Senate moves work online, fast-tracks coronavirus bills

Obviously, people’s needs are increasing in many, many ways. And as the needs increase, the revenues decrease in the worst possible situation. — Sen. Ruth Hardy, D-Middlebury

MONTPELIER — New lawmakers spent a full three days learning parliamentary procedures at the Statehouse so they can hit the ground running when the gavel drops on a new legislative biennium.

Well, COVID-19 has leveled the playing field for greenhorns and grizzled veterans in Montpelier. Social distancing mandates have forced legislators to learn and adopt a new way of conducting the state’s business from afar.

Vermont state senators late last week held their first “virtual” meeting, and votes, as a full chamber. Legislative committees had already been conducting remote meetings through teleconferencing platforms (like Zoom) for a few weeks.

The Legislature granted similar permission to municipal and school boards to meet online during the coronavirus pandemic. Addison County state Sens. Chris Bray, D-Bristol, and Ruth Hardy, D-Middlebury, stressed the temporary distance meeting procedures will be abandoned for the conventional in-person gatherings once the pandemic is over.

“Almost everything we’re doing now is temporary for the crisis only; almost every piece of legislation begins with, ‘During the declared COVID emergency’ clause, so we are careful we aren’t changing permanent law as a reaction to a crisis,” Hardy said during a recent phone interview.

Indeed, the Legislature’s singular agenda for its virtual meetings has been helping Vermonters weather the COVID-19 pandemic. That work has included unraveling Vermont’s roughly $2 billion cut of a $2.2 trillion federal stimulus package.

The last “regular” day in Montpelier was March 13, Bray noted. He and Hardy returned to the Statehouse twice since then to cast votes that paved the way for Senate committees to meet remotely and to allow the full chamber to meet remotely and cast votes from afar.

“Other than that, it’s all been remote and it’s pretty much been seven days a week, because we all have constituents with so many questions and issues we’re all dealing with,” Bray said.

In addition to his role as chair of Senate Natural Resources & Energy, Bray serves on the Senate Government Operations Committee — a panel that’s helped pave the way for lawmakers and municipal officials to conduct business online instead of in-person at public venues.

Hardy serves on the Senate Education and Agriculture committees, which have been busy helping teachers, students and farmers navigate the coronavirus storm.

The deadline has passed for lawmakers to introduce new bills at this point. Hardy explained existing bills are being used as vehicles for COVID-related initiatives right now.

“In some cases, we’re deleting everything that had been (in the bill) and putting in new things,” she said.

It’s been strange for lawmakers to work from home, but the alternative would require them to put themselves in harm’s way or suspend the state’s business. Vermont’s Constitution requires lawmakers to work in the Statehouse except in emergency situations. COVID-19 certainly qualifies as an emergency.

“We had to work through a lot of issues, in terms of how we could make the technology work, how to maintain public access and open meetings so the public could observe and participate to the extent possible in our proceedings,” Hardy said. “We had to work through various state laws and our own rules we impose on ourselves as the legislative body, and make emergency rules to make this all work. So it was a big process, and it’s gratifying that we made it through our first real session this morning and passed legislation.”

State lawmakers have been working on a variety of measures related to COVID-19 (see story).

BUDGET PRESSURE

Legislators are also coming to grips with what will be a very challenging budget year. The new July 15 due-date for tax filings — which will be two weeks into fiscal year 2021 — will make budgeting a lot more complicated. State revenues will be slower to come in.

“I think we’ll end up building a ‘bridge budget’ until the financial dust has settled on this pandemic, and then we’ll need to adjust that for a permanent budget (by September or October),” Bray said.

“We are obviously concerned about state revenues,” Hardy agreed. “Obviously, people’s needs are increasing in many, many ways. And as the needs increase, the revenues decrease in the worst possible situation. We know people are going to be relying on state assistance, and at the same time, the state won’t have as much funds.”

That said, Hardy is pleased that the state’s unemployment trust fund is in good shape to help vast numbers of people who have been laid off or furloughed during the pandemic.

Bray suggested the House and Senate view future initiatives through the lens of COVID-19.

For example, he believes the current coronavirus strife illustrates how much better off Vermonters would be if the state had passed a paid family leave law. The Democratic-majority Legislature and Republican Gov. Phil Scott haven’t yet been able to agree on such a measure.

“While we’re rebuilding, I think it’s going to be really important to pause and notice the weaknesses in our current economy that are highlighted by the strain we’re under right now,” Bray said. “This COVID pandemic is holding a mirror up for us and we are able to see more clearly than usual where there are weaknesses in the current economy.”

Reporter John Flowers is at johnf@addisonindependent.com.

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