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Legislature Fits and Starts On Marijuana Revisions

Jun 19, 2017 11:55AM ● By State House News
Give lawmakers a week to get something done and they'll probably take eight days. At least.
Recap and analysis of the week in state government
So it should come as no great surprise that they are once again bumping up against a deadline, albeit one that is self-imposed.

Despite the fact that lawmakers have been plotting revisions of the November ballot law legalizing marijuana since delaying its implementation last December, the odds of having it rolled and twisted and on the governors desk by June 30 seem long.

Some of that has to do with the fact the House and Senate are far apart on major issues, including taxation and local control over retail dispensaries.

The House didn't help the cause this week with a bungled roll out of a comprehensive marijuana bill that House Speaker Robert DeLeo pulled back from a scheduled vote due to drafting issues and shaky support. Chief among the problems was a taxation miscue that would have applied the proposed 28 percent, all-in tax on marijuana sales to be compounded as the product moved through the supply chain from grower to consumer.

House leaders, including the co-chair of the Marijuana Policy Committee Rep. Mark Cusack, will try again Monday when they release a redrafted bill in hopes of getting that to the floor for a vote on Wednesday.

Cusack says the bill will look very similar to the one released this week, which would create an expanded Cannabis Control Commission and no longer require a town- or city-wide vote to ban the sale of recreational marijuana within a community's borders, but instead allow the municipal governing body to do it instead.

Yes on 4, the group behind the successful marijuana ballot campaign, believes the higher tax rate will encourage the black market and slammed the House bill as a stripping of rights from voters. The group is considerably more aligned with the Senate.

The reason for the soft deadline this month is that lawmakers feel, after speaking with officials in other states with legal pot, that it will take a year for the new Cannabis Control Commission (CCC) to become operational and start licensing dispensaries for retail sales.

No one seems to have much of an appetite to further delay licensing beyond July 2018, and yet getting a bill done by the end of the month would require the House and Senate to both give up considerable ground if they are to meet in the middle for a compromise.

Sen. Patricia Jehlen, the co-chair of the Marijuana Policy Committee whose relationship with Cusack seems anything but groovy, didn't even wait to see the redrafted House bill before outlining a competing Senate proposal that would leave the ballot law's tax structure untouched, with a maximum rate of 12 percent.

Jehlen also proposed to make no changes to the local opt-out process and to seal criminal records with past pot convictions that are no longer illegal. She broadly agrees, however, with the House-proposed construction of the Triple C. The proposed structure of the Cannabis Control Commission from both Cusack and Jehlen is similar to the Massachusetts Gaming Commission, and one that Treasurer Deborah Goldberg - the principal pot overseer under the ballot law - opposes as an undercutting of her authority.

If pot has shone a spotlight on the interbranch divisions on Beacon Hill, a constitutional amendment to impose a 4 percent surtax on income over $1 million had the inverse effect this week.

Senate President Stanley Rosenberg gaveled the Constitutional Convention to order this week and called a vote on the initiative petition that has been hailed by supporters as a "fair share" tax that will generate revenue needed badly by the state to improve public education and transportation.

On the flip side, opponents blasted it as a penalty on success that would drive the job-creator class out of Massachusetts.

Needing only 50 votes to advance to the 2018 ballot, 134 members of the House and Senate approved of giving voters the chance to decide next year whether millionaires should be chipping in a lot more for government services.

The issue has already become a major talking point for 2018 candidates, and the guessing game is on for how long Gov. Charlie Baker will wait before picking a side, if he ever does. The governor sounds like he might be against it, but still hasn't declared his position. The Republican may now be waiting for what is expected to be a legal challenge from business-aligned groups hoping the Supreme Judicial Court won't let it get to the ballot.

In the meantime, Baker may have heard the criticism from Democrats that he needs to do more than write letters about his opposition to the GOP-led health care reform efforts in Washington and hopped a plane to the capital Friday.

Baker went for the first meeting of the President Donald Trump's opioid abuse task force and had meetings scheduled to lobby key Congressional committee leaders on the dangerousness to states of the American Health Care Act.

Even his presence on Capitol Hill couldn't fully quell his exuberance for the written word, and the governor signed on to a bipartisan letter from governors urging the Senate leadership to take a different approach.

"It calls into question coverage for the vulnerable and fails to provide the necessary resources to ensure that no one is left out, while shifting significant costs to the states," the governor wrote to Sens. Mitch McConnell and Chuck Shumer about the AHCA.

Back at home, law enforcement was mobilizing for the arrival of the Tall Ships this weekend where security became a top issue against the backdrop of members of Congress getting shot at in Alexandria, Virginia while practicing for a charity Congressional baseball game.

First Lady Lauren Baker also had a coming out party, of sorts, as she did he first radio and television interviews since her husband took office to promote what she says will be her "primary initiative" as first lady. Baker is now the vice-chair of the Wonderfund, a non-profit formerly known as the DCF Kids Fund, that acts like a make-a-wish foundation for foster children and those under the state's supervision.

Baker hopes to more than triple the Wonderfund's fundraising efforts in the upcoming fiscal year to $1.5 million and double annually the numbers of kids the charity serves until it can touch all 50,000 in DCF care.
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