Immigration, Legalization And Minimum Wage: An Update On 3 Issues In The Vt. Statehouse

It’s been five weeks since lawmakers kicked off the 2017 legislative session, meaning the session is about a quarter over. Here are three issues that lawmakers are trying to tackling this year.

1. Responding to President Trump’s executive order on immigration

Last week, Gov. Phil Scott created the Civil Rights and Criminal Justice Cabinet to push back on some of the changes President Donald Trump is making to federal immigration policy.

The cabinet is made up of Scott, Attorney General TJ Donovan, Democratic leaders in the House and Senate and members of the criminal justice community.

The consensus in their first meeting last week was that Vermont needs some state-level legislation to make sure that police here don’t become part of the beefed-up immigration enforcement machinery that Trump seems so intent on building up.

Scott says he doesn’t want state and local cops to get into the immigration game, unless it’s to deal with an individual who’s a known or likely threat to public safety.

But while Scott has direct jurisdiction over state police, his authority does not extend to town and county law enforcement agencies. This new legislation would empower the governor with new authority over municipal police agencies.

2. Raising the minimum wage and paid family leave

House Democrats have introduced a couple of new bills, including one that would raise the minimum wage to $15 an hour, and one that would require businesses and employees to fund a statewide paid family and medical leave insurance program.

The program, funded through a payroll deduction, would have an annual cost of about $79 million, and would allow workers to take up to 12 weeks of paid leave annually to take care of a newborn child, deal with personal medical issues or care for an ailing family member.

However, both these bills face some significant head winds in the form of a Republican governor who has indicated that he has no interest whatsoever in any legislation that increases the cost of doing business or imposing new mandates. Both these bills — for better or worse, depending on who you talk to — meet those standards.

Gov. Scott said he’d veto the paid leave law if it came to his desk. It is very out of ordinary for a governor to issue veto promises like that so early in the session.

That has the potential to depress enthusiasm for the bill, because a lot of lawmakers might not want to invest themselves in a politically risky bill if they know it has no chance of becoming law.

But Scott isn’t the only thing standing in the way of these bills. Democrats may have a near super-majority in the Statehouse, but not every Democrat thinks these bills are good ideas. Moderate Democrats in border towns especially, are hearing from constituents who have some concerns.

3. Marijuana legalization

This year, the House is trying out a more muted approach to legalization than the bill that was proposed last year. The bill would allow people to possess up to 2 ounces marijuana at any one time, and they could also have up to two mature marijuana plants, and seven immature plants.

Wells River Rep. Chip Conquest is one of the sponsors of this bill, and he says the majority of Vermonters “do want to see legalization, but really on what some have described as a Vermont scale, to begin with anyway.”

The idea of the Vermont scale is important to a lot of people. The state wouldn’t see marijuana shops, or cannabis-production facilities, or all the publicly-facing cannabis materials that have become so ubiquitous in Colorado, California and Washington State.