Politics

Flavored tobacco ban, unemployment benefits, pot market meet legislative deadline

After a frenzied week in the virtual Statehouse, lawmakers advanced a flurry of bills to make the Legislature’s crossover finish line. Policy bills had to pass out of committee by Friday to stay in play this session. 

Committees in the House and Senate advanced bills that would boost unemployment benefits, ban firearms in state hospitals, prohibit the sale of flavored tobacco products, and establish a universal school meals program. Next week lawmakers will face a second deadline for bills with state funding or taxes.

Here’s a rundown of the legislation that survived crossover week. 

Michael Harrington
Michael Harrington, interim commissioner of the Department of Labor, discusses the state’s backlog of unemployment claims at a press briefing on April 17, 2020. Photo by Mike Dougherty/VTDigger

Senators greenlight boost in unemployment benefits 

The Senate Economic Development Committee signed off Friday on a proposal to increase unemployment benefits.

The committee voted 4-1 in favor of S.10, which would lead to a 20%-across-the-board hike in maximum benefits for those who are out of work, and a permanent $50 weekly increase for claimants who have one or more children.

“We have families in crisis,” said Senate President Pro Tempore Becca Balint, D-Windham. “This feels like the chair has done yeoman’s work in trying to find a balance” between labor and businesses interests.

The bill also freezes for one year an impending hike in unemployment taxes.

Business lobbyists favored the tax delay, which was proposed by the Department of Labor. The legislation would spread over several years a heavy increase in business unemployment insurance taxes, now set to kick in this July. Labor lobbyists have countered that if businesses get a tax cushion, unemployed workers deserve more benefits. 

Labor Commissioner Michael Harrington warned the committee this week that the benefits increase could topple the department’s decades-old mainframe computer. It could push the system “to the verge of collapse,” possibly putting across-the-board benefit deliveries in jeopardy, he said.

“I’m not going to let good social policy be driven by a machine,” Sen. Michael Sirotkin, D-Chittenden, the chair of the committee, said Friday. 

Gun prohibition in hospitals approved

The Senate Judiciary Committee endorsed a bill to ban guns from Vermont hospitals, and set up a study of whether to prohibit firearms from the Capitol Complex in Montpelier.

The committee voted 3-1 to move the legislation, S.30, to the Senate floor after days of debate. The original proposal would have banned firearms from government buildings and child care centers, too.

On Friday, the committee was left in suspense as Sen. Alice Nitka, D-Windsor — the deciding vote on the bill — kept her views private until the last minute. 

“I’ve been looking at both ends of this. I think there are certainly issues I don’t like in it, and there are other issues I know people feel they need, so I’m basing my vote on that,” Nitka said. “You’ll see when I vote.” 

Nitka ended up joining Sens. Dick Sears, D-Bennington, and Phil Baruth, D/P-Chittenden, in supporting the bill, while Sen. Joe Benning, R-Caledonia, voted against it. Sen. Jeanette White, D-Windham, was absent.

Sen. Ruth Hardy
Sen. Ruth Hardy, D-Addison, is a member of the Senate Committee on Health and Welfare and the Senate Committee on Finance. File photo by Mike Dougherty/VTDigger

A ban on flavored vapes and menthol moves forward 

In a narrow 3-2 vote on Friday, the Senate Health and Welfare Committee advanced a bill, S.24, to ban the sale of flavored vaping and tobacco products, including menthol cigarettes. 

Supporters believe prohibiting the flavored products will help prevent youth nicotine use. They also say banning menthol cigarettes is an important racial equity measure, because historically the products have been marketed to minority communities. 

“I think it’s an important public health measure that we need to take in order to not only protect young people in Vermont, but to ensure that our public health laws and regulations are racially equitable and that we are protecting all Vermonters from the harms of tobacco addiction,” said Sen. Ruth Hardy, D-Addison, a member of the committee. 

Sens. Ann Cummings, D-Washington, and Joshua Terenzini, R-Rutland, opposed the ban. Cummings said she doesn’t have a problem banning flavored vape products, but opposes the prohibition on menthol, and is uneasy about prohibiting products because they have been marketed toward minority communities. 

“To say it’s because they’re targeted in advertising implies that people of color can’t make decisions about what’s good for them, that they’re more vulnerable,” Cummings said. “And I’m not comfortable with that. I think they can make decisions about what’s good for them.”

Terenzini said he probably would have supported the bill if the menthol ban was stripped out.

“I’m not a smoker or a tobacco user, but I think adults do have the right, if they choose to and they want a flavored cigar or chewing tobacco or a menthol cigarette, I think they have the right to do that, unfortunately,” he said. 

Senate President Pro Tempore Becca Balint, D-Windham, has said she doesn’t believe the proposal, with the menthol ban, has enough votes to pass the Senate this year. A narrower ban on flavored e-cigarettes would have a better chance, she said. The bill could still change as it moves through other Senate panels in the coming weeks. Its next stop is the Senate Committee on Economic Development. 

Marijuana market modifications advance 

The Senate Judiciary Committee has endorsed S.25, a bill that would modify the state’s nascent marijuana market and seek to improve racial equity in the industry.  

Senators didn’t finish work on the legislation this week and will discuss it again in the coming days. Sen. Jeanette White, D-Windham, who chairs the Senate Committee on Government Operations, was sick Friday and wasn’t able to present her committee’s suggestions for the bill. 

Those recommendations, which will be discussed next week, include a plan to design a Cannabis Business Development Fund to help people of color and others affected by outmoded marijuana laws to get involved in the new retail marijuana system. 

The bill that passed Friday did not include changes suggested by the Senate Committee on Agriculture.

The agriculture committee decided against making changes to the current law, which was enacted last year. The statute gives the Cannabis Control Board, which will regulate the state’s legal cannabis market, the authority to develop rules for farmers. 

