House forces Senate’s hand in permit reform

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(Host) Republicans in the Vermont House staged a political power play on Friday to force the Senate to act on a permit reform bill. But some permit reform advocates worried that the maneuver could actually delay passage of a bill this year.

VPR’s John Dillon has more:

(Dillon) The House and the Senate have come at permit reform from opposite directions. The Senate has already passed a bill that streamlines local planning and zoning review. This legislation took two years to produce, and developers say it makes the local permitting process more predictable.

The House – at the urging of the governor – has instead focused on Act 250, the state’s main development review law. The House bill is a top priority for Governor Jim Douglas and House Republican leaders. The Democratically controlled Senate has questions about the bill, and has just begun to work on it.

So in order to put more pressure on the Senate, the House leaders attached the entire Senate bill to the House permit reform bill that passed on Thursday. It was an unusual legislative maneuver, and it could put the Senate in the awkward position of rejecting its own bill.

Democrats objected to the power play. Representative John Tracy (D-Burlington) says the session has been relatively bipartisan until now:

(Tracy) “What could have been – and there still is hope that it can be a productive session – kind of gets mired by having this thing tacked on at the end. You know, give the committees a few days to look at the bill, and then if it’s worth its weight it will come out. But to just try to tack it on to this bill in order to get enough votes to send it over, just to play politics with it, makes the rest of the state suffer. And I just think it reflects badly on the legislative process.”

(Dillon) But Republicans argued that joining the two bills made sense, from a procedural and political point of view. House Republican leader Connie Houston (R-Ferrisburgh) said it’s na ve to think that the give and take of legislative business will ever be free of politics.

(Houston) “Don’t forget this is a political building. If we don’t think we’re in a political building, of course we are. It is really on our agenda. The House is adamant that we do have to do Act 250 reform. As you know, the Senate has – basically they feel that the local permit process is basically all that does need to happen. We don’t feel that way, the administration doesn’t feel that way, the business community doesn’t feel that way.”

(Dillon) Meanwhile, backers of the local permit bill worried that the political maneuver threatens passage of the bill they’ve worked two years to develop. Andy Broderick is with Housing Vermont, which builds affordable housing projects. He was part of a committee that drafted the local permit reform bill.

(Broderick) “As members of the committee, we recognize that it is in fact it is putting at risk what was the result of a great deal of time and effort to try and improve local political permitting in Vermont. It seems to be sitting on the precipice of a maneuver that could have serious consequences for the work we did.”

(Dillon) Senate leaders say they’ll work on the House Act 250 bill, and they say they’ve advanced a number of issues on a bipartisan basis this year.

For Vermont Public Radio, I’m John Dillon in Montpelier.

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