Dear Neighbors and Friends,
I hope this finds you and your family safe and healthy.
Right now, the health of our state and the success of our health care system in treating this pandemic is up to us. Please stay home except for absolutely necessary outings, and when you do go out wear a protective mask. Collectively, we have the power to slow the spread and flatten the curve.
I want to express an enormous thank you to essential workers in our community who are working to keep our grocery shelves stocked, our school children fed, our supply chains open and our communities healthy and safe.
This is a stressful time for our community, families, and businesses, especially for those who are still working. With information coming from many directions it can be hard to keep track of it all, so I’ve assembled some updates here. If you are having trouble accessing resources or information, please do not hesitate to reach out, I am available to help.
The House and the Senate passed critical legislation that the Governor signed which will provide resources to our health care systems, expand unemployment insurance, and give flexibility to local government and the legislature so Vermonters can get through this healthcare and economic crisis caused by COVID-19. We are continuing our work in the legislature learning where the gaps and unmet needs are, and are in the process of developing a second round of COVID-19 legislation.Right now one of the biggest concern is the significant shortfall due to the slowdown in economic activity and lost sales and meals and room tax revenues and anticipated deferred tax payments. On April 2nd the state economist was projecting a $202 million impact on the general fund, $142 million shortfall in the education fund and $45 million gap in the transportation fund.
The Joint Fiscal Office and the Administration are working tirelessly to sort out which federal funds and revenues are available as the realities of the pandemic unfold in real time. It appears that in May the legislature will begin working on a revised FY 2020 budget adjustment bill and the FY 2021 preliminary budget bill (enough to start the FY 2021 year) It is likely the full FY 2021 budget will not be able to be completed until August or September.
I serve on one of the four money committees in the House, and I am following this very closely, and will continue to share updates. You can also find COVID-19 fiscal documents on the Joint Fiscal Office webpage here.
UPDATE FROM THE VERMONT DEPARTMENT OF LABOR
The Department of Labor is managing an overwhelming number of claims. As of this week, 71,000 Vermonters have filed for unemployment assistance and, this week, the DOL paid out the first batch of 41,000 payments totaling $25.8 million (those payments included the added benefit of $600 from the federal government).
All of this said, Vermonters are still frantically trying to get through on the phone and on-line to apply for unemployment benefits. Please know that legislators have heard your frustrations and are working with the State to ramp up capacity in the call center; troubleshoot online issues involving Social Security numbers not recognized by the system, etc. On Friday we learned from the Commissioner that nearly 50 percent of the claims have unique circumstances that require callers to reach a live person on the phone – no wonder Vermonters are struggling to get through.
In the short-term, DOL will implement an alphabetized structure for the intake of weekly claims and inquiries beginning on Sunday, April 12. The new voluntary process will reduce the number of claims assistance calls and traffic to the claimant portal by designating specific days of the week for individuals to contact the Department by phone or email, based on the first letter of their last name (Monday A-E, Tuesday F-L, Wednesday M-R, Thursday S-Z and everyone Friday and Saturday) Full details of the structure can be found here. The claim assistance line is 1-877-214-3332 and is available Monday through Friday 8:15AM-4:30PM and Saturday 9AM-3PM.
Those who are self-employed or independent contractors (estimated to be another 40-50,000 Vermonters) are eligible for Pandemic Unemployment Assistance (PUA), which is a new program that has never existed before. As a result, a new system to receive these claims is being developed and should be activated to make payments to Vermonters beginning the week of April 20th.
SUPPORT FOR CREATIVES DURING COVID-19
I’m working with arts and culture leaders and our federal delegation to share information about resources for those working in the creative sector. More information will be forthcoming as we sort out the details of the various federal relief packages, but some funding is already available.
This past week a consortium of funders announced the creation of the Artist Relief Fund, a $10 million national emergency relief fund for artists and creative workers that will provide $5,000 no-strings-attached grants. It is intended for anyone who earns income from their creative or artistic practice and who has also been affected by COVID-19. LEARN MORE & APPLY: www.artistrelief.org/
As part of the CARES Act, the National Endowment for the Arts will receive $75 million in relief aid that will be distributed to organizations. Details regarding timing and applications are being developed and will be announced as soon as they are available. Visit www.arts.gov for updates.
