The Vermont House on Friday approved an additional $121 million in aid for businesses — and some workers — strained by the Covid-19 crisis.
The legislation, which is funded out of the $1.25 billion the state has received in federal Covid-19 assistance, contains tens of millions of dollars in grants for struggling businesses, and $20 million to provide “hazard pay” for frontline pandemic workers.
The bulk of the package, $70 million, will fund another round of grants for businesses that saw 50% revenue reductions during the pandemic.
This $70 million will come on top of the $70 million in grants that the Legislature approved last week for the same purpose.
"This has been an incredible time for us, an incredible time for Vermonters. There's a lot of fear, there's a lot of despair and we hope that what we bring to you and to the body today will bring some relief," Rep. Michael Marcotte, R-Coventry, the chair of the House Economic Development Committee said Friday.
"We know we can't do everything, but we are hoping that we will be able to help."
The $121 million in aid for the business community was tacked onto a bill, H.966, which contains more than $100 million in additional Covid-19 spending on housing assistance, broadband expansion and other measures.
In addition to $70 million in grants, the package that passed on Friday contains funding for a variety of other industries.
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The Working Lands Enterprise Fund would receive $5 million worth of grants to distribute to food and forest, agriculture and wood product industries.
The Vermont Arts Council would receive $5 million for nonprofit arts and cultural organizations that suffered revenue losses of 50% or greater.
Minority- and women-owned businesses with five or fewer employees would be eligible for $5 million in grants, split evenly between the two groups. These businesses could receive up to $10,000 in funding.
Businesses that conduct highway and bridge maintenance for the Agency of Transportation, or local highway departments would receive $3 million in grant funding.
The proposal also includes $20 million in "hazard pay" for employees who worked on the frontlines of Covid-19 crisis this spring. This hazard pay program is largely scaled back from the plan passed by the Senate in May.
That plan included $60 million for frontline workers in a variety of industries including grocery store employees, health care pharmacy workers, child care providers and nursing home staff. But the House's plan would cover fewer employees.
Public health, public safety, health care and human services workers could receive up to $1,400 for their work between March 13 and May 15. But retail workers like grocery store employees could not, according to lawmakers' understanding of federal guidance.
"We can't include our grocery store cashiers, all of the people who went to work not knowing that they were going to be safe on the 13th of March," said Rep. Jean O'Sullivan, D-Burlington. "Unfortunately, because of the federal guidelines, we can't."
Rep. Heidi Scheuermann, R-Stowe, questioned whether having separate grant categories for women and minorities would end up "pigeonholing" these business owners and prevent them from applying to other grant programs.
"I'm just curious, is this pigeonholing women and minorities into a particular grant program that won't, clearly, be able to cover anything close to what will be needed," she said.
Marcotte, the chair of the economic development committee, said these business owners could apply to other state grant programs, and if they received multiple offers, would have to choose one of the grants.
He said that his committee wanted to create a program specifically for women- and minority-owned businesses because they're typically the ones that are "left behind" and aren't made aware of existing grant opportunities.
Scheuermann said that in general, she would have preferred grant money to be "streamlined" for all businesses instead of breaking it up and "forcingthrough all these different hoops."
Last week, Gov. Phil Scott criticized lawmakers for not moving fast enough to get aid to businesses, and not adopting the $400 million economic relief proposal he pitched last month. Scott’s proposal included about $200 million in direct grants and $50 million in loans to businesses, in addition to funding for rental assistance, broadband expansion and other measures.
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During his press conference on Friday, the governor said he doesn’t think that the federal Covid-19 assistance Vermont has received so far will be enough to help Vermont’s struggling businesses.
“We're concerned, and we're going to do all we can. But again, even in its entirety, there's not enough money in the $1.25 billion to sustain all the businesses in Vermont who have been impacted,” Scott said.
This week, the House has approved more than $500 million in Covid-19 spending, as the Legislature races to allocate the majority of the $1.25 billion in federal Covid-19 dollars before its planned adjournment next week.
In addition to the housing, broadband and business spending, the House also passed a $300 million health care aid package.
The measures are now awaiting action in the Senate.
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