Though they adjourned last month, Vermont lawmakers are preparing to log back on to Zoom once again next week.
Legislators will return June 23 for a remote veto session, during which Democratic leaders will attempt to revive the three bills that Gov. Phil Scott killed this year. They also plan to pass a housing reform bill, S.79, that was blocked by Republicans before the Legislature concluded its work in May.
Earlier this month, Scott vetoed two proposed charter changes that would allow noncitizens to vote in local elections in Winooski and Montpelier. And in May, he struck down another bill, S.107, that would have shielded the records of young adults accused of certain crimes from public disclosure.
Democratic leaders in the House and Senate will need to rally two-thirds majority votes to override Scott’s veto pen. In the House, that means they need the support of 100 legislators. In the Senate, they need 20.
The House approved the Montpelier charter change, 103-39, and Senate approval came on a 21-9 vote, showing Democrats may have the votes to override the governor.
The Winooski charter change had slightly less support, passing 99-44 in the House and 20-10 in the Senate.
In the House, the juvenile records passed in a vote of 88-36, though many legislators were absent. In the Senate, the breakout of the vote wasn’t recorded.
House Speaker Jill Krowinski, D-Burlington, said Democrats are working to build a coalition of support with independents, Progressives and Republicans to gather the support needed to override Scott’s vetoes. In the House, there are currently 92 Democrats, seven Progressives, 46 Republicans and five Independents.
Krowinski said Democrats are “working really hard” to get the votes but wouldn’t say whether her party has them yet.
“There’s strong support for these, but I am working really hard to make sure that every ‘i’ is dotted and every ‘t’ is crossed,” Krowinksi said.
Senate President Pro Tempore Becca Balint, D-Windham, said her chamber has the votes to override Scott on all three bills. The Senate is composed of 23 Democrats and/or Progressives and seven Republicans.
The juvenile records bill that Scott vetoed would have allowed law enforcement to release initial arrest information of those 19 and under if they were charged as adults for any “Big 12” offenses, such as murder, sexual assault or aggravated assault.
But unlike current practice, law enforcement officials wouldn’t be able to release information of juveniles charged with other crimes — including motor vehicle crashes in which someone was killed.
Under the legislation, the age threshold would increase to 20 next year.
Scott said he was concerned about raising the age at which those charged with crimes receive protections meant for juveniles in the criminal justice system.
But Balint said S.107 is part of the Senate’s larger criminal justice reform efforts and that releasing the records of young people who are charged with crimes can harm them in the long run.
“I think it’s important for people to understand that it’s not an outlier,” Balint said of the legislation. “It is our belief that people are able to be rehabilitated.”
Rep. Pattie McCoy, R-Poultney, the House’s minority leader, said she hoped the Republican caucus would vote to uphold the governor’s veto pen. But with only 46 members in the lower chamber, she said House GOP members “need to bring five more people along” to sustain Scott.
McCoy said she didn’t believe coming back for a veto session is necessary nor a good use of taxpayer dollars, given that lawmakers can take up the measures again in 2022. (The Legislature’s two-year cycle, or biennium, started this year.)
The Vermont Legislative Joint Fiscal Office estimates that it will cost the state $30,000 to $40,000 per day to fund lawmakers’ remote work next week.
“I don’t believe we should be going back next week for whatever reason because all of what they’re talking about can be done in January,” McCoy said.
Krowinski said that it’s important for the cities of Montpelier and Winooski that lawmakers swiftly attempt to enact the charter changes into law.
“If we can override these vetoes, they can start planning and doing the work for their upcoming elections to ensure that they can expand the participation that they wanted to for noncitizen voters,” Krowinski said.
Balint said she wants to “seal the deal on these three bills and start January with our eyes focused on the next issues at hand.” She said that moving forward with the sweeping housing legislation is also important this year given Vermont’s “incredible housing shortage.”
“These are bills that we’ve worked on for years,” Balint said. “And we are so close, and it’s time to just get the job done.”
While the veto session is scheduled to begin June 23, Balint said lawmakers will likely hold a “token session” that day.
That means the Legislature will technically be in session, but no lawmakers will be working or holding votes until June 24. The token session will allow Senate Democrats to take up the housing reform bill next week, despite Republican opposition.
GOP members have declined to suspend procedural rules and allow Democrats to pass the bill ahead of the typical legislative schedule. Last month, on the final day of the session, House Republicans blocked the measure, refusing to suspend the rules and send it back to the Senate, where it needs final approval before it can be sent to the governor’s desk.
The legislation establishes a rental registry for short- and long-term rental units, and a statewide system to enforce safety standards in rental properties throughout Vermont.
In addition, it would create a grant program for landlords to receive up to $30,000 to fix up existing housing stock and a fund to provide no-interest $50,000 loans for first-time homeowners — specifically aimed at people of color and other would-be buyers from marginalized communities.
In some cases, the bill would also make it easier for landlords to evict tenants during the state’s eviction moratorium — though that is now set to expire July 15.
Republicans are concerned the legislation could discourage investment in the state’s rental housing market and are worried about the cost of administering the new statewide housing system.
“I just really don’t get the sense of why we need to be first in the nation for a rental registry. No other state in the nation has this,” McCoy said.
But Democrats say that passing the measure is critical at a time when the state lacks affordable housing stock. Balint added that it offers important protections for renters.
“We know that we have people across the state that are living in substandard housing,” Balint said.
“This is a step that we can take to actually make sure that when somebody offers a property for rent, that it is safe and habitable,” she said.
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