State News

How do you spell RELIEF?

BY Rep. Jim Harrison

The House Appropriations Committee was ground zero for what has been dubbed, a “mini Covid relief bill.” Utilizing some unspent federal coronavirus relief funds from last year along with one-time money from the current better than expected revenue forecasts, the committee assembled a bill appropriating more than $55 million in very short order.

Among the bill’s provisions:

$15 million for school indoor air improvements

$10 million for housing

$10 million for business grants to those ineligible previously for state or federal grant programs

$10 million for outdoor recreational projects and grants

$5 million for mental health needs and housing support

$3 million for working lands grants

$1.4 million for Vermont Foodbank

$1.3 million for Reach Up payments

$1 million for broadband line extension grants (additional money expected later in another bill)

$0.7  million for refugee resettlement and Assoc. of Africans Living in Vermont (AALV)

$0.5 million for addressing health care disparities

Additionally, another $6.7  million to be put towards retired teachers’ healthcare is under consideration.

Some of these expenditures were moved from the governor’s recommended budget to have funds available for the upcoming construction season, while others were brand new proposals. One must be concerned about new spending when money is available as it can become ongoing in the future and increase the base budget.

As I write this, the legislation is expected to be approved by the panel Monday afternoon (Feb. 22).

Other issues of interest

In what is hoped to be one of many steps forward with reopening the state, Vermonters that are fully vaccinated plus two weeks will no longer need to quarantine after traveling out of state. Visitors to Vermont will also no longer be required to quarantine if they can prove they’ve been fully vaccinated.

The House approved legislation, H.81, that makes changes to the parameters under which education staff and teachers negotiate their statewide healthcare. Under current law, whatever is negotiated must result in the same co-pays for all covered employees. That provision was removed in the bill, worrying many school boards, as well as Governor Scott, that it will lead to higher healthcare costs to districts and by extension, higher property taxes. H.81 was supported by the unions representing school staff, who prefer lower a premium share. The measure was approved mostly along party lines, 102-46.

The Senate Committee on Government Operations is considering a proposal to transition to mailing ballots to all active registered voters in future statewide elections. The measure would also require town clerks to return defective ballots in certain instances to voters prior to an election to give them an opportunity to fix the deficiency, such as a missing signature. The legislation also includes some provisions to prohibit voting twice if a person relocates during the time ballots are available. Unlike last year when federal funds were available, the extra costs will have to be born by the state.

The Senate gave final approval to the annual budget adjustment act, H.138, and has sent the legislation to the governor. One of the late changes inserted was a request by the administration to authorize the tax department and Dept. of Labor to share certain information to assist with getting out the corrected 1099s from DOL.

The Senate Committee on Economic Development, Housing and General Affairs is considering a proposal by the Dept. of Labor that, if implemented, would enact a one-year freeze to both the taxable wage base and the tax rate schedule that determines employer contributions to the Unemployment Insurance Trust Fund (UITF). Without the change in statute, employers would see their unemployment tax rates increase this year because of the large increase in unemployment claims.

State General Fund revenues for the month of January were 9.0% ahead of forecast, thanks in large part to the strong showing of personal income tax receipts. The Transportation Fund was 8.1% below targets and the Education Fund was down 2.2%.

At last Friday’s press conference, it was announced that the next age group for vaccines (65+) was expected to open the week of March 1.

A joint assembly of the House and Senate met last Thursday to re-elect the sargent-at-arms (Janet Miller), adjutant general of the Vermont National Guard (Greg Knight) and three people to the UVM trustees. Elections to the UVM board are generally non-political in nature, as evidenced by my seconding the nomination of Rep. Lucy Rogers, D-Waterville. She made national news in the 2018 campaign when she performed a duet with her Republican opponent following a candidate forum as a sign of civility. The mail-in ballots will be counted on Feb. 25.

In closing, I hope to see you at one of next week’s informational online town meetings: Chittenden on March 1 at 7 p.m.; Killington on March 1 at 7 p.m.; and Mendon on March 1 at 6 p.m. Bridgewater was held on Feb. 23.

Jim Harrison is the state representative for Bridgewater, Chittenden, Killington and Mendon, he can be reached at [email protected]

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