By Kari Dolan, D-Waitsfield
The General Assembly has adjourned for the year. It is now up to the governor to sign, accept or veto the bills that have passed out of the Legislature this session. One of the bills the governor recently vetoed was H.494 – the state budget bill. The Legislature will return on June 20-22 for a special session to vote to override the vetoes.
Crafting the Budget Bill, H.494: While the governor’s role is to introduce a draft budget in the beginning of the session, it is the Legislature’s job to craft and finalize the budget. H.494 is a balanced budget without using one-time funding for investments in long-term programs. That is not sustainable. H.494 reflects months of work by both the House and Senate. These legislative chambers gathered testimony, took comments at public meetings, and weighed budgetary requests among a wide range of priorities, interests, and needs. The budget bill also reflects the compromises among the House and Senate versions of the budget bill that were arrived at through a committee of conference.
The Budget Bill Reflects Key Priorities: H.494 addresses major statewide priorities including housing, workforce and higher education, expansion of the state’s opioid use disorder treatment system, child care and the environment. We also addressed a major gap in the governor’s proposed budget – a chronic underfunding of wage rates for medical and specialized care service providers (such as providers of mental health services, skilled nursing care at home, or community-based services for those with developmental disabilities). Raising these wage rates is a workforce issue; it will help recruit and maintain staff to meet demand.
The Budget Bill includes a total investment of $211 million for housing -- $102 million for housing assistance and $109 million for new affordable housing. Housing investments will expand affordable, mixed, and middle-income homeownership and rental housing.
Emergency Housing Crisis: One of the most challenging issues the state is facing right now is how to help those nearly 1,800 Vermont households transition from the state’s General Assistance Emergency Housing Program (also referred to as the Motel Housing Program) into more permanent housing. These 1,800 households include families with children, people who are pregnant, Vermonters who are 60 years or older, those fleeing domestic violence, and Vermonters receiving support as part of the social security disability programs.
Since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, Vermont has spent close to $191 million on this program. The monthly vouchers alone have an average monthly expense of $8 million. This program used mostly federal funds to assist Vermonters during the pandemic with temporary housing (although the Legislature added state funding in a budget adjustment to extend the program from March to June).
For over two years, we have been asking the governor’s administration for a plan to aid in this transition, knowing that it would be difficult to sustain the program at current levels without federal funds. Federal funding is ending, and the Budget Bill’s housing investments described above will be a crucial component in our efforts to help Vermonters facing homelessness. For information on the governor’s wind-down of the program: https://dcf.vermont.gov/pandemic-era-ga-program-2023 and executive order on housing directives: https://governor.vermont.gov/sites/scott/files/documents/EO 02-23 - Housing Directives.pdf.
The Veto of the State Budget Bill: Overriding a veto is difficult, requiring a two-thirds vote of both chambers. If the Legislature fails to override the veto of H.494, the outcome could be severe. Vermont would enter the new state fiscal year 2024 (beginning on July 1) with no budget, programs including housing programs to help many Vermonters would be put on hold, and we could very well face a state government shutdown. This is uncharted territory for Vermont; there is no known precedent for a state government shutdown. Vermont does not have any procedures in place on how a limited government would function or a process to pay essential personnel. A state government shutdown would affect all budgets, including federal funds that flow through the state treasury, and all state agencies.
While these are challenging times, I remain hopeful that we will be able to find a path forward, pass a workable budget, avoid a government shutdown and continue to address our housing needs including those facing homelessness. Please reach out any time: