By Rep. Jim Harrison
The state’s economic picture is bleak. Since the pandemic hit, tax revenues are down and will be down for at least the next two years according to state economists…all as a direct result of closed or limited businesses and high unemployment.
Yet, at the same time, the governor and Legislature are appropriating hundreds of millions of dollars for everything from grants to businesses and the health care industry to housing needs. How can we do that? you might ask.
Congress, as part of their Covid related measures, gave states funds to help with the anticipated extra costs they would incur dealing with the pandemic. Vermont’s share was $1.25 billion. That’s a lot of money! However, it came with a lot of strings attached as to how it could be spent, and if unused by the end of the year, it goes back to Washington.
For example, it cannot be used to backfill state or local revenue gaps caused by the economic downturn. Part of the reason for the differences between the administration and Legislature is how much to appropriate to keep businesses afloat through grants. The governor recommended a larger portion of the $1.25 billion. Legislative leaders, on the other hand, are holding back $250 million in case the feds change the rules and allow Vermont to use the money for the State budget shortfall.
Meanwhile the amounts being appropriated for various measures are staggering. $300 million for health care, $150 million for business grants, $30 million for agriculture, $43 million for broadband, $50 million for education, more for housing, rental assistance, etc. Whether it will all be spent wisely, is anyone’s guess right now. There is no question there is need and these are worthwhile initiatives, but it’s also important to realize that money is rarely free. Congress borrowed the money, which will someday need to be repaid by our children and grandchildren. Nonetheless, Vermont, like everywhere else, has emergency needs, and assistance from Washington is helpful right now.
On the good news front, Vermont’s unemployment rate decreased to 12.7% in May. While that number is still high and doesn’t include the self-employed out of work, it is about a 4% drop from April — a positive sign.
At his press conference Friday, Governor Phil Scott was joined by the state’s executive director of racial equity Xusana Davis and Rep. Kevin “Coach” Christie, chair of the Human Rights Commission, to mark Juneteenth, which commemorates the ending of slavery in the United States. Governor Scott also proclaimed it Juneteenth Recognition Day in Vermont.
Issues to watch
With the Legislature set to adjourn (at least temporarily) in the coming week, there will sure to be significant activity in the days to come. At this point, plans are for the session to pick back up in late August to begin crafting the budget for the remaining nine months when there is a better money picture available. A couple of items to watch for this week:
The biannual Pay Act, H.964, still needs approval by both chambers to fund the collective bargaining agreement with the state employees’ union. If passed, the average total increase would total about 8.5% (including $1,400 payments, step increases, cost of living adjustment and new leave benefit in year 2) over the two-year deal negotiated last winter with the administration. If the legislation fails, then the contract will need to be renegotiated.
A major climate bill with increased regulation, H.688, was advanced by the Senate Natural Resources Committee on a 3-2 vote on Friday, June 19. The measure, which was approved by the House earlier in the session, has had an unclear future during the current pandemic.
Housing legislation under consideration in the Senate, S.237, includes several Act 250 changes and what some might refer to as statewide zoning measures. The legislation received preliminary approval on Thursday, but was delayed on Friday, when additional Act 250 changes were considered non germane to the original bill.
Policing reforms appear to be on a fast track in the aftermath of several national events. The Senate has been working on several bills, but it is unclear what will pass both the House and Senate in just a week. The first quarter budget also includes a provision to develop feasibility plans for placing mental health experts in every state police barrack.
The first bill to be considered in the Senate, S.119, mandates an officer must intervene if he or she witnesses another officer using an improper restraining technique and establishes a statewide use of force policy. Xusana Davis, Vermont’s director of racial equity, suggested to senators that slowing down and getting it right, might be a prudent action on the reforms. However, Senate leader Tim Ashe, indicated he was not open to any delays.
In closing, I want to congratulate Killington for their innovative “drive in” fireworks plan for the July 4 holiday, which received a shout out at the governors press conference last Friday.
Jim Harrison represents Bridgewater, Chittenden, Killington and Mendon in the Vermont House.Sign up for email updates at eepurl.com/gbxzuz or email him at JHarrison@leg.state.vt.us.