Pot legalization measure bogs down in partisan feud

The legislature provided the latest example from a dysfunctional session Monday as a bipartisan effort to legalize recreational marijuana broke down minutes before its public announcement.

Reps. Josh Elliott, D-Hamden, and Melissa Ziobron, R-East Haddam, engaged in an argument a few feet from the podium in the Legislative Office Building hearing room where a press conference was scheduled to make the announcement. After 10 minutes, Ziobron left and Elliott conceded the marijuana measure was stalled — but not dead.

Keith M. Phaneuf / CTMirror.org

Rep. Josh Elliott, D-Hamden

“We were going to try to do that first thing,” Elliott told reporters. “I was not aware of all of the different moving pieces, so I did not include Melissa in the initial conversations … We’re trying to include her now.”

Ziobron said she didn’t get a copy of the marijuana legalization amendment until 9 a.m. Monday — one hour before the press conference — at which time she also learned Elliott and other Democrats had been crafting the measure since Friday.

“This isn’t about headlines. This isn’t about a news conference,” Ziobron said. “This is about what’s good for the state of Connecticut, and doing it last-minute, doing it in a way that is not bipartisan, is very worrisome and should be for every single person in this state.”

She added that most House Republicans oppose marijuana legalization, and she is “sticking her neck out” trying to get some votes from her caucus.

Elliott, a first-term lawmaker who described himself in a March news article as a casual marijuana user, conceded the legalization proposal has a much better chance of passing in the House with bipartisan support. Democrats hold a slim 79-72 edge in that chamber.

“I think everyone is concerned that this is a bipartisan issue, especially because of the balance of power in the legislature,” added Sam Tracy, executive director of the Connecticut Coalition to Regulate Marijuana. “ We do need Republicans on board.”

The House Democratic Caucus proposed a budget in May for the next two fiscal years that relies on $60 million in revenue from marijuana taxation in 2017-18, and $180 million by 2018-19.

Elliott and other House Democrats who prepared an initial draft of the amendment sought to dedicate most of the first fiscal year’s revenue, about $50 million, for municipal education grants. Funds also would be used to study the effects of marijuana on public health and safety.

CTMirror.org

Melissa Ziobron

Ziobron, who has suggested using marijuana tax proceeds to bolster Connecticut’s nearly depleted emergency budget reserve, said any plan to legalize and tax marijuana without a well-crafted, bipartisan blueprint is merely a “revenue grab” born of desperation.

Analysts say state finances, unless adjusted, would run $2.3 billion, or 12 percent, in deficit next fiscal year, and $2.8 billion or 14 percent in the red in 2018-19.

House Speaker Joe Aresimowicz, D-Berlin, and House Majority Leader Matt Ritter, D-Hartford, said the proponents of marijuana legalization will get a chance to offer their amendment before the end of session, but a debate to raise awareness may be a more realistic goal than passage.

“We don’t stifle debate within our caucus. They feel very strongly abut it. They want a debate on the legalization of marijuana. Even the fact it was included in the budget was a good sign for them,” Aresimowicz said.

When asked how much support there is at the Capitol for legalizing marijuana, Ritter said  “I would say we are closer in the House than the Senate is and maybe the executive branch is.”

Capitol Bureau Chief Mark Pazniokas contributed to this article.

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