Legislature addresses broadband, discusses police reform and COVID recovery

The Vermont House on Thursday approved a $95 million COVID-19 aid package that includes funding for housing assistance and broadband expansion.
The approved package includes $43 million that would be used for internet expansion, financial assistance for utilities and other initiatives.
The remaining $52 million would go toward aid for landlords, tenants, and those experiencing homelessness as well as expanding affordable housing.
The bill, H.966, also contains $11 million to help pay for telecom providers to build broadband out to underserved areas.
The Department of Public Service will oversee the funding, and prioritize connecting low-income households where people need the internet to participate in remote learning, work remotely, or seek medical care via telehealth.
— Xander Landen

The Vermont Senate passed its first law enforcement reform measure Thursday, attached to the first quarter budget for the next fiscal year, which will explore posting mental health experts in every state police barracks.
An amendment by Senate Pro Tem Tim Ashe, D/P-Chittenden, was added to the budget unopposed. It mandates that the commissioners of the departments of public safety and mental health come back to the Legislature in August with a plan for how to embed mental health clinicians — either from a designated agency or from a contracted entity — to partner with every state police barracks in Vermont.
The amendment also stipulates that it is up to the commissioner of the Department of Public Safety to recommend to the Legislature how the program should be funded and what potential “reallocation” of money it would require.
“This is meant to be a very positive collaboration, building off the success the state police and the local mental health agencies have already worked on,” Ashe said, referring to several police departments in the state — including in St. Albans and Bellows Falls — that have already instituted similar arrangements.
“It falls short of ordering that it happen now or doing anything like that, but rather sets the stage for us to make that determination when we return,” he said.
Stakeholders and advocates appeared to be split over whether the Senate Judiciary committee should keep its Friday deadline to move its police reform proposal forward.
Wilda White, the chair of the Vermont Mental Health Crisis Response Commission, said she understands the urgency behind moving the bill as a quick response to George Floyd’s murder. But she said that the judiciary panel should continue to hear from community members as it crafts the legislation.
However, the American Civil Liberties Union of Vermont and other advocates have said this first step in addressing police reform is necessary and should move ahead.
— Kit Norton

In the Senate Committee on Government Operations, lawmakers floated the idea of mandating a statewide accountability review of law enforcement in addition to potentially disciplining misconduct perpetrated by police officers.
“This morning in Judiciary, we heard very distinct, ‘act now, do something, it’s really important.’ ‘It’s better to get it right so don’t act in haste,’” said Committee Chair Jeanette White, D-Windham, who also sits on the judiciary panel.
“There really isn’t a single voice on what we should do right now and what we should put off and how we should do it. So we just have to use our best judgment,” she added.
On Wednesday, Ashe told VTDigger his goal is to have the initial reform measures pass through the Senate and House by June 26. He added he wasn’t interested in “the constant can kicking on these issues.”
— Kit Norton

The House Commerce Committee has drafted language covering phase two of its COVID-19 business recovery aid package.
Under the bill, it would provide $64.6 million in grants for businesses that have seen a 50 percent or greater reduction in revenue from March 1 to Sept. 1, 2020. The bill does not say how much each business could receive.
The bill also allocates $100,000 each to Vermont Public Radio and Vermont Public Television, both of which have asked the state for more money to meet increased demands during COVID-19 and to make up for lost revenue.
It also allocates $5 million specifically for grants for women and minority owned businesses.
— Grace Elletson

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