The Scott administration wants to put $8.5 million in unused federal pandemic aid to greatly broaden testing for Covid-19 cases.
The Legislature’s Joint Fiscal Committee heard the plan Friday. The money, part of Vermont’s $1.25 billion in CARES Act money, was originally allocated to Vermont agencies through more than 100 programs set up since the Covid-19 pandemic closed down businesses in March.
But some of that money wasn’t spent, either because not all of it was ultimately needed, or because federal rules blocked agencies from using it.
On Saturday, the Joint Fiscal Committee approved much of an administration proposal to reallocate about $115 million.
The additional request, sent to the committee on Wednesday, came after the Agency of Human Services announced Tuesday it will open new testing sites in Burlington, Middlebury, Brattleboro, Rutland and Waterbury. Agency Secretary Mike Smith said the sites will be open seven days a week, and the tests will be free.
The number of Covid cases in Vermont is expected to rise around 50% in the next six weeks, officials said Tuesday. Case numbers have risen sharply in recent weeks, from 198 cases for the week of Nov. 9 to 593 cases in the week of Nov. 16, and a record 148 cases were reported Thursday.
State officials said that rise will continue despite recent restrictions on social gatherings and other activities.
The administration says the money will go toward making tests available for more than 20,000 teachers and school staff members before Thanksgiving, and to do “surveillance testing” of that population after the Thanksgiving break. It said one-quarter of teachers and staff members statewide will be tested each week through Dec. 30.
The money would also be used to increase weekly testing at the Department of Corrections and increase overall capacity to administer up to 29,400 tests per week in the state. The Agency of Human Services also plans to nearly double the state’s contact-tracing workforce, which now has 40 investigators.
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The agency estimated the expanded testing would cost $8.5 million, said state Finance Commissioner Adam Greshin.
“We have looked around at various appropriations that we made, and operational expenses we have incurred, and we have run some numbers and discovered we do have $8.5 million available,” Greshin said. That includes half a million dollars left over from a larger appropriation made to the Agency of Human Services in May, and some grant money that the Department for Children and Families won’t be able to use, he said.
Under federal rules, the states must allocate all of the CARES Act money by the end of the year, or else it goes to the state’s unemployment trust fund.
“Anytime you allocate $1.25 billion, you’re going to have some appropriations that are too big, and some that are too small,” Greshin said.
The Joint Fiscal Committee usually meets three or four times a year, but this year, with the need to reallocate the unspent CARES Act money, it has already met three times this month. It has 10 days to act on the administration’s latest proposal, but Greshin said he expects a decision Friday.
“My inclination is to support the request,” said Senate President Tim Ashe, D/P-Chittenden and a member of the fiscal committee. “I don’t think they would be asking for the money if it wasn’t part of a coordinated, well-thought-out strategy.”
He said the money must be spent carefully, because lawmakers are running out of time to reallocate unspent money. “We might debate around the edges of how much, or precisely how it’s going to be used, but my inclination is to be supportive.”
Meanwhile, the Department of Finance and Management is still asking state agencies and departments to report their most recent spending of the Coronavirus Relief Fund so the state can figure out how much more money has to be reallocated by the end of the year. The administration is required to send another spending proposal to the Joint Fiscal Committee by Dec. 7, but might do so earlier, Greshin said.
The fiscal committee’s Zoom meetings, broadcast on YouTube, have attracted a wide audience of individuals and business owners. Last Saturday, the panel approved $75 million in additional money for the Agency of Commerce and Community Development’s business grants program, with a coda that hospitality businesses would get all of their financial needs met, up to $300,000.
Throughout the process, business owners in and out of the hospitality field have been writing to lawmakers and administration officials, asking that their sectors be considered for more funding as well.
“We are constantly receiving requests from every advocate who watches YouTube,” Greshin said on Thursday.
The state budget signed in October laid out how the use of the coronavirus relief money should be prioritized, Greshin said, using critical need as a measure.
“Our belief today is the most critical need is testing/health care and economic recovery,” he said. “Testing is critical; it just is. That’s the administration’s view.”
But he added that the financial scenario is changing all the time.
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“Every day we discover new needs, and we look for more money,” he said.
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