Groups like Rural Vermont and NOFA Vermont have lobbied legislators for specific protections for small cultivators.

The coalition had asked for a craft licensing structure for small growers, designating marijuana as an agricultural product, and putting a cap on the land area or indoor greenhouse space can be used to grow cannabis.

On Thursday, the agriculture committee seemed inclined to recommend a cap on both the maximum indoor and outdoor growing plots, in an attempt to keep big business from eating up the market. But after long consideration, the committee, which was under a tight deadline, decided the issue was too complicated. Lawmakers left the recommendations to the control board. 

“I just think we don’t have the data and the information we need to really jump into the pool on this one,” said Sen. Corey Parent, R-Franklin, a committee member. “So I think, unfortunately, we just got to give it some time and let it develop a little bit further before we step in.” 

Sen. Anthony Pollina, P/D-Washington, said he’s “a little disappointed” that his committee decided against the change.

“I would like us to be able to propose the limits — the supply management type idea — with limit on sizes, I really would like to do that,” Pollina said.

Late Friday morning in the judiciary committee, Chair Sen. Dick Sears, D-Bennington, echoed Pollina.

“I’m disappointed in some ways in the agriculture response, but I understand,” Sears said. “I’m hopeful that these issues that we’ve all tried to achieve working with Rural Vermont and the Vermont Growers Association and others can get heard as the bill moves forward.”

Bill would boost Corrections oversight 

The House Committee on Corrections and Institutions unanimously supported legislation to change the hiring, training and discipline of Department of Corrections employees.

The legislation establishes a “Department of Corrections Monitoring Commission” to oversee  reporting of sexual misconduct, investigations of employees, and disciplinary actions taken within the department. In addition, a “Corrections Investigative Unit” would monitor major events inside the department, such as an inmate death, escape or rape. 

Additionally, the bill calls on the Criminal Justice Council and the Department of Corrections to come up with training standards, and systems for complaint investigations and certification and decertification of correctional officers.

“Good job,” Rep. Alice Emmons, chair of the committee, said after the vote. “I had my doubts there for a while, but we came together. … Now let’s hope it survives.” The bill now heads to the House Committee on Appropriations.

House refines chokehold ban 

The House Committee on Judiciary unanimously approved H.145, which clarifies a 2020 law that sharply restricted police use of chokeholds.

Last year’s law, enacted after the killing of George Floyd, made it a crime for law enforcement officers to use certain restraint techniques, such as chokeholds, that can result in injury or death. Violations could result in a prison sentence of up to 20 years. 

The new bill would allow police to use chokeholds in self-defense in life-and-death situations.

Rep. Martin LaLonde, D-South Burlington, said Friday that the legislation is an improvement on the law passed last year. It’s important, he said, to provide more clarity for both law enforcement and criminal justice advocates about what the law means.

“We want to make clear that unless deadly force is something that’s justified, a chokehold absolutely cannot be used,” LaLonde said. “I think we’re being transparent and I think we’re being very consistent with how other states are addressing this.”

Free school meals, ed finance task force approved

The Senate Committee on Education has endorsed legislation to require free breakfast and lunch to all students in all schools, regardless of income. Legislative analysts peg the annual cost at between $24 million and $40 million.

The Legislature is also taking a tentative step toward a comprehensive K-12 finance overhaul. The Senate Education Committee passed a bill, S.13, to assign a legislative task force to find ways to pursue reforms recommended in the so-called “weighting study” of 2019. The state’s education tax formula assigns weights to certain types of students, and that steers school funding.

The study recommended the state retool its education tax structure to give poorer districts more spending capacity. The task force report would be due next January.

Curbside booze bill gets OK

Legislation allowing restaurants, bars and other outlets to sell alcohol via curbside pickup and home delivery was unanimously endorsed Friday by the House General, Housing and Military Affairs Committee. The bill, H. 313, provides a two-year extension on part of Gov. Phil Scott’s Covid-19 emergency order that has allowed vendors to sell alcohol for “off-premises consumption” since the pandemic began.

The proposal says containers for takeaway booze must have a secure, tamper-resistant seal and a label saying the container holds alcohol.

Sponsors say the change in booze regulations has helped keep brick-and-mortar establishments afloat through the pandemic. Extending it for the foreseeable future, as businesses try to work through strict limitations on gatherings, should boost booze sales, they say.

“There are hundreds of small community stores around Vermont that continue to provide curbside service,” Erin Sigrist, president of the Vermont Retail and Grocers Association, told lawmakers Friday.  “It’s become an expectation for the customer.” 

Pensions, voting and budgets

Though it didn’t make the crossover deadline, an effort to address the state’s crushing pension debt is still coming. Legislators have pledged to tackle pension reform this year, after State Treasurer Beth Pearce reported that an analysis shows the system’s debt is expected to grow by about $600 million. The House Government Operations hopes to have a proposal next week, said its chair, Rep. Sarah Copeland Hanzas, D-Bradford, though it’s unclear what it will look like. 

Senators are expected to vote next week on making universal mail-in voting a fixture of Vermont’s general elections. 

The House Appropriations Committee is scheduled to finalize its version of the proposed state budget for fiscal year 2022. 

Ellie French, James Finn and Lola Duffort contributed to this report

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Xander Landen

About Xander

Xander Landen is VTDigger's political reporter. He previously worked at the Keene Sentinel covering crime, courts and local government. Xander got his start in public radio, writing and producing stories for NPR affiliates including WBUR in Boston and WNYC in New York. While at WNYC, he contributed to an award-winning investigation of how police departments shield misconduct records from the public. He is a graduate of Tufts University and his work has also appeared in PBS NewsHour and The Christian Science Monitor.

Email: [email protected]

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