Dick Sears

State Sen. Dick Sears of Bennington talks during a committee meeting at the statehouse in Montpelier.

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BENNINGTON — In an $8.3 billion budget, $390,000 might not seem like a lot of money. If you do the math, it works out to about 0.005 percent of the fiscal 2023 spending plan approved by the Vermont Legislature on Thursday and sent to Gov. Phil Scott for approval.

But to Bennington leaders and elected officials, that $390,000, earmarked for the Pathways Vermont program to help about 30 individuals and their families find permanent shelter, is winning the lottery.

“It’s not not a huge amount of money when you talk about billions in the state budget. But it means a lot to this end of the state,” said Sen. Dick Sears, D-Bennington. “It helps to solve a really difficult problem of homeless folks with significant issues.”

“Pathways Vermont has been successful in other parts of the state, and I expect they will be here.”

The compromise spending plan passed the House 133-3 with three Republican members opposed, and by a voice vote in the Senate.

It includes a total of $60.4 million designated for the Vermont State Colleges System, including $45.5 million in annual operating funds — a $10 million increase — and a windfall of $14.9 million in one-time funding.

The state colleges are undergoing a transformation in which Castleton University, Northern Vermont University’s Lyndon and Johnson campuses, and Vermont Tech will become one multicampus institution known as Vermont State University. Chancellor Sophie Zdatny said the additional money would be used in part to freeze tuition for a second consecutive academic year.

Sears also pointed to investment in shoring up the state victims compensation fund ($3.22 million) and victim advocate fund ($2.56 million), which he said had been depleted because of delays in criminal trials during the COVID-19 pandemic. Sears said the money would help solidify funding for programs such as the Project Against Violent Encounters in Bennington.

Thursday also saw a pair of Scott’s vetoes upheld by one vote in the House.

The Clean Heat Standard, a bill intended to address climate change by mandating fuel dealers purchase clean fuel credits, was defeated 99-51 — one vote shy of the two-thirds majority needed to pass the bill into law. Democrats Nelson Brownell of Pownal and Linda Joy Sullivan of Dorset joined unified Republican opposition in voting no.

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Proponents said the bill would help the state transition from fossil fuels to more environmentally friendly heating sources, while opponents said the bill fell short by not requiring a plan developed by the Public Utilities Commission to come back to the Legislature for a vote.

Sullivan, who is stepping down from her seat, said she would comment on her vote at a later date. Brownell had not returned messages seeking comment by press time Friday.

The second veto override, H. 708, would have exempted the expiration of lease agreements from “just cause” evictions in Burlington. Brownell and fellow Democrat Tim Corcoran II of Bennington voted no along with Republican members.

“I shared the governor’s concern. I thought it was bad policy,” Corcoran said of the proposal. “I heard feedback from both sides, and the issue came down as this is not a good direction to go in.”

The Legislature also agreed on two bills that would amend Act 250, the state’s signature land-use planning law. One of the bills, S.226, includes Act 250 reforms which, according to Senate President Pro Tempore Becca Balint, “include permitting and land-use regulation reforms that will make it easier to develop new housing where we most want to see it, in vibrant, walkable downtowns and villages.”

The bill also includes funds helping first-time buyers purchase manufactured homes, and grants to mobile home and mobile park owners to shore up foundations.

The other Act 250 bill, S. 234, is likely to be vetoed, Scott said Tuesday, because he felt it would make building new homes more difficult.

Another housing bill, S. 210, takes yet another swing at a statewide rental property registry. Scott has previously vetoed similar efforts.

In other actions before adjournment on Thursday, the Legislature agreed to use a $95 million education fund surplus to lower education poverty taxes, provide free school meals, pay down pension benefits for public employees and fund technical education programs.

Part of the money will be used to clean up PCBs found on school property, after a state requirement that schools test for the chemical, a suspected carcinogen.

Greg Sukiennik covers government and politics for Vermont News & Media. Reach him at gsukiennik@benningtonbanner.com.

Greg Sukiennik has worked at all three Vermont News & Media newspapers and was their managing editor from 2017-19. He previously worked for ESPN.com, for the AP in Boston, and at The Berkshire Eagle in Pittsfield, Mass.


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