At this stage of the session, legislators have been busily pulling together legislation to beat the upcoming filing deadline, while House and Senate Committees have started to hunker down to tackle a host of far ranging issues. Three of the more noteworthy legislative initiatives to make it into bill form over the past week, include efforts to control guns, decriminalize marijuana and tax sugar sweetened beverages. Here’s an overview of each of these proposals:
Gun Control – Supporters of H. 124 maintain that its passage would help prevent future gun violence and promote sounder gun safety practices. The bill contains many of the restrictions that we have heard so much about in the wake of the Newtown tragedy. It would prohibit the manufacture, sale and possession of large capacity magazines, makes gun safety instruction compulsory for those seeking to carry a concealed weapon, mandates background checks for gun show sales and requires better mental health-related reporting to the Feds. It’s important to explain, however, that a large capacity magazine owned by a Vermonter on the date this legislation takes effect (if passed), would be grandfathered in and could be lawfully retained. Moreover, H. 124, unlike the new New York law, does not seek to prohibit assault rifles. As I understand it, the sponsors of the bill were concerned that this type of provision would muddy the waters, given the technical difficulty in precisely defining what an assault rifle actually is. This bill has been referred to the House Judiciary Committee, where, as rumor has it, it will get a hearing. Governor Shumlin has stated that he would prefer a Federal “50 state” solution.
Sugar Sweetened Beverage Tax – A bill calling for a tax on sugar sweetened beverages was filed on Wednesday (2/6) in the House. This piece of legislation, with the ardent backing of the Heart Association and 37 other Vermont organizations, takes aim at the empty calories found in sodas and other drinks. Supporters of the tax contend that sugar laden drinks are significant factors in our losing war on obesity and that “taxing the bads” will result in decreased consumption. The proposed one cent per ounce excise tax on distributors is estimated to raise around $27 million annually (at least to start) and would be used to fund various health-related programs. Governor Shumlin doesn’t like this one, so even if it makes it all the way through the General Assembly, its ultimate fate is uncertain at best. H. 234 has been referred to the House Ways and Means Committee (my committee).
Marijuana Decriminalization – Legislation seeking to decriminalize marijuana was filed in both the House and the Senate this past week. These bills would transform the possession of small amounts of marijuana from a criminal misdemeanor to a civil penalty, punishable by a $100 fine. If approved and signed into law, Vermont would join sixteen other states that have similar statutes on the books. The House version of the bill has defined a small amount as consisting of two ounces or less, while the Senate version has a lower threshold of one ounce. In addition, the House bill would allow (short of criminal prosecution) the cultivation of two “mature” plants and seven “immature” plants. Sponsors of the bills include parties of all stripes (Democrats, Republicans & Progressives) and the Governor has indicated he would sign such a bill if it reaches his desk. The Judiciary Committees in each branch will get first crack at H. 200 and S. 48.
– Jeff Wilson, Manchester, Vermont, State Representative