Sen. Michael Sirotkin, right, speaks at the Statehouse
The Vermont Senate on Tuesday unanimously voted to spend more than $90 million of the state's federal relief funds on a package of grants that would aid businesses and vulnerable individuals impacted by the coronavirus pandemic.
The bill, S.350, now heads to the House, where lawmakers have been collaborating with the upper chamber in hopes of fast-tracking the legislation.
"The phrase du jour, or for the month, I should say, has been, 'We need to get the money out the door,'" said Sen. Michael Sirotkin (D-Chittenden), chair of the Senate's Economic Development, Housing and General Affairs Committee, as he presented the bill during Tuesday's virtual floor session.
"That's what this bill nimbly does," he said.
The legislation appropriates $93 million out of the $1.25 billion federal relief funds that the state received earlier this year. Seventy million dollars in grants would go to businesses impacted by the pandemic, while $23 million would go toward securing housing for people at risk of homelessness.
The Scott administration would oversee the business program. The Department of Taxes would hand out $50 million to businesses that pay rooms and meals taxes, such as restaurants and hotels, and have either reopened or plan to do so. The Agency of Commerce and Community Development would distribute $20 million to all other businesses.
Businesses would need to apply for the program. To be eligible, they must have experienced a 75 percent reduction in sales during any one-month period between March and September.
"What we're trying to do is address this money to the hardest-hit businesses," Sirotkin said.
Gov. Phil Scott last month pitched a $400 million economic relief package using the state's CARES Act money that included $250 million in grants and loans to Vermont businesses. The governor has urged the legislature to act quickly on his proposal. And while lawmakers have cautioned that it may take some time to turn around such a large relief package, senators say that S.350 should allow them to get some money out while they work on a more comprehensive plan in the coming weeks.
To speed up the grant process, the bill would hand off several key decisions to the Scott administration. The executive branch would determine a funding formula and decide whether applicants who received financial assistance from other sources, such as the federal Paycheck Protection Program, should receive less state aid.
Scott had initially proposed a maximum award of $62,500, but Sirotkin said lawmakers want to give the administration a bit more time to settle on a figure.
The second piece of the relief legislation is a $23 million appropriation to transition roughly 2,000 homeless individuals who have been placed in motels during the pandemic into more permanent housing situations. The housing program, which has helped keep homeless people off the streets and out of shelters, where it's virtually impossible to socially distance, has cost the state roughly $3.5 million a month since March, Sirotkin said.
"Unfortunately, many of these folks will be displaced from the motels as soon as the economy reopens," he said. "They can't go back to rooms filled with bunk beds, in church basements, and should not go back to the encampments in many parts of the state."
The Vermont Housing & Conservation Board would decide how to distribute the money. The money could be used to "secure and rehab housing," Sirotkin said, and may also be used to improve emergency shelters so that they meet updated state and federal health guidelines.
Sirotkin also cited two proposals from the governor, including $42 million toward rental assistance for property owners whose tenants haven't been able to pay rent and $8 million to help rehab "blighted properties and units," and said there is "much more to be done" for housing relief.
"We will be working on those proposals as soon as this bill gets passed, and hopefully come back with other additional proposals for the full Senate," Sirotkin said.