Yesterday will go down as a case study in how legislative realpolitik works — or how Democratic supermajorities shoot themselves in the foot. Choose your own adventure.
In two separate venues yesterday, majority Democrats negotiated against themselves instead of flexing their political muscle. And the real losers were the thousands of Vermonters experiencing or facing homelessness.
In the early afternoon, the House Human Services Committee approved a memo to House Appropriations spelling out its underwhelming version of a plan to try to avoid an explosion in homelessness. A few hours later, a House-Senate conference committee approved the 2023 Budget Adjustment Act, with House members agreeing with the Senate version that cut $3 million from the emergency motel voucher program. The program would continue through the end of June, but with reduced eligibility after the end of May. More than 750 households would lose their eligibility a month early.
The conference committee move was a master class in keeping away from prying eyes. The House named its three members last week; the Senate followed suit on Monday. The very next day, the committee met with effectively no advance notice and quickly approved a “compromise” that favored the Senate on every area of disagreement. The meeting was over in less than 25 minutes. And only afterward was there any public disclosure of what the committee had approved.
This is all according to procedure, mind you. Conference committees don’t have to give advance warning of meetings. They often fit in their business when the opportunity arises. But usually their meetings include at least some debate. In this case, there was little to none. The deal was done behind closed doors.
This may be within the rules, but the lack of transparency is galling. As was the committee’s acceptance of the Scott administration’s assertion that cutting eligibility is actually the charitable thing to do. The argument goes that there isn’t enough capacity in the program so we should focus the available space on those in the direst straits. Some would say there’s a difference between sticking to the state’s roster of motel units and making a real effort to expand the pool, but I quibble.
House Human Services shared an unfortunate process with the conference committee. As far as I can tell, the proposed memo to Appropriations wasn’t posted online before it was approved by Human Services — and still hasn’t been, as of this writing.
I’m sure someone will argue that inter-committee memos aren’t subject to the same disclosure rules as pieces of legislation. But even if it’s within the rules, it still stinks.
There is one significant piece of good news out of Human Services. They want to eliminate the looming July 1 cliff, when the motel program is set to expire. The committee wants to keep the program going for another year. But they want to slash the price tag, which means a lot fewer homeless folk will be able to get emergency shelter.
A reminder. The administration argues that the emergency housing program needs to go away because its federal funding is going away. But that’s only one side of the equation, and the less impactful side at that. The worst of the pandemic may be behind us, but the housing crisis is worse than ever. Even as the federal funds run dry, there’s a tremendous need to continue the program while we work out longer-term solutions. We can’t simply return to pre-pandemic levels when the need has gone through the roof. Or tarp. Or freeway overpass. Or cardboard box.
You may recall that in early February a coalition of housing advocacy groups put forward a plan called “Bridges to Housing” meant to take us from the present crisis to a sustainable housing supply. Part of that plan was $72 million in next year’s budget to sustain the motel voucher program as it (more or less) currently exists, to allow another year to devise a medium- and long-term plan to eliminate the need for the motel program. That’s $72 million.
House Human Services is proposing $31 million.
Ah, the Democrats, always negotiating against themselves. Or against the Phil Scott of their imagination. Instead of proposing a plan to meet the need, they seem to be aiming for a plan that the governor will agree to.
And despite the administration’s insistence on eliminating the program, they’ll almost certainly agree to some form of extension. If the governor vetoed the FY24 budget over this issue, he’d be cast as the unreformed Scrooge willing to kick thousands of Vermonters out on the street to save a relative pittance in the budget.
It shouldn’t be a concern anyway. That’s what supermajorities are for. So why on Earth is the Human Services Committee, which ought to be a voice for the voiceless, trying to get by with minimal and inadequate funding?
You’d have to ask them. More specifically, you’d have to ask progressive stalwart Rep. Taylor Small, who presented this proposal to the full committee last Thursday.
Ironically, I’m hearing that the budget-writers at House Appropriations may be inclined toward more generous funding. On what scale I can’t say. But it’d be a surprising role reversal for for the green-eyeshade gang to be more generous than the committee charged with meeting the needs of Vermont’s most vulnerable.
That’s what we’re reduced to hoping for, anyway. Thanks, supermajority.
Kick them out in 2024 and vote in more progressives. No excuse for this, with or without politics and campaign money at stake.