Monthly Archives: April 2023

With Plenty of Misrepresentation and Condescension, Plus Some Astonishingly Retrograde Comments, the Vermont Senate Again Refused to Extend the Motel Voucher Program

In the above photo, Sen. Bobby Starr is expounding on the moral failings of the “able-bodied” poor lazing around in taxpayer-funded motel rooms while his colleagues try to conceal their discomfort. It was just one of many dispiriting passages in Friday afternoon’s meeting of the Senate Appropriations Committee, in which the panel briefly took up and immediately dismissed one last effort to extend the motel voucher program (the one that currently provides shelter to 80% of Vermont’s homeless) beyond the end of June.

Well. Now that I’ve dropped you directly in the middle of the story, let’s go back and set the stage. After the full Senate on Thursday gave preliminary approval to an FY2024 budget that would end the voucher program on schedule, two first-term solons — Nader Hashim and Tanya Vyhovsky — did something very unusual for a pair of rookies in the seniority-heavy upper chamber: They tested the patience of their superiors by submitting a last-minute amendment that would have dedicated another $20 million to the voucher program. (It would have also defunded the detestable remote worker grant program, but that was just a bonus.)

The figure was based on conversations with housing advocates, who believe it’s the minimum amount required to prevent a large-scale unsheltering of voucher recipients. But multiple members of the committee, including chair Jane Kitchel, dismissed the number as inadequate. Kitchel said the $20 million would run out by year’s end, meaning the program would require a midyear injection of funds. She refused to engage in what she called “deficit” budgeting.

Hashim, who presented the amendment to the committee, didn’t have the information needed to counter Kitchel’s assertion, and no one else was given a chance to testify. Committee members also claimed that spending more on vouchers would mean fewer dollars for permanent housing, as if it was impossible to shift money from elsewhere in the budget or even — horrors! — raise revenue to cover the cost. So you see, they said with a metaphorical shrug of the shoulders, they had no choice but to end the voucher program.

I could go on, and I will, but let’s get back to Bobby Starr. You won’t want to miss this.

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Well, Now He Really IS a Unicorn

Hearty congratulations to the Vermont Progressive Party, which is no longer the smallest caucus in the Legislature. That honor now passes to the Libertarian Party, which zoomed all the way from zero to one with the dubious acquisition of first-term Rep. Jarrod Sammis, seen above on his revised legislative webpage.

You might recall Sammis as the only one of the 24 “stealth conservative” Republicans I profiled who actually won last November, thanks in part to the rub he got from Vermont’s Favorite Republican:

Congratulations to Gov. Phil Scott for his endorsement of a guy who lasted… not quite four months as an elected Republican. Brilliant move, sir.

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When the Sun Expires and the Earth Is a Cold, Dead Place, Only Cockroaches and Vermont’s Remote Worker Incentive Program Will Survive

Now comes VTDigger to ask a question with only one reasonable answer: “Amid a housing crisis, will Vermont keep paying people to move here?”

Sadly, the reasonable answer — “No” — is not the real life answer — “Of course we will.”

Yep, our Wise Political Heads may be prepared to kick our homeless where the sun don’t shine, but they seem bound and determined to continue the remote worker incentive program. You know, the one that reimburses people to move to Vermont? Meaning it helps people with enough resources to pay their moving expenses up front and wait for the incentive payment to arrive? The program with absolutely no objective evidence to support its premise?

This thing got started in 2018, before the pandemic and before the related in-migration of the affluent helped create a desperation-level housing shortage. It was the brainchild of our incentive-lovin’ Governor Phil Scott, but legislative Democrats glommed onto it like a lamprey that’s found a nice fat fish. And they’re still firmly attached; the current FY24 budget, going before the full Senate today, would provide $1 million in incentives for people who can afford to buy homes in our overpriced, undersupplied housing market.

These are the same lawmakers who routinely delay and defer and defeat good ideas over a supposed lack of evidence. A lack repeatedly and thoroughly documented by Our Inconvenient Auditor Doug Hoffer, who has looked and looked and found no evidence that the program has any tangible impact.

