Newsbriefs in October 2020

Vermont beats revenue targets in all three funds

Revenue collections through September 2020 continue to exceed expectations, with the vital personal income tax showing particular strength. General Fund revenues for the month of September were $165.97 million versus the monthly target of $134.49 million, +$31.49 million or +23.41% above the consensus target.

The largest, single above target performance was Personal Income Tax receipts, which were +$22.89 million or +29.20% above the monthly target of $78.39 million. Corporate Income Tax receipts of $24.03 million were also ahead of target by +$8.90 million, or +58.9%.

Year-to-date General Fund revenues were $572.80 million, +$49.27 million or +9.41% above the consensus target of $523.54 million.

The Transportation Fund saw mixed, but above target results of +$3.57 million or +15.1% above the monthly target of $27.24 million.

Education Fund collections totaled $48.45 million for September, versus the target of $42.44 mil-lion, +$6.01 million or +14.15%, driven by higher than expected Sales & Use, and Purchase & Use receipts.

UVM/UVMHN to participate in Phase 3 COVID-19 vaccine trial

The University of Vermont Medical Center and Vaccine Testing Center at the University of Vermont’s Larner College of Medicine have been selected to take part in a Phase 3 trial for a COVID-19 vaccine developed by Oxford University and manufactured by AstraZeneca. Volunteer subjects are sought from higher risk groups, including older Vermonters and those with pre-existing conditions, not from younger and healthier people who tend to be asymptomatic when they contract the virus. About a third of the volunteers will be given a placebo.

Scott and Levine present initial vaccine distribution rollout

Governor Phil Scott and Health Commissioner Mark Levine, MD, have detailed the state’s framework for distribution of a COVID-19 vaccine, once one is produced and distributed to the state. The state has submitted responses to a series of questions from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), laying out the framework for vaccine distribution and Vermont’s preparedness. The federal government, which is responsible for nationwide distribution of vaccines, still needs to provide details on many logistics surrounding a potential vaccine, and this interim COVID-19 vaccination plan will evolve as new information comes forward.

Vaccination efforts will need to prioritize groups that are most critical to the response, those who provide direct care and those who are essential to maintaining a functioning society, as well as those at highest risk for developing severe illness from COVID-19, and those residing at long-term care facilities.

Governor announces next round of Economic Recovery Grants

Governor Phil Scott has announced an expansion of the state’s Economic Recovery Grants, utilizing an additional $76 million in funds from the $1.25 billion the state received from the Federal CARES Act. These funds are in addition to the $152 million in economic relief already delivered to Vermont businesses. Vermont businesses and nonprofits, including sole proprietors, that have seen a decline in total sales between March and September of 2020, compared to the same period in 2019, and who can demonstrate unmet need, may be eligible to receive an Expanded Economic Recovery Grant. Qualifying businesses may now receive up to $300,000 in total economic recovery grants.

Unemployment rate falls to 4.2 percent in September

Vermont Department of Labor has reported that the seasonally-adjusted statewide unemployment rate for September was 4.2 percent. This reflects a decrease of six-tenths of one percentage point from the prior month’s revised estimate of 4.8 percent. The Labor Force again decreased, accounting for most of the rate decline. The number of unemployed also fell. Meanwhile, the total number of employed was down by 707. The comparable US was 7.9 percent. Vermont has the third lowest rate in the nation, behind Nebraska (3.5 percent) and South Dakota (4.1 percent). Governor Scott maintains that the state’s low rate paints a rosier economic picture than what actually exists. He says the methodology to calculate the rate has not changed with the pandemic times and the state’s “real” rate is in the 6-8 percent range. The state will also suffer the loss of expanded federal benefits as the rate falls.

Vermont becomes the 11th state to tax and regulate cannabis

Governor Scott has allowed a bill to tax and regulate cannabis to pass into law without his signature. He also signed off on automatically expunging records for cannabis possession. Included in the bill is changing the word “marijuana” to “cannabis” in all Vermont statutes. Vermont will now become the 11th state to tax and regulate cannabis, and the second to approve it via state legislature.

