By REP. STEPHANIE ZAK JEROME
The 2021 session is one for the record books, especially in terms of legislating via Zoom and the huge amount of federal aid that has come to our state due to the pandemic. We will never forget the struggles of the past year, the Vermonters who lost their lives, navigated grief or diminished health, lost businesses, housing or income.
Thank you to those who reached out to me during the session. I worked diligently to ensure that the billions of dollars coming into the state were put to immediate and effective use in response to the crisis. I advocated for numerous high-impact, once-in-a-lifetime investments that will accelerate Vermont’s COVID-19 recovery and pave our future.
The Legislature is creating an equitable recovery plan that invests in Vermont and leaves no one behind. It’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to make thoughtful, high-impact investments over several years in rural and urban Vermont. The current FY22 budget and American Rescue Plan Act priorities include: broadband, child care, housing climate change, education and workforce development, clean water and racial and social equity.
This end-of-session summary of the session will be a three-part series in The Reporter. I hope that you enjoy Part 1, which highlights some of the many issues that were addressed during this historic 2021 Legislative Session.
CARES ACT SPENDING
There are two interactive dashboards which show how the $1.25 billion has been allocated. Please take a look at this link provided by the Vermont Department of Finance and Management. It is an incredible source of information.
UNEMPLOYMENT INSURANCE/ECONOMIC RECOVERY GRANTS
• S.62: The COVID-19 pandemic brought the most significant job-loss event ever experienced by Vermont’s Unemployment Insurance (UI) system. Thousands of workers lost jobs or were forced to stay home and care for loved ones or children learning remotely. Many businesses struggled as they were forced to close or scale back operations due to necessary, state-imposed restrictions. The Legislature designed S.62 in response to this economic crisis. It is a package of programs and benefits that will both support workers post pandemic and shore up the UI system for the future.
This bill adds a long-term supplemental benefit of $25/week for UI recipients when the federal bump ends in September. It protects businesses from being unduly burdened with large tax increases caused by COVID layoffs by removing the year 2020 from the employer calculation. And it ensures the state’s UI Trust Fund is replenished and ready for Vermonters in the event of another economic emergency. In addition, it appropriates $100,000 in scholarships for adult students enrolled in workforce development programs at Adult Career and Tech Education Centers. And it provides $150,000 to tech centers for the purchase of new equipment, and $150,000 for curriculum development related to high-growth, high-need sectors.
• H.315 : To get relief to Vermonters quickly, the legislature passed a $97.5 million pandemic-relief bill that invested federal funds to jumpstart the state’s recovery. This bill created $10.5 million in Economic Recovery Bridge Grants, targeting new and small businesses not eligible for assistance initially. H.315 also allocated $500,000 to the EMBRACE Grants for Micro Business program, providing up to $5,000 to low and moderate-income Vermonters with businesses under five employees and less than $25,000 in annual revenue. Finally, $8.2 million was approved for the Vermont State Colleges, UVM and VSAC to provide up to two free classes to adult Vermonters looking to boost job skills or change careers, to all 2020 and 2021 high-school grads, and to train more LPNs. Please take advantage of these opportunities to help you or your business.
This Is the second article in my three-part series to update you on the progress made in the Vermont Legislature this session. I want to thank all of you who have received your vaccination, helping our brave state to achieve 80% vaccination and making us the first state in the nation to reach this goal. Bravo Vermonters!
The legislature and governor approved the FY22 state budget, totaling $7.35 billion. It includes allocations of $599.2 million in American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) funds and focuses on the COVID recovery, our communities and our local economies. This budget positions the state to create transformational change by providing about $600 million in ARPA funds to be spent by FY2025. There will be a statewide, community-based process to solicit input for investing in the future of our state. Recommendations will be reported to the legislative committees for policy development for the start of the next session. The Speaker of the House and President Pro-Tem of the Senate will lead this process.
Vermonters buying on the individual market should now pay no more than 8.5% of their income for health insurance. Both small businesses with less than 100 employees, and individuals purchasing health insurance, can save on healthcare premiums as a result of increased federal funding, and a change in the health insurance structure in Vermont. Many small businesses, nonprofits and municipalities will see reduced premiums. Individual increases will be offset by new federal funds which provide subsidies and tax credits to help pay for premiums.
The Legislature focused on putting Vermont’s pension system on a path towards long-term sustainability, so that teachers, troopers, and state employees can rely on a well-funded, solvent system when they retire. The goal is to preserve the defined benefit model.
Legislators are balancing multiple commitments – one made to state employees and teachers, – and another to Vermont taxpayers, who face a $5.6 billion unfunded liability that will grow exponentially without action.
H.449 slowed down the process to engage more stakeholders. The legislation focuses on governance changes that will amend the Vermont Pension Investment Commission to include more financial expertise. It also establishes a Task Force to meet this summer with a “report-back” to the legislature for putting the retirement systems on a sustainable path. The task force has equal state and union representatives.
The legislature has reserved $150 million of General Fund money, along with the annual full pension payment of $316 million for a total investment of $466 million this year.
