Politics

Vermont lawmakers prepare ‘fast-track’ pandemic relief bill

Mary Hooper
Rep. Mary Hooper. File photo by Mike Dougherty/VTDigger

The Vermont House and Senate are preparing to pass a Covid-19 relief bill in the coming weeks that could include aid for low-income families, grants for businesses strained by the pandemic and funding to build out affordable housing. 

Lawmakers said they don’t want to wait until they pass next year’s state budget this spring before releasing some relief funds for Vermonters, businesses and major projects.

“Creating a covid relief bill really has become a priority for us because we know that there are shovel-ready infrastructure projects that there’s no reason for us to wait on given the pandemic,” said House Speaker Jill Krowinski, D-Burlington. 

Democratic leaders aren’t sure how much money the forthcoming bill will include. 

“My approach to this Covid relief bill is not targeting a certain amount of money, but identifying what projects and what needs we know we have right now that we can invest money in,” Krowinski said. 

By Friday afternoon, the House Appropriations Committee was assembling a bill that would cost $60-65 million. Committee members plan on finalizing the proposal and voting it out of committee next week. 

Legislators say they plan to harness a mixture of leftover dollars the state received from the federal Coronavirus Relief Fund in 2020, one-time money that Gov. Phil Scott identified in his January budget proposal and some newly available funds to pay for the aid package.

It is likely to include $10 million worth of economic recovery grants to businesses that did not receive Covid-19 aid in the last year. 

The House is considering $1.3 million for the Reach Up program — state assistance for children and families in need — to provide additional one-time funds for families.

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House members have discussed including $350,000 for both the Association of Africans Living in Vermont and the Vermont Refugee Resettlement Program to improve translation services related to the pandemic and help immigrant and refugee families access workforce development programs and navigate benefit programs.

They are also considering fast-tracking several proposals included in the budget Scott pitched in January. These include $10 million in additional funding for the Vermont Housing and Conservation Board and $10 million to improve recreational trail networks and develop infrastructure for the state’s outdoor recreation industry. 

“Our construct was what do we urgently need to attend to that cannot wait the normal budgeting process,” said. Rep. Mary Hooper D-Montpelier, who chairs the House Appropriations Committee. 

“Are there people who are in trouble or needs that need to be met before the budget is going forward, or are there projects that we can pull forward that would have a stimulative effect on the economy?” she added. 

Hooper said the current bill would use about $28 million of leftover Coronavirus Relief Fund dollars, $21 million of the one-time money included in Scott’s budget and $14 million of newly available resources. She said the state is expecting additional revenue from a likely increase in the federal government’s contributions for Medicaid expenses and a recent opioid settlement.

Senate President Pro Tempore Becca Balint, D-Windham, said that the Senate is also considering funding for affordable housing projects in the Covid-19 relief bill so that the state can move ahead during the upcoming building season — this spring through fall. 

“We’re concerned that if we wait until we pass the full budget later in the spring that we’re going to miss that window,” Balint said.

“We may have to get some of that money out upfront to let people know that they can continue with projects that are ready to go,” Balint said. 

Balint said the same logic applied to state funding for home weatherization efforts, noting that it’s much easier to carry out projects in spring, summer and fall.

Balint said the Senate would also consider appropriating funds in the bill to give schools the resources to bring “kids back up to grade level on reading” after having fallen behind during the pandemic.  

She noted that children in Vermont’s schools are “falling behind because of remote learning” and said senators are concerned with the literacy levels they’re seeing among third graders.

She added that the Senate is also contemplating a collaboration between the Agency of Education and Department of Health to help educate parents about the signs of depression and suicide in children. 

“We’ve heard from a lot of families across the state that especially their middle school and high school-aged kids are feeling really disconnected and feeling isolated,” Balint said. 

The Senate leader said that the “fast-track relief bill” would provide funding for programs that have time-specific needs and that money spent now wouldn’t be available as the Legislature crafts its budget for next year. 

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However, she said that the “big elephant in the room” is that states are expecting to receive additional Covid-19 aid from the federal government in the coming months. 

Another round of relief from the federal government, which has been promised by President Joe Biden’s administration, could dramatically boost the resources Vermont has at its disposal to respond to the pandemic. 

Balint said she’s aiming to get the relief bill to Scott’s desk in two to three weeks.

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Xander Landen

About Xander

Xander Landen is VTDigger's political reporter. He previously worked at the Keene Sentinel covering crime, courts and local government. Xander got his start in public radio, writing and producing stories for NPR affiliates including WBUR in Boston and WNYC in New York. While at WNYC, he contributed to an award-winning investigation of how police departments shield misconduct records from the public. He is a graduate of Tufts University and his work has also appeared in PBS NewsHour and The Christian Science Monitor.

Email: [email protected]

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