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Death and Drugs Dominated Legislature’s Debates

Statehouse photoMemories of the recently ended session of the Vermont Legislature have, for all but the politically addicted, faded with the late spring heat.

But it’s worth taking a quick look back at the session, which will be remembered for two landmark pieces of legislation that will touch many Vermonters.

This year Vermont became the first eastern state – and only the third overall – to pass a “death with dignity” law. It allows terminally ill, mentally competent people to die a peaceful death at the time of their choosing, with medication provided by a physician.

And after an entertainingly public debate among members of the law enforcement world, the Legislature decided, with the backing of Gov. Peter Shumlin, to decriminalize possession of small amounts of marijuana.

For those of us who have been watching the political process for several decades, the liberalization of marriage and marijuana laws is one of the most surprising developments of our times.

It once seemed like gays would never be able to marry. And that being caught with more than a couple ounces of weed would always result in a jail sentence.

Now, though, we live in a time when Vermont became the first state to legalize gay marriage through its Legislature.

And thanks to partial decriminalization, being caught with a small amount of Vermont green will result in nothing more than a fine.

I thought decriminalization was a sensible, brave and unusual stand for the Legislature to take. As a nation, we waste an inordinate amount of law enforcement resources on enforcing marijuana laws.

It was indeed sensible and brave — but it turns out not to be unusual. More than a dozen other states had already passed some form of decriminalization by the time Vermont got around to it.

It seems we are well on our way to Two Americas – one where gays can marry and people can carry a small stash without fear of a criminal record – and another where reefer paranoia reigns and it’s still not safe to come out of the closet.

But this session was also notable as much for what the Legislature didn’t do, as for what it did do.

As a result of legislative inaction, there won’t be much in the way of state money for winterizing our homes. The debate about new shoreline regulations along Lake Champlain will continue for at least another year. There won’t be any new restrictions on wind farms, beyond the already stringent environmental regulations governing this promising energy source. And no new state income tax structure, either.

After much debate and an outrageous amount of half-truths from opponents of wind energy, the Legislature wisely decided not to turn away from the promise of clean energy. Instead, it elected to take a step back and study the issue.

It remains to be seen whether that approach will result in the generation of substantially more wind energy in Vermont. But any company thinking of building a wind farm here will, regrettably, need to think twice. The atmosphere has been poisoned by a fear-driven opposition that has caught the ear of many senators (though thankfully few House members).

The state came up short on another essential environmental issue: The budget bill provided little funding for winterization and other energy conservation measures.

There’s a broad consensus that conservation is the first step in reducing climate change. But the Legislature failed to find funding to help needy Vermonters weatherize their homes this year, and conservation remains the forgotten stepchild.

In a nicely reported article Audrey Clark article on VtDigger.com, Chris Killian, director of the Conservation Law Foundation, articulated how our political leaders came up short on support for weatherizing Vermont homes:

“I think there’s a broad recognition that we need to tighten up our building stock dramatically in order to reduce our greenhouse gas footprint associated with heating and cooling,” Killian said. “The most logical revenue stream would be a surcharge on fuels. But because our legislators and our governor are not willing to press hard to create a revenue stream based on a fuels surcharge, to fund a central program that would implement building efficiency measures to reduce that greenhouse gas footprint, we do not have a meaningful program in the state.”

On the always contentious issue of taxation, the focus this year was not on education funding but on the income tax.

Democratic Party leaders in both houses were poised to pass legislation that would have lowered income taxes for the overwhelming majority of Vermonters, while raising taxes on a small, wealthy minority.

But that promising possibility to make the tax code more progressive vanished like a May snowfall, in the face of “I’ll jump out of a building” opposition from Gov. Shumlin.

And so it was that the two certainties — death (with dignity) and taxes stole the show.

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