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Vermont Legislature
Follow VPR's statehouse coverage, featuring Pete Hirschfeld and Bob Kinzel in our Statehouse Bureau in Montpelier.

After Wild Tie Vote In House, Effort To Raise Smoking Age To 21 Gains Steam

Angela Evancie
House Speaker Shap Smith did not cast a tiebreaker vote on an amendment to raise the state smoking age to 21, but announced that it was defeated after a 71-71 vote on the House floor.

An unexpected turn of events in Montpelier saw the Vermont House on Wednesday very nearly pass a measure to raise the smoking age to 21.

A tie vote put the fate of the proposal in the hands of House Speaker Shap Smith, and while the Morrisville Democrat opted to kill the measure for now, the proposal still has legs.

It’s rare enough to see the House cast a floor vote that doesn’t have a preordained outcome, and rarer still to see a tie. But when it came time to read the results of the roll call vote, those voting 'yes' numbered 71. Those voting 'no,' 71.

The proposal was part of amendment to a bill regulating electronic cigarettes, and it would have raised the age at which people can possess or purchase tobacco products from 18 to 21 over a three-year period.

House leaders didn’t expect the proposal to garner as much support as it did. But eleventh-hour soul-searching by at least one Democrat, as well as some surprise ‘yes’ votes from several conservative Republicans, resulted in a tie vote.

As Smith read the tally, bemused lawmakers reacted audibly.

Smith then said, simply, “the amendment fails.”

Rep. George Till, a Jericho Democrat and medical doctor who authored the amendment, says identical measures in other jurisdictions have cut youth smoking rates by 50 percent.

“Right now in Vermont there are 10,000 kids under the age of 18 who are going to die a premature death of tobacco-related deaths if we don’t do anything,” Till said on the House floor.

Furthermore, he said lawmakers had in front of them an effective solution to their health care budget woes.

“This is a clear way to reduce health care spending by millions of dollars, if not hundreds of millions of dollars, per year,” Till said.

Some lawmakers opposed the proposal on procedural grounds, saying it hadn’t been vetted in the committee process.

Others, like Northfield Rep. Anne Donahue, had more substantive objections.

“And our rights as adults, when we become adults, include the right to make bad choices,” Donahue said.

The 71-71 vote, however, had as much to do with political strategy as policy substance. Essex Rep. Paul Dame, a Republican, opposed both the amendment and the underlying bill. But he and a fellow lawmaker had an epiphany. Perhaps the success of the amendment would sink the entire bill.

“So when the vote started, I started keeping track,” Dame said after the vote.

He voted ‘no’ on the amendment initially. By the time voting concluded, his tally showed how decisive his vote might be.

He asked to change his vote, as it allowed by House rules. He says the colleague with whom he’d been collaborating apparently had been keeping such close tabs on the margin, and when Smith announced the results of the vote it was too late for more reversals.

Smith didn’t actually cast a tie-breaking vote, and Burlington Rep. Chris Pearson, a Progressive who voted in favor of the amendment, immediately raised a point on inquiry.

“In the event of a tie,” Pearson asked from the floor, “does not the presiding officer have to vote?”

Smith replied, “no.”

Technically, a tie vote means a measure fails. All Smith had to do was abstain.

Smith says philosophically, he thinks Vermonters who can be sent to war should be allowed to smoke, however poor a decision he thinks that might be. He also says it’s important to respect the committee process, and not govern by rogue amendment.

But Smith says he didn’t vote ‘no’ on the bill because he thinks the proposal could be worthy public policy, his own personal objections notwithstanding. And he says he thinks the concept merits vetting by the House Committee on Human Services.

“And I’m going to speak with the committee and ask them to do just that,” Smith says. “I do see a path ahead for this bill, yes.”

In his bid for support for the amendment, Till asked colleagues not to let concern over procedure trump the public good. He said more than 100 cities nationwide have adopted a 21-year-old smoking age. Elected officials in Hawaii made it the law across the entire state at the beginning of 2016.

“They’ve all seen the light,” Till said. ““We’re not sent here to vote one way or the other because some committee doesn’t find the timing of a proposal convenient. We’re not sent here to vote because it’s not some particular committee’s priority of that year. We’re sent here to vote for the best interests of the people of Vermont. I think with this obvious data, personally, I can’t see how it’s not a moral issue, and how if you vote against this smoking age, you can go home and look at yourself in the mirror and say, ‘I did what’s best for Vermonters.’”

This post was updated at 4:50 p.m. on 3/16/16.

The Vermont Statehouse is often called the people’s house. I am your eyes and ears there. I keep a close eye on how legislation could affect your life; I also regularly speak to the people who write that legislation.
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