MONTPELIER – It’s a question that’s probably been on the minds of many Vermonters for weeks now – when can we expect the next round of federal COVID-19 relief?
On Thursday, Rep. Peter Welch (D) spoke with Vermont lawmakers about a $1.9 trillion bill headed for a vote in the U.S. House of Representatives on Friday.
The vote comes just over a week before enhanced unemployment benefits are set to expire, and as many businesses approach nearly a year of shuttered doors. The $1.9 trillion package includes $1,400 unemployment checks for those making under $75,000 annually, additional funding for vaccine distribution, and a much-needed boost for state and local governments.
This time around, Welch said there’s additional flexibility in how the state and individual municipalities can spread the money around.
“They’d have some flexibility to say, partner with a local food shelf or a local nonprofit,” Welch said. “Our job is to get the resources back to the people of Vermont.”
Welch added that Vermont would receive roughly $960 billion in relief under the House bill. It includes money to help schools prepare to reopen safely, extend enhanced unemployment, and spur economic recovery for hard-hit businesses.
Some state legislators wondered about the scope of what can be done with the relief, specifically whether it can help set up Vermont for future growth once the pandemic is over.
I’m curious about the focus not just on responding to COVID or the pandemic, but I hope there will be room for how we move out of the pandemic,” said Rep. Mary Hooper (D-Washington).
Welch said the bill’s primary purpose is to provide relief for the immediate needs brought on by COVID-19.
“This is not an alternative for say, an infrastructure plan or an education bill you might be consider, things that would be necessary for us to do independent of COVID,” Welch said.
An early sticking point that could hold the bill up in the U.S. Senate is the inclusion of a $15 federal minimum wage. Even Senator Joe Manchin, a West Virginia Democrat, said he supports $11 over $15. Some Vermont Republicans are also apprehensive.
“Obviously, it has a much broader impact than just direct support or direct recovery from the pandemic,” said Rep. Martha Feltus (D-Caledonia). “Can you give us an indication of how likely that might be?”
That part of the relief bill still needs to get past the Senate parliamentary process, but Welch was adamant about the necessity of including the wage hike.
“The outcome is uncertain, I think minimum wage will be included in the House bill,” Welch said. ‘We haven’t had that debate in over a decade, so we’ve essentially abandoned any federal commitment to minimum wage.”