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The Rule of Privilege in South Burlington

When I picture South Burlington in my mind’s eye, I see the curb-to-curb traffic of Shelburne and Williston Roads, the shopping malls, the big parking lots, the land-gobbling subdivisions. I don’t usually think of the area pictured above — the southeastern part of SoBu, which is on the precipice of transformation from countryside to suburbia.

The area in that image is less than two miles wide, but a majority of South Burlington City Council lives comfortably within that frame. Three of the five councilors live within a mile of each other, and only one lives outside the city’s southeastern census tract.

Which explains why the letters section of VTDigger has recently been flooded by councilors and their allies slagging S.100, the bill that would ease regulatory restrictions on housing construction. The issue is literally at their front doors. The sprawl is oozing like The Blob around them, and they want to keep whatever power they have over the process.

It was little more than a year ago that South Burlington City Council voted to block development in large swaths of — you guessed it — the southeastern quadrant.

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Thoughts and Prayers and Jazz Hands

The fix was in from the start. There was never any serious consideration given by any legislative committee or political party, for that matter, to addressing the tsunami of homelessness that’s headed our way this summer. At hearing after hearing, in committee after committee, housing advocates were given brief windows to testify, and their testimony was dismissed as quickly as it was delivered.

The most blatant example happened Friday afternoon in the Senate Appropriations Committee, which was finishing its work on the FY2024 budget. In presenting the housing section of the budget, committee chair Jane Kitchel brought up the advocates’ “desire” to continue the motel voucher program beyond July 1.

Yep, “desire.” She used that word not once, not twice, but three times. “Desire” as in a deep-seated inexplicable craving, not a reasoned policy choice.

Look. Nobody “desires” to continue the voucher program. It’s a flawed and inefficient piece of patchwork. But it’s the only available way to prevent the sudden unhousing of thousands of Vermonters this summer.

Kitchel also omitted the rest of the advocates’ proposal. They put forward a solid, proven plan to use the voucher program as a temporary bridge to more permanent solutions. Pssh, details. Kitchel closed her colloquy by explaining, “I want to raise that because I don’t want anyone to think that I did not bring this up for discussion.”

Gee, thanks. Bring it up by mischaracterizing it and making it clear that any actual discussion would be unwelcome. Not that members of the committee were interested in exploring the subject. They didn’t want to spend any more time on the issue than they had to. There was a lot of looking downward, staring into the distance, shuffling of papers, studious checking of electronic devices, and hardly any discussion.

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…And It Begins

Even as the Legislature moves forward with a budget that will end the motel voucher program this spring, local people are preparing to deal with the consequences. One little piece of that is covered in the new issue of The Bridge, Montpelier’s twice-monthly paper, in a front page story entitled “Local Orgs Prep for 30% Increase in Homeless Population.” (The above photo accompanies the online version of the story.)

The story outlines the frantic preparation efforts involving municipal officials and local nonprofits. It’s pretty damn daunting stuff, and I’m sure a parallel version could be written in any one of Vermont’s cities and larger towns — well, those blessed with an active media presence, anyway.

Short version: Local shelters are full, and the end of the voucher program will increase the area’s unhoused population by an estimated 30%. Two nonprofits that provide shelter and assistance, Good Samaritan Haven and Another Way, are trying to raise $20,000 to pay for camping supplies, food, medical supplies, and other basics.

Yeah, “camping supplies.” We’re giving tents to our unhoused and sending them out to fend for themselves.

The city of Montpelier allocated $425,000 in its current budget for addressing homelessness. That money is likely to run out. The city may open another shelter in its Barre Street Recreation Center, but would have to bear the cost of preparations (the building has issues with lead, asbestos, and lack of accessibility). and would need someone to operate it. Good Samaritan says it doesn’t have the capacity to do so.

