What an extraordinary Legislative Session 2021 has been. It was historic – the first Vermont legislative Session to be conducted completely remotely during an international pandemic. And, despite those challenges, we were incredibly productive – managing to accomplish a great deal to improve life in Vermont.
With the onslaught of the COVID-19 pandemic, the Vermont Legislature pivoted immediately to responding to the unprecedented health and economic crisis Vermonters were experiencing. In doing so, we engaged the best of Vermont values of equity, safety, well being, social justice and economic security - and worked in a tri-partisan fashion to build back better together.
Over the last 15 months, we learned many lessons – inspiring new priorities and funding. We learned that with the innovations of the 21st century, we could legislate remotely. Surprisingly, our 18th century constitution and Chamber rules enabled us to respond nimbly to our current needs. We learned that high speed internet and childcare were essential for our economy and legislature alike, and that telemedicine provided needed access for many. We learned how fragile economic security was for many Vermonters. We learned how human we really are – that we all need human contact, miss facial expressions and hunger for hugs.
We also learned that public access to our legislative work was expanded with these technological innovations. Through YouTube and Zoom, many more Vermonters were able to watch the legislative process and follow issues they care about, without having to drive hours to the Statehouse. In our virtual Committee Rooms everyone could fit. We are reminded that government, at its best, is an effective way of taking care of each other - in a time of lost jobs, lost business and lost life. We are reminded that Vermonters are resilient and rise to the occasion – and that we work together productively to make progress for our beloved state and its people.
We can be proud of what the Legislature accomplished in this 2021 Session. We responded to the ongoing needs of Vermonters with a wide range of help, from feeding Vermont families and increasing support for those suffering from mental health challenges and substance use disorders to economic recovery grants for businesses and essential support for the Vermont State College System. Our Vermont values have driven our policy work this year, and they are reflected in almost every line of our $7.35 B FY22 budget.
This year’s 275 page budget was unusually complex. It blended many funding sources, each with different guidelines and criteria – general fund, transportation and education funds, one time state surplus and federal American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) money. Its use of $599 million of ARPA money launches four years of transformational investments. An illustration of this is the $190 M we are investing in Housing Initiatives. For perspective, our last major investment was in 2017, when we created a housing bond of $35 M.
In this FY22 budget we are able to fund extraordinary investments: Broadband Connectivity ($150 M), Child Care (12.7 M), Climate Change Mitigation ($54.5 M), Economic Development, Workforce Development and Communities ($158.7 M), Clean Water Work ($120 M), Vermont State College System ($88.9 M), Judiciary & Justice System ($15 M), updating State IT Technologies ($66 M), and Brownfield clean up ($25 M). These are sums we’d only dream of in years past. We have 3 more budget years to deploy the additional $430 M. These federal dollars are enabling us to invest significantly in our future – ensuring that Vermont will build back better together.
Governor Scott applauded the work represented in this budget saying, as he signed H.439 into law; “This is a truly transformational budget that will allow us to recover from the pandemic and address some longstanding challenges, including our workforce shortage and economic inequity that exists from county to county. With smart state investments and a very strategic approach for using federal funds, this budget puts us on a new path to a more prosperous and equitable future for all of Vermont.”
Going forward, a critically important issue for Vermont to resolve is the future sustainability of our Pension System. The imbalance between our funding and our obligations is a major challenge. In addressing this, the Legislature took two steps forward this year. First, we strengthened the investment committee by making it an independent commission with more financial expertise. Second, in order to assure that all the stakeholders (teachers, state employees and taxpayers) are involved in developing an equitable and workable solution to funding, we created a task force. This group will work together to make recommendations to the legislature on how to define a benefits system which will enable the future health of the pensions system.
Our path to post pandemic recovery may take years. But we are investing wisely now, in our infrastructure – both human and physical – to advance once in a generation opportunities for Vermont and Vermonters.
Alison Clarkson is one of the three Windsor District’s State Senators. She serves as the Majority Leader in the Vermont State Senate.