MONTPELIER — Vermont lawmakers opened the second half of their 2015-2016 session Tuesday with a much-discussed marijuana legalization plan in doubt, a senator charged with sex crimes facing possible suspension and work already underway to close projected budget shortfalls this year and next.
Here are some takeaways from the opening day:
State senator in trouble
Sen. Norman McAllister, R-Franklin, faces a vote in the Senate on Wednesday on whether to suspend him until criminal sex charges against him are resolved. McAllister was arrested outside the Statehouse on May 7 and charged with three felony and three misdemeanor counts; he has pleaded not guilty and continued Tuesday to profess his innocence. Prosecutors say he sexually assaulted two women who were his tenants and employees on his Highgate dairy farm and solicited another for sex. One of his accusers worked for him for a time at the Statehouse as his intern. Trial is tentatively set for February.
Costs grow, but not taxes
Vermont is expected to spend about $88 million more in the current fiscal year than was projected when lawmakers wrote a budget last spring, but most of that will come in federal matching funds in Medicaid. House Appropriations Chairwoman Mitzi Johnson, D-Grand Isle, told her colleagues Tuesday the $14 million in higher general fund spending could be paid out of higher-than-projected revenues and money set aside at the close of fiscal 2015.
School spending limits to get new look
Some school districts have been complaining loudly about limits on spending growth imposed by legislation passed last year that pushes schools to streamline management. House Education Committee Chairman Dave Sharpe, D-Bristol, told his House colleagues Tuesday that he expected the issue to be addressed. But he said talk of an agreement between lawmakers and Gov. Peter Shumlin's administration was premature.
Pot legalization may be up in smoke
While some senators are pushing hard for legalization of marijuana, House Speaker Shap Smith, a cautious supporter, said he doubts it will pass that body this year. "I've been around this building a long time. I have a feel for when things are ready and when they're not. It doesn't feel ready to me," Smith said.
Lawmakers could be in for two surprises this year, as Sergeant of Arms Janet Miller told a House committee there would be two unannounced evacuation drills during the course of the session. The one drill last year was announced ahead of time. The committee also discussed bringing professional trainers to the Statehouse to prepare in the event of an active shooter.