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Breakaway Democratic, Progressive lawmakers look to force extension of motel housing program

A floor-level view of lawmakers at their desks during a floor debate in the Vermont House of Representatives
Peter Hirschfeld
Vermont Public
House lawmakers debating legislation on the floor earlier this month. Some Democratic and Progressive representatives voted “no” on the state budget last week because it doesn't do enough to extend a federally funded emergency housing program.

A group of Democratic and Progressive lawmakers in Montpelier may have gained new leverage in their bid to extend an emergency motel housing program that’s set to wind down dramatically this summer, but it remains unclear if they’ll use it.

Twelve Democrats and five Progressives in the House of Representatives voted “no” on the state budget last week because they say it doesn’t do enough to address the “humanitarian crisis” that will unfold when nearly 1,800 low-income households lose motel housing over the next six weeks.

The budget still won final approval by a vote of 90 to 53. But if Republican Gov. Phil Scott vetoes the budget, as he’s indicated he might, then House leaders will need to convince at least some of the Democrats who voted “no” on the budget to vote in favor of an override, in order to pass their spending plan into law.

Some of those lawmakers, including Montpelier Rep. Conor Casey, say they won’t be able to support an override unless House leaders agree to increase state funding to partially extend the motel housing program.

“If state government has any role, it’s to make sure children aren’t sleeping in cars,” Casey said this week. “I think you start writing up a budget with that in mind and build off of that.”

“When I found that there were people who were advocating for the homeless population in Vermont, I knew in my heart of hearts that I had to stand with those people, because I couldn’t abandon 3,000 people to the streets.”
Orwell Rep. Joe Andriano

The bid to compel Democratic leaders to increase funding for emergency housing began late in the session, when Lincoln Rep. Mari Cordes started mobilizing a bloc of House representatives who shared her concerns about the abrupt end of the federally funded motel voucher program. The program has provided housing for about 1,800 households since the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic.

More from Vermont Public: Advocates brace for humanitarian crisis when over 2,000 Vermonters lose emergency housing

Cordes told Vermont Public last week that the effort draws on classic union organizing tactics.

“As policy moves forward and we find that our demands and our concerns have not been attended to, then we gradually find ways to step up pressure,” Cordes said.

The movement initiated by Cordes quickly caught the attention of lawmakers such as Orwell Rep. Joe Andriano, who’d become increasingly concerned about the fate of the approximately 3,000 Vermonters who will lose motel housing.

A brick motel with greenery out front and blue sky in the background
Elodie Reed
The Hilltop Inn, in Berlin, is one of the motels the state of Vermont has contracted with to provide shelter for the unhoused.

“When I found that there were people who were advocating for the homeless population in Vermont, I knew in my heart of hearts that I had to stand with those people, because I couldn’t abandon 3,000 people to the streets,” Andriano said. “I reached out to Rep. Cordes as quickly as I possibly could have because I finally saw a possibility. I saw that there was something that could be done to help people.”

Officials at the Agency of Human Services said this week that 760 households will lose housing on June 1, and another 1,050 will lose eligibility on July 1.

Andriano said he previously felt constrained in his ability to exert any influence over budgetary decisions related to the end of the motel housing program.

“What can I do? I’m a first-year person. I’m not on the budget conference committee, I’m not on Appropriations or Ways and Means,” he said. “And so I was just sort of sitting there asking myself, ‘This is so clearly a disaster to me — what can I do to help?”

Twenty-nine Democratic and Progressive House lawmakers signed onto a memo last week that calls for an additional $32 million in next year’s budget to at least partially extend the emergency housing program. That funding, they say, will limit the damage to motel residents “until the state creates a transition plan and/or other housing investments.”

Those lawmakers also want the state to renegotiate nightly rates with motel owners in order to stretch that money further.

“I guess at the moment I’m still kind of weighing my options and have not had really a chance to do my due diligence to make that decision yet.”
Burlington Rep. Barbara Rachelson, on whether she'd vote to override a budget veto

House Majority Leader Emily Long said the budget already contains more than $200 million in new funding to increase housing supply and expand housing assistance. Those allocations include nearly $25 million in additional state funding for the motel housing program, which supporters say would ensure emergency housing is in place during cold weather months.

Casey, however, said that in order for him to vote in favor of an override, House leaders will have agree to a plan akin to what’s outlined in the memo.

“We have the biggest veto proof majority in the history of the state of Vermont here,” Casey said. “We should collectively be in a position of strength, and if we as a body believe this should be in a budget, it’s worth fighting for.”

Casey, who formerly served as executive director of the Vermont Democratic Party, acknowledged the discomfort that comes with bucking leadership, especially on a vote as critical as the state budget.

“I ran the party for three years. I generally vote party line. It’s very uncomfortable doing this,” Casey said. “But when I walked around my community and I spoke to folks who were unhoused … I couldn’t in good conscience vote for this budget.”

Some Democrats who voted “no” on the state budget, however, say they can’t be complicit in upholding a budget veto, notwithstanding the severity of their concerns about a mass unsheltering of vulnerable residents.

“It’s a whole other issue when it comes to override,” said Brownington Rep. David Templeman. “It’s not about the budget, it’s about the veto. I don’t think Gov. Scott has abused his veto power, but I feel like he’s used it too much.”

A woman wearing glasses at a podium on the Statehouse steps, with people in the background
Peter Hirschfeld
Vermont Public
Motel residents, including Cheri Rossi, at the podium, held a press conference outside the Statehouse earlier this month to ask lawmakers to extend the emergency housing program.

Templeman said his decision to vote “no” on the budget was a moral position.

“I just could not vote ‘yes’ to a bill that would let … children and … disabled people who depend on electricity to stay alive, I could not vote on a bill that would release them to unknown circumstances,” he said.

Templeman, however, said the Vermont Democratic Party, and the individual lawmakers who affiliate with it, draw their power from organizational unity. And he said the interests of Vermonters, including the ones living in motel rooms, as best served over the long run when Democrats unite to override vetoes from a Republican governor.

“I need to maintain good relations. And I believe I have more leverage that way, in fact,” Templeman said. “I feel like in the long run, in the long game, these relationships I’m building with members of my own party, this is how I’m going to make a much bigger influence in the long run.”

Burlington Rep. Barbara Rachelson was another Democrat who voted “no” on the budget.

“I think where the disagreement is is in what harm comes from the mass ending of the program, and so for me that is kind of where I just couldn’t vote ‘yes’ for that,” she said. “I gave it my all to think about, can I vote yes? … And I just could not land there and feel good about myself or what I stand for.”

Like Andriano, Rachelson said she was frustrated by individual lawmakers’ inability to play a stronger role in the budget writing process.

“How do we change a structure where just a few people … are making changes and decisions?” she said. “Some of the policies or decision that get made don’t have evidence to support them, or good reasoning. It comes down to power.”

Still, Rachelson said she hasn’t decided yet where she’ll come down on the override vote, if Scott vetoes the budget.

“I am definitely on the fence at the moment,” she said. “I guess at the moment I’m still kind of weighing my options and have not had really a chance to do my due diligence to make that decision yet.”

For Andriano, the decision on whether to vote to override hinges on what he hears and sees over the next four weeks — lawmakers have scheduled a veto session that begins on June 20.

That’ll give lawmakers three weeks to see how the first phase of the motel exits go before the veto question comes to the floor.

“We have a month to demonstrate whether or not we are going to do right by our most vulnerable Vermonters,” Andriano said. “And I am going to be watching over that next month very, very closely to see if we’re living up to our obligations to Vermonters during a housing crisis, or if we are just throwing up our hands and hoping the problem goes away.”

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The Vermont Statehouse is often called the people’s house. I am your eyes and ears there. I keep a close eye on how legislation could affect your life; I also regularly speak to the people who write that legislation.
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