Lawmakers are nearing a deal on legislation that would set up a retail cannabis marketplace in Vermont, settling a number of core issues on Friday involving road safety, advertising and local control.
Two main points of contention remain between the two chambers. The House wants towns to get a share of the state's cannabis licensing fees, while the Senate wants municipalities that host cannabis businesses to receive a share of tax revenue — an amount equal to a 2 percent tax. Questions also remain over what land-use exemptions should apply to cannabis cultivators.
"It appears that we are probably extremely close on everything" except those issues, Sen. Dick Sears (D-Bennington) said on Friday during a meeting between the House and Senate negotiating teams.
While bills have died over less, the conference committee's significant progress Friday suggests that the bill has a good chance of moving during this month's brief budget session.
House and Senate lawmakers began their talks far apart. And while they have managed to reach some compromises over the last three weeks — agreeing, for example, on a single tax structure that would impose a 14 percent excise tax and a 6 percent sales tax on marijuana sales — they appeared far from a final proposal heading into Friday.
Atop the list of disagreements was a provision that would allow police to pull over drivers for not wearing a seatbelt.
Senators have adamantly opposed the House-backed concept for years, and it appeared early on in the meeting that resistance to removing it from the bill might stall negotiations altogether.
"I understand that to the speaker it's very important that seat belts are in there," Sears said, referring to House Speaker Mitzi Johnson (D-South Hero). "And I understand that there's several other provisions that are important to other members — powerful members — of the House. And we're fine to try to compromise on them, but there is no compromise on seatbelts. So it's either out, or there's no point in us continuing to discuss."
"I mean, why waste our time?" he later said.
Sen. Joe Benning (R-Caledonia) shared his colleague's concern. "You are essentially adding on to the ability of a police officer to stop and intervene individuals who are in automobiles," he said. "In the middle of the Black Lives movement conversations we are having, to me, that is just an absolute wrong way to go, and I can't wait to see how the press is gonna react to [it]."
Shortly after, the two groups of lawmakers broke off for private meetings. When they returned, the Senate had a new offer.
If House lawmakers cut out the seat-belt provision — as well as a newly introduced proposal that would have deemed it a civil offense for drivers to transport containers of alcohol or marijuana in the passenger area of their vehicles — then the Senate would move forward with several ideas the House prefers, Sears said.
In particular, Senators would agree to the House's opt-in marketplace, in which towns would have to decide to allow retail shops before applications would be entertained. Senators would also support allowing police to obtain warrants to test the saliva of those suspected of driving under the influence. And the Senate would back a full prohibition on weed advertisements that was slipped into the House bill during a floor vote in February despite questions over its constitutionality.
"We believe that it probably will end up in the courts," Sears said as he laid out the proposal.
After another brief huddle, the House negotiating team agreed to the deal with several caveats, flagging the taxing and land-use concerns.
The two sides plan to reconvene next week to hash out those remaining sticking points. They also might take a second look at the scheduled rollout of the new market, with both sides itching to get it up and running as soon as possible.
"I don't know that I have much to add to a discussion about specific dates other than to say, let's do it as quickly as we can do it," Rep. Janet Ancel (D-Calais) said, to which Sears said he "absolutely" agreed.
If both chambers manage to pass the bill again this month, it will head to Gov. Phil Scott's desk, where its fate remains uncertain.