In the before times, such as they were, budget adjustments were usually a fairly boring affair. But this session’s mid-year true up has turned into a debate — split along party lines — about what to do about Vermont’s housing crisis.
H.145 was voted out of the House Appropriations Committee by a vote of 8-4, with Democrats unanimously in favor and Republicans opposed. Thursday’s 107-33 vote on the House floor continued the same pattern.
At issue is about $71 million in one-time housing money and $9.2 million earmarked for organic dairy farmers. Neither were in Gov. Phil Scott’s proposal for the budget adjustment, and while Democrats did not subtract any of the Republican’s ideas in the spending plan they advanced, their additions have irked the governor and his GOP colleagues in the lower chamber.
Most contentious is the inclusion of $21 million in state dollars to maintain Vermont’s emergency motel housing program as is until June 30, after federal funding is set to run dry March 31.
Rep. Paul Clifford, R-Rutland City, offered an amendment to whittle the $21 million down to $13.4 million — a figure initially suggested by the House Committee on Human Services, which had recommended that Vermont pay to keep the program but restrict eligibility to seniors, households with children and people with disabilities.
Clifford said the motel program is a drain on local resources in Rutland.
“Police, fire and EMS services have been strained. Numerous cases of vandalism, shoplifting, drug overdoses and even loss of life have been linked to this program,” he argued.
Other GOP lawmakers echoed Clifford. Rep. Art Peterson, a Clarendon Republican, spoke of a local shopping plaza now bereft of customers because of its proximity to a hotel serving unhoused people.
“I can tell you from personal experience, there are people who will not shop there due to the crime that happens there,” he said.
Rep. Brian Cina, P/D-Burlington, then chimed in, asking critics to offer evidence that evicting people en masse would bring down crime. When Republicans punted on an answer — they told him to ask the appropriations committee — Cina offered his own.
“In all the research I've ever reviewed, it shows that lack of housing hurts health and it makes crime worse,” he said. Clifford’s amendment was later shot down on a voice vote.
The extra money for emergency housing included in the BAA also asks the state to come up with a plan for what comes next, when this latest installment of cash runs out. But one Republican raised a concern which, ironically, had been mirrored by at least one Democrat on the appropriations committee just days before.
“When I see the study that's been requested, I think ‘Well, that's great.’ Except I can recall at least two previous times that we've put stakeholders together to say ‘What's next, what are we going to do when the federal funding ends?’ Well, now it has ended,” said Rep. Anne Donahue, R-Northfield.
— Lola Duffort
IN THE KNOW
At a press conference on Wednesday, renewable energy advocates announced support for a forthcoming bill that aims to shift Vermont’s energy usage to more renewable sources.
Supporters said the bill, expected to be introduced in the House soon, would mark a meaningful step in Vermont’s mission to reduce climate emissions. It would require Vermont to use 100% renewable energy by 2030 and double in-state renewables in the same time frame.
Supporters of the proposal include the Conservation Law Foundation, the Vermont chapter of the Sierra Club, Renewable Energy Vermont, a collection of lawmakers and Lt. Gov. David Zuckerman.
“A portion of our electricity comes from out-of-state fossil fuel plants that pollute communities’ air, destroy our planet, and take hard-earned money from Vermonters,” said Chase Whiting, a staff attorney with Conservation Law Foundation. “This is unacceptable.”
But a line item in the proposal has provoked the ire of at least one utility, particularly because the bill would no longer allow electricity created by burning biomass to be eligible for renewable energy credits. The McNeil Generating Station, located in Burlington, burns wood, and is the largest producer of energy in the state, according to Burlington Electric Department.
Officials with Burlington Electric say McNeil’s absence could prompt steep rate hikes and they “oppose the REV proposal in the strongest possible terms.”
— Emma Cotton
Since the beginning of the session, anti-hunger advocates have lobbied lawmakers to extend funding for free breakfast and lunch in Vermont schools. On Wednesday, Vermont’s Joint Fiscal Office released a report outlining possible ways to raise the estimated $26 to $31 million for a year of universal school meals. Among the options:
1. A tax on “sugar sweetened beverages” like soda, juice and sports drinks. Two cents per ounce could raise $31.7 million.
