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Vermont Legislature
Follow VPR's statehouse coverage, featuring Pete Hirschfeld and Bob Kinzel in our Statehouse Bureau in Montpelier.

Vermont Lawmakers Discuss Plans For COVID-19 Relief

A view inside the Vermont statehouse.
Toby Talbot

State lawmakers have been working for weeks on plans to distribute several hundred million dollars in federal COVID-19 relief funds across Vermont. The governor announced his plans last month, and says lawmakers are dragging their feet. This hour, we talk with House Speaker Mitzi Johnson and House Appropriations Chair Kitty Toll about what their COVID-19 relief efforts are for small businesses and individuals.
Our guests are:

  • Rep. Mitzi Johnson, speaker of the House
  • Rep. Catherine "Kitty" Toll, chair of the House Committee on Appropriations

Broadcast live at noon on Tuesday, June 16, 2020; rebroadcast at 7:00 p.m.

The Following has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Before we get to the details of how this federal money might be spent, I’d like to give you a chance to respond to the governor's complaints last Friday that the House is taking way too much time deliberating over these issues while the people who need the money are struggling to survive.

Rep. Mitzi Johnson: Well it’s clear the governor has shifted his focus frankly to his campaign.

It’s a really disappointing assertion. It took the governor probably seven weeks to get the Legislature a plan for that money after we got it in April, and we turned it around in less than two weeks. So, for him to take seven weeks, and then criticize the Legislature for taking less than two, is a little disingenuous.

I really hope we can get back to the place we had been in for the first two and a half months of this crisis where we’re all working together. And by the end of this week the House will have voted on basically the full package. We will have $1 billion either allocated, already voted on or on its way out the door.

More from VPR: What’s In Gov. Scott’s $400 Million Coronavirus Relief Package?

When the House considers this bill later this week, will it be one massive budget bill or will you be taking the requests from each committee one at a time?

Rep. Mitzi Johnson: We’re clustering them because it’s a lot of information to process. If it were all in one bill, it would mean that none of it would get out the door until the last hiccup on the last piece were resolved. That’s why we chose to break it up a little bit and take the easy pieces that were widely agreed upon to get those out the door quickly.

And there were parts of the governor’s bill that really didn’t meet the needs of Vermonters or didn’t meet the qualifications of the money. So, we picked out some significant pieces totaling around $100 million to get out the door and I’m actually signing the bill today, and then it will just be a matter of the administration processing the applications to get the grants out the door.

More from VPR: Scott, Lawmakers Tussle Over COVID Relief For Vermont

Could you talk about the economic recovery grants for businesses that were passed and what businesses are eligible for these grants?

Rep. Kitty Toll: There is $70 million in this package for entities that have seen a 75% loss in one month to apply for these grants. The second phase that is going out on Thursday will be for another $80 million of additional grants. This will include business entities such as non-profits, arts groups, all that have experienced a 50% loss in business. Since these are not loans, they will not have to be paid back.

The House Committee on Commerce is looking at a wide range of things, more business grants to put out there for businesses that meet a slightly lower threshold of 50% loss rather than 75%. We’re trying to assist all businesses and include specific grants to businesses owned by women or people of color and trying to go across all sectors of the Vermont economy including our rural economy as well.

More from VPR: Activism And Reform In A Country Built On Racism: A Conversation With Vt. Racial Justice Leaders

"The tracking of these dollars is going to be immense, making sure they’re used correctly according to the guidance and the fact that they’re completely used. If they’re not, we have to roll them back and have them reinvested by Dec. 30 or return them to the federal government." -Rep. Kitty Toll, Chair of the House Committee on Appropriations

To put this money in perspective, Vermont’s general fund budget on an annual basis is how much?

Rep. Kitty Toll: Vermont’s general budget is between $1.6 and $1.7 billion, and this is a $1.25 billion package. But with this $1.25 billion from the federal government, we have strict guidance to follow and if that guidance is not followed, we owe those dollars back.

Not only do we have to have these dollars out the door, but these entities that receive them actually have to have them spent by Dec. 30. So, the tracking of these dollars is going to be immense, making sure they’re used correctly according to the guidance and the fact that they’re completely used. If they’re not, we have to roll them back and have them reinvested by Dec. 30 or return them to the federal government.

Stay up to date on the latest coronavirus news here.

The House Committee on Ways and Means is considering a tax holiday coming up. Do you think we’re going to see something like that?

Rep. Mitzi Johnson: I asked all committees to buckle down and look at how the pandemic and economic crisis was affecting their area of jurisdiction to come up with a broad range of ideas to help Vermont out, rather than just going with whatever recommendations came from the administration. There are a lot of businesses that have been dramatically hurt by this, and our restaurant industry is one of those. They’re a really important fabric of our downtowns and our communities. So, one of the ideas was to create a meals tax holiday to help build a little consumer confidence and give Vermonters a break and let them go out and inspire a bit more business for hurting industries. The House Committee on Commerce is finalizing their recommendations in the next day or two on that.

This pandemic has really showed us the importance of broadband access everywhere in the state whether it be for telecommuting, telehealthor educational services being brought online. The House Committee on Energy and Technology has a bold proposal to spend $13 million on broadband. Is this finally going to do it for the state?

Rep. Mitzi Johnson: Sadly no, to be quite blunt. Because of the limitations on the federal money, all of it has to be spent and used. We can’t pay a contractor ahead of time for work they’ll do next year. We can’t just roll out a couple miles of fiber somewhere and not connect houses. There are significant restrictions in this money.

We think this $43 million will help. Half of it is to help with households that are really struggling, just two of our rural electric co-ops have seen a 250% increase in their arrearages.  But the energy and technology committee will work to push out as much high-speed internet as they can, provided that it is implemented and houses are hooked up by Dec. 31.

More from VPR: Lawmakers Push Back On VPR’s COVID Relief Request

There’s a big chunk of money in this bill that recognizes a lot of people have been laid off from their jobs in the last three months.  About 40% of Vermont’s work force have applied for unemployment benefits in the last 90 days although not all of them have been approved. In this bill there’s $30 million for rental eviction protection. How is that going to work?

Rep. Mitzi Johnson: That money is getting finalized today, and it will be held by the administration so folks can apply there. What I hear from the chair of that committee is that they haven’t seen as much pressure as expected, in part because of the $600 federal bump in unemployment. So some people with very low wages are actually seeing that they’re making just as much or even a little bit more under unemployment insurance.

The problem we think will come in August or September when that federal bump runs out. If people are not able to get back to work by then, we want to make sure there is money available to make sure people don’t become homeless. It is so much more cost effective and safer for the family and just better for all outcomes — human and financial — to keep people housed rather than let them become homeless and try and rehouse them.  

More from NPR: World Bank: Recession Is The Deepest In Decades

To track all of the federal dollars that are coming in and what they’re spent on, check out the Office of the Vermont State Auditor and the Vermont Legislative Joint Fiscal Office.

Bob Kinzel has been covering the Vermont Statehouse since 1981 — longer than any continuously serving member of the Legislature. With his wealth of institutional knowledge, he answers your questions on our series, "Ask Bob."
Lydia worked for Vermont Public Radio and Vermont PBS from 2019 until 2022.
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