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Pro Tem Becca Balint Talks New Federal Relief Dollars, Pensions As Legislature Hits Halfway Mark

Vermont Senator Becca Balint in Legislature
Maria French, Courtesy
The Legislature needs to make decisions about how to spend another influx of federal COVID-19 relief money. The state government will receive $1.3 billion from the new American Rescue Plan Act.

Friday marked the halfway point for Vermont’s legislative session, also known as "crossover day." It marks the deadline for bills to be passed out of committee, which can help signal which measures stand a chance of passing the full body.

The Legislature will also need to make decisions about how to spend another influx of federal COVID-19 relief money. The state government will soon receive $1.3 billion from the new American Rescue Plan Act.

VPR’s Henry Epp spoke with Senate President Pro Tempore Becca Balint, a Democrat from Brattleboro, to learn more about how the Legislature might spend these new federal dollars. Their conversation below has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Henry Epp: Let's first talk about this new round of federal money. Last year, the Legislature acted quite quickly to get money out to people and businesses when the pandemic was hitting. This time, will you be taking a more deliberate approach?

Senate President Pro Tempore Becca Balint: Yes, we will, because we have been given the gift of more time. So, if you recall, the last two tranches that we had to spend had very tight turnaround times, and that made it very challenging for us to really slow down and do slow, deliberate work. We did as careful work as we could with the time that we had.

This time, many of the provisions give us until 2024 to spend the money, which is wonderful because we have some really big problems that we're trying to wrestle with, and it will take more time to really understand what money should be spent out of our budget money, what out of the one-time money that we're expecting this time from additional revenue, and what money from federal funds.

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So, one of the things I've been talking about with my money chairs in the Senate is how do we go through the budget carefully — and we also have a fast-track coronavirus relief bill that we’re trying to get out ahead of the budget — how we look at line items in there that are spending state money that we could swap out for federal money if we wait.

Well, as you look into how you divvy up this money, Gov. Scott has said that none of this new stimulus money should be used for ongoing programs; that it should really be focused on one-time expenditures. Do you agree with that?

I do agree with that because we have already a budget gap that we're trying to close. So, I think in this way, the Legislature is in alignment with the governor.

You know, as we get into figuring out what buckets this money will go in, I'm sure there are going to be disagreements as to how much money to set aside to prefund the pensions, how much money to put aside for Vermont State Colleges. But I don't think you're going to see a push within the Legislature for standing up new programs that will require continuous funding.

But so, you would potentially use some of this money for things like the pension system, which has faced a significant funding gap?

Yes. You know, unfortunately, the bill that was just passed by the U.S. Congress explicitly tells us we cannot spend money on public pension liabilities. However, we may be able to free up some other money within the budget, swap that out to be able to prefund. So, it's a little bit of a money sleight of hand.

I know that the governor has said that he is interested in prefunding the pensions and OPB (Other Postemployment Benefits) liabilities only if there are some structural changes. And I know that the Legislature also agrees that we need to have some structural change within the pension system for it to be viable long-term.

Well, just sticking with that issue for a moment, I mean, is that going to be a priority for the Senate in the final two months of the session, reforming the pension system?

Yeah, you know, Henry, it really depends on what we get from the House. The House has the bill right now. I met with the speaker about this. We meet actually about it pretty frequently, and they're still doing their work. So, depending on what time it comes over from them, we may be able to get something out this session. That is the hope, because I think there are a lot of people within the pension systems in Vermont that need to know where we're going to land.

Last year, state agencies were granted a lot of authority to develop some of the programs, like those that assisted businesses, with the COVID relief money from the federal government. Since you have more time this time around, are you and the rest of the Legislature going to play a bigger role in setting those finer program guidelines and eligibility requirements this time around?

"There's a lot of money to be spent. There is, for most of it, not a rush on how quickly we get it out the door." - Sen. Becca Balint

I’d really like to because, ultimately, we are responsible to our voters as to how the money gets spent. And so certainly there is a fair amount of work that we can do before we gavel out, hopefully in May, to then set up language for how the money should be directed going forward. And as I said earlier, we've got more time. There's a lot of money to be spent. There is, for most of it, not a rush on how quickly we get it out the door.

There's a bill in the Senate right now that would boost unemployment benefits, including a payment boost for people with children. Labor Commissioner Michael Harrington has said that this boost could cause some major problems for the IT system, which handles unemployment benefits. And we saw last year what happens when that system gets overheated. Is it still worth adding these benefits if the system may complicate actually getting that money to the people who need it in a timely manner?

Well, you know, of course, it's a legitimate question. I think the issue that I would want to raise here is that: Do we want to be limited in the work that we do because of an aging system? And the number of checks that we would need to get out the door based on this new benefit that we're talking about is several thousand. It’s not 100,000. You know, it's not an overwhelming amount that needs to get out the door.

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And I understand the struggles of Department of Labor. We've talked about it repeatedly in my committee. But some of the challenges that we've had at Department of Labor have not been because of the mainframe. And the most recent data breach that we had was not related to the mainframe directly. That was human error. And it happens. And we worked closely with the Department of Labor to try to get that straightened out.

You're referencing the Labor Department sending out incorrect unemployment tax filings to many, many Vermonters.

That's right. Many people received the wrong personal information, and that was an unfortunate mistake that somebody made, but that was not directly related to the mainframe system.

The other piece that I want to say is we have got to place a priority then on upgrading the system, and the governor needs to dedicate the money that needs to go to making sure we have this system available to do the things that we want to do as a Legislature to support our families.

And so, you know, I have been a big supporter of Department of Labor through all of this work. We've worked closely with them through many of their trials and tribulations. On this one, I have to say, we are asking you to make it work because our workers and our families deserve a little bit more support from us.

Have questions, comments or tips? Send us a message or get in touch with reporter Henry Epp @TheHenryEpp.

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