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Marijuana ‘lounges’ on Vt. lawmakers’ 2016 agenda

Support for legalization has grown in recent years

By Dave Gram
Associated Press

MONTPELIER, Vt. — A proposal to legalize, regulate and tax marijuana and a bill to require employers to offer paid sick leave to workers are among the top agenda items as Vermont lawmakers prepare to reconvene Tuesday for the second half of their 2015-2016 session.

But first, the Senate is expected to deal with a proposal to suspend one of its own while criminal sex charges are pending against him.

Sen. Norm McAllister, R-Franklin, was arrested in May, shortly before lawmakers adjourned for the year. He is accused of demanding sex in exchange for rent and assaulting women who worked on his dairy farm, and his trial is tentatively set for February. The Senate Rules Committee met Dec. 16 and voted to ask the full Senate to suspend McAllister. A vote is expected Wednesday.

Here’s a look at some of the biggest issues coming up next year:

On the marijuana issue, two proposals have been drafted in the Senate — one by the Sen. Jeanette White, chairwoman of the Government Operations Committee, and the other by Sen. David Zuckerman — that call for Vermont to legalize possession of limited amounts of pot by people over 21. Both would set up a state board to regulate the industry and contain provisions relating to its sale in special retail stores and “marijuana lounges,” where it could be consumed on the premises.

Support for legalization has grown in recent years. Gov. Peter Shumlin has said he favors it, but it’s not clear that his fellow Democrats who control the Legislature are fully on board.

Sen. President Pro Tem John Campbell, D-Windsor, opposes legalization. And House Speaker Shap Smith, D-Morristown, said last week he’s not sure it can pass the House this year. “I have been surprised by the skepticism I’ve seen in the House,” he said.

Paid Sick Leave
The Senate will take up a bill passed by the House in 2015 that calls for employers to offer paid time off when workers are ill at the rate of one hour accrued for each 40 hours worked. The employee could use the time after one year or 1,400 hours on the job. The policy would not apply to federal employees, those working less than 20 hours a week, seasonal employees working 20 weeks a year or fewer and “per diem” workers at health care facilities.

Social Workers
The Senate Judiciary Committee will consider new penalties for assaulting or threatening a state social worker, said the panel’s chairman, Sen. Richard Sears, D-Bennington. The proposal follows the August shooting death of Lara Sobel, a social worker with the Department for Children and Families, and threats against other social workers. The social workers would join professions already protected by the enhanced criminal penalties, including police officers, health care workers, firefighters and emergency medical workers.

A boost in staff in the child protection agency to respond to a burgeoning caseload is one of the causes of a projected 7 percent increase in state general fund spending from the current fiscal year.

Budget officials in the Shumlin administration will look to close a projected $58.8 million gap before he presents his proposed budget to lawmakers on Jan. 21. They’re also looking to find more than $28 million in additional revenue to fund current-year budget needs that were not foreseen when lawmakers passed their fiscal 2016 budget last spring.

Copyright 2016 The Associated Press