Vermont Legislature Convenes New Session With Dems Firmly in Charge | News | Seven Days | Vermont's Independent Voice


Vermont Legislature Convenes New Session With Dems Firmly in Charge


Published January 4, 2023 at 4:24 p.m.
Updated January 10, 2023 at 5:56 p.m.

  • Jeb Wallace-Brodeur
  • Sen. Phil Baruth
Vermont lawmakers gathered in Montpelier on Wednesday to kick off a new biennium with Democrats wielding more power than ever to enact legislation on priorities such as housing, childcare, the climate crisis and workforce development.

The start of the new session featured plenty of pomp and parliamentary proceedings, as new members were sworn in and the 150-member House and 30-member Senate elected leaders and passed rules for how each chamber would operate.

As expected, the House again elected Rep. Jill Krowinski (D-Burlington) as speaker while the Senate tapped Sen. Phil Baruth (D/P—Chittenden Central) as  president pro tempore, the body's leader.

Baruth said he was honored to be chosen and said his colleagues' vote of confidence "means the world to me."

The University of Vermont English professor said he would work particularly hard to make sure that the 10 new members of the Senate would feel not only welcomed but empowered to accomplish what they were elected to do.

The turnover of a third of the Senate and a similar percentage of the House represented "an astonishing pace of change," one that Baruth said would be well balanced by the deep experience of returning senators.

"While we’re fortunate to have 10 new members entering the chamber, we are equally blessed to have 20 experienced, battle-hardened senators returning for another tour of duty," he said.

To help ensure that all senators can be effective, even when they can’t be in the Statehouse, the Senate adopted a temporary rule that allows senators to work — and even vote — remotely in the event of an “unforeseen family emergency,” such as needing to care for an ill family member.

The rule, which Baruth said the Senate would revisit halfway through the session, was a nod to the fact that while the legislature is meeting again in-person, the COVID-19 pandemic is far from over.

Several senators, including Baruth, wore masks in the chamber when not speaking.
House Speaker Jill Krowinski - JEB WALLACE-BRODEUR
  • Jeb Wallace-Brodeur
  • House Speaker Jill Krowinski
"To be clear, the strong expectation will remain that all senators appear in person, on the Senate floor, to participate and vote — that’s not only tradition, it’s undeniably the most effective means of representing your constituents," he said.

The rule nevertheless means that senators "will no longer be forced to choose" between caring for a family member and driving to Montpelier, Baruth added.

Newly minted Sen. Anne Watson (D-Washington) said she was excited to get to work on issues including climate change. She noted that while many of the "new" senators will have a steep learning curve, most are not new to public service or the issues they care about. Watson was the mayor of Montpelier until she resigned last month to serve in the Statehouse.

"I think our new cohort will be able to hit the ground running and dive right in," she said.

In the House, Krowinski thanked her colleagues and her family for their support. She was grateful that lawmakers were gathered together in person after much of the previous session was conducted remotely. 
House leaders confer Wednesday over committee assignments. - KEVIN MCCALLUM
  • Kevin McCallum
  • House leaders confer Wednesday over committee assignments.
She counseled patience, but also expressed optimism the chamber would advance legislation supporting construction of more affordable housing and help working families.

“As your speaker, I remain committed to leading the legislature in passing legislation that protects historically marginalized populations and gives equal access and opportunity to all of the resources our state has to offer,” she said.

Both chambers of the legislature now enjoy veto-proof Democratic majorities. A two-thirds vote is needed to override a gubernatorial veto. The House has 104 Democrats, five Progressives, three independents, and just 38 Republicans. In the Senate, there are 22 Democrats and one Progressive, as well as just seven Republicans.

The House spent much of Wednesday afternoon assigning members to committees, some of which have been reorganized.

For example, the House Energy and Technology Committee was dissolved, and its jurisdiction shifted to other committees. Energy will be handled by a newly constituted Environment and Energy Committee, which will be chaired by Rep. Amy Sheldon (D-Middlebury).

Rep. Anne Donahue (R-Northfield) noted that three different committees appeared to have jurisdiction over "climate change mitigation," which she said  was confusing.

She also said lawmakers were not given much notice of the committee changes and that the process had not been conducted in an inclusive manner.

The next big event of the General Assembly's opening week happens on Thursday, when Gov. Phil Scott is scheduled to address a joint session of the legislature at 2 p.m.

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