- Associated Press - Thursday, December 17, 2015

MONTPELIER, Vt. (AP) - Anti-poverty advocates in Vermont called Thursday for a new surcharge of $2 on hotel and motel rooms to pay for housing and other programs aimed at helping low-income residents.

Members of the Governor’s Council on Pathways from Poverty, appointed by Democratic Gov. Peter Shumlin two years ago, said the proposal would raise about $12 million a year, half of which they said should go for affordable housing initiatives and the rest for other programs to help low-income Vermonters.

“If we’re serious about ending homelessness, we have to raise new revenue,” said Linda Ryan, co-chair of the council and executive director of the Samaritan House shelter for homeless people in St. Albans.

The council issued a report calling for rental subsidies, restoring $400,000 for mental health vouchers, and more funding for other programs to reduce homelessness.

While the council was appointed by Shumlin, a top aide to the governor said Thursday the administration was not ready to endorse its revenue proposal. Administration Secretary Justin Johnson praised the work that went into the report, but said “we’re not ready to say we’re for or against any one recommendation” made in it.

Shumlin is to deliver his annual budget proposal to lawmakers next month, and Johnson said a review of the council’s proposals would be part of preparations for the governor’s budget address.

Rep. Kesha Ram, D-Burlington, attended the council’s news conference but also stopped short of endorsing the $2 hotel occupancy fee. Ram said she would want to explore the idea.

The hotel and motel occupancy fee was expected to draw strong opposition from business groups.

Tori Ossala, vice president of tourism at the Vermont Chamber of Commerce, said Thursday that the chamber would rather “focus on economic growth as a way to increase revenues, rather than new taxes and fees.” She said the chamber worked successfully to defeat a proposed increase in the state’s current 9 percent tax on rooms and meals during the 2015 legislative session, by arguing it would make Vermont less competitive as a tourist destination.

The council issued a range of proposals, saying many of them would not require new taxes or fees.

It is backing statewide implementation of a proposal already rolled out in some counties to let low-income drivers get their suspended licenses back by paying off just a portion of the fines they owe.

About 22,000 Vermonters have had their licenses suspended due to the inability to pay fines, said council Co-Chair Christopher Curtis.

“We want Vermont drivers back on the road safely, legally and affordably by reforming our traffic fine system,” he said.

The council also endorsed a “ban the box” proposal to bar employers from including a question on an initial job application about whether a job seeker had ever been convicted of a crime.

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