MONTPELIER — There was a time, 12 months ago, when COVID-19 wasn’t first and foremost on everyone’s mind.
In the first three months of 2020, the Vermont Legislature took up priorities it had left unfinished in the summer of 2019: A mandatory family and medical leave act and a two-step increase in the state’s minimum wage. The Legislature overrode Gov. Phil Scott’s veto on the minimum wage increase, to $11.75 per hour in 2021 and $12.55 in 2022; his mandatory family leave veto was sustained by one vote.
The House had also passed and sent to the state Senate legislation updating Act 250, the state’s signature land use planning law, and the Global Warming Solutions Act, a proposal that would put teeth into the state’s carbon emissions goals and create a Vermont Climate Council to set policy.
Then COVID-19 hit, and those plans flew out the window.
“I fully recognize the emotional, financial and economic impact of these decisions, but based on the best science we have available, these measures are necessary,” Scott said in announcing a “stay home, stay safe” order on March 26. “I need all Vermonters to understand that the more quickly and closely we follow these stay-at-home measures, the faster and safer we can get through this and get our daily lives, and our economy, moving again.”
The action, taken to prevent community spread that would overwhelm the state’s hospitals, had far-reaching ramifications. Businesses closed and needed help to reopen and resume providing the state with tax revenue. Displaced workers needed unemployment benefits, food assistance and protection from eviction. Working parents needed access to child care. Schools needed to change to remote learning on the fly.
A mountain of federal aid helped Vermont get through the year.
In all, the state received a total of $4.8 billion in federal dollars, including $1.25 billion from the CARES Act to be spent by the Legislature. On a per-capita basis, the Green Mountain State’s share of relief funds, including the CARES Act, worked out to $7,618 per person, second only to the District of Columbia nationwide.
The spending affected nearly every aspect of life in Vermont. It included $430.9 million in business aid, $84.2 million for housing, $226.6 million in health and human services grants, $98.7 million to PreK-12 schools, $74.9 million for higher education, and $35 million for agriculture and forestry.
When this story was written, the state had allocated 99.2 percent of its CARES Act funds, according to the Joint Fiscal Office, leaving just $9.6 million on the table.
Scott received praise across the state for his handling of the crisis, and it was a major factor in his 40-point victory over Lt. Gov. David Zuckerman in his reelection to a third two-year term. But there were rough spots:
• The Vermont Department of Labor’s unemployment claims system was not built to handle the volume it faced when businesses were forced to furlough or lay off employees or close their doors. A tsunami of claims swamped the department, which was hamstrung by its antiquated computer technology. The department’s phone system was overloaded and its employees overwhelmed, even as it scrambled to add staff.
At one point, during a Legislative hearing on the problem, state Sen. Bobby Starr, D-Essex/Orleans suggested that money go out immediately, with benefit amounts set after the fact. Told that wasn’t possible, he replied “That’s baloney. Tell ‘em to get the frickin’ checks out the door. Get it settled up later.”
In a way, the state took Starr’s advice. In an “all hands on deck” weekend, the state cut 8,384 checks for $1,200 each to claimants whose cases had yet to be processed and resolved issues for about 32,000 more claimants. The Labor Department also hired third-party contractors to help with calls and processing.
• A summer outbreak in Winooski revealed shortcomings in the state’s outreach to non-English speakers, and drew attention to racial disparities in COVID-19 infections throughout Vermont. According to the state Department of Health, although Black, indigenous and people of color make up about 6 percent of Vermont’s population, they accounted for 18 percent of Vermont’s roughly 6,000 COVID-19 cases as of mid-December.
• In the summer, 80 percent of Vermont prisoners being held at a private prison in Mississippi tested positive for the coronavirus. That renewed calls for reducing the number of inmates in Vermont’s prisons and bringing the out-of-state inmates back home.
When the “stay home, stay safe” order was passed, the General Assembly decided to move its work out of the State House and meet virtually. There were bumps in the road, as lawmakers adjusted to the new system and dealt with technology glitches, from “you’re on mute” to a Senate Agriculture Committee hearing being interrupted by hackers wielding pornography. More seriously, Senate committee hearings on a few occasions went forward without the live video being on, raising questions about transparency.
