From the Vermont State House | 3.20.2020
While the General Assembly was in recess this week due to mitigation measures related to COVID-19 transmission, legislative activity continues in a number of areas. Virtually all Senate committees are meeting by telephonic means this week to primarily focus on COVID-19 response measures that the State can do in the short term, with primary focus on health care, employer/employee, tax and revenue, and municipal issues.
The Senate is tentatively scheduled to come back in on Tuesday to pass short-term measures and send them over to the House for its consideration later in the week. Both chambers are grappling with rules that require in-person presence to vote in Committee and on the floor. There may be temporary rules suspensions to allow for remote voting but this is still being reviewed. As Vermont is under a directive to limit public gatherings, senators will encourage only the bare minimum of senators to come to Montpelier, and even then hold the votes open to allow for staggered votes to maximize social distancing.
The House plan is less clear at this point. Several House Committees will be meeting early next week by telephone to also review these COVID-19 response measures and be positioned to vote as a body possibly Wednesday or Thursday. It is likely House leadership will employ similar protocols to minimize numbers and maximize social distancing.
Going forward, leadership is exploring technological capacities to conduct remote hearings, enable comment from interested parties, and potentially vote remotely as well. It is anticipated there will be additional COVID-19 response legislation to be combined with must-pass budget bills and potentially other legislation left prior to last week’s recess.
Tax and Revenues
As for the immediate measures, Senate Finance reviewed tax and revenue impacts that continue to unfold. In testimony before the Committee, Tax Commissioner Bolio indicated the following:
- Federal Guidance recently issued that initially said the IRS was not forgoing filing deadline but extending payments due until July 15 without interest or penalties. Late word appears the Administration may now push the deadline to July 15. Vermont filing deadlines piggyback on the federal. Vermont Tax also has authority to forego penalties and interest and could do so if they wanted to.
- For the Meals and Rooms Tax, the same authority exists to waive penalties and interest and Tax is discussing and reviewing the fiscal impact.
- Tax does not have authority to extend homestead declaration and some property tax issue. Also do not appear to have authority to extend property tax due dates.
- As for Withholding Taxes, payment options are also being discussed and modeled and hope to have decisions by end of week. Tax does not have authority to extend due dates but foregoing penalties and interest might be done.
- Operationally at Tax, fifty percent of staff are working remotely but open for business. They have identified four major categories as critical functions: cash, supporting taxpayers, property tax and municipal support, legal items. They are processing returns and refunds and encouraging electronic filing.
The Committee is also monitoring the actions in Congress as they will significantly impact revenues to the State, and also identify holes or gaps that Vermont will have to address. The situation in DC was too fluid at the time Finance met but the Committee did review the federal tax credit provisions in the bill signed yesterday by the President.
The Joint Fiscal Office is also trying to estimate revenue impacts, and they provided the Committee with preliminary revenue implications. Those include possible reductions in FY20 General Fund revenue of between $100-150 million; reductions in the FY20 Transportation Fund of between $15-20 million; and reductions in the FY20 Education Fund of between $35-45 million. Vermont currently has over $250 million combined in reserves for all three Funds.
The Senate Economic Development committee is reviewing employer and employee issues in an amended H.681. Under consideration are amendments that provide:
- An employer’s unemployment insurance experience ratings will not be adversely impacted due to temporary layoffs related to COVID-19 with certain restrictions
- An employer will also not be charged for benefits paid to an individual who voluntarily leaves employment to care for a family member with COVID-19
- An individual to receive benefits if they voluntarily leave employment for specified purposes, including being diagnosed with COVID-19, told to self-isolate by a health care professional or health official, to care for a family member with COVID-19, to care for child because school has closed, and more
- Similar provisions are applied for family or sick leave benefits but further amendments make it clear an employee may not “double dip” by receiving sick pay during a week in which they are claiming UI benefits
The Vermont Department of Labor also has a dedicated webpage for COVID-19 issues.
And in health care, the Senate Health & Welfare Committee is compiling a series of amendments aimed at health care response and delivery related to COVID-19. While a great number of initiatives are being discussed and promoted, many can be done through Executive Order or administrative action. The Committee is thus identifying which will be done through that means and which will require legislative action. The issues under consideration build on H.742 as passed the House late last week and include:
- Giving authority to AHS to modify or postpone payment of hospital and other entities subject to provider tax assessments for FY2020
- Authorizing giving Medicaid participating providers advance payments upon receipt of an application for financial assistance.
- Granting authority to DVHA to relax provider credential requirements for Medicaid, and DFR to direct insurers to do the same to allow providers to deliver services across settings and respond adequately to the crisis
- Authorizing OPR and Board of Medical Practice to issue temporary licenses during a state of emergency to health care professionals, including dentists, licensed in other states and not subject to disciplinary proceedings. Retired professionals may also be reactivated.
- Granting DFR emergency rulemaking authority to reduce cost sharing requirements for COVID treatment, prevention and diagnosis; to suspend deductible requirements for prescription drugs; and expand access to telehealth services
- Authorizing all health plans and Medicaid to allow early refills of 30 day maintenance prescriptions for the duration of a state of emergency; authorize pharmacists to extend a maintenance prescription when one has no refills remaining if it has recently expired; and allow pharmacists to offer therapeutic substitutions for an unavailable prescribed drug in the event of shortages.
- Authorizing and expand telemedicine and store-and-forward for health and dental insurance plans and define coverage of these services.
The Senate Government Operations Committee is addressing a number of municipal and related issues that are impacted by COVID-19. Those include providing relief for deadlines of certain municipal functions, and revising certain rules around candidate and election requirements for local and state offices.
The Committee has also endorsed an open meeting legislative proposal that would enact temporary procedures while there is a State of Emergency, such as not requiring physical presence or an exact physical location provided the public is assured of participation through some means, such as telephonic.