The Virtual Statehouse
In a blink of an eye, everything changed.
With the Vermont State House closed for the week, and likely for months longer, Vermonters began to adapt, as they have for centuries in the face of previous disasters.
Numerous Senate committees, a joint leadership committee and the entire House held daily conference calls, all open for the public to listen. They were filled with the usual hiccups, annoyances and amusements that accompany conference calls – background noise, “can you hear me now?” and snide comments not intended to be heard. But mostly they were focused and serious efforts to address the state’s – and nation’s – worst health and economic crisis in generations.
It was all things COVID-19 in every call. Hospitals statewide are bracing for a tsunami of patients with a shortage of beds, emergency equipment and staff. In northern Vermont, a small hospital is already losing one million dollars a week due to the cancellation of elective surgeries. In southern Vermont, two EMS volunteers are self-isolating due to possible exposure but cannot return to their homes.
Vermont’s court system is under enormous stress, and there is a call from the ACLU to release prisoners to prevent cruise-ship conditions in corrections facilities when the wave hits.
Vermonters are being laid off in historic numbers. The Department of Labor usually processes 400 unemployment claims each week; there were 4000 processed through the departments new online form on Wednesday alone. Fully one-half of the state’s 21,000 food service employees will soon lose their jobs.
The state’s general fund is facing a $200 million loss in the next three months – a big number for a very small state.
With all schools and child care centers closed, the state is in the midst of a child care crisis. Who takes care of the children of essential workers? And which workers are essential? And of course, what about the children of parents who have to work away from home?
And there was this, only somewhat more pedestrian problem: grocery stores may be out of toilet paper until June due to hoarding.
Lawmakers struggled with these and many other issues this week. We have included summaries in this Legislative Update of the major issues discussed.
Discussing issues is one thing; voting is entirely another, and that is the next puzzle lawmakers will have to solve.
The Senate returns on Tuesday consider a House-passed emergency unemployment compensation bill, H.681. The Senate Rules Committee held a call today to help senators figure out how to reconcile voting and social distancing when they return.
According to Secretary of the Senate John Bloomer, social distancing guidelines could be met by allowing senators to spread out to various offices and hallways with speakers, with a prolonged roll call that allows them to enter the chamber sequentially. That will probably work for the 30-member Senate, but how do the 150 members of the House gather to vote? That remains to be answered.
Legislative committees apparently have greater constitutional latitude to vote remotely. Committees may be allowed to cast votes by telephone, with roll calls required when votes are not unanimous.
Five House committees will begin meeting next week, perhaps through videoconferencing.
These committees will first focus solely on COVID-19 response legislation, but before long they are likely to return to the panoply of other bills that were pending when they left Montpelier. That will create significant challenges for anyone on the outside who has an interest in what passes.
So far, legislators have responded impressively in providing public access to their discussions. But as the issues become more complex and lawmakers begin to vote, the temptation will grow to deliberate outside the public’s view. One Senate committee has already discussed suspending the state’s Open Meeting Laws during the emergency period.
DRM will be following the virtual deliberations closely and providing regular updates. Please contact anyone on the DRM team with any suggestions as to how we can improve our services in this new environment.
Vermont Legislative Update Quick Links
State facing major revenue losses, but has reserves in place
The Senate Committee on Finance heard testimony on major potential fiscal implications to the state, and property tax concerns for municipalities, due to the COVID-19 virus.
In a brief report prepared for the committee, Graham Campbell, Senior Fiscal Analyst with the Joint Fiscal Office, said the state could see revenue reductions between $150-215 million, with losses most likely occurring to all significant non-property tax revenues – personal income and meals and rooms taxes, as well as purchase and use and gasoline taxes. Campbell cautioned that these numbers were very preliminary and are likely to change rapidly in the days and weeks ahead.
JFO Chief Fiscal Officer Stephen Klein reported a total of $209.8 million in the state’s general reserve funds, including $31 million in the Rainy Day Fund, $100 million in the Human Service Caseload Reserve, and $78.2 million in the Actual Stabilization Reserve.
Karen Horn, Director of Public Policy and Advocacy for the Vermont League of Cities and Towns, told the committee that towns can expect to see an increase in requests for property tax abatements, late payments of taxes and fees, and lower local option tax revenues. The League is asking lawmakers to help towns make up for what they expect they will have to contribute towards education spending next year, if they grant a large number of property tax abatements.
Open Meetings Law amendments would allow for meetings in the virtual world
The Senate Committee on Government Operations deliberated this week on temporary amendments to Vermont’s Open Meeting Laws to allow for deliberations that are consistent with health and safety protocols required by COVID-19. The amendments would expire once the crisis subsides.
