5.8.2020 – COVID-19-related Bills, Farmer’s Markets, and Unemployment Woes

In the Vermont House we continued to deal with COVID-19-related issues on the Floor this week. Next week, we will start taking up non-coronavirus bills but ones that are time sensitive. We anticipate working on H.656, which is a housekeeping bill for the Agency of Agriculture, Food, and Markets. It has many technical changes to agricultural statutes, but also includes language regarding hemp that is critical for the upcoming growing season.

On Friday, we worked on three bills including H.947, an act relating to temporary municipal tax rate provisions in response to COVID-19; H.948, an act relating to temporary municipal proceedings provisions in response to the COVID-19 outbreak; and H. 950, an act relating to allowing remote witnesses for advance directives for a limited time.

H.947 was specifically drafted for towns like Brattleboro that did not have their FY2021 budget approved before the State of Emergency was declared. As many of you know, Brattleboro has a meeting on Town Meeting Day at which the voters choose their representatives for a later meeting at which a budget is approved. Because that second meeting could not be held before large groups of people were prohibited from congregating, Brattleboro does not have an approved FY2021 budget.

H.947 states that “During a declared state of emergency under 20 V.S.A. chapter 1 due to COVID-19, the legislative body of a municipality may adopt a budget and a municipal tax rate for the next fiscal year, provided that the municipality has not held an annual or special meeting in the year 2020 to adopt a budget and municipal tax rate”.

H.947 will allow the Brattleboro Select Board to adopt a budget and a tax rate for FY2021 without a vote of the town representatives. This does not apply to towns where a meeting was already held, and a budget approved. H.947 passed overwhelmingly and put through all stages of passage.

H.948 is a response to the fact that certain municipal proceedings now potentially require in-person site visits and, given the coronavirus, that practice is now considered inadvisable. This bill proposes to authorize municipalities to hold any municipal quasi-judicial proceeding by electronic means and suspend requirements for certain in-person inspections of property subject to appeal. There was concern on the parts of several House members that suspending the requirement for an in-person inspection might do an injustice to the person with the grievance and that workarounds might be available. As a result, the bill passed second reading but there will be at least one amendment offered next Wednesday so the bill was not put though all remaining stages of passage.

H.950 is a bill regarding advance directives, which are end-of-life health care documents that we should all have in order to get the care we want at that time. Immediate family members are not allowed to witness these documents so a workaround for in-person witnessing was necessary.

With the advent of the coronavirus many people have been spurred to action to get their advance directives done. H.950 allows these documents to be witnessed remotely if they were drawn up between February 15, 2020 and the effective date of the legislation, which will be upon passage. The advance directive will be considered valid even if the person signed the document “outside the physical presence of one or both of the required witnesses” provided that the person and the remote witness are known to each other; the remote witness understands what their role is in the execution of an advance directive; and the person includes the name and contact information of the witness on the advance directive. H.950 passed on a very strong vote and rules were suspended to put it through all stages of passage.

The very good news for our diversified agriculture sector was the announcement that farmers’ markets are now allowed to include vendors who produce non-edible products. Social distancing will still have to be maintained so no music, children’s activities, or congregating will be permitted but craftspeople and those selling hanging baskets and other non-edibles such as soap and sanitizer will be allowed. Given the windy snowstorm on Saturday (sigh!), that may not have been immediately important but, hopefully, someday soon it will warm up and our farmers’ markets will be up and running for business. Our thanks to the folks at the Agency of Agriculture, Food, and Markets for their work in making this happen. Our House Agriculture and Forestry Committee had a letter ready to go encouraging this very thing, but we didn’t even have to send it.

Unemployment compensation continues to be a nightmarish problem. Legislators now have an electronic document that we can fill out that seems to be helping. Please contact us if you’ve had a problem and we can submit the form for you but please don’t contact more than one legislator because duplicate submissions will just make things worse. Your legislator will need your name, email address, the last four digits of your Social Security Number, the date you filed your initial claim, whether you have gotten a check or not, and whether your issue regards regular unemployment insurance or Pandemic Unemployment Assistance.

If you have not received your Coronavirus stimulus payment from the federal government, there is a link to the Internal Revenue Service website that may help – https://www.irs.gov/coronavirus/economic-impact-payment-information-center. We understand that Social Security recipients were supposed to start receiving their stimulus payments on April 29th. There are also reports of people receiving stimulus checks for relatives who have died. These checks must be returned and information regarding how to do that can be found at https://www.forbes.com/sites/ryanguina/2020/05/06/stimulus-checks-made-to-dead-taxpayers-must-be-returned/#594153032d97

As the House Agriculture and Forestry Committee has discussed the food supply chain system, I have become more and more concerned about the potential fragility of the system. Climate change and resulting weather disturbances such as drought and extreme precipitation events could have a devastating effect on the availability of food. While concerned, this also provides an exciting challenge. I’m hoping my committee will be part of the conversation as we look at a regional food supply system. The VPR program “Brave Little State” recently did an excellent piece on this topic. For those interested in listening, you can go to https://www.vpr.org/programs/brave-little-state#stream/0