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The Perfect and the Good, at War
As the hardships that many Vermonters are enduring from the economic shutdown become clear, so too are some of the policy failures that are exacerbating the suffering. One of them is the state’s decades-long inability to provide broadband access to remote areas of Vermont, and that failure is having a disproportionate impact on Vermont’s children and low-income families.
The challenge is not, as they say, rocket science. Reaching the remote corners of the state – the last mile, in telecom parlance – would require significant state and federal funding, as well as partnerships with existing providers and reasonable goals as to what qualifies for adequate service. Although the state has spent millions on broadband, it has not come close to meeting its goals.
The state set up the now-defunct Vermont Telecommunications Authority in 2007 with a goal of solving the problem by 2010. The VTA inexplicably spent millions of dollars on so-called “middle mile” fiber to schools and other institutions, rather than homes, to compete with existing providers. It failed to expand access for rural residents.
At the same time, a dogma took hold in the legislature that only investments in fiber optic cable (rather than copper lines, which serve the furthest reaches of the state) are worthwhile. Existing telecom providers cannot afford to invest in high-priced fiber in remote areas with few customers, so the legislature has pinned its hopes on small, thinly-capitalized and often volunteer-run organizations to build out fiber-to-the-home. Those organizations, not surprisingly, have made barely a dent in reaching unserved Vermonters.
Acting on the view that only lightning-fast speeds are worthy of state money, the legislature has significantly ratcheted up the minimum required broadband speeds for companies to receive state funding. Under legislation passed last year, the minimum required speed is now 25/3 Mbps – a speed higher than most consumers are willing to pay for. To receive funds under a new loan program operated by the Vermont Economic Development Authority, the legislature required speeds of 100 Mpbs symmetrical – in essence, the speed of fiber. The legislature also has adopted a policy goal that all Vermonters have access to 100 Mbps by 2024. That would cost an estimated $1 billion. For comparison purposes, this article is being written with an Internet speed of 10/1 Mpbs over, gasp, wireline service, with three adults working on-line simultaneously.
There are about 20,000 residences in Vermont that still have inadequate broadband service, meaning 4/1 speeds or less. (Many with only dial-up service). Most of those households would likely be thrilled to have broadband speeds that are a fraction of the state’s fiber goal. For now though, the children in those homes are facing months without any meaningful access to education, while their parents have little or no ability to work remotely.
Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, the legislature’s cult-like focus on fiber-to-the-home was merely puzzling. Vermonters are now experiencing real hardship as a result of a policy that sets a gold standard for all, rather than an affordable and workable standard for those who need state help. The pursuit of perfect Internet access has been the enemy of the good, with failure a close ally of perfection.
Warren Buffet famously said, “You only find out who is swimming naked when the tide goes out.“ The legislature has been swimming naked, with the public largely unable to see the hardships that were growing due to the failure to expand broadband coverage. The COVID-19 pandemic has brought the tide out and laid bare those hardships for all to see.
House has rocky start to historic remote voting session
The House took historic action on Thursday, approving a rule change to allow legislators to vote remotely. The legislators are now using an app, Everbridge, to cast their votes from their living rooms, bedrooms, kitchen tables, and porches.
Here is the link to the pdf that this was an excerpt from.
The construction sector may operate limited in-person operations in accordance with the April 17th guidance, including restricting work crews to two people per location/job and following mandatory health safety recommendations. Only construction needed to support the COVID-19 response, maintain critical infrastructure, or for the safety, sanitation and operations of residences or businesses is allowed to operate beyond this scope. As an example, replacing a failing roof, failed electrical system, or broken waterline would be acceptable. Additionally, jobsites should be left in a safe and secure manner before ceasing in-person construction. Providing services to a hospital or healthcare facility would be acceptable.
Construction crews returning to work under the Work Safe provisions of Addendum 10 and the April 17th guidance must remember that the intent of the new guidance is to reduce the density of workers at construction sites and reduce gatherings at construction sites. Construction companies must not return to “normal” operations. The April 17th guidance allows construction to occur with no more than 2 people per location/job. A location/job may be a single property, a single house, a floor of a large multi-story property, or a distinct separate physical location on a larger construction property. In instances where more than 2 people are working on a large project (for instance, 2 people on floor one and 2 people on floor 3), those individuals must not come into contact. Start times must be staggered to avoid gatherings, breaks should be staggered, and job meetings exceeding 2 people must not occur.