This year’s Transportation Bill appropriates millions of dollars to maintain safety and improve critical infrastructure for federal, state and town-owned highways, bridges and culverts. Financial support is also set aside to facilitate the New York City-Burlington rail service, and to support more than 40 bike and pedestrian projects. Public transit initiatives have also been set in place, including the continuation of zero-fare bus transportation through June 2022.
H.433 also appropriates millions of dollars in incentives to help shift from internal combustion engine vehicles to plug-in hybrid, and battery electric vehicles. Check out, Drive Electric Vermont website, to learn about state and federal purchase incentives. Support is also set aside to install additional public charging stations, to construct bicycle and pedestrian facilities, Park and Rides, and to support the growth of car and van pools.
UPDATING TECHNOLOGY For decades, Vermont has underinvested in the state government’s information technology infrastructure. This year’s budget includes $66 million of investments for a dozen system upgrades, including replacing the four-decades-old mainframe at the Department of Motor Vehicles, Department of Labor, modernizing the Bright Futures Information System to serve childcare programs, and making critical cybersecurity upgrades. The pace required to keep up with the necessary technology replacements and maintain more than 1,200 software applications requires consistent funding.
This is the last in my series of three articles summarizing the work that was accomplished in the Legislature this year. I will be returning to work on Wednesday as there will be a veto session to potentially override the Governor’s vetoes on three bills which had been passed by the House and Senate. Check out the Legislative Calendar for information on these bills: https://legislature.vermont.gov/Documents/2022/Docs/CALENDAR/hc210623.pdf
On Saturday, June 26, at 2 p.m., the Town of Sudbury will be holding its annual Town Meeting, which had been postponed due to COVID-19 restrictions.
Here’s the legislative wrap-up:
PROHIBITING PFAS CHEMICALS
In 2016, PFAS chemicals were found to contaminate drinking water in the Bennington region. PFAS are known as “forever chemicals” because they do not biodegrade in the environment and accumulate within our bodies over time. This exposure leads to a number of adverse health effects, including an increased risk of cancer. Research is showing that you don’t need to live in a contaminated area to be exposed to PFAS, because these chemicals are used in many consumer products.
S.20 (Act 36) prevents these toxic substances from entering our state – it prohibits manufacture and sale of PFAS in products that pose the highest risks to Vermonters’ well-being, including food packaging, fire extinguisher foam and firefighting protective equipment, rugs and carpets, and ski wax.
Child care is essential to supporting Vermont’s children, families, communities and economy. H.171 reforms our childcare system, invests in our future, and supports the next generation of Vermonters.
H.171 makes childcare more affordable, it removes barriers to access, ensures fair wages for providers, establishes workforce development programs, and creates a study to identify future revenue sources for a subsidized universal childcare system. By increasing access and affordability for families, we help parents stay employed and contribute to their local economies.
By increasing childcare worker wages, we can support and grow our workforce of early care and learning professionals. By prioritizing the wellbeing and development of our children, we are giving our youngest Vermonters a head start to success.
The COVID-19 pandemic made high-speed internet essential to daily life. H.360 dedicates $150 million of federal stimulus funds to the construction of broadband infrastructure in the most underserved parts of the state. The bill includes funding for pre-construction planning and design costs, grants for building broadband infrastructure to underserved areas, and a new broadband workforce development program.
The bill creates the Community Broadband Board to coordinate and support the Communication Union Districts with the technical, legal, and financial assistance to accelerate the deployment of universal broadband service across Vermont. H.360 prioritizes the deployment of fiber infrastructure, giving Vermonters access to at least 100mbps download/100mbps upload service.
Universal Vote-By-Mail was a great success during the 2020 General Election, contributing to record turnout — a 74 percent participation rate! It expanded voter access and encouraged increased participation in our democratic process. S.15 continues the Vote-By-Mail program, adds in other important election measures, and counters the trend where state legislatures are curtailing voter access with more restrictive election laws.
Here’s what it includes: Ballots with postage-paid return envelopes will be mailed to all active registered voters. Voters may cure defective ballots if, for example, they forgot to sign the certificate envelope, or failed to return unvoted primary ballots along with the voted ballot of their party choice. There wll be access to secure ballot drop boxes that are accessible 24/7 for voters to return their ballots. There will be a limit on the number of ballots someone can deliver on behalf of others.
BILLS PASSED THIS SESSION
Bills passed by the House and Senate, and signed by the Governor (or passed without signature) are listed on this website: https://legislature.vermont.gov/bill/passed/2022#both-house-and-senate
Feel free to join me at the Maclure Library in Pittsford on 7/13 at 4:30 p.m. I will fill you in on the progress of the legislature, answer your questions, and hear your concerns.
Stay healthy and enjoy your summer!!
Rep. Stephanie Zak Jerome (Brandon, Pittsford, Sudbury)
Committee on Commerce and Economic Development (Ranking Member)
firstname.lastname@example.org / www.stephaniejeromevt.com