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2020 Vermont Legislative Session Comes To A Close

A screen with many faces
A Zoom screenshot of the final Senate session of 2020.

Vermont reporters provide coverage of the closing of the 2020 legislative session and a roundup of other top news takeaways for Friday, Sept. 25.

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1. Vermont Legislature set to adjourn 2020 session

Lawmakers were set to adjourn the 2020 session Friday, though as of 4 p.m., the House members were still voting on a bill making changes to Act 250.

It was a legislative session delayed by the COVID-19 pandemic, and for many months, House and Senate membershad to meet using Zoom technology.

Gov. Phil Scott told members of the Senate that they had taken some critical steps to strengthen the Vermont economy, largely using federal CARES money.

“We also passed a balanced budget without raising new taxes, funded nearly $230 million in economic recovery grants to struggling employers, over $100 million for our school system and $300 million to stabilize our health care system as it mobilized to increase capacity of the front lines of this pandemic,” Scott said.

Lawmakers also overrode two of Scott's vetoes this session. One bill raised the state minimum wage and the other established carbon emission reduction targets.

- Bob Kinzel

2. Burlington mayor announces actions to increase police oversight, transparency

Burlington Mayor Miro Weinberger announced a series of actions Friday aimed at increasing transparency and oversight of police discipline.

The new initiatives include an executive order allowing the mayor to weigh in on disciplinary decisions for use-of-force incidents.

Weinberger says he’s also directing the police commission to develop policies for the regular release of body camera footage and investigations into officer conduct.

“We need to be balancing these privacy concerns and the concerns about ensuring that officers can continue to do their job with the current thinking on transparency and accountability for officers,” he said.

Weinberger also announced that he had appointed Kyle Dodson, the CEO of the Greater Burlington YMCA, to lead police reform efforts. Dodson will serve as the Director of Police Transformation, a temporary position, for six months.

The slate of reforms comes as activists have occupied a park across the street from the police department for the past month. The protesters have demanded the firing of three cops involved in high-profile use of force incidents. This week, the city council approved a buyout for one of those officers.

- Liam Elder-Connors

More from VPR: City Approves Buyout Of Burlington Cop After A Month Of Protests

3. The Health Department reports seven new COVID cases

The Vermont Department of Health reported seven new cases of COVID-19 Friday. Three of the new cases are in Chittenden County, two are in Windsor County and Bennington and Franklin counties both have one.

Another 1,069 people tested negative for the disease.

So far, 159,279 people total have been tested, and the state has identified 1,731 cases of the coronavirus. Two people in Vermont are currently hospitalized, and 58 people have died to date.

- Karen Anderson

4. Gov. Phil Scott condemns president's "dangerous rhetoric"

Gov. Phil Scott says the president’s comments this week, that Trump might not accept the results of November’s election, are “dangerous rhetoric.”

Scott, a Republican, has frequently criticized actions and comments made by Trump, and says the president's latest statements are only leading to more polarization.

“But I think this is dangerous rhetoric, and I think it further galvanizes the divide we’re seeing across the nation,” Scott said. “And I think there should be, as has happened throughout our history, a peaceful transition of power.”

Scott says he will not vote for Trump in November — but he has not decided whether he’ll vote for former Vice President Joe Biden, the Democratic candidate.

- Liam Elder-Connors

5. Political science professor sounds alarm on President Trump's remarks about peaceful transfer of power

A Dartmouth College political science professor is sounding the alarm in response to President Trump's refusal to say he would accept the outcome of a presidential election that he loses.

Brendan Nyhan has used the phrase "a democratic emergency" in a number of successive tweets, saying the country has never seen a president refuse to commit to the peaceful transfer of power before.

“That is the very core of our democratic system, or indeed any democracy at all,” Nyhan said. “The president has signaled that he may not uphold that commitment. This is an emergency.”

Nyhan says his colleagues studying democratic erosion in other countries are “terrified” at what they are witnessing in the U.S..

Read/hear the full interview.

- Mitch Wertlieb and Sam Gale Rosen

6. Lawmakers considering uniform, statewide use-of-force policy

Legislation that creates a uniform statewide policy on the use of force by law enforcement officers is making its way through the Legislature in the final days of the session.

The bill also establishes a system to hold officers accountable if their actions violate these policies.

Senate Judiciary committee chairman Dick Sears acknowledged that a number of law enforcement groups oppose the bill because they're concerned that a police officer could be killed or severely injured if the officer takes too much time to consider using force in a specific situation.

But Sears argued that the bill is still needed.

“But I do think it's time that we have standards, and I think it is appropriate for the Legislature to oversee and guide police use of force in Vermont,” Sears said.

Under the Senate bill, the legislation would go into effect next July. The House will now consider that time frame.

- Bob Kinzel

7. Lieutenant governor candidates looking to build bipartisan coalitions

Both lieutenant governor candidates are working to build a bipartisan coalition of voters as they campaign for the open seat.

Democrat Molly Gray says Vermonters across the state are facing the same challenges, regardless of their political affiliation.

“It’s equal access to broadband. It’s access to childcare for working parents. It’s workforce development, so that we can get our graduates into good-paying jobs,” she said. “The issues we are facing today are not party issues, they’re not political issues so much as they are issues that are facing Vermonters.

Republican Scott Milne, who previously ran for governor and the U.S. Senate, has now received endorsements from two sitting Democratic lawmakers. And he says his progressive stance on social issues sets him apart from national Republicans.

“And I believe the things that I stand for are bipartisan,” Milne said. “The things that I’ve stood for my whole life are bipartisan.”

A new VPR-Vermont PBS poll shows the candidates in a statistical dead heat, and that nearly a quarter of voters are still undecided about the lieutenant governor’s race.

Read/hear the full story.

- Peter Hirschfeld

8. Syrian family who arrived in Rutland as refugees get their new home

Habitat for Humanity is celebrating the completion of their latest home in Rutland, which helps fulfill a dream for a Syrian family who arrived in Rutland with nothing.

Hazar Mansour and her husband Hussam Alhallak not only purchased the cream-colored, energy efficient home in Rutland, but they helped Habitat for Humanity volunteers build it.

The couple and two of their children arrived in Rutland from Syria in January 2017 as refugees. Today, both parents work as accountants.

More from VPR: 'Magical Place For Us': Syrian Family Finds New Home In Rutland

Habitat for Humanity volunteer Dick Malley of Pawlet was one of 145 people who worked on the project, and says he’s thrilled to see the family in their new home.

“Their story is nothing short of inspirational. I get goosebumps when I think about what they’ve been through,” Malley said. “Their faith and hard work, what a tremendous testimony to them and to our community that it has worked out so wonderfully.”

Construction on the house was delayed because of COVID-19. A virtual dedication will be held Saturday. 

- Nina Keck

9. Health Commissioner: Get your flu shot

Vermont’s top health official is urging residents to get this year’s flu vaccine.

Health Commissioner Mark Levine says he recommends anyone older than six months get this year’s shot. He says the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic makes it even more important for people to get vaccinated.

“We don’t how common it might be to get the flu and COVID,” Levine said. “We also don’t know whether a surge in cases of COVID and the flu could happen at the same time, a so-called “twin-demic” that could realistically overwhelm anybody’s health care system.”

Levine says the Health Department has more doses of the vaccine than usual and that they’ll be doing community outreach to make sure everyone has an opportunity to get the shot.

He says in an average year, about half the population gets a flu shot – but this year, he hopes that number will be closer to 60% or 70%.

- Liam Elder-Connors

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