Tag Archives: Dick Sears

Toward a more Progressive Senate

I welcome Chris Pearson’s entry into the race for State Senate from Chittenden County. The Progressive state rep is the Progs’ sharpest policy voice in the House, and he should be a formidable candidate for Senate.

For those just joining us, the Chittenden County district elects six Senators, and it’s usually a free ride for incumbents. This time, two of the six seats will be voluntarily vacated; David Zuckerman is running for Lite-Gov, and Helen Riehle (appointed to fill out Diane Snelling’s term) is not running for a full term.

The openings are sure to attract a strong Democratic field, while Republicans are desperately searching for someone who might retain Snelling’s position. Searching in vain, methinks.

But the race on the left will be lively. It’ll be interesting to see how Pearson will fare in fundraising — I suspect he’ll do quite well. He’ll certainly have better name recognition than the Democratic non-incumbents.

And should he win, there is the potential for a real shift in Senatorial power.

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Welp, the mouse died.

Earlier this week, I wrote a post about the marijuana debate entitled “They labored mightily and brought forth a mouse.”

Turned out I was overly optimistic, because the mouse didn’t make it.

No legalization. No grow-your-own. And as for the House’s idea of a study commission (thx to Seven Days’ Terri Hallenbeck, who never would’ve gotten this into the Free Press):

“Fuck the commission,” a frustrated Senate Judiciary Committee chair Dick Sears (D-Bennington) said after his effort to create a public advisory vote failed. “The commission was unnecessary.”

Agreed. Especially since the commission would have apparently been funded with money diverted from opioid treatment. Sheesh.

The only good thing about this: the House’s brilliant idea of a new saliva test for buzzed driving also failed. That’s the test with no clear scientific basis, according to a state-sponsored study.

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They labored mightily and brought forth a mouse

Rarely have I felt so ambivalent about being right.

Last Friday, in my inaugural appearance on Vermont PBS’ “Vermont This Week,” host Mark Johnson asked the panel to predict the outcome of the marijuana debate in the House — a big change, a little change, or nothing at all.

The three of us all agreed on “little,” but I put my answer in two-word form: “Study commission.”

Take it away, distinguished lawmakers…

In the end, the chamber barely agreed to create a commission to study legalization. With the legislative session expected to end this week, marijuana legalization supporters conceded they’ve run out of time to try for more.

Hip, hip, hooray. Let’s hear it for representative democracy. The study commission: the Legislature’s favorite decision-avoidance technique.

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Two steps back for legalized pot

Well, a pair of House committees got out their carving knives and turned S.241, the marijuana-legalization bill, into an unrecognizable mess.

This is a significant setback for legalization. The best hope is that the House passes the bill and then a House/Senate conference committee comes down firmly on the Senate’s side. After that, perhaps the bill could pass muster in the full House. But the outlook is definitely worse than it was a couple days ago.

Earlier this week, House Judiciary Chair Maxine Grad proposed, well, a Bizarro World version of S.241. She slashed out the legalization stuff, opting instead for a mild extension of decriminalization that would allow for personal cultivation of up to two marijuana plants. That idea was specifically rejected by Senate Judiciary Committee chair Dick Sears, the primary gatekeeper on the Senate side.

Oh, and she also attached the House’s favorite Action Evasion Tactic — a study commission! Yay!

That was bad enough. But even that bill couldn’t pass the full committee. After Grad’s version failed on a 5-6 vote, the grow-your-own provision got the ax. The study commission, naturally, was spared. The bill also creates a penalty for driving under the influence if a driver has a BAC of 0.05 or higher PLUS any trace of psychoactive chemicals in their system, plus a new crime of making hash oil from marijuana.

VTDigger’s headline calls it a “hollowed-out pot bill,” and that’s pretty much dead on.

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Ding Dong, the Pro Tem is Dead

(And by “dead” I mean in the purely political sense.) 

Yes, one of my political betes noires is leaving us. Senate President Pro Tem John Campbell today told VTDigger’s Mark Johnson that he will not run for re-election. Which almost certainly means he won’t be Pro Tem next year, although with the Committee on Committees being what it is, that’s not a sure thing.

Campbell will become chief of the Vermont Department of State’s Attorneys and Sheriffs “soon after this year’s legislative session concludes,” in Johnson’s words. He does not specify, but this sounds like he would resign in May. Would that leave a vacancy for the rest of the term? Would Governor Shumlin get to name Campbell’s successor? Inquiring minds want to know. Update: Johnson’s story indicates that Campbell will not resign; so he’ll apparently work both jobs from May till next January. 

Regular readers of this blog know how I feel about Campbell. He’s been a lousy leader, often ineffective and kept afloat by an expanded office staff. He almost got turfed in 2012 after his first stint as Senate leader; since then, the unrest has been muted but the results have remained pretty much the same: the Senate is the body most likely to break down into turf battles and legislative scrums. The most recent example was last week’s out-of-control debate over S.230, the energy siting bill.

