The Legislature recessed on Friday after six months of work.
For the last three months, we’ve worked via zoom and youtube and focused almost exclusively on COVID relief legislation. We will return at the end of August to finish next year’s budget and review the impact of our relief work to date.
We passed a billion dollar relief package of federal funds that sent money to all corners of our community and state. We shifted deadlines and guidelines so government can continue remotely and workers are protected. We held the urgency of the moment and continued necessary work for the climate and racial justice. Through this difficult time, I’ve had the honor to help many of you access resources from food to unemployment benefits to business supports. We’ve come together to sew masks, take care of our neighbors, and share information.
I fear that this time of challenge is far from over, but I know we are resilient, creative, and connected. I hope that by laying bare the cracks in our system, we can move beyond patches (duct tape and bailing twine) and build anew— something that works for all of us— a state that is for us and by us.
Further complicating the provision of relief, strict federal guidelines require the $1 Billion in federal funds be used for Covid-19 related expenses on items not previously budgeted for at the state or local level, and that the funds be spent by December 30, 2020. This restriction significantly limited our ability to use this funding for transformative change. Some details of the COVID Relief Package follow below, feel free to skip around. This letter closes with a campaign announcement and news about our racial and climate justice work.
Economic Recovery Grants (almost a quarter of total funding): There were many possibilities for this funding and legislators wrestled with the balance between accountability, efficiency, and speed. This round of funding will do much to remedy the immediate pain felt by our businesses. However, I remain concerned about our increased need for transformative change: we must increase wages, working conditions, and social infrastructure if we want resilient communities and economies that work for all of us. If you would like to hear more about my thoughts on our economic recovery, I had the opportunity to be a guest on Vermont Edition.
Below is a partial guide that I hope will help local businesses and non-profits in accessing these vital economic relief grants. Some businesses might be eligible in more than one category and I encourage you to seek technical assistance to determine the best fit. You can keep in touch with Brattleboro Development Credit Corporation (BDCC) as they'll be updated by the Agency of Commerce as guidance comes out. You can also go directly to the source at ACCD.
Please reach out to me via email if you need additional help in connecting with these resources: firstname.lastname@example.org
$76 million to the Department of Tax for businesses who pay trust taxes, (sales and use or rooms and meals.) An online application will be available in the next week. ($50 million is set aside for businesses who have experienced at least a 75% loss of revenue in any month from March 1st to September 1st in 2020 when compared to the same month in 2019. $26 million is for businesses who have had a 50% loss of revenue.) $76 million to the Agency of Commerce and Community Development for all other businesses, including non-profit organizations ($20 million set aside for businesses who have experienced at least a 75% loss of revenue (same as above) and $56 million for businesses who have had a 50% loss of revenue). ACCD will have a separate online application available in the next few days. It is likely that the Vermont Economic Development Agency (VEDA) will be participating in processing the grant applications. $5 million for arts and cultural organizations and creative businesses guidelines will be posted soon at the Vermont Arts Council. $5 million for women & minority-owned businesses. Implemented in collaboration with the Vermont Commission on Women and the Vermont Partnership for Fairness and Diversity. Housing (S.333, S.350 AND H.966) If you are having COVID related trouble in this area please contact either the Vermont Landlord Assn (if you own rental property, Vermont Legal Aid (if you rent,) or VHFA (owner occupied homes).
