I must admit that writing the article this week was a challenge. As I sit here in the room from which I have participated in the legislative session all winter and spring, I can do an overview of all that needs to be done outside. The second group of sheep are lambs and shearing must be done pronto. I’ve rotated the garden and have to do it soon, the bees are thriving, the strawberry field needs to be weeded, and the rhubarb is ready for harvest. Can’t wait to bake strawberry rhubarb pie!
As hoped, the 2021 legislative session adjourned Friday afternoon. This has been called a historic session due to COVID-19 and the remote nature of our meetings, as well as the huge amount of money that has come to Vermont from the federal government. Thinking back to January, as we approached budget year, the situation was grim and uncertain. The federal government’s injections have given us the opportunity to make investments that we would not otherwise have been able to make.
The fact that we were able to meet is in large part (complete) due to the availability of the internet and a strong and knowledgeable team of people working for us to make it happen. What has been revealed, however, are Vermont’s internet shortcomings and the need for improvement. Many of us, including Speaker of the House Jill Krowinski, who lives in Burlington, have had connectivity issues at one time or another. Fortunately, our budget for fiscal 2022 represents a significant investment of $ 150 million to help improve the âlast mileâ situation for all.
In some ways, despite the tragic loss of life and the lingering suffering of those who have been and still are ill, the pandemic may have served us well in the long run. Besides broadband, weaknesses in our systems such as food supply chains, healthcare, education and childcare have also been exposed. If we are careful, the billions of federal CARES (Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act) and ARPA (American Rescue Plan Act) dollars that we have received allow us to take action to close these deficits as we prepare for a future that includes the effects of climate change and / or another pandemic. We have the opportunity to make investments that result in a Vermont that works for all of us and, with thoughtful planning, leaves no one behind.
It is interesting to reflect on how the progression of events happened, revealing the flaws in our system. As schools closed due to the pandemic, parents were unable to go to work as usual. Workarounds for people who could work from home were created, but many, for example, in the restaurant business, found themselves unemployed. Child care centers, for all but essential workers, have closed. The challenges that we have long known in the child care industry, such as the ability to earn a living wage by caring for children, have become more evident. The bill we passed, H.171, attempts to address this problem and make child care more accessible and affordable.
Another long-standing concern, affordable housing, was once again in the spotlight. At some point during the pandemic, all homeless people who wanted shelter had access to it, but the accommodation was in hotels, which is not a long-term solution. This helped hotels which were suffering from shortage of tourists, just as some restaurants were helped by producing food for emergency meal programs.
To address the lack of affordable housing, a number of measures are provided in section 79 that will help homeowners create more affordable and secure housing through grants or loans, as well as change the moratorium on existing evictions which in some cases unscrupulous tenants took advantage of. It also encourages home ownership through interest-free loans from a revolving loan fund, especially for Vermonters in the BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and People of Color) community. Clause 79 creates a registry of long-term and short-term rental housing so that we can find out what really exists. Homeowners will pay a $ 35 fee that will help fund the security of the home. Unfortunately, section 79 did not quite pass the process due to the refusal to suspend the rules, but we can take action when we meet again. Fifty million dollars are set aside for the passage of section 79.
Over the years, we have consistently tried to make healthcare more accessible and affordable for the people of Vermont. We have made good progress, but there is still a long way to go. If there was a time when people needed comprehensive, high quality health care, the last 14 months have been. The objective of section 88 is that people who buy insurance in the individual market will not pay more than 8.5% of their income in health care. Because of more federal dollars in health care premium support, businesses with less than 100 employees and people who get their health insurance outside of their workplace will save substantial money. If you would like more information, please click on the link to Vermont Health Connect, which provides valuable information. If you need more help, feel free to click on Office of the Healthcare Advocate.
Equally important is the mental health of the people of Vermont. We know that many people are struggling with the isolation required by the pandemic. In particular, children are affected by the disruption of their normal routines and the inability to attend school and play with their friends. We have heard terrible stories from children staying in hospital emergency departments because there are no inpatient facilities available. A portion of our federal funding will be dedicated to supporting people with substance use disorders and the mental health workforce, as well as community residences and mobile emergency response teams. .
Investments in the fight against climate change include $ 20 million for inclement weather, $ 10 million for the Municipal Energy Revolving Fund and $ 10 million for the Clean Energy Development Fund. The Clean Water Fund, so important to Lake Champlain and our other affected water bodies, will receive $ 100 million for eligible expenses for water and sewer infrastructure.
At the start of the pandemic, unemployment skyrocketed, placing a burden on our Department of Labor as unscheduled unemployment claims were made, destroying the system. One hundred million dollars will be invested to improve computer systems in Vermont. Getting people back to work will be addressed with a $ 50 million investment in workforce training and development, and $ 77 million in additional funding is earmarked for higher education, including our system. state colleges. As I have indicated in the past, we spend $ 150 million on pensions and health insurance for retirees.
All of the work that we have done has been viewed through a racial and social equity lens. For example, we passed JRH6, which is a resolution that declares racism a public health emergency. Additional Resolute Clauses read: “That this legislative body engage in sustained and deep work to eradicate systemic racism statewide, actively combating racist practices and helping to create more just and equitable systems, and BE IT FURTHER RESOLVED: That this legislative body commit to coordinate the work and participate in the ongoing action, based on science and data, to eliminate racial disparities in health and eradicate systemic racism. âIf you want to read JRH6 in its entirety, go to https://bit.ly/3faUlDR.
It was teamwork that made it possible to prepare this year’s budget. The appropriations committee worked with all the steering committees to develop a budget, the final version of which was unanimously adopted by the House 148-0. A great way to end the 2021 legislative session!