2020 legislative session: Act II
The week of March 16th, schools and colleges across the state closed, non-essential businesses shuttered, the healthcare system prepared for a wave of COVID cases, and tens of thousands of Vermonters lost their jobs. Over a two-week period, the VT House rewrote its Rules to allow for meeting and voting during the declared public health emergency. Attending to heightened cybersecurity concerns, we figured out how to hold publicly accessible committee hearings and full-House deliberations and votes. Zoom and YouTube channels became central to workings of the legislature.
Through April, legislators focused on two emergency-driven activities: support for individual constituents in crisis and appropriating federal funds to address the state’s most urgent needs. One month into the pandemic, 1-in-6 Vermont workers had lost their job while the state’s unemployment insurance system collapsed under an avalanche of claims. Through May, a combination of technological workarounds engineered by the Agency of Digital Services and manpower supplied by legislators, volunteers, and private temp workers filled the breach to expedite getting benefits to desperate Vermonters.
That gut-wrenching six-week period exposed areas of the Vermont economy and social safety net that had been fraying for years and badly needed reinforcement. In addition to our unemployment insurance system, nutritional programs, mental health and childcare supports, internet service providers, and our K-12 school systems were severely tested in adjusting to meet citizens’ needs. This helped focus the legislature and the governor on where to direct federal stimulus funds directed to states.
With Congress’ passage of the $2 trillion Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act at the end of March, hundreds of millions of dollars began to flow to Vermont in the form of small business loans/grants, expanded unemployment benefits, tax deferments, and direct aid to schools and public health programs. $150 billion of CARES Act funds went to the Coronavirus Relief Fund (CRF) program as direct aid to states required to be spent by December 30th and with highly prescribed guidelines for use. With CRF program dollars subject to “small state minimum” rules (something our appropriations hero Senator Patrick Leahy incorporated into federal guidelines decades ago), Vermont received $1.25 billion from the CRF program, about 0.8% of the total federal CRF funds even though Vermont accounts for only 0.2% of the nation’s population.
The CRF program was Vermont’s lifeline.
Through the end of June, the legislature worked with the governor to appropriate approximately $1 billion of CRF funds to a variety of areas of need. $275 million of these funds were directed to health care providers including primary care doctors, dentists, hospitals, mental health care practices, nursing homes, and physical therapists. For nearly three months, Vermont health care providers closed their doors to all but urgent care cases in order to prevent the spread of COVID and to prepare for a spike in cases that never arrived. This $275 million appropriation prevented a collapse in the state’s health care system.
CRF dollars were also used to fund recovery grants to buoy small businesses; enhance benefits to unemployed workers; shore up the state college system and UVM; supplement K-12 school remote learning and nutritional programs; support rent subsidy and homeless programs while providing landlord relief; provide food through school summer meals programs, Meals on Wheels, and the Vermont Foodbank; reimburse state and local governments for COVID-related expenses; buildout internet connectivity to qualifying households; keep dairy farms and childcare centers in business; and sustain the VT Judicial system to continue operating during the pandemic. The strategic challenge of appropriating CRF dollars has been to ensure that the funds be spent by 12/30/20, to make sure funds reach areas of most urgent need, and to prioritize funds to result in the longest-term benefits.
While much of the legislature’s spring 2020 workload was focused on how to provide relief and support to Vermonters during the pandemic shutdown, several important policy initiatives were also adopted, including:
H. 681 (Act 92), a bill that made a number of temporary election law changes relevant to the public health emergency. This bill empowered the Secretary of State and Governor to work together to design an election to be held in a manner appropriate in a pandemic, including the possibility of an all mail-in ballot election. Sadly, Governor Scott refused to agree to expanding vote-by-mail and the legislature subsequently was forced to remove him from this process with the passage of S. 348. H.681 made it easier and safer for candidates to qualify for the ballot by eliminating the need to obtain voter signatures on petitions. Town governments were empowered to use Australian ballots instead of in-person Town Meetings, while selectboards could meet via electronic means so long as the public could access meetings through the same medium. We also passed legislation better enabling local governments to post meeting minutes and agendas, adopt budgets, form communications union districts, establish new time frames and methods for accepting property tax payments, and conduct property valuation appeals during the public health emergency.
S.338 (Act 148), a bill that restructures furlough and parole to ensure better consistency and access to due process; strengthens policies to allow people to earn more time off their sentences for good behavior; strengthens connections to appropriate substance use disorder treatment and mental health services in the community; and develops re-entry housing that better fits the needs of people leaving prison. The legislation also creates a group that includes members of the Racial Disparities in the Criminal and Juvenile Justice System Advisory Panel and the Executive Director of Racial Equity to look at the relationship between race and sentencing outcomes.
H. 663 (Act 157), a bill that makes contraception more accessible to and affordable for those of reproductive age; ensures VT youth are receiving comprehensive health education in schools; and aims to reduce unintended pregnancies and the spread of sexually transmitted diseases. The law requires VT health insurance companies to cover without cost-sharing at least one drug, device or product for each method of contraception; provides coverage without cost-sharing for voluntary sterilizations of men and women; permits pharmacists to prescribe self-administered hormonal contraceptives to patients over the counter; and requires all school districts to make condoms available for free to all students in its secondary schools, at a minimum, through the school nurse’s office.
S.342 (Act 150), a bill that supports frontline workers who have an elevated risk of contracting COVID-19 on the job. The bill makes it easier to establish a workers’ compensation claim for employees who have regular contact with the public or patients. Every claim will be adjudicated on a case-by-case basis, and claims related to COVID-19 will not affect an employer’s experience rating for purposes of calculating insurance premium rates. VT is one of 14 states to have adopted a similar measure to protect workers.
Finally, the legislature voted to hold statewide education property tax rates level through June 30, 2021 per the rates approved at this year’s Town Meetings. In the next year, Vermonters will not be paying more in property taxes to cover the education funding gap caused by the pandemic.
Because of the extreme uncertainty in the fiscal outlook for the state, on June 26th the legislature adopted a budget only for the 1st quarter of the fiscal year through September 30th and adjourned for eight weeks bringing Act II of the 2020 legislative session to a conclusion.