News roundup: State officials report three more Vermonters have died from COVID-19
Vermont reporters provide a roundup of top news takeaways about the coronavirus and more for Friday, Jan. 14.
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1. State officials report three more Vermonters have died from COVID
Three more Vermonters have died from COVID-19 according to Vermont health officials. That bring’s the state’s pandemic death toll to 493.
Officials reported 2,295 new COVID cases Friday. One hundred people are currently hospitalized with the disease, including 24 of them in the ICU.
The state’s seven-day positivity rate rose slightly, to 13.4%.
- Elodie Reed
State Senate extends remote work
The two chambers of the Vermont Legislature are taking different approaches to returning to the Statehouse.
Lawmakers in both houses agreed to spend the first two weeks of the session governing remotely due to the ongoing COVID surge.
The House Rules Committee on Thursday adopted a plan for members to return to Montpelier next week to conduct committee meetings in person. All floor activity will continue to be done remotely.
Meanwhile, the Senate Rules Committee has decided to extend its full remote schedule for at least another week.
Grand Isle Sen. Dick Mazza says it makes no sense to rush back to the Statehouse at this time.
"No time to play games – I think it's going well,” he said. “We've got a lot of people testifying every day. I know the general public; I talk to them every day. They're glad we're doing what we're doing. So I don't think there's any hurry to get back."
The Senate Rules Committee will revisit this issue at the end of next week.
- Bob Kinzel
2. Officials forecast good news for the state economy
The outlook for Vermont's economy over the next year has grown stronger, according to state economist Jeff Carr. But after that, he says the forecast becomes uncertain.
Carr told a group of legislative leaders Thursday that he expects the current year's surplus to grow by another $40 million.
He says that's because the economy has greatly benefited from the influx of more than $10 billion in federal stimulus and COVID funds.
"We think there's a lot of underlying positive momentum in the economy and in revenues for the next 12, maybe 18 months. Once you get beyond there, we're going to start going through an unwinding process, which, not a lot is terribly known,” he said.
Carr also is forecasting a nearly $100 million surplus in the state's Education Fund this year.
- Bob Kinzel
3. VPR-Vermont PBS poll: Gray leads in Democratic House primary
Lt. Gov. Molly Gray leads Senate President Pro Tem Becca Balint in the Democratic primary for Vermont's only seat in the House of Representatives. But more respondents say they're undecided, according to the latest VPR-Vermont PBS poll.
A total of 21% of respondents say they'd vote for Gray if the Democratic primary was held today, compared to just 7% who'd vote for Balint.
But 32% say they're not sure who they'll vote for. Even among registered Democrats, about a third are undecided.
The poll was conducted before State Sen. Kesha Ram Hinsdale announced her run for the seat, so her name was not included. The poll has a margin of error of 4%.
- Henry Epp
VPR-Vermont PBS poll: Majority of Vermonters mask up
A majority of Vermonters support wearing a mask indoors, according to a recent poll conducted by VPR and Vermont PBS.
Fifty-one percent of respondents reported they always wear a mask when indoors, 32% said usually or sometimes and 15% said rarely or never.
Democrat respondents wear their masks more often compared to Republicans. And women were more inclined to mask up than men.
The poll has a margin of error of 4%.
- Marlon Hyde
VPR-Vermont PBS poll: More women than men want COVID vax requirement for public spaces
A new VPR-Vermont PBS poll finds that women feel much stronger than men about a COVID-19 vaccination being required for entry into public spaces like stores and restaurants.
People in central and northern Vermont opposed the vaccination requirement more than those who responded from southern Vermont and Chittenden County.
And people who responded with a four-year college degree support the vaccination requirement more than those with an associate’s degree or less.
When all the data is put together, Vermonters are evenly split on requiring proof of vaccination in public spaces.
The poll has a margin of error of 4%.
- Howard Weiss-Tisman
4. Lawmakers considering options to provide tax relief for refugee host families
Vermont lawmakers are looking for ways to prevent host families for asylum seekers and refugees from getting an unexpected increase in property taxes.
Under current law, the earnings of all residents in a household count toward the owners’ annual income.
But Jen Myers with the Central Vermont Refugee Action Network says host families often let their guests stay for free.
“So the money that the asylum seeker or the refugees would make would be something that they would be using for themselves and would not transfer to the use of the host,” she said.
Some host families have seen an increase in property tax bills due to the income earned by the refugees or asylum seekers they’re hosting.
Legislation introduced in the House would exclude those earnings from the calculation of household income.
- Peter Hirschfeld
Vermont-based NGOs partnering to house refugees in Brattleboro
Vermont-based NGOs are partnering to house refugees in Brattleboro.
Up to 100 Afghan evacuees will begin arriving in southern Vermont by March, then they'll be placed in permanent housing by early May.
Alex Beck, welcoming communities manager at Brattleboro Development Credit, said in a press conference that he wants every individual to have the chance to make a permanent home in Vermont.
“We know some folks will stay and some will leave,” Beck said. “But our goal as an initiative is to make sure everyone who wants to stay, who wants to make Vermont home long-term has the resources and opportunities to do so.”
The welcoming communities initiative and the refugee programs will provide individuals with employment placement services, help enrolling in schools, and legal assistance with their immigration status during their first three months.
- Marlon Hyde
5. Organizations voice support for bill establishing first-ever Vt. environmental justice policy
Representatives from more than 10 climate and social justice groups across Vermont voiced their support this week for a bill that would establish the state's first ever environmental justice policy.
Environmental justice holds that no segment of the population should bear a disproportionate share of environmental benefits or burdens.
A bill introduced last session would make this the state's official stance. And it would create an advisory council of leaders from historically excluded communities that could help shape future state policies.
The bill commits Vermont to spending 55%of environmental funds in BIPOC, low income, rural and linguistically-isolated communities. It requires mapping those populations, and that state agencies develop language access plans.
Sen. Kesha Ram Hinsdale, who sponsored the bill, says it is crucial as Vermont pursues climate solutions.
"The more political power a community has, the more they are able to push environmental costs out of their community and into other communities that end up accumulating a lot of that burden,” she said.
Leaders from the Rutland and Windham chapters of the NAACP voiced their support, as did the League of Cities and Towns, among other groups.
- Abagael Giles
Lawmakers introduce bill to strengthen Vermont’s forest industries
A tri-partisan coalition of lawmakers representing rural communities in Vermont's House of Representatives introduced a comprehensive bill Wednesday, aimed at building resilience for Vermont's forest products industry.
According to the Agency of Natural Resources, Vermont's forest economy supplies about 14,000 jobs across the state. And it creates almost $2.1 billion in sales.
But climate change and economic uncertainty could jeopardize that. That's what the rural caucus heard from foresters, loggers and other industry professionals across the state this summer.
Now, about 50 legislators are calling for a plan to strengthen Vermont's forest industries over the next ten years. They say doing so will boost climate resilience.
The bill includes support for helping rural towns heat public buildings more sustainably. And it proposes key changes to Act 250 – Vermont's land use law – that would affect recreational trails, logging and development in village centers.
- Abagael Giles
Elodie Reed and Kevin Trevellyan compiled and edited this post.