The Agency interprets unoccupied to mean uninhabited properties. Indoor construction should not occur in occupied properties, whether the homeowner is present or not.
DRM | Downs Rachlin Martin PLLC
Order extension brings expected and dreaded consequences
Gov. Phil Scott’s announcement today that his Stay Home Stay Safe Order will remain in place until at least May 15 brought a collective sigh of exasperation from those who were hoping to return to employment as well as those who are merely inconvenienced by the mandate to work from home.
But there is also the quiet despair that is occurring in the remote corners of Vermont, and no one really knows the depth of the growing hardship.
Educational leaders told the Senate Finance Committee on Thursday about the unknown impact that COVID isolation is having on Vermont’s children as they are untethered from the child care facilities and schools that have increasingly become their primary sources of support beyond education: mental health, nutrition and physical activity.
Jay Nichols, Executive Director of the Vermont Principals’ Association, said many principals have not been able to reach fully half of their students. Jeff Fannon, Executive Director of the Vermont NEA, told the committee about a teacher in Springfield who has been unable to reach her most at-risk student for four weeks and wonders if she should contact law enforcement.
The poignant anecdotes personalized the abstract but massive and growing financial challenge the COVID-19 pandemic is creating. According to the legislature’s Joint Fiscal Office, the state’s education fund is already $40 million short for FY 2020, even after the state has used up $49 million in reserves. That problem is certain to get worse as many of the fund’s revenue sources dry up.
Right now, the state’s response to the COVID-19 crisis is an administrative challenge and not a legislative one. The two branches have embraced their respective roles. Gov. Scott – like so many governors nationally – has exuded confidence daily as the administration responds forcefully, backed by evolving scientific and medical judgment, with increasingly tighter restrictions.
Not surprisingly, given the enormity of the crisis, the response has been bumpy at times. Many companies, for example, have struggled to understand whether they are “Essential Businesses” and able to continue operating. Conflicting statements from administration staff have contributed to the confusion. At least one industry – golf courses – has mounted a public relations campaign to reverse the order.
But the administration’s strictures are making a difference. The growth rate of COVID-19 cases has fallen every day except one since March 21. Vermont is now at the low end of projections for bed needs, ICU beds and ventilators, with forecasts showing the state will remain mostly within its capacity.
In the meantime, the General Assembly is moving incrementally to prepare for the longer-term legislative challenges. For the first time in history, the Senate met and voted remotely on Friday to pass a series of non-controversial, COVID-related bills.
A paradox of this new virtual legislative environment is that the legislature is both more transparent and less accessible. It is easier than ever for the public to watch live legislative proceedings, but far more difficult – for the public and lobbyists alike – to influence them. As committees move to more controversial topics, the difficulties of legislating remotely are likely to become more apparent.
Working remotely, Senate passes four bills
In an historic session, the Senate convened remotely Friday morning to unanimously pass four COVID-19 related bills.
Administration decisions driven by science and data
Governor Scott is deliberate when he refers to “science and data” when he addresses the public. So it was with intention that Mike Pieciak, Commissioner of the Department of Financial Regulation, spent the week reviewing COVID-19 Modeling Data for the public. All evidence suggests that social distancing sacrifices are making a difference in saving lives and reducing hospital resource need.
Treasurer asks for expanded interfund borrowing
Over the past week, the tax and spending committees in the House and Senate have digested the latest revenue numbers from the legislature’s economists, and the picture isn’t pretty. While the General Fund downgrade is less than it had been two weeks earlier, the Education Fund is significantly more in trouble than originally thought.
VBRA “ Urgent” Save Your Business
As we head into week 2 of the shutdown it is becoming more apparent that we may be shut down until May 6th. Our lobbyist is keeping us up to the minute informed as things keep changing so fast. We will insure that all vital information is passed on to you, our Members and the construction community, as soon as we can. Together as a community group we can survive this.
Patti Komeline, our Lobbyist, sent out and email last night that there is talk that the Disaster Loan Programs may be running out of funding by Tuesday or Wednesday.
IT IS THEREFORE URGENT THAT YOU APPLY FOR YOUR LOAN APPLICATION TODAY AND RECEIVE $10,000 IMMEDIATELY
Please go to this NAHB link for a simple detailed explanation of the programs available to you:
You also may go this Vt ACCD’s user friendly link:
For more legal advice from DRM:
Stay Safe Everyone. We are One Day closer to the Other side!
National Home Builders State Representative
Legislature Ready to Move On, But What’s Next?
