Legislature Wraps Up Historic COVID Session With $1 Billion Spending Plan
The Vermont Legislature has wrapped up an unusual and historic session dominated by its response to a public health and economic crisis.
On Friday, lawmakers put finishing touches on a spending package that directs about $1 billion in federal funds to help the state recover from the COVID-19 pandemic. But first, they had to learn to work remotely.
The Statehouse is normally crowded with legislators, lobbyists, tourists and school groups, hardly a place to contain a contagious virus. So when the Statehouse doors closed on March 13, this political beehive went silent.
After March 13, pre-COVID priorities – such as an Act 250 overhaul or a tax and regulate system for marijuana – took a backseat to the pandemic. The focus became more intense once Congress approved the CARES Act that sent $1.25 billion to help Vermont recover.
The spending package on its way to Gov. Phil Scott for his signature now includes:
- $219 million to help businesses, including farms and forestry operations. This includes $82 million in direct grants to businesses and $25 million to farms and dairy processors.
- Some $85 million in housing assistance, including $5 million to avert foreclosures and $25 million to prevent evictions.
- $275 million for a health care stabilization fund for hospitals and other providers impacted by the pandemic.
- $12 million for child care and $28 million for hazard pay for frontline workers.
- $12 million for summer meals for students.
- $20 million to improve access to broadband.
- $8 million to help people and businesses pay overdue utility bills.
- $140 million in reserve to meet other needs this fall.
"At that point [on March 13], honestly, it feels like all of our partisan labels sort of dropped off the back of our names, and we became one Legislature, and one group of Vermonters trying to solve the problem." — House Speaker Mitzi Johnson
At a news conference Monday, House Speaker Mitzi Johnson reflected back on the last three months, and said she was inspired by the way lawmakers responded to the crisis.
“At that point [on March 13], honestly, it feels like all of our partisan labels sort of dropped off the back of our names, and we became one Legislature, and one group of Vermonters trying to solve the problem,” she said.
Huge challenges remain. The state’s education fund is projected to have a $105 million deficit. The fund relies on property taxes as well as state sales and rooms and meals taxes. Those statewide revenue sources have declined as businesses feel the impact of the pandemic.
Calais Democrat Janet Ancel, who chairs the House Ways and Means Committee, said new taxes are unlikely. She said the latest education funding bill spares property taxpayers from a financial hit.
“We also include a number of strategies in that bill that include deficit spending, include borrowing, and leave open the possibility for additional revenue,” she said. “But I don't see additional revenue as being a significant part of the solution to that problem.”
"I don't see additional revenue as being a significant part of the solution to that [education funding] problem." — Rep. Janet Ancel, House Ways and Means Committee Chair
The education funding issue is just one of the fiscal priorities facing lawmakers when they return August 25. Another will be the state budget. Lawmakers have passed a spending plan for the first quarter of the fiscal year, but decided to wait to write the rest of the budget until fall, when the revenue picture may become clearer.
When lawmakers do return to work, it’s likely they’ll still be meeting via Zoom. Speaker Johnson said she wants to learn more about what worked, and what didn't.
Johnson says one benefit of working remotely is that the public at large gained access to legislative debates through video technology. But she said it was a challenge for many who normally work in the crowded Statehouse hallways and committee rooms.
“There's a lament of that loss of face-to-face, or the hallway conversations, or all of the informal ways that people get information,” Johnson said. “So we're trying to figure out which parts of our new way of operating both in the Legislature and in all parts of Vermont society are actually worth hanging onto and investing in, to bring forward with us, and which pieces we need to find safe ways to reinstate.”