The House signed off on a $300 million spending package largely focused on supporting the state's health care system. The Senate, meanwhile, gave preliminary approval to a short-term state budget that would distribute an additional $116 million in federal aid.
Lawmakers have been working frenetically in recent days to determine how to spend the state's roughly $1 billion in remaining federal funds. In addition to the bills on the floor Wednesday, the two chambers have been finalizing major spending packages focused on business, agriculture, housing and broadband. Legislators hope to send all of those bills to Gov. Phil Scott by June 26, and then adjourn until late August when they expect to finalize a longer-term state budget.
The House-passed legislation, H.965, would provide the Agency of Human Services $251 million to distribute to health care providers financially damaged by the coronavirus pandemic. Hospitals, independent doctors, dentists, mental health providers, home health agencies and long-term care facilities would all be eligible for the funding, which would be allocated based on need through an application process.
"Our health care providers stood beside us and for us during this pandemic. It's time for us to stand by them," Rep. David Yacovone (D-Morristown), a member of the House Appropriations Committee, told colleagues on the virtual House floor. "Almost every sector of the health care industry is under siege right now."
The legislation would provide an additional $12 million for summer meals for young people; $9 million to childcare providers, after-school programs and summer camps; $4.6 million to the Vermont Food Bank; $3.9 million to parent-child centers; and $2 million to help feed older Vermonters.
Rep. Selene Colburn (P-Burlington) supported the bill, but she questioned whether the state should be propping up institutions such as the University of Vermont Medical Center that pay dozens of employees more than half a million dollars each in compensation.
"I'm just concerned as this money flows out that we may be missing some opportunities to ensure protections for workers and accountability for the organizations that we're kind of holding up with these resources," Colburn said.
The bill passed by a vote of 145 to zero. It now moves to the Senate for consideration.
The Senate on Wednesday voted unanimously for a short-term state budget that would largely maintain current spending levels for the first quarter of the next fiscal year, which begins in July. Legislators intend to write yet another budget that covers the remaining three quarters of the year upon receiving updated revenue forecasts late this summer.
"This is an unprecedented year to be budgeting," Sen. Jane Kitchel (D-Caledonia), who chairs the Senate Appropriations Committee, told her colleagues. The bill, she said, was "unique."
While the House had previously passed a version of the short-term budget, H.961, the Senate added more than $68 million worth of appropriations from the federal Coronavirus Relief Fund. The bulk of it, $50 million, would go to K-12 schools to cover costs associated with the pandemic and to allow them to update their ventilation systems.
The Senate added another $7.5 million worth of funding for the Vermont State Colleges System, bringing its total appropriation to $22.8 million, and it added $4 million worth of funding to the University of Vermont, which would receive a total of $19.4 million. The Senate voted to provide $2.5 million to adult day programs and $2.5 million to the Department of Corrections as part of legislation to reduce the number of prisoners in state custody.
In total, the bill would appropriate $116 million worth of Coronavirus Relief Fund money. It passed the Senate by a vote of 29 to zero. After a final vote on Thursday, it would return to the House, which could approve the latest version or recommend additional changes.