As Session Starts, Legislature Focuses On Pot, Medicaid, Act 46 And McAllister

Jan 5, 2016

Tuesday, the 2016 Legislative session kicks off in Montpelier. There's usually a lot more activity in the few first weeks of the second year of the biennium. That's because House and Senate committees aren't starting from scratch and they have dozens of bills to review that were introduced during the first year.

Follow all of VPR's coverage of the 2016 Legislative kickoff.

Sen. Norm McAllister

One of the first orders of business this year in the Senate will be a debate over Franklin County Sen. Norm McAllister.

Last spring, McAllister was arrested at the Statehouse and was charged with several counts of sexual assault including a case involving a person he referred to as "his legislative intern." He maintained his innocence and did not return for the rest of the session.

Last month, the Senate Rules committee voted 3-2 to back a resolution to suspend McAllister, with pay, until his criminal case has been fully resolved.

The full Senate is expected to debate the proposal Wednesday afternoon. McAllister has said he plans to attend the session to defend himself.

"It's my belief that having a senator sit and vote, with those felony sexual assault charges pending, I think that that's the Senate ignoring the dictates of its own permanent rules on sexual harassment." — Senate Majority Leader Phillip Baruth

Senate Majority Leader Phillip Baruth wants McAllister suspended.

“It's my belief that having a senator sit and vote,” Baruth says, “with those felony sexual assault charges pending, I think that that's the Senate ignoring the dictates of its own permanent rules on sexual harassment."

But Rutland Sen. Peg Flory says it's wrong for the Senate to act until the case has run its course through the criminal justice system.

“For me the presumption of innocence for anyone is so strong — should be so strong — that I don't think we should do it,” Flory said.

McAllister told the committee that he doesn't think he's being treated fairly.

“I have not done what I have been accused of," McAllister said. “It's kind of like I see [the suspension] as, well, you've got somebody down on their knees, kick them in the head." 

Under an agreement with the rules committee, McAllister can speak in his defense during the Senate debate but other senators will not be allowed to question him.

The State Of The State

On Thursday afternoon, Gov. Peter Shumlin will deliver his final State of the State address to a joint session of the Legislature. It's a chance for Shumlin to outline his key priorities in general terms, while saving the details for his budget address later this month.

The Administration will have a short-term plan to deal with a $50 million shortfall in the Medicaid program. As a long-term fix, it's likely that Shumlin will tout a plan to implement payment reform as a way to control health care costs in the future.

"We have a better plan,” Shumlin says. “[The] plan is to move the entire state from a system where we pay providers for quantity of care, fees for service, the number of procedures they do to you they send a bill out, to instead get paid for keeping you healthy."

Legalizing Marijuana

A plan to legalize marijuana will get the immediate review of the Senate Committee On Government Operations.

The panel held hearings on this issue over the summer and fall. The legislation would allow Vermonters to possess an ounce of marijuana starting this summer. State authorized retail outlets could begin to sell marijuana as soon as 2017.

"I will support a bill to legalize marijuana, if we make sure that we have very strong protections for people who are driving under the influence to make sure that we can prosecute them." — House Speaker Shap Smith

House Speaker Shap Smith says he'll support the bill if it addresses the issue of driving while impaired.

“I will support a bill to legalize marijuana,” Smith says, “If we make sure that we have very strong protections for people who are driving under the influence to make sure that we can prosecute them."

Senate President Pro Tem John Campbell doesn't support legalization but says he won't try to block the Senate's consideration of this issue.

"I've told our committee chairs and also the other senators that support this that I will not do anything procedurally from my office, the Pro Tem's office, to try to stop this,” Campbell says. “I feel it should have an actual debate.”

Act 46 Spending Caps

Lawmakers are also expected to debate the spending caps that are part of Act 46, the state's new school district consolidation law, in the opening weeks of the session.

Some legislators want to repeal the caps completely, some want to delay them for a year and others want to leave them in place as a way to help control education spending and provide property tax relief for the next two years.