Vt. lawmakers add police reform to busy COVID-19 agenda

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MONTPELIER, Vt. (WCAX) Vermont lawmakers are about two-weeks away from a temporary break, but the economic fallout from the pandemic and calls for widespread police reform are keeping them busy.

Lawmakers are now looking at numerous reform efforts on the local and state level, such as banning police choke holds, requiring body cameras on officers, and expanding the collection of race data during traffic stops.

Many lawmakers are calling for this action in the face of a new focus on systemic racism in the criminal justice system. Not all of the bills have a chance this session, including one measure which would change the criteria for the use of deadly force by police.

Vermont Attorney General T.J. Donovan and other law enforcement agencies on Thursday presented their own 10-point plan for the Legislature.

If that wasn't enough, one of two reports to the Legislature this week on the economic health of the Vermont State Colleges system concluded that with enrollment declines and COVID-19 restrictions, the system is running upward of a $36 million deficit. Lawmakers requested the reports after former chancellor Jeb Spaulding faced a backlash this spring after floating a plan to close three campuses because of financial troubles.

Before the pandemic hit, the VSC system was already looking at a nearly $10 million deficit this year alone. The report before lawmakers recommends allocating up to $40 million to fill the gap for next year if revenues are short. Some lawmakers are calling on the use some of Vermont's $1.25 billion CARES Act funds to fill the hole, but the Legislature still needs clarity from the feds about how the money can be spent.

Much of next year's financial picture for VSC remains unclear because they still don't know what attendance will look like in the fall and if there will be a second wave of COVID-19.

As for Governor Scott's $400 million economic stimulus plan, the state Senate Wednesday unanimously approved some $93 million in grants for businesses hit hardest by the pandemic. About $70 million is available to businesses -- the state will decide who's eligible and how much the grants will be. Another $23 million is earmarked for securing housing for people at risk of losing their homes. The bill now moves to the House were it's expected to pass through quickly.

Lawmakers in two-weeks plan to take a break and then return for a special session to pass a budget.