The Vermont House of Representatives voting Thursday
Nearly six weeks after fleeing the Statehouse to avoid spreading the coronavirus, Vermont’s House of Representatives was finally able to begin remotely passing bills that are intended to address the pandemic.
Using the Zoom video-conferencing platform, the 150-member House on Thursday approved a series of COVID-19 measures the Senate had already passed. The first batch of relief measures are now headed to Gov. Phil Scott for his signature.
“We’re in an extraordinary time, where safety requires that we avoid coming together as a group,” Rep. Anne Donahue (R-Northfield) said. “And yet we cannot simply suspend our responsibilities.”
It’s not the first time House lawmakers have passed coronavirus-related bills. They approved a package of them on March 25, including some to expand unemployment and health care access, and to relax election and open meeting laws.
But the House did that in person, a procedure complicated by Rep. Cynthia Browning (D-Arlington), who insisted that a majority of members show up at the Statehouse for the votes.
Browning said she was standing on principle and that the rules needed to be followed, even in a public health emergency. Speaker Mitzi Johnson (D-South Hero) was livid, and the next day, she publicly upbraided Browning and stripped her of her committee post.
Johnson had struck a deal with House Republicans to allow the final vote permitting remote voting to take place by remote voting, which Browning said made no sense.
But when that vote finally came Thursday morning, it was approved unanimously, 148-0. Even Browning voted for it, albeit by telephone, unlike the majority of her colleagues who appeared on video.
Getting all 150 state representatives, many of whom are tech-averse, to meet via Zoom and to vote using an application called Everbridge — or by phone, if they preferred — was a bigger challenge than for the 30-member Senate.
In recent weeks, the House held several practice sessions and one-on-one trainings with members to get them comfortable with the technology, but it was still slow-going on game day.
“I can’t make this thing work again!” Rep. Robert Helm (R-Fair Haven) fumed during one of the votes.
At times, members had trouble remembering to unmute themselves before speaking, after getting Johnson’s attention with Zoom’s hand-waving function. And clerk William MaGill, appearing from the floor of the House chamber, had to ensure that the votes were properly tallied, which also made the process cumbersome.
How lawmakers should appear on screen was an additional issue. On a trial run the previous day, members asked whether they could dispense with the jacket and tie that's required in the House chamber. Johnson kept the rule in place.
Rep. John Killacky (D-South Burlington) urged his colleagues to be careful with how they used Zoom’s green screen function, which allows participants to have a photograph as their background.
“They don’t look very professional,” Killacky complained.
Others objected to members using a background of the inside of the House chamber, expressing concern that the public might assume that some members were actually voting from there.
But on Thursday, Zoom backgrounds were de rigueur.
Rep. Robert Hooper (D-Burlington) was one of several legislators who used a photo of the golden-domed Statehouse as a backdrop, apparently unconcerned about giving constituents the impression that he was voting from the capitol building's lawn.
Rep. Nelson Brownell (D-North Pownal) looked more like an astronaut than a lawmaker with a background that looked as though he were orbiting the earth.
And Rep. Kelly Pajala (I-Londonderry) danced in a sunlit field, or at least that’s how it looked as she adjusted the angle on her camera, sending her image jerking wildly up and down.
Zoom green screens are just one of several anomalies lawmakers and the public are getting used to in the world of remote voting.
In some ways, the voting is more transparent than the normal process in Montpelier, allowing the public to watch lawmakers debate and vote on bills live or to watch it on video later. In other ways, the limitations of the platform made the process less clear.
The public YouTube broadcast only shows 25 representatives at a time, leaving the majority of lawmakers off screen. And the voting process doesn’t always show who voted how. While most bills Thursday passed unanimously, at least two had a single “no” vote, and the clerk gave no indication of who it might have been.
Despite the glitches, the House passed two bills in the morning session. H.741 allows background checks on contractors who work in state buildings, aimed at ensuring that people with criminal records are not allowed into sensitive areas. And S.316 permits the execution of wills and trusts using secure remote technology for the next six months.
Three other bills expected to be passed in the afternoon or on Friday included:
S.340, which is intended to make it easier for the state treasurer to move money around. Currently the treasurer can only transfer money between state funds from June 15 and July 15. The bill expands that period from May 15 to August 15.
S.341, which allows the Tax Department to share normally confidential tax information on self-employed people with the federal Department of Labor to allow the processing of federal unemployment assistance.
And S.114, which changes a variety of court rules and deadlines in response to staffing restrictions. These include giving judges the discretion to require tenants to pay rent during eviction proceedings; allowing criminal defendants to appear in court remotely; allowing deeds to be signed remotely for real estate transactions; and extending the deadline to hold bail hearings from two days to five.
Correction, April 23, 2020: A previous version of this story misidentified Rep. Kelly Pajala's party affiliation. She's an independent.