MONTPELIER — The Legislative Joint Fiscal Committee on Saturday allocated $75 million in coronavirus relief funds to food and accommodations businesses hard hit by the pandemic, and an additional $6.45 million for Vermonters in need of additional food assistance.
The grants, the result of talks between the Scott administration and committee members during the week after the committee questioned an earlier proposal, will provide relief to food and accommodations businesses that lost revenues between March and September of this year, up to a $300,000 cap. The committee approved the new plan unanimously.
Earlier this year, the Legislature gave the Joint Fiscal Committee, made up of leaders from the House and Senate’s finance panels, the authority to approve or reject administration proposals for reallocating unspent federal CARES Act dollars before the end of the year. The money must be spent by the state on COVID-related expenses by Dec. 30.
When it last met on Nov. 4, the committee had questions about whether the funding was targeted, how the Agency of Commerce and Community Development would determine relief awards, and how that balanced against the state’s social safety net needs. What they came up with, after talks between lawmakers and the Scott administration over the week, was using the businesses’ tax codes — the identifying information entered by businesses on tax documents and business insurance policies — to determine eligibility for the additional relief,
Joan Goldstein, the state commissioner of business development, told the committee that the agency evaluated that methodology, and found the $75 million could pay 100 percent of calculated unmet need up to $300,000 for restaurants, inns and bars, and provide additional relief for businesses outside the hospitality industry.
The relief does not, however, extend to businesses affected by an executive order issued Friday by Gov. Phil Scott, which closed bars, cut off dining room restaurant service at 10 p.m., and prohibited multi-family gatherings.
State Sen. Tim Ashe said the committee and its members never doubted that the hospitality industry needed help, despite how holding off on approving the aid Monday might have appeared to onlookers.
“The interactions we had with the administration are precisely what we hoped to do — which was improve on the original proposal and come back with a superior proposal,” Ashe said.
“The caveat we’re working under is everybody is impacted one way or another,” added Sen Ann Cummings, D-Washington, the committee chair. “We don’t have enough money to make everyone whole. So we’re trying the best we can to find a way to keep everybody afloat … This is a very painful process for all of us. There are no really good decisions. We’re just trying to do the best we can with what we have.”
A number of business owners from the state’s hospitality industry watched the virtual meeting on a live YouTube feed. They introduced themselves as they arrived in the chat window, and thanked legislators for their consideration as the meeting came to a close.
“Thank you! You have just impacted so many lives and ancillary businesses that are tied to our inn!” read a post from the Four Chimneys Inn of Bennington. When the committee met Monday, several members expressed a desire to help Vermonters in need, particularly those who did maxed out their federal food benefits under 3SquaresVT program — the state’s name for its federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program — or did not qualify for supplemental pandemic food assistance provided by the federal government.
Sean Brown, the commissioner the state Department for Children and Families, said about 23,000 Vermont households received very little of that supplemental food assistance, or none at all. The proposal approved by lawmakers would use the remaining $6.45 million to provide $280 to each of those households. Unlike 3SquaresVT, it would be a cash payment that would give families more flexibility to meet other needs beyond food.
To come up with the money for food assistance, a number of other initiatives in the Scott proposal were removed by the committee, with the understanding that they could be revisited if additional CARES Act funding is reallocated, or the federal government provides more relief.
Those initiatives include $2.075 million requested by the Agency of Agriculture to update slaughterhouse and meat processing operations, $335,000 sought by the Agency of Agriculture for “buy local” marketing, and $700,000 sought by the Agency of Human Services to help workers who have tested positive for COVID-19 or asked to quarantine.
“We are trying to target the little we have to the greatest needs at the moment,” Cummings said. “The plight of the pandemic has changed things as we speak.”