Final Reading: Covid-19 homeless hotel program to phase out

The main concourse of the Burlington International Airport in South Burlington seen on Tuesday, June 9, 2020. Photo by Glenn Russell/VTDigger

— The state is beginning to prop up housing support structures as it looks to phase out its hotel voucher program, which it has used to house some 2,000 Vermonters experiencing homelessness during Covid-19. 

Sean Brown, deputy commissioner of Economic Services and incoming commissioner of the Department of Children and Families, presented the plan to Senate Econ lawmakers. The $23 million proposal would prop up support services — like a 12-month rental subsidy program and additional funding for case managers.

Brown said there’s not going to be any immediate removal of the expanded hotel voucher system. It will be funded through September, but the goal is to phase people out of the temporary units over the coming months, he said. 

The state also has its eyes set on ending family homelessness — about 250 families are currently being housed by the state — with the 12-month rental subsidy program to support families, combined with the effort to rehab about 250 rental units by December.

“A motel is not a permanent solution,” Brown told VTDigger in a follow up conversation. “And it comes with a lot of challenges.” – Grace Elletson

— The House has advanced a criminal justice reform package aimed at keeping people out of prison and reducing recidivism. However, the $2 million in upfront funding projected to be needed for the changes remains up in the air. 

S.338, known as Justice Reinvestment II, passed second reading Wednesday afternoon in the House by a vote of 135 to 1. It now heads to a final reading in that chamber. A version of the legislation had earlier this year been approved by the Senate. 

Differences between the two versions as approved by both chambers will need to be resolved.

“We’ll have discussions with the Senate on the changes we’ve made,” Rep. Butch Shaw, R-Pittsford and vice chair of the House Corrections and Insitutions Committtee, said during his presentation Wednesday of the legislation. “I’m sure they’ll want to talk to us too.” – Alan Keays

— The Vermont House gave preliminary approval to legislation that would give Secretary of State Jim Condos the unilateral authority to expand mail-in voting for the general election during the Covid-19 pandemic, after he and Republican Gov. Phil Scott struggled to reach an agreement on the policy last month. 

The lower chamber voted 106-31 in favor of S.348, which removes the need for the secretary of state and the governor to concur on emergency election protocol in 2020. The bill is expected to be given final approval by the end of the week without additional changes, which would require it to return to the Senate. 

However, Rep. Heidi Scheuermann, R-Stowe, who does not oppose expanding mail-in voting, said she plans to introduce an amendment to prohibit political candidates or politically active groups from transporting ballots for residents. – Kit Norton

— The Office of the Attorney General is embarking on a new initiative to address implicit bias in the state. Joshua Diamond, deputy attorney general, told House Judiciary lawmakers that his office would be taking on a Strategic Plan for Equity and Inclusion. 

The plan would help address implicit bias among the Attorney General’s Office and allow the office to provide legal support to Vermonters in an effort to address racial disparities. 

Diamond pointed to racial disparities in Vermont’s prisons, schools and law enforcement practices as areas in need of review and investment. 

“I would be remiss not to reflect on the George Floyd tragedy,” Diamond said, “which highlights once again the reality for many in our community that they cannot rely upon the institutions that many of us take for granted to allow us to feel safe.” 

House Judiciary is supporting the request and is recommending the state invest $30,000 into the plan through it’s Coronavirus Relief Fund recommendations. – Grace Elletson

— Vermont is seeing a hot real estate market as it continues to show slower rates of Covid-19 spreading than neighboring states. But attorneys are struggling to access land records needed to sell and buy properties due to inconsistent safety measures being upheld by town clerks. 

Andy Mikell, state counsel for the Vermont Attorneys Title Corporation, told Senate Gov Ops lawmakers that he’s heard complaints from attorneys who are being told by clerks that they can’t handle documents physically or enter offices. 

One attorney told Mikell that a town clerk would only read the records to them — no copies allowed. Mikell warned lawmakers this was a violation of the state’s public records laws. 

But Carol Dawes with the Vermont Municipal Clerks and Treasurers Association pushed back. She said a majority of staff have been furloughed and that it’s difficult to social distance in the clerks’ small office. 

Dawes told lawmakers about a “battle” with one attorney over email because the attorney wouldn’t wear gloves when handling documents.

Committee Chair Jeanette White, D-Windham, said the Scott administration should announce uniform safety guidelines for clerks to follow at his Friday press conference. 

“To the attorney who won’t wear gloves — ” White began to say — “Call his mother.” interjected Sen. Anthony Pollina, P/D-Washington. – Grace Elletson

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Grace Elletson

About Grace

Grace Elletson is VTDigger's government accountability reporter, covering politics, state agencies and the Legislature. She is part of the BOLD Women's Leadership Network and a recent graduate of Ithaca College, where she was editor in chief of the Ithacan. She previously interned for the Chronicle of Higher Education, The Christian Science Monitor and The Cape Cod Times, her hometown newspaper.

Email: [email protected]

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