A broad COVID-19 recovery bill that would plow $105 million into everything from business grants to affordable housing to free diapers advanced toward approval Friday afternoon.
The Senate unanimously approved H. 315, setting it up for a final vote next week. The bill is lawmakers’ latest attempt to ensure a combination of federal and state funds are spent as soon as possible on programs that will help the state “build back better,” as Sen. Jane Kitchel (D-Caledonia) put it.
“It seems like this bill has touched just about every committee in the Senate,” Kitchel, chair of the Senate Appropriations Committee, told her colleagues.
The bill still needs to return to the House for final reconciliation with the Senate’s numerous changes. But House leaders have been in close communication with their Senate colleagues and are committed to ironing out any differences quickly, said Connor Kennedy, spokesperson for House Speaker Jill Krowinski (D-Burlington).
“We’re probably at the five-yard line, to be honest,” Kennedy said.
About $80 million of the money is coming from $1.25 billion Vermont received from the American Rescue Plan Act of 2021. Some funds are left over from last year's federal CARES Act. The balance will be from state funds, which are flush thanks to a surprise $210 million largely from higher-than-expected tax revenues.
The bill includes funding for a number of key Democratic priorities, including affordable housing, grants for struggling businesses, environmental cleanup and workforce development.
One of the largest chunks is $15 million to help schools address indoor air quality, a significant concern as children have returned to the classroom during the pandemic. There’s also $14 million to help clean up and redevelop some of the state’s numerous contaminated industrial sites, or brownfields. Another $10 million would help affordable-housing developers get projects moving that would help hundreds of homeless people still living in motels around the state, Kitchel said.
The Senate also increased to $10 million funds for “gap grants” to businesses that didn’t qualify for previous funding, such as for new businesses that couldn’t demonstrate previous revenues. Outdoor recreation would also enjoy a big boost, with $5 million going to the Agency of Natural Resources for trail work and another $5 million dedicated to the Vermont Outdoor Recreation Economic Collaborative, an economic development effort around recreation businesses.
The bill includes a number of education initiatives, including $3 million to train teachers to improve how they teach literacy, $1.4 million to train new nurses in collaboration with nursing homes, and $1 million to help schools find students they’ve lost track of during the pandemic, a phenomenon she referred to as "ghosting."
"We're really going to have to make some concerted effort to reconnect students with schools," Kitchel said.
Not all expenditures are big-ticket items, however. The Senate also set aside $25,000 for an audit of state deputies, and increased by $82,000 the funds set aside for needy families with children to pay for diapers.
Senate Minority Leader Randy Brock (R-Franklin) asked whether what was characterized as one-time spending would result in programs that the state would need to continue paying for when federal relief dollars dry up. Kitchel said her committee was "absolutely vigilant" to make sure that wasn't the case.
The bill references holding $20 million in reserve to help solve the state’s pension crisis, but Kitchel said her committee didn’t have the time to drill down on that issue and will have to return to it later in the session.
“We intend to address this problem before we leave this year,” she said.