MONTPELIER -- A state House committee reversed itself on Wednesday and approved a penny-an-ounce tax on sugar-sweetened beverages to pay for health care subsidies, but the idea appears still to have a bumpy road ahead.
The House Health Care Committee had defeated the measure on a 5-5 tie vote on Friday. But on Wednesday, the panel voted in two 7-4 tallies to advance the measure after a motion to reconsider from Rep. George Till, who had set up Friday's tie vote by unexpectedly leaving during committee deliberations.
Committee members said Till, an obstetrician-gynecologist in his work outside the Legislature, had been called away to respond to a medical emergency. But on Wednesday, Till acknowledged that he had left in frustration at what he considered a lack of participation in committee deliberations.
"I was just so aggravated that people were being stubborn to the point of being irrational in my mind," he said.
The committee had been debating what would be the nation's first per-ounce tax on soda and other sugar-sweetened beverages and how to retool state health insurance subsidies to reduce price hikes low-income working residents are slated to see when the state programs disappear at the end of the year and are replaced by the new health insurance marketplace, or exchange, called for under the federal Affordable Care Act.
On Wednesday, the Health Care Committee split the bill in half, with different members providing the seven-member majorities by which the two halves were approved.
Supporters said the $24 million raised by the tax on sugary drinks would be used to continue providing some state health care subsidies to augment those being offered under the Affordable Care Act; pay for expanded anti-obesity public health programs run by the state health department; and pay for doubling the benefit that goes to recipients under a state nutrition program when they buy vegetables and other healthy foods.
But the beverage tax continued to attract stiff opposition, with members of the tax-writing House Ways and Means Committee expressing doubts about its chances of clearing that panel and Gov. Peter Shumlin saying he remained firmly opposed.