Vermont Lawmakers Plan Remote Start to Legislative Session | Off Message

Vermont Lawmakers Plan Remote Start to Legislative Session


Lawmakers observing social distancing protocols in the Vermont Senate chamber in March - FILE: PAUL HEINTZ ©️ SEVEN DAYS
  • File: Paul Heintz ©️ Seven Days
  • Lawmakers observing social distancing protocols in the Vermont Senate chamber in March
Updated at 3:42 p.m.

A recent rise in COVID-19 cases in Vermont has prompted state legislators to defer plans to hold at least a portion of the 2021 legislative session in person.

Members of the House Rules Committee voted last week for the chamber to meet remotely through January, and Senate leaders indicated on Tuesday that they would follow suit.

During a meeting of the legislature's Joint Rules Committee, which includes leaders of both bodies, lawmakers also agreed on Tuesday to scale back some of the opening ceremonies that typically mark the start of the two-year biennium — including the swearing-in of constitutional officers and the governor's inaugural address.

Though many details have yet to be worked out, the House currently plans to convene on January 6 at the Barre Municipal Auditorium. Legislators will be sworn in, elect a new speaker and clerk, and approve the rules of the House. The venue was chosen because it is among the largest in the state and can safely accommodate all 150 members of the House, even while social distancing. Nevertheless, members will be given the opportunity to participate remotely, outgoing House Speaker Mitzi Johnson (D-South Hero) said at Tuesday's meeting.

The 30-member Senate plans to meet in person at the Statehouse on the same day, according to outgoing Senate President Pro Tempore Tim Ashe (D/P-Chittenden). Members will cycle through the Senate chamber to be sworn in and to elect their own officers.

Members of the Joint Rules Committee agreed Tuesday that the ceremonial activities scheduled to take place on January 7 could be conducted mostly remotely. Typically, members of both bodies — as well as dignitaries, cabinet members and the press — squeeze into the House chamber that day. Legislators formally elect and swear in statewide officeholders and listen to the governor's inaugural address.

Rather than relocate those events to the Barre auditorium, committee members decided they could be held in the Statehouse with only key players present and the rest attending remotely.

"I really like the idea of keeping with as much tradition as possible, acknowledging that it's not a great idea for 180 legislators, plus all the constitutional officers, to be in the Barre Auditorium," Johnson said. "I think it's a sign of respect for the governor and the office and the process to keep it as normal as possible ... as long as somebody has their finger on the all-mute button."

Gov. Phil Scott’s administration had proposed that he deliver his third inaugural address the night of January 7, rather than in the customary early afternoon time slot.

“The Governor believes an evening address will allow more Vermonters the opportunity to listen to the address, and he thinks that is important given the historic times we’re in and the gravity of the challenges the Administration and Legislature will be addressing as the result of the pandemic,” explained Scott’s spokesperson, Rebecca Kelley.

Lawmakers appeared cool to the proposal at Tuesday’s meeting, suggesting that they were not inclined to boost viewership for what is often a political speech. “If the governor would like to have a separate event at some point that is the governor’s event, that’s for the executive branch to decide,” Johnson said. “But this is the joint [address] to the legislature.”

After the second day of the session, both chambers would move to remote work at least through January. Legislative leaders had hoped to conduct some committee meetings in person, perhaps on a rotating basis, but they agreed that the spread of the virus in Vermont made such plans inadvisable for the time being. 

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