Lawmakers want marijuana revenue study
By Neal P. Goswami
VERMONT PRESS BUREAU | March 28,2014
MONTPELIER — More than 50 members of the House will look to amend a miscellaneous tax bill today to include a study on the revenue effects of legalizing marijuana.
The House gave preliminary approval to the annual tax bill Thursday on a 103-42 vote. Rep. Kristina Michelsen, D-Hardwick, is expected to offer an amendment to the bill today seeking the marijuana study.
Under the amendment’s language, the Joint Fiscal Office would be required to report back to the House Ways and Means Committee and the Senate Finance Committee on specific revenue projections.
The study must include all projected revenues expected if marijuana is legalized, including any enforcement cost savings, revenue from related income and sales tax, “and any other information that would assist the committees in considering marijuana policy reform.”
Michelsen will present the amendment to the Ways and Means Committee before it is considered on the House floor.
“I know there are committee members who support the amendment but could not co-sponsor it because they are on the committee,” she said. “I’m hoping the committee will approve it. It will certainly make less of a scene if they do. It’s hardly a big deal having JFO do some work on this. It’s a baby step, which has been the mantra around here.”
The amendment calls on the Joint Fiscal Office to use the Colorado tax model for purposes of the report. Colorado imposes a 10 percent sales tax on top of the state’s regular sales tax and any local sales tax. Additionally, the state levies a 15 percent excise tax on marijuana on the first sale of the product from a cultivation facility. The state is projected to net more than $40 million in revenue this year.
Both Colorado and Washington have legalized marijuana. Vermont, meanwhile, has decriminalized the possession of small amounts, making it a civil violation subject to a fine.
Michelsen said she believes marijuana is less harmful than alcohol or tobacco, both of which are legal, regulated and taxed by the state. And income from the currently illegal sale of marijuana goes unreported.
“The state has legalized medical marijuana. We have decriminalized small amounts of marijuana last session. So, I think steps have been taken, and I think the most logical one has not been taken, and that is legalize, regulate and tax,” she said.
House Ways and Means Committee Chairwoman Janet Ancel, D-Calais, said she had not reviewed the amendment as of Thursday afternoon. She expected her committee to review the proposal and vote on whether it is favorable to the bill.
Ancel said she worried Colorado’s system is too new to result in any meaningful data.
“My first reaction is that I’m very interested in what happens in Colorado and Washington,” she said. “It makes more sense to me to let those efforts mature a bit.”
Rep. Patti Komline, R-Dorset, said she will “absolutely” vote in favor of the amendment in committee. However, she, too, thinks it may be early to get complete data showing trends.
“In Colorado it’s a novelty,” Komline said. “Whatever we get up front is going to be bigger than what it is as time goes on.”
Komline said she views the amendment as a first step toward legalizing marijuana in Vermont, an idea she is “leaning toward.” That will likely happen in the next legislative biennium, she said.
“I feel like it’s a battle that we’ve lost as a country and I think other states are doing it now. I’m surprised we weren’t the first since we’re the first in so many things. I just think it’s like Prohibition. We weren’t successful there, and it’s time to take this money away from the cartels and regulate it,” Komline said.
Lawmakers will need to address several issues before legalization is approved, according to Komline.
“I do have concerns about people just coming into the state for that. I’m not sure that’s tourism that we want, but I think other states are going to be looking to do the same thing,” she said.
Gov. Peter Shumlin, who has maintained that he does not yet support legalization of marijuana in Vermont, said Thursday at an unrelated news conference that he is not opposed to the study.
“If the Legislature thinks that’s the right thing to do it doesn’t upset me,” the governor said.