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The Vermont Legislature’s leadership is focused on housing, workforce development, child care and broadband access as the 2021 session reaches the midpoint, House Speaker Jill Krowinski and President Pro Tempore Becca Balint told business leaders Monday.

In a forum hosted by the Vermont Chamber of Commerce, Balint and Krowinski also took numerous questions on what Vermont’s share of the $1.9 trillion COVID-19 relief bill now before Congress might mean for the state. While that bill sets aside money for broadband expansion, many of the details are not yet known, the lawmakers said.

Balint noted the tourism and hospitality industries have taken “some of the biggest sustained hits” in the pandemic and need help. But the state’s success in preventing widespread COVID cases and deaths offers a way to rebuild the state’s brand, she said.

“We’re going to have to figure out how do we use the fact we did such a great job that people did feel safe here,” Balint said. “We need to use the stories of people that fled from Boston and New York and felt like this is a safe place to be.”

Krowinski said the funds set aside in the bill for community relief could achieve similar goals. “There’s an interesting opportunity there to figure out how towns can use money coming in,” she said.

The hour-long online session, with Chamber president Betsy Bishop hosting and asking questions, gave Balint and Krowinski an opportunity to focus on workforce and economic development initiatives in both houses.

Balint and Krowinski spoke about the child care bill, which is expected to emerge from the House Human Services Committee on Tuesday, and about the need for significant investment in affordable housing, as keys to improving workforce recruiting and retention in Vermont.

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Both lawmakers also emphasized the importance of making sure Vermont is more welcoming to new residents of diverse backgrounds.

“People of color will be the majority of the working class by 2032,” Balint said. “So we know we have to make the state more welcoming and more supportive of a diverse workforce or we’re not going to have the workers we need.”

Krowinski and Balint also pointed to the proposed reinvention of the Vermont State Colleges System as a crucial element in the state better aligning its education and training with workplace training needs.

A key question for the VSC initiative, Krowinski said, is “not only how do we create a sustainable higher education system but what do we need to do to help those Vermonters to get into the workforce in those key areas.” She also noted that the colleges are key economic drivers in their host towns, making decisions about the future of those campuses important.

“I’m feeling more optimistic than I’ve felt in a long time” about the system’s future, Balint added.

Krowinski cited the state’s multi-billion unfunded pension liability, which she called “a huge burden on the budget.” The state needs a strategy to tackle the problem “so it’s not taking up more and more of our General Fund dollars,” she said. (Krowinski has written an opinion column about that issue, which appears in Tuesday’s Reformer on page A4).

Balint said federal funds targeted for water and sewer upgrades could help villages and smaller towns promote downtown development and help grow job opportunities and housing. She said that’s “the kind of investment smaller towns around the state need in order to grow.”

Greg Sukiennik covers Vermont government and politics for New England Newspapers. Reach him at gsukiennik@reformer.com.

Greg Sukiennik has worked at all three Vermont News & Media newspapers and was their managing editor from 2017-19. He previously worked for ESPN.com, for the AP in Boston, and at The Berkshire Eagle in Pittsfield, Mass.