Good evening neighbors and friends,
On Friday June 26th at 8:30 pm the Vermont House adjourned until no later than August 28th. Normally the House would have adjourned earlier in the month until January of 2021. The reason that we will be going back into session at the end of August and into September is for the purposes of passing the remaining 3/4 of the FY 21 budget and to assess where we are in relation to the global pandemic and its impacts on Vermont.
On Friday March 13th the legislature passed several emergency measures and adjourned until March 24th. Vermonters had no idea the scale of what was coming. It has been 105 days since the legislature temporarily adjourned on March 13th. It feels longer.
On March 25th, the House approved remote electronic voting, and I began to host Zoom meetings three days a week for resident and businesses in our district to ask questions for share personal insights. I hope these sessions helped answer some questions for those in our district, they definitely helped me provide important feedback on business and employee impacts that were being felt locally. Since March, I have sent out over 50 update newsletter updates through email and social media and have hosted more then 25 online sessions for constituents to ask questions or share information. Thank you to all who have contributed to critical information to these newsletters, shared them with others and who have been helping Vermonters through this time.
In April, legislators began to understand how overwhelmed our unemployment system was and the volume of Vermonters who were without income and unable to access unemployment – almost 60,000 Vermonters were unemployed at the peak. I was one of 15 legislators in the House who volunteered to act as the go between between Vermonters and the unemployment system until they were paid. This was frustrating and often times heartbreaking work – to hear one on once everyday the fear and struggles Vermonters across the state were facing without income. I know even today many are still struggling to get issues resolved, and that for those who do not have a job to go back to, particularly those in the hospitality industry, the loss of the $600 federal benefit in July will be very difficult. Much is still unknown about our economic recovery. There are employers looking for workers, and I hope to help promote those job opportunities as the Summer and Fall go on. If you are looking for help – please let me know.
In May and June legislators started to dig in to our relevant committee areas to make sure we understood what was happening in our different jurisdictions and the myriad questions in front of Vermont as we continue to work to reopen and rebuild. My committee is the House Energy and Technology Committee, and we spent our time working to understand the consequences of not being connected, how the moratoriums on utility shut offs were impacting the utilities and the increasing cyber security threat from both public and private sector folks working from home.
Towards the end of May, Governor Scott released a phase 1 recovery plan with high level recommendations on how to utilize federal coronavirus dollars. As with the annual budget recommendations the Governor makes, those recommendations were heard and details added and adjusted in the various committees. The legislature also passed a budget for just the first quarter of FY 21.
On June 26th, therefore, the FY 2021 1st Quarter Budget was delivered to the Governor for his signature.
Looking to the future, though, I think we all must be prepared for huge fiscal challenges – unlike any we have seen in the past. After all, current estimates show that we will be facing a $332 million revenue hit in FY 2021 alone and $182 million in FY 2022.
Below I will update you on where things stand for a number of issues. I will also be sending out additional detail throughout the coming weeks on several specific topics including education finance, the payact, the condition of our farms and working lands sector, and emerging guidance for businesses. In addition, I will be hosting a Q&A on those and other topics online.
And here is a recent news story on the race to find a COVID-19 vaccine – hang in there, we can do this!
“The May figures show increased economic activity as companies continue to re-open. Construction, Manufacturing, Retail, and Leisure & Hospitality industries showed significant increases in employment this past month and early indications see this continuing. It is important to note that April figures were revised significantly this month drawing a more realistic picture of what Vermont actually experienced with nearly 58,000 people out of work and a statewide unemployment rate of 16.5%. While the May numbers show a positive change from the prior month, we are still in the middle of a global pandemic that is significantly impacting Vermont’s economy. That’s why it’s so important for the public and business communities to follow the safety guidelines and required protocols, so we can continue getting businesses open and people back to work as quickly as possible.”Michael Harrington, Vermont Department of Labor Commissioner May 2020 Unemployment and Jobs Press Release June 19, 2020
The Vermont State Auditor is tracking overall COVID-19 Federal and State Funds and Expenditures. These sites are not being updated instantaneously, so expect information may be slightly outdated and that the site will be updated periodically
$50 million – FOR BUSINESSES FILING SALES, MEALS, ROOMS TAX
Economic Recovery Grants passed in S.350
Legislation that includes $70 million for Economic Recovery Grants ($50 million of which will be administered by the Vermont Department of Taxes) was passed by the Vermont legislature on June 12 (S.350) and signed in to law by Governor Scott on June 19. The Department anticipates that it will begin taking applications exclusively through myVTax within two weeks of the bill signing. There are a couple of steps you can take to ensure your business is ready for when the grant application launches. www.tax.vermont.gov/coronavirus#relief
A number of other economic provisions were passed in H.966 on Friday. As more specific guidance on how to access these programs becomes available, I will send that information out – for now, here is the overall spreadsheet on economic assistance between the house and Senate. The Senate columns are the final columns. Below are the websites to watch for details on specific programs.
- $102 million – GRANTS FOR BUSINESSES & NONPROFITS http://www.accd.vermont.gov
- $30.5 million – DAIRY FARMS & PRODUCERS, AGRICULTURAL BUSINESS, FOOD MARKETS, AGRICULTURAL FAIRS http://www.agriculture.vermont.gov/grants
- $5 million – ARTS & CULTURAL ORGANIZATIONS AND CREATIVE BUSINESSES http://www.vermontartscouncil.org/covid-19
- $5 million – WOMEN & MINORITY-OWNED BUSINESSESwww.accd.vermont.gov
- $5.5 million – FOREST ECONOMY STABILIZATION & OUTDOOR RECREATION BUSINESSES https://anr.vermont.gov/grants
- $3.5 million – WORKING LANDS PROGRAM https://workinglands.vermont.gov/
Unemployment contributions to go down and benefits to go up
The Department of Labor will move to UI Tax Rate Schedule I, reducing individual employers’ UI tax rates on July 1, 2020. Employers’ tax rates vary according to their experience rating, which is based on UI claims charged to their account, total payroll and their ranking among all employers who contribute to UI. Schedule I decreases the upper and lower thresholds for these tax rates, as well as reducing the taxable wage base amount beginning January 1, 2021.
More than 22,000 employers remit state unemployment taxes to the Department of Labor on a quarterly basis. These taxes are deposited into Vermont’s UI Trust Fund to pay UI benefits to eligible claimants. Annual tax rate schedule calculations are set each July based on the recent history of the UI program and the local economy.
“Because our trust fund was in such good standing at the end of 2019, we will be able to provide significant tax relief to Vermont employers in the coming year,” said Labor Commissioner Michael Harrington. “It is important to note, that these rates are calculated based on 2019 information and do not include the effects that COVID-19 has had on the economy. Unfortunately, we will feel the impacts of COVID in the subsequent year and for years to come.”
In addition to this tax rate change, the maximum weekly benefit amount paid to unemployed Vermonters will increase from $513 to $531. This increase is effective beginning the first full week of July.
Hello to all lovers of Vermont – visitors, second homeowners and Vermonters returning from away
S.349 Provides reimbursement for municipality 5.2 million for non-Fema reimbursed expenses that are compliant with the CARES ACT: hazard pay, supplies and equipment, facility alterations, overtime and redirection of staff for first responders – no more then 200,000 per recipient. The Agency of Administration will develop grant documents. An additional 5 million has been allocated to Agency of Administration for digitization of the last 40 years of land records and to make those records available online
H.961 An act relating to making first quarter fiscal year 2021 appropriations for the support of State government, federal Coronavirus Relief Fund (CRF) appropriations, pay act appropriations, and other fiscal requirements for the first part of the fiscal year
This bill funds government for the first quarter. Legislators will return in late August to hear fiscal projections and updates and create a budget for the remaining three quarters of the year. This bill also included the “pay act” which is the result of a negotiation between the Scott Administration and the state employees. While there were some calls to go back and renegotiate the contract, I preferred to move forward with the contracted increases for the following reasons: there is currently a hiring freeze in the administration which is one way that government can control labor costs without going back on a negotiated agreement. There are a number of state jobs for which it is extremely difficult to get a qualified pool of candidates because the pay is significantly lower then in similar private sector employment positions. And lastly, prior to the economic shock, Vermont’s unemployment rate was one of the lowest in the country, making it difficult to find any applicants.
There was also a lot of noise and excitement about legislators supposedly voting themselves a pay-raise. This did not happen. In fact, language was approved that froze legislators pay for the coming year. What was included in the bill was language to tie future legislative pay raises to the raises that constitutional officers like the governor and treasurer receive, instead of COLA. A motion was made to remove the language, with the rationale explained that any discussion about legislator pay was inappropriate at this time. I voted with all of the other independents, all of the Republicans and a number of Democrats to remove the language changing what future increases are tied to. Not because I think the current $13,000 a year is adequate, but because I agreed the timing and optics for any reference to legislative pay was not good. We lost that vote, and the language stayed in the bill. Two things to know: First, in the end, only 6 people voted against the final bill which still contained the language changing how increases will be determined. Second, legislative pay is not going up in FY 21, and increases for constitutional officers in FY 22 will be negotiated when we come back in August. It’s possible the amount for FY 22 could be zero.
