Federal aid continues to flow into Vermont
WASHINGTON, D.C. — In the past six months since the novel coronavirus first reached the United States, about 115,000 Americans have died and roughly 36 million have lost jobs.
Meanwhile, Congress has struggled to keep up with the nationwide devastation despite passing four bills authorizing $3 trillion in aid for coronavirus relief, including more than $1 billion for Vermont.
As the nation faces recession and lawmakers debate over the scope and goals of the next relief package, here’s a breakdown of how the congressional response to the COVID-19 pandemic has affected Vermont and what work still needs to be done.
Congressional efforts to combat the coronavirus health crisis began in March with the passage of three relief bills that totaled $2.5 trillion.
These were an $8.3 billion emergency funding bill, the roughly $192 billion Families First Coronavirus Response Act, and the $2.3 trillion Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act, all of which passed with bipartisan support.
The original emergency funding bill addressed the health crisis by allocating money for vaccine research and development, medical supplies, telehealth services, and federal, state, and local health agencies, with a small provision to support small businesses.
The Families First initiative focused developing free access to coronavirus testing, establishing 14-day paid emergency sick leave, and bolstering food programs such as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP).
The CARES Act, Congress’ largest relief legislation to date, dedicated $150 billion in direct aid to states via the Coronavirus Relief Fund.
It also provided for $1,200 to qualifying Americans; expansion of unemployment eligibility and benefits; and financial support of small businesses, farmers, and the SNAP program.
These three relief packages were followed in April by the creation of the $733 billion Payroll Protection Program Act (PPP), which provides grants to small businesses.
The early responses to the COVID-19 pandemic reflect the priorities and efforts of the Vermont Congressional delegation of Sen. Patrick J. Leahy (D), Sen. Bernie Sanders (I), and Rep. Peter Welch (D).
They fought for the allocation of funds to Vermont as well as the inclusion of provisions that address the needs of small, rural states such as Vermont.
Through the CARES Act Vermont will receive $1.25 billion.
And the PPP — even though it has been plagued by problems, with banks that were charged with administering the program often favoring profitable corporations over smaller companies in greater need — has approved over 11,000 loans to small businesses in Vermont totaling more than $1 billion.
Those loans are largely due to the efforts of Sen. Leahy, who serves as Vice Chairman of the Appropriations Committee and fought for a small-state minimum to be included in the CARES Act, which calculates its grants using population-based formulas.
“Small and rural states have the same kind of needs that urban states do but spread out over wider areas. And with formulas based on population alone, smaller states like Vermont will be left out in the cold,” said Leahy’s Press Secretary David Carl.
The $1.25 billion sent to Vermont in the CARES Act includes $14 million in block grants, which give the state flexibility to use the money toward services like community health facilities and food banks, as well as support for essential workers and their families and address unemployment, which rose to 15.6 percent in Vermont in April, according to the Vermont Department of Labor.
Other funds in the CARES Act were dedicated to everything from public health services through the Centers for Disease Control to housing assistance. Some provisions, however, such as the $9.6 million grant to the state’s airports, have prompted some questions on whether the state’s most critical needs are best addressed in the bill.
Further controversy has developed nationally about the lag time between when funds were allocated and when — or if — they have reached their intended recipients. Calculations by the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget suggest that only about half of the $3 trillion that Congress has authorized has been committed to its recipients.
This slow-walking is likely attributable to processing time and systems being overwhelmed by demand. A staff member for Leahy’s office pointed to the example of funds directed to the Department of Health and Human Services, which sent out initial disbursements and is currently reevaluating where the emerging need is before releasing additional funds.
In the meantime, money has yet to become available to address some of Vermont’s critical areas of concern.
For example, lawmakers point to Vermont’s dairy industry, which has been hit hard by the crisis. In March, milk prices in the Northeast plummeted below the cost of production, prompting farmers across the country to begin dumping milk.
According to the executive director of the Vermont Dairy Producers Association, Vermont dairy farms have seen losses of $42 million since March. But as of mid-May only 20% of the $36 billion appropriated to the Department of Agriculture (USDA) had been committed.
