A pair of widely supported spending proposals meant to bolster Vermont’s housing stock have become pawns in a legislative chess match between state lawmakers and Gov. Phil Scott, threatening to tie up tens of millions of dollars in federal relief aid in the process.
The clash centers around two consumer protection policies that would establish registries for both rental housing units and building contractors. Scott, a Republican, has vetoed both measures. But Democrats in the Vermont Senate have decided to push the issues again — this time, by attaching them to separate housing measures that Scott does support.
They passed a bill earlier this month that would both create a rental registry and send $20 million in federal COVID-19 relief aid to an existing program that helps landlords rehab vacant or blighted properties. And they are considering another bill that would establish the contractor registry — along with a $15 million pilot program that the governor is seeking to encourage the construction of modestly priced single-family homes.
Scott, who supports the spending, was not impressed.
At his weekly press briefing on Tuesday, he called the registry bills “poison pills” and demanded that they be untangled from the spending measures so that the state can get the much-needed funding out the door.
“Most legislators, including legislative leaders, have said they agree housing is a priority and a goal we all share,” he said. “If this is truly a shared priority, let's work together to get it done, because Vermonters can't afford the political games when it comes to this issue.”
Lawmakers, meanwhile, are digging in. Sen. Michael Sirotkin (D-Chittenden), who chairs the Committee on Economic Development, Housing and General Affairs, said in an interview that both registry proposals have been tweaked in light of the governor’s concerns.
For example, in response to Scott's argument that the contractor bill would give larger businesses an advantage over mom-and-pop companies, lawmakers have raised the threshold at which someone would need to register with the state. Initially, the bill covered anyone who did work worth at least $3,500. That figure has been raised to $5,000.
Sirotkin lamented that the change would eliminate more than half of the consumers who typically complain about being defrauded. "But we're trying to meet him halfway," he said. (Scott, for his part, has said he would be willing to allow the bill to pass if it set the threshold at $10,000.)
"We plan to go forward and hope he'll read these bills to understand that we've seen the veto message and we responded to it accordingly," Sirotkin said.
Democratic leaders echoed that message in a joint statement Tuesday afternoon that also took issue with the way Scott has voiced his latest concerns.
“What the Governor described today as ‘poison pills’ are legitimate policy disagreements,” read a statement from Senate President Pro Tempore Becca Balint (D-Windham) and House Speaker Jill Krowinski (D-Burlington).
“We have useful avenues to communicate policy differences, and we have worked hard in the legislature to keep channels of communication with the Governor and his team wide open,” they added. “Learning about his objections through a press conference is not productive and does not solve the issues facing Vermonters.”
This isn’t the first time Scott has used his weekly press briefing to criticize the legislature’s handling of Vermont’s COVID relief money. After declaring last year that the state should sink a substantial chunk of its federal haul into housing, he repeatedly called on lawmakers to act quicker, citing the substantial need.
Lawmakers say they have done just that, pointing to last year’s $190 million investment in affordable housing as well as a $55 million line item in the recently-passed budget adjustment act that will help the Vermont Housing & Conservation Board to expand shelter capacity and build more housing.
But Scott also wanted the mid-year budget bill to contain the two spending proposals now slapped onto the registry bills, which would have allocated the funds more quickly. “Unfortunately, due to politics, that didn't happen,” he said Tuesday. “They’re on a slow path to the finish line and won’t get passed anytime soon.”
In response, Democratic leaders said that adopting effective housing policy requires “due diligence.”
“We’re in the midst of assembling thoughtful legislation — with associated funding — that we believe will have a significant impact on Vermont’s housing crisis,” Balint and Krowinski said in their statement. “We hope the Governor and his team are following these bills closely as they evolve.”
Time will tell whether the registry proposals will survive that evolution. Lawmakers may simply be trying to leverage concessions from the administration elsewhere. Or, if they have determined they do not have the votes to override Scott’s vetoes, they may view the broader measures as their only chance of passing the initiatives this session.
The rental registry bill cleared the chamber with 99 votes in favor, one shy of the 100 required to override a veto. The contractor registry bill mustered only 82.