Stay on evictions We passed a stay on evictions early in the pandemic. Tenants may not be evicted during the emergency period for reasons due to back rent. This is not, by law, a “rent vacation” or a “foreclosure vacation.” Notwithstanding any agreements made between tenant and landlord or mortgagor and mortgagee, back rent will still be due, as will mortgage payments. Any forbearance is up to the holder of the contracts. There may be ejectment proceedings due to public safety or illegal actions by the tenant. Landlords may begin new ejectment proceedings due to back rent during the emergency period, but courts will not serve them unless it is regarding public safety or illegal actions by the tenants. Escrow payments due into court can be delayed or changed during the emergency period and for a short period after, but will still be due. This law will not, in and of itself, end ejectments in the long term due to nonpayment of rent, but it will provide households with some protection as long as we are in this emergency period. This order keeps people safe and housed in the short term but leaves many folks with significant accrued debt. Through the COVID Relief Funds we were able to appropriate significant money to mitigate this challenge. Details follow below:
Maintaining Housing and Housing Stock $62 million Supports Vermonters with back rent, needing rental assistance, or foreclosure protection. Rehabilitation of apartments for property owners who have vacant or blighted unoccupied units and who want to bring them online. The bulk of these units will go to Vermonters who are homeless. Qualified property owners will receive up to a $30K grant with a 10% match for repairs that help bring the units up to habitation codes. Interested property owners should contact DHCD for guidelines and application forms. Housing and Public Health $32 million During the pandemic most Vermonters without housing were provided with motel rooms temporarily in the interests of public health. In our area that is approximately 100 individuals. This is the first time in our history that almost every Vermonter had a bed to sleep in and a door to close. We appropriated 23 million dollars to the Vermont Housing and Conservation Board to distribute to partner organizations (in our area that is Windham Windsor Housing Trust.) This funding is intended to purchase and rehabilitate an estimated 200+ units of transitional housing. I hope we can realize this promise to transition Vermonters currently in motels/hotels due to the COVID-19 crisis into longer term housing. Funding was also appropriated to transition existing shelters to meet health codes and physical distancing requirements. Services: DCF/AHS received $16m for services needed to keep formerly homeless households in their new homes. This may come in the form of short, medium or long-term case management, rental assistance, and other needs. VHFA, Vermont Legal Aid, and Landlords Association received funding to coordinate and support financial assistance provision. Food Access: We have kids out of school, vulnerable folks unable to shop the way they're accustomed, and drastically increased unemployment-- all three have created a perfect storm of food insecurity. Here are a few ways we hope to help fill the gaps: Summer meals for children (birth to 18) will continue where school meals dropped off— delivering to sites around the county. Food stamps have been mailed to every household with children in Brattleboro. Please use them either for yourself, or use them to purchase food to share with a neighbor or the food shelf. We increased funding for the Food Bank, our largest local partner is Groundworks/Foodworks. They’re doing deliveries for any household who asks. Funded a statewide collaboration between SEVCA, MamaSezz, and DBA to produce restaurant meals for food insecure households. Food box distributions, farm to family coupons, senior meals and other opportunities can be found here: Windham County Hunger Council Healthcare: $371,000,000, Guidelines for application are being developed by the Agency of Human Services and will likely go out to Medicaid/Medicare providers through their bulletin system. $31 million dollars in Hazard Pay for front line workers. $500,000 for understanding and addressing health disparities $200,000 for a peer to peer mental health “warm line” $275 million in stabilization funds for adult day programs, EMS, primary care practices, hospital systems, dental practices and more. Agriculture and Forestry: Some aspects of our food system have thrived in COVID, CSAs for instance, however many more of our farms are dependent on exports and tourism. Details can be found here, here, and here. $5 million for forest economy stabilization. $1.5 million for outdoor recreation businesses. $3 million for Working Lands program $30.5 million for dairy farms and producers, agricultural businesses, food markets and agricultural fairs. Connectivity If we didn’t already understand that connectivity is an essential component of economic and social equity opportunities, then this pandemic has hammered the point home. We appropriate 28 million dollars total towards closing the connection gap: 8 million for utility arrearages. While the Public Services Department ordered a moratorium on utility disconnections, this didn’t mean charges stopped accruing. This funding supports payment of back bills for electricity and telecom to keep people connected. Additionally, by limiting this exposure, we prevent rate increases next year. 20 million for connectivity: 800K in funding for communication union districts to accelerate their work in response to COVID-19 and the remaining into the Connectivity Initiative for extending existing cable or fiber lines (last mile), or for building new cable or fiber by December 20, 2020. Our town voted to join our regional communications union district a few weeks ago. You can read more about that here. Government and Schools
The Pay Act: Every two years the General Assembly takes up and passes The Pay Act. It funds the agreement negotiated between the Administration and the Vermont State Employees Association, the union that represents Vermont’s State Employee workforce. Vermonters rely on State Employees in challenging times, this has become even more clear during the COVID-19 crisis. This year we enacted the first mutual agreement negotiated and agreed to in the past 6 years. State Employees are essential workers in hundreds of locations spread throughout every community in Vermont. I was proud to support our unions and state workers by voting yes on this Act and adding it to the first quarter budget.
