On vice and temperance and business, in Montpelier
Temperance: "Moderation, control or voluntary self-restraint."
Liquor consumption, gambling and marijuana usage were once perceived by lawmakers as exclusively within the realm of vice, subject to the state's recognized broad power to impose temperance laws. However, the protest that government ought to stay out of matters of individual consumption and choice, unless demonstrably harmful to others, has increasingly carried the day. Thus, we find ourselves as a state now dealing with alcohol, gambling and marijuana usage largely from the standpoint of the state's prerogative and need to regulate commerce.
The reality is that a significant and growing part of our economy involves or is affected by the exercise by Vermonters of personal consumption and choices that, once viewed as vice, are not inherently harmful. While the wisdom of the approach is open to question, we are now debating issues relating to alcohol, gambling and marijuana usage largely as a matter of business regulation and tax generation. It is the effect on commerce that has become the seemingly more compelling basis for government's "standing" to act as to these matters.
This session we have been faced with the proposed passage of legislation involving a virtual vice "hat trick" — from the decriminalization of marijuana, to the regulation of fantasy sports betting, to the reconstruction of that portion of state government that reaps annually many millions in tax revenues flowing from alcohol sales and the lottery.
I fully support the bills now before the House and hope that we get them passed by the end of the session. Yet I commend my colleagues (from both sides of the aisle) for their deliberate consideration of the implications of these measures.
Consider the reason why the Legislature seems stalled on the issue of marijuana. Senate leaders have very recently expressed again their legitimate concern that marijuana sales be regulated, and that we not overnight legitimize a lucrative source of cash for some black market dealers who stock marijuana as but part of their inventory of illicit (and much deadlier and more addictive) substances. Many of my colleagues in the House, on the other hand, are concerned about too quickly embracing a Colorado-like economic model and urge patience. Both sides have a point. And while my sense of it is that we have a plain majority of the Legislature in favor of legalization, the overarching concern is that we get this right from a commercial and regulatory standpoint.
Likewise, the House Committee on Commerce and Economic Development has been asked to consider a bill that would legalize in Vermont fantasy sports betting. The fantasy sports betting industry has been pressing legislatures across the United States to enact laws recognizing it as a permitted form of "gaming," based on the exercise of skill, and not a form of illegal gambling. Facing an opinion by the Attorney General's Office last year that fantasy sports betting was illegal, the industry has turned its full attention to our state, seeking to add Vermont to what is still a minority of states who have legalized such "gaming."
No matter the allure of the argument that regulated recreational betting is better than leaving gaming to the black market, here, too, we really need to get this right. If we as a state believe that our economy is really sturdy enough, and our pockets of poverty so few, as to give this our stamp of approval, we need to regulate the industry appropriately. The Vermont Department of Financial Regulation - and not the Attorney General, as suggested by the industry - would be the appropriate regulator of this business. If we decide to permit this business, because it is a legitimate business and not vice, we need to have the right regulator on it.
Finally, the House's decision to vote in opposition to Gov. Scott's executive order merging the state agencies responsible for regulating the liquor industry and lottery sales was met immediately with protests by some that the Legislature was motivated simply to obstruct a plan that would reap savings and efficiencies. What revealed itself in the days that followed was that the Legislature seems actually to approve the concept of a merger. The vote in opposition to the executive order was followed by the announcement of a bill having substantial support permitting the merger to go forward, but with appropriate Legislative input as to how this important agency would regulate these tax-revenue-rich industries. In other words, the Legislature was expressing the concern that "we need to get this right," even if it means some delay.
That's OK, in my book. We're doing our jobs.
The criticism of the Legislature, then - for not moving fast enough on marijuana, for not quickly embracing a regulated sports betting system, for pausing temporarily the Governor's plan to merge the state agencies responsible for collecting liquor taxes and lottery proceeds - is unfair. Vermonters deserve careful consideration of these matters, and if that means delay, so be it. Pro or con, we just need to get these things right.
Rep. Linda Joy Sullivan (D-Dorset) represents the Bennington-Rutland District in the Vermont House of Representatives.
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