Currently, public officials must be physically present at meetings taking place in a designated physical location. The amendments would allow public bodies to meet electronically and provide electronic access to the public. Phone access would also be required for those without internet access. Additionally, in the event of staff shortages, the time required to post meeting minutes could be extended to ten days after the date of the meeting.
Ironically, legislators will need to be physically present in the State House to approve future virtual voting in the future.
Unemployment insurance filing is trending
The Senate Economic Development, Housing and General Affairs Committee began considering changes to a House-passed emergency unemployment compensation law, H.681, which expands benefits for employees affected by the COVID-19 outbreak. The committee is making sure the bill is in compliance with the Federal Families First Act that the President signed into law on March 18th. There is $500 million in the Vermont Unemployment Insurance Trust Fund, so lawmakers believe there is capacity to expand benefits. The fund is fed by an employer tax and the rate is based on how many layoffs a business incurs. H.681will hold employers experience rating harmless for virus-related layoffs.
UI benefits cover about 50% of income with a statutory cap of $513 per week. The Department of Labor is ramping up quickly to meet volume. Claims cases average 400 a week and on Tuesday they received 4000 claim requests via the departments new online form.
Families First Act signed by President
In response to COVID-19, H.R. 6201 quickly moved through Congress and was signed by President Trump this week. This legislation guarantees free COVID-19 testing, establishes paid leave, enhances unemployment insurance, expands food security initiatives and increases federal Medicaid funding. Here is a summary covering the many areas that will receive financial support. This employment-related outline details the new business-related changes.
Vermont’s Senate Economic Development, Housing and General Affairs Committee is determining how to coordinate this new Act with Vermont bill H.681, which is working its way through the legislature and covers many of the same issues.
Lawmakers respond to school and childcare facility closings
Gov. Phil Scott ordered dismissal of preK thru 12 schools starting Wednesday. The order specified that during the initial two-week period of school closure, the districts would focus on developing new systems of food pickup and delivery, create continuity of education plans, and provide continuity for students who struggle and special education. During the two-week period districts were to establish maintenance of education. The plans first required teachers to provide students with trackable work but requirement was lifted and not well communicated to teachers.
On Tuesday, the Governor ordered the closure of childcare centers except to provide care for essential workers. Essential workers include childcare and education workers, first responders, firefighters, healthcare workers and others. Grocery and food supply chain workers were added later, and the list is expected to grow.
Children of essential workers under kindergarten age will be placed only in private child care programs, and some families may be asked to switch programs as providers choose to close. Children ages six through 8th grade will be cared for at the schools. The order allows for the match of geographic needs regarding the childcare center to the extent practicable for the parent.
The Administration brought in former senior state officials Liz Miller and Neal Lunderville to work with the Agency of Education and the Emergency Operations Center to coordinate the complex effort. Collectively with Department of Children and Families, up to 1,500 child care centers across the state were called and inventoried in order to determine capacity. Next, Let’s Grow Kids and The Agency of Education created a website hosted by the AOE with FAQs and allowing information gathering that will better match up the parental demand and the re-ordered supply.
The Secretaries of Education and of Human Services have said that they want to continue preK payments to childcare providers so that there is a childcare system left standing when Vermonters are able to return to work. Childcare subsidies are still flowing to parents.
Secretary French said we are asking a lot of the education system: to provide food, childcare and continuity of education. In response to push-back from the Vermont NEA, the state worked with the union to craft an expansive list of educators who are not required to participate due to extenuating circumstances such as anxiety disorder, if they are immune-compromised, or living with someone who is immune-compromised, or pregnant.
By April 5, districts must have a continuity of education plan in place. A major concern is equity as it applies to Special Education students and others. Districts will have to figure out accommodations for students and compensatory services. There is not yet guidance for therapeutic schools, but the Secretary maintained that guidance is imminent.
Senate Health reviews COVID-19 response proposal
The Senate House and Welfare Committee met remotely this week to review H.742, a bill passed by the House late last week, and consider what needs to be added to support the health care system in responding to COVID-19.
Department of Vermont Health Access Commissioner Cory Gustafson told the committee that the postponement of provider tax payments, the advancement of payments to Medicaid providers, and the expansion of nutrition services are within the agency’s existing authority.
