Scott vetoes noncitizen voting measures, setting new record

Gov. Phil Scott speaks with members of the media on Nov. 3, 2020. Photo by Glenn Russell/VTDigger

Gov. Phil Scott on Tuesday vetoed two bills that would have allowed noncitizen residents of Winooski and Montpelier to vote in local elections, establishing himself as the Vermont governor who has struck down the most legislation while in office. Scott also signed 11 other bills, including a first-in-the-nation measure that will legalize possession of buprenorphine.

The two proposed charter changes he vetoed, H.177 and H.227, would have granted the right to vote to those who are not U.S. citizens but who live in the cities in compliance with federal immigration laws. The Winooski measure applied to both city and school district elections, while the Montpelier measure applied to just city elections. 

Scott has now vetoed 23 bills since taking office in 2017. That puts him ahead of former Democratic Gov. Howard Dean, who vetoed 21 bills during his nearly 12 years on the job. Scott has so far vetoed one other piece of legislation this year — a measure that would have shielded the records of young adults accused of certain crimes.

In his veto message to legislators on Tuesday, Scott characterized noncitizen voting as "policy discussion that deserves further consideration and debate." 

But, he said, “Allowing a highly variable town-by-town approach to municipal voting creates inconsistency in election policy, as well as separate and unequal classes of residents potentially eligible to vote on local issues." 

Scott said lawmakers should work to define how municipalities determine which legal residents can vote and specify what they can vote on. 

"I understand these charter changes are well-intentioned, but I ask the Legislature to revisit the issue of non-citizen voting in a more comprehensive manner and develop a statewide policy or a uniform template and process for those municipalities wishing to grant the right of voting in local elections to all legal residents," Scott said. 

Lawmakers have not yet said whether they will return later this month for a scheduled veto session, during which they could attempt to override Scott’s vetoes with two-thirds votes in both chambers.

Scott signs buprenorphine bill 

The governor also announced Tuesday that he signed a slew of other bills into law. Among them was a measure that will legalize possession of limited amounts of buprenorphine, a prescription drug used to treat opioid use disorder. 

That legislation, H.225, will allow people to possess up to 224 milligrams of the drug — roughly the equivalent of a two-week prescription — even if they don’t have permission from a doctor. Doing so currently qualifies as a misdemeanor.

Advocates have said that decriminalizing the drug would help save lives and reduce opioid overdoses, which have spiked during the pandemic. 

Even as he signed the bill, Scott expressed reservations about the new policy.

"I am concerned about the lack of data on decriminalizing buprenorphine and its effectiveness in reducing opiate overdoses is unproven," Scott wrote. He also said he was also concerned that people would use diverted buprenorphine outside of the treatment setting. 

"However, we know addiction is a chronic illness and continue to see the devastating impacts on individuals, their families, and communities,” Scott said. “Although I remain skeptical, I signed this bill because it is well-intentioned and offers another potential approach to reduce the impacts of substance use disorder.”

Scott said that legalization of buprenorphine will expire in 2023 under the bill, giving experts "the opportunity to assess the effectiveness of this initiative." He also issued an executive order Tuesday calling on state agencies to gather data on the outcomes of the legislation. 

The governor also signed a bill that would expand health insurance to help undocumented immigrants obtain medical care. The legislation, H.430, would create a new program similar to Dr. Dynasaur — the state’s expanded Medicaid program for those 18 and under — so pregnant women and children who are not citizens can receive insurance coverage.

"This session, we have taken important steps to address inequities in our health care system,” Scott said in a statement. “By providing access to critical health care services for children and pregnant women who are not eligible for Medicaid because of their immigration status, we further that work.”

Scott signed a number of other bills Tuesday, including:

  • S.62, An act relating to employee incentives, technical education, and unemployment insurance.
  • H.88, An act relating to the use value appraisal program.
  • H.135, An act relating to the State Ethics Commission.
  • H.140, An act relating to approval of amendments to the charter of the Town of Williston.
  • H.420, An act relating to miscellaneous agricultural subjects.
  • H.434, An act relating to establishing the Agricultural Innovation Board.
  • H.445, An act relating to approval of an amendment to the charter of the Town of Underhill.
  • H.171, An act relating to child care systems and financing.
  • H.438, An act relating to capital construction and State bonding.

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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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