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Legislative Update 06/12/2020
Legislature Struggles to Approve Federal Relief Funds
Vermont has largely escaped the physical devastation of the COVID-19 pandemic, with the vast majority of cities and towns reporting zero to five cases. But the economic toll has been immense, and the scope of financial losses and business closures is likely to be massive in the months ahead.
Nonetheless, three months after the COVID-19 lockdown began, the legislature has approved only $93 million of the nearly $1 billion in federal CARES Act funds it was allocated. Of that amount, $70 million is for small business relief – barely one-third of the amount requested by Gov. Scott.
Despite the legislature’s timid pace, the governor has largely refrained from criticism, choosing instead to maintain a sense of unity among the state’s leaders. At his press conference today, he prodded the legislature to act more quickly, but left his staff to deliver a more pointed message.
Although they haven’t acted quickly, the legislature has become more adept at working remotely. But that fluency has come at a cost to the public. As one observer noted, there is a difference between observation and participation. For Vermont citizens, it is difficult to follow legislative proceedings in the best of times, but they can almost always participate. The virtual meeting environment has made public participation virtually impossible. As a result, it is extraordinarily difficult to parse the decisions that are being made, much less offer any input.
Compounding the opaqueness is the absence of meaningful media coverage. COVID-19 has advanced the steady demise of the media and its ability to scrutinize the legislature’s actions, even as lawmakers make decisions on a massive and unprecedented scale. Legislative spending discretion usually occurs in six- or seven-digit figures; it is now working in increments that are a hundred times those amounts.
The brave new environment has consolidated decision making power in the hands of a few lawmakers – mostly House and Senate leaders and committee chairs. Most legislators have little or no input on the decisions that are being made and often seem overwhelmed and confused at the issues before them. The House Appropriations Committee blazed through its consideration of hundreds of millions of dollars of various committee proposals this week, barely making any alterations, despite its mandate to oversee state spending. Those decisions seemed to have been fully baked before they reached the committee.
Even as the legislature lumbers to appropriate an almost inconceivable sum of money over the next few weeks, it has entirely avoided addressing the looming revenue shortfall it faces in FY 2020 – now estimated at $350 million. That decision, too, has happened almost entirely without public awareness.
The legislature seems to have substituted hope for a plan in addressing the budget shortfall. It approved a preliminary budget for FY 2020 that not only fully funds most state programs for the first quarter of the year, but fully funds the education system for the entire year.
Legislative leaders have reserved $400 million in CRF funds in the hope that Congress will reverse itself and allow the money to be used to backfill state budget deficits. If that doesn’t happen, the General Assembly will return in August to find itself having to dig out of two massive holes: First, a massive budget deficit, with only three-quarters of a year in which to recover the funds through tax increases or budget cuts; and second, a deadline of less than four months for the money to be allocated, appropriated and spent to avoid having it return to the federal government.
The opaque legislative process is perhaps unavoidable given the inherent limits of meeting remotely and the need to move large sums of money in a short period of time. But the basic decisions being made highlight a few fundamental values that are driving leadership decisions:
|•||Lawmakers are struggling to comprehend the need to provide immediate relief to businesses that are at risk of failing by the thousands by this fall;|
|•||Legislative leaders place a higher priority on avoiding budget reductions or raising taxes next year than shoring up the economy now.|
When the legislature returns to the Statehouse, one hopes that at least the value of transparent and open deliberations returns.
|House CRF Fund
|Tier 1 Request||Tier 1 Target||Tier 2 Target||Approved|
|Total Request: $93 million
($70M in econ. recovery and $23M in housing)
|$150 million||$30 million||$70 million
|Agriculture and Forestry||—||$20 million||$10 million||—|
|Corrections and Institutions (updated 06/11)||$2.66 million||$2.36 million||$1 million||—|
|Education||$50 million||$50 million||$75 million||—|
|Energy and Technology||$43.27 million||$45 million||$35 million||—|
|General, Housing, and Military Affairs||$52 million||$75 million||$50 million||($23 million for housing in S.350)|
|Government Operations||—||$10 million||$50 million|
|Health Care||$150 million (includes $139 million for HC Provider Stabilization Program)||$150 million||$75 million||—|
|Human Services||$50 million||$50 million||$50 million||—|
|Judiciary (updated 06/11)||$597 K||$1.1 million||$2 million||—|
|Natural Resources||—||$5 million||$8 million||—|
|Transportation||$5 million||$5 million||$2 million|
|Ways and Means||$5 million||$5 million||$2 million||—|
|TOTAL||$451.53 million||$586.46 million||$390 million||$93 million|
Source: Joint Fiscal Office.
* Tier 1 is the amount of CRF funds that legislative leaders have authorized in the initial round of appropriations that will be completed this month. Tier 2 is the amount held in reserve with the hope that Congress will allow it to be used to replace state revenue.
Legislature drastically cuts proposed aid to Vermont’s small businesses
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House Committee approves broadband investments
The House Energy and Telecommunications Committee has approved a package of initiatives that would use $43 million in CRF money to finance broadband investments. Read more
Act 250 rises from the ashes
Just two weeks before the legislature vacated the State House due to COVID-19, the House passed H.926, a bill aimed at modernizing Act 250, Vermont’s 50-year-old landmark land use law. Read more
“C-R-F” Spells (Some) Relief for Education
The announcement this week that schools will reopen for in-person education in the fall is welcome news, but questions about how to fund it remain large. Read more
Get all the news about Vermont Health Care legislation
We’ve included a few of the most important health care articles here, but DRM’s weekly comprehensive Health Care Legislative Update covers all the developments including bills, committee activities, panel discussions, taxes, budgets and more. Read this week’s Health Care Legislative Update here. Additional topics covered this week include:
- AHS proposes Brattleboro Retreat funding
- Senate Finance considers broadband for Telehealth
- Senate panel receives update on hospital finances
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For more information about this Legislative Update, please contact Tricia Augeri.