Frustrated lawmaker demands answer to chair’s refusal to allow Act 250 amendment

By Guy Page

A determined, independent young rank-and-file Democrat publicly clashed with his committee chair, who was equally determined to follow House leadership’s direction on S100, the housing bill.

Caleb Elder is a Starksboro musician and renewable power consultant now in his fifth year in the House. Tom Stevens is the longtime chair of the Housing and General Committee. Thursday afternoon, they clashed over whether the committee could consider Elder’s proposed S100 amendment to raise the Act 250 housing development exemption from 10 units to 25 statewide. 

Committee chairs are often in the uncomfortable position of middle management. In return for setting committee agendas and controlling the conversations, they often must defer to the House Speaker and other committee leaders – in this case, Rep. Amy Sheldon, chair of Environment and Energy and the chief architect of Act 250 reform in the House. 

Most of the time, rank-and-filers comply with the direction of the chair and leaders, especially if they’re of the same party. But in this case, Rep. Elder said Act 250 housing reform was important enough to “plant a flag.” And he did – forcefully.

When Stevens informed the committee it wouldn’t be voting on Elder’s amendment because it was E & E’s bailiwick, Elder pushed back. Conversations below are transcribed – with very minor but necessary edits for ah’s, ums, brevity, rabbit trails and repetition – from the committee’s Zoom recording, beginning at 7:54.

Elder spoke at length: 

“I would love to see where it is written down that this committee can’t work on Act 250. I can accept that when committee chairs meet – in a meeting that’s not open to the public frankly – decisions are made. 

“But they’re not disseminated to me. I’ve been here, this is my fifth year. I’ve never heard this rule before. I know that other committees have advanced Act 250 legislation in my time here. I can point the bills out. In terms of testimony I’ve got it lined up. 

“This morning was our first committee discussion on this bill that wasn’t a walk through. Today. And we’re being told we have to move it tomorrow. And we’re the housing committee. When we made the new committees this year, they took away Liquor and Lottery and they said Help Housing, you’ve got this expanded Focus, we’re all in on housing but you’re not allowed to touch housing regulation. 

“Nobody ever told me we’re not allowed to work on this stuff, and I’d love to know where it’s written down. I’d love to know what rule the rule committee passed that said we’re not allowed to do it. Because I can’t find it, I’m looking for it, I asked everybody for it. I’ve asked the clerk for it, I’ve asked the speaker for it, all I’m hearing is it’s the way we’ve always done things. But I’ve got lots of evidence to show that’s not true, lots of specific points to show that’s not the case. 

“This feels like a new rule that is being inserted into a difficult conversation. We’re never going to have all the answers. Our friends down the hall [presumably the E & E Committee] don’t have all the answers. They don’t know about all the hidden consequences.  If we’re gonna rope ourselves in with rules that aren’t written down, and that we just have to believe….even though I literally never been told this until I tried to start working on this bill, then we are going to remain in the non-functioning silos in which we’ve been living.

“And that’s not a surprise, right? It wouldn’t be a surprise to our voters. But what would be a surprise is if we were a little more courageous in tackling this issue for what it is, which is an intractable issue that coming at it from a purely land conservation standpoint is wholly inadequate. If that’s our norm or our tradition we should break it. If it’s a rule, I want to see where it’s written down. 

“Otherwise I’m not following it and I’m certainly not voting for this bill if we don’t change act 250, on principle. We can do one thing, one thing, I’ll vote for it. If we do nothing there’s no way I’ll vote to put it out. Because what’s the point of throwing $61 million at a bunch of programs that have no place to land.

The irony is that Stevens, himself is a passionate advocate for housing (especially housing the homeless) who has been told in recent years, much to his frustration, that some of his own initiatives were untenable. He listened to Elder – and then responded.

“We’re not in a perfect place. We never have been in a perfect place. Everything is incremental and I understand the changes that you’re trying to make, but the idea that nothing that we do in this bill – that it’s pointless – I take offense that you think that the policies that we’ve put forward are trash and don’t have a place….”

“Please don’t put words in my mouth,” Elder interjected.

Stevens: “It’s fine, you said they don’t have a place to live.”

Elder: “Yes, I did not use the word trash.”

Stevens: “No you didn’t.”

Elder: “Thank you.”

Stevens: “That’s what I heard. You didn’t say it. But that’s what I heard. I’ve been asked and told to not go into this territory, because it belongs to the other committee. If that makes me weak in your eyes, so be it.”

Elder: “I did not call you weak, Tom. Don’t put words in my mouth.”

Stevens: “I’m not putting words in your mouth, Representative.”

Elder: “You just did.”

Stevens: “If my feelings aren’t important enough to you, then perhaps we should stop the conversation [and resume in the morning.] But we’re not voting on this amendment.” 

Elder: “I don’t think we need to move this bill by tomorrow. I think we could take more testimony. You want to have it both ways. You want to say we can’t work on this, we’ve got no time, and then you want to say we can’t do this because we haven’t worked on it, I’ll tell you what word I would put in my mouth – gaslighting, that’s what that is.”

The discussion continued, with Republicans Ashley Bartley (Georgia) and Joe Parsons (Newbury) also wanting to take up Act 250. 

In the end, the bill was voted out by an 8-4 vote, with Elder joining Republicans Parsons, Bartley and Larry Labor in the negative. The bill now goes to Energy and Natural Resources – with Housing and General meeting with them at 9:15 AM Wednesday for a joint meetings where Elder and others can express their concerns. 

Categories: Housing, Legislation

6 replies »

  1. There is no spine in any of them. The hive mind must be protected or punishment will follow. Welcome to the Borg, one thought from central command, one eye looking through a monocle and the other one watching the underlings, do as I say or get the janitor’s closet for an office with no committee assignments. We don’t have representatives, we have worker bees for the leadership, hence the hive mind progressive cult.

  2. “If my feelings aren’t important enough to you….”

    This is how the Legislature operates. On feelings. Pathetic.

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