Friday, May 19, 2023
One week ago, I walked into our final session on the House floor certain of two things. I knew we were in for a long day and I knew that I would be voting against the budget that, in my estimation, fell far too short of our potential for caring for our fellow Vermonters most in need.
One year ago, at about this time, I received a call from Representative Selene Colburn who was completing the second session of her third term as Representative. With that call, she informed me that she would not be seeking re-election and wondered if I might consider running for the seat myself. I’ve been pretty open about my initial reaction to Selene’s request (absolutely not), and about just how reluctant I was to nonetheless run. I’ve always been a political voyeur, and have never been particularly shy about sharing my political opinions and critiques. That being said, I just simply didn’t know if I wanted to take on the steep learning curve I knew I’d be stepping into were I to accept the request. And that learning curve most certainly was steep. However, as I reflect upon the span of time between last May and today, I am nothing but grateful for Selene’s ask and for the generous and patient mentorship of my fellow legislators in the Progressive caucus. The faith of these amazing individuals inspired the courage of my conviction to stand for Vermonters experiencing homelessness who were so betrayed by our final budget.
I am proud of what I have learned over the course of this legislative session and for the moments I was able to impact the process with my own voice in order to remind my colleagues of how important it must remain for us to view our work through a lens of social equity. And, like with any significant learning process, I recall moments of disappointment and disillusionment to see that process interrupted by the forces with which power and privilege will always seek to preserve itself. Once elected, and ahead of my arrival in Montpelier, I would often express my excitement for the pending lessons I anticipated and for the opportunity to get a front row seat with a view of how the sausage actually gets made. To bring that idiom full circle, no – it’s not always enjoyable to watch it happen.
I found myself surprised to watch another member stand and speak in opposition to raising the minimum age of marriage in Vermont to 18. I recall finding myself completely caught off guard by the fact that I would have to present a speech on the floor in order to advocate for legislation that would broaden our definition of sexual assault to include “stealthing”, the act of non-consensually removing a condom during sex. For the curious, that legislation then stalled in the Senate once we passed it out of the House. I could fill an entire journal with similar moments of disillusionment and the impact they have had at the intersection of my idealism and naivete for party politics. Notwithstanding those disappointments, there is so much optimism to be found in the bold and progressive legislation we have passed.
- We passed an amazing child care package that will bring so much needed relief and affordability to struggling parents as well as a living wage to our overworked providers.
- We have permanently extended the free school meals program so that all of our Vermont students can be assured that poor nutrition and hunger will not impede their learning.
- We have passed legislation that will have a significant impact on the processes by which we build housing that is so desperately needed in all regions of our state, while maintaining a balance with our rural landscape that makes Vermont so unique.
- We have passed the Affordable Heat Act that, while not perfect, moves us in the right direction toward a more respectable commitment of response to our climate crises. Additionally, we have already overridden the Governor’s predicted veto of this legislation.
- We have passed new shield laws that protect our health care providers who deliver reproductive and gender-affirming care.
- We have passed gun safety legislation that interrupts the processes by which so many of our children gain access to firearms. I am convinced this legislation will reduce the rates of suicide by firearms. The new law creates safe storage requirements, a 72 hour waiting period for purchases, and expands our ability to initiate red-flag response protocol in order to intervene with gun possession by people who pose an imminent threat of harm.
- We have passed legislation that will increase legislative pay beginning after the next election cycle. This is critical if we want to make service in the legislature available and accessible to a much wider variety of people who would be more representative of all Vermont voices. It is beyond time to create broader access to the opportunity to serve beyond only those who can afford to be here.
This is an impressive list of accomplishments and our Committee on Ways and Means as well as our Committee on Appropriations deserve so much credit for creating a budget that allows for the delivery of these endeavors. The budget passed the house and, ultimately, the Senate – but without the margin that would be necessary to override the Governor’s predicted veto. I am part of the reason that veto proof margin does not exist. Myself, the rest of my Progressive caucus, and an additional 12 Democrats stand in alliance with our conviction that this budget can and must do more to serve our most vulnerable Vermonters who, within weeks, will be evicted from the General Assistance Housing Program without any plan for where they are to be housed. Nearly 3,000 Vermonters will be forced onto the streets or, perhaps, into their cars if they have them. It is my belief that this legislature is abdicating its responsibility to these people, approximately 600 of whom are children, and placing that burden onto our municipalities who we have not fully prepared with funding.
And we are certain that this budget can be adjusted to create a more humane off-ramp for Vermonters currently housed within the hotel/motel program before we terminate the General Assistance program. Nobody disagrees that the program cannot possibly be sustained for the long term. And we have committed so much funding already into new and robust programs that most certainly will serve those experiencing homelessness for the long term. Those programs and that funding, however, need time to take root and take hold. We must not abandon those currently housed in hotels and motels around the state until these programs are up and running.
You will hear the Governor attempt to explain that he has taken surplus money from the General Fund and reserved those dollars in order to maximize federal grants that require a matching amount from the state. This is disingenuous. The Governor and his administration have parked money into places that have never received general fund dollars and some of that funding will do absolutely nothing until the end of 2025, at which point it would be used to match for 2026 federal funding (if allocated by a newly elected General Assembly). Please understand that many of the programs served by these federal grants have always used bonded dollars from the capital bill for the matched portion – never from the general fund. We have never left federal dollars on the table. In total, the Governor’s budget placed approximately $62 million into programs that have always been funded by bonded dollars. The House budget reallocated about half of that money back to the general fund, but we still have money from the general fund infusing the capital bill in ways that have never been practiced before. If I were a Republican Governor facing a Democratic/Progressive supermajority and I wanted to retain control over money in order to not see it spent on a housing program I’ve been so consistently and vocally opposed to, making certain that more than $60 million dollars became locked into inaccessible corners of the budget might provide some of that control.
Those of us who stood in opposition to passing the budget on the final day of the 2023 session last Friday have remained hard at work making certain we have an alternative solution ready to go for when we return to the State House on June 20th for our veto override session. We intend to finalize a budget that serves all of our amazing legislative accomplishments while also continuing to protect our most vulnerable without an overreliance on our minicipalities. It can be no other way.