Rep. Curt Taylor's Session Journal
End of 2021 Session
Around 5:00 PM Speaker Jill Krowinski gaveled the close of the 2021 House legislative session.
The leaders of the three parties and the Governor had given short speeches. All on Zoom. I shut off my computer, left my basement office (pictured) and breathed a sigh of relief.
The 2021 Session Wrap-up
There is no denying that the 2021 Session was historic. It was conducted completely by Zoom in the midst of a global pandemic. In spite of all the technological hassles and adjustments, laws were passed, the budget was crafted and an enormous amount of Federal funding was routed to the businesses, organizations and people of Vermont.
Everyone was glad to see the session end and looked forward to getting back inside the Capitol in January, one way or another.
Even I was getting tired of Zoom in spite of the fact that I saw some distinct advantages to meeting remotely: no commute, ease of getting testimony, and the efficiency of being able to get more work done at home. But crafting laws requires discussion. Sometime it's just quick fact checks or consultations in the cafeteria or hallway. Sometimes you just need to sit down quietly with a colleague, ask questions and listen to answers. Zoom makes that difficult.
But, here's a review of what we DID accomplish:
In the Spring of 2020, when the pandemic took hold in the United States, Vermont received $1.25 billion in federal CARES relief. Those funds were distributed during the rather chaotic 2020 session of the Vermont legislature. This web page provides the details of how those federal funds were allocated. In the Spring of 2021 we received an additional $1.052 billion through the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA). All these funds came with strings attached. They had to be spent on COVID related expenses. Guidance from the federal government on exactly what that means changed frequently. During the final weeks of this year's session, as the Senate and House worked to resolve differences in the budget bill, guidance from Washington was still changing. The result was the following:
$109.2 million targeted to Economy, Workforce and Communities
$99 million for Housing
$51 million for rental assistance
$150 million for broadband
$51 million for technology modernization
$50 million for climate action
$115 for Clean Water investment
The remaining funds will be allocated this fall after more guidance from Washington and more outreach to Vermonters as to how they would like those funds spent.
Prior to adjournment, the Legislature approved the State Budget for FY2022 (H.439), totaling $7.35 billion. It focuses on the COVID recovery of Vermonters, their communities and local economies. Federal funds were used for one-time expenditures that will support future efforts without taking on additional long-term costs. Investment included the following:
Expanding broadband: The pandemic has served to remind all of use of the need to improve broadband access for all Vermonters in a effort to support remote workers, telehealth, online education opportunities, and social connectivity. The bill that dealt mostly with Broadband issues (H.360) dedicates $150 million of federal money to the construction of broadband infrastructure and anticipated spending a total of $250 million over the next three years for continued expansion. The bill includes funding for pre-construction planning and design costs, grants for building broadband infrastructure to unserved and underserved areas, and a new broadband workforce development program. The bill also creates the Vermont Community Broadband Board to coordinate and support Vermont’s nine Communication Union Districts (CUDs) and their partners with the technical, legal, and financial assistance to accelerate the deployment of universal broadband service across Vermont. H.360 prioritizes the deployment of fiber (“future proof”) infrastructure, giving Vermonters access to at least 100mbps download/100mbps upload service.
Information Technology Upgrades: The pandemic revealed a sever shortfall in the State's ability to handle unemployment insurance issues. The FY2022 budget includes $66 million for investment to improve software and hardware at the Department of Labor, the Department of Motor Vehicles as well as the Bright Futures Information System to serve childcare programs. The state maintains more than 1,200 software applications, many of which need attention.
Business and Labor: The COVID-19 pandemic brought the most significant job-loss event ever experienced by Vermont’s Unemployment Insurance (UI) system. Thousands of workers, including a higher-than-average percentage of women, 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.
To get relief to Vermonters quickly, the legislature passed H.315 in early April, a $97.5 million pandemic-relief bill that invested federal funds before the end of session to jumpstart the state’s recovery. This bill created $10.5 million in Economic Recovery Bridge Grants, targeting new and small businesses initially not eligible for assistance. 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 with 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.
The General Assembly also passed S.62 in response to the economic crisis. This is a package of programs and benefits that will both support workers post-pandemic and shore up the UI system for the future by doing the following:
Adding a long-term supplemental benefit of $25/week for Unemployment Insurance recipients when the federal increase ends in September.
Protects businesses from being unduly burdened with large tax increases caused by COVID-layoffs by removing the year 2020 from the employer UI calculation.
Ensures the state UI Trust Fund is replenished and ready for Vermonters in the event of another economic emergency or recession.
Appropriates $100,000 in scholarships for adult students enrolled in workforce development programs at Adult Career and Tech Education Centers.
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.
Because there has been a moratorium on the state support of school construction many Vermont's schools building are in need of repair or replacement. Whether or not to end that moratorium has been the subject of much discussion. Finding a funding source for such major expenses has also hit snags. This session the legislature took a step toward resolving those issues with H.426 which uses federal relief money to update facilities and improve health and safety conditions for students and staff. The first steps are an update of the school facilities standard and a statewide condition inventory of school buildings. The long-term goal is to make sure that our school buildings are well-maintained, energy-efficient, safe, and healthy places that meet the needs of 21st century education and technology.
State Pension Funds
The House began the session with a commitment to finally address the continued dramatic increases in pension fund costs. General Fund payments into pension funds for teachers and state employees have been squeezing other programs out of the budget. Support for dramatic changes in pension funding could not be found in the Senate or Administration so the House backed off and opted for the creation of a task force to make recommendations in the near future. That was H.449.
The Legislature has reserved $150 million of General Fund dollars (freed up by ARPA dollars), along with the annual payment of $316 million for a total pension investment this year of $466 million, a massive commitment for the legislature in a single year.
Nationally the 2020 election has resulted in quite a few new laws regarding voting. The Vermont General Assembly also proposed and passed election related legislation. Universal Vote-By-Mail was a great success during the 2020 General Election, contributing to record turnout of 74 % participation. Vermont passed S.15 which continues the Vote-By-Mail program and adds other important election measures. Effective this coming General Election, new features will include:
● Ballots with postage-paid return envelopes mailed to all active registered voters.
● Voters may cure defective ballots. If a voter forgets to sign the certificate envelope, or fails to return unvoted primary ballots along with the voted ballot of their party choice, those errors can be corrected and the vote counted. This was controversial as it does put additional burdens on our town clerks.
● 24/7 access to secure ballot drop boxes for voters to return their ballots.
● A limit on the number of ballots someone can deliver on behalf of others. There was much concern about ballot harvesting. The fear is/was that organizations or individuals will aggressively obtain and return ballots from voters.
The cost of health care has been a particular concern. Vermonters buying on the individual market should now pay no more than 8.5 percent of their income on health insurance as a result of important changes made this year. Both small businesses with less than 100 employees, and individuals purchasing health insurance outside of their workplaces, can save substantial dollars on healthcare premiums as a result of significantly increased federal funding for healthcare premium support, and a change in the health insurance structure in Vermont that’s contained within the larger bill, S.88. 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. It’s important that Vermonters who buy health insurance on the individual market review their options.
It has been a tough session. I remain frustrated with the progress I would like to see regarding the Department of Corrections (part of my committee's responsibility). That department remains under-resourced. The State is in dire need of Corrections Officers to oversee our incarcerated population as well as those on furlough, probation or parole. The State's correctional facilities need significant upgrades and/or replacement. These are expensive long-term projects, but our current facilities are expensive to maintain and may be larger than is necessary. It is far less expensive to provide the kind of community supports our justice involved citizens need than it is to lock these individuals up. I am hopeful that when we return to the Capitol in January we can focus on this important issue.