S.351An act relating to providing financial relief assistance to the agricultural community due to the COVID-19 public health emergency
This bill provides grants for farms, producers, forest stabilization and hemp. The link above takes you to the side by side negotiation between the House and Senate. The House Proposal was the final proposal.
S.342 expands workers compensation coverage to employees if they contract COVID at work and are regularly exposed to physical contact with known sources of COVID-19, such as in a nursing home or hospital. Passed
Approximately $600 million in COVID funds was appropriated last week in several bills, including grants to health care, businesses, housing for homeless, broadband improvements, local municipalities and agriculture to the extent they are permissible under the federal guidelines.
The House Judiciary and Government Operations Committees held joint sessions all week on several policing related bills sent over from the Senate. S.219, which bans chokeholds, mandates the use of body cams for state police and sets out intent for lawmakers to work on other reforms. It passed on a unanimous vote on Friday.
The House agreed to continue working on two other related bills, S.119, use of force, and S.124, misc. law enforcement provisions, when it returns in August.
Both chambers signed off on the annual transportation (H.942) and capital construction (H.955) bills.
The annual yield bill, H.959, was also completed. The legislation sets the statewide education property tax formula, which is then adjusted locally based on local per pupil spending. The tax rate was set without addressing the shortfall in the Education Fund caused by the reduced consumption tax revenues. The Fund deficit could mean school spending reductions or tax increases over the next several years.
Late in the week, the Senate took up H.688, the Global Warming Solutions Act, but removed the additional funding for the Agency of Natural Resources to do the necessary work. A similar version of the measure passed the House earlier in the session. The bill will likely be revisited when the session resumes in August
Down Payment Assistance Program
June is Homeownership Month. Vermont’s Down Payment Assistance (DPA) program, administered by the Vermont Housing Finance Agency (VHFA), has been funded through the Vermont Affordable Housing Tax Credits since 2015. The program primarily helps young homebuyers purchase their first homes. Now, more than ever, having a home of one’s own represents financial security and a place to feel safe.
Unfortunately, Vermont homes prices, which tend to grow steadily even during economic downturns, are too high for many young buyers. The median-priced Vermont home sold for $227,500 in 2019. To afford that price and put down a 5% down payment, a household would need to earn at least $63,665 per year and have $21,510 available for a down payment and closing costs. Yet the median Vermont renter earns just $35,759 per year, making it very challenging to purchase that first home.
Vermont’s DPA program helps fill the gaps, providing buyers up to $5,000 towards down payment and closing cost assistance. Sometimes that amount can make all the difference to young buyers. In our district alone, the program has helped 6 residents buy their first homes, awarding $25,072 in assistance since the program began in late 2015.
Check out the interactive visualization of the program, which describes the home buyers and assistance provided through this important program by town and year. Down payment assistance is provided in the form of a non-amortizing, 0% mortgage paid back when the home is sold, allowing VHFA to reinvest in more homebuyers.
Secretary of State Jim Condos Announces Official Start of Early Voting Period for August 11th Primaries
Montpelier, VT – Vermont Secretary of State Jim Condos announced the June 26thofficial start date of the early voting period for the Vermont Statewide Primary elections, which take place on August 11th.
“Early voting, including no-excuse absentee voting by mail, provides critical access to the ballot box for voters unable to vote in-person at the polls on Election Day,” said Secretary Condos. “Voting early or by mail has taken on an increased importance during the COVID-19 pandemic. As we all do our part to protect the public health, voting by mail is a safe and secure way to have your voice heard in our democratic process while reducing traffic at the polling places for those Vermonters who need to vote in-person.”
Vermont’s no-excuse, 45-day early voting period allows any registered voter to request an early ballot. For the 2020 August Primary elections the Secretary of State’s office will be mailing all registered voters a postcard with instructions on how to request their ballot, which will include a tear-off, postage paid, pre-addressed return postcard that voters can use to request their ballot.
Vermont voters are not required to use the postcard to request their ballot. They can also request their ballot directly from their Town Clerk in writing, by phone, by email, or in-person during normal business hours.
Registered voters can also login to their My Voter Page at https://mvp.vermont.gov to check their voter registration status, update their information including mailing address, find their town clerk contact information, locate their polling place, view a sample ballot, and request an early ballot.
