BRATTLEBORO — The town's legislative delegation in Montpelier - its three incumbent House members and its two incoming Senators - talked about priorities for the 2023-24 biennium and heard concerns from constituents during an informal meeting on Dec. 10 at Brooks Memorial Library.
Democratic State Reps. Mollie Burke, Emilie Kornheiser, and Tristan Toleno are returning to the State House, while Wendy Harrison and Nader Hashim will begin their first terms in the Senate.
While the Democrats in the House and Senate have selected their leadership for the coming session, committee assignments in each chamber have not been made. Kornheiser said that will be done when the Legislature begins its work the first week of January.
The new senators
Hashim, who previously served one term in the House representing Putney, Westminster, and his hometown of Dummerston, says criminal justice reform, in particular the lack of mental health services for people in crisis, is his hot issue as he begins his Senate tenure.
He said education is another area of emphasis for him, particularly helping students bounce back from two years of disruption due to the COVID-19 pandemic. He hopes to have a seat on the Education Committee in the 2023-24 biennium.
As the parent of a school-age child, Hashim said he knows Vermont's youth “have been through a lot over the past two years” and recognizes “the struggles that families have had to endure.” As schools are seen as “a cultural focal point in all our communities,” Hashim said he wants to contribute whereever he can to help parents and families.
Harrison, a Brattleboro resident with years of nonprofit and municipal management experience, is starting her first term in the Senate. Climate change concerns are topping her agenda. She spoke of a recent Energy Action Network (EAN) conference she attended that examined how Vermont is doing in achieving its goals on reducing carbon emissions and energy use. EAN's report can be found at www.eanvt.org/2022-ean-report.
She said she hopes to get onto the Senate Transportation Committee, which addresses many climate change issues. She said it was an area “where we can improve people's lives in many ways” with policies that help all Vermonters save money as well as save the environment.
Because of her experience in local government, Harrison said she hopes to also get onto the Senate Operations Committee. “I know a fair amount about what the state does in terms of local government,” she said, “but since I've been elected, I've been learning a lot and there is much more to learn about what the state does.”
She said her and Hashim's interests don't necessarily overlap, saying that Hashim has more experience with judiciary issues, but that she and her new colleague are “moving a mile a minute” trying to get up to speed on everything they need to know and the issues they will be facing when they get to the Statehouse.
The House team
Toleno is starting his sixth term in the House and said he hopes to return to the Appropriations Committee in the upcoming session. Toleno said he think he will probably be back on Appropriations since seven of the 11 members who served in the current biennium have retired. While Toleno said that being part of the committee that helps create the annual budget for state government takes up most of his time, workforce issues will again be his priority this session.
Burke will begin her eighth term in the House and she said she will again be focused on transportation issues, with an emphasis on climate change, as a member of the Transportation Committee. She said 40% of Vermont's carbon emissions come from transportation, but “it's very hard thing to deal with” because of how car-dependent Vermonters are due to the lack of public transportation.
Kornheiser served on the House Ways and Committee, and hopes to continue there in the upcoming biennium. As the committee that deals with taxation, she said she serves there because she believes that “taxes are more than just a necessary evil, they are a reflection of our ultimate decision-making in a democracy and how government really can be a force for good.”
In general, she said, the big issues in the upcoming session will be child care, housing, and climate change.
Kornheiser said the Legislature was committed to a proposal that would provide assistance so that no family would spend more than 10% of its income on child care, and that most families would be spending an even higher percentage of their household income.
Unfortunately, Kornheiser said, the problem is that “not enough quality child care is available, nor do we have enough child-care workers to staff the facilities that currently exist.” She said many women who want to work can't because of the high cost and scarcity of quality child care.
“I don't want to pretend that it's not going to cost money,” she said. “It's going to cost money, and I'm hoping we can find a way to tackle that problem so that we can immediately see returns, both in the quality of people's lives and having more people in the workforce.”
Addressing the housing crisis, and the drug crisis
Kornheiser talked about the need for “affordable housing with a lower-case 'a,' meaning housing that people can afford and what that means for having communities that work.”
She sees the issues of the high cost of housing and the scarcity of housing as two separate, yet connected, issues.
She said that in the 2021-22 session, the influx of federal dollars to help states deal with recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic allowed Vermont to make “huge investments in housing, but we did not do a lot of policy to related housing because sometimes money saves us from doing the hard work of [making] policy.”
The hope, she said, is that lawmakers in the upcoming session will be able to make good policy and have the money to implement that policy effectively. Topping the wish list is zoning and regulatory reform to make it easier to build more housing.
George Perides, of Orange, Mass., a landlord in Brattleboro, said his interest in the drug problem and tenant-landlord relationships prompted him to come to the session.
“If people want to do drugs, that is their own prerogative,” he said, “but it affects the lives of the people around them. We have a lot of people doing drugs in our buildings, and that affects the other tenants. Something has to give.”
He said that when he bought his first property in Brattleboro “it came straight with its drug dealers and took us six months to get rid of them.”