But the video cameras allowed the public to follow the legislative process as it happened from their phones or laptops, either live or at their own convenience. Members said they heard positive feedback from constituents about that change, and that it was likely to stick.
As the new biennium started, both chambers said they would be meeting remotely until March.
In the State Senate, Tim Ashe, the body’s president pro tem, gave up his seat to run for lieutenant governor, and Sen. Becca Balint, D-Windham, is in line to succeed him and become the first woman to hold the post. Lt. Governor-elect Molly Gray will become the Senate President, succeeding Lt. Gov. David Zuckerman, who left his seat to run for governor.
In the House, Mitzi Johnson will not return as speaker, as she lost her bid for reelection by 23 votes. Jill Krowinski, D-Burlington, is in line to succeed Johnson as the house’s fourth-ever woman speaker, and state Rep. Emily Long, D-Newfane, will succeed Krowinski as Majority Leader.
The Legislature agreed to pass a partial budget for the first three months of fiscal 2021, and return in August to finish the spending plan when the state had a better grasp on revenue losses.
The massive influx of federal CARES Act money, as well as better-than-expected revenues in fiscal 2020, were among several factors that allowed the Legislature to pass a fiscal 2021 budget without new taxes or fees. That did not include education property taxes, as lawmakers resolved to meet local school budgets, which were approved before the virus hit.
In August, the state’s economists revised tax revenue projections for fiscal 2021 and beyond. The projections were not as dire as originally feared, but were well below what the state expected before the pandemic.
Actual revenue collections exceeded the state’s lower projections for the first four months of fiscal 2021, offering a glimmer of hope. But uncertainty about federal funding, the rising needs of Vermont’s public colleges and universities, and increased fixed costs — notably the state’s unfunded pension liability — all present financial challenges.
As the administration began building its fiscal 2022 budget proposal, Scott instructed departments to plan for level-funded budgets or slight increases of up to 3 percent.
If passing a budget and allocating CARES Act dollars was all the Legislature had accomplished, it would have been an eventful year. But it wasn’t. The General Assembly also passed a package of law enforcement reform bills, a sweeping climate change bill, and a bill allowing for the legal sale and taxation of marijuana and active cannabis products, all of which became law.
Another national crisis emerged on May 25 when George Floyd, a Black American, died in the custody of Minneapolis police. Film footage showed Floyd, whom police suspected of having passed a counterfeit $20 bill, pleading that he couldn’t breathe while a white officer kneeled on his neck for eight minutes. Protests erupted across the country, and as Vermont lawmakers including Scott and police leaders condemned the brutality seen in the footage, bills addressing systemic racism and police use of force moved to the Legislature’s front burner.
Despite a tight timeline, the Legislature passed bills mandating the collection of racial data by police, illegalizing choke holds, setting policies for the use of force and body cameras, delaying the adoption of facial recognition technology by police, revamping the membership of the Criminal Justice Council, and amending outmoded language in the state’s justifiable homicide statute.
Those bills were not without detractors. Police agencies across the state raised concerns that the new policies would take effect before officers could update their training. And stakeholders from the state’s black, indigenous and people of color communities said work to reverse the negative effects of systemic racism needed to be deliberate rather than rushed, with members of those communities heard during the lawmaking process. In the end, they all passed the Legislature, and lawmakers pledged that the bills were a start, not a finish, to the state’s efforts in fighting racism.
He also signed a 12-point executive order, in some cases duplicating Legislative efforts and adding a requirement that law enforcement agencies “must recruit, hire, retain and promote officers who reflect the values and diversity of the communities they serve.” It directed Public Safety Commissioner Michael Schirling to reach out to Executive Director of Racial Equity Xusanna Davis to “develop additional initiatives to reach out to a more diverse hiring pool.”
The Act 250 reform bill passed the Legislature as a fraction of its former self, as leadership decided to winnow it down to a bill adding regulation to prevent forest fragmentation while exempting recreational trails from its purview. Scott vetoed it after the Legislature had adjourned, saying it failed to modernize or improve the Act 250 process, “something that is widely agreed to be necessary after fifty years of existence.”
Scott also vetoed the Global Warming Solutions Act over concerns that it would lead to lawsuits rather than process on emissions, and that it would create an “unconstitutional separation of powers.” But the House and Senate overrode that veto and passed the bill into law.
