House votes in favor of stimulus equity proposal

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MONTPELIER — The Vermont House of Representatives on Tuesday gave preliminary approval to economic stimulus checks for Vermonters who did not qualify for federal COVID-19 aid payments due to their immigration status.

The bill, H.968, would offer payments of $1,200 for adults and $500 for children who were not eligible for the federal CARES Act payments of the same amounts distributed in the spring. It passed to a third reading by a vote of 129-15.

Originally presented the idea as part of Gov. Phil Scott's restated fiscal 2021 budget, the proposal was turned into a separate bill by the House Appropriations Committee, which sent it to the full House with its unanimous support.

Committee member Rep. Charles Conquest, D-Wells River, presenting the legislation, called the proposal "one of those moments when we have a chance to make a clear declaration of our values — a belief that all Vermonters regardless of their circumstances ... deserve to be treated equitably."

The target population for the effort includes undocumented migrant workers as well as persons who are here legally, but are connected by marriage or family status to someone who does not have a Social Security number. According to the Legislative Joint Fiscal Office, as many as 5,000 people may benefit from the program.

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The committee, with assistance from other committees and the Scott administration, sought to make the bill as close to the CARES Act payment program as possible in the interest of equity, Conquest told members. Furthermore, many of those workers were classified as "essential workers" by the governor's emergency order, and went to work despite the risks, Conquest said. "It would be unjust to deny them the same financial support that all other Vermonters got," he said.

Questions from members included the source of its funding, and arguments that money should not be given to undocumented migrant workers.

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While $2 million for the program comes from the general fund, the remainder was previously part of a $7 million fund, derived from tobacco settlement money in 2018, for improvements to the state's Children in Need of Supervision (CHINS) program. Rep. Anne Donahue, R-Northfield, asked if the committee had taken testimony on the reallocation of that money.

The committee did not hear such testimony, Conquest said, but moved forward with approval from the relevant House policy committees. The CHINS funding has not been spent as quickly as had been hoped, he said, and "this to us was a place to look for funds without doing particular damage to aspects of reform proposals."

The legislation provides that leftover funding from the equity stimulus program will revert back to the CHINS fund, Conquest said.

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Members Brian Smith, R-Derby, and Terry Norris, I-Shoreham, were both more critical of the proposal.

Smith said he had no problem giving stimulus funds to green card workers, but did not wish to give money to "people who are not here legally."

"I'd rather see that money to go our own struggling families, struggling veterans and struggling seniors," he said.

Norris said the payments would not stimulate the economy, as migrant workers frequently send the bulk of their pay back home to their families. Noting that his own son graduated from college in May and has found the job market poor, he asked why not give the funds to college students who didn't qualify for the payments. "They know how to spend it in the United States," he said.


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