The Vermont Legislature is reaching the mid-point of its session. The Senate pro tem and chairs of key committees recently discussed key pieces of legislation that have been passed by that chamber.
This legislative session has been dominated by how the state is responding to the COVID-19 pandemic. Democratic Senate Pro-Tem Becca Balint says despite being virtual the last two weeks in particular have been extremely busy. “We have four real areas of concern that we were looking at as we headed into this session all of them around COVID relief and supporting Vermont families. So we were looking at supporting kids through this really difficult time, assisting workers and families, making sure we’re keeping businesses viable and something else that I’m calling sort of restoring faith in our Democratic institutions. And we were able to pass the $100 million package of additional relief to Vermonters that initially came to us in H.315.”
That bill includes over $80 million in funds from the federal COVID relief bills. Democratic Senate Appropriations Committee Chair Jane Kitchel says they used the bill as an opportunity to quickly get the funds working for Vermonters. “We worked very hard to try to use this federal money in a way that will be strategic, will address immediate needs but also move us out of this pandemic where these investments will have long term benefit. Money reflects policy and money reflects priorities and I believe that shows here.”
Health and Welfare Committee chair Democrat Ginny Lyons said one of first bills they looked at this year actually began in the last biennium, pre-pandemic. She explained that S.42 creates a wellness commission to provide support services for first responders. “We’ve heard from emergency service providers of all types how very stressful their work is and how much needed is some relief and some support. So the wellness commission bill actually provides for that support.
Last year the legislature approved a pandemic emergency measure allowing the Secretary of State to send ballots to all registered voters during the general election. The Senate passed S.15, permanently allowing the action during every general election. Democratic Government Operations Chair Jeanette White explained primaries and Town Meeting Day local elections were not included due to a number of complex issues. “Primaries are essentially a party function. And then for the municipalities, requiring municipalities to send out their Australian ballots is a step that we were not willing to take. We have to be very very careful about this because if we mandated sending out ballots for Town uh local elections we might see the end of Town Meeting. So I think we need to approach this very very carefully.”
Balint expects as measures move to the House and eventually the governor most of the measures related to COVID will find consensus. “There’s a tremendous amount of money, right, hundreds of millions of dollars in many different areas so billions of dollars coming to Vermont. We really feel like as the Legislature we are the ones that are supposed to keep our hands on the purse strings. We take that very very seriously. I think in the end we’re going to all land on about the same kinds of areas because we have similar interests.”
The Senate also acted on legislation to assist in broadband access, creation of a task force to update the state’s education funding formula and a bill that would increase the rate of weatherization projects by 20 percent over the next two years.