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Vermont Legislature
Follow VPR's statehouse coverage, featuring Pete Hirschfeld and Bob Kinzel in our Statehouse Bureau in Montpelier.

They Can't Vote Remotely, But Vermont Lawmakers Get Involved In Coronavirus Response

Statehouse doors with signs stating it is closed.
John Dillon
Signs on the Vermont Statehouse doors spell out the new reality for lawmakers and their constituents.

The "People’s House" is closed. The Vermont Legislature adjourned last Friday until next Tuesday, and probably for longer.

But that doesn't mean legislative work has ground to a halt.

The House and Senate met in a series of conference calls Tuesday as lawmakers respond to the developing coronavirus crisis.

The Legislature left town with a number of issues unresolved: A tax and regulate system for marijuana sales, a rewrite of Act 250, and legislation designed to help the state’s solar industry, among other bills. Everything now is on hold.

Chittenden County Democrat and Senate President Tim Ashe urged his colleagues to make sure that responding to the coronavirus was their job No. 1.

"I know there are many things lingering from the work we've been doing in the past week. But obviously, it would be grossly out of touch to not be prioritizing and emphasizing your committees' potential response to the crisis." – Senate President Tim Ashe

“I hope that every committee discussion starts with an emphasis on how your particular committee may take action or recommend policies to address the crisis in front of us,” he said. “I know there are many things lingering from the work we’ve been doing in the past week. But obviously, it would be grossly out of touch to not be prioritizing and emphasizing your committees’ potential response to the crisis.”

The news and issues covered on the conference calls ranged from the mega-important to the mundane. On the earth-shattering side, Ken Schatz, the commissioner of the Department for Children and Families, told a Joint Rules Committee that the state will order all child care centers closed except for those serving “essential workers.”

Those persons will include health care workers and first responders. Others, such as grocery store employees who stock store shelves? TBD.

“I highlighted health care workers and first responders, but the list of essential persons that comes out in the guidance will be broader than that,” Schatz said. “We do want to be flexible.”

“Wonderful,” replied Sen. Becca Balint, a Windham Democrat and Senate Majority Leader, who had told Schatz that stores and their workers are providing an essential service.

The Legislature is the branch of government closest to the people. So lawmakers see their role as seeking answers to questions their constituents raise. They also said they are ready to vote for financial assistance for Vermonters as needed.

In the House, South Burlington Democratic Rep. Ann Pugh is the lead contact for getting answers from the Gov. Phil Scott's administration. She told her colleagues she would be the conduit for information requests.

"My role in some ways is to funnel [questions], so that the administration and different branches of the administration is not responding individually to 150 of us." – Rep. Ann Pugh

“My role in some ways is to funnel, so that the administration and different branches of the administration is not responding individually to 150 of us,” she said.

The questions lawmakers say they’re getting include whether laid-off restaurant workers will get unemployment assistance. (The answer is yes). Others are concerned whether tax deadlines will be extended. (The state is waiting on the IRS). And more wanted to know if the state will help small businesses crushed as customers stay home. On that last one, lawmakers said they are willing but are considering how best to help.

Lawmakers now are in a listening- and asking- mode, since they can’t actually vote on anything unless they are physically present, according to Mason’s Rules, the Bible for legislative procedure.

Senate Secretary John Bloomer, a widely recognized authority on parliamentary process, wrote in an email that the state Constitution also says lawmakers have to be present when they call for a roll call, for example.

“It appears a fair reading of the Constitution requires the assembly of the body together in a single location [to act],” he wrote. Bloomer added that most of these rules also apply to committee votes.

The Legislature adjourned until Tuesday, March 24. But it’s likely its hiatus will last longer, especially given governor's restriction on mass gatherings of 50 people or more. Conceivably, the 30-member Senate could meet, but not the 150-person House.

But Ashe, the Senate President, said lawmakers stand ready to return if they are needed quickly for a vote on a major appropriation, such as emergency assistance for businesses. He said he hoped to know more by Thursday.

“Right now, just operate under the assumption we could come back for quick strike action early next week,” he said. “But we will only do that if we are told that without it, people will not have their needs met.”

John worked for VPR in 2001-2021 as reporter and News Director. Previously, John was a staff writer for the Sunday Times Argus and the Sunday Rutland Herald, responsible for breaking stories and in-depth features on local issues. He has also served as Communications Director for the Vermont Health Care Authority and Bureau Chief for UPI in Montpelier.
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