Lake Paran Village Apts

One of the buildings at Lake Paran Village Apartments along Paran Road in Shaftsbury. The 22-unit Lake Paran Village Apartments will address the continued demand for new affordable housing in the North Bennington Village and Shaftsbury communities.

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MONTPELIER — The Legislature worked toward adjournment on Thursday, as members reached a conference committee agreement on the Fiscal 2022 budget and passed bills on unemployment insurance and a statewide registry for apartment units.

According to Sen. Dick Sears, D-Bennington, a member of the budget conference committee, one significant issue separated the six conferees on the $7.3 billion spending plan: whether funds for post-employment benefits for teachers, such as health care, would come out of the general fund, as the House preferred, or out of the Education Fund, as desired by the Senate. In the end, the conferees settled on the Education Fund.

The Senate, scheduled to begin its session at 9:30 a.m. Friday, is due to take up the budget first. As a conference committee report, it must be voted up or down without further amendment. If it passes, it will then proceed to the House. Budget documents are available on the Joint Fiscal Office website.

An adjournment deadline has been set for Saturday, but lawmakers hope to finish business before the weekend.

REGISTRY PASSES HOUSE

In working toward that goal, the House passed on second reading a bill that would create a state registry of rental units in Vermont and establish a revolving loan program to help bring unused rental properties back up to code.

The bill, S. 79, headed to the Senate after it was approved in two sections — the registry and state inspection program, by a 93-51 roll call vote, and the remainder, including a revolving loan fund for first-time buyers, by voice vote.

Republicans asked to split the question, so members could vote separately on sections for the bill that established the registry and state inspection program. House Minority Leader Pattie McCoy sought a division on the vote, but that was superseded when Rep. Thomas Stevens, who presented the bill, sought a roll call vote.

In the Bennington and Windham delebations, Republican Reps. Sally Achey, R-Rutland-Bennington and Mary Morrissey, R-Bennington 2-2 were joined in opposition by Democratic Reps. Nelson Brownell, Bennington-1, John Gannon, D-Windham 6, Timothy Corcoran II, D-Bennington 2-1, Linda Joy Sullivan, D-Bennington-Rutland, and Rep. Laura Sibilia, I-Windham-Bennington. The remainder of the delegation voted yes.

Supporters of the legislation said the bill would protect the health and safety of renters, provide the state with a single source for data on its rental stock, and help address shortages in housing supply and lack of affordability.

The bill proposes a revolving loan fund providing up to $50,000 to first-time homebuyers purchasing an existing home. That program commits to serving BIPOC buyers as well.

Rep. Tiffany Bluemle, D-Chittenden 6-5, cited American Communities Survey data showing that Vermont has a significant racial home ownership gap: 72.3 percent of white Vermonters own homes, compared to 21.1 percent of Black Vermonters — half the national average home ownership rate of 42.2 percent.

“Closing the racial home ownership gap is a critical indicator of whether we’re on course to be a fair, just society with equal access to opportunity for all,” Bluemle said.

Barre City resident Rep. Tommy Walz, Washington-3, said the bill could be a game changer for communities such as his, where there are at least 40 vacant buildings within the city limits. And Rep. Chip Troiano, D-Caledonia 2, pointed out the state is stiil spending millions of dollars to house homeless Vermonters in hotels as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“How can we care for homeless people if we are questioning whether or not to put an apartment back on line with a grant of $30,000 to help them do that, to eliminate or help with the homeless situation?” Troiano asked.

Republicans who have been or are involved in renting property, including Reps. Robert LaClair, Heidi Scheuermann, Samantha Lefebvre and James Gregoire, said the bill did not adequately balance the interests of landlords with those of tenants, and questioned whether enough testimony had been taken from individual landlords.

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McCoy, who supported the remainder of the bill, said the registry and inspections represented more government growth than she could abide. “I’ve reached my tipping point when it comes to the role and reach of government in the private lives of citizens and their businesses,” she said.

Opponents also warned that the bill might result in the unintended consequence of more apartment owners taking their property offline to avoid the $35 registration fee, or the damages caused by tenants and spotted in inspections.

“There’s no incentive to take a risk on someone with questionable history because you as landlord assume all the responsibility,” LaClair said. “As a landlord you are truly better off to let a unit sit vacant than take a risk on someone with a questionable rental history.”

Offering the renter’s perspective was Rep. Tanya Vyhovsky, P-Chttenden 8-1, who said her personal experience shows the need for health and safety protections.

“I cannot afford to buy a home here, and I think it is unlikely without significant changes to our housing market that I will ever be able to afford buying a home here,” Vyhovsky said. “I have also worked for much of my career with individuals experiencing homelessness, and we undoubtedly have a multifaceted housing crisis.”

Vyhovsky said she’s rented from multiple different landlords and has had health and safety problems “with every single one of them, and have had no real recourse.”

RACIAL EQUALITY

The Senate also passed three resolutions addressing racial equality in Vermont: JRH 6, which declares racism as a public health emergency; SR 10, which condemns anti-Asian and anti-Pacific Islander hate and recognizing May as Asian American, Native Hawaiian, and Pacific Islander Heritage Month in Vermont; and SR 11, which honors the memory of George Floyd by designating May 25 as a “Day of Remembrance and Action.”

“The racial reckoning and coronavirus pandemic both took a deep toll on Black and Asian Americans this past year,” Sen. Kesha Ram, D-Chittenden, the lead sponsor of SR 10 and SR 11, said. “As Vermonters, we have much to reflect on, to celebrate, and to work toward on our journey to root out racism in our state. These resolutions honor where we are on that journey and how much further we have to go. As the first Asian-American person in the State Senate, I am grateful they are resoundingly supported by my Senate colleagues.”

“We use resolutions to express the sentiments of the Senate and the General Assembly,” said Senate President Pro Tempore Becca Balint. “While much more work lies ahead of us to address systemic racism in Vermont, and to celebrate the contributions Black and Asian American Vermonters and all people of color in our state, these three resolutions show our intent to continue efforts to end racism and oppression.”

UI COMPROMISE OK’D

In other business Thursday morning and early afternoon, the House also passed on voice vote an amended version of H. 106, a bill proposing a community schools pilot program that establishes schools as community centers where education, medical and social services are available.

The program will now rely upon the Agency of Education to identify districts that would benefit from the model. That’s a change from the original House proposal, which would have established a competitive grant program.

The House also passed on third reading S.62, a bill addressing the state’s unemployment trust fund and unemployment benefits, and sent it to the Senate, which concurred Thursday afternoon. That bill, which passed the House unanimously Wednesday, was sent to Gov. Phil Scott’s desk.

The bill includes a $25 additional benefit for claimants once a federal increase in benefits ends in September. That reflects a compromise between the Senate version, which sought a new $50 benefit for claimants with dependent children, and an earlier House version, which struck the benefit over concerns that UI benefits, and the Department of Labor, were not the best way to provide that relief.

The bill also continues the state’s relocation and remote worker programs, with incentives of $5,000-$7,500 for workers moving to Vermont to telecommute. It postpones a scheduled increase in the unemployment insurance tax, provides for tuition scholarships for adult students enrolled in workforce development programs at the state’s career and technical education centers. And it provides a combined $300,000 to tech centers for equipment and curriculum development.

Greg Sukiennik covers Vermont government and politics for Vermont News & Media. Reach him at gsukiennik@reformer.com.

Greg Sukiennik has worked at all three Vermont News & Media newspapers and was their managing editor from 2017-19. He previously worked for ESPN.com, for the AP in Boston, and at The Berkshire Eagle in Pittsfield, Mass.