By Rep. Jim Harrison
Confirmed new cases of Covid-19 in Vermont continued to decline last week, another sign that we are beyond the peak and doing better than many other areas. On Friday, May 1, Scott again turned the proverbial spigot another quarter turn as more businesses will be allowed to open, albeit with restrictions [see story on page 2.]
At Friday’s press conference, there were also hints of outdoor recreation and daycare returning soon, although dates and guidelines were still being discussed. Also, more information on schools are expected to be announced.
On Monday, the governor allowed some elective health care procedures. Outpatient clinic visits and diagnostic imaging can resume if providers demonstrate they are adhering to physical distancing and relevant CDC guidelines regarding infection control and prevention to maintain a safe environment for patients and staff. Providers may also begin to perform outpatient surgeries and procedures that have a minimal impact on inpatient hospital bed capacity and PPE levels, including those performed in the office or ambulatory surgical center.
Meanwhile, the Legislature continued its work remotely with a concentration
on Covid related measures. Some of the bills advanced included:
S.344, which during 2020 would allow town select boards and city councils to change the date property taxes are due, reduce or waive penalties, interest and fees for late property tax payments. It is important to note that towns are still responsible for paying the state for education property taxes under current law, so any changes in local tax due dates will need to be carefully considered.
S.346, advanced by the Senate (but not the House yet), would provide up to two months of bonus payments to essential workers who may be exposed to Covid at work, such as grocery store clerks. The estimated price tag is $60 million. The governor appears skeptical whether it is an allowable use of federal Covid funds and, if not, questions how the measure is paid for in light of looming state budget deficits. It would also come on top of premiums that many private employers are already providing.
S.333, which would place a statewide moratorium on all rent evictions and foreclosures during the Covid-19 State of Emergency plus 30 days following.
S.182, which extends the licensing of ambulance services; allows sheriff departments to borrow from county reserve funds with approval of asst. judges and allows electrician and plumber licenses to extend until Sept. 30 if they were set to expire after March 30.
State budget shortfall
The biggest task ahead, however, is the looming budget deficit. State economists have projected a whopping 17% decline in tax revenues. While it is still possible Congress will provide additional grants to the states, at this point the administration and legislative budget writers will have some very tough choices to make in the coming weeks and months.
Vermont State Colleges
While it remains unclear where bridge funding for the state college system will come from, Senate leader Tim Ashe and House Speaker Mitzi Johnson issued a joint statement this past Saturday pledging to students that educational opportunities will be available at all Vermont State College campuses in the fall.
The fallout from the previous announcement to close three of the Vermont State College campuses, which has been rescinded for now, was the resignation of VSC Chancellor Jeb Spaulding. Also was the resignation notice last week of Castleton University President Karen Scolforo. As Castleton was not part of the closure plan and President Scolforo has been considered a bright and capable leader, her resignation caught many by surprise.
The Secretary of State’s office is busy preparing plans to transition to a vote-by-mail for the November elections. In an update on Friday before the House and Senate Government Operations Committee, Elections Director Will Senning indicated they wanted to move ahead with a fundamental change in the way we conduct elections for this fall.
His proposal, which will need to be approved by the governor, assumes it will be less safe to vote in person, even though nobody knows what the fall will bring. Although November ballots cannot be printed until at least several weeks after the August primary, the Secretary of State wants to decide this week.
Unemployment issues continue at the Department of Labor (DOL), which has seen an unprecedented 84,000 filings since March. In addition, a new federally funded program for the self-employed (PUA) was instituted two weeks ago. To assist with the backlog in the regular unemployment program and startup of the new PUA, DOL has added personnel from other state agencies, Green Mountain Power and hired an outside contractor.
House leaders have set up an online form where legislators can file inquiries on behalf of constituents. Even that system registered over 1,500 submissions by Friday morning after just a few days of operation. About 25 legislators (including me), have volunteered to be part of a Legislative Action Team (LAT), to assist getting resolutions. This new effort should be starting in the coming week.
In closing, things are going in the right direction. The road may be bumpy at times and our normal way of doing things may change, but we are making progress.
Please continue social distancing and wear a mask when out in the public.
Many Vermonters have gone above and beyond during this pandemic. If you would like to recognize someone for acts of kindness, volunteerism and good will, please nominate him/her at: governor.vermont.gov/acts-of-kindness.
Jim Harrison is the state House Representative for Bridgewater, Chittenden, Killington and Mendon. Sign up for email updates at eepurl.com/gbxzuz, visit him on Facebook facebook.com/harrisonforvermont or email him at JHarrison@leg.state.vt.us.