Jeanette White

State Sen. Jeanette White, D-Windham

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MONTPELIER — The Vermont Senate on Friday passed its version of a COVID-19 relief bill, adding about $20 million in federal relief dollars to the bill that the House of Representatives produced last month.

The $100 million bill, which passed by a unanimous roll call vote, makes its largest additions in economic security and education funds, using federal relief funds to bridge the gap.

It adds $5.5 million for summer meals for children, $4 million for summer and afterschool programs, $5 million in foreclosure prevention dollars for homeowners, and $3 million to improve reading proficiency for young readers grades K-3.

“We tried hard to use federal money in a way that will be strategic, provide benefits, address immediate needs and move us out of the pandemic,” Senate Appropriations chair Jane Kitchell, D-Caledonia, said.

The proposal also makes investments in higher education and job training. It provides $1.4 million for a partnership between Vermont Tech and the state’s nursing homes to address a shortage of licensed practical nurses, and a combined $4 million to the University of Vermont ($1 million) and Vermont State Colleges ($3 million) for courses or certification programs to help 2,000 Vermonters improve their workforce skills.

It also continues the work of a McClure Foundation grant, setting aside $2.8 million to provide free Community College of Vermont or Vermont State College courses to 2020 and 2021 high school graduates.

State Sen. Brian Campion, D-Bennington, the chair of the Senate Education Committee, was proud of the funding included for literacy and for encouraging post-high school education among recent graduates. He said the Education Committee worked “hand in glove” with the Senate Appropriations Committee to assure those initiatives were funded.

“We want students, in particular those who didn’t think college is in the cards for them, to have an opportunity to take a couple of classes and see what they think,” Campion said. “It’s also a recognition that high school students had a hugely different academic year than students ordinarily would.”

The literacy supports acknowledge and act on reading scores showing half of the states young readers are reading at a proficient level by third grade, Campion said.

And the summer program funds, Campion, said, reflect a message that his committee heard “over and over:” Children, having endured more than a year of hybrid or remote learning and a loss of socialization, regular routines and activities, “need to have a summer where they can restore themselves.”

BILL GROWS

The bill started its life as a vehicle for $10 million in COVID-19 relief for businesses that had not qualified for direct relief or had fallen through the cracks in 2020, including new enterprises that had gone into business as the pandemic hit.

It also includes money for housing, mental health supports, food assistance, school air quality and pandemic-related services for recent immigrants.

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The bill also includes $3.75 million to assist towns and schools with the administration of over $500 million in federal American Rescue Plan funds. This technical assistance will help ensure our schools and communities can make the most of this opportunity.

The additional funding is coming from dollars expected to arrive in the state’s $1.3 billion share of the $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan passed by Congress earlier this month. While Gov. Phil Scott has urged caution in allocating those funds, Senate lawmakers said they felt comfortable, based on the counsel of the Legislative Joint Fiscal Office, in proceeding.

Senate President Pro Tempore Becca Balint, D-Windham, during a news conference with committee leaders, said there was no disagreement with the Scott administration over where the dollars are going. “It was more of a philosophical disagreement about when and how money should be appropriated,” Balint said.

“As legislators we are the ones that are supposed to keep our hands on the purse strings,” she said. “We want to make sure we can vote our values how we want to spend the money. But in the end we’ll land at about the same areas [as the administration] because we have the same interests.”

During the news conference, Balint and her fellow lawmakers highlighted accomplishments in the Senate and priorities for the remaining session, which is hoped to be wrapped up in mid-May.

Sen. Jeanette White, D-Windham, spoke about the passage of a bill making the mailing of general election ballots permanent. And Sen. Christopher Bray, D-Addison, addressed the progress being made by a bill that would expand home weatherization by 20 percent. That has the potential to produce energy savings for lower-income homeowners as well as lower the state’s fossil fuel usage, Bray said.

Sen. Dick Sears, D-Bennington, pointed to the Judiciary Committee’s work on restorative justice, on broadening the ability of former offenders to expunge their criminal records if they’ve stayed out of trouble, and on a bill addressing competency to stand trial.

Sears said the expungement bill, S. 7, now before the House Judiciary Committee, has the potential to change and improve people’s lives.

A man whose last interaction with the criminal justice system was 12 years ago texted Sears to say he was excited he will be the first male in his family to not have a criminal record. Sears said that made him stop and think of all the ways that man’s life can change.

“We don’t think of that often,” Sears said. “For him to be able to apply for a job or take kids on a school trip ... he can do that now.”

Sen. Ginny Lyons, chair of the Health and Welfare Committee, said she was pleased the Senate was able to pass a bill banning products containing PFAS, a persistent chemical compound suspected of causing cancer. That family of chemicals has been found in firefighter foam and other consumer products. Lyons said reducing toxic chemicals in products such as food packaging and carpeting can lead to better health outcomes and health cost savings.

Campion, who was not part of the news conference as his committee was meeting, later said he was pleased his committee was able to produce bills making menstrual hygiene products free in schools, setting an implementation plan for per-pupil weighting reform, and allowing licensed and non-licensed education employees to negotiate health benefits separately.

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.