Business & Economy

Stimulus will support vaccination, broadband, performing arts in Vermont

Anesthesiologist Anthony Fazzone was among the first to receive the Covid-19 vaccine at Gifford Medical Center in Randolph earlier this month. Vermont will receive $38 million for vaccines in the relief package that was signed Sunday. Photo by Mike Dougherty/VTDigger

Vermonters will see changes to broadband investment and to higher education funding as a result of the $900 billion in Covid-19 relief coming its way next year.

Many of the state’s 30,000 unemployed workers will see their unemployment insurance, which was scheduled to end this month, extended to March. Vermont’s performing arts businesses and theaters will receive an infusion of $30 million, a badly needed rescue package for a sector that was forced to cancel much of its programming. The money is part of the federal government’s $1.4 trillion budget, which was signed into law Dec. 27.

Vermont companies that have survived this year on about $320 million in state economic relief grants – money drawn from Vermont’s share of the $2 trillion CARES Act that was passed last March – will be able to apply for federal Paycheck Protection Program loans, even if they already received one in an earlier round. The loans don’t need to be repaid if certain conditions are met.

The new federal law also includes at least $200 million to help Vermonters with rent and utility payments, and billions nationally for education programs, child care, aid to agricultural businesses and an array of other sectors. Education alone will get about $100 million more in federal funding than it does in a typical year. According to a pre-signature analysis of the bill released Dec. 24 by the state’s Joint Fiscal Office (JFO), the state will receive $38 million for vaccines and another $172 million for Covid testing, tracing and other mitigation measures.

The state will get $900,000 to help with burial and funeral costs for deaths caused by Covid – a .04% share of $2.3 billion earmarked for that purpose nationally.

Analysts are still poring over the huge document to assess the impact on Vermont programs. After the legislative session starts Jan. 6, lawmakers will start the work of allocating the money.

A larger share for Vermont

Vermont’s share of the first CARES Act Covid-19 relief bill, passed in March, was $1.25 billion, a much larger portion per capita than other states received. A provision in the law sets a minimum for small states.

Vermont, with a population of just 630,000, garners the same advantage from the newer Covid-19 relief measures. For example, JFO documents show that Vermont’s share of the rental assistance money is about 0.8% of the total $24 billion, even though the state has only 0.2% of the nation’s population.

It’s not yet clear exactly how much money will flow into the state as a result of the latest Covid-19 measure — compared to how much money is regularly sent to the states through the annual budget bill.

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The new federal law includes $470 million in unemployment insurance for Vermonters, and $770 million in direct payments of $600 to adults who make less than $75,000 annually or $1,200 to couples that make less than $150,000. Another $600 is available for a dependent child.

How much money flows into the state through the PPP program depends on how many Vermont businesses apply for the loans. The popular federal PPP program, which stopped accepting applications on Aug. 8, brought the state about $1,900 per capita, according to an analysis by the Legislature’s economist, Tom Kavet. In the new iteration of the program, the money is non-taxable.

Some of the Covid-19 money flowing into the state will be targeted to state agencies automatically; some will be allocated by lawmakers.

“The money will be coming from lots of different sources, and part of what we need to figure out over the next few weeks and months is how it will be coming in, and who gets to determine where it goes,” said Steve Klein, the chief fiscal officer for the Legislature’s Joint Fiscal Office. “Most of it will be the Legislature; some of it will be federally mandated.”

Unemployment Insurance

The bill includes $120 billion to continue assisting the jobless nationally through March 14, including:

·      An additional $300 per week to supplement all state and federal benefits through the federal Pandemic Unemployment Compensation program

·      An extension of Pandemic Unemployment Assistance program (PUA), which ended in December. This program, created last year, provides unemployment insurance payments to self-employed and freelance workers.

·      An extension of federal benefits to workers who have exhausted regular state employment benefits.

Paycheck Protection Program

While the state isn’t expected to receive money for the business grants program that has disbursed more than $300 million this year to individual businesses, Economic Development Commissioner Joan Goldstein said eligibility for the PPP program had been expanded.

Joan Goldstein
Joan Goldstein, Vermont’s commissioner of economic development, announces new guidelines for Covid-19 relief grants for businesses at a press conference on July 1, 2020. Photo by Mike Dougherty/VTDigger

The Agency of Commerce and Community Development is offering a webinar Jan. 6 with the Vermont Bankers Association for businesses planning to apply, said Goldstein. She also expects more stimulus money to become available for businesses that are affected by the pandemic.

“The expectation is there will be another bill once (Joe) Biden is inaugurated, but for now, for people who are still hanging on, this offers an important step for their survival,” she said.

Grants to the performing arts and theaters

As places where people traditionally gather, performing arts venues have been particularly hard hit in the pandemic. Rep. Peter Welch, D-Vt., in November introduced legislation to direct $15 billion in relief money to performance spaces around the country.

The federal Covid-19 relief package includes $15 billion for grants from the U.S. Small Business Administration to live music venues, independent movie theaters and other cultural institutions. The money can be used for payroll, rent, utilities and personal protective equipment.

Rental assistance

The bill includes $25 billion for an emergency rental assistance program that will be targeted to families affected by Covid-19. The program can be used for past-due rent, future rent payments and utility bills. The bill also extends the rental eviction moratorium through Jan. 31.

Broadband

About $7 billion has been set aside for the development of greater broadband capacity, a major priority for Vermont economic development officials and many lawmakers. The program includes $300 million to help pay for broadband in rural areas, and a $3.2 billion benefit that will provide $50 per month to help low-income families pay for broadband. It’s not yet clear how much of that money will go to Vermont.

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Anne Wallace Allen

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