Vermont lawmakers began turning the spigot on non-coronavirus legislation Thursday, breaking a logjam of bills that formed after the start of the crisis two months ago.
The Senate for the first time since the outbreak took up less pressing and potentially more partisan legislation, such as expanding energy efficiency programs and tweaking teacher health care benefits.
“I believe now, just as the economy is slowly opening, it’s time to start resurrecting the typical legislative process in terms of what bills get taken up,” Senate President Pro Tempore Tim Ashe (D/P-Chittenden) told his colleagues on Wednesday.
Until recently, Ashe had made it clear that senators needed to focus solely on measures stemming from the COVID-19 crisis, such as expanding access to unemployment benefits and allowing the Senate to vote remotely.✖
Senators have largely put partisanship aside, approving measures unanimously as they address the needs of struggling Vermonters.
But Ashe warned fellow senators that the new bills coming forward wouldn’t always have broad support and would likely generate more debate, something that can be tricky via remote Zoom meetings.
Ashe said he planned to start with “less complicated” bills to give senators the chance to practice parliamentary procedures on Zoom, such as the right to “interrogate” fellow senators who explain bills recommended by their committees.
“This will really determine how effectively we can take up more complex pieces of legislation in the coming weeks and months,” Ashe said.
Tension was on display right from the start, when Sen. Chris Bray (D-Addison) reported on S.337. The bill would allow energy efficiency utilities such as Efficiency Vermont to spend up to $2 million per year on programs that reduce greenhouse gas emissions in the transportation and heating sectors.
This shift would allow Efficiency Vermont to broaden its mission beyond reducing electricity usage and lowering customers' electricity bills, to incentivizing people to use more electricity, such as by switching to electric cars or cold-climate heat pumps.
Not allowing the organization to help reduce fossil fuel use and greenhouse gas emissions would be like a baseball team not putting an “ace pitcher” into a championship game, Bray said.
But Sen. Randy Brock (R-Franklin) pointedly asked whether the bill would increase people’s electric bills rather than reduce them. He argued that broadening Efficiency Vermont's mission to incentivize electric cars over gasoline ones and electric heat pumps over fuel oil or wood heat would increase the demand for electricity.
“We’re moving from electric efficiency as the purpose of Efficiency Vermont to the control of greenhouse gasses,” Brock said. “In so doing, we have a great likelihood of increasing the cost of electricity to the ratepayer … rather than decreasing it.”
Bray acknowledged that the bill represents a fundamental shift from electricity usage to emission reduction but said there was no indication that electric rates would increase as a result. He noted it was proposed as a three-year pilot program.
The bill was ultimately approved for a third reading — likely to take place next week — by a 27-1 vote. That in itself represented another shift.
On most COVID-19 bills to date, the Senate has suspended parliamentary rules that require bills to be voted on multiple times over more than one day. This allows members to introduce, pass and send bills to the House or the governor more quickly.
Reverting to a more measured flow and debate on bills carries some technical challenges. One is figuring out how the Senate can remotely call a recess to allow smaller groups of legislators to confer with one another.
When meeting at the Statehouse in Montpelier, lawmakers can easily suspend debates on bills to allow lawmakers to hold a sidebar.
Senate Secretary John Bloomer said Wednesday he was exploring how the Senate could meet via three simultaneous Zoom calls, allowing the groups to jump into separate Zoom “rooms” during recesses.
The sidebar Zooms would still be open to the public, he said. No such recesses were called Thursday, and that capability was not yet in place, Bloomer said.
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.