On January 10, 2024

Flood recovery is priority at start of new session

On Jan. 3 at 10 a.m., the Vermont Legislature opened its 2024 legislative session. As it is the second half of a two-year biennium, we spent far less time on the formalities, pomp, and circumstance of a new biennium. And, with committees and leadership in place, we got right to work. Which is good as we have a huge amount on our plate. 

Every legislator has their own priorities shaped by the communities they represent, their committee work and their individual passions. And people work on these during the session. However, as we head into this session, I would say that our collective priorities coalesce around four or five major themes which won’t surprise you. They are: flood recovery and additional disaster preparedness; housing; climate change mitigation and resilience; community health and public safety. My job as majority leader in the Vermont Senate is to help create agreement to enable passage of legislation addressing these priorities.

In many ways the July flooding has both set and reinforced a number of our top priorities for this session. The impacts, both financial and physical, of the flooding of 2023 will be huge drivers in our budget and policy work. The requirement to set aside state dollars to match the federal aid to Vermont will squeeze many other needs already articulated, and the efforts to mitigate future flooding will influence our climate policy, in addition to our land planning, housing and zoning work. 

A top priority for the Legislature is to address flood recovery and how we can continue to improve on our disaster preparedness. The good news is that many of the investments we made in the aftermath of Tropical Storm Irene made a significant difference to this year’s flooding impact. The flood plains created in Brattleboro and the work in Waterbury saved their downtowns from greater damage this year. 

The bad news and major financial challenge for Vermont is that the costs of the flooding in 2023 to public and private infrastructure, property and business are almost double those of Irene:  $239 million for Irene and to date over $500 million in 2023. Vermont is required to match 25% of our federal aid — which will be an enormous challenge as we also work to finance our other urgent needs.  

Our work this session will be to continue to help Vermont rebuild and recover and to enhance our future disaster preparedness.

Our housing crisis is being felt by many of us in one way or another. Whether you are a business trying to find a home for a new employee, or a young person trying to find an affordable starter home or rental or a seasonal worker trying to find housing – it’s a brutal housing market. Before the floods of 2023 we were experiencing a less than 1% vacancy rate here in the Upper Valley. The loss of housing due to the flooding has further exacerbated our housing and homelessness crisis, especially for low- and moderate-income Vermonters. 

All of us understand the need to build more housing for a wide range of needs:  affordable, mixed income, downsizing, and market value housing. And, with inflation, the loss in workforce, the loss of rental units to short term rentals, and the loss of full-time residential housing to seasonal ownership have resulted in a housing shortage which is a challenge to fix in the short term. While incomes have risen, so have rents and the cost of houses. A top priority for the Legislature this session will be to continue our work reducing barriers to building affordable housing, preventing the trauma and challenges which drive people into homelessness, and incentivizing resilient housing in our downtowns and village centers. 

Preventing further devastation to Vermont by both mitigating the impacts of future weather disasters and reducing climate change by reining in our use of fossil fuels is another top priority. We need to make Vermont more resilient and to reduce our contributions to what is causing these disasters: global warming. Much of our work will be focused on this dual challenge: to addressing climate risks and rebuild with a resilient value, smarter and stronger.

With a record number of opioid overdose deaths and an increase in gun violence and homicides in Vermont, community health and public safety are critically important priorities for us to address. In addition, we face ongoing mental health needs in our schools and communities, educational equity in school policy and funding, and the need to support Vermonters’ wellbeing. Investing more effectively in prevention (from trauma to homelessness) seems a critically important priority now. 

Alison Clarkson can be reached by email:  aclarkson@leg.state.vt.us or by phone at the Statehouse (Tues-Fri) 802-828-2228 or at home (Sat-Mon) 802- 457-4627. To get more information on the Vermont Legislature, and the bills which have been proposed and passed, visit the legislative  website:  Legislature.vermont.gov.

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