The law sets up a system for the legalized retail sale of cannabis and requires municipalities to opt-in to allow retail cannabis stores to operate. It imposes a 14 percent excise tax and a 6 percent sales tax on cannabis transactions.

Scott has been concerned with the public safety aspects of legalizing marijuana, including road safety and assurances that products will be kept away from youth.

Governor Scott signs budget bill, vetoes Act 250 bill

Governor Phil Scott signed the $7.17 billion budget bill on October 2 as passed by the Legislature. However, he ultimately vetoed the Act 250-related bill. Scott said he was disappointed by the condition of the Act 250 bill that was conceived as a major upgrade to the landmark legislation, which passed by the Legislature in 1970 and signed into law by Governor Deane Davis. The new bill was significantly pared down by the Senate. It likely will come back in a more comprehensive form next year.

UVM freezes tuition for third year, no increase in room & board

University of Vermont President Suresh Garimella has announced his proposal to keep tuition frozen at current levels for a third year. He also proposed holding room & board at the current level, cutting the comprehensive fee and pushing ahead with a $150 million campaign to increase scholarship opportunities. Trustees would need to approve Garimella’s tuition, room & board and fees plan when they meet next spring.

Rutland Regional tightens visitor policy as flu season approaches

In order to ensure patient safety in response to growing COVID-19 infection rates throughout the Northeast, Rutland Regional Medical Center announced new visitor restrictions for the hospital and clinics. As of November 2, 2020, visitors may not enter the hospital or associated medical clinics unless a patient’s treatment team has identified them as an Essential Support Person. Pediatric patients, labor and delivery patients, and patients who are near the end of life are among the patients who will be permitted to be accompanied or visited by essential support persons.

Second round of Hazard Pay Grant Program expands eligibility

Governor Phil Scott has announced the second round of the Frontline Employee Hazard Pay Grant Program, which was passed by the Legislature. This round expands the types of employers who are now eligible to apply and includes employees who worked for an eligible employer last spring during the worst of the pandemic in Vermont but are no longer working for that employer. The first round distributed approximately $28 million to those primarily in the healthcare and human services fields. The first round covered approximately 370 employer applications, equating to approximately 15,650 employees who received a grant. The second round expands the employer type to include sectors such as pharmacies, grocery stores and certain retail, and appropriates an additional $22.5 million.

Youth and Rec sports to be limited to Vermont only

Due to rising COVID-19 case counts throughout the Northeast, and the decisions of Massachusetts and New Hampshire officials to suspend ice rink activities due to numerous outbreaks, the State of Vermont announced October 26 updated policies to reduce risk. Vermont-based youth and adult recreational sports are now restricted to in-state activities only, with strict limits on the number of spectators permitted in attendance at indoor sports events. Effective immediately, Vermont-based sports teams may only participate in sporting events in Vermont, and these events may only occur among Vermont-based teams.

Governor Scott extends State of Emergency to November 15

Governor Phil Scott has extended the State of Emergency to November 15, 2020 to ensure the state can continue to suppress the spread of COVID-19. The governor declared a State of Emergency on March 13, 2020. While he has extended it month-by-month since then, Scott has made it clear that he will continue to extend it as long as the pandemic persists, which will likely last into next year.

Updated guidance for gatherings up to 150 people indoors

The Agency of Commerce & Community Development has provided new guidance on increasing gatherings indoors under very specific conditions. Indoor businesses/spaces that exceed 17,100 feet, have 10-foot ceilings or more, have no full walls interrupting the space, and have physical distancing plans in effect to prevent people from being within 6’ of each other, may have up to 150 people in the same space.

