MONTPELIER — The Legislative Joint Fiscal Committee, presented with $24 million worth of administration proposals for reallocating unspent federal coronavirus relief funds, approved about $3.1 million of that amount and sent back the rest, saying it needed more information and more time to decide on the remainder.
By a 9-1 vote, with Rep. Peter Fagan, R-Rutland City, opposed, the panel on Wednesday turned down reallocations for grants and hazard pay proposals, including a $10 million addition to an existing grant program for non-food and hospitality businesses.
Under the terms of the fiscal 2021 budget, the Joint Fiscal Committee is responsible for approving administration proposals for reallocating CARES Act funding, so that the state spends as much of the $1.25 billion it received in federal aid as possible. But the committee can’t amend and pass the proposals; it must say yes or no.
The catch is that the money must be allocated by Dec. 30, or it reverts back to the federal government. As time grows short and the holidays approach, the administration’s ability to process grants and cut checks becomes more difficult, Secretary of Administration Susanne Young and Economic Development Commissioner Joan Goldstein warned the committee as it asked for approval.
“If you wait and approve this later, we don’t think we can get that money out the door by December 30th,” Young said.
But lawmakers including Sen. Dick Sears, D-Bennington, said the administration’s proposals came to them on short notice and without sufficient background information to make decisions.
“We didn’t get notice of these changes. It didn’t come until [Tuesday],” Sears said. “We needed more information.”
Also sent back for potential reconsideration:
• $1.75 million for the Agency of Agriculture, Food and Markets for grants to eligible businesses that applied to the Working Lands program. Agriculture Secretary Anson Tebbets told the committee that the money would fund grants to 34 businesses that have already applied.
• $3.2 million to the Agency of Human Services for additional Hazard Pay to frontline mental health, substance use, and developmental disability staff at designated agencies and specialized service agencies.
• $6 million to cover the estimated expenses of denied Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) claims.
Lawmakers sought to clarify that they were not rejecting the ideas, but were open to the administration coming back with revisions and more details — though they had different thoughts about the timing.
Sears said he’d be open to an additional meeting of the committee before it’s next scheduled session on Dec. 21. But some lawmakers, including Rep. Mary Hooper, D-Montpelier, and Rep. Janet Ancel, D-Calais, said they were willing to have the Legislature take up the matter in a more deliberative manner when it reconvenes in a month.
But Fagan was adamant that the business grants are needed, and now.
“The next three months are going to be the hardest” for businesses, Fagan said, and there’s no telling how many businesses will reach the point where they must close the doors, lay off staff and lose what they’ve invested.
“To be able throw them a lifeline to potentially get to the endpoint is exactly what we need to do ... if we can help, we should,” he said.
The panel did agree to reallocate $2.1 million to the recent expansion of hazard pay grants to retail workers, and $975,000 for Vermont National Guard COVID-related missions through Dec. 30. Members felt the hazard pay program needed the additional funds, given that lawmakers and Gov. Phil Scott’s administration pushed some national retailers including Walmart to change their minds about skipping the program.
Mental Health Commissioner Sarah Squirrell told the committee the proposed funding for DMH, to be paid to the front-line employees of agencies working on DMH’s behalf, is needed for staff retention in the midst of the current COVID-19 surge.
“We would consider this a safety net service,” Squirrell said, adding that an inability to retain staff “will put pressure on the healthcare system at a time it can’t sustain that.”
But committee members, notably Sears, voiced concerns about equity, noting some programs had been singled out for hazard pay, while other front-line workers were seemingly not considered for the additional benefit.
Sears cited examples from greater Bennington, including Turning Point volunteers accompanying first responders on overdose medical calls, workers at Department of Children and Families-supported group homes, and nurses and workers at nursing homes and long-term care facilities.
“We should be looking at more than one group,” Sears said.
Some frustration over the way the proposals were offered boiled over when outgoing Sen. Tim Ashe, D/P-Chittenden, commented about the short amount of time the committee was given to consider the proposals.
“I don’t mean to be unpleasant, but it’s unusual for us to consider in one day seven significant policy changes with real money behind them, “ Ashe said.
Young replied, in part, “I do want to say there is a real concern, not just administrative, with grant programs that the money is there now. ... We can’t afford to wait and to see what Congress is doing when we have business who have applied waiting for grant.
“We have worked as diligently and as quickly as possible with a complex set of rules,” she added.