The New England Foundation for the Arts has also assembled resources to share with the arts and culture sector. There is very clear information on the CARES Act: Unemployment Insurance & Small Business Assistance for artists and organizations; how and where to apply for unemployment insurance and small business assistance and emergency resources and relief
The Vermont Arts Council has established a Vermont Rapid Response Artist Relief fund to respond to the devastating impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on artists across our state. There’s information and resources for artists and organizations as well as a guide for creating virtual arts experiences during this time of social distancing available at https://www.vermontartscouncil.org/covid-19
Americans for the Arts is conducting a national survey to demonstrate the impact of COVID-19 on the creative sector by collecting data and stories. If you are a creative worker please participate in the survey here:
RESOURCES DURING COVID-19
I am keeping an updated list of resources at the top of my legislative Facebook page. It is by no means an exhaustive list – but I hope it can help connect you to reliable information and resources that you might need during this pandemic.
COMMITTEE WORK CONTINUES
The House Committee on Corrections and Institutions Committees has continued to meet and work remotely. After we wrapped up our work on the capital budget adjustment, we turned our focus to S.338, a Justice Reinvestment bill that is largely the result of data collection and analysis done by the Council on State Government’s Justice Center.
Over the past two weeks the Committee has been taking testimony from a wide array of folks including the Chief Justice, Dept. of Corrections, the Parole Board, Attorney General’s office, the Defender General, the ACLU, States Attorneys Office, Victims Services, the Chair of the Racial Disparities Advisory Panel and the Executive Director of Justice for All.
Some background: Vermont incarcerates more people than current facilities can accommodate. Revocations and returns from supervision are driving a large share of prison admissions, and limited funding leaves large numbers of high-risk people without programs and services they need to succeed in the community. Almost 80 percent of sentenced DOC admissions are for people returned or revoked from furlough, parole and probation, primarily driven by furlough violators. Nearly 80 percent of furlough returns to incarceration are due to technical violations rather than new crime offenses.
S.338 aims to improve public safety while creating immediate opportunities to reduce recidivism and achieve long-term savings by significantly reducing the number of contract beds out of state; make evidence-based programming available to support individuals transitioning back into the community and streamline the furlough system to eliminate multiple furlough status and expand parole eligibility and a system of presumptive parole. The bill also would allow probationers to earn credit toward their minimum sentence while serving probation. It would also increase the number of days per month that an incarcerated person can earn good time. A very important part of the bill is improving data collection on demographics and race across systems.
This bill has been a priority for the committee and we will continue our work making some tweaks and changes with the hope to eventually vote this out of committee bring this to the full body – remote voting willing.
If you are interested to tuning into the testimony or committee discussion you can view our committee at work via live stream or on YouTube – the link for my committee House Corrections and Institutions is here.
COFFEE WITH COFFEY MOVES TO ZOOM
During this time it’s important to stay in touch, but safely. So, I’m shifting my coffee with Coffey hours to zoom, and I hope you will join me on the 1st or 3rd Sunday of each month from 3-4pm starting Sunday April 19th.
People can join by using this zoom link. I will re-share the link and password via email and on Facebook the day before. Feel free to email me by 1PM on the day of the coffee hour if you need me to send it to you again.
I thought I’d close with a poem by Vermont poet Lynn Ungar.
What if you thought of it
as the Jews consider the Sabbath—
the most sacred of times?
Cease from travel.
Cease from buying and selling.
Give up, just for now,
on trying to make the world
different than it is.
Sing. Pray. Touch only those
to whom you commit your life.
And when your body has become still,
reach out with your heart.
Know that we are connected
in ways that are terrifying and beautiful.
(You could hardly deny it now.)
Know that our lives
are in one another’s hands.
(Surely, that has come clear.)
Do not reach out your hands.
Reach out your heart.
Reach out your words.
Reach out all the tendrils
of compassion that move, invisibly,
where we cannot touch.
Promise this world your love–
for better or for worse,
in sickness and in health,
so long as we all shall live.
Stay healthy, stay connected with each other and please stay in touch during this time of COVID-19. We are stronger together, and together we will help each other through this.
Take good care,
Windham-1/ Guilford & Vernon
House Committee on Corrections & Institutions, Room 33
House Seat 60
State House: 802-828-2424