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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.