Op/Ed

Editorial: A lot left to tackle in the Legislature

ANGELO LYNN

There’s a lot of wrapping-up to do as the Legislature approaches its final weeks of the session. At bat are recently passed initiatives on Act 250 reform, and the clean heat standard; on deck are bills to deal with paid family leave and childcare; in the hole are initiatives on education, health care, agriculture, governance, and a host of other initiatives that need attention but aren’t expected to grab the statewide spotlight. 

Underlying it all is an environment that, at times, reflects the national scene in that there is squabbling between the Legislature and the administration on what’s fact and what’s misinformation, and a preference from the administration to declare what it wants, but not engage in any discussion with legislative leaders to produce legislative compromise.

HOUSING, ACT 250 REFORM

Take the housing bill, S. 100. At the start of the session, there were high hopes that House and Senate economic development committees would be able to reform Act 250 to help provide more affordable housing. Reform that allowed for denser housing in urban settings and within downtown cores were the low-hanging fruit; other measures held the prospect of real change, but that didn’t happen.

By the time the legislation went through environmental and other committees, the compromise was a measure that changes the ‘10-5-5’ rule (where a contractor is limited to building 10 units in five years that are within 5 miles of each other) to ‘25-5-5.’ But that’s only in towns and cities with state-designed downtowns, neighborhood development areas or growth centers, and possibly in village centers in towns with zoning.

It was a small victory for the so-called rural caucus, and apparently wins favor with Vermont Natural Resources Council Executive Director Brian Shupe, one of the strongest environmental lobbying groups in Vermont, and with Vermont’s Housing Commissioner Josh Hanford. 

But for all intents and purposes, it barely moves the needle on Vermont’s housing crisis. In a VtDigger story by reporter Lola Duffort, Vermont League of Cities and Towns Executive Director Ted Brady slammed the compromise for doing too little too late.

“At a time when homeless people are sleeping in hotels, city parks, emergency pods and parking lots, this bill is a half measure. And we don’t have time for half measures,” he said. He also denounced a late amendment that would allow one person, rather than the current 10, to appeal a municipal zoning permit to stall or kill a project. Even though that one person must theoretically have a “particularized interest,” it’s a change that could make matters worse than they currently are.

“That (amendment) will increase the number of appeals. It will reduce the number of housing units being built. So (we) don’t understand that at all,” Brady said.

The bill could be on the floor for passage as of this Friday or bumped until next week. Either way, the amendment should be killed at the very least, and the issue needs to go back on the agenda for further reform next year. Consider this a step forward, but with more work to be done.

CLEAN HEAT STANDARD

As to S.5, the biggest climate change bill of the session, the main point of contention isn’t about the sum of the bill, but rather about whether the bill’s language says what it says. The bill was changed early in the session to a “study” in which the Vermont Public Utility Commission would work out details of the program, estimate costs to the consumer and its impact on fuel dealers, and create a working platform all before it would be presented to the Legislature in 2025 for further deliberation. 

The advantage of this process is that the Legislature would be voting on a working program with defined costs, which could be defeated or amended if it were too expensive. Democrats say such a “check-back” provision means approval this year doesn’t guarantee passage in 2025. 

Gov. Scott, along with most fuel dealers, on the other hand, argue that once passed, it’s a done deal. That’s not true, according to how the law’s drafted, but it could be true as a matter of consequence. That is, because the PUC is allowed to set up a registry of fuel dealers and set in place a vast apparatus to reduce the state’s carbon footprint, there will be a lot of forward momentum on the issue. The governor rightly surmises that momentum will be difficult to stop.

What’s ingenuous about Gov. Scott’s tactic is that he’s trying to sow misinformation about the bill’s language and its impact on consumers, rather than admit his hope, with his promised veto, is to maintain inertia on the issue and do nothing. 

On the other side, Democrats moved the bill to a study because they could see that without firmer numbers on the cost to consumers and how it might negatively affect fuel dealers (or explain to them why it wouldn’t), they might not have the votes to sustain another veto by Scott. Handing it off to a third party, like the PUC, was the logical way to move past the lack of serious discussion between the administration and the Legislature. 

CHILDCARE VS FAMILY LEAVE

Not to be overlooked in terms of cost and its benefit, are the Legislature’s proposals on family leave and childcare. The Senate’s version of S.56 (childcare with 12 weeks of paid parental leave) tallied about $150 million, while the House version cost $128 million but took out the family leave provision, as it passed a separate family leave bill on its own. Even Democratic leaders in the Senate balked at the House’s pricey family leave plan, but here we are toward the session’s end, and both issues (and price tags) are battling for priority.

Of the two issues, the Senate’s version of S.56 deserves top billing. Affordable childcare is a necessity if Vermont is to keep its youth from leaving the state, and if we are to have any hope of securing a labor force to fill available jobs. As important as paid family leave is, it’s a new entitlement that can be postponed until the economy is better defined (recession or not), and we can assess the state’s fiscal capacity.

On a few other bills, Vermont legislators deserve praise for recent passage of a bill that extends the aid-in-dying law to non-Vermonters, and passage of a suicide prevention bill that puts a modest 72-hour waiting period on the purchase of firearms. Kudos also to Gov. Scott for his support of both bills. Still, there’s a lot left to tackle.

Angelo Lynn

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