Coronavirus Relief Funds Aid

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Last Friday, the Vermont Legislature recessed until August 25th, after an intense and historic six-month session filled with constant crisis management and a completely new mode of remote-legislating. So, I am writing to provide the first of two updates on the results of the legislative session thus far. This update will provide an overview of the funding decisions made by the Legislature and the next will provide information about some of the policy decisions made by the Legislature. The session culminated in a final week in which we passed major legislation and allocated nearly $700 million in federal Coronavirus Relief Funds (CRF) to aid Vermont’s ongoing efforts to stave-off COVID-19 and begin a period of economic recovery.

COVID-19 Expenses and Economic Relief Packages
Allocating funding during a crisis of this magnitude is difficult because the needs are so great across every sector, community, and region. The Legislature worked to be as comprehensive and fair as possible, and to target funds to areas that the crisis has revealed as weak points: health impacts on vulnerable Vermonters, safety of front-line workers, housing and homelessness, technology and connectivity, and food security. This crisis has also revealed the inter-connectivity of so many sectors of our society. We cannot help one sector, type of business, or organization, at the expense of others. Yet, we know that some people or types of businesses and organizations have been impacted more severely than others. Finally, this is a health crisis and global pandemic first and foremost, so ensuring our medical systems are stable and the health and safety of all Vermonters is attended to must be our first priority.

In addition, we had to work within considerable restrictions placed on the funding by the federal government. All uses of the funds must be for COVID-related expenses or impacts and are subject to federal audit, so we also must be careful that specific expenses and impacts are not covered more than once. Direct payments to individuals are not allowed. No funds could be used for strict revenue replacement or previously budgeted expenses, so while state and local budgets are under extreme pressure due to the economic downturn, we could not simply fill in the gaps with this funding. Finally, all funds must be fully expended by December 30, 2020, so allocations must be for immediate and short-term expenses and initiatives. These restrictions and tenets guided our decisions in allocating the $1.25 billion in federal CRF monies provided to Vermont. The current relief packages include:

