Vermont Lawmakers Avoid Government Shutdown as Marijuana Waits

Legislative leaders and Vermont's governor cheered a plan Wednesday they said will avoid a state government shutdown.

The move came during a veto session when the Vermont Legislature reconvened to tackle unfinished business -- namely, the passage of a state budget.

Gov. Phil Scott, R-Vermont, recently vetoed a funding bill, demanding lawmakers do more to provide relief to taxpayers.

"I'm really proud we all stepped up and found a way to avoid a state government shutdown after the veto put us in that position," said Rep. Mitzi Johnson, D-South Hero, the Vermont House Speaker.

Scott, Johnson, and Sen. Tim Ashe, D/P-Chittenden County, announced the morning before the veto session began that a new deal would find savings by calling on school districts statewide to rein in $1 -million in costs over the next two years.

"This agreement will achieve something monumental," said Gov. Scott. "For the first time in recent memory, we have constructed and expect to pass a state budget that does not raise taxes and fees."

But just as lawmakers got to work finalizing the budget details, there was a surprise: the Vermont Statehouse lost power.

With the lights out, there was a scramble to set up a temporary sound system and to throw open shutters, letting natural light into the historic building.

Outside, crews from Green Mountain Power raced to remove an old tree that had fallen on power lines.

A member of the Montpelier Fire Department said two people were stuck in an elevator during the brief outage.

When the lights returned, prospects were still dim for a reworked proposal to get around another of Gov. Scott's vetoes: on legalizing the possession of small amounts of recreational marijuana for people 21-and-up.

The bill Scott vetoed also would have allowed for users to grow a few marijuana plants at home.

When Scott vetoed that bill, he said he was looking for reassurances for public health and safety before he could sign off.

House Republicans indicated they wanted to wait on the marijuana discussion until January, when the legislature returns for next year's session.

"What's the hurry?" asked Rep. Don Turner, R-Milton. "I don't think anyone has an illusion that it won’t eventually pass. When they do hurry things, people are left out."

The Vermont Police Chiefs Association has expressed a number of concerns over marijuana legalization, primarily saying the state is unprepared for potential impacts to highway safety and for the possibility of greater youth access to the drug.

"We need to have some meaningful conversations about what public safety looks like, before we let the horse out of the barn," cautioned Chief Jennifer Morrison of the Colchester Police Department.

Legalization advocates had wanted more progress, but aren't feeling defeated.

Laura Subin of the Vermont Coalition to Regulate Marijuana told necn she welcomed progress in the Vermont Senate to discuss the governor's public safety concerns, and said incremental work is encouraging.

"The effective date for legalization was always going to be July 2018, and I still feel quite optimistic that we will have legalization by July 2018," Subin said.

The legislature's veto session could stretch into Thursday.

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