From the Vermont State House | 10.16
From the Governor and Administration
Governor Scott again warned Vermonters to remain vigilant against COVID-19 as the state’s numbers ticked upward. He extended the state of emergency enacted in March through November 15, following previous addenda strengthening the state’s mask mandate and permitting cities and towns to limit gathering sizes and alcohol sales in prior executive orders. Updated modeling shows a shrinking map of counties where travel without quarantine is permitted, and national trends do not provide immediate hope that that shrinking will be reversed.
The Agency of Commerce and Community Development (ACCD) continues to be the point agency for implementation, guidance and questions from Vermonters and businesses. ACCD has updated its Guidance on New Work Safe Additions to reflect the changes announced today.
From the Legislature
The Vermont General Assembly adjourned on Friday, September 25, bringing an end to the longest session in state history and one like none other. In yet another first, adjournment came via remote format with legislators participating from their homes or other locations away from the confined spaces in the State House. This remote legislating, of course, was employed following suspension of in-person legislating last March 13. While this has certainly led to challenges and a disruption to normal activities, legislators are to be commended for answering the challenges brought about because of the coronavirus pandemic and working with the Governor to advance assistance and relief to Vermonters and businesses impacted by the pandemic.
It is that pandemic that consumed virtually all of the Legislature’s attention these past few months and prolonging a session that normally runs approximately eighteen weeks. We have yet to add up the weeks this time, but meeting until the end of June, taking a six-week break, and then returning for another five-week session pushes the limits of a citizen Legislature.
Negotiators on the $7.2 billion FY21 budget bill, H.969, were able to reconcile differences and clear the path to end the session. The budget bill not only restates and funds the activities of government through next June but also appropriates over $200 million remaining from Vermont’s share of $1.25 billion in federal CARES Act money directed to assist in recovery efforts. The budget includes additional assistance for businesses, expanding hazard pay beyond the existing health care workers to other frontline workers who stayed on the job last March 13 through May 15, and support for the State College system facing significant challenges among its five campuses. Reserves remain fully funded, which may prove helpful in what is expected to be a difficult FY22. H.969 is also a budget that balances not because of new taxes or tax increases but because of a combination of greater-than-expected FY20 revenues, reversions, some savings, and the federal assistance. As such, Gov. Scott signed the budget bill almost immediately upon receipt from the Legislature. All told, there was very little in the way of cuts to funding or services in the final budget from FY20’s level of funding.
The framework is also set in place, largely through the Joint Fiscal Committee, to address needs or issues that continue to arise while the Legislature is not in session this fall. This may include redirecting unused or unsubscribed federal dollars, receipt of any additional federal assistance that may be forthcoming, and generally keeping abreast of the decisions made in the budget and continuing to respond to the needs created by the ongoing pandemic. This Committee does not have authority to appropriate but can enjoin the Administration and standing committees if ultimately necessary.
Over the course of the two segments of session, the Legislature passed a number of policy changes to adjust government services, functions, and requirements to the new pandemic reality.
The state created a new hazard pay program, rewarding certain frontline workers with additional pay for staying on the job during the peak of community spread in Vermont. The program was created in June and expanded in September’s final budget bill. More information, including a link to the second round of applications for employers, can be found here.
The legislature also created a presumption that workers’ compensation is covered and accessible for certain, defined frontline workers if they contract COVID-19. S.342 grants the Commissioner of Labor authority to grant the presumption to a worker he or she feels faces a similar risk as frontline workers. The presumption, while rebuttable, means the employee does not have to prove she or he contracted the virus while in the course of employment. A second presumption is available to non-frontline workers provided they can document exposure at the workplace or where the services were provided. This, too, can be rebutted by a preponderance of the evidence that the exposure was not in the course of employment, or if the employer was in compliance with health and safety guidelines. A proposed expansion of the presumption, adding teachers and child care workers to the class of employees covered by the presumption, was discussed in the fall session, but ultimately not adopted.
June action by the state used federal CARES money to create a $275 million grant program to stabilize health care providers who have lost money due to the pandemic. The first round of grants have been distributed, but there will be a second round of applications available soon. For more information, click here to connect to ACCD.
Other pandemic changes included modifications to the state’s open meetings law to accommodate less face-to-face interaction; changes to professional regulation to allow for more emergency workers and adjust licensing and disciplinary processes under gathering restrictions; and health insurance regulation shifts to account for a rise in telehealth and telemedicine.
There can be no doubt the pandemic will also feature prominently in the next session, scheduled to begin in just a few months time. Legislators were keenly aware of this, and the tight schedule was used repeatedly as a reason to postpone action on many bills or issues. They, along with new priorities, can be considered in January.