3.26.2021 – Several Important Bills After a Long Week

After a week of long days on the virtual House Floor, I think we were all glad when Friday afternoon rolled around and we could stop Zooming. Thursday, alone, we were on Zoom for twelve hours. What do we have to show for all of those long hours? Included below is a very short list, but one that gives you a flavor of the topics covered.

H.433- The Transportation Bill – The Transportation, or “T”, Bill is our vehicle for making investments in our transportation infrastructure – our roads, bridges, and culverts. The federal funding that has come our way as a result of the pandemic, has allowed us to maintain our infrastructure and make some additional investments as we attempt to mitigate climate change and the fact that 44% of Vermont’s carbon emissions are the result of our vehicles.

As we transition to lower carbon-emitting vehicles and other forms of transportation, we see opportunities for investment. Some of those one-time investments include $3.25 million for an incentive program for the purchase of electric vehicles, $1 million for Level 2 charging stations including a pilot program for multi-unit dwellings, $50,000 for an electric bicycle purchase incentive, and zero fares for those who have access to public transportation through Fiscal Year 2022.

For our municipalities, we include an additional $3 million for Town Highway Aid above the statutory requirement for one year. The amount a town will receive is based on the miles of Class 1, 2, and 3 roads within a community.

H.171 – An Act Relating to the Governance and Financing of Vermont’s childcare system – Many of us have long been aware of the challenges with our childcare system. Vermont families want to be assured that when they drop their children off, they will be safe and well-cared for physically, socially, and emotionally. In order to attract qualified childcare workers, we have to offer a competitive wage, which then increases the cost of childcare to levels that some families find hard to afford, in fact, a middle-income family of four spends more than 40% of their income on childcare. And that’s if they can find it, the majority cannot.

We know that we need to meet these challenges in order to provide families with accessible, affordable childcare to achieve our economic recovery. In FY2022, we invest $12.5 million in state and proposed federal funds to meet these goals. We will continue to redesign the Child Care Financial Assistance Program (CCFAP). This will include changing eligibility levels and the payment structure to make childcare more affordable. One target we hope to reach is that no family receiving CCFAP benefits will pay more than ten percent of their annual gross income on childcare by October 1, 2021. Another is that childcare workers be paid an appropriate wage that is comparable to those of others in similar fields.

H.360 – An Act Relating to Accelerated Community Broadband Deployment – Despite the intent of the federal Telecommunications Act of 1996, many of us who live in rural areas of the state are familiar with the problem of poor internet service. For the same reasons the Town of Windham did not have electricity until 1948-1949, high quality broadband has been elusive for some parts of our town. Private internet service providers are not interested in building out the infrastructure to rural customers in the last mile. In part due to the pandemic, we have become more aware of how important it is to get Vermonters connected for work-related, educational, and medical reasons, to name a few.

An investment of $150 million in American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) funds will be dedicated to advancing the goals of providing universal broadband coverage to our unserved and underserved areas and to provide customers with affordable options. Another goal is to provide service of at least 100 Mbps for both upload and download speeds, which would be a huge improvement over what the average customer in Windham has now.

H.439 – An Act Relating to Making Appropriations for the Support of Government – The most important bill we do all year is the Budget, or “Big”, Bill. Where we choose to make our investments reflects our values, hence the investments in childcare, housing, broadband, workforce development, education, state technology improvements, and clean water, to name a few. If there is a silver lining to the pandemic, it is that we have been the recipients of significant federal money being pumped into our economy. This additional $10+ billion has taken pressure off our General and Education Funds. At the same time, we are cognizant of the fact that at some point those federal injections of money will cease, and we need to plan accordingly. The COVID-19 money that we received last year had to be spent by the end of 2020; the money we anticipate receiving now through the American Recovery Plan Act (ARPA) will have a longer spending timeline.

Proposed spending includes $250 million for investments in the health and wellbeing of Vermont families and small businesses, $150 million for increasing broadband access statewide, $100 million for the Clean Water Fund, $100 million for state information technology systems improvement, and $50 million for workforce training and development.

As we know, the pension and retiree health care problem is something that we would all like to solve, but federal money cannot be used toward that goal. As a result, General Fund one-time money is being allocated in the amount of $150 million to help ease the situation. This is not enough to fix it by any stretch but is a start.

Affordable housing is another ongoing problem that we need to work on and $50 million is appropriated over the next two years to address that goal. In the category of planning ahead, we set aside $38 million for our 2022 Budget Adjustment Act next January to cover any unforeseen expenses. Our General Fund reserve is in good shape at over twelve percent of General Fund spending. Because of a more lenient timeline, any unallocated federal funds will be considered later this year and in the future.

In a recent VT Digger article, the plight of the homeless being housed in motels around the state was reported on by Katie Jickling. Placing people in motels was in response to the pandemic and a desire to reduce the opportunity for COVID-19 spread, which seems to have been successful. The cost for doing so has been covered by money from the federal government. The future is somewhat unclear, and we acknowledge that it’s time to better address the problem so $50 million is being reserved to develop and execute a plan to transition from the hotel-based model.

Another area that has garnered a lot of attention in recent years is that of higher education, in particular our State Colleges. With declining student numbers in general, our State Colleges have been struggling to stay afloat, but we recognize the value they represent to our young adults seeking higher education at a more affordable price. Included in H.439 is $5 million in base funding (which means that it is an ongoing part of the budget) for our State Colleges with an additional $72 million for higher education in general, meaning that University of Vermont and the Vermont Student Assistance Corporation will benefit too.

We also make an investment in climate change mitigation by devoting $20 million to weatherization services and $10 million to the Clean Energy Development Fund.

These are just a few of the many areas in which we have chosen to make investments. As a testament to the highly functional working relationship we have in the Vermont Legislature, I am proud to say that H.439 was voted out of committee unanimously as it was on the House Floor.