Local News

Senate panel advances $8.5 billion state budget that would end pandemic-era motel housing program July 1

By Lola Duffort/VTDigger

Senate budget writers have advanced their draft of Vermont’s $8.5 billion budget, which would inject tens of millions of new money into child care, health care and the human services — and end, as of July 1, a pandemic-era motel housing program that thousands currently rely on for shelter.

The bill, H.494, as unanimously amended by the Senate Appropriations Committee on Friday afternoon, would direct significant sums to housing, including $50 million to the Vermont Housing and Conservation Board, a fifth of which would be dedicated to building out shelter space for unhoused Vermonters. There’s also $10 million in one-time money for the Vermont Housing Improvement Program, which gives landlords grants to get vacant and derelict units back online.

There would also be $26 million for the state’s general assistance program, which helps low-income Vermonters access shelter and other emergency needs. But that sum, which Gov. Phil Scott proposed — and the House agreed to in its first pass at the spending package — will only be enough to shelter about 150 households during any given month, according to estimates from the administration. It would also pay for a revamped adverse-weather program, which funds motel housing on an expanded basis in the winter.

Roughly 1,800 households use the motel program now — a small fraction of what that figure is intended to cover year-round. Advocates have been pleading with lawmakers to double that sum, arguing that with shelters already full and no ready alternatives, thousands risk having no option but to sleep in tents, cars, and the streets.

Brenda Siegel, an activist and former gubernatorial candidate, has been traveling the state collecting testimonials from those living in hotels, blasting out videos on social media. On Friday, she wrote to legislative leaders, compiling dozens of written statements from those living in motels.

“My wife is in the hospital, she just had brain surgery. Our medication requires refrigeration. I’m a recovering alcoholic and drug user. We will die if we lose our housing,” one motel resident wrote, according to the document compiled by Siegel. “I am homeless due to having a stroke. I’m now in a wheelchair. Without this program my life’s in jeopardy,” another said. 

The administration has argued forcefully that the program, which was funded using federal Covid-relief aid — now gone — is simply too expensive for Vermont to sustain on its own. And many lawmakers, particularly in the Senate, have echoed these same arguments, and pointed to the substandard conditions certain motels have offered.

But on Friday, several senators also simply expressed skepticism that vulnerable people really would find themselves in dire situations without it. Sen. Ginny Lyons, D-Chittenden Southeast, said she had confidence that the state would step up.

“The Agency of Human Services isn’t going to allow people who have needs, with support services, whether they’re disabled or whatever — they’re not going to send them out on the street,” she told her colleagues.

“It feels really uncomfortable,” she added moments later. “I’d feel terrible if we thought 1,000 people were going to be put out on the street. But I don’t think that’s reality.”

In an interview after the vote, Senate Appropriations Chair Jane Kitchel, D-Caledonia, also echoed this doubt.

“We don’t know,” she said. “I’ve been around long enough to know that people can be very resourceful.”

If the Senate’s budget construct ultimately makes it into law, new one-time appropriations for housing and shelter construction this year would total about $100 million, since a mid-year spending package that passed into law last month allocated $39 million.

As passed out of the House, the spending bill also significantly increased Medicaid reimbursement rates to several service providers. The Senate appropriations panel’s amendment concurred with these changes, and even slightly increased line items for adult day services and Vermont’s designated and special services agencies. Appropriations for the Vermont State College System were also largely unchanged from what the House recommended.

“I think we placed a heavy emphasis on building a budget that was sustainable,” Kitchel said of her committee’s recommendations.

Scott has adopted an increasingly scolding tone as the spending bill crafted by lawmakers winds its way through the building, pointing to hundreds of millions in new taxes Democrats will need to raise for child care, paid leave, and universal school meals, among other initiatives. 

But on one key point Adam Greshin, his commissioner of finance, was gratified: The Senate’s budget sets aside enough money now to draw down federal funds from the trillion-dollar infrastructure package passed by Congress in 2021.

“The Senate’s budget appears to favor realism over fantasy,” he said. “It’s a little late in the session for cartoons.”

But the Senate is also partly relying on a 20% increase in Department of Motor Vehicle fees to do so — which Scott very much does not support.

“On that point,” Greshin said, “the governor is unmovable.”

The bill is expected to hit the Senate floor next week.

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