The Vermont Senate applauding Gov. Phil Scott on Friday
Vermont lawmakers wrapped up the longest legislative session in state history on Friday, adjourning after passing a $7.2 billion state budget and a handful of other last-minute bills to complete a frenetic final week of remote legislative maneuvering.
The day capped an unprecedented session that forced lawmakers to scramble in March to figure out how to work remotely when the COVID-19 pandemic struck the state.
They pivoted quickly to spend more than $1.25 billion in federal relief funds to support people who lost their jobs, boost pay for frontline workers, shelter the homeless, prop up struggling businesses and bail out the floundering state college system.
Members of the Senate were the first to sign off, in midafternoon, having approved the budget bill and sent it back to the House.
Republican Gov. Phil Scott warmly praised legislators' work.
“I was proud of the way both the House and Senate regrouped, reorganized and found a way to conduct the work of the people outside the walls of the Statehouse,” Scott told senators before offering similar remarks on Friday evening to House members.
In a normal year, the governor would have been escorted into the Vermont General Assembly at the Statehouse and greeted with applause before addressing lawmakers.
He instead appeared before the Senate — after a few technical glitches — via videoconference. He still received a round of applause from the 30 senators and Lt. Governor David Zuckerman, whom he teased for challenging him this election.
The governor congratulated Senate President Pro Tempore Tim Ashe (D/P-Chittenden) on his 12 years in the Senate and wished him luck in the future. Ashe did not seek reelection to the Senate so that he could pursue what was an unsuccessful bid for lieutenant governor.
Scott then addressed his own general election opponent.
“As well, Lt. Gov. Zuckerman, I will wish you some luck in your future,” Scott quipped.
The tone of the final day combined lightheartedness and relief that the work was nearing an end with somber reflections on the pain the state has endured during the pandemic and tears for departing members.
Sen. Jane Kitchel (D-Caledonia) said lawmakers were glad to reach the conclusion. "It's also a bittersweet time because as you look across the screens, we know ... some long-standing friends will not be returning," Kitchel said.
Her sister, Rep. Kitty Toll (D-Danville), who is retiring after 12 years, choked up when she asked colleagues to vote on “my final budget.”
Rep. Laura Sibilia (I-Dover) also got teary when she recognized the work of Rep. Chip Conquest (D-Wells River), who is stepping down after a decade in the House.
“Rural Vermont really appreciates your leadership,” Sibilia said softly, her voice cracking.
“It’s been a crazy year,” Rep. Tom Stevens (D-Waterbury), chair of the General, Housing and Military Affairs Committee, said as he thanked three of its members who won’t be returning to the Statehouse. "They stayed with this work all through this difficult time, and I wanted to thank them.”
House Speaker Mitzi Johnson (D-South Hero) called the session “one for the history books” that succeeded because “party affiliation largely dropped out of the equation” at key moments.
“Thank you for working with respect for your colleagues, with integrity, and for working in a way that put your constituents and Vermonters first,” Johnson said before lowering her gavel on Friday evening.
Lawmakers did have to navigate some choppy waters as the session wound down.
Senators were miffed over what they perceived as last-minute brinksmanship by the House. Some members of the powerful Senate Finance Committee said they didn’t learn of the status of a tax bill from the House until Friday morning.
A flashpoint involved a long-sought exemption from sales taxes for feminine hygiene products, commonly referred to as the “tampon tax.” The House removed the exemption from its tax bill, much to the consternation of senators who favor it, despite the $680,000 drop in sales tax revenue it would mean in such an uncertain budget environment.
Sen. Mark MacDonald (D-Orange) said the exemption had been discussed for 30 years in Montpelier but never had been approved, often because male lawmakers refused to take it up.
“It’s been 100 years since women got the right to vote, and we can’t get a vote on this yet?” MacDonald said.
Sen. Ann Cummings (D-Washington) said the late hour meant that the Senate Finance Committee had no time to restore the exemption in time for the House to agree to the change.
Sen. Chris Pearson (P/D-Chittenden) lamented what he called the “take it or leave it” posture of Rep. Janet Ancel (D-Calais), chair of the House Ways and Means Committee, on the issue.
When Cummings said the finance committee could pledge to take the issue up next year, Pearson said he wasn’t inclined to “roll over” just because the adjournment deadline loomed.
“You know what else will get done next year? Whatever Rep. Ancel wants," Pearson said. "Just hand her the committee at that point.”
That frustrated House members who had worked on the broader bill for more than two years. Several representatives said what remained lacked the balance in the original bill that had been so hard to achieve.
Rep. Randall Szott (D-Barnard) said he couldn’t support the final product because the Senate had “eviscerated” the original bill.
“The irony of this bill is not lost on me, that the topic of the bill is forest fragmentation, and what we see before us is legislative fragmentation,” Szott said. Others stressed that the protections for forests and certainly for builders of recreational trail networks were important enough to move the bill forward.
Rep. Tommy Walz (D-Barre City) said lawmakers can’t always get everything they want, adding he’s long hoped for a Lamborghini for his birthday.
“This year I got a chain saw and a cake,” Walz said.
The Act 250 bill passed 93-56. It remains unclear whether Scott, who opposes it, will sign it.
Ashe noted a number of other accomplishments of the session, including the passage of legislation to invest in criminal justice reform, clean rivers and lakes, weatherize homes, and protect children from lead in drinking water.
Lawmakers' speeches and goodbyes underscored the camaraderie that they enjoy in the Statehouse, and how they’ve been missing that friendship during the pandemic.
Senate Minority Leader Joe Benning (R-Caledonia) and Majority Leader Becca Balint (D-Windham) both said they missed the Statehouse and their fellow lawmakers terribly. Benning proposed a solution.
“I think that at some point in the future we all just need to go out there and have a great big group hug and then go have a good beer,” he 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.