I have to confess that writing the article this week has been a challenge. As I sit here in the room from which I’ve been participating in the Legislative Session all winter and spring, I can survey all the things that need to be done outside. The second group of sheep are lambing and shearing needs to be done pronto. I’ve rototilled the garden and need to get that in soon, the bees are thriving, the strawberry patch needs to be weeded, and the rhubarb is ready for harvest. I can’t wait to make a strawberry rhubarb pie!
As hoped, the 2021 Legislative Session adjourned on Friday afternoon. It has been referred to as an historic session due to COVID-19 and the remote nature of our meetings, as well as the huge amount of money that has come to Vermont from the federal government. Thinking back to January, as we approached the year contemplating the budget, the picture was grim and uncertain. The infusions of funding from the federal government have given us an opportunity to make investments that we, otherwise, would not have been able to make.
The fact that we were able to meet at all is in large (complete) part due to the availability of the internet and a strong, competent team of people working for us to make it happen. What was revealed, however, were the shortcomings of the internet in Vermont and the need for improvement. Many of us, including the Speaker of the House, Jill Krowinski, who lives in Burlington, had problems at one time or another with our connectivity. Fortunately, our FY2022 budget makes a significant $150 million investment to help improve the “last mile” situation for everyone.
In some ways, despite the tragic loss of life and the ongoing suffering of those who have been and are still ill, the pandemic may have done us a favor in the long run. Besides broadband, weaknesses in our systems such as food supply chains, healthcare, education, and childcare have also been revealed. If we’re prudent, the billions of federal CARES (Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act) and ARPA (American Rescue Plan Act) dollars we have received allow us to take steps to address these deficits as we prepare for a future that includes the effects of climate change and/or another pandemic. We have an opportunity to make investments that result in a Vermont that works for all of us and, with thoughtful planning, leaves no one behind.
It is interesting to reflect on how the progression of events occurred, revealing the cracks in our system. As schools closed due to the pandemic, parents could not go to work as usual. Workarounds for people who could work from home were created, but many, for instance, in the restaurant business, were left unemployed. Childcare facilities, for all but essential workers, closed. Challenges that we have long been aware of in the childcare industry, such as the ability to make a living wage taking care of children, became more evident. The bill we passed, H.171, attempts to remedy that problem, as well as make childcare more accessible and affordable.
Another longstanding concern, that of affordable housing, was once again in the spotlight. At one point during the pandemic, every homeless person who wanted shelter had access to it, but the housing was in hotels, which is not a long-term solution. It did help the hotels that were suffering because of the lack of tourists, just as some restaurants were helped by producing food for emergency meals programs.
To address the lack of affordable housing, a number of measures are provided for in S.79 that will help landlords create more affordable, safe housing with grants or loans, as well as modify the existing eviction moratorium that, in some cases, unscrupulous tenants have taken advantage of. It also incentivizes home ownership through no-interest loans from a revolving loan fund, especially for Vermonters in the BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and People of Color) community. S.79 creates a registry of long- and short-term rental housing so that we can know what actually exists. Landlords will pay a $35 fee that will help fund housing safety. Unfortunately, S.79 hasn’t quite made it through the process due a refusal to suspend rules, but we can take action when we meet again. Fifty million dollars is set aside for when S.79 passes.
Over the years, we have consistently tried to make healthcare more accessible and affordable for Vermonters. We have made good progress but there is still more to do. If there was any time when people needed high quality, comprehensive health care, the past fourteen months has been it. The goal of S.88 is that folks buying insurance on the individual market will not pay more than 8.5% of their income on health care. Because of more federal dollars for health care premium support, businesses with fewer than one hundred employees and individuals who obtain their health insurance somewhere other than their workplaces will save substantial money. If you would like more information, please click the link to Vermont Health Connect, which provides valuable information. If you need additional help, feel free to click on Office of the Health Care Advocate.
Equally important is the mental health of Vermonters. We know that many folks are struggling as the result of the pandemic-required isolation. In particular, children are affected by the disruption of their normal routines and the inability to attend school and play with their friends. We have heard dreadful stories of children being housed in hospital emergency departments because there are no inpatient facilities available. Some of our federal funding will be dedicated to supporting the substance use disorder and mental health workforce, as well as community residences and mobile emergency response teams.
Investments in curbing climate change include $20 million for weatherization, $10 million to the Municipal Energy Revolving Fund, and $10 million to the Clean Energy Development Fund. The Clean Water Fund, so important to Lake Champlain and our other affected water bodies will get $100 million for eligible expenditures in water and sewer infrastructure.
At the beginning of the pandemic, unemployment skyrocketed, placing a burden on our Department of Labor as unanticipated unemployment claims were made, crashing the system. $100 million will be invested to improve Vermont’s information technology systems. Getting people back to work will be addressed with a $50 million investment in workforce training and development, and $77 million in additional funding is appropriated for higher education, including our State college system. As I’ve reported in the past, we are dedicating $150 million to the pension and retiree health insurance situation.
All of the work we have done has been viewed through the lens of racial and social equity. For instance, we passed J.R.H.6, which is a resolution that declares racism a public health emergency. Additional resolved clauses state, “That this legislative body commits to the sustained and deep work of eradicating systemic racism throughout the State, actively fighting racist practices, and participating in the creation of more just and equitable systems, and be it further Resolved: That this legislative body commits to coordinating work and participating in ongoing action, grounded in science and data, to eliminate race-based health disparities and eradicate systemic racism.” If you want to read J.R.H.6 in its entirety, please go to https://bit.ly/3faUlDR.
It was a teamwork effort that put this year’s budget together. The Appropriations Committee worked with all of the policy committees to craft a budget, the final version of which, passed the House on a unanimous 148-0 vote. A great way to end the 2021 Legislative Session!