The Vermont House of Representatives during better times
Members of the Vermont House — at least, a few of them — plan to return to Montpelier on Wednesday to consider emergency legislation responding to the coronavirus outbreak. The unprecedented session, in the middle of a global pandemic, would follow a similar one the Senate plans to hold on Tuesday.
While the House expects to take action on significant legislation, Speaker Mitzi Johnson (D-South Hero) urged her colleagues during a conference call Monday to stay away, if possible, in order to prevent the further spread of coronavirus. She assured House members that only measures agreed to by leaders of each political party would be considered.
"The House will be in session. We will be conducting business," Johnson said. "I cannot restrict a legislator from being there because we are conducting business. For the sake of public health, we are encouraging people to not come so that we minimize the number of people in the room."
Though the House must technically maintain a quorum — more than half of its 150 members — to do its business, Johnson explained that the rule is only enforced when a legislator calls for a count. She heavily hinted during the conference call that House members should refrain from doing so. "This is a very delicate dance," she said.
When the Senate meets on Tuesday, it plans to do so with a bare quorum, or 16 of its 30 members, Senate President Tim Ashe (D/P-Chittenden) announced last week. The Senate plans to stage senators throughout the Statehouse to maintain a "social distance" from one another.
Both the House and the Senate are considering moving to remote voting in order to avoid assembling in the Statehouse for the foreseeable future. The building was closed earlier this month as the virus began spreading throughout the state.
The House plans to take up resolutions on Wednesday that would allow the full House and its committees to debate and vote electronically.
"This is obviously a substantial change in how we do our jobs, and we're working through all of the details to make sure that we are doing this in the most effective and respectful and necessary way that meets all of our constitutional obligations, as well as our duties to our constituents and the state to take action," Johnson said.
The Senate also expects to take up resolutions on Tuesday allowing for remote committee voting, but leaders of the chamber were continuing to discuss whether the full Senate should follow suit.
Three Senate committees have spent the past week hammering out the details of policy measures designed to respond to the outbreak and the economic shock that has followed. Chairs of corresponding House committees have also been involved in the discussions, trying to achieve consensus so that both chambers can approve identical versions and avoid a prolonged presence in the Statehouse.
The measures are intended to bolster the capacity of Vermont's health care system, expand access to unemployment benefits and allow local governments to meet remotely. Most would expire at or near the end of the coronavirus emergency.
During a phone meeting of the full Senate on Sunday morning, chairs of the relevant committees briefed their colleagues on the legislation they expect to come up this week. Here are the highlights:
Senate Committee on Health and Welfare provisions:
Sen. Ginny Lyons (D-Chittenden) said Sunday that her committee's immediate goal was "to make it easier for [health care] providers — including hospitals, independent providers and others — to carry out the work that they need to do as we go through this pandemic."
To that end, the measures her committee drafted would:
Allow the state to waive or modify the "provider tax" hospitals pay in order to keep them solvent during the response to the pandemic.
Allow the state to waive certain regulatory requirements for hospitals, nursing homes and residential care facilities to, as the bill puts it, "allow for continuation of operations with a reduced workforce and with flexible staffing arrangements that are responsive to evolving needs."
Provide the regulatory Green Mountain Care Board latitude in reviewing hospital budgets and rates and issuing certificates of need.
Allow retired health care workers and those who are licensed out of state to practice in Vermont during the emergency.
Allow pharmacists to refill prescriptions for a longer period of time for those with chronic conditions and substitute drugs for ones that are not readily available.
Allow health care providers to prescribe buprenorphine without an office visit to those with substance use disorder.
Empower mental health providers to isolate patients who test positive for COVID-19 without being penalized for treating them involuntarily.
Expand the use of tele-health and tele-medicine so that medical providers can treat patients remotely.
Senate Committee on Economic Development, Housing and General Affairs provisions:
Sen. Michael Sirotkin (D-Chittenden) said his committee was focusing on expanding access to unemployment insurance to those affected by the coronavirus outbreak.
"We approached it from the perspective of making sure that people who apply for unemployment would get it [in order to] flatten the curve that we all talk about," Sirotkin said. "So if there were risks of spreading the disease or catching the disease or infecting others, we decided in favor of making sure people were eligible for unemployment."
His committee is seeking to:
Formalize Gov. Phil Scott's decision last week to waive the requirement that those on unemployment actively seek a new job.
Allow certain people who quit their jobs due to the pandemic to collect unemployment. Included in the provision are those who are diagnosed with COVID-19, experiencing symptoms, at high risk of infection, caring for a family member with the disease, or caring for children whose school or daycare has been closed.
Prevent businesses from being penalized when their employees go out on unemployment.
"All of our constituents who get laid off should be eligible for unemployment," Sirotkin said.
Senate Committee on Government Operations provisions:
Sen. Jeanette White (D-Windham) said her committee was seeking statutory changes to ensure that the 2020 election is held safely and that local governments can continue to do their jobs.
Her committee has drafted language that would:
Allow the secretary of state, in consultation and agreement with the governor, to change election rules in order to administer them safely. Among the possibilities would be to move to mail-in voting, establish early ballot collection stations or allow "drive-up, car window collection of ballots."
Waive the requirement that candidates for public office collect a certain number of signatures to appear on the ballot.
Waive portions of the open meeting law to allow public bodies to gather and vote remotely, so long as the public still has access.
Allow municipalities that currently hold town meetings to immediately move to Australian balloting.
Disclosure: Tim Ashe is the domestic partner of Seven Days publisher and coeditor Paula Routly. Find our conflict-of-interest policy here: sevendaysvt.com/disclosure.