“Voting early by mail is safe, secure, and simple,” said Secretary Condos. “Americans have been voting by mail since the Civil War, and thousands of Vermonters have been voting by mail for years. As Vermont’s Chief Election Official, I am proud of the work we have done as a state to make the ballot box accessible to all Vermonters, while using strong protections in the process to ensure the integrity of every vote cast.”
Ballots cast by mail are voted and placed by the voter in a certificate envelope containing unique voter information, which the voter seals and signs under the pains and penalties of perjury confirming their identity, and affirming that they were not unduly influenced. When their ballot is received by the Town Clerk, the Clerk records them as having voted. Using the My Voter Page, voters can check the status of their ballot, including when their request was received, when their ballot was mailed, and when their returned ballot was received.
For the August Statewide Primaries, Vermonters do not need to claim which Major Party’s Primary election they wish to vote in. They will receive all three ballots (Democrat, Republican, Progressive) and select in private which one they would like to vote. Voters must return the voted ballot and the two unvoted ballots.
To date the office has seen a 7-fold increase in requests for early vote ballots compared to the same date in 2018.
Tank Inspection Deadline Nears
Vermonters that heat with fuel oil are encouraged to get their tank inspected this summer.
According to Vermont regulations, an uninspected tank can not be filled after August 15, 2020.
Contact your fuel provider to confirm that your fuel oil tank has been checked by a Vermont Certified Tank Inspector within the past three years. If your tank has not been inspected, schedule an appointment soon. Find a heating fuel or heating service company at vermontfuel.com/find.
Will my tank pass inspection?
Vermont’s fuel and heating service providers are essential businesses and have not stopped working throughout the pandemic. While the coronavirus has slowed the pace of inspections, the August 15 deadline found in Vermont’s Aboveground Storage Tank Regulations has not changed. While the deadline has not been extended, the Vermont Department of Environmental Conservation is allowing fuel companies to conduct a “virtual” inspections or partial inspections of fuel oil tank. These are only allowed under certain conditions, contact your fuel supplier for more information.
Approximately half of Vermont homes rely on fuel oil for heat and hot water. VFDA Tank Rebate Program provides $250 to any Vermonter who replaces a non-compliant tank with a new tank. Since 2018, VFDA has helped replace nearly 900 tanks by distributing more than $223,000 in rebates directly to Vermonters. See terms and conditions at vermontfuel.com/tankrebate
The Southern Vermont Deerfiled Valley Chamber visitor center will be reopening this weekend, Friday through Sunday, 10-4. We will be following occupancy and safety guidelines that have been provided from the State level to assure that our visitors are safe, happy, and healthy. Additional hours for the Chamber will be coming soon.
The Deerfield Valley Rotary Club’s Garden and Live Music Event, on 7/18 from 12-4pm. Visit beautiful gardens in Wilmington and Dover, VT, some with magnificent views, and see local musicians live too! This will be a self-guided tour, in which you can visit some or all of the gardens in any order you would like.
The complete brochure, which will include the addresses of each of the homes and parking instructions will be emailed to you from firstname.lastname@example.org on or about 7/17. If you are unable to print it, or would prefer to pick it up, you can also go to the Chamber of Commerce in Wilmington on 7/18, show your ticket, and they will have hardcopies of the brochure to give you. Get your Tickets HERE
America Is Closed: A dizzying number of new rules make it almost impossible to immigrate to the U.S.
Recenty enacted federal Executive action will impact the Vermont tourism industry, the Vermont farming industry, healthcare for Vermonters, and businesses that rely on other specialized scientific or mathematical degrees. read more
S.219 An act relating to addressing racial bias and excessive use of force by law enforcement – In the time since George Floyd’s death, I and many other legislators were approached by Vermonters looking for continuation of racial bias work in law enforcement and specifically looking to ban choke holds. Many thanks to the Deerfield Valley Police Chiefs and officers for the time they also spent answering my questions and speaking with me on the phone on this last minute work in the House. The final bill requires collection of data on race during stops, creates a new crime for death or serious injury resulting from a chokehold – if that chokehold was not necessary to save the life of the officer or another person, and requires state police to wear body cameras. The final bill passed 147-0.
|Please do not hesitate to contact me with questions, or if you need assistance navigating government services at (802) 384-0233 or email@example.com|
Rep. Laura Sibilia Dover, Readsboro, Searsburg, Somerset, Stamford, Wardsboro, Whitingham