Politics

Vermont House approves $79 million Covid relief bill

The Vermont Statehouse in Montpelier on Sunday, January 17, 2021. Photo by Glenn Russell/VTDigger

The Vermont House on Thursday approved a $79 million Covid-19 relief bill intended to help Vermonters and businesses harmed by the pandemic.

The package includes $10 million in business grants, more than $5 million to bolster the state’s mental health system and $20 million split evenly between affordable housing and outdoor recreation infrastructure projects. 

The legislation provides “a degree of assistance to people and businesses suffering from the pandemic,” Rep. Mary Hooper, D-Montpelier, told legislators on the virtual House floor. Hooper, who chairs the House Appropriations Committee, said the package “looks to the future and begins work designed to help Vermont and Vermonters recover from the pandemic.” 

Legislators approved the bill swiftly Thursday afternoon, on a 142-4 vote, with little discussion. A final House vote is expected Friday before the legislation heads to the Senate. 

The money includes $62 million in new spending, relying on both state dollars and about $13 million leftover from last year’s federal Coronavirus Relief Fund. The bill also redirects about $17 million in previously allocated but unspent CRF funds. 

The legislation proposes putting $15 million toward a grant program to help schools improve air quality during the pandemic. 

It appears more help is on the way: Congress is working to pass another round of aid by mid-March, U.S. Rep. Peter Welch, D-Vt., told the Legislature on Thursday. The latest draft bill under consideration in the U.S. House would send Vermont $960 million in state and local aid. 

That could give the state much more flexibility to provide financial relief to struggling residents and businesses.

The state legislation approved Thursday would free up $10 million to help struggling businesses that have not yet received aid from the state or federal governments throughout the Covid-19 crisis. 

Many of the businesses that would qualify for this aid were “brand new” when the pandemic hit, said Rep. Michael Marcotte, R-Coventry, chair of the House Commerce & Economic Development Committee, and didn’t have the “background financials” to apply for assistance last year. 

If the legislation becomes law, state officials would look at the businesses’ tax returns to verify that they lost money during the pandemic. 

“I think we all know and realize, especially in the hospitality sector, that it won’t be hard — it won’t be difficult to understand that there were some pretty heavy losses in those businesses,” Marcotte said. 

Rep. Heidi Scheuermann, R-Stowe, said she appreciates that those businesses will get assistance “sooner rather than later.”

“These are folks who didn’t receive those funds in the past and are in desperate need of them at this point,” Scheuermann said. 

Other elements of the bill:

•$10 million 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 — spending that Gov. Phil Scott had pitched in his January budget address. 

The money for the Housing and Conservation Board would be used, in part, to provide affordable housing for Vermonters experiencing homelessness, at risk of becoming homeless or who have “suffered economic harm due to the Covid-19 crisis.”

In an interview last week, House Speaker Jill Krowinski, D-Burlington, said legislators wanted to provide funding quickly for “shovel-ready infrastructure projects” during the pandemic. Legislators have said fast action would allow the state to move quickly on plans for the upcoming construction season.

•$850,000 to help mental health providers hire additional case managers.

•$4 million for the Department of Mental Health to expand its community housing supports for people facing mental health issues. Lawmakers have noted the mental health system has faced increased demand because of the pandemic.

• $20 million in state funding to help address the state’s pension liabilities and prepay what Vermont will owe in the coming years to cover state employee benefits. That decision came after a recent projection by state Treasurer Beth Pearce that the pension system’s unfunded liability will grow by about $600 million.

The Legislature and state officials are still working on a plan to address the pension issue this year, but Hooper said that lawmakers wanted to set aside money now as a “signal for Wall Street.” 

The state’s growing debt has raised concerns about the possibility of a bond rating downgrade. 

•$700,000 to be split equally between the Association of Africans Living in Vermont and the Vermont Refugee Resettlement Program to access pandemic-related translation services and access benefit and workforce development programs 

•$134,000 to the Vermont Department of Health to collect and analyze demographic data about Vermont residents who experience health disparities.

•$1.3 million for the Reach Up program, state assistance for children and families in need, to provide additional one-time payments for families.

•$1.4 million for the Vermont Foodbank.

Correction: An earlier version of this story misstated the proposed funding level for two organizations. The Association of Africans Living in Vermont and the Vermont Refugee Resettlement Program would equally divide $700,000 for various services.

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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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