Leonine Public Affairs The Vermont Legislature spent long hours every day last week working to finalize tax and spending bills for the first quarter of FY21 and allocate hundreds of millions of dollars received from the federal government and placed in the Coronavirus Relief Fund (CRF). The Senate authorized almost $100 million in “Phase II” CRF spending for Vermont businesses and nonprofit organizations. This follows $70 million authorized in “Phase I” a few weeks ago. The Senate also authorized over $60 million in relief funding for housing which follows $23 million in housing grants in Phase I.
For the healthcare sector, which has been rocked with heavy revenue losses as a result of the COVID-19 emergency response, the Senate Authorized $275 million for healthcare provider stabilization and $28 million for hazard pay. This money for healthcare stabilization is in addition to the $58 million that was already allocated for this purpose in early May. The Senate also approved $22 million for food security and $15 million for childcare support.
The Senate action took place in close coordination with the House, which had approved similar measures last week and early this week. The House took the lead this week on S.351, which authorizes $36 million for the agriculture and forestry sectors.
On Thursday the Senate Finance Committee finalized their recommendations for a $20 million package for broadband and connectivity needs. The Senate’s proposal is more inclusive than the House passed version by allowing more types of providers to participate and by giving more flexibility to the Commissioner of Public Service to determine how those funds should be allocated.
In total, the legislature is poised to allocate $750 million in economic relief to try and stabilize the economy and the healthcare system in response to the COVID-19 crisis between Phase I and Phase II. In addition to the $750 million, the legislature will likely approve holding back $240 in CRF funds for later deployment when they return in August. This includes $100 million for stabilization of K-12 schools and $140 million to be determined. Since the COVID-19 crisis began, state lawmakers (in Vermont and across the United States) have hoped federal rules would change and allow funding from the CARES Act, which is the source of CRF funding, to be used to backfill state budget gaps. While there is no clear indication this will happen, there is hope it will happen before the legislature resumes meeting in mid-August, which is when lawmakers will have to approve a budget for the last nine months of FY21.
The 2020 session has been unprecedented. COVID-19 created a statewide (and global) emergency not experienced in modern history. As the legislature nears its summer recess (in itself unprecedented) it is worth recapping some of the unique experiences and dynamics that have played out since the legislature closed down in March.
The first of course is the closure of the statehouse. In the collective experience of the Leonine Public Affairs team the statehouse has closed its doors during regular sessions a handful of times, usually in response to a massive snowstorm or heat or water failure in the building. By the time lawmakers recess on June 26 or 27 the statehouse doors will have been closed for the better part of four months. Remote lawmaking is unprecedented in Vermont history (it would not be possible without the internet). Changing Senate and House rules to allow for remote voting was a big deal, and caused a significant row in the House when Representative Cynthia Browning called for a quorum on the House floor to allow it. As a result, 76 lawmakers had to be present on the House floor, creating a significant health risk. Browning lost her committee assignment on Ways and Means and was not given a new committee assignment until June 26, when she was assigned to serve on the House Agriculture Committee.
The relative lack of conflict between Republican Governor Phil Scott and Democratic leaders in the legislature is also unusual, though understandable given the circumstances. This is not to say there has been no conflict, as disagreement between Republicans and Democrats over mail-in voting and the recently passed H.688, which sets mandates for addressing climate change, are examples. But on the funding bills there has been relatively little disagreement even though the legislature funded CRF programs at varying levels compared to what the governor proposed. It is unlikely any of these CRF bills or the first-quarter budget will be vetoed.
The legislative process itself has also been unprecedented. For legislation approving billions of dollars in spending (budget and CRF) there has not been a single committee of conference appointed. Instead the House and Senate have coordinated their priorities to avoid the conference process to ensure the bills pass as quickly as possible. In some cases, policy bills have skipped the policy committees and instead gone directly to the appropriations committees, which have relied on memos from the policy committees to make decisions. In other circumstances policy committees have essentially done the due diligence for the money committees by taking testimony on funding and then recommending budget decisions to the money committees, which had to forego testimony due to time constraints.
Overall the legislature and administration have done an admirable job coordinating, negotiating and managing the operations of government and the General Assembly during the crisis. The circumstances are unprecedented and the response has been impressive.