- Directs health care facilities to enact measures to protect non-licensed health care professionals;
- Grants the Secretary of Human Services the authority to modify hospital provider taxes and waive or modify provider taxes for other classes of health care providers during the state of emergency and for six months after the declaration ends;
- Grants the Green Mountain Care Board the broad authority to waive or permit variances to rules, standards and state laws pertaining to their regulatory actions;
- Directs the Department of Financial Regulation to adopt emergency rules to expand health insurance coverage for, and waiving or limiting cost-sharing requirements directly related to, COVID-19 diagnosis, treatment, and prevention;
- Allows pharmacists to extend prescriptions for maintenance medications;
- Requires all health insurance plans to provide coverage for health and dental services delivered through telemedicine;
- Waives the requirement that services provided through telemedicine and store-and-forward means utilize Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act compliant connections; and
- Allows health care providers licensed, certified, or registered out-of-state to practice in Vermont.
The committee will meet on Saturday and Monday to finalize the bill. Sen. Pro Tem Tim Ashe, D/P–Chittenden, has indicated that H.742 will be the vehicle for an omnibus COVID-19 response package.
Green Mountain Care Board eases regulations to regulated entities
In response to the COVID-19 crisis, the Green Mountain Care Board took action on Wednesday that gives hospitals flexibility from regulatory requirements to focus on operations and crisis response. Chair Kevin Mullin began Wednesday’s hearing by saying, “This is not the time for hospital over-regulation.” The board reviewed the new draft of hospital budget guidance, the FY 2021 Net Patient Revenue Growth Limit, and discussed budget enforcement and sustainability plans.
GMCB staff reviewed three proposed non-financial reports for inclusion in the hospital budget guidance. Board member Jessica Holmes and Mullin said non-financial reporting should not occur in the next few months to ensure valuable time and resources are not taken away from the efforts in the field. The board will consult with hospitals and consider appropriate guidance and timing based on current events. The board approved growth target and budget variance projections consistent with the FY 2020 budget guidance with recognition that the board will be recognizing the pandemic in considering variances.
The board unanimously voted to waive all budget enforcement hearings and agreed to suspend sustainability plan actions. Staff will continue to fine tune what is best practice for sustainability plans, but the board is not expecting hospitals to do anything on sustainability at this point.
Governor allows take-out beer and wine
On Thursday, Gov. Phil Scott loosened Vermont’s restrictive, Prohibition-era alcohol laws by issuing a Gubernatorial Directive permitting “to-go” sales and delivery of beverage alcohol with the purchase of a meal, as well as the delivery of alcohol products by licensed retail stores.
The Directive amends a previous order from the Governor that closed all bars and restaurants effective Tuesday, March 17th. Saying that alcohol sales can make up 40 percent or more of the revenue of restaurants and establishments that offer food or drink, the order allows:
- 1st class licensees (bars and restaurants) to offer take-out, curbside pickup and delivery of beverage alcohol, including spirit-based drinks and malt and vinous product accompanying food orders; and
- 2nd class licensees (retail liquor stores) to provide delivery and curbside pickup of unopened containers of spirits, spirit-based product and malt and vinous product.
The effects of alcohol withdrawal syndrome may also have played a part in the Governor’s decision. The Administration heard from Mario Estrin Trabulsy, MD, Emergency Medicine, University of Vermont Medical Center, on situations that could result from closing off access to liquor. “This action would be a complete and utter disaster for our emergency departments who are already overstretched,” said Trabulsy. “Alcohol withdrawal is a life-threatening condition causing seizures and death if untreated. The last thing anyone needs right now is to have every alcoholic in the state in the emergency department with DTs.” Trabulsy said that alcohol is a catastrophe from a public health perspective, and that her personal outreach stems from a need to keep people out of the hospital if possible right now.
Full House and five House Committees to meet next week, others to follow
The Vermont House will meet next week as a whole and in various committees, beginning with a remote “Caucus of the Whole” at 1:00 p.m. on Monday. Members of the public may listen to the House Caucus here:
1 (253) 215-8782, or
1 (301) 715-8592, or
1 (346) 248-7799
Meeting ID: 579 782 593 ##
Only token sessions are planned in-person, and these do not require attendance by all House members.
The Joint Rules Committee will continue its daily 4:00 p.m. remote meeting. Members of the public may listen to this call as well:
Call in Number: 1 (646) 558 8656
Meeting ID: 615 543 0466##
The House Committees on Appropriations, Ways and Means, Commerce and Economic Development, Corrections and Institutions, and Government Operations will all hold meetings next week. Videoconferencing is expected to be available soon for those and other committees. Phone numbers for these meetings will be available at https://legislature.vermont.gov/.
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