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Inside the Vermont State House

MONTPLIER — House leadership provided a short overview of the coronavirus relief bills passed by the legislature in the past two weeks, with House Speaker Mitzi Johnson, D-Grand Isle, also providing a look forward to the legislative agenda when the session resumes on Aug. 25.

The House and Senate have passed spending roughly $1.24 billion of the coronavirus relief fund (CRF) money received from the federal government.

The largest single chuck of those funds, $275 million, is going to health care providers of all sizes to “keep them afloat,” said Johnson.

The legislature also approved two rounds of business assistance totaling $93 million. The first is for businesses which can show that during one month they experienced a 75 percent loss in revenues or sales in a single month. Of that $70 million, $50 million is targeted to stores, restaurants and lodging businesses. Governor Phil Scott said Monday that the administration will be announcing the details of the programs to disperse the $70 million on Wednesday.

Another $28 million will be used to provide hazard pay to front line workers, primarily health care workers.

Broadband efforts will receive $20 million overall, with $800,000 focused on telehealth. Johnson said that after taking weeks of testimony and hearing from a consultant, the House was confident these funds could be spent within the federal deadline. There are 1,000 Vermont households she said which are just outside the reach of existing networks and could be connected. In other cases, extensions will benefit businesses.

Childcare centers will receive $5 million to help them make changes needed to comply with coronavirus prevention requirements.

The state will also be helping Vermonters avoid eviction and foreclosure with $5 million for homeowners and $5 million for renters. Another program will provide assistance with overdue utility bills for both businesses and residents.

The Vermont Housing Conservation Board will receive $23 million to use to address homelessness, including $23 million to purchase and rehab units to provide housing for those who are homeless, and $9 million for grants to landowners to rehab their apartments and “Improve the options we have to reduce homelessness in Vermont,” Johnson said. There is also funding for services to help move folks into stable housing.

Rep. Janet Ancel, chair of House Ways and Means, called the VHCB investments a “tremendous opportunity to make some investments that have long term benefits.”

Schools will receive $12 million to assist with the costs of providing free meals to children and $4.7 million to the Vermont Foodbank.

Both municipalities, $17.7 million, and schools, $23.3 million, will receive some funds to assist with the costs they’ve incurred as a result of the pandemic.

On Monday, Gov. Phil Scott said his administration would be reviewing the bills and comparing them to his original proposals. “It’s going to be a tremendous amount of work over the next few days,” he said.

Scott noted that his major point of disagreement with the legislature has always been the amount going to businesses, but that there would be an opportunity to allot more money to businesses in August if needed.

Johnson said that when the assistance to businesses in all of the various bills is added together it comes close to what the governor had wanted in aid to businesses. She, too, said more money could be allocated to businesses in August.

She does not expect Scott to veto any of the coronavirus assistance bills. “I think he’s just as anxious to get it out the door as we are.”

The bills were also approved by overwhelming margins in the legislature with nearly unanimous votes. “We are all working very hard to make sure this money gets out the door quickly,” she said.

Many of the programs have allowances that if the money isn’t spent it returns to the CRF for reallocation or is sent to another program. The money has to be spent this year. “We have three or four levels of backup plans,” Johnson said, and will make sure Vermont “uses every penny of that money.”

When the legislature returns in August, it should have a budget proposal from the governor and an updated revenue forecast. The cost of operating an extended session is being covered by the CRF funds, but Johnson also noted that with legislators working remotely taxpayers aren’t giving legislators per diem pay to cover their travel and housing expenses.

One of the priorities will be the Vermont State Colleges, Johnson said. Decisions will also need to be made about the Education Fund, which is partially funded by sales tax revenue that has dropped significantly. “I don’t see additional revenue as being a significant part of the solution to that problem,” Ancel said, suggesting the state might borrow to cover shortfalls in the fund.

Asked to comment on what how the legislature has functioned in the past few months, Johnson said, “What we have done and the time span in which we’ve done it is nothing short of incredible.”

She said most of the credit for that goes to the House staff “and I know I’m only aware of a portion of what they’ve done.”

With the House and Senate operating remotely, tens of thousands of Vermonters have tuned it to watch the proceedings of both chambers as well as committee hearings, according to Johnson. “We out of necessity ran this incredible experiment in democracy,” she said.

People who normally spend their time at the statehouse told her “it’s working… but we’re missing something,” Johnson said. What’s missing, she suggested, are the informal conversations.

“We spend a lot of time together and friendships develop. Those relationships make is easier to discuss the hard stuff,” Johnson said. “There’s a level of trust that’s built. That’s hard to replicate online.”

The legislature, in her view, has a lot to do to make information about its work more accessible to Vermonters. “It can be hard to access information. We’ve got a lot to do there,” she said.

The pandemic did bring members of the House together.

“It feels like all of our partisan labels kind of dropped off,” Johnson said, adding they became one legislature, one group of Vermonters.

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