Legislators run for office, by and large, to solve problems. Now, faced with a massive health and financial crisis unlike anything the state has experienced in a century, and having been evicted from the Statehouse, lawmakers are struggling to define their role.
The initial response was swift, as the legislature quickly passed several emergency bills that have been signed into law, with a few others soon to follow. But if this week is any indication, as lawmakers move beyond the initial emergency bills, the next phase is going to present some major challenges.
First, there is the logistical problem of moving the entire bill-making process online. In normal times, any given bill has thousands of touch-points as it moves through the legislative process. Lawmakers have hundreds of interactions in rapid-fire sequence on dozens of issues during the course of each day.
Most of those interactions are gone now, replaced by digital communications that are, ironically, vastly less efficient. It’s like running a fire hose through a straw – it takes a lot longer, and in the end not much makes it through.
Then there is the plodding, yet disjointed structure of committee meetings conducted over Zoom and YouTube. Clogged Internet bandwidth and forgotten mute buttons grind down the pace of discussions. This week, one committee was victimized by the newfound outlet for sociopathy that isZoom bombingwhen pornography suddenly appeared onscreen during a discussion about agriculture.
And there is the fundamental question of what is the legislature’s role in responding to a pandemic. Most committee hearings this week were spent hearing reports from the administration on what they are doing to respond. The governor and his staff have received widespread praise for their response as the virus disrupts nearly every aspect of life in Vermont. But as they were called away from the front lines of disaster response to provide reports to committees, some staff members gently pushed back.
Lawmakers were also brushed back by administration staff as they took on the role of constituent service. Many businesses have looked to their legislators for help as they sought exemptions to continue operating under Gov. Phil Scott’s sweepingStay Home/Stay Safe Order. With legislators advocating for a loosening of the rules for some businesses, Agency of Commerce and Community Development staff – who have been pulled from their traditional duty to advocate for business development – gently chastised lawmakers and asked for help in keeping Vermonters safe.
Finally, there is the question of remote voting. Vermont’s tradition-bound Senate has not even allowed electronic devices to be present in the Senate chamber, so it has, unsurprisingly, moved cautiously to allow voting to occur outside the Statehouse. Both bodies are expected to approve some version of remote voting next week.
The legislature, like everyone else, is making up new rules as they go.
Don’t bank on it; federal grant funds may run dry
Chris D’Elia, President of Vermont Bankers’ Association, told the Senate Committee on Economic Development, Housing and General Affairs on Friday that the new federalPayroll Protection Programmay reach its capacity next week, less than a week after opening the application process.
Legislature continues to grapple with unemployment insurance inequities
Unemployment benefits for Vermonters, recently expanded underH.742in response to COVID-19, are now significantly higher with a supplemental federal benefit of $600 per week for each claimant.
During Governor Scott’s press conference today, Vermont’s Commissioner of Health, Dr. Mark Levine, gave the latest COVID-19 patient data: As of March 31 there were 28 new positive cases, for a total of 321. There is a total of 15 deaths. Dr. Levine also reported on the growing evidence that the COVID-19 virus can be present for 48 hours before symptoms can appear. Anyone concerned about contact risk should work back over a 48 hour period to determine exposure. Levine also reported that 12% of tested cases were coming back positive.
Governor Scott asked for Vermonters with medical experience - nurses, pharmacists, EMSs, physician assistants, veterinarians, mental health workers, etc. - to register at Vermont.gov/volunteer. This is so the state can be ready if and when critical needs arise. People with experience in the fields of childcare, grocery worker, public works professional, drivers, etc., can register to volunteer as well.
Dr. Levine, Commissioner of Health - I have five bullet points:
Gov. Scott -
Lindsay Kurrle, Secretary of the Agency of Commerce and Community Development -
Michael Harrington, Acting Commissioner of Labor
Rep. Peter Welch -
Andrew Brewer | Government Relations Specialist
Downs Rachlin Martin PLLC | Business Sense · Legal Ingenuity
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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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
With information concerning the Coronavirus (COVID-19) rapidly evolving, DRM is committed to providing you relevant and timely guidance on how to navigate this challenging time. We will update this site regularly as new information emerges. For immediate assistance or questions on a particular topic, please contact a member of our team. On this page, you will find answers to frequently asked questions, as well as helpful links.
Senate Economic Development
The committee reviewed H.681, (the Vermont Bill) a bill focusing on unemployment insurance as it pertains to COVID. Here is a summary of the bill. This bill still needs to pass the state senate.