Our Schools and the Yield Bill: We need strong schools now more than ever. Many kids and families struggled at home during the stay-at-home order. Going back to school in the fall will be a difficult transition for everyone— increased accommodations, increased social emotional needs, and increased academic pressures. The yield bill (H959) was an important first step in laying down our strategy for the Education Fund. In this year’s yield bill we established that we will not solve the COVID related shortfalls in the Ed Fund (due to reduced sales taxes) on the backs of property tax payers nor will we engage in the union busting austerity measures that the Governor recommended. We signaled clearly to our communities that we believe a fully funded education system is essential through this difficult time. We laid out a variety of options that we’ll look to in the future to fill this gap, including federal funds and borrowing.
Deadlines and Guidelines VOTING: Last month we passed legislation to ensure our general elections are accessible to all. The Secretary of State will mail a ballot to every registered voter and you can either mail it back or bring it down to your usual polling place. You should have already received a postcard confirming your address for the general and inviting you to request a ballot for the primary. I’m hoping this will bring many more people to the virtual ballot box and we can sustain these gains after this crisis and into the future. Workers Compensation. S.342 supports frontline workers who have an elevated risk of contracting COVID-19 on the job. The bill makes it easier to establish a workers’ compensation claim for employees who have regular contact with the public or patients, giving them much-needed protection as they work to protect their fellow Vermonters. The bill also provides a path to benefits for non-frontline workers if employers do not follow the state’s COVID-19 workplace safety guidelines, or if it can be documented that they were exposed to COVID-19 on the job. By promoting the highest standard of workplace safety during this public-health crisis, S.342 supports Vermonters in returning safely to work, while providing the full range of workers’ comp benefits — including lost wages and all medical costs — to those who contract COVID-19 on the job. Workers Compensation is part of a set of laws sometimes referred to as “the grand bargain.” In this case that means that it also protects businesses by providing a clear path for legitimate claims, moving costs from small businesses onto insurance companies who are better able to handle it, holding experience ratings harmless, and reducing class action lawsuits. Racial and Climate Justice We continued our work on racial justice by passing S142, a bill that restricts use of force and significantly expands data collection and accountability. To dismantle systemic racism and centuries of oppression, we must work both individually to educate ourselves and collectively to transform institutions. This one single bill will never be a cure-all for the monolith that is systemic racism, but it is one of many steps that must be taken. I’ve heard from many stakeholders and community members impacted and marginalized by law enforcement that we need to slow down for the critical expertise from communities of color and organizations working for racial justice before crafting laws that will live on. At the same time, we’re acutely aware that this an opportunity in history that we must lean into. I spoke with Dr. Etan Nesreddin-Longo, Chair of the Racial Disparities in the Criminal and Juvenile Justice System Advisory Panel, about this balancing act. You can watch our convesation here. The Global Warming Solutions Act passed the Senate just before we recessed and is on the Governor’s desk. Unfortunately, TCI, the Transportation Climate Initiative, a multi-state compact we planned to join and the other top priority of the Climate Caucus, is stalled due to COVID. We’ll pick negotiations back up next biennium. Earlier in the session we passed a plastic bag ban that begins on July 1st, along with a composting mandate— neither should impact us in Brattleboro as we’ve been doing both for a few years, but I’m pleased that the rest of the state has joined our good work.
I'm Running for Relection!
AND: in case you didn’t notice in the chaos of this life, it’s Campaign Season! I’m proud of the work I’ve done in my first biennium towards a government that truly works for the people, and I hope to serve our community for another two years. The primary is on August 15th and things are moving fast. If you would like to volunteer or donate with the campaign, I would love to have some help. Click here to VOLUNTEER or donate at the big red box below.