Lawmakers keep their distance last month in the Vermont Senate chamber
The Vermont Senate is poised to return to the Statehouse next week to grant lawmakers the ability to pass bills from their homes.
The Senate Rules Committee unanimously backed a proposal Friday afternoon that would allow lawmakers to start approving legislation remotely as they continue to respond to the coronavirus crisis.
During a Friday morning virtual meeting with the full Senate, President Pro Tempore Tim Ashe (D/P-Chittenden) said he expected the in-person vote to occur on Wednesday and likely feature a quorum of at least 16 members.
"While we hope to not need 30 people there, it will be the same as last time," Ashe said, referring to when lawmakers returned to the Statehouse last week to pass several emergency relief measures. "Anyone who wishes will have the right to be there."
The Senate's remote voting approval will likely be a less contentious affair than that of the House, where dozens of members were forced to return to Montpelier last week after Rep. Cynthia Browning (D-Arlington) insisted that a quorum be present. The chamber eventually passed the measure but still needs to hold a remote vote to approve the change.
In virtual meetings this week, Senators have sought to iron out any potential flareups before returning to the Statehouse in hopes of limiting their time in the cramped building.
The rules committee on Friday agreed that the remote voting measure should sunset at the end of the biennium to make it more palatable to the entire chamber. The committee also decided to hold off on any other bills until the proposal passes so that lawmakers who prefer to stay home due to health concerns would still be able to weigh in.
Despite the consensus-building efforts, Ashe warned that lawmakers who feel so inclined still have a right to "debate" the proposal on the floor. "We’ll just have to make sure people are properly distanced and we have the safest environment possible," he said.
Senators have already received a crash course in remote lawmaking since closing the Statehouse more than three weeks ago. Among the many lessons so far: ensuring that the proper security protocols are in place. On Thursday, lawmakers looked on in horror as anonymous pranksters hijacked a Senate committee meeting with pornographic images and racial slurs. State officials told Seven Days the snafu was the result of confidential information meant for meeting participants being erroneously shared.
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.