Op/Ed

Legislative Review: Health, Housing top priorities

The 2021 Vermont Legislative Session came to an end last week, as we adjourned after passing a $7.3 billion state budget and numerous other important bills. The session was historic for several reasons: 1) We met remotely throughout the session and were able to maintain public access, health and safety, and generally smooth operations during a global pandemic; 2) We passed the largest budget in the history of the state focusing on nearly universal priorities and buoyed by unprecedented federal support; and 3) Both chambers of the Legislature were led by women for the first time ever, Speaker of the House Jill Krowinski and Senate President Pro Tempore Becca Balint.

I am honored to have been a part of this historic work, and while I’m thrilled to no longer be on endless zoom meetings, I’m proud of what we accomplished for Vermonters. Below is a broad overview of the state budget and three final-week racial justice resolutions. You can find summaries of several other bills in previous posts on my website blog.

THE BIG BILL: FY22 STATE BUDGET

The FY22 state budget, H.439, weighed in at 275 pages and $7.3 billion. It’s chock full of one-time funding for a huge variety of initiatives and programs meant to help Vermonters recover from the COVID-19 pandemic, economically, emotionally, and physically. For good summaries of budget highlights, I recommend two stories from online news outlets: tinyurl.com/6BudgetIssues and tinyurl.com/HistoricVTBudget. You can also read this summary of FY22 Budget Bill Highlights online at tinyurl.com/FY22BudgetHighlights, and reach out to me with any questions you may have.

If you’re interested in the details, you can wade through the nine sections of the bill at your leisure online at tinyurl.com/275PageBudgetBill. Of particular interest may be Section G, which lays out the federal American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) appropriations. The enormous amount of federal funding coming to Vermont individuals, communities, schools, businesses, and state programs is both a huge opportunity to accomplish long-delayed projects and a huge responsibility to ensure we spend the funding wisely. As such, the Legislature appropriated about half of the federal funding available at the state level in FY22 and will determine how to divvy up the remaining funds next session. However, Section G.100 lays out our broad intent for multi-year funding priorities, which are summarized in the table here:

 

Multi-Year Funding Priorities

•  Health, well-being & recovery of Vermonters; workforce; business supports: FY22 Amount $158.7 million/Multi-Year Amount $250 million.

•  Housing Initiatives: FY22 Amount $190 million/Multi-Year Amount $250 million.

•  Broadband Development: FY22 Amount $150 million/Multi-Year Amount $250 million.

•  Climate Action: FY22 Amount $54.5 million/Multi-Year Amount $250 million.

•  Clean Water Initiatives: FY22 Amount $120 million/Multi-Year Amount $225 million.

 

Given that we’re coming out of a worldwide public health emergency, it’s especially important that we’re investing in the health and well-being of the people of Vermont, and the social supports they need to recover and return to a healthy, active life, such as mental health services, substance use recovery, food security, education, family supports, and an additional $8.2 million for childcare subsidies and workforce development. Check out this outline of many of the initiatives aimed at Keeping Vermonters Healthy — tinyurl.com/KeepVTHealthy — both in the budget bill and other bills passed this session.

For construction-heavy areas such as broadband and housing, building out the infrastructure cannot all be done at once, in part due to labor and material shortages. Thus, in both areas, we’ve invested in immediate supports, such as broadband service, rental housing subsidies and a homeless transition plan, as well as strategic planning and workforce development. Important projects will be built this year in areas that are ready to string fiber for broadband or renovate and build new affordable housing units. For example, NEK Broadband could string 25 miles of fiber in 2021 and an additional 550 miles in 2022 with grant funding made available in the state budget, bringing high-speed internet to a part of the state that’s never before enjoyed it.

I know climate change mitigation is a priority for many people in Vermont, and I was proud to vote for the Global Warming Solutions Act last fall, creating the Vermont Climate Council. The Council’s first report with recommendations for actions and investments is due in December 2021, and we’ve reserved over $100 million to advance their recommendations. In the meantime, since transportation and thermal (heating) control are the largest sources of greenhouse gas emissions in Vermont, we’ve invested immediate funding in weatherization, electric vehicle infrastructure, bike & pedestrian projects, and public transportation.

Finally, this budget provides funding to begin to address two of the most contentious issues faced the last two sessions: the Vermont State College system and teacher & state employee pension crises. The budget provides $20 million for the VSC system transformation, as well as targeted programmatic funding, additional base funding, and scholarship funding for new and returning VSC students. The budget also provides $343 million for current year employer pension and health care contributions, and reserves $164 million for payments after the newly created Public Pensions Task Forces makes its recommendations later this year. This is a substantial investment and commitment to these important public institutions and employees.

RACIAL JUSTICE RESOLUTIONS

In the final week of the session, the Senate passed three important resolutions focused on racial justice issues. We declared racism a public health emergency, citing extensive data related to social determinants of health caused by systemic racism that lead to poorer health status and outcomes for people of color, as tragically highlighted during the COVID pandemic. I was honored to report this resolution, J.R.H. 6, to my colleagues on the virtual Senate floor, where I both acknowledged that work still needs to be done to make the resolution more inclusive of indigenous Vermonters, and also underscored that “if we do not take action now to end discrimination against people of color and improve the conditions under which people of color live, then the pandemic of racism will continue to persist long after COVID is eradicated.” You can read my full floor report at tinyurl.com/RacismPublicHealth.

We also passed a resolution condemning anti-Asian and anti-Pacific Islander hate in the United States and recognizing May 2021 as Asian American, Native Hawaiian, and Pacific Islander Heritage Month in Vermont. This resolution was in response to the dramatic increase in hate-crimes against Asian Americans during the COVID pandemic, including the tragic murder of six Asian-American women at an Atlanta spa in March. Finally, we passed a resolution honoring the memory of George Floyd by designating May 25, 2021, as a Day of Remembrance and Action. On the one-year anniversary of Floyd’s brutal murder at the hands of a Minneapolis police officer, people gathered in communities around the state to honor his memory and plan for further action; I joined a group on the Bristol Town Green. While these resolutions don’t have the force of law, they make clear the values and intentions of the Vermont Senate and our commitment to further action toward racial justice.

STATE OF COVID VACCINES

We continue to do well with statewide vaccination rates, but Addison County fell from #1 in the rankings after kids ages 12-15 were added to the mix. Chittenden County now ranks first in the state with 80.7% of eligible people vaccinated, with Addison County coming in 5th at 77.6% I know some parents have concerns about getting their kids vaccinated, so if you do, I encourage you to reach out to your children’s pediatrician to discuss those concerns. They will be eager to hear from you! The Department of Health website has lots of information about vaccines and has produced a great fact sheet about the vaccine and children at tinyurl.com/Vaccine4Kids. The University of Vermont Medical Center also has a good FAQ site about children and the COVID vaccine. Finally, the CDC website has some good information about COVID vaccines and children. In addition, check out this series of videos in multiple languages from the Vermont Multilingual Coronavirus Task Force. There are lots of opportunities to get vaccinated, including walk-in clinics throughout the state. Let’s do all we can to make our state, communities, and schools as safe as possible. Thank you for your efforts!

Finally, this past Memorial Day weekend was a time for both remembrance and celebration, and it’s important to reflect on how far we’ve come since last year at this time. While we still didn’t have parades in most Vermont towns, thanks to the vaccines we were able to safely gather with family and friends, young and old. Let’s all take time to honor both those who have died in service to our country, and, this year, everyone who has died during this horrific pandemic. Hug the people you love, especially senior citizens who have endured so much. May we all start on the path toward collective healing and grace. Stay safe and well.

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