Committee considers scrapping $35 million housing bond - VTDigger

Committee considers scrapping $35 million housing bond

Tim Ashe

Senate President Tim Ashe is a member of the Appropriations Committee. File photo by Anne Galloway/VTDigger

A key Senate committee is seeking extra time to figure out whether the state budget has room to fund a $35 million affordable housing bond proposed by Gov. Phil Scott.

The Senate Appropriations Committee decided Tuesday to delay consideration of S.100, this year’s omnibus housing bill. The bill contains Scott’s proposed housing bond, which would cost the state $2.5 million per year for 20 years.

The Senate Finance Committee, which has jurisdiction over taxes, voted Thursday night to pay off the bond through a $2-per-night occupancy fee on hotels, motels and campgrounds. Money from the occupancy fee would also pay for the cleanup of Lake Champlain.

Scott has repeatedly said he would veto any bill that raises new taxes or fees.

Senate President Pro Tempore Tim Ashe, D/P-Chittenden, said he will now work with the committees on Appropriations, Finance and Economic Development to find out whether to take the bond, and therefore the need for the occupancy fee, out of the bill.

Ashe said senators generally support affordable housing and that the Finance Committee “put their best foot forward” when picking a $2-per-night fee as a funding source.

But Ashe said now might not be the time to start a new program given that they are working in a “very problematic” situation in which Scott will not support new taxes or fees, and the House budget has already made cuts to social programs.

“What we’re trying to do is find a way to support housing at all affordability levels without it coming at the expense of an existing program,” Ashe said. “The governor, his proposal for the housing construction, was going to put about $1 million minimum of stress on the general fund. That’s what we’re trying to avoid.”

Ashe sits on the Senate Appropriations Committee. He told the members Tuesday that the solution to their problem may be to take the $35 million bond out of the bill for the time being and reconsider the proposal at a later date.

Ashe said that would not kill the proposal, as long as affordable housing is a priority for the governor, the Senate and the House. “I think it means that we’re buying time to keep thinking it through,” he said.

Sen. Jane Kitchel, D-Caledonia, the chair of the Appropriations Committee, said Scott’s budget, and therefore funding for the $35 million bond, depended on millions of dollars in savings from local school budgets and shifting the responsibility for some education spending such as teacher retirement.

The Legislature has not embraced Scott’s approach.

“His proposal didn’t quite materialize the way that was necessary to generate the revenues to support his spending,” Kitchel said. “So the House budget that they have voted out doesn’t have the (funding) in it.”

Sen. Dick Sears, D-Bennington, a member of the Appropriations Committee, said he is already dealing with competing funding priorities this year, and the $2.5 million per year to support the bond appears to have been spent.

“I also understand the governor wanted to spend more on child care subsidies,” he said. “I think that’s important. College scholarships, funding for higher ed — I think that’s important.”

Kitchel said: “The question is, where does this fit within all these competing needs. The committee’s not prepared to make that judgment at this point.”

The Senate Appropriations Committee is scheduled to take up the issue again Wednesday.

Erin Mansfield

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