Gov. Phil Scott will allow a wide-ranging spending package that extends emergency housing in hotels for unhoused Vermonters to pass into law without his signature, his office announced Monday.
The bill, H.145, sets almost $19 million aside to keep those currently in hotels there until May 31. After that, eligibility will narrow to people fleeing domestic violence, families with children, those aged 60 and over, pregnant people, people with disabilities, and certain households that recently lost their housing.
Each year, early in the legislative session, lawmakers pass a budget adjustment act to true-up the current fiscal year’s budget. Once a sleepy affair, the legislation has ballooned in size and importance in the pandemic era as Montpelier has contended with unprecedented surpluses and federal aid packages.
This year, the most contentious item concerned Vermont’s housing programs in hotels, which the state dramatically scaled up in the early days of the public health emergency, and for which federal funding dries up March 31.
A House-passed version of the budget adjustment bill had set aside $21 million to keep everyone eligible for housing in motels through June 30, the end of the current fiscal year. The Senate-passed version also anticipated continuing the program until that date — but with new eligibility requirements kicking in a month prior. House budget negotiators ultimately decided to accept the Senate’s position, which also includes $2.5 million to expand shelter capacity.
There are roughly 1,800 households living in motels right now. The Department for Children and Families estimates that 1,045 households currently in the program will remain eligible after May 31.
Though a veto was not widely expected, Scott’s decision to allow the spending deal to pass into law was not a given. House and Senate budget writers basically funded all of his proposals, but Scott had criticized lawmakers for wanting to spend more than initially contemplated by the administration.
“While some of the Legislature’s additional spending may be worthy of consideration, there was no opportunity to weigh their merit against all other investments in the FY24 budget,” the Republican governor wrote in a statement. “Spending this much money so early in the session, without looking at everything in the aggregate means we can’t be sure we’re getting the most out of the historic one-time opportunity for Vermonters.”
Scott had objected in particular to the continued funding for emergency housing, which state officials have argued forcefully is unsustainable absent federal funding. But he had also argued against $50 million for the Vermont Housing and Conservation Board to create perpetually affordable homes and $9.2 million for organic dairy farmers, making the case that both appropriations should be debated as part of the regular budget process.
The governor partially got his way on dairy farmers — lawmakers axed the line item in the budget adjustment and promised to take it up in the “Big Bill,” as the annual state budget bill is called. The VHCB line item was whittled down to $25 million, though more is likely to come in next year’s budget.
Historically strong revenues mean that despite the additional spending greenlit in the budget adjustment by the Democratic-controlled Legislature, a $335 million surplus remains available to carry forward into next year’s budget. But Scott wrote that it is “imperative the Legislature invest revenue surplus with more discipline and clarity.”
“Failing to do so will squander the historic and transformative opportunity we find ourselves in,” he continued.
Other major appropriations also included in H.145 include:
- $9 million for the Vermont Housing Finance Agency to meet demand in the “Missing Middle” homeownership program.
- $5 million to the Agency of Commerce and Community Development for the Vermont Housing Improvement Program, which gives landlords grants to rehab vacant empty units.
- $8.6 million to fund a Reach Up caseload increase.
- $10 million for a traveling nurse contract increase at the Vermont Psychiatric Care Hospital, partially offset by $3.5 million in vacancy savings.
- $22.4 million for a Brattleboro Retreat rate and utilization increase, $10 million of which is state funded.
- $30 million to the Vermont Community Broadband Board to match $84 million in federal grants.
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