Legislature: State passes Vermont's largest-ever economic recovery package

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On Friday, June 26, House Speaker Mitzi Johnson banged the gavel to bring the 2020 legislative session to a temporary close. Her gavel was probably a coffee cup, thumping down on a desk in her home office: Since mid-March, the Vermont General Assembly has been conducting its business remotely, meeting via Zoom and streaming live on YouTube.

The statehouse may have been virtual, but the result is tangible: Over the past several weeks, we assembled and voted out the largest emergency recovery program ever passed by the Vermont legislature.

In total, more than $1 billion of federal funding from the CARES Act has already been allocated or will very soon be flowing into Vermont's economy to help healthcare and human services providers, businesses, farms, schools, local government, landlords and tenants — and to make targeted investments in broadband, housing and other initiatives that will help Vermont recover from the COVID-19 pandemic and ensuing economic crisis.

The CARES dollars were not easy to allocate. First, it's not often that Vermont receives a one-time, lump-sum payment for $1.25 billion dollars that must be spent in its entirety by December 31. The funds come with strict guidelines and could be subject to a federal audit and clawback — i.e., "give us our money back" — if improperly spent.

Yet the guidelines are evolving and subject to interpretation. So the legislature's high-stakes challenge was to work quickly but deliberately. Our mission was to take as much testimony as we could — to hear from experts and informed stakeholders — while getting dollars out the door to Vermonters who desperately need it.

Working with Gov. Scott's administration, with the Senate and across multiple policy and "money" committees, in the past two weeks the legislature has passed a series of bills that pumps roughly $825 million of CARES dollars into Vermont's economy. In coordination with the Joint Fiscal Committee, Gov. Scott has already spent or allocated roughly $225 million for frontline COVID expenses. For folks who'd like to read the fine print — and it makes for very relevant reading — you can look up all of these the bills on the Vermont General Assembly website (legislature.vermont.gov) by typing the bill number into the search bar.

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The Coronavirus Relief Funds dollars are scattered across the following key pieces of legislation: H.953, a bill to balance the FY20 budget as the June 30 fiscal year closed, H.961, the budget for the first quarter of FY21, S.350, the first big round of relief grants for businesses and housing, H.965, stabilization for healthcare and human services providers, S.351, dairy, agriculture and forestry, and H.966, the second round of grants for businesses, plus local government, broadband and more housing.

While legislation sets the dollar amounts and parameters, state agencies will develop the detailed grant guidelines, applications or allocation procedures. In many cases, this will happen quickly.

S.350, for example, which provides $70 million in grants for businesses that suffered a revenue loss of 75 percent or greater due to COVID-19 in any one-month period from March to September 2020, compared to 2019, and $23 million to address homelessness while creating construction jobs, passed the legislature June 16 and was signed into law by Gov. Scott on June 19. Funds will start flowing by July 3 or sooner through the Agency of Commerce and Community Development and the Tax Department.

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Meanwhile, H.966 appropriates another $82 million in emergency economic recovery grants for businesses that suffered a 50 percent or greater reduction in revenue due to the COVID-19 public health emergency, an additional $15 million in business grants, plus money for business technical assistance and marketing. This bill passed the legislature June 26 and by the time you read this, I'm sure Gov. Scott will have signed it. To follow these commerce grants and get your business into the pipeline, go to: https://tax.vermont.gov/coronavirus#relief.

In a package of bills this sweeping — and a newspaper column this short — it's not possible to discuss every relief program that the legislature established. Overall, the biggest bill (H.965) appropriates more than $325 million to Vermont's healthcare and human service system — including $275 million to stabilize hospitals, doctors, nursing homes, dentists, mental-health and other practitioners through the Agency of Human Services. This bill also includes $28 million in tightly defined hazard pay for frontline healthcare workers.

In the other big bill (H.966), you'll find the above-mentioned $82 million in commerce funding, plus another $62 million for a wide range of housing programs — support for residential landlords and tenants who are in arrears due to COVID-19, for example — and targeted broadband investments of $20 million that aim, among other priorities, to connect "last mile" Vermonters who need high-speed internet for work, education or tele-health. And finally, S.351 will provide almost $36 million to the agricultural community, including dairy and other farmers.

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As I write this June 30, the bills are passed but the grant guidelines not yet written or published.

The best way to stay informed is to scout the websites of the state agency most directly related to you or to your business. These would include the Agency of Commerce and Community Development (accd.vermont.gov) for business grants, the Department of Housing for residential landlords (accd.vermont.gov/housing), the Department of Agriculture (agriculture.vermont.gov), and for smaller, targeted programs, websites like the Vermont Arts Council (vermontartscouncil.org) and the Working Lands Enterprise Initiative (workinglands.vermont.gov).

The Commissioner of Public Service will administer the broadband connectivity initiatives.

In a June 29 press conference, Speaker Johnson explained that each bill includes dates by which any unspent funds must be reviewed and returned to the state coffers. After a brief summer recess, the legislature will reconvene on Aug. 25, when the state's fiscal picture is more clear, to pass a budget for the full FY21 fiscal year and allocate all remaining CARES dollars.

"We're committed to making sure that Vermont spends every penny of that money," Johnson said. "We won't leave anything on the table."

Rep. Kathleen James represents Bennington-4 (Arlington, Manchester, Sandgate and Sunderland) in the Vermont House of Representatives. You can follow her on Facebook (@kathjamesvtstaterep) or email her: KJames@leg.state.vt.us.


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