Expecting disaster funding proposal from Biden, Vermont’s delegation makes final plea for flood aid

President Joe Biden is expected to propose a special appropriations package in the coming days, according to U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders’ office.

By: Sarah Mearhoff; VTDigger

In anticipation that President Joe Biden will soon propose a special appropriations package to help states recover from a slew of natural disasters, Vermont’s congressional delegation is making a final plea to the White House: Their small state needs substantial federal aid to recover from this summer’s catastrophic floods.

According to the office of U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., Biden is expected to announce a special appropriations proposal in the coming days. In the weeks since flooding first hit Vermont in July, the state’s senior senator has been in close contact with the president, including in a private White House meeting with the president on July 17, to make the case for Vermont, according to Sanders’ office.

On Wednesday, Vermont’s three-member federal delegation sent the president a letter emphasizing the need for “ample funding from Congress for a disaster supplemental appropriations bill that meets the needs of our state.”

Sanders, U.S. Sen. Peter Welch, D-Vt., and U.S. Rep. Becca Balint, D-Vt., urged Biden in the letter to focus a funding request on “long-term disaster response and mitigation work.” The delegation requested the president inject dollars into a slew of federal agencies to help mend Vermont’s businesses and farms, as well as transportation, water, wastewater and dam infrastructure.

“We ask you to work closely with Congress to move this funding bill expeditiously, so important federal resources for disaster response and recovery become available to states like Vermont as quickly as possible,” the delegation wrote.

Congress is currently in its August recess, and any spending bills would need to wait until September, when members return from their home states, to receive a vote. But even while lawmakers are away from Washington, work is being done behind the scenes to hammer out a special bill, which could take a nationwide approach to natural disaster aid and mitigation.

Vermont is far from the only state to be hammered by a natural disaster this year, as climate change has fueled more frequent and severe weather patterns throughout the country. Welch previously told VTDigger that, by taking a nationwide approach, he hopes that even a divided Congress could come to an agreement on a spending plan. In previous years, negotiations over natural disaster aid packages have become embroiled in partisan politicking.

In the weeks since Vermont was pummeled with historic rainfall, resulting in devastating flooding in much of the state, officials in municipal, state and federal government have emphasized: A tiny state, with a relatively small tax base and budget, cannot bear the brunt of its flood-related costs alone.

At a July 25 press conference, Vermont Public asked Gov. Phil Scott if Vermont was “absolutely depending” on congressional aid in order to recover from the floods.

“No,” the governor answered, “we are going to make a recovery. But we can make a better recovery if we have additional funding.”

Scott expressed some skepticism that Congress would deliver. “I don’t know if I have as much confidence as is needed,” he said. But, the governor added, “I think there’s a realization amongst members of Congress, that it could be them next, if it already hasn’t been them.”

“These storms don’t just go to a red state or a blue state. They hit them all,” Scott, a Republican, said last month. “I think it could be that, whoever is being the obstacle, their state could be next.”

The White House has already stepped in to offer Vermont aid that does not require congressional approval. Within days of the initial wave of flooding in July, Biden approved a major disaster declaration for Vermont, quickly deploying Federal Emergency Management Agency resources to the state. The disaster declaration also opened up federal aid to repair public services and vital infrastructure in all 14 counties, as well as individual aid to residents in nine counties.

In addition to the major disaster declaration, top cabinet officials have traveled to Vermont from Washington, D.C., including U.S. Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttigieg and FEMA Administrator Deanne Criswell — a clear signal from the White House that Vermont was on its radar.

Small businesses and farms are not eligible for FEMA aid, but there are some federal programs already available to such entities. For small businesses, that means low-interest disaster loans from the Small Business Administration, and for farmers, low-interest loans from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Farm Service Administration, or crop insurance payouts, if a farmer carried coverage.

Vermont’s agricultural industry, in particular, appears to have suffered a severe blow, according to early estimates. In its letter, the delegation cited a recent USDA report estimating that “anywhere between 145,000 and 686,000 acres of agricultural land in the state has been impacted by flooding.”

But Vermont’s state officials and congressional delegation have said for weeks that pre-existing aid programs, including those leveraged by Biden’s disaster declaration, are simply not enough.