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Rules committees of the Vermont Legislature reconsider in-person proceedings for upcoming session

Vermont Statehouse
WAMC/Pat Bradley
The Vermont Statehouse in Montpelier

When the Vermont Legislature ended its virtual session in the spring, there were hopes that everyone would be able to return to the Statehouse in Montpelier when the second half of the biennium begins in January. But with the onslaught of the Omicron variant of the coronavirus, the Joint Rules committee is recommending that legislators begin the session virtually.

While some special sessions have been held since the Vermont Legislature adjourned the first half of its biennium in May, those meetings have been hybrid. When they reconvene on January 4th the original plan was for in-person sessions with COVID protocols for everyone entering the Statehouse. But now lawmakers are reconsidering.

The Joint Rules Committee of the House and Senate met this week to make a final recommendation.

Newfane Democratic Representative Emily Long has been speaking with fellow House members and while she would like an immediate normal return to the Statehouse she says it makes sense to step back.

“Given the circumstances on the ground today with this current surge that is going on I think it might make sense for us to give ourselves two weeks to go remote and to be able to reassess in that two weeks coming back and how we come back," said Long.

Woodstock Democratic Senator Alison Clarkson told fellow members of the Joint Rules Committee that Senate Rules is amenable to a plan to begin the session remotely.

“We enabled ourselves the opportunity to begin the session remotely," Clarkson said. "So we will have our first day on Tuesday working remotely. And with the expected holiday surge I think that one of our responsibilities is quite frankly to meet in a healthy and safe way and not subject our members to anything that would put their health or the public’s health, who are coming to be our witnesses, at risk. And I think until we get through this freight train of Omicron coming at us this is a hard truth that we will, should probably, meet remotely.”

Some committee members noted that with the surge, health experts are recommending gatherings remain small and having 300 people in the Statehouse is the opposite. Others wondered if it was fair to Vermonters to put the Statehouse in a different category from other workplaces.

Rutland Republican Representative Patricia McCoy said she would acquiesce but it was difficult to agree to a two-week delay in returning to the Statehouse.

“We’ve had school children back since last year," McCoy said. "We’ve had factory workers going back. We’ve got Walmart employees that never left their jobs. We’ve made this building as safe as we could possibly make this building.”

Joint Rules Vice Chair Democratic Senator Becca Balint, also now running for Congress, reminded committee members why it is critical to keep infection rates low among legislators.

“We don’t have a lot of wiggle room if we have people who get sick," Balint said. "We lose quorum so easily in committee you know we can’t vote on anything. We have hundreds of millions of dollars to get out the door to support Vermont families. An infection could completely cripple our ability to do the work.”

During his weekly briefing Tuesday Governor Phil Scott was asked if it was appropriate for the legislature to return to in person proceedings. The Republican said his administration would adhere to any policy set for the session.

“It’s really my hope that this is short-lived if they do go remote and that we can get back to in person because I really think we’re missing something," Scott said. "And it’s been done for all the right reasons. I’m not criticizing at all. But I do know that we’ll get a better product. They have a lot of work to do. And being in person, face to face, is something that is essential to our process.”

The Joint Rules Committee passed a resolution recommending the legislature convene remotely for two weeks. The House Rules committee later in the day passed a similar motion.