marijuana, using Colorado as a guide. The Ways and Means Committee endorsed the amendment.

Smith, D-Morrisville, said Friday the amendment had nothing to do with the miscellaneous tax bill to which Rep. Kristina Michelsen, D-Hardwick, wanted to attach it. Smith also said he wanted to be consistent because had just ruled another amendment non-germane.

Michelsen said she is looking for another way to accomplish her mission. Taxpayers are hurting and the state needs money, she said.

"I look at this as taking away a tax break that we currently give to drug dealers," Michelsen said. "I think it's criminal to continue to do that."

Smith's ruling came directly after he nixed another amendment to subpoena the governor's plans about how to pay for single-payer health insurance.

That amendment's sponsor, Rep. Cynthia Browning, D-Arlington, said she urged the speaker to be consistent.

"He was put in a box because I think they wanted to consider the marijuana amendment," Browning said after the rulings.

Michelsen said Smith had told her that he would rule her amendment not germane if someone objected to it. Rep. Thomas Koch, R-Barre, did just that.

On the floor, Michelsen told the speaker the amendment was relevant because it dealt with sales tax and income tax aspects of marijuana. Members of the House Ways and Means and Health and Welfare committees also argued it was germane.

"The speaker ruled it was not germane, pretending to be consistent with his ruling on the Browning amendment when there's really no relevance whatsoever," Michelsen said. "I think the speaker decided that he doesn't want us to talk about it. I don't think he wants that issue brought up."

The Ways and Means Committee had already endorsed the amendment, 8-3, said Rep. Dave Sharpe, D-Bristol, its ranking member.

"Revenue is a problem, we don't have enough money to do the things that we'd like to do to help Vermonters," Sharpe said.

Sharpe said he was surprised by Smith's ruling.

"The title of the bill is miscellaneous taxes, it seems like a miscellaneous tax to me," he said.

Smith explained his decision this way:

"If they had wanted to actually put it in the original bill that would have been fine, I don't really care, but given that I had ruled not germane the health care finance subpoenas as outside of the scope of what was related to the bill I thought consistency required me to actually rule that one not germane. It doesn't have anything to do with my feelings of marijuana," Smith said.

Smith said he opposes legalizing marijuana and "wasn't a big fan of decriminalization, either." Lawmakers reduced the penalty for possessing small amounts of pot last session.

If the marijuana amendment had been introduced first, he would have also ruled it not germane, Smith said.

Michelsen disagrees with Smith's perspective on marijuana.

"Pot is not a product that is harming our environment, it's not harming our people in the ways that other products that already have legal (status) do," she said.

Sharpe also said it is time to discuss legalizing pot.

"If I was fighting a war for 40 years and losing, I'd change tactics. And I think it's time that we do take some serious consideration of how we might deal with drugs in our society differently than we do now," Sharpe said.

Following the speaker's ruling, talk swirled in the Statehouse about other ways to pass the measure this session.

Some suggested tacking it onto a bill before the House Human Services Committee having to do with the regulation and expansion of the medical marijuana program.

Chairwoman Rep. Ann Pugh, D-South Burlington, said the tax study doesn't belong in a bill about dispensaries.

"We have heard from the Department of Public Safety and others that we have one of the most tightly regulated and successful programs for dispensaries and for the use of marijuana for symptom relief and it is providing relief to close to 1,000 Vermonters and I don't want to put that at risk," Pugh said.

Others suggested Michelsen could ask the Joint Fiscal Office to do a study anyway.

The Joint Fiscal Office provides financial analyses to committees that deal with money.

Steve Klein, chief fiscal officer for Joint Fiscal Office, said it is possible for a legislator to ask his office to do a study absent legislation. But typically requests come from a bill or a committee, he said.

"The idea would be to have her talk to one of the committee members and either have a committee do it or have the Legislature do it," Klein said.

Michelsen on Friday said she hadn't decided what action to take.


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