PEAR Vermont Advocacy Update
Mental Health & Substance Use and Misuse Priorities
Legislative Session 2016, Week 17
The Bill That Will Not Die
It’s been a long strange trip. Despite many attempts to put the marijuana matter to rest without a vote on the House floor, it appears that vote is just around the corner with a first round scheduled for Monday afternoon. One or two of the proposed versions of the marijuana bill will make it to the floor in the next couple of days. Senate lawmakers added the language from S.241, the Senate’s original marijuana legislation, to H.858: a miscellaneous crime bill previously passed by the House. House lawmakers are expected to vote on H.858, as well as considering the House version of S.241 as amended by the Ways and Means Committee. That iteration calls for legalization and – unlike the Senate version – allows for personal, noncommercial cultivation.
House Speaker Shap Smith has been reluctant about votes on the floor, adding that his leadership team believes there isn’t enough support in the House to pass either version of the bill. Smith said he worries that a negative vote at the very end of this biennium could make further efforts to pass a marijuana bill more difficult in the near future. Smith prefers a resolution on the November ballot to better gauge statewide support for legalization. This non-binding next step has received a chilly reception in the Senate. The Governor continues to work hard – publicly and behind the scenes – to get legislation passed before the end of the session. One can only conclude that he sees the passage of marijuana legalization as a piece of his legacy as he prepares to leave office. Certainly there is little doubt that the future success of the initiative will depend greatly on who takes the Governor’s oath next January.
The lottery language we previously covered here has been back under consideration. When the lottery bill, S.252, had no traction in the House General & Military Committee, the Senate Appropriations Committee found a way to quietly tuck the old language into their version of the budget; however, it didn’t stay quiet for long. The language became a hotly debated issue on the floor of the Senate. As recently noted here, the original bill expanded the scope of where lottery products could be placed – language that left open to question what the definition of “lottery product” (as opposed to “ticket”) was exactly. The entire content of S.252 was inserted in the budget bill. The decision on the Senate floor was to red flag the issue for the conference committee’s deliberations. In conference, Senator Dick Sears said that the Lottery Commission would not object to having the reference to product removed and having the language revert to “tickets.” As of Monday morning no decision had been reached about how to proceed. More to follow.
Mental Health Language
While the Medicaid hike of 2% for designated agencies and SSAs was an advocacy success for many, there were some language additions in the Senate that were problematic for some of those same folks. The current language reads like this:
“The funds allocated in this act shall be to increase the amounts paid to designated agencies and specialized service agencies and shall be used by those agencies to increase total compensation for direct care workers and nonexecutive level staff. For the purposes of this section, direct care workers shall include case managers, service coordinators and independent direct care support workers. Up to 10% of the funds may be used for administrative expenditures such as hiring, training and performance management systems. Each designated and specialized service agency shall report to the Agency of Human Services how it has complied with this provision.”
The concerns raised by advocates are various. They include the fact that the words “increase compensation” imply a salary increase, while some agencies may need to use the increase to support health care costs. Also, the way jobs are listed excludes many critical support personnel working directly for the designated agencies. The language also sets limits on resources for a widely defined group of administrative personnel. Some agencies may need to target resources to fill and maintain critical and highly competitive positions. Advocates feel strongly that listing specific positions is just not workable. They also feel that the language as drafted fails to recognize that each agency has unique circumstances. Four of the agencies, for instance, are locked into union contracts. As far as the reporting they point out that the Agency of Human Services already reviews the agency budgets. Vermont Care Partners has submitted alternate language, but it was unclear what consideration that language would receive.
A Bad Case of Dry Mouth
The saliva test bill – passed in the House – is in big trouble in the Senate. The bill establishes a method and standard for the roadside screening of drugged driving. It has aroused the concern of civil liberty advocates, who believe the system is still too inaccurate for use. The bill lowers the legal blood alcohol content to .05 if there are sufficient traces of marijuana in the driver’s system. Two key Democratic Senators – Transportation Committee Chairman Dick Mazza and Judiciary Committee Chairman Dick Sears – have both expressed concern that there is not sufficient time to consider the bill this session; this as opposed to the House Transportation Committee, which believes there is enough evidence to move ahead. Oddly, the report the House committee, commissioned by the Department of Public Safety, used in its deliberations seems to raise questions about how precise the test is in determining a driver’s actual level of impairment. Opponents claim that all the bill would do is to lower the BAC from .08 to .05. With the kind of opposition it faces in the Senate it seems unlikely that the bill will pass during the next week.
Times Argus: Deadlock on Pot
Maine Moving On Marijuana
Though a non-binding referendum on marijuana legalization is an uncertain solution to the current debate in Vermont, in Maine they are moving ahead. After much legal wrangling the Chief Justice of the Maine Supreme Court has ruled that marijuana petitions under dispute should be validated and that the process should move forward. The announcement means the citizen initiative will be forwarded Friday to state lawmakers, who can either act on it now or put it to the voters in the fall. The measure would legalize marijuana for recreational use for adults 21 and older, allowing them to possess up to an ounce. It also would regulate and tax marijuana. Sound familiar?
Press Herald: Marijuana Legalization Officially in Maine Voters’ Hands