Unlike last year’s mad dash to spend, there’s more time for Vermont to spend a second wave of billions of dollars in federal pandemic relief money, some of which will make its way to the local level.
That was a message from Lamoille County lawmakers Monday as they fielded questions during a forum hosted by the Lamoille Chamber of Commerce.
It’s crossover time in the Legislature, that period when policy bills and spending measures move from the House to the Senate. Anything that didn’t make it to crossover is unlikely to reach the finish line when the session adjourns, presumably in May.
Rep. Dave Yacovone, D-Morristown, sits on the House Appropriations Committee, which — like its Senate counterpart — holds the wallet that contains all that one-time federal money and the state checkbook that pays the bills.
Yacovone said his committee sent the budget to the Senate — and passed out 15 House bills with appropriations attached.
“For a lot of people, it probably doesn’t sound like anything, or much of a heavy lift. But I tell people, imagine having a family wedding, a high school graduation and Christmas and Hanukkah, all in one week,” he said. “It’s March Madness in the halls of Zoom, so to speak. It was a wild but fun time.”
Rep. Avram Patt, D-Worcester, who sits on the House Energy and Technology Committee, said “the big broadband bill” passed out of the House on a near-unanimous roll-call vote.
Likely the signature bill out of that committee, the House version appropriates $150 million.
On the one hand, that’s a significant sum of money. On the other, Patt said, a two-year-old study from the Vermont Department of Public Service estimates that it will cost $1 billion to get fiber, “true high speed internet,” to everywhere in the state.
“That’s really the magnitude of the gap in getting high-speed internet to everyone, but this would be a big step,” Patt said. “I think the vote in the House shows how fully understood it is, across the board, that this is a major issue for Vermont.”
There’s a counterpoint of how $150 million in one-time federal funds spent elsewhere simply upsets thousands of people — that’s how much the Legislature is proposing to pay into the state employee pension system. However, the proposed overhaul to that retirement system would place the financial burden largely on the shoulders of state employees, especially teachers.
Patt said the proposal was “draconian, harsh, and would cause existing state employees to have to work seven or 10 more years than they were expecting to.”
The fiscal ball is, in many ways, now handed to Sen. Rich Westman, R-Cambridge, and his six colleagues who sit on the Senate Appropriations Committee.
Westman would like to see the $1.3 billion in federal money go to four areas.
“I want to put the money toward the state colleges. I want to put the money toward broadband. I want to help unemployed, and lower middle class workers adjust to get to the other side. And, there may be a little business relief with that, too,” he said.
Helping the pandemic helpers
Greg Stefanski, of Capstone Community Action, noted that many of the people tuning in for Monday’s forum were from the human services sector. That included representatives from the county-wide COVID-19 command center and a group that recently brought in more than $300,000 to the county as part of its Working Communities Challenge.
Stefanski wondered how funding looked for the areas the covered by the various organizations involved — Capstone, United Way, Healthy Lamoille Valley, Lamoille County Mental Health Services, the Lamoille Restorative Center and Laraway, among others.
Yacovone said he was particularly pleased that House Appropriations made some investments in the state’s social safety net. He said they were modest, but they’re also the first increases in years, after Gov. Phil Scott, a Republican, held the line on such increases.
“This is my fifth year on appropriations, and it’s the fifth year in a row that the administration has not recommended any increase for these folks,” Yacovone said. “I’m glad we're asserting ourselves. It’s important.”
Yacovone said some of those increases include $5 million toward adult day centers “which play a critical role in helping people, elders, particularly, and developmentally delayed, stay in the community.” He said there’s $50 million for workforce development, much of it targeted at the beleaguered state college system. This is the second year in a row the Legislature is being asked for bridge funding for the Vermont State Colleges — which includes Northern Vermont University in Johnson.
“I feel we made significant assistance for that second bridge year for our state colleges to help them through their transformation,” he said.
Rep. Dan Noyes, D-Wolcott, clerk of the House Human Services Committee, said he was pleased to see a bill (H.153) that directs the state to study Medicaid reimbursement rates for home- and community-based service care providers. Those are the people who provide long-term care to older adults and adults with physical disabilities in their own home.
Noyes said there are also other pots of federal money the state can use. For instance, he said, the federal government, under the last funding bill, doubled the size of AmeriCorps, from a $1 billion federal agency to a $2 billion one.
“We’re still just really seeing what the rollout’s going to look like, but you’re gonna start seeing a lot more AmeriCorps members around,” Noyes said. “And if we can figure out how to kind of tackle some of our bigger problems with this funding source, then we'll probably be better off after this is all over.”
Freshman lawmaker Rep. Kate Donnally, D-Hyde Park, said her House Judiciary Committee passed 11 bills out of committee.
These tend to be very different bills than the ones with money attached, and they can deal with hot-button issues.
“I think sometimes politicians may want to shy away from some of the more controversial topics, and I’ve learned that when you serve on Judiciary, just about everything you’re working on is controversial to some degree,” Donnally said.
She was proud of work the committee has done on criminal justice and law enforcement reform. Donnally said that includes banning LGBTQIA+ “panic defense” from the law. If signed, that would prevent defense lawyers from legitimizing a crime by saying that, because someone is transgender or gay, there’s justification behind the crime.
She said the judiciary committee also looked at definitions of consent within the law and established a network so colleges across Vermont can build comprehensive approaches to sexual violence on campus.
“This week was my first true marathon week on the House floor and it was quite an experience,” Donnally said.