It's not that easy to do, he said, but he fears that the number of drug dealers in Brattleboro “directly affects the quality of life in Brattleboro, and if you want to attract people to live here or new businesses, something has to be done.”
Another landlord, Steve Heim of Brattleboro, agreed with Perides and shared his concern that landlords in town might lose the ability to evict known drug dealers if the town adopts a proposal that prevents landlords from evicting tenants without cause.
A petition drive is under way to put on the 2023 Representative Town Meeting warrant an article to enact a “just cause” eviction standard in Brattleboro. Several other municipalities in Vermont are considering a similar measure.
“If you are a landlord like us, and you have a problem tenant that is makeing the lives of the other tenants unsafe, it's kind of an emergency,” said Heim. “For a landlord to try and get the proof that actual drug dealing is taking place could take a year or longer.”
Taking away no-cause eviction “is a danger to safety and housing availability because landlords will take fewer chances on people with any kind of blemishes on their record, and that's not what you want,” he added.
The need, and the marketplace
Heim also brought up what he called “the supply-side challenges” of owning rental properties.
He said the long “bull market” in housing is coming to end due to rising mortgage rates that are discouraging prospective homebuyers. The other issue is the sometimes contradictory desires to preserve open space while trying to find appropriate places to site new housing.
Selectboard member Elizabeth McLoughlin said that Brattleboro offers enough vacant, non-agricultural land and existing buildings that can rehabilitated to help meet the needs for more housing as well as for prospective businesses.
What there is a shortage of, she said, are “incentives for people to come here and build.”
Heim responded that the biggest incentive for builders and developers is the need to make a profit, “and once we go down the subsidy path, it just leads to more subsidizing. It never ends. You have to let the market take over at some point and be able to sustain a developer or builder.”
Some property owners see short-term rentals as being more profitable rather than long-term leases, further reducing rental capacity.
Hashim said in resort towns such as Dover, the proliferation of short-term rentals is having a significant economic impact on the hospitality industry. He supports following the lead of Burlington, which allows only property owners who live in that city to run a short-term rental property and even then limits them to only one rental unit each.
“The hospitality industry is super important to Vermont because we're a tourist-focused state,” said Hashim. “If folks are going to buy multiple properties to use for Airbnbs, that's essentially a business, and they should follow the same regulations as a hotel or a bed-and-breakfast.”
Amanda Ellis-Thurber, who owns and operates Lilac Ridge Farm in West Brattleboro with her husband, Ross Thurber, said that agritourism has been important to keeping their farm in business during a turbulent time for small dairy operations.
Having such a space to use “saved us,” she said.
Ellis-Thurber said that if there is increased regulation for vacation rentals, there should be an agricultural exemption, so family farms can use the income from short-term rentals to support their bottom lines.
Kornheiser said she sponsored a bill in the current session that would have brought vacation rentals back under the same regulations as hotels and inns, with an agricultural exemption for family farms. The bill did not pass.
She cited a recent report that found Vermont had the highest percentage of vacant homes in the U.S., but vacation-rental use made up a tiny percentage of homes that were not lived in full-time.
She said that she was “more focused on the idea of non-primary homes - the second homes, the third homes, the vacation homes - that sit vacant for large swaths of the year that are being heated when no one's in them.”
Heim responded that “it is easy to vilify these people from 'away,'” but said that property taxes in Vermont a among the highest in the nation and that the taxes that second-home owners pay help fund a large percentage of education costs.
Other big issues
Brooks Memorial Library Director Starr LaTronica is advocating for the Legislature to change state statute to include libraries on the list of schools and other public facilities where firearms are prohibited.
She said she is concerned about the safety of the library and its patrons in the wake of incidents around the country when armed protesters have stormed into libraries opposing events such as “drag story hours” or attempting to ban certain books with themes they deem offensive.
Toleno said the House is looking into questions related to the possibility of regionalizing police, fire, and emergency medical services, starting with dispatching these agencies to emergency calls.
Kornheiser said regionalization of police and fire services deserves serious consideration, citing as an example the disparity between a well-staffed, trained, and equipped fire department such as Brattleboro's and the struggles of neighboring towns to keep their volunteer fire departments in operation.
“We have things that work very, very well here that don't work almost anywhere else,” she said. “And we have a lot of communities that absolutely do not have the capacity now to govern themselves in the way that our governance is set up.”
It is not totally the fault of small communities, she said, because there are fewer people who are able to devote time to volunteer to serve.
A non-transportation issue that Burke said she is interested in is raising the legal age for marriage in Vermont to 18.
Currently, 16- and 17-year-olds can marry with parental permission, and Burke said pressure from parents and pastors can push young people into marriages, “sometimes with very bad outcomes.”
She added that there have been several under-18 marriages in Brattleboro in recent years.
Hashim said he hoped to focus on getting a “safe harbor law” enacted. Such a law would protect those who come to Vermont seeking reproductive care, including abortions, from being prosecuted by their home states.
Kornheiser said the Brattleboro reps, plus Harrison and Hashim, plan on hosting monthly public discussions at Brooks Memorial Library on the second Saturday of each month, from 10:30 a.m. to noon.