MONTPELIER —The bill creating a statewide rental unit registry and state inspection unit for rental property completed its long and rocky journey to passage on Thursday, as the Senate approved it by a two-thirds margin.
The bill, S. 79, waited an extra month for final passage. The bill passed the House on the final day of the formal 2021 session, but House Republicans who opposed the measure also opposed a rules suspension that would have allowed the Senate to take it up that same day.
Earlier this week, Gov. Phil Scott said he was concerned about the addition of the rental registry and additional state employees to inspect properties, but supported its assistance for landlords and first-time homebuyers in getting older houses back in use.
The day came Thursday, during the second and final day of a veto session necessitated by Scott’s rejection of charter revisions for Montpelier (H. 177) and Winooski (H. 227), and a bill that would bar the release of juvenile arrest records for certain offenses, including fatal car crashes, up to age 20.
The House and Senate overrode the charter vetoes, but chose not to vote to override the juvenile records bill, S. 107.
Speaker Jill Krowinski said the bill needed more time and discussion.
“After consulting with [Senate President Pro Tem Becca Balint] we decided S.107 needed more time to be discussed, and we need to answer some lingering questions before taking it up,” Krowinski said in an email. “This is one bill that is part of our broader work around criminal justice reform and we must make sure to dot our I’s and cross our T’s with these important reform initiatives.”
The charter overrides both passed on a 20-10 roll call vote, meeting the two-thirds majority required by the Vermont Constitution. As such, the changes, allowing non-citizen residents of both cities to vote in local elections, are now state law.
The Senate had approved S. 79 by a 22-7 on March 22, with Sen. Ann Cummings absent. Cummings voted yes on Thursday, and three senators changed their votes from yes to no: Randy Brock R-Franklin; Dick Mazza, D-Grand Isle; and Bobby Starr, D-Essex-Orleans.
In debate, Sen. Michael Sirotkin, D-Chittenden and chairperson of the Senate Committee on Economic Development, Housing and General Affairs, said the current system of local enforcement of building codes has fallen short too many times in too many towns.
“The reports we acquired from a wide range of stakeholders confirmed what I saw,” Sirotkin said. “No one came to the defense of the current system.”
The House’s changes to the Senate bill, Sirotkin said. changers soften the rollout of the rental registry and carved out more exceptions including rental units not offered to the general public (such as family members). It also increased the funding in a program designed to get non-0compliant rental units back in circulation to $5 million from $3 million.
He also explained language the House language on a revolving fund for first-time home buyers earning 120 percent or less of median local income,
“This is one instance where government can provide a very valuable function, and we have a problem that needs fixing,” Sirotkin said.
Balint, D-Windham, also spoke in favor of the bill.
“We were sent here to represent our constituents. It’s long past time that we put this system in place to protect our constituents from substandard rental housing conditions,” she said.
Brock, together with Sens. Brian Collamore, R-Rutland, and Joe Benning, R-Caledonia, put forward an amendment that would have eliminated the registry but provided that tenants could take their case to the state Department of Fire Safety if their city or town inspector fails to follow up a health and safety complaint. That amendment was defeated 20-9 on a roll-call vote.
“There are many many good things I support in this amendment. We need to assure housing that is safe and inspected. But I think the amendment goes farther than it needs,” Brock said, adding that the registry is “heavy-handed and goes farther than what we need to do.”
“It’s very much in my mind like saying the way were going to control shoplifting is by registering every shopper. And that doesn’t make any sense.”
But Senate Majority leader Alison Clarkson, D-Windsor said the Senate Economic Development committee reviewed the proposed amendment and voted against it, 4-1. “Two working groups have concluded that a system of volunteer town health officers doesn’t work effectively,” she said.
Speaking on the charter changes for Montpelier and Winooski, Sen. Jeanette White, D-Windham, noted that in his veto letter, Scott raised concerns about the lack of a statewide voting policy for all legal residents.
“We do have such a process. It is the exact Montpelier and Winooski used,” White said adding that the Legislature could also pass a law making non-citizen voting in local elections legal across the state.
“Montpelier and Winooski used the legal charter change process. Their changes were constitutional legal and were overwhelmingly adopted by town residents,” White said.
All four Bennington and Windham senators voted yes on all three bills.