Money for businesses, education in the pipeline

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MONTPELIER — Some businesses and non-profit agencies that have been financially hurt by the COVID-19 pandemic could qualify for up to $50,000 in aid.

Beginning July 6, the state will start accepting applications for the Economic Recovery Grant Program so that businesses and nonprofits can access the $70 million authorized by the Legislature and signed by Gov. Phil Scott. The $70 million is part of a $400 million expenditure of the $1.25 billion Vermont received as part of the $2.2 trillion federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act.

The initial wave of money available for grants will be $50 million administered through the Vermont Department of Taxes for businesses that pay rooms and meals or sales and use tax. An additional $20 million will be available to all other private businesses and non-profits through the Agency of Commerce and Community Development. The grants will be allocated on a first-come, first-serve basis.

"These grants are not enough to make businesses whole," said Joan Goldstein, commissioner of ACCD. "But we do hope this influx of cash helps them to survive."

Goldstein noted there are some exceptions in the application process. Those in health care need to apply through the Agency of Human Services and farmers and the like need to apply through the Agency of Agriculture, Food and Markets.

Scott said during his Wednesday news conference the appropriation from the Legislature was less than the administration expected and has more strings attached. The Scott administration had requested $400 million in economic aid, which contained about $250 million in grants and loans for businesses. But, Scott said, he appreciates the work the Legislature has been putting in and he is looking forward to working with legislators "to save businesses throughout the state."

The ACCD will host a webinar on Thursday at 3 p.m. to detail the application process.

Scott said the money will help businesses that are "on the brink of ruin." And even that's not enough, he acknowledged, saying they are waiting on word from the federal government on when more aid will be forthcoming.

"We will turn every knob and pull every lever we can to help families and businesses survive," Scott said.

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The Legislature also set aside $150 million for the state's education fund. According to a report issued by the Legislature's Joint Fiscal Office, the state is expecting a decrease in non-property tax revenues of between $35 and $45 million because of a drop in economic activity due to the pandemic. That deficit could be even larger by the end of the year, depending on how soon the state is able to get back to business as usual, whatever that might be.

Not filling the gap with federal money, said Scott, would mean a property tax increase Vermonters just can't afford.

"Asking Vermonters to do more, especially during this economic crisis, would not be beneficial," said Scott, adding that now is the time to re-evaluate spending in the state.

"We are going to have to find ways to save money," he said. "We can't just raise taxes. Vermonters are taxed to capacity now."

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However, it is uncertain at this time whether the federal government will allow the money to be used for the education fund.

Scott said the estimated general fund budget shortfall has been reduced from between $400 million and $500 million to between $200 and $300 million. Both estimates include the education fund shortfall.

"There's going to be a budget gap regardless," said Scott. "We have to face it. We need to limit expenditures and live within our means."

Scott commended Vermonters for sticking together during this "once in a century challenge." But, he said, "We must continue to take personal responsibility for preventing the spread of this virus."

This includes wearing a mask in public, physical distancing, and washing of hands.

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Health Commissioner Mark Levine said the state has registered only two new cases over the past two days.

He also said an outbreak in Winooski and Burlington and one in Fair Haven appear to be contained.

"We have not seen any new cases seven days," said Levine.

The state is testing an average of 1,245 people a day, he said, making Vermont one of four states where testing is occurring at a sufficient level. The other three states are Alaska, Hawaii and Montana.

Because of privacy issues, Levine said he couldn't release more details about the outbreaks. But he did say the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has released data collected from 11 academic medical centers that shows only 46 percent of those who tested positive reported coming in contact with a COVID-19 patient. The majority of those, he said, were people who came into contact with family members or co-workers who also tested positive.

This means more than half the people who tested positive don't know how they picked up the virus.

This reinforces the need, said Levine, to continue to follow pandemic health protocols.

The governor is also expected to sign H. 966, which provides another $82 million for Vermont businesses and nonprofits. Other legislation has authorized $275 million in grants for the health care sector, $25 million for people who are struggling to keep up with their rent, $5 million for homeowners facing foreclosure, $20 million for broadband expansion, and $35 million for farmers. Also available is $12 million for child care providers and summer camps to help them reopen and respond to increased demand. The Vermont Foodbank is slated to receive $4.6 million and the state recently approved $20 million in "hazard pay" for "frontline pandemic workers" such as emergency responders, doctors and nurses and other care providers. The Senate version, providing $60 million, was pared down by the House.

Bob Audette can be contacted at raudette@reformer.com.


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