“Dairy farms are the backbone of Vermont’s rural economy and offer critical nutrition and high-quality products to individuals across the country,” wrote Sanders, Leahy, and Welch in a letter to USDA Secretary Sonny Purdue. “Our dairy farmers face unprecedented challenges and have received little of the support that Congress has provided.”
There has been some progress. Welch and other Representatives wrote to the Small Business Administration (SBA) requesting that farmers be eligible for the SBA’s Economic Injury Disaster Loan program, which was implemented in early May and that bore fruit.
Also, in early May the USDA awarded contracts to two Vermont entities, the Abbey Group and Willing Hands, as part of the Farmers to Families Food Box Program, which Leahy pushed for during Families First negotiations.
That program partners with regional and local food producers to distribute food to food-insecure families, and through it the Abbey Group and Willing Hands have $5.4 million and $40,000 deals, respectively.
But many farmers continue to struggle as funds remain tied up in USDA red tape. In its letter to Purdue, the Vermont delegation urged the USDA to compensate dairy farmers for the months in which they will be most affected by low milk prices, pay them for dumped milk and, perhaps most importantly, establish a price floor for milk.
“What is truly going to sustain — in the long term — our farms is to give them a floor price for their milk, so that they’re not spending more producing milk than they’re getting paid for the milk,” Representative Welch told the Independent. “That needs to be done.”
Sanders has also been focusing efforts on nutrition assistance during the pandemic, in particular by working to expand online delivery options for SNAP participants. This is being implemented in several states, including Vermont.
Explaining his efforts in a press release two weeks ago, Sanders said, “I believe that no one in this country should go hungry — ever. This is especially true during the current emergency, when so many people are struggling.”
Rep. Welch and Sen. Leahy’s office also pointed to gaps in access to broadband internet as a crucial issue facing Vermont and other rural states. Welch, the co-chair of the House Rural Broadband Caucus, has long backed increasing broadband access, and the caucus announced a plan last month to ensure affordable broadband access to all Americans.
“This crisis has created the inevitable conclusion that internet has to be much like electricity was in the 1930s. It’s a necessity,” Welch said.
A Leahy staff member also pointed to Leahy’s efforts to increase broadband access. As businesses and schools moved to remote learning this spring, inequities have grown for those who cannot work remotely and cannot participate in online learning. Broadband has also been crucial in providing telehealth information.
The Vermont delegation has also responded to concerns from small businesses about strings attached to PPP loans. These were addressed in the PPP Flexibility Act, co-sponsored by Welch, which was signed into law last week. The act expands small businesses’ flexibility in using PPP loans toward their payroll costs and the loan forgiveness timeframe from eight to 24 weeks.
The provisions in the PPP act were taken from the more comprehensive Health and Economic Recovery Omnibus Emergency Solutions Act (HEROES Act), a sweeping $3 trillion relief package which passed in the House last month.
The Act would include $1.3 billion in FY21 and $1.4 billion in FY22 for Vermont, with $452 million in FY21 and $226 million in FY22 earmarked for Vermont municipalities.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Kentucky) has refused to take up the bill, reflecting a partisan divide in the Senate over whether or not another coronavirus relief package is necessary and how much it should include. As of yet, the Senate has not shown any commitment to passing another package.
Sanders criticized McConnell’s inaction as “incomprehensible” in a statement last week and proposed a few additions to the HEROES Act to support the dual health and economic crises.
These include provisions for paycheck security up to $90,000 a year, care guarantees through Medicare, and individual emergency checks of $2,000 per month for working-class Americans.
Commenting on the hurdle of partisanship in the Senate, Senator Leahy’s Legislative Director Erica Chabot provided a note of cautious optimism.
“We remain hopeful that Congress will rise to this moment,” Chabot said. “This is exactly the kind of moment where the Senate needs to rise to the occasion, be the deliberative body that it can be, and find a way to help the American people.”
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