PSD awards Round 3 of COVID-19 emergency connectivity initiative

The Department of Public Service has announced $4,055,920.50 in grant awards to Internet Service Providers to serve over 2,860 eligible locations with broadband connections in response to COVID-19. The goal of the COVID-19 Emergency Connectivity Initiative is to use Federal Coronavirus Relief Funds to build high-speed broadband service to unserved and underserved locations by December 30. About $12 million has been distributed in this program.

Vermont hits 99.9% complete in 2020 Census

As of the end of data collection for the 2020 Census, 99.9% of housing units and addresses have been accounted for in Vermont. The U.S. Constitution mandates a census of the population every 10 years. The 2020 Census counts everyone living in the United States as of April 1, 2020.

Purdue Pharma to plead guilty to scheme to increase opioid prescriptions

The Department of Justice has announced an $8.3 billion global resolution of its criminal and civil investigations into the opioid manufacturer Purdue Pharma LP. The resolutions with Purdue are subject to the approval of the bankruptcy court. The scheme used medical alert software to boost sales of opioids and was uncovered by the US Attorney’s office in Vermont.

St Mike’s goes to remote classes after positive COVID tests

Saint Michael’s College President Lorraine Sterritt in late October ordered the college to go to remote learning at least temporarily after a number of positive COVID-19 test results among students. Classes were to be held remotely for a week and sports were also suspended. Students are asked not to leave the area. As of October 27, there were 30 confirmed cases.

Strolling of the Heifers suspends operations

The Board of Directors of Strolling of the Heifers, Inc in Brattleboro has taken action to suspend all operations. This action is taken due to the impact that COVID-19 has had on the financial operations of Strolling of the Heifers that is very dependent on the annual parade and associated events for its operation. The program includes the popular Slow Living Summit.

30 farms get nearly $1 million for water quality improvements

The Vermont Farm & Forest Viability Program, a program of the Vermont Housing & Conservation Board, has awarded a total of $956,000 to 30 farms in Addison, Caledonia, Chittenden, Franklin, Orange, Orleans, Rutland, Washington, and Windham Counties to support capital investments that improve water quality. Some of these awards will also support businesses in their recovery from the economic impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic. These grants leveraged an additional $3.1 million for capital improvement projects, including farmer investment, bank loans, and grant funding from the USDA-Natural Resources Conservation Service and the VAAFM.

Vermont investigation helps understanding of COVID-19 transmission

An investigation conducted by Vermont Department of Health scientists and released by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that transmission of COVID-19 can occur during multiple brief exposures with someone who is infected. Staff from the Health Department and the Department of Corrections looked into an instance in which a state corrections officer became infected after several brief interactions with incarcerated people who had COVID-19. None of the individual interactions lasted 15 minutes but together added up to more than that amount over time. The CDC definition now says a close contact is someone who was within 6 feet of an infected person for a cumulative total of 15 minutes or more over a 24-hour period. This is a refinement of previous guidance, which defined close contact as being within 6 feet, for 15 minutes or more at a time.

VHCB awards $2.7M to conserve farmland, expand Rec, improve water quality, restore Fairbanks Museum

At a meeting on September 16, the Vermont Housing & Conservation Board awarded $1.18 million in state funding and nearly $1.5 million in federal funding to protect 646 acres of farmland in South Burlington, Sheldon and Starksboro, to support a new recreational network in Cambridge, to expand a Wildlife Management Area in Vernon, to restore riparian land and improve water quality in Morgan, and to help restore historic details at the Fairbanks Museum in St Johnsbury.

PUC to end temporary moratorium on utility disconnections Oct 15

The Vermont Public Utility Commission has announced that the temporary moratorium on utility service disconnections will end on October 15, 2020. The PUC is also ordering new, mandatory consumer protections for utility customers who are facing economic hardships as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. Last month, the Department and several utilities informed the Commission that many utility customers were not taking advantage of the VCAAP or responding to utility outreach to address their past-due balances. GMP, the state’s largest utility, will continue to hold off on disconnects until at least the end of the year. All the utilities are saying that in any case they will work with impacted customers to help avoid disconnects.