Vermont lawmakers face debates on taxes, death and pot


MONTPELIER -- Vermont lawmakers will return to Montpelier a bit later than usual this year but are expected to face a full agenda including projected shortfalls in the general and transportation funds, as well as social issues ranging from physician-assisted death to decriminalization of marijuana.

Lawmakers usually start their sessions a few days after New Year’s, but the lay of the 2013 calendar, combined with a state law saying they start on the first Wednesday after the first Monday in January, will push this year’s start to Jan. 9.

Gov. Peter Shumlin and the leaders of the House and Senate have been saying they don’t want to raise taxes. Shumlin focuses his negative answers to that question to "broad-based taxes," including those on incomes, sales, meals and lodging. Smith says he would consider tax increases only after scouring the budget for possible cuts or funding shifts to make up a general fund budget shortfall projected at $50 to $70 million.

The picture is even bleaker in the transportation fund, where a special study committee reported recently the state is expected to run $250 million short a year for the next several years. Lawmakers are expected to be considering options including increasing Vermont’s 20-cents-a-gallon gasoline tax and a new property tax based on miles traveled instead of vehicle value.

One area in which lawmakers won’t be asked to take definitive action is in the state’s ongoing push to create a single-payer health care system by 2017. When they passed a law putting Vermont on that path in 2011, they had expected to see a funding proposal during the 2013 session. Now that’s seen as unlikely.

Now administration officials say they want to focus first on setting up the health care exchange called for by 2014 under the federal Affordable Care Act. The Vermont plan is to use the exchange later as a springboard to single payer. Robin Lunge, director of health care reform for the administration, said it’s best to tackle one thing at a time.

"I don’t think you can talk about Thanksgiving and Christmas at the same time and have people understand whether they’re eating or opening presents," she said.

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Two social issues that have been debated in recent years are expected to reappear on legislative calendars in 2013.

Shumlin said during his campaign that he wants to see Vermont change from criminal penalties for possession of even small amounts of marijuana to civil fines, akin to a traffic ticket. He argues that young Vermonters shouldn’t face a lifelong criminal record for dabbling with marijuana.

House Speaker Shap Smith has been a stumbling block in the past, saying he worries about the message that softening the state’s anti-pot stance will send to young people. But he said in an interview that he would not try to block the issue from coming to the House floor for a debate.

The other recurring issue Shumlin said he hopes will pass this year is a law that would allow doctors under certain conditions to help terminally ill patients end their lives.

Senate President Pro Tem John Campbell, D-Windsor, said he continues to take a dim view of that idea, both because of his religious convictions -- he’s Roman Catholic -- and because he believes it will get the government too involved in difficult decisions better left to physicians, patients and families.

"The bill has far-reaching implications in the area of doctor-patient relationships," he said.

Both Campbell and Smith said they’re interested in -- but have yet to define in concrete terms -- legislation that would aim ease the path from school to work. They said many Vermont employers are looking to hire people but can’t find employees in the state with the technical skills they need.


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