The roughly 2,800 Vermonters who are living in motels through the state’s emergency housing programs might get a three-month reprieve from being kicked out at the end of March.
The powerful House Appropriations Committee has endorsed a $21 million plan to keep the programs going basically as is through June 30. As it stands, federal funding for the emergency housing programs — which Vermont had dramatically scaled up in the Covid-19 pandemic-era thanks to Congressional aid packages — is projected to run dry March 31.
The money for emergency housing was tucked inside the budget adjustment bill advanced Monday by the budget-writing panel on an 8-4 vote that fell along party lines. Democrats voted for the overall spending plan and Republicans were unanimously opposed — an unusual scenario in a state that often passes budget bills with tripartisan support.
House Appropriations chair Rep. Diane Lanpher, D-Vergennes, said Democratic lawmakers wanted to buy enough time to give the state another chance to come up with a plan for the state’s unhoused population.
“We are going to be running out of money and these decisions will come soon enough naturally,” she said. “But we think we don't have to make that decision today.”
The state’s fiscal year begins in July, and the annual budget adjustment act is a midyear true-up of the current budget. Traditionally a small, sleepy affair, it has ballooned in size and importance in recent years, as lawmakers have worked at a rapid pace to get unprecedented surpluses and federal aid packages out the door.
Gov. Phil Scott put his version of the budget adjustment before lawmakers earlier this month, which would shift around about $283 million in state spending with proposals ranging from broadband to health care staffing to rural infrastructure assistance. The budget adjustment bill advanced by the House panel funds the Republican governor’s ideas but also pitches more than $86 million in additional general fund spending — the vast majority of which would go to housing.
In addition to the $21 million for emergency housing, House lawmakers proposed giving the Vermont Housing and Conservation Board an extra $50 million. The board distributes much of the money used to subsidize affordable housing developments in Vermont, and the figure would represent a substantial down payment on the $175 million that advocates have asked for this year to sustain an aggressive pace of construction amid Vermont’s historic housing crisis.
Lanpher said her committee preferred to give VHCB funding now instead of waiting until the annual budget bill — typically referred to as the “Big Bill” — as “a signal to keep those developers engaged and on track to keep building.”
The Vermont Housing Finance Agency now estimates the state needs to build 40,000 housing units by 2030 to return the state to a healthier housing market.
The governor had, in his budget adjustment proposal, also pitched an additional $5 million for the Vermont Housing Improvement Program. The state grant program gives landlords up to $50,000 to rehab empty and derelict rental housing if they agree to rent to people exiting homelessness and keep rents affordable for at least 5 years. The House panel included this in its budget adjustment bill as well.
After housing, agriculture received the biggest spending bump over the governor’s recommendations. As endorsed by the House Appropriations Committee, the bill would reserve an extra $9.2 million to subsidize organic dairy farmers.
Jason Maulucci, Scott’s press secretary, said that while the governor “appreciates” that his funding proposals have received a thumbs up from the committee, he had “concerns” about the additional spending contemplated by lawmakers.
“We have questions about where that money will come from and what could be cut from (next year’s) budget as a result,” he said, adding that the administration felt some spending ideas would be more appropriately dealt with in the larger state budget bill.
Lanpher countered that nobody is cutting from next year’s budget because next year’s budget does not exist yet. But she granted that if her committee’s proposal makes it into law, the $86 million it is proposing to spend over and above what the governor proposed will no longer be available.
“On the other hand, some of what we're doing here I feel needs to get done and is urgent,” she said.
The spending bill is scheduled to hit the House floor for a vote from the full chamber later this week. Then it will head to the Senate.
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