  1. Health Care Stabilization and Human Services Support – $312 million. The bulk of this funding – $275 million – will be used to stabilize our health care system, including hospitals, medical practices and clinics, dental practices, mental health providers, and other licensed medical providers which have been severely impacted by the shutdown of most non-emergency medical services and/or providing care during a health emergency. Funding is also provided to support local emergency medical and ambulance services, adult day care and elderly services programs, and programs that assist vulnerable or special populations including low-income seniors and families, refugees and recent immigrants, Vermonters with fragile health conditions, and people who are blind or visually impaired.
  2. Business & Non-Profit Emergency Economic Recovery – $174 million. Most of this funding will go toward direct grants to Vermont businesses through the Department of Taxes and the Agency of Commerce & Community Development. There are some smaller allocations for specific types of businesses and organizations, including women and minority-owned businesses, arts organizations, micro-businesses, and outdoor recreation businesses, as well as funds for marketing and technical assistance. Applications for most of these funds should be available early next week on the ACCD COVID-19 Recovery Resource Center website.
  3. Housing & Homelessness Assistance – $85 million. When the shutdown occurred in March, the state acted quickly to provide housing in local hotels to thousands of Vermonters who were homeless or living in a communal shelter. We had to ensure that people had a safe place to remain home and practice social distancing. This action proved that our state could house everyone, so we’ve prioritized efforts that will prevent or end homelessness for Vermonters. This includes upgrading existing housing stock to make it suitable for housing people at-risk of homelessness, shoring up supportive housing programs, providing rental assistance and foreclosure protection for people who have not been able to pay rent or mortgages during this crisis, and offering legal assistance and counseling to tenants and landlords alike.
  4. Technology – Connectivity Assistance – $30 million. The nature of this pandemic has made technology infinitely more important in the lives of everyone around the globe, and underscored the inadequate broadband coverage for much of our state. The bulk of this technology funding will go toward projects to accelerate broadband connectivity to under-served households so that they can participate in the online work, school, and social activities required by this crisis. Unfortunately, there is insufficient time and money to fully address connectivity issues with CRF funds, but this will help move us along. In addition, funding is provided to assist Vermonters with catching up on utility bills that have gone unpaid during this crisis.
  5. Education Systems Assistance – $95 million. Our education system, from early childhood through higher education, has been hit hard by this crisis, forcing remote learning throughout the spring and creating a complex situation for reopening childcare programs, public schools, and colleges. We’ve allocated nearly equal amounts to public K-12 schools and public colleges & universities, as well as funding for early childhood programs, to assist them in covering COVID expenses and the many adjustments required to safely re-open and/or continue to provide education remotely. This funding is in addition to earlier allocations to each of these areas, and an additional $100 million is reserved for K-12 public schools to be allocated later this summer.
  6. Agriculture & Forestry Support – $39 million. The majority of this funding has been allocated to grants for dairy farmers, milk processors and cheese makers who have been hugely impacted by this crisis due to a major drop in the bulk price of milk. There are smaller allocations for non-dairy farmers and agricultural producers, slaughter facilities and farmers’ markets, and also forestry and wood products businesses. There’s also an allocation to help agricultural fairs survive, all of which have been cancelled this year.
  7. Food Security Programs – $22 million. This crisis has laid bare the fact that many people do not have adequate access to healthy food on a daily basis. This funding will provide support for summer meals for kids, food shelves, and a program that pays local restaurants and farmers to provide food for people in need.
  8. Judiciary & Criminal Justice System – $9 million. In March, the Vermont Supreme Court declared a Judicial Emergency and suspended most court proceedings and judiciary functions, so this funding will enable our courts and judicial system to re-open safely and attend to the backlog of cases and issues now before them.
  9. State & Local Government Support – $26 million. The majority of this funding is allocated to local governments to cover the expenses they incurred to re-open operations and protect employees during this crisis, as well as an initiative to digitize municipal records so they are more accessible remotely. Funding is also provided to better administer the unemployment insurance system which has been a huge challenge for many Vermonters, support the legislature through our extended session including necessary technology & space upgrades, fund public health expenses at state parks, and take care of additional expenses for the State Auditor and Director of Racial Equity.

This is a huge amount of money and a lot of information. If you’d like further details, check out this table I created with more specifics about funding allocations within each category. It’s also important to note that this funding is in addition to funds that have been provided earlier in the spring by the Governor and Legislature to address immediate emergency needs. State agencies and partner organizations are working hard to get application details finalized and information out to potential recipients. If you have specific questions about any of the programs, please let me know and I can help connect you to the appropriate person or website.

Finally, the Legislature will be returning in late August to finalize the full FY21 state budget, as well as allocate the remaining CRF funds and re-allocate any unused funds from this first round of economic relief. This will give us a chance to catch anything we may have missed during this first round, respond to new issues, assess a more complete picture of state and federal finances, and re-prioritize after this initial large infusion of funds is distributed. As an example, not all of my priorities have been fully addressed yet, including a plan for stabilizing the state’s Education Fund and the equitable distribution of aid to school districts, more robust support for arts organizations, funds for mandatory initial and ongoing testing of returning college students, and aid for senior food programs, to name a few. So, as always, there’s more work to do!

Final Reminders
I’ll leave you today with a few reminders. As COVID-19 surges throughout many parts of the country, please continue to follow health and safety protocols — stay home if you’re feeling sick, wear a mask when interacting closely with others, wash hands frequently, maintain physical distancing, and follow recommended guidance related to testing and quarantining. There are Addison County pop-up testing clinics in Middlebury on most Fridays where anyone without symptoms can be tested (be sure to sign-up in advance!). The Vermont Department of Health website continues to provide daily updates related to COVID-19 activity and health guidance. The Vermont Primary Election is on August 11, you can register to vote or request an absentee ballot at the Secretary of State’s My Voter Page. Finally, Vermont is still lagging in its participation in the federal Census, you can get information on how to respond and why it’s important to do so on the U.S. Census website.

Thank you for reading this far! I’ll be in touch with more information soon. Until then, enjoy summer and stay safe.

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