Rep. Mike Yantachka
The unofficial slogan of the U.S. Marine Corps is “Improvise, Adapt, Overcome.” When faced with the unexpected, the success of a mission requires the ability to change tactics quickly. The COVID-19 crisis has certainly been unexpected and has forced us to adapt our lifestyle quickly. The last two weeks also marked a significant shift in the work of the Vermont Legislature. The leadership of all three parties—Democrat, Republican and Progressive—worked hard to keep abreast of the state’s efforts to manage the Coronavirus (COVID-19) emergency and figure out a way to keep the legislature working.
Daily meetings of the Joint Rules Committee, chaired by Senator Tim Ashe, got updates from the heads of departments and agencies via conference calls that were open to the public. These calls were regularly attended by other legislators and were the source of my communications with you on Front Porch Forum. Last Wednesday, the House, by a quorum of legislators who made a special trip to Montpelier being careful to maintain “social distancing,” changed its rules to allow remote voting both in committee and on the floor, matching what the Senate had approved the week before. Following that vote House committees began meeting online to conduct the business of taking testimony on bills.
As we all settle in to maintain Governor Scott’s “Stay home, stay safe” directive, we all have questions about how long this will last, how our incomes will be affected, when the kids will go back to school, how our small businesses will stay afloat, and so forth. There is no definite answer to these questions, but recent actions taken by the state and by the federal government have provided some certainty to some of them. During the brief session last Wednesday, the House also approved two bills in concurrence with the Senate amendments to support both working Vermonters who are forced to stay home and our health care system and workers who are on the front lines of defense against COVID-19.
Employees are immediately eligible for unemployment benefits, and their employers are held harmless from unemployment insurance rate increases. While childcare centers have been ordered closed, a certain number will remain open to serve families where both parents are essential workers, a designation determined by the administration. The provider tax on medical providers, including hospitals, is being abated during the emergency, and emergency authority is given to the Department of Financial Regulation to react to evolving needs, including considering requiring insurance companies to eliminate copays for any prescriptions during the crisis. Testing for COVID-19, according to Department of Health guidelines, will be free.
Because self-employed persons do not pay into the unemployment insurance fund, they are not currently eligible for unemployment benefits. However, the COVID-19 relief legislation passed by Congress will extend benefits to self-employed and “gig-economy” workers as well as boost the maximum UI benefit by $600. Each adult will also receive a $1,200 federal check and $500 per dependent child. The legislation provides $2 trillion that will include aid for businesses, hospitals and states. Vermont will receive $1.25 billion for COVIID-19 expenditures. The aid is not intended for revenue replacement, however, and can only be used for expenditures not in the most recent budget. This still leaves Vermont and other states in a precarious position, since expected revenues will be impacted due to the economic shutdown, thereby jeopardizing existing programs.
While individuals will be receiving some income from the state and federal governments depending on their situation, it may not be enough to continue meeting monthly payments for rent, mortgage, utilities, etc. Federal legislation has put a moratorium on foreclosures of federally backed mortgages and on evictions. In Vermont the judicial system has made it clear that during the COVID-19 emergency, when everyone must stay at home, evictions will not be processed. Vermont banks have also agreed not to proceed with foreclosures for delinquent mortgage payments for the next 90 days. To be clear, however, this does not mean that rents or mortgages are forgiven. They will still have to be paid in full after the emergency ends. Furthermore, if homeowners or renters can afford to pay, they are encouraged to do so in order to make future payment easier on themselves and provide cash flow to help landlords meet their obligations.
This will be a trying time for all of us. As I told my granddaughter, by keeping ourselves and each other safe with social distancing and willingness to help when needed and able, we will come out stronger in the end. Be well and stay safe.