The legislative leadership is shooting for a May 9th adjournment date. You never know what might blow up in the waning days of the session, but it appears we are currently on course to meet that target date. Here’s a rundown on what happened in the House in Week 15.
GMO Bill – On Wednesday (4/23), the House concurred with the Senate’s version of the Genetic Modified Organism (GMO) bill by a vote of 114 to 30 (Wilson voting with the majority). This legislation, effective July 1, 2016, requires most GMO-containing foods sold in Vermont to be labeled as such. This has become quite an important issue for many Vermonters, who make the case that consumers have a right to know what is in their food and that labelling is the most reasonable way to inform the public. My House colleagues and I have received an enormous amount of constituent e-mail on this topic, with the vast majority over the past two years passionately supportive of a labelling law. Agribusiness groups are much less enthusiastic about this initiative, however, and have warned that Vermont is overstepping its legal latitude in this matter. It is anticipated that this new law will, indeed, be litigated in federal court and the Attorney General’s office estimates that it will cost about $1.5 million to defend a challenge to the law and Vermont may be exposed to $5-8 million in total costs if we lose in court. Two other states (Maine & Connecticut) have passed similar bills, but their laws don’t become effective until other states pass comparable legislation. This means that Vermont, without such a trigger mechanism, may be the first state to implement a GMO law. The bill now moves on to Governor, who has indicated he will sign it into law.
Marijuana – A bill that sought to fine tune Vermont’s marijuana dispensary law, became a bit more interesting and controversial when the Ways and Means Committee (my committee) tagged on a study amendment to the legislation. The original bill called for the removal of the 1,000 statewide patient cap and enabled dispensaries (4 statewide) to transport “medical marijuana” to registered patients and registered caregivers. The Ways and Means amendment asked the Secretary of Administration to evaluate the fiscal and regulatory implications of legalizing marijuana, as has been done in Colorado and Washington State. Opponents of the amendment feared that this provision was the first step on the road to legalization, while proponents simply said that the study was nothing more than an effort to become better informed. In the end, the study amendment passed by a vote of 87 to 52 (Wilson voting with the majority), while the overall bill was approved on 100 to 32 vote (Wilson voting with the majority).
Looking Ahead – It has taken the school governance reorganization bill longer than originally anticipated to wend its way through the House committee process, but this historic, yet controversial effort to consolidate school districts, will finally be hitting the House floor in Week 16 (April 28th). The Senate Appropriations Committee wrapped up its work on the FY 15 budget on Thursday (4/24), so that important “big bill” will be debated in the Senate in Week 16, as well. And finally, the Senate Finance Committee has been working on a number of must-pass measures and should be reporting out legislation relating to school finance and miscellaneous tax provisions soon.
– Jeff Wilson, Manchester, Vermont, State Representative