The head of the Vermont Senate said Tuesday he was not prepared to throw his political weight behind a controversial measure to require background checks on most gun sales in the state.
President Pro Tem Tim Ashe, D/P-Chittenden, said the measure had caused a division within the Democratic Party caucus. Even though he supports the idea, Ashe said he wanted to poll all the party members before deciding whether to use the power of his office to advance the measure.
“At this time I’m not going to use this office to force that issue if a majority of the Senate isn’t ready to move forward with it,” said Ashe. Sen. Philip Baruth, D-Chittenden, has sponsored legislation requiring background checks for essentially all sales, whether by a licensed dealer or a private individual. At the Statehouse on Tuesday, gun control supporters held a rally.
Ashe said the Senate Judiciary Committee would take up the bill and that a majority of its members still oppose it. Ashe was on the panel when the proposal came up before and failed to advance on a vote of 3 to 2.
The Senate leader warned of going against a committee recommendation, which he said he could recall happening only twice, including on the “death with dignity” legislation that ultimately passed in 2013 after several failed attempts.
To go against the majority within a committee, Ashe said, would essentially undermine the committee process.
“What’s the point of having committees if their majority position doesn’t matter anymore? I’m saying that as a general rule,” Ashe told reporters at a briefing in his office.
Ashe said he wanted to talk to all of the senators and “will get more guidance” from the Democratic and Republican Party members, “and at that point I’m happy to come back to this question.”
The Senate leader also addressed whether the cleanup of Lake Champlain could be accomplished without raising taxes or fees, as Gov. Phil Scott has declared. Ashe said costs for the cleanup would have to be far below the current estimates, $68 million a year for 20 years, to be done within “existing resources,” as the governor has pledged.
Ashe said the goal of the Senate would be to essentially find the sweet spot between the least amount that could be spent while also being effective at reducing phosphorus in the lake.
Ashe warned it was imperative that if any new revenue source produces measurable results within years, the public must continue supporting it. He noted the administration of former Gov. Jim Douglas spent as much as $100 million on lake pollution efforts without measureable reductions in phosphorus levels.
Ashe also said some $50 million in pollution money the state receives annually from the federal government could be in jeopardy with the election of Republican Donald Trump.
The Senate leader said he would ask committees to focus on bills that could help bridge the economic divide between the “two Vermonts” — the more prosperous Chittenden County and economically depressed rural areas.
Ashe also said he would push for additional efforts to combat the opiate addiction problem and to help reduce the number of mental health patients waiting in emergency rooms for psychiatric beds.