The Vermont Senate on Thursday wrapped up what may be their final exercise in remote legislating by narrowly overriding two gubernatorial vetoes and passing two hotly debated housing bills that they couldn’t finish last month.
As expected, the Senate followed their House colleagues in overriding Gov. Phil Scott’s vetoes of two bills that will allow nonresidents in Montpelier and Winooski to vote in local elections.
Less expected was just how close those votes would be, with the 30-member chamber just mustering the 20 votes needed to override a veto.
Three Democratic senators joined the chamber’s seven Republicans in the 20-10 votes. Sens. Dick Mazza (D-Grand Isle), Bobby Starr (D-Essex/Orleans) and Alice Nitka (D-Windsor) all opposed the overrides. None explained their opposition.
Senators also took advantage of the veto session to take up two housing bills they were unable to pass during the crush of more pressing legislation — such as the sprawling $7.4 billion budget — at the end of the regular session, which wrapped on May 21.
The legislature is not restricted to overriding vetoes during a veto session, and Senate President Pro Tempore Becca Balint (D-Windham) signaled last month that lawmakers might take up limited unfinished business during the session.
The two bills — one involving the registration of rental housing, the other requiring contractors to register with the state — turned out to be some of the most contentious of the session, with a few conservative Democrats opposing each.
S.79 aims to improve and expand the state’s rental housing stock in a number of ways. It includes $5 million in grants to help landlords fix up blighted properties and help with downpayment assistance for some first-time homebuyers.
The measure also shifts responsibility for investigating and enforcing substandard housing conditions from town health officers to state fire inspectors. The bill would add five new fire inspectors to the Division of Fire Safety, positions funded by a $35-per-unit fee on owners of rental housing.
Fire inspectors already have jurisdiction over fire, electrical and plumbing safety in residential properties in the state.
The difficult work of investigating rental housing complaints would be better addressed by professional fire inspectors than by town health officers who have “little appetite” for inserting themselves into situations that sometimes involve “violence, squalor and filth,” as Sen. Alison Clarkson (D-Windsor) put it.
Some lawmakers didn't like that the bill requires owners to register most rental properties. Sen. Randy Brock (R-Franklin) called the registry “another hand of Big Brother.”
“The registry, I believe, is heavy-handed, and I believe goes farther than what we need to do in a complaint-driven system,” Brock said.
Supporters have also said that some owners of short-term rental properties are not abiding by the same rules that apply to inns and B&Bs.
Brock, though, argued that requiring landlords to register as a way to enforce rental housing rules was “like saying the way we’re going to control shoplifting is to say, 'We’re going to register every shopper.' That doesn’t make any sense,” he said.
Brock's effort to strip the registry from the bill failed.
Residential rental property is a nearly $1 billion industry in the state, according to Clarkson, and requiring owners to register and pay a small fee was a minor measure.
“We regulate almost all businesses in the state, so this is nothing new,” she said.
The lack of such a registry means the state can’t effectively communicate with landlords, Clarkson said. That can leave them in the dark about new regulations or financial assistance, such as federal COVID-19 relief funds, that could help some landlords.
Properties that are not listed for rent with the general public, as well as agricultural housing, are exempt.
Balint noted that most people who live in rental housing are of lower income, and are more likely to suffer from living in homes with pests, mold and other allergens. A former teacher, Balint said she noticed that former students who lived in such conditions missed the most school.
“We were sent here to represent our constituents, and it’s long past time that we put this system into place to protect them from substandard rental housing conditions,” she said.
The bill passed on a 20-10 vote, with the same three conservative Democrats — Mazza, Nitka and Starr — joining all Republicans in opposing it.
Gov. Scott has expressed concerns about the bureaucracy the bill would create, but he has not said whether he would veto it.
The other bill the Senate passed was H.157, a bill that would require contractors to register with the state to help reduce consumer fraud. Contractors, who are not licensed by the State of Vermont, would need to pay a two-year, $75 registration fee and provide written contracts for work worth more than $2,500.
The bill passed without debate, but again two Democrats — Nitka and Starr — joined Republicans in opposition.