- Associated Press - Saturday, March 5, 2016

MONTPELIER, Vt. (AP) - Vermont lawmakers returning for the last quarter of their two-year legislative term face decisions on whether to legalize marijuana and online fantasy sports, as well as a push to give local residents more say in siting renewable energy projects.

Friday is the annual “crossover” deadline, when bills other than taxing and spending measures are expected to have cleared the committee process and be ready for debate on the floor of the House or Senate. That’s usually a sign that the end of the legislative session is less than eight weeks away.

The marijuana bill, which would legalize possession of up to an ounce by Vermont residents 21 and older, passed the Senate in late February. It’s expected to face an uphill battle in the House, though supporters say they believe they can convince a majority of House members - as they did senators - that there are enough safeguards in the taxed and regulated system envisioned in the bill.

“There is a very vocal group who are expressing concerns about legalization - school counselors, law enforcement,” House Speaker Shap Smith said Thursday. “It’s causing our members to take some time to think through what they’re going to do.”

Smith added, “If there were a vote today, I do not think the bill would pass.”

Both the marijuana bill and the fantasy sports measure would legalize activities many Vermonters participate in already - more than 80,000 in the case of marijuana; an estimated 100,000 playing fantasy sports, according to testimony offered to legislative committees.

Possession of up to an ounce of marijuana currently is a civil offense in Vermont, carrying a penalty similar to a traffic ticket. Assistant Attorney General John Treadwell, who heads his office’s criminal division, told a Senate committee in January that paying money to participate and elements of chance found in the games make fantasy sports gambling and illegal under Vermont law.

But Smith said he did not see much similarity, at least in how much attention the two issues have been getting from lawmakers.

“I don’t think it’s even on people’s radar screens, at least in the House,” he said of the games offered by companies including Fan Duel and Draft Kings.

Smith said the top agenda item for lawmakers would be putting the state’s finances on a stronger path. For years, lawmakers have struggled to close gaps between projected revenues and expenditures as they craft the budget for the following fiscal year. A year ago, they began with needs outpacing revenues by about $113 million. The speaker said that had been cut roughly in half in this year’s budget cycle, and the goal was to reduce the gap to zero by the time lawmakers are writing a budget next fiscal year.

Both Smith and Senate President Pro Tem John Campbell said in interviews that several economic development bills would be aimed at making Vermont a better place to live and work. Among them: a bill to “ban the box,” that job applicants check on an initial application saying whether they’ve ever been convicted of a crime. Employers could still ask in interviews, but by then job seekers would have a foot in the door, supporters say.

Sen. Christopher Bray, D-Addison and chairman of the Senate Natural Resources Committee, said his committee expected to complete work in time to pass a bill giving towns and regional planning commissions a stronger say in where solar and wind power projects are built.

The longtime standard for siting utility projects has been for the Public Service Board to determine what is in the public good for the entire state. Local residents have complained loudly about a lack of say in the process. Bray said the bill calls for towns and regional commissions to step up energy planning, and for those plans to be given greater deference than they’ve been given to date.

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