As the year came to a close, the Scott administration signaled that it might challenge the Global Warming Solutions Act in court over its constitutionality. Attorney General T.J. Donovan has pledged to defend it against a court challenge.
TAX AND REGULATE PASSES
As the COVID session started to wind down in September, a consensus on a legal market for marijuana began to take shape. A conference committee heavy on Southern Vermont representation, with Sens. Dick Sears, D-Bennington, and Jeanette White, D-Windham, and Rep. John Gannon, D-Wilmington taking part, reached a consensus, with both chambers giving on positions that had previously kept the two sides apart.
As the compromise moved to a vote, racial and social justice advocacy groups and small farmers mobilized opposition. They said the bill handed too much to existing medical marijuana businesses (in the form of “vertical integration” licenses), and didn’t do enough for people of color who had suffered the most from marijuana prohibition.
While some lawmakers echoed these concerns, others said finally passing a tax and regulate bill would end prohibition once and for all and provide a number of licenses set aside for small business. (In a related development the Legislature passed a bill expunging thousands of marijuana possession convictions.)
The compromise passed, and Scott allowed the bill to become law without his signature. In doing so he asked lawmakers to take “additional steps to ensure equity is a foundational principle in a new market.”
A three-person cannabis council that will oversee the establishment of Vermont’s legal marijuana market, now expected in fall of 2022, is to be appointed in January.
The pandemic did more than change life in Vermont — it changed the political paradigm.
Twice-weekly COVID-19 briefings allowed Scott to showcase his administration’s science and data-led decisions — a stark contrast to midwestern and southern Republican governors — and show leadership. It didn’t hurt Scott’s cause that he provided a sharp contrast to President Donald Trump and midwestern and southern Republican governors who took their policy cues from the Oval Office, or that Vermont’s relative success in limiting transmission and deaths became an international headline.
But Scott took a risk when he announced in late May that he would not be actively campaigning for his reelection bid as he focused on the pandemic.
In the Republican party, Scott faced a primary challenge to his right from John Klar, a Brookfield attorney and farmer whose “Agri-Publican” movement had the backing of conservatives. Meanwhile, the Democrats offered a choice between Zuckerman, Scott’s former education secretary, Rebecca Holcombe, and Bennington attorney Patrick Winburn.
Scott easily advanced to the general election, while Zuckerman, facing a spirited challenge from Holcombe, won with 44 percent of the Democratic vote.
In the general election campaign, Zuckerman said Scott lacked a vision for the state, and in contrast promoted an agenda relying on progressive taxes on wealthy Vermonters to pay for investment in green power jobs, education and health care. Scott said he would be a steady hand at the helm in crisis, continuing efforts to make the state more affordable.
Scott won with 66 percent of the vote to 26 percent for Zuckerman.
In the lieutenant governor’s primaries, Molly Gray, a newcomer with family roots throughout the state, seized momentum early and won a four-way Democratic race featuring Ashe, Newfane activist Brenda Siegel, and state Sen. Debbie Ingram, D-Chittenden. On the GOP side, Meg Hansen of Manchester, a writer and healthcare activist making her first statewide run, came in second to Scott Milne, a Pomfret businessman and former candidate for governor.
The ensuing race Between Milne and Gray was easily the most competitive of the election season, and at one point was deemed a statistical dead heat by a Vermont Public Radio/PBS Vermont poll, with a large percentage of voters still undecided. In the end, those undecided voters leaned toward Gray, and she won by more than 25,000 votes.
The House will reconvene with several new members from Southern Vermont:
• Dane Whitman, who succeeds Rep. Chris Bates in the Bennington 2-1 district.
• Michael Nigro, who defeated Rep. James Carroll in the Bennington 2-2 district.
• Seth Bongartz, who defeated Rep Cynthia Browning in the Bennington-4 district.
• Michelle Bos-Lun, who succeeds Rep. Nader Hashim in the Windham-4 district.
• Leslie Goldman, who defeated Rep. Kelley Tully in the Windham-3 district primary.
• Salley Achey, who defeated Rep. Robin Chesnut-Tangerman in the Rutland-Bennington district.