MONTPELIER — It took a month and a half, but a bill containing $10.5 million in COVID-19 relief to businesses that had not previously qualified for aid, and a great deal more federally-funded relief spending, has finally passed the Vermont Legislature.
Tuesday, the House made additions to the version the Senate had amended and passed last month. The two chambers agreed that would suffice as the final version of the bill, and the Senate concurred unanimously Thursday.
When it passed the House the first time on Feb. 26, the bill, H. 315, carried $70 million in spending. By the time the Senate was finished with it on March 24, it had grown to more than $100 million.
The House subsequently pared that amount back to $97.5 million, and added “link-up” language that extends the unemployment insurance benefits exemption for the 2020 tax year. That language adopts the federal exemption of the first $10,200 of benefits for taxpayers with an adjusted gross income of less than $150,000.
In addition to $10.5 million for business relief grants, highlights of the bill include:
• $15 million for school air quality improvements indoor air quality.
• $5.5 million for summer meals for families.
• $4 million for afterschool and summer programs.
• $10 million for outdoor recreation improvements to assets including trailheads, boat launches and state parks.
• $10 million in shelter and safe housing aid.
• $8.2 million to the Vermont State Colleges System, the University of Vermont and the Vermont Student Assistance Corporation. These funds will provide licensed practical nurse training and provide as many as two free classes to 2020 and 2021 high school graduates and adults seeking skills to change careers.
• $5 million to prevent foreclosures and assist low- and middle-income homeowners.
• $4 million for mental health services.
The bill now heads back to the House, which has the duty of sending it to Gov. Phil Scott’s desk.
Also on Thursday, the body’s Rules Committee released three bills that had not emerged from committee before the crossover deadline. Those include H. 437, a proposed surcharge on real estate sales of $1 million or more; S. 135, a bill that would separate health insurance rates for individuals and small business in the 2022 plan year; and proposed revisions to the Winooski city charter.
By rule, bills that don’t make it out of their jurisdiction committee by crossover revert to the Rules Committee, which decides which bills shall be considered.
Finance Committee chairperson Sen. Ann Cummings, D-Washington, explained that in the past, the individual and small group rates were tied together to control costs for people paying full price for health insurance. But the American Rescue Plan Act passed by Congress included an expansion of the Affordable Care Act by subsidizing insurance costs above 8.5 percent of adjusted gross income.
Cummings said Blue Cross Blue Shield of Vermont and the Vermont Chamber of Commerce both support S. 135. Time is of the essence, she said, as the Green Mountain Care Board is due to set rates in May.
In other business, the Rules Committee also authorized Senate Clerk John Bloomer Jr. to write a resolution that would provide for the body to continue meeting remotely through Jan. 7, 2022.
The Senate’s rules allow the body to meet remotely while a state of emergency is in place. But as the state rolls out its reopening plan, it’s possible that the current emergency order will be allowed to expire. The resolution would allow the Senate leeway to complete the session, or any special session called in summer or fall, remotely.