2021 Town Meeting
It’s an honor to serve as your state representatives and your voice in state policy making. This has been a very difficult year, particularly for the working families, essential workers, employers, and senior citizens we serve. Since mid-March 2020, VT’s General Assembly has met in total virtual mode with legislators “zooming in” from 150 locales across the state. We are simulating the schedule of a normal in-person session, though the process of legislating remotely 5-7 hours per day is slower.
We recognize that despite the huge sums of money in federal aid, it’s insufficient to overcome the massive inequities that have widened in VT in the last year. With the economic stress, the social isolation, and the political division we have experienced, it’s no wonder that many feel overwhelmed.
Inspired by these challenges, we are making progress on some critical policy goals, including:
Creating an equitable COVID recovery plan that spreads support across all VT 14 counties,
Investing in the state’s childcare system to improve access, affordability, and quality,
Increasing affordable housing options for working families,
Expanding broadband service to rural communities for telehealth, education, government access, and remote work,
Shaping policies designed to promote equity for BIPOC, LGBTQIA, women, people with disabilities, and other vulnerable Vermonters.
We have a mountain of work before us on the unfunded liability gap in the state pension systems, a priority issue for the legislature that may take some time to resolve. Below we’ve included brief summaries on a variety of issues that may be of interest.
Thank you for participating in Town Meeting!
Federal COVID Support from Washington
Since last March, the COVID-related dollars flowing into VT from the federal government have been substantial. By the end of 2020, about $5 billion had come to VT, much passing directly to government agencies and individuals for specified COVID relief purposes, such as unemployment benefits and PPP loans to businesses. Included in this amount was $1.25 billion Coronavirus Relief Fund (CRF) dollars from which the legislature appropriated funds to target specific support for VTers and their communities. Allocations ranged from assistance to farms and working land businesses, state parks and arts organizations, internet connectivity, health care stabilization, for-profit and nonprofit businesses, UVM and the VT State Colleges system, municipalities and school districts, and a wide variety of housing and justice-related programs.
We dedicated more than $60 million in hazard pay to essential workers. We allocated the resources necessary for long-term care facilities to deliver services safely to older VTers. We assisted mental health and substance abuse counselors in operating remotely through telehealth. We provided the resources to sustain childcare and afterschool programs, and supported organizations that assist the most vulnerable VTers.
Because use of CRF dollars had to follow strict federal guidance and needed to be expended by 12/30/20 (until Congress unexpectedly changed that guidance at the end of 2020), various portions of this aid have required reallocation up to the present day. We are currently reappropriating millions of CRF dollars to make the best use of the funds for VT’s economic recovery.
With the vaccine roll-out well underway, we are expecting the next round of federal funding to continue supporting our communities and will be working over the next several months to direct those funds where they can best alleviate current hardship while building the strongest foundation for an equitable recovery.
As bad as economic conditions and job losses have been in the last year, without this federal stimulus aid, the financial effects of the pandemic would have been catastrophic. The uncertain effects of 2020’s COVID recession will play out on state finances over the next two years as the support of federal aid dissipates.
COVID-19 Vaccine Update
The VT Health Department is working closely with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) to distribute vaccines as they become available. Starting March 1, people in Vermont age 65+ can make appointments to get vaccinated. You can learn more and sign up for weekly emails at: https://www.healthvermont.gov/covid-19/vaccine
The Transportation Modernization Act
The annual Transportation Bill has traditionally been legislation mapping out annual spending plans for roads and other transportation infrastructure. The Transportation Modernization Act of 2021, which we both have sponsored, moves climate and equity goals into the annual Transportation Bill. The bill seeks to:
Save Vermonters money,
Reduce air pollution and carbon emissions,
Expand electric vehicle (EV) incentives and the state’s fast-charging network.
Make it easier for low- and moderate-income VTers to purchase zero-emissions vehicles that are cheaper to fuel and maintain.
Continue fare-free transit to eliminate transportation costs for people who might not be able to afford it otherwise.
Expand high-traffic corridors for cyclists and pedestrians.
Transportation is the largest contributing sector to VT’s greenhouse gas emissions (~45% of emissions) and presents a tremendous opportunity to reduce pollution and costs for our state.
Saving the Pension System
The State of VT oversees the pension management for three groups of public employees: state employees; teachers in pre-K to 12 schools; and municipal workers. The upkeep and viability of these funds is a vital oversight concern for the legislature. In a January report, Treasurer Beth Pearce recommended changes that would significantly reduce the $4.5 billion unfunded pension and other retirement liabilities across these three pension plans. Her recommendations included various options from increasing employee contributions to reducing cost-of-living adjustments for future retirees. The legislature will likely consider a significant one-time infusion of funds to the state pension system. While the governor has yet to weigh-in on a solution, the House Speaker has committed to bringing together stakeholders to craft an equitable solution, and the Government Operations Committee has begun that process. While this is an extremely sensitive topic both for tens of thousands of VT workers and for the fiscal health of the state, finding a long-term solution soon is imperative in order to save the public pension systems and address the $4.5 billion liability.
Stepping Up on Childcare
High-quality childcare is an investment in Vermont’s future. By increasing access and affordability for Vermont’s families, we help parents stay employed and contribute to their local economies. By increasing childcare worker wages, we can support and grow our early educator workforce. By prioritizing the well-being and development of our children, we are giving the next generation of Vermonters a head start to success.
H.171, which we both have sponsored, will make these investments a reality. The reforms offered in this bill are based on feedback from VT parents, providers, employers, and community members. Not only does H.171 make childcare more affordable, it removes barriers to access, ensures fair wages for providers, establishes workforce development programs, and creates a path to identify future revenue sources.
We know that childcare is essential to keeping our communities strong. Yet, VT’s childcare system is sorely in need of resources. H.171 is a huge step forward to funding childcare in a way that reflects its true value to our state.
Broadband is Critical Infrastructure
Access to high-speed internet is essential to daily life. We use the internet to go to work, attend school, see a doctor, interact with government, and connect with our community and the world. Unfortunately, the promise of modern communications has bypassed many rural communities in VT.
Our comprehensive bill (H.360) seeks to accelerate community broadband deployment by modeling ECFiber’s success throughout VT. Key elements of the bill include: funding for pre-construction expenses, expanded grants and loans for building broadband infrastructure in unserved and underserved areas, and a new workforce development program to increase the number of line workers. This bill would bring tens of millions of dollars of new capital to support the construction of community-based fiber assets in the most underserved parts of the state.
The legislation also establishes the Vermont Community Broadband Authority to coordinate and fund broadband buildout, to support VT’s regional communications union districts (CUDs) and their partners, and to advocate at the federal level for programs and policies that will accelerate the deployment of universal broadband in rural VT.
Tax Structure Commission
Approximately every 10 years, the Vermont Legislature charges an independent tax commission with looking across our system of taxation to make recommendations for the future. We just received a draft of their report, and it includes recommendations for moving to a fully income-based system of education taxes, broadening the sales tax base, and seeking to tax wealth more accurately through capital gains, estate tax changes, and more. Their recommendations are not immediately actionable but will help guide our work over the next few biennium.