By Anne Wallace Allen/VTDigger
The Legislature’s Joint Fiscal Committee has steered an additional $75 million into grants intended to help Vermont’s hospitality businesses survive the winter.
The committee, meeting Saturday, Nov. 14, approved many of the items on a proposal the Scott administration issued earlier this month to reallocate some of the state’s $1.25 billion share of the federal CARES Act money. Any money that is still unallocated by the end of the year will revert to the state’s unemployment trust fund.
Hospitality businesses joined forces in recent weeks to lobby lawmakers for more emergency grant funding, arguing that the state’s restrictions on travel, on inns and hotels, and on restaurants have caused millions of dollars in losses over the last eight months.
Tourism is one of the largest industries in the state, and brought in nearly 13 million visitors and nearly $2.8 billion per year before the Covid-19 pandemic, according to the state’s 2017 tourism study. It supported an estimated 32,000 jobs, which is about 10% of the state’s workforce.
The $75 million reallocation “is a recognition that they play a major role in our economy, and that Covid restrictions have hit them particularly hard,” said Sen. Ann Cummings, D-Washington County and chair of the Joint Fiscal Committee. “They didn’t choose to have their occupancy first shut down and then limited and then shut down again, essentially.”
The state ordered bars and restaurants closed in mid-March and severely limited hotel occupancy, slowly lifting those limits as the rate of Covid-19 infection slowed. This week, with infection rates surging, Gov. Phil Scott announced new limits on travel and on bars and restaurants.
Under the $75 million program approved Saturday, hospitality businesses will be eligible to apply for state grants to cover all their unmet economic needs, as measured by the amount of money they made this year between March and the end of September compared to the same period in 2019. The grants will be disbursed as part of a $76 million program approved by the Legislature this autumn.
The Joint Fiscal Committee normally meets three or four times a year, Cummings noted, but has met three times already this month. The panel on Saturday approved most, but not all, of the items in the administration’s proposal. Among its significant moves:
It rejected a request from the Agency of Agriculture for $700,000 to help meat processors buy equipment they need to expand. Cummings said all large Vermont businesses are limited to a maximum of $300,000 from the state’s business grants program. “There are other sources” of money for meat-processing businesses that need to expand, Cummings said, including the Vt. Economic Development Authority, which provides business loans. “It just didn’t seem like the highest and best use or the greatest need to us.”
It declined at this time to approve $700,000 for the Agency of Human Services to create a financial support program for people who contract Covid-19 or who are asked by the state Dept. of Health to quarantine. Financial grants would assist people to pay their bills when they should be staying home, Cummings said. But the panel asked the administration to return with a new proposal for that program.
The panel approved $6.4 million to pay about $280 each to 23,000 Vermonters who are on disability or supplemental security income. They are among the poorest state residents, Cummings said. “The thought was we’d like to help them out a little bit, too. A lot of them are elderly, they are disabled, and they now can’t get out; they are isolated and the cost of groceries keeps going up.”
‘People are going to fall through the cracks’
Other businesses that have applied to the updated state grants program are eligible to receive a grant for only a share of their losses, not the whole amount.
Cummings said after Saturday’s meeting that she knew some might find that unfair.
“I’m a parent; fair is in the eyes of the beholder,” she said, noting that her own antiques business will lose money this year. “We’re trying to be as fair as we can, and we’re trying to have as great an impact on the economy as we can.”
Like many people working to keep businesses going in some manner this winter, Cummings said she’s holding out hope that Congress will pass another stimulus package with more grant money. So far, efforts for a new stimulus package have been stymied by deadlocks in Washington.
“If that comes, and we’re hopeful something will come, and if the vaccine gets here and it’s effective, that will help,” Cummings said. “I know people are going to fall through the cracks. But if we try and fill all the cracks, then we may not be able to save anyone.”