THE HOUSE CHAIR of the Legislature’s marijuana committee denied that his ire at State Treasurer Deborah Goldberg over a potential Lottery headquarters move out of his hometown was connected to his push to remove control of the impending marijuana industry from her office.
“It’s not about any one person, but it’s the simple premise that you cannot leave one person in charge of a multi-billion-dollar industry,” state Rep. Mark Cusack of Braintree said after a meeting of the Joint Committee on Marijuana Policy.
The committee met Monday to vote on a new draft of a House bill that makes substantial alterations to the voter-approved referendum legalizing adult use of marijuana. The measure Cusack unveiled last week was met with a hail of criticism because it made a number of changes in the voter-approved law, including an astronomical tax rate, an easier way for local communities to opt out of retail sales, and a new regulatory oversight system.
CommonWealth reported last week that Cusack had voiced his anger at Goldberg at a Marijuana Policy Committee meeting over the Lottery’s decision to seek proposals for new headquarters that might relocate the office outside of its longtime South Shore home. Several officials who have sat in committee meetings said Cusack had expressed his anger over the Lottery issue from the outset, though there was no direct evidence that one was connected to the other.
Officials said the House backed away from a deal on governance two weeks ago made between Gov. Charlie Baker, House Speaker Robert DeLeo, and Senate President Stan Rosenberg. That agreement, according to people familiar with the negotiations, would have expanded the Cannabis Control Commission to five members with the governor and attorney general each making one appointment but giving Goldberg three appointments and control of the commission.
Cusack denied any deal was in place and said his opposition to giving the treasurer oversight was well-documented.
“I have no distrust of the treasurer’s office,” he said. “If you want a stabilized market, you can’t have that market be in question every four years because of the election of one official.”
The redraft, which will go to the full House Wednesday for debate and a vote, cleans up language that could have resulted in an 80 percent tax on some marijuana products. The revised language the tax rate at 28 percent tax on retail sales only – 16.75 excise tax, a 5 percent local tax, and the state’s 6.25 sales tax.
The Senate released a draft of its proposal last Friday, maintaining the voter-approved maximum 12 percent level, which includes a 3.75 percent excise tax, a 2 percent local option tax and the sales tax. But Cusack conceded the levy is a starting point that will likely come down toward the voter-approved 12 percent, which is what the Senate proposal targets.
“They come up, we go down,” Cusack told reporters after the executive session. “It’s always easier on Beacon Hill to be for a tax cut rather than a tax increase. That’s why we start high and we can go lower.”
The House bill also retains language giving the power to opt out of the law to governing bodies of cities and towns rather than a proscribed community-wide referendum that was approved in November’s ballot question. The Senate proposal would keep the referendum process while implementing a method for municipalities to reverse bans.
The House measure would make all five members of the control commission paid positions, as opposed to the Senate bill, which makes only the chair a salaried employee. Under the House proposal, the chair of the commission would receive the same salary as the secretary of Administration and Finance, currently $161,522, while the other four members would receive three-quarters of that salary, about $121,000.
“We cannot regulate a multi-billion industry with volunteers,” Cusack told reporters.
Both bills would also move regulation of the budding medical marijuana industry under the cannabis control commission’s umbrella.
Two major differences continue to be oversight, with the House bill creating the commission as an independent agency under a new statute, and expungement of criminal records for marijuana-related offenses. The Senate bill would place the commission within the treasurer’s office, like the Alcoholic Beverage Control Commission.
The Senate would also clear the records of those convicted of marijuana offenses, something that often disproportionately affects minority communities, said Sen. Linda Dorcena Forry, a member of the marijuana committee. She said expunging the records would allow blacks and Latinos the opportunity to work in the industry. But Cusack said, while he supports the language, it is more appropriate for the issue to be addressed in the Judiciary Committee, where bills dealing with criminal justice are hear.
Advocates for legal marijuana who drafted and backed the ballot question said the House bill continues to be an affront to voters and they endorsed the Senate measure.
“The Senate respected the will of the voters by engaging in a transparent and collaborative process that yielded slight changes targeting municipal and legislative concerns,” said Jim Borghesani, a spokesman for the Yes on 4 Coalition. “The House bill doesn’t respect the will of the voters at all; in fact, it repeals the will of the voters.”
The House plans on taking up the bill Wednesday and hopes to get it to the Senate in time so a conference committee can work out the differences in time to get it on Baker’s desk before the end of the month.
“We’re at 80 percent [agreement],” Cusack insisted. “Imitation is the greatest form of flattery and I’m flattered they included a lot of the language of our bill, much of which I wrote myself. I think we can find compromise on that.”