By Jon Margolis, VTDigger.org
(Editor’s note: Jon Margolis is VTDigger’s political columnist.)
The 2016 session of the Vermont General Assembly did not legalize or decriminalize marijuana.
It did not pull the state’s pension fund money out of coal or oil company stocks.
It did not establish a commission or an agency or even a part-time clerk to check into the ethical practices of public officials, including the lawmakers themselves.
So what did it do?
Quite a bit.
To begin with, it did the one thing it really has to do — pass a budget and the taxes and fees needed to pay for it — rather quickly and harmoniously. As always, some last-minute adjustments were required, so the final bills were not passed until late last week. But the basic work was finished more than a month ago, with some bipartisan support.
Passing the budget is no fun. It’s grunt work. Like the rest of what the 2016 Legislature accomplished, it was not “sexy,” as Rep. Shap Smith acknowledged on the last day of his last session as speaker of the House.
But the General Assembly is not supposed to be sexy. It’s not even supposed to be fun.
Or as one veteran lobbyist put it last week, “This isn’t entertainment; this is government.”
A distinction perhaps on its way to becoming an endangered species. In the country as a whole this presidential campaign year, the boundary between entertainment and politics has been obliterated. Can the boundary between entertainment and government survive much longer?
Old-fashioned or just stubborn, Vermont is something of an outlier here, for which Vermonters should perhaps be grateful. Their legislators are hardly averse to making a big splash. But they demonstrated that making a big splash wasn’t that big a deal, and that they’d rather spend their time dealing with the nitty-gritty of governing, even if that won’t get them on network TV, in The New York Times or on National Public Radio.
That’s no doubt where at least some lawmakers would have appeared had they decided to make Vermont the first state to legalize recreational marijuana by legislation (Colorado and Washington State did it by referendum).
They will not get that kind of attention for passing a bill guaranteeing every employee in the state three days a year of paid time off when they get sick. Or a measure setting up a plan under which people who have lost their driving privileges because they can’t afford to pay old traffic tickets can recover those privileges at a discount. Or a law making it somewhat easier for ex-felons to get a job by prohibiting employers from asking about their criminal past at the start of the hiring process.
But a good case can be made that those new laws will have a greater and more vital impact on the people of the state than passage of any of those “sexy” bills would have had. Keeping marijuana illegal does annoy the many law-abiding Vermonters who think they ought to be able to enjoy their drug of choice as easily as those who prefer beer, wine or cocktails, which seem to do just as much harm to their users and to society as does cannabis.
But pot-puffing is a recreation, not a necessity. A job, for most people, including those just released from prison, is a necessity. Divesting from coal and oil stocks is a symbol. Symbols can be important, and perhaps this one qualifies. But not passing it will neither cost a low-wage convenience store clerk a day’s pay nor impel her to go to work while ill. By some counts, at least 30,000 Vermonters may not drive (though most of them probably do; how else could they get to work?) because they cannot afford to pay old traffic tickets. Giving them the chance to get their licenses back at a reasonable cost will do them far more good than would the creation of a commission to monitor the behavior of public officials.
Granted, there might be drawbacks to these measures. Almost every change includes a downside. Paid sick leave adds to the costs of businesses. “Banning the box” for criminal records on job applications might inconvenience employers, who retain the right to reject applicants who have been convicted of crimes. Motorists should obey traffic laws, and there are limits to how merciful a state ought to be.
But the legislators took all this into account. In fact, the bills were altered in committees in response to some of the objections. That’s the job lawmakers are supposed to do. They did it.
And more. They made it easier for Vermonters to register to vote. They funded the naloxone program for addicts overdosing on heroin. They limited prescription painkillers prescribed by hospitals. After much of what Germans would call sturm und drang, they passed a bill — perhaps too watered down to make much difference — giving localities more input on where big wind and solar energy projects should be located.
None of this is very entertaining, or “sexy,” by whatever standards those terms apply to legislation. The usual standards are: (1) There’s a connection to a nationwide controversy (marijuana, divestment); (2) The governor really wants it (both of those); and (3) The chattering classes — well-placed interest groups and their media allies — make a big deal of it (all three — marijuana, divestment, an ethics commission).
Establishing some kind of ethics monitoring entity also had the strong support of Secretary of State Jim Condos. But he couldn’t convince the lawmakers. In fact, he said, he couldn’t even convince them that there was a public ethics problem in Vermont that had to be addressed.
Perhaps that’s because — not counting Condos and an occasional editorial — the lawmakers have heard precious little public pressure on this matter. If the public is indifferent, legislators will respond accordingly.
Again, it seems like they did their jobs.
By Jon Margolis, VTDigger.org