Shaheen, Hassan call for housing aid for rural areas

  • Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, D-N.H., arrives for a meeting to discuss the coronavirus relief bill on Capitol Hill, Friday, March 20, 2020, in Washington. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik) Andrew Harnik

Valley News
Published: 4/19/2020 5:15:30 PM

Housing assistance for America’s rural communities should be included in future COVID-19 stimulus bills, New Hampshire’s Senate delegation said Sunday.

In a letter to ranking members of the Senate Appropriations Committee, Sens. Jeanne Shaheen and Maggie Hassan, both Democrats, called for additional funding for the USDA’s Rural Rental Assistance Program.

The program reduces rent paid by low-income families who live in rural or farm labor housing financed by the USDA.

While roughly $3 billion in housing assistance was included in the bipartisan CARES Act, none of that was directed to the program, according to Shaheen and Hassan.

“All across the country, in both urban and rural areas, low-income households are struggling to afford essential payments as their incomes decline,” the senators wrote in a letter cosigned by 15 colleagues.

Vermont Sen. Patrick Leahy, vice chairman of the Appropriations Committee, has “long fought for resources for rural housing” and will continue to do so while negotiating relief bills, spokesman David Carle said Sunday.

Money fight wages on

Republican Gov. Chris Sununu’s attorneys filed court papers Saturday seeking to dismiss a lawsuit brought by Democrats in the state about coronavirus relief money. New Hampshire Legislature leaders turned to the courts to try to stop Sununu from spending federal COVID-19 relief funds without their permission.

Sununu argued in court papers that the complaint “should be dismissed for lack of standing.”

New Hampshire numbers

As of Saturday, New Hampshire has recorded 1,342 positive cases of coronavirus. Thirty-eight people in the Granite State have died from COVID-19 related reasons.

Vermont college plan comes under fire

Gov. Phil Scott, top lawmakers and alumni urged the Vermont State Colleges to abandon plans to shutter three campuses and lay off hundreds of employees because of mounting financial losses, saying the closures would hurt already struggling towns and disadvantaged Vermonters seeking higher education.

In a statement Sunday, Scott said he doesn’t support the proposal announced by college officials Friday or “asking taxpayers to bail out a system that is no longer financially viable.”

“There is a far better, more positive path forward — including for the communities that rely on state college campuses to sustain their local economies — if we are creative and committed to the hard work ahead,” he said without saying what that path would entail.

Instead, Scott called on the Legislature to begin work on a statewide plan “to rethink, reform and strengthen the education system.”

The Vermont State Colleges announced plans last week to lay off 500 employees and close Northern Vermont University, which has campuses in Lyndon and Johnson.

The proposal also would consolidate Vermont Technical College into a single Williston campus, VtDigger reported.

Officials say the pandemic has forced the college system to refund $5.6 million in room and board for the spring semester. It is facing a deficit of as much as $10 million this fiscal year and as much as $12 million next year.

The state colleges’ board is scheduled to discuss the plan Monday. However, Vermont’s lawmakers joined with Scott in calling for a postponement.

Doing so would allow for time to determine the closures’ economic impact, develop a one-year “bridge budget” and convene a working group to look at the colleges’ future, according to a statement by Senate President Tim Ashe, D/P-Burlington, and House Speaker Mitzi Johnson, D-South Hero.

“While we recognize change must come, an abrupt vote to close three campuses, with three days notice, without a public plan for what comes next for the students, faculty and staff, and the host communities is not appropriate, especially in this era of unprecedented unknowns,” they said.

Meanwhile, four former Northern Vermont University student government association presidents signed a letter Sunday calling on the board of trustees to “not be short-sighted” in their decision making.

“This is more than looking at a couple years of declining enrollment, it’s about preserving our educational institution for future generations of Vermonters,” they said.

More protests planned

A Republican lawmaker in Maine is encouraging residents to join him Monday in a demonstration aimed at getting officials to reopen the state. A demonstration against lockdowns took place Saturday in New Hampshire’s capital city.

Rep. Chris Johansen, of Aroostook County, wants residents to come to Augusta, the state’s capital city, for the “Re-Open Maine” event. He posted on Facebook that residents who want to participate should “fill up your gas tanks and get ready to rumble.”

Democratic Gov. Janet Mills has issued a stay-at-home order for Maine. The governor has said repeatedly that maintaining social distancing is important to slow the spread of the virus, which has infected more than 800 people and killed 34 in the state.

Johansen has called on participants to maintain social distance and wear masks during the event.

(Material from the Associated Press contributed to this report. Tim Camerato can be reached at tcamerato@vnews.com or 603-727-3223.)

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