These are small-bore examples of what I’ve said before: The costs resulting from ending the voucher program will exceed the cost of extending it. But the state won’t have to pay, at least not directly, so the budget writers can pretend these consequences don’t exist. At least for now.

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Someone on Senate Appropriations Did Something Despicable Today

Here’s a new one! Today, a legislative committee made up of six Democrats and one Republican doxxed the Vermont Democratic Party’s most recent candidate for governor.

The above image is a partial screenshot of an email sent by Brenda Siegel to the committee. Siegel’s personal email address was redacted by me, not by anyone at the committee.

That’s right, they posted an email from Siegel on the Legislature’s official website and included Siegel’s personal email address. And Siegel’s email was clearly NOT intended to be official testimony. You can tell because of the “Hi there” salutation and the fact that further down in the email, Siegel specifically said that she would be submitting testimony later in the day. So someone on the committee deliberately decided to publish an email that wasn’t intended for the official record, and in the process expose Siegel’s personal email address.

Like I said, despicable.

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Senate Budget Writers Set to Build Part of the Bridge — On the Other Side of the Canyon

The Senate Appropriations Committee is very close to approving a budget item for housing, and it’s not good news for the 1,800 households currently living in motels and hotels under a state program set to expire in little more than two months.

The committee didn’t take final action Thursday, but is likely to do so Friday — or Monday at the latest. Chair Jane Kitchel made it clear that there won’t be a substantial additional commitment to housing. There is room to shift some money around, but that’s about all.

The committee would spend some money to boost housing for the unhoused, but only enough to make a dent in this critical shortage. And it would not spend a dime to extend the motel voucher program that currently provides shelter for 80% of Vermont’s unhoused and is set to expire no later than June 30. In short, Approps would start construction on a bridge to housing — but only part of the bridge on the other side of the canyon.

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The Brainiacs at Vermont State U Continue Their Brilliant Handling of the Library Closure Plan

So remember when Vermont State University rid itself of its inconvenient president and announced it was putting a hold on the plan to close the system’s libraries?

All good, then?


Well, the library plan is on hold, but layoffs of library staff are still going ahead.

So reports Sophia Buckley-Clement of the Rutland Herald/Times Argus, who writes that the word came in a delightfully roundabout way: over the weekend from a lawyer for the university system following an inquiry from the Vermont State Employees Association. I guess a Friday newsdump was just too much exposure for them.

For those keeping score at home, VSU began by announcing library closures… then they said there would still be “libraries” but they’d be, in the words of the Monty Python cheese sketch, unencumbered by books… then they said there’d be quite a few books actually, chosen by a process that seemed awfully tedious and unworkable…. and then they gave Grewal the ziggy and said all decisions were on hold…

… and they are, except for the fate of the library staff.

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Quick Follow-Up: How Many Lawmakers Have Experienced Homelessness?

The latest installment of VTDigger’s series on legislative ethics and financial disclosure is essentially a redo of one of my all-time favorite stories about the Statehouse: Taylor Dobbs’ “House of Landlords,” a 2019 exploration of how many lawmakers are landlords, property managers or contractors, and how that affects lawmaking.

The answer then, as it is now, is (a) a whole awful lot who (b) seem disinclined to enact any laws that might affect the interests of the propertied class.

Well, the Digger story focuses on landlords versus renters and as in 2019, the former are thick on the ground while the latter are scarce as hen’s teeth. One consequence of this imbalance, now as then, is a lack of movement on creating a statewide rental registry. Similarly, there’s no action to be seen on limiting no-cause evictions. The very concept is gunned down in a hail of anecdotes about longsuffering landlords and dissolute tenants. Rarely if ever do we hear the other side of the story — hardworking tenants who pay their rent on time and struggle to get their landlords to do necessary maintenance or repair.

So let’s take the next logical step, shall we? The Legislature is deep in discussions about how to avoid — actually, whether to avoid — a crisis in unsheltered homelessness about to hit Vermont. How many legislative decision-makers have ever experienced homelessness?

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