Vt. leaders wrestle with how to spend CARES Act funding by years end

Published: Oct. 28, 2020 at 3:48 PM EDT
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BURLINGTON, Vt. (WCAX) - The state of Vermont raked in over $165 million in tax revenue last month, shattering expectations in the current coronavirus-battered economy. The windfall is in large part because the state economy is being propped up by over a billion in federal CARES Act relief.

The clock is ticking to spend hundreds of millions of dollars in federal aid. So far, Vermont has spent roughly $600 million on direct payments to hospitals, small businesses, farms, PPE for schools, and meals for families out of work. The remaining cash is earmarked for specific purposes like more ventilation in schools, health care grants, among others. But if the funds aren’t spent by the end of the year, the state will have to give it back.

“What matters most is money to families and investment in jobs,” said Michelle Fay with Reach Up, a coalition of Vermont groups that seeks to lift children and families out of poverty. She’s urging lawmakers to reallocate some of the funds as a one-time cash payment to some 7,000 families who fell through the cracks and didn’t receive $1,200 stimulus checks in the spring. “Most likely it was in their communities, it was paying rent it was paying bills it was buying food. It’s good for the families and it’s good for communities to get these funds circulating.”

But REACH UP is one of the numerous special interests looking for money. Lawmakers say the state needs to be flexible in reallocating money as COVID cases rise and Vermont’s economic outlook remains unclear going into the winter. “It’s the classic exercise that we do when we build a budget. Out of all of those requests - how do we prioritize?” said Sen. Jane Kitchel, D-Caledonia County.

But setting up the framework for distributing money takes time. From building a program to taking and reviewing applications to getting the money out the door. “How can we use this money so it can meet the immediate need but also provide a long-term benefit for the state?” Kitchel said.

Lawmakers are meeting every other week to re-evaluate the needs of different sectors and administration officials are digging into previous investments that may have been redundant or in violation of federal guidelines. “So, they’ve altered them five or six times, so sometimes reading new guidelines you realize an appropriation that we made or considered was not appropriate,” said Vt. Finance Commissioner Adam Greshin.

That data will be available next week. Even if some money isn’t appropriated in time, it’s unlikely Vermont will have to give any money back before the December 30 deadline, because any remaining money can be quickly transferred into the state’s unemployment trust fund.

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