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Scott urges Legislature to release COVID funds

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MONTPELIER — During his Friday press conference, Gov. Phil Scott appealed to the Vermont Legislature to release hundreds of millions of dollars of Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act money.

"If we don't fix this now we are going to have this systemic problem in years to come," said Scott.

Three weeks ago, the Scott Administration proposed a $400 million stimulus, but this week the Senate passed a portion of the proposal, with about only one-third of what Scott recommends, and the House has yet to sign off.

"We cannot wait any longer," said Vermont Commerce Secretary Lindsay Kurrle. "We need to start getting money out the door now."

Scott said he doesn't believe the Legislature is being political in the way it has been proceeding.

"They just have a different approach," he said. "But it seems shortsighted to me."

Scott also noted that reduced business activity means reduced tax revenue for the state.

"If we don't act now to save our businesses and the jobs these businesses provide, the budget gaps we are facing today will be just the tip of the iceberg," he said. "There will be a systemic loss of revenue for years to come."

Department of Economic Development Commissioner Joan Goldstein said the Administration's proposal is "nothing capricious" and was well thought out with input from hundreds of stakeholders.

"They need us and we need them," she said.

Scott said he had hoped the Legislature would pass the proposal relatively quickly, but it's been three weeks and many Vermont businesses and non-profit organizations still haven't received help. Scott said these businesses and organizations need relief now. "They can't wait another month or two."

The $400 million proposal comes from the $1.25 billion the state received from the federal government. Scott noted that demands on the money will likely exceed the $1.25 billion.

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"While I am appreciative of the Legislature moving forward with something, even a reduced amount, I am hoping they will get back to work on the remaining $310 million quickly," said Scott.

FAST-TRACKED RELIEF

That's exactly what is happening, wrote Speaker of the House Mitzi Johnson, in an email to the Reformer.

"The House is debating an enormous $93 million economic relief package right now that, if passed, will be on its way to the Governor's desk," wrote Johnson. "The bill provides $70 million to businesses, $20 million to local/regional/state economic development authorities, and $23 million in housing assistance."

Click here to view the legislation.

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"The urgency of getting immediate relief to Vermonters and their businesses is felt by the Legislature and any statement otherwise is misleading at best," she wrote. "This $93 million was fast-tracked for that exact purpose."

Johnson wrote that the Legislature is considering over the next week three additional bills containing hundreds of millions of dollars in relief.

In the middle of the press conference, the Legislature issued a press release stating it had "fast-tracked" a $93 million Coronavirus Emergency Economic Recovery Grants package. "The only remaining step is the Governor's signature to get this relief money in the hands of Vermonters and their businesses," states the press release.

The bill provides: $50 million in grants distributed to businesses by the Department of Taxes and Agency of Commerce and Community Development; $20 million to local, regional, and state economic development organizations; $23 million to the Vermont Housing and Conservation Board for grants to nonprofit housing partners and service organizations as well as for shelter facilities.

"The Legislature is working intensely to get nearly a billion dollars into the hands of Vermonter and Vermont businesses, while we plan for unforeseen circumstances and ensure we are able to meet the greatest needs in the months to come," Johnson stated in the press release.

Scott started the conference by addressing the unrest around the country related to the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis on May 25 and the calls for racial equity and policing reform.

"It's important that we keep our focus, not lose momentum and translate that into action," said Scott.

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He said this time "feels different" than previous calls for social justice.

"NASCAR has banned Confederate flags from sanctioned race events," said Scott, himself a stock car racer. "That speaks volumes and it is powerful. I am very proud of Vermont native Steve Phelps, the president of NASCAR, for doing so. They risk losing part of their fan base but they didn't let that stop them."

It's not enough for big organizations to be making these decisions, said Scott, calling on Vermonters themselves to "step up and do the right thing ... even when it seems hard and even when it seems uncomfortable."

COVID NUMBERS

Mike Piecek, the commissioner of the Vermont Department of Financial Regulation, which has been tasked with collecting data related to the coronavirus, noted that despite the outbreak of COVID-19 in Winooski and Burlington, Vermont's infection numbers continue to trend down or remain stable.

Of the 84 new cases identified last week, 38 were traced back to the outbreak, Piecek said.

He noted that Maine identified 219 new cases last week and New Hampshire, 383. To date, he said, nearly 50,000 Vermonters have been tested for the virus.

Vermont's viral growth rate is 1.5 percent, well below the 4 percent threshold set as a warning marker. He also noted that no ICUs in Vermont are treating any patients with COVID-19.

Piecek also added another seven counties in the Northeast, for a total of 62, from where people can travel to Vermont without a 14-day quarantine upon arrival.

Mark Levine, commissioner of the Vermont Department of Health, said that effective Monday, anyone in the Northeast outside of those 62 counties can come to Vermont as long as they quarantine for seven days and take a COVID test at the end of the quarantine. Visitors can also quarantine at a lodging facility for 14 days without a COVID test, or seven days with the test.     

Bob Audette can be contacted at raudette@Reformer.com.


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