Vermont Gov. Phil Scott (R) is attempting to rewrite the history of how the state’s marijuana legalization bill fell just short of passage this year.
A bit of background:
After a series of victories and setbacks, the fight to legalize cannabis in the Green Mountain State effectively came to an end — at least for the rest of 2017 — last week.
To make a long story short, the legislature passed a legalization bill last month and then Scott vetoed it. But in doing so, the governor laid out several changes that, if adopted by the legislature, would make him feel comfortable enough to sign a legalization bill into law.
So lawmakers came to the table with Scott’s staff and worked out a compromise that they hoped could be passed in a short special session last week. But although the revised bill cleared the Senate, the House Republican caucus succeeded in blocking a motion to suspend the rules to allow the proposal to be considered on the expedited basis required during the one-day session.
Here’s why legal cannabis advocates are upset with Scott:
During a May 31 press conference, he was asked specifically by reporters about whether he would encourage members of his party to support suspending the rules to allow the legalization compromise to move forward during the special session.
“If we get to a point where we think we can agree, I certainly will reach out,” Scott replied. “I’m not sure that I’ll have the power to change the minority leadership’s mind on this, but I’ll advocate for it.”
But on the morning of the short session last week, before votes took place, Scott was asked if he thought House Minority Leader Don Turner and other Republicans should vote to suspend the rules and let the bill go forward. He replied, simply, “I think they should do what’s best for them… It’s up to them… They’ll decide as a body whether to suspend the rules or not.”
The governor didn’t say one word indicating that he thought they should do so.
Hours later, the motion failed by a tally of 78 in favor to 63 against, far short of the 106 votes needed to reach the three-fourths supermajority of those present for a rules suspension.
After the House GOP caucus succeeded in blocking the bill’s advancement, Scott admitted that he never even tried to talk to them about letting the compromise move forward.
“I didn’t encourage them. I didn’t twist any arms,” he said in a press conference the next day. “This is a personal decision that they had to make… This wasn’t a priority for me.”
And on Tuesday, Scott acted like he never even promised to pressure his fellow Republicans on the matter.
“You better go back to those soundbites and take the full response of what I said when I was asked about this,” he said in an appearance on Vermont Public Radio. “I said that it was totally up to the House.”
Acting as if he never pledged to “reach out” and “advocate” for the compromise, Scott said:
“I said that if we came to some conclusion where they met my conditions, that I would support and pass and sign the legislation, and when asked about the House and whether they were going to pass I said at different points something to the effect that it was up to them. I wasn’t going to twist arms. They were going to do what they do. I didn’t have power over them. They’re independently elected as well.”
The governor also claimed that he never even considered that advancing the bill would require support from Republicans, despite being asked about it by reporters and answering that he would “advocate” that GOP members let the proposal advance.
“I didn’t even think about the rules suspension piece, to be honest with you,” he said. “I wasn’t thinking about a rules suspension or that that could hold up the process. It didn’t even enter my mind at all.”
Scott correctly pointed out that 14 Democrats and independents also voted against suspending the rules, and five Republicans voted for it. But the vast majority of Democrats supported advancing the bill and, absent any pressure from the governor, most Republicans felt free to block it.
No one is claiming that Scott could have forced Republicans to support a rules suspension and, to be fair, he did consistently say the decision would ultimately be theirs to make.
But legalization advocates are upset that he didn’t keep his promise to even try to appeal to them on the matter.
“The past month has taught us a lot about who Phil Scott really is,” Dave Silberman, a Vermont-based attorney and pro bono drug policy reform advocate, told MassRoots in an interview. “On May 31, he lied about helping get a compromise passed during the veto session, and then yesterday he lied again about having promised to do so — even though he made that promise on video! I’m pretty sure Vermont voters in 2016 didn’t think they were electing a governor with a Trumpian-level disregard for basic observable facts.”
Despite the temporary setback, advocates are optimistic that legalization can get over the finish line early in 2018. Because the Vermont legislature operates on a biennium, lawmakers can easily pick up from where they left off this year when they reconvene in January.
There is also a chance that the legislature will meet for another short special session in the fall to address budgetary changes that may be needed after Congress enacts a Fiscal Year 2018 federal spending package. Legalization could potentially advance then, depending on how many days that session would last or whether a rules suspension could succeed.
The proposal “isn’t dead… It’s just on sabbatical. It’s on summer vacation,” Scott said in the radio interview on Tuesday. “It’ll be right there waiting for us in January.”
In the meantime, Scott says he will use an executive order to appoint a study commission to examine legalization implementation issues.