News Roundup: Vermont Surpasses 14,000 COVID-19 Infections Since The Start Of The Pandemic
Vermont reporters provide a roundup of top news takeaways about the coronavirus and more for Thursday, Feb. 18.Want VPR's daily news in podcast form? Get up to speed in under 15 minutes with The Frequency every weekday morning. How about an email newsletter? Add our daily email briefing to your morning routine.
The latest coronavirus data:
1. Vermont reports 131 new COVID-19 cases
Vermont passed 14,000 COVID-19 infections Thursday, as health officials tallied 131 new cases across all but one of Vermont's counties.
That means the state added 1,000 new COVID-19 cases in just 11 days.
Health officials also reported two additional deaths today, bringing the pandemic's total to 193.
Vermont now has 38 people hospitalized with COVID-19, including 13 in intensive care.
To date, nearly 81,000 Vermonters have gotten at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine.
Chittenden County had 39 new infections, while more than a dozen were counted in Bennington, Franklin, Rutland, Washington and Windham Counties.
- Matthew Smith
2. Burlington City Council delays vote on CityPlace settlement
The Burlington City Council is delaying a vote on a legal settlement with the owners of the downtown mall.
Some councilors are concerned that the developers aren’t committed to using union labor.
The approval of the settlement got held up after the AFL-CIO raised concerns that developer Don Sinex wasn’t going to using union crews on the project – something that Sinex agreed to do this fall.
In September, the ALF-CIO and Sinex announced a partnership: the union would finance the project if Sinex hired union workers.
But in order to get funds from the AFL-CIO, Sinex needed to get backing from the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development. In a memo to the city council, Sinex said he was pursuing other financing options, in addition to HUD, because was concerned the process was taking too long.
The legal settlement comes after the city sued Sinex and his partners this fall, alleging they broke repeated promises to get the project built. The city council will take up the settlement next week at a special meeting.
- Liam Elder-Connors
3. Chittenden County State's Attorney calls on lawmakers to decriminalize possession
Chittenden County’s top prosecutor is urging Vermont lawmakers to decriminalize the possession of opioids, cocaine and other drugs.
Chittenden County State’s Attorney Sarah George said substance use disorder is a disease.
And she said arresting users for possession only exacerbates the public health crisis.
“I am not saying that drugs are not dangerous – of course they can be. But everything is safer when it is legalized and regulated,” George said. “Legal drugs are safer than illegal drugs, and legalization is safer than prohibition.”
George says lawmakers should take their cue from Oregon.
That state enacted a law this year that prohibits police from arresting someone for possession of small amounts of hard drugs, including LSD, heroin and methamphetamine.
Attorney General TJ Donovan says he opposes the decriminalization proposal.
- Peter Hirschfeld
4. State revenues improved in January, but concerns remain
State revenues for January showed some strong improvement, but concerns remain about how income tax revenues will be affected by the pandemic.
In January, state economists upgraded the revenue forecast to reflect the positive impact that federal stimulus money was having on individuals and businesses.
But Administration Secretary Susanne Young says there are questions about how the funds will affect overall personal and corporate income tax burdens.
“I think what we're really going to have to look at over the next few months is collections versus refunding, because we're now getting into people filing and seeking refunds and taxes they may have paid on federal stimulus and unemployment benefits," Young said.
Young said the Scott Administration is also being cautious because overall state revenues have yet to return to pre-pandemic levels.
- Bob Kinzel
5. Expanding Vermont's broadband could involve Elon Musk
Lawmakers are crafting a bill that would overhaul how the state promotes and helps pay for broadband internet services.
Gov. Phil Scott wants to spend $20 million to get more people online. The House Energy and Technology Committee wants to boost that to $36 million.
The committee wants to create a new entity called the "Vermont Community Broadband Authority" to oversee the effort.
Thetford Democrat Tim Briglin chairs the committee.
“We're looking for: What is the best way for government to approach this issue, to help solve it?” Briglin said.
The bill would direct low-cost loans and other state assistance to community internet providers. The public entities are called "Communication Union Districts" and they plan to roll out high-speed fiber optic service to under-served areas.
- John Dillon
6. Rep. Welch, Sen. Leahy support independent commission to investigate insurrection
Senator Patrick Leahy is supporting efforts to create a bi-partisan independent commission to investigate the events surrounding the insurrection at the Capitol building on Jan. 6.
The plan has been proposed by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi.
Leahy said the panel should be modeled after the commission created after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.
“Make it bipartisan - the 9-11 Commission was bi-partisan and it had a lot of credibility because of it,” Leahy said. “I think what happened here is something that should never happen again in this country and we have to know exactly how it came about."
Congressman Peter Welch said he supports the appointment of a commission as well.
“And they could put together the history of what happened and how it happened, and in fact, the potential benefit of it is that we have a respected report much like the 9-11 report that becomes a reference and a basis for us to have lessons learned,” Welch said.
The proposed commission also has the support of a number of Republican leaders.
- Bob Kinzel
7. Gov. Scott pushes for using COVID stimulus funds for one-time expenses
Vermont is expected to receive another large amount of money in a second COVID stimulus package being considered in Congress.
While some state lawmakers want to use additional funding to expand existing programs, Gov. Phil Scott has proposed using $210 million in stimulus money the state has already received for a variety of one-time projects.
Administration Secretary Susanne Young agrees, and says it would be a huge mistake to use those one-time funds to expand ongoing programs in state government.
"When that money dries up after a year, you are facing an operational cost that you did not have, [that] you don't have revenues for in year two, and so you either have to make some very hard choices on prioritization or find another way to pay for those programs,” Young said.
Young says the Administration is being cautious, because state revenues have yet to return to pre-pandemic levels.
- Bob Kinzel
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