The Vermont Senate voted remotely for the first time in its history on Friday, passing a package of four bills that included a statewide moratorium on evictions and foreclosures.
All 30 senators, dressed in their Sunday best, participated in the video conference call from the comfort of their homes. Lt. Gov. David Zuckerman presided over the session from the nearly empty Senate chamber.
Lawmakers have been meeting via conference call and video-conferencing platforms since closing the Statehouse on March 13 due to fears of spreading the coronavirus, returning only in limited instances when required.
Friday’s session marked the first time lawmakers cast votes on legislation without meeting in person under the Golden Dome of the august granite Statehouse building in Montpelier.
It was at times a comically tedious process entailing more than 20 separate roll call votes where senators, to conform with remote voting rules, intoned "yes" over and over and over during the more than two-hour-long session.
“That was easy,” Senate Pro Tempore Tim Ashe (D/P- Chittenden) quipped with a grin after the final vote was tallied.
Vermont Senate voting via teleconference Friday.
Sen. Mark MacDonald (D-Orange) offered his colleagues a round of applause after the bills passed, and Zuckerman praised lawmakers for their patience navigating the new legislative normal.
“I think, in general, everybody did quite well for the first time,” Zuckerman said from the podium, a large computer monitor before him bearing the live images of senators Zooming in from the far reaches of the state.
The voting certainly went more smoothly than last week's Senate Agriculture Committee meeting, when pranksters hijacked the session and uploaded pornography for shocked senators and the public to see.
Friday's session was far less exciting, with the bills approved somehow seeming less consequential than the manner of their passage.
One involved miscellaneous changes to legal requirements, such as allowing defendants to waive the need for them to appear in court and allowing documents to be notarized using remote technologies.
Another allows sheriff’s departments, which are experiencing shortfalls in revenue from decreased transportation of prisoners, to more easily tap reserve funds.
A third requires background checks on employees of private contractors that work in sensitive areas of state buildings.
The most closely watched bill passed Friday, however, was the moratorium on evictions and foreclosures until 30 days after the lifting of Vermont's state of emergency. Gov. Phil Scott on Friday extended the state of emergency order until at least May 15.
The eviction moratorium is intended to keep people in their homes at a time when the governor has ordered them to do so to prevent the virus from spreading further.
Courtesy of David Zuckerman
The Senate chamber during remote voting Friday.
By the time the Senate got its bill drafted and passed, however, its impact had been somewhat muted. Some courts had already imposed a de facto moratorium on new evictions; several individual Superior Court judges had gone further to block pending evictions; and various federal laws or rules had called a halt to foreclosures on properties with federally backed loans.
Sen. Michael Sirotkin (D-Chittenden) acknowledged that the bill’s scope was very narrow. He estimated that it would only affect about 25 properties in the state where courts had issued writs of possession — as evictions are known in legalese — in favor of landlords but where a sheriff had yet to serve the orders on tenants.
“This is a carefully crafted bill that was worked on extensively to the agreement of the landlords and tenants, and they are both supportive,” Sirotkin said.
All four bills were approved unanimously and after little debate. The process went smoothly aside from a few hiccups that by now have become commonplace with any large group meeting virtually.
Sen. Dick McCormack (D-Windsor) had to shush an unseen family member making a racket during the debate. The video of Sen. Andy Perchlik (D-Washington) froze at one point, delaying his ability to vote on one item. And backlighting made Sen. James McNeil (R-Rutland) appear as a vaguely malevolent silhouette.
At one point, someone’s phone vibrated loudly during a vote, and Zuckerman, a persistent enforcer of Senate rules against electronic devices in the chamber, offered a firm reminder.
“Someone’s phone is ringing,” Zuckerman said. “This is a roll call vote!”
To ensure transparency, the Senate rules for remote voting require each senator to voice his or her vote, known as a roll call vote. Ashe proposed speeding that process up with voice votes, which would have allowed those present to voice their votes together for efficiency. But he got some pushback.
“We’re an hour into our new system and, personally, I’m a little uncomfortable changing it on the fly,” Sen. Chris Pearson (P/D-Chittenden) said.
Ashe withdrew the motion, and the voting on each of the four bills took place multiple times, as the second and third reading of the bills — normally spaced a day apart — were compressed into a single, monotonous session.
The bills will still need the approval of the House, which has yet to hold a remote vote though it has set that process in motion, as well.
Disclosure: Tim Ashe is the domestic partner of Seven Days publisher and coeditor Paula Routly. Find our conflict-of-interest policy at sevendaysvt.com/disclosure.