By Rep. Jim Harrison, Bridgewater, Chittenden, Killington & Mendon
In less than a month, our way of life has abruptly changed. The new (and hopefully very temporary) norm for many of us, is staying home where we may be working remotely, enjoying family time, helping children with their schoolwork, or catching up with spring cleaning or yard spruce up. When we do go out, which should be minimal, we need to wear masks as well as maintain distancing.
Current “Stay Home, Stay Safe” executive orders are likely to be extended beyond April 15.
Many thanks and prayers go out to those on the front lines in healthcare, volunteers and others providing essential services, such as grocery store personnel. They are doing their best to get shelves filled, add extra sanitation and establish procedures to help with social distancing.
The Vermont Legislature has also changed in the past month. After several measures were passed to make changes to existing laws (unemployment waiting period, public meetings in person, relicensing of retired healthcare professionals, etc), the Vermont House and Senate are now meeting remotely via online platforms, like Zoom. Not all is flawless, however, as one Senate committee found out the hard way last week with a zoom-bombing incident.
Committees are currently reviewing a number of areas where we may still need to make temporary changes to state laws. House Speaker Johnson indicated the Legislature would likely spend most of April acting on COVID related issues. In May and/or June, the focus will be on prior bills that are deemed less controversial and budget adjustments for the current fiscal year (July 2019 – June 2020) and a three month budget for the new year beginning July 1.
She has also indicated the General Assembly may meet in August or September for completion of the budget and other measures. This will happen after we have a better idea of what the revenue impact will be of the current shutdown and what additional assistance we may be receiving from Washington.
The Legislature’s fiscal analysts have already doubled the expected revenue lost to the state’s Education Fund to $89 million in the current year. In addition to property taxes, Vermont’s Education Fund relies on sales taxes and a quarter of the rooms and meals tax revenue. With lodging shut down a quarter of nothing is nothing.
How will education tax rates be set this summer when the Education Fund is in a deficit? Will local property taxes have to increase even more to accommodate school or town budgets that were passed in another environment? Or will school districts or towns need to reevaluate their spending priorities for the coming year? Will Washington put more on the credit card to backfill local and state budgets? More questions than answers at this point.
Members of the budget committees certainly have their work cut out for them. The projected shortfall in revenue for this year is already expected to drain any rainy day funds that had previously been set aside. Should all areas of the state budget see reductions in the coming year? It will not be business as usual to say the least. Some members have suggested tax increases, but that may be a recipe for disaster as we try to get our economy going again.
The Vermont Agency of Commerce and Community Development has listed a variety of resources for businesses and individuals at: accd.vermont.gov/covid-19. It includes information and how to obtain help from the latest federal package, including grants and loans. Small businesses are encouraged to talk with their bankers ASAP as some loan/grant programs are seeing strong demand and will be out of funding soon.
Call 2-1-1 (the Vermont 211 database) for additional information on Covid-19 and assistance options or visit: healthvermont.gov/covid19
In the meantime, I will do my best to keep you informed via email updates (to sign up eepurl.com/gbxzuz) or my Facebook page (facebook.com/harrisonforvermont).
You can reach Jim Harrison at JHarrison@leg.state.vt.us.