Damien Leonard, Legislative Council, did an overview of UI as Cameron Wood of DOL wasn’t able to call in due to his workload. UI is a very complex system and financed by a payroll tax that is based on employers’ experience with UI. A high ratio of layoffs relative to payroll means the business will have a higher tax rate. This builds a pool of funds that can be drawn on when needed.
Currently there is $500 million in the UI Trust Fund. Projections are that 60-70% of this funds will be drawn down in a recession. Our fund is in very good shape which is unique in the US.
To qualify one needs to have been working for at least 2 quarters in the last 5 quarters and hit a minimum income threshold. If one becomes unemployed or under-employed and is able and available to work and is actively seeking work then they are qualified for UI.
If the employer is intending to bring the workers back the DOL may waive the requirement that the employee look for work.
UI benefits cover about 50% of income with a statutory cap of $513/week.
This week the number of people filing is rapidly growing. These claims could have an adverse impact on tax rates for employers unless the law is changed for COVID related claims.
Testimony moved on to:
Interim Commissioner of Labor
There has been a drastic spike in initial claims. There is a bottleneck in initial claims filings. In the last 48 hours the department as increased their call center staff from 10-12 to 25-30.They will monitor to see if they need more people. The department has prepared an on-line form that is up for the public right now. This isn’t a permanent solution. Usually there are about 400 claims a week. Yesterday alone there were 500 claims. 21K employed in food service industry and it is anticipated that half will be filing.
The department prefers people to file the online form but if they need help by phone:
1-877-214-3330 – for initial claims
1-877-214-3332 – for general assistance
1-802-828-4344 – for employers.
Harrington went on to discuss the federal bill, HR6201. Here a summary. If Congress passes the bill it will provide flexibility that the state currently doesn’t to pay benefits and relieve employers of charges.
Anyone who is laid off will be eligible for benefits. As long as they are laid off for less than 10 weeks they don’t need to do a work search. They are working to expedite claims so there is no waiting period – current delay is due to a number of systematic steps that need to occur. They are working to shorten that time
Sirotkin asked if there was more the Senate could add to H.681. Harrington said no but the committee will discuss this further tomorrow. Some states are trying to expand UI benefits to sole proprietors and independent contractors and the self-employed. They aren’t contributed into the fund and we have to consider the fund’s sustainability.
Committee is looking to tweak the bill and will meet tomorrow morning at 10am.
Statehouse Shuttered Over COVID-19
The Vermont legislative week began like most others, albeit with a heightened appreciation of the need for regular handwashing in a cloistered environment that is a germ factory in the best of circumstances. By Thursday, the Statehouse was like London before the Luftwaffe bombing in 1940; everyone knew that disaster was coming, but no one wanted to leave. As knowledge of the spread of COVID-19 grew and institutions such as Middlebury College and most other Vermont colleges announced that students needed to leave campus, it seemed increasingly imprudent for lawmakers to keep the Statehouse open.
The inevitable announcement came on Friday morning as legislative leaders decided to recess for one week. The expectation of a one-week hiatus seems hopelessly optimistic given the virus’ inexorable spread, and at least one committee chair spoke matter-of-factly about the legislature’s return on March 24. The break may well lapse into weeks or months.
Lawmakers scrambled on Friday to make contingency plans. Several committee chairs said their committees would meet via telephone, with members of the public able to listen. Others looked for ways to moderate conference calls so as to allow committee chairs to call on witnesses.
With no precedent to guide decisions, no one quite knows what the next few weeks or months will bring. Will committees meet without the public? How will the state budget get finalized? Will committees meet by phone and reconvene to vote? When will they reconvene?
Of course, the greatest unknown is the future infection and death rate, which by many recent estimates could be enormous.
As the state faces its greatest public health threat in generations and an economy in free-fall, the legislative bills that are left behind are likely going to seem inconsequential compared to the challenges that loom ahead.
Health Department creates COVID-19 portal
The Vermont Department of Health has created a portal for information related to COVID-19 and will have updates on the status of the virus from the State, CDC and the White House.
Economic incentive proposals move to Senate Finance
The Senate Committee on Commerce and Economic Development on Friday passed S.256, a bill that includes a variety of economic development provisions.
Get all the news about Vermont Health Care legislation
We've included a few of the most important health care articles here, but DRM’s weekly comprehensive Health Care Legislative Update covers all the developments including bills, committee activities, panel discussions, taxes, budgets and more. Read this week's Health Care Legislative Update here. Additional topics covered this week include: