On April 26, 2023

Committee work is the ‘beating heart’ of Legislature

By Angelo Lynn

Editor’s note: Angelo Lynn is the editor and publisher of the Addison County Independent, a sister publication to the Mountain Times. 

When the House Committee on General and Housing was handed the omnibus housing bill last week, S.100, committee members were eager to contribute to one of the key legislative issues of this session: finding a way to move the needle on affordable housing. 

All session legislators, mainly so far in the Senate, had been discussing how to tweak provisions of Act 250 so builders and developers could mitigate some of the more burdensome (and in some cases, nonsensical) restrictions that drive the high cost of building residential units in Vermont. Housing issues, as opposed to land use issues, had also been addressed, including adding over $100 million in funding for housing programs.

But despite being a committee whose jurisdiction includes housing, the committee was ultimately denied the latitude to weigh in on any aspect of the Act 250 sections of the bill. Furthermore, it was given a short two days to research, discuss and pass the 62-page bill. 

According to a story by Lola Duffort in VTDigger, the bill was passed out of the House committee, 8-4, but not before testy debate on a directive by House leadership that effectively silenced the committee’s input on this critical aspect of the bill. Duffort noted that the day before the vote, “Rep. Caleb Elder, D-Starksboro, had offered the committee an amendment to introduce three new Act 250 exemptions — one which he said had the votes to pass. But after an hour-long discussion, committee members went into a recess. And when they returned, the chair, Rep. Tom Stevens, D-Waterbury, made clear that Elder’s amendment would not be voted upon.”

“The portfolio of our committee, at this point in time, does not include Act 250,” Duffort reported Stevens saying. He later made clear that, according to Duffort’s report, “his directive to steer clear of Act 250 came from House leadership (House Speaker Jill Krowinski, D-Burlington).” Critics said the move was made to prevent further changes to Act 250 provisions, to which much testimony has been made showing that without minor changes to sections of Act 250 no amount of one-time money will solve Vermont’s high cost of housing.

Committee member Rep. Caleb Elder, D-Starksboro, wasn’t impressed with the leadership’s approach. “How much work have we really done with this? This morning was our first committee discussion on this bill that wasn’t a walkthrough. Today. And we’re being told we have to move it tomorrow. And we’re the housing committee,” Elder said to his fellow committee members Wednesday, and as reported by Duffort.

To protect some of the work his committee had done, he drafted three specific amendments to ever-so-slightly modify one aspect of Act 250’s restrictions on housing (all related to a provision that keeps developers from working on more than 10 residential units within a five-year period within five miles of each other.) The current provision has a perverse impact on some small local builders, impacting their ability, for example, to convert older, large homes into multi-unit residences. 

In an interview, Rep. Elder expounded on his remarks, emphasizing that his goal was to follow a process that would yield the “strongest legislation.”

“I’m an interdisciplinary legislator,” he said, adding that while he “didn’t want to change Act 250 a lot” the committee had heard testimony that clearly showed some changes were needed.

“My style as a legislator is to be a team player on the House floor,” Elder continued, “but when the discussion is in committee and it’s not being allowed to be considered, I don’t hesitate to push back… The committee process is the beating heart of this building; to undercut a committee that has a legitimate jurisdiction is not ideal.”

Was this tiff the end of the world? No, said Elder. The bill passed out of committee 8-4 because, overall, it has many good components that will address, in the short-term, housing shortfalls. And the bill still has to go through more House committees, a full House vote and reconciliation with the Senate. That is, there’s still time to comment. Meanwhile, other legislators tried to allay the leadership’s move by saying it’s part of a legislative process, and not the first time such slights have happened.

But to Elder’s point, committee work should be “the beating heart of the building.” That’s where the nitty-gritty work gets done, where the tweaks and adjustments make better legislation because individual House and Senate members hear from constituents about sometimes egregious impacts that need to be corrected. To stifle that input, particularly in this case, should be called out for what it is: a heavy-handed tactic done for political expediency. 

Rather, House leadership should care less about meeting the self-imposed deadlines of a legislative calendar, and pursue a fuller discussion in committees in the knowledge that new ideas from different perspectives almost always yield better legislation. And it should be obvious that such work would be more representative of the people’s desire — not the desires of a few legislative leaders.

That point was driven home by first-term Rep. Saudia LaMont, D-Morristown, who told fellow committee members, as reported in Duffort’s story, the process made little sense and was deeply upsetting.

“As a person who’s experienced homelessness — chronic homelessness — as a renter and a person who serves in the community, the people who we’re trying to help here, to falsely vote on something and not know where it’s gonna go in the other half puts me in a really gross position,” she said.

“I thought as an elected official that I was here to serve people in a way that was going to do things, and I didn’t realize how splintered it was. So I guess this is the job, is what I’m being told,” she continued. “This is what it is. And this is how it’s been done. And that was unbeknownst to me. It makes sense now that our country and our nation and our state and our systems are the way they are and that so many people are underserved.”

It’s a damning observation. Vermont’s House leadership should take note.

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