Federal deadlines limited how much COVID-19 relief funds the House opted to invest in broadband expansion, according to House Speaker Mitzi Johnson.

Johnson, D-South Hero, spoke remotely at a virtual news conference Monday about how the House voted late last week to appropriate nearly $1 billion in federal coronavirus relief aid.

She was joined by House Majority Leader, Jill Krowinski, D-Burlington, chairwoman of the House Committee on Appropriations, Kitty Toll, D-Danville, and Chairwoman of theHhouse Committee on Ways and Means, Janet Ancel, D-Calais,

Toll said the House allocated $20 million in federal funds to broadband connectivity.

“Which is critical as we have learned the greater need for connectivity as our children were learning remotely and more people were forced to work remotely due to the pandemic,” she said. “Within that $20 million there was an extension of broadband, last-mile connections, telehealth, and long-term planning into the future so that Vermonters can work remotely by choice, or if by need, and the same for children learning, whether it’s pre-k through 12 or higher education, either by choice or by need.”

Johnson was asked, given that federal rules require coronavirus relief funds be spent by the end of the year, if it was possible to get said connectivity projects up and running within the given time frame. She said that’s one reason the allocation is $20 million — not $100 million.

“Honestly, we were trying to figure out how to invest a whole lot more, specifically so we could get as much build-out as possible, and it was the time factor that was the biggest limitation for us,” she said.

The legislature had been looking at how to expand high-speed internet access prior to the pandemic. The funds allocated so far could see up to 1,000 “last-mile” homes connected by the end of December, and there’s $800,000 in there for telehealth services, which many providers are moving towards. She said since last year, when the Legislature passed a law allowing for the creation of communications districts, several have already formed while others are working on coming together.

“I hope we’re able to spend $20 million in closing that digital divide; we’ve always known it was there,” she said. “Real estate agents tell us all the time that properties are more or less desirable based on whether there’s cell service and high speed access at that property.”

She said seeing the number of students who had challenges learning remotely after the pandemic led to school closures was further evidence of the need for greater broadband access.

“We felt like this was the largest reasonable chunk of money that we could put into closing that digital divide in Vermont and we’ll be keeping a close eye on it,” she said.

Getting all addresses in the state high speed broadband could cost between $85 million and $293 million, according to Clay Purvis, director of the Telecommunications and Connectivity Division at the Department of Public Service, who testified before the Senate Committee on Finance in late April.

The representatives highlighted other action taken by the House so far this year.

“There’s more to come in August, but the main focus of our extended session was to pass critical legislation to help get Vermonters through this crisis,” said Johnson. “A very significant piece of that was a $275 million investment in stabilizing our healthcare system that stepped up when we needed them to and really found ways to serve all Vermonters and keep Vermonters safe. We are so grateful for everything that they’ve done.”

She said the relief funds available to medical providers are calculated to keep them in businesses and are not based on their spending.

With regard to economic relief, Toll said a $70 million package had been passed previously with guidance on how to apply and how funds can be used to be released by the administration soon. The money approved by the House on Friday contained another $93 million, for a total of $163 million in economic aid.

“Additionally, we passed a hazard pay provision which includes $28 million,” said Toll. “The federal guidance from the Treasury continues to change and the focus really was on front line workers in the health care field.”

Another $12 million went to child care centers, she said.

According to Ancel, about $85 million approved by the House will be direct aid to Vermonters. It includes $5 million for foreclosure protection; $25 million for eviction protection; $250,000 for landlord counseling and assistance; $6.2 million for rehousing initiatives; and $32 million to Vermont Housing and Conservation to distribute in the form of housing grants. Toll said the latter represents an opportunity to make long-term investments that will extend beyond the pandemic crisis.

She said the Vermont Foodbank will receive $4.7 million, while summer meals programs would get $12 million. The House also approved a Senate bill that would make it easier for those in high-risk jobs to get workers’ compensation.

Not all of the House’s activities were directly related to the COVID-19 pandemic. Krowinski talked about some laws aimed at improving racial equity in Vermont.

“This legislative session we began with some of this work with the passage of Act 1, establishing a task force to address social equity in our statewide academic standards,” she said. “We passed Proposition 2, a proposal of amendment to the Vermont Constitution that removes references to slavery and indentured servitude and clarifies that these act are prohibited.”

She said S.219 was passed by the House last week and sent to Gov. Phil Scott.

“Some of the highlights of that bill is it provides grant funding to local law enforcement, except it will be contingent on the Secretary of Administration confirming that law enforcement agencies have complied and complied with racial justice reporting requirements,” she said. “It creates a new crime for law enforcement, using prohibited restraint that causes serious bodily injury or death and requires the Department of Public Safety to equip all State Police with video recording devices by Oct. 1, 2020.”

Some COVID funds were allocated with racial equity in mind. Krowinski mentioned $5 million in grants are available to businesses owned by women and minorities, $50,000 went to the state Director of Racial Equity, $700,000 to public outreach for new Americans, and $1.5 million to, “disproportionately impacted communities across Vermont.”

She also noted the House having passed an increase in the minimum wage.

keith.whitcomb @rutlandherald.com

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