2. A tax on candy, which is currently exempt from sales tax, could raise an estimated $3.7 million.
3. A tax on software. In Vermont, software that is accessed remotely — DropBox, Squarespace, or Amazon Web Services, for example — is also exempt from sales tax. Removing that exemption could raise $18.4 million.
4. Increasing sales taxes overall. For every 0.1% increase in the sales and use tax rate — currently at 6% on eligible products — the state could raise an estimated $9.1 million.
These estimates could change over time, the report noted, and many of the proposed taxes are regressive — meaning they have a disproportionate impact on low-income residents.
— Peter D’Auria
Last week, Vermont was home to 139 organic dairy farms, according to Rep. David Durfee, D-Shaftsbury, chair of the House Agriculture, Food Resiliency, and Forestry Committee. This week, the state had 136.
Organic dairy farmers have been under stress because of stagnant milk prices and high costs to produce their product. Other conditions, such as drought and inflation, haven’t helped the situation, and officials have estimated that as many as 30 organic dairy farms could go out of business in the first half of 2023.
The rest of the organic dairy farms might see some relief from the Budget Adjustment Act, which House lawmakers passed on Thursday. The act includes $9.2 million to be distributed among the farms, pending a plan that would be developed by the Agency of Agriculture in collaboration with farmers in the industry.
— Emma Cotton
Smacked in the face. Punched and choked. Kicked in the stomach so hard you throw up.
Nurses, doctors and administrators from hospitals around Vermont provided those examples of violence — from just the past week — to lawmakers on Wednesday. One after another, in often tearful testimony, the direct care providers also described their most traumatizing experiences from the last few years.
A new bill before the Senate’s Judiciary and Health and Welfare Committees, S.36 seeks to tamp down on these incidents of violence against health care providers.
— Kristen Fountain
ON THE MOVE
The House has approved a bill that seeks to curb what lawmakers and advocates consider abusive litigation filed by perpetrators of domestic abuse against their victims, even long after an abusive relationship may have ended.
“Imagine for a moment that you have been in an abusive relationship, sexually abused, or stalked. All of these are terrifying situations,” Rep. Barbara Rachelson, D-Burlington, said while introducing H.45 on the House floor on Wednesday. “Finally, you think the nightmare will end after you leave the relationship, or watch the person who assaulted or stalked you get charged and sentenced, only to learn that the abuser has found a new way to continue to engage with you, and there is no end in sight.”
That new way to engage and abuse, Rachelson said, is through the courts. As the House Judiciary Committee heard in considering the bill in recent weeks, survivors in Vermont have been subjected to repeat, often petty lawsuits by their abusers, oftentimes as a power play — and a costly one, at that.
The House approved H.45’s second and third readings on Wednesday and Thursday, respectively, by voice vote. The bill now heads over to the Senate.
— Sarah Mearhoff
At the conclusion of Thursday afternoon’s debate on the House floor, Rep. Robin Scheu, D-Middlebury, delivered some news.
“While we were working on the budget adjustment, my daughter was having a baby!” the lawmaker said, to loud and cheerful applause from her colleagues. “I just couldn't be a happier grandmother, so thank you.”
House Speaker Jill Krowinski, D-Burlington, quipped she didn’t think anyone could beat that, and Rep. Emilie Kornheiser, D-Brattleboro, did indeed fail.
“In slightly less interesting news,” Kornheiser said, “tomorrow’s tax workshop is postponed to next Friday.”
— Lola Duffort
WHAT WE’RE READING
Facing a crisis, house panel considers transforming property value reappraisal system (VTDigger)
Senate unveils child care bill with full-day public pre-K for 4-year-olds (VTDigger)
Alburgh man dies following fight at middle school basketball game (VTDigger)
Manchester man arrested for allegedly assaulting police at the Jan. 6 Capitol riot (VTDigger)
Vermont Cannabis Control Board halts sale of contaminated cannabis (VTDigger)
Vermont buttons up against upcoming freeze, offers shelter to people who need it (VTDigger)
Defense attorney blasts Bennington County state’s attorney as rift goes public (VTDigger)
Correction: An earlier version of this story included an incorrect bill number for S.36.
Get Final Reading delivered to your inbox before it's posted online. Sign up free!