If you don’t believe me, just check out the Praising With Faint Damns treatment he’s getting from one of his closest colleagues.

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A big step forward for legalized pot, but don’t get your hopes up

This hasn’t been a great month for marijuana legalization in Vermont. Sure, we had Governor Shumlin’s conditional endorsement in his State of the State address; but since then, we’ve had a parade of skeptical comments from influential voices in the House and Senate.

This week brought the best news for legalization since the State of the State: Shumlin and Senate Judiciary Committee chair Dick Sears reached agreement on a legalization bill. And since the issue wasn’t going to go anywhere without Sears’ buy-in, this was an important development.

But if you ask me, I say it ain’t happening this year. Eventually, yes. 2016, no.

The Sears/Shumlin deal has raised hackles in the pro-pot community because it would ban grow-your-own. Sears is opposed because it complicates law enforcement, a legitimate concern. If this is the bill’s biggest flaw, then I’d say take the deal, get it into law, and shoot for further changes in the future.

The bill does have a number of positive features, aside from the crucial fact of Sears’ imprimatur. A strong positive: it would ensure that Vermont’s marijuana industry would be small and local. A breath of fresh air after Ohio’s unfortunate experience, where a cadre of high rollers got a measure on the ballot that would have handed the business over to a handful of large companies.

I could go on, but an in-depth evaluation is kind of pointless because it’s not going to pass. There are too many obstacles along the way, and far too many other issues on the table this year.

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Okay, who replaced John Campbell with a pod person?

The Political Reporter is a flocking creature. It tends to congregate in large numbers where there’s a commotion or a generous food supply — or, sometimes, for no apparent reason.

On Friday, the flock gathered at the Senate Judiciary Committee’s hearing on the gun bill — the reduced version of S. 31, Now Expanded Background-Check Free!   (Correction: it’s now S.141 for those keeping score at home.)

It wasn’t the most important thing going on that day. I’d be hard-pressed to put it in the top five, actually; supporters and opponents are all het up about the bill, but I’m not. As a gun control measure it’s a teeny tiny baby step. As a potential threat to Second Amendment rights, it’s… well, it’s not. The Domino Theory was discredited way back in Vietnam.

So I was elsewhere on Friday afternoon. More on that later.

The only thing that was interesting about it, to me, was captured by the Vermont Press Bureau’s Neal Goswami: 

Senate President Pro Tem John Campbell, D-Windsor, an original sponsor of S.31, pushed [Committee chair Dick] Sears hard to advance a bill. He spent considerable time in the Judiciary Committee, often seated near Sears, monitoring its progress.

“I think his behavior has been fascinating,” Sears said.

His attention was bothersome to Sears, and prompted the veteran lawmaker, who is known to express his displeasure at times, to offer Campbell total control earlier this week.

“There was one point where I asked him if he really wanted to chair the committee,” Sears said.

John Campbell, recently seen taking a restful nap. (Not exactly as illustrated.)

John Campbell, recently seen taking a restful nap. (Not exactly as illustrated.)

This is highly unusual, to put it mildly. I haven’t checked the record in detail, but I’d say this is unprecedented in Campbell’s frequently undercooked tenure as Pro Tem.

First, I don’t recall him ever being inspired about a piece of legislation. Serene detachment has been the order of the day. (I recall a time when I was watching Senate debate from the balcony. Campbell sat at his desk leafing through a woodworking catalog, paying no attention to the debate. It was inspiring.) It’s rare, like a snow day in Hell, for Campbell to show real passion for an issue.

Second, this is rather a blatant violation of Senate comity. I daresay it’s not unusual for a Pro Tem to pull the levers behind the scenes (it’s pretty unusual for Campbell, but not for your average Pro Tem), but it’s downright bizarre for a Pro Tem to publicly show up a committee chair. Sears’s reaction was actually rather diplomatic. Well, diplomatic for Sears, who guards his turf like the alpha male he thinks he is. Although there’s no truth, as far as I know, to the rumor that he tinkles a little on the Judiciary Committee doorjambs every morning.

Third, Campbell’s even making noise about openly opposing Gov. Shumlin.

“The governor made it very clear how he feels about this bill. He doesn’t support it,” Campbell said. “The governor is very powerful and the administration is very powerful. As such, I guess I had to step up my involvement.”

Superman: “As such, I guess, I had to stop the runaway train.”

So it’s weird doings on the gun bill. Campbell’s normal posture, when an issue gets divisive, is to stay the hell out of the way. There have been many occasions during his tenure when a bit of leadership — or arm-twisting — would have broken a logjam and avoided unnecessary strife. In moments like these, John Campbell usually stays out of the way.

I don’t get the sudden onslaught of passion for a bill that simply doesn’t do that much. Makes me wonder if that’s the